Our sister site SoundGuys has all sorts of objective ways to talk about audio, and when we feature their headphones reviews, we appreciate that. But if you head to other corners of the web, you’ll find many terms used to describe audio: “warm,” “crisp,” “punchy,” “sharp,” “dull,” and more. What do these terms even mean, though? Is there some standard, or are they being used on an ad-hoc basis?
Here’s a spoiler: these audio terms usually don’t have a standard, but there are standardized ways to talk about audio.
Crunchy, crisp, warm: Why do we talk about audio terms like food?
One thing you might notice as a sort-of trend when it comes to terms used to describe sound is how they are metaphorical. Often, people use words such as “punchy” or “booming” to describe a product’s frequency response. That’s fair enough because it is difficult to describe sound in other ways at first. How would you summarize the phrase “the bass is twice as loud as the mids and occasionally drowns out the highs”?
But as you’ve likely already realized, these terms are floating signifiers. That is, they don’t really carry meaning outside of what gets read into them. It can be challenging for newcomers to feel the “vibe” of terms like “restrained yet rich” bass. Furthermore, those writing these lines often aren’t consistent in how they use them, either.
The problem with talking about audio and food, however, is that both can be quite subjective experiences.
What is “too salty” to one person is “bland” to another. What is “impressive” bass to one listener is “flat” to another.
Unlike food, however, there’s even less agreement in the audio terms world. If you describe a dish as “spicy,” you can assume that it likely has a high concentration of capsaicin, at least to the writer. But that’s still a subjective judgment. What’s spicy to a Briton likely would be mild to a Punjabi. Still, we tend to know that spicy indicates this. Sound terms have even less benefit in this regard.
Common audio terms and what they might mean
Zak Khan / Android Authority
Even if the terms you see flying around don’t inherently mean much, we can attempt to pick apart what they might mean in a few contexts. Keep in mind that we can’t speak with every author in mind, nor can we assume consistent usage of these terms elsewhere.
This term could have any number of meanings, but it is almost always negative. “Crunchy” sound often refers to poor reproduction and reproduction of instruments. That is, if it’s hard to tell a guitar apart from a harp and even a drum, it could sound as if everything is “crunched” together.
Crunchy may also mean the drivers are loose or broken, leading to “crackling” or “rattling” sounds in a pair of headphones or in a speaker.
“Warm” is usually a positive term. It tends to mean that an audio product produces pleasing amounts of bass — but not too much! Warmth also implies that lyrics are amply audible, if present, and that the mids aren’t drowned out. What usually distinguishes it from “balanced” is the presence of stronger bass than you’d find in a product called “balanced,” with highs that, while present, are less loud than the mids and lows. By extension, warmth tends to associate with clearly reproduced instrumentation.
In audiophile circles, warmth is also associated with tube amplifiers and analog, versus digital, sound circuitry. However, there’s another debate around whether that truly is audible to casual listeners.
Usually a positive descriptor, “lush” tends to be used for audio products that are “warm” and generally pleasant to hear. This is a slippery term, though you may often see it in phrases such as “lush strings,” seemingly indicating both accurate reproductions of instruments and enjoyable frequency response.
This term ends up being an umbrella term for many kinds of “bad” audio. Muddy sound is usually used to describe products that don’t reproduce instruments clearly, have way too much bass, and make it difficult to pick out vocals. While it is hard to state the exact reason a writer might describe any one product as muddy, we feel safe saying it’s a negative term and generally indicates poor quality sound reproduction.
These are terms you’ll find concerning high-frequency sound reproduction. Overall these are positive and tend to mean sound with loud high notes that aren’t too harsh or piercing. Often, writers may call cymbals or small bells “shimmery” or “sparklingly clear.” Some listeners, however, may not enjoy such loud and prominent high notes.
These terms tend to describe audio that has instruments easily distinguishable from one another without anything sounding too loud or too quiet. It does not necessarily indicate a studio headphones-type frequency response, though. Sound can be “transparent” or “clear” and still have boosted bass if you can still amply hear strings and bells, for instance. Therefore, clean is usually the opposite of “muddy.”
“Boomy” bass is bass that’s too loud in a bad way, most often. It “booms” louder than other sounds and drowns out other frequencies.
Often denoted as what a subwoofer feels like, “thumpy” bass is used as positive to indicate you can “feel” the bass notes in your body. It may also be a negative if you don’t want too much bass drowning out other frequencies, on the other hand. Overall, this term tends to mean a way to have lots of bass that people will find pleasing, but without being too overwhelming.
“Detailed” or “analytical” sound tends to mean no frequency range overpowers another so that you can hear all of them roughly equally. You might see this term come up when describing audio products for studio settings, where you’d want to hear every frequency you can. Similar to “clear,” it does not per se imply a studio-like response curve, however, because amped-up bass can still permit you to hear other frequencies if done properly.
We’re lumping these together because they tend to describe similar effects, though often at different points in the audible spectrum. Sound that is “hollow” or “recessed” has mids that are too quiet. This may also be called “v-shaped,” because the frequency response chart will appear as if a big valley is present in the mids. This can make the bass and treble sound louder, but it makes vocals and other sounds present in the midrange far harder to hear. Sometimes headphones do this because it sounds decent if you’re just trying a pair before purchase, and you may not notice the problems until a little later.
Restrained can imply the same thing, but may also be a bit more value-neutral. “Restrained bass” could be a compliment indicating the bass was expected to drown out other sounds but ended up not doing so.
