What is a frequency response and how does it affect headphones? It’s a good question to have the answers to, especially if you’re on the hunt for a new pair of headphones.
Basically, a frequency response is the term used to describe the specific sound signature of your headphones. In other words, some headphones have an extremely well-balanced response, and some emphasize lower or higher frequencies.
This is why some pairs of headphones produce a stronger bass that makes your skull rumble (e.g. Beats, certain V-Moda models, etc.) Others reproduce the audio waves in a way that spreads the frequencies out more evenly (e.g. Beyerdynamic’s DT 1350s, etc.).
Keep reading to see how it can have an affect on the way your music sounds in your headphones. We’ll go over the basics that you’ll need to know to and why it matters.
What Range Can The Human Ear Respond To?
The human ear can only pick up on certain ranges of audio waves (unless you’re Wolverine or Spider Man).
Sound waves are pretty incredible and can even be used to manipulate the environment and the human body. Here’s a short video that’ll demonstrate how powerful sound waves can be:
You can see how powerful audio waves can be. Let’s dive a little deeper and see what sounds at each stage of the human audio spectrum we can and can’t audibly detect. The average human ear will respond to audio waves within the range of about 20 Hz- 20 kHz.
Frequencies At 20 Hz:
When it comes to headphones, you won’t have to worry as much about being affected by waves in the audio spectrum seen in the above video (but it is pretty cool, right)?
Most of us will only feel frequencies in the 20 Hz range, rather than actually hearing them. The audio waves lower than 20 Hz are called “infrasounds”. Infrasounds are studied by people who monitor the strength of earthquakes and the field is called “Infrasonics”.
The study of sonic waves within the 20 Hz and below range is also used to study the way our human hearts work as well as the movement of rock formations.
Here are some other examples of sounds that are heard in the 20 Hz and below range:
- infrasonic elephant sounds (around 14-16 Hz)
- the sound of our heartbeat (usually between 14-150 Hz)
Frequencies At 20 kHz:
Here are some examples of sounds that are heard in the approx. 20 kHz range:
- the “mosquito tone“
- the sound a CRT TV makes while running (most of us probably don’t have one of these anymore)
Frequencies Above 20 kHz:
When bats are using echolocation, they’re operating in a range that more than doubles our response range (about 45-50 kHz). That’s why we need special equipment to detect the signals being emitted by bats. (It also adds to our fascination with Batman.)
What Happens As We Get Older?
As we get older, our hearing starts to deteriorate. The upper ranges becoming less and less audible are usually the first signs that you’re hearing isn’t as good as it was when you were younger. (It’s all part of the natural progression, we could never communicate with bats anyways, right?)
It’s normal for this to happen to most of us, usually starting around the age of 25, depending on how loud you listen to music or if you’re a musician.
Human Audio Spectrum Demonstration:
The video below demonstrates the human ear’s audio spectrum (be prepared to adjust the volume if necessary, especially towards the end):
How Does This Affect My Headphones?
Now that we’ve covered some examples of the different ranges of audio waves, let’s see how it affects your headphones. Some companies will use an extremely wide frequency range to sell you on an expensive pair of headphones that you may not need.
Often times, they have a range that widely exceeds our ear’s ability to detect. (If you’re a bass-head, you’ll want to pay special attention to this next part.)
Maybe your hearing is world class, but chances are you’ll be fine within the average range (or a little bit wider). While you most likely won’t be able to hear the ultra-low frequencies, you will be able to feel them.
This is where it might be worth a few extra dollars and research to invest in a more-expensive pair with a wider response.
Where Does It Really Matter?
All this mumbo jumbo will really start to make a big difference when you take the various genres into account. Depending on the type of music you primarily listen to – you’ll want to consider how this will come into play. I personally like to use different pairs of ‘phones for listening to different genres of music.
When a new hip-hop or dubstep album is released, I’ll choose a different pair than when I sit down to listen to a new alternative or metal album. Not only does the genre make a big difference, but additional gear can also have an effect.
Will Using A Headphone Amp Boost My Frequency Response?
When you start adding additional components to your personal audio setup, like a portable headphone amp, they enable your audio response to be even further enhanced. This is why adding a portable amp/DAC can be a great, fairly inexpensive way to take your audio to the next level.
If you already own a solid, quality pair of ‘phones, you’d be amazed at the difference that adding an amp can make. Instead of feeling slight rumblings around your head where the ear cups sit – you’ll feel a much stronger reverberation that will blow your mind.
How Do You Know What Your Headphones Can Handle?
Most headphones that you buy will come with an instruction manual and spec sheet. Somewhere on there, it should list the frequency response for that specific pair of headphones. Before you buy a new pair of headphones, you can do a quick Google search with the name of the model you’re interested in + “frequency response”.
It’s especially important to remember that if you really want to optimize your listening experience, that you keep your genre of choice in mind before making a decision.
In general, I recommend that you look for a pair as close to 20 Hz – 20 kHz. When you listen with a pair of ‘phones in that general range, most genres you listen to will sound great.
The only time it might be a good idea to slightly deviate from that recommendation is if you want to experiment with your ears and music. For bass-heads it could be fun to mess around with it a little bit and find the sweet spot. If you just need a pair that’ll play the music you love, experimenting isn’t your top priority so it’s safe to stick to the basics.
Did You Catch The Wave?
I hope your initial question of “What Is A Frequency Response?” was answered. We didn’t get into every aspect of how it affects things other than headphones – but that was the goal.
Now, you should have enough information to help you navigate this aspect of headphones when you’re ready to look for a brand new pair.
Maybe as technology advances, someone will invent a device that can extend the human ear’s audio range, and we’ll be able to communicate with bats… Until then, we can do our due diligence and find a pair that fits in