Muddy sound is usually used to describe products that don’t reproduce instruments clearly, have way too much bass, and make it difficult to pick out vocals.
Almost always indicators of problems, these terms tend to describe the high note reproduction of an audio product. If the highs are too loud, it may sound like a smoke alarm or car anti-theft warning. Grating may also imply an extended or chronic problem — it makes you “grit your teeth and bear it” — while piercing may indicate shorter durations of the same. Harsh tends to be a general descriptor of too much treble in general.
“Dull” and “flat” might be used to describe a lack of treble notes, or they may be terms for generally “bad” audio. Its counterpoints are usually “exciting” or “fun.”
Flat might be a positive if you’re looking for studio headphones because a “flat” frequency response curve doesn’t emphasize any part of the audible spectrum too much.
“Thin” audio is usually audio that has very little bass and sub-bass notes, as is “dry” audio. Liquid sound usually has much bass, but it may not actually have perfectly reproduced instruments that are distinguishable enough from another to be called “detailed” or “analytic.”
Smooth is similar, but may also indicate there are no odd peaks in the frequency response curve of a product.
“Peaky” audio, as the name implies, tends to be used for products with frequency response curves with peaks or valleys in odd places. These can then cause the listening experience to jar you suddenly with unexpectedly loud or quiet notes when nearby frequencies weren’t reproduced in such a manner. Of all the casual audio terms out there, this one tends to be the most consistent.
When used to refer to dynamic range, or the difference between the loudest and most quiet parts, “energetic” implies a broad range. However, “fun” and “exciting” are far more subjective. They mean, for example, lots of bass, the ability of a speaker to get very loud overall, or even a particular case design.
Audio terms with actual meanings
Zak Khan / Android Authority
Lucky for writers, readers, newbies, and seasoned professionals, there is a list of words used to describe sounds we can explain to you. Some of them are indeed familiar, like “punchy” or “clear” and even “boomy” as we saw above. Others may not be, but all have far more concrete definitions.
Let’s look at some of them to see how writers can use them to describe sound and how they may or may not overlap with other common meanings.
The ITU defines punch as “whether the strokes on drums and bass are reproduced with clout, almost as if you can feel the blow. The ability to effortlessly handle large volume excursions without compression (compression is heard as level variations that are smaller than one would expect from the perceived original sound).” Fair enough, but what does that signify when you’re listening to something?
First, let’s start with “compression” (which is also defined by the ITU) — not to be confused with audio file format compression. Audio that is “compressed” means it doesn’t have a wide dynamic range. That is, the difference between quiet and loud portions is narrow. Thus, “punchy” bass has an ample difference between quiet and loud drums, for instance. “Clout” means a heavy blow or impact. Adding that gives us bass that sounds like a drummer has made heavy, hard hits from sticks onto drums in a song.
Overall, then, “punchy” bass varies in volume and sounds as if confident, hard hits are happening on a drum. It does not all occur at one volume, and it does not blend together various bass-producing instruments into a mass. In popular parlance, however, punch often has a broader definition. In this usage, it means bass that is forceful and quick.
Dark and Bright
Dark audio has too much bass, and bright audio has too much treble. This is how the ITU defines them, and in general, it seems most of the time, other writers tend to use these terms in this way. However, “bright” is also used by other publications as a compliment, so unless you’re sure a given writer is following ITU standards, this may vary.
All of these ITU standard terms get real definitions, and we can use them consistently.
This term pops up a lot in audio writing. The ITU states that is the “Transient response. Specifies whether the drum beats and percussion, etc. are accurate and clear i.e. if you can hear the actual strokes from drumstick, the plucking of the strings etc. It is also expressed as the ability to reproduce each audio source transients cleanly and separated from the rest of the sound image.”
What that means is, for example, if you can clearly hear someone plucking away at a harp, the attack is precise. If you can’t, then it’s imprecise. If you cannot tell, because these sorts of sounds are hard to distinguish from other types of sounds, the attack is also imprecise.
Attack has another meaning which explains its widespread usage. In this sense, it means “where a sound begins in a recording.” So the “attack” of a given cymbal would be where you can first hear it in a track when it’s hit as it builds up to its full volume.
We saw this one before, but to the ITU, it specifically indicates bass that reverberates “as sound in a large barrel.” By “reverberates”, the ITU means the bass persists for too long and keeps going even after the instrument producing it is no longer being played. Overall, this is similar to the casual use of the term and indicates too much bass.
Dry has a specific meaning to the ITU, where it indicates a space that does not have much reverberation. These are usually “small furnished spaces such as living rooms or spaces outdoor without reflecting objects.” Unlike its usage in the popular press as described above, the opposite to dry in the ITU specifications is not “liquid.”
Another common term in audio writing, in the ITU specification, “tinny,” indicates too much high-frequency or high-frequency response with too much resonance. You can think of it as the upper note version of “boomy.”
Also read: What is lossless audio?
So what do we do with audio terms now?
Even from the examples above, it’s clear that though actual hard definitions exist for some audio terms, that doesn’t mean people use the terms in that way. Furthermore, ITU’s terms may or may not overlap with their common usage.
When we write audio reviews, we tend to avoid most non-ITU terms as much as possible. Often, it’s better to indicate what frequencies sound louder than others. Saying “the bass is about twice as loud as the mids” is much more neutral and explanatory than trying to find a metaphorical descriptor.
However, we cannot vouch for the style guide of every publication out there. Still, we hope this guide helped you, at least when reading other audio reviews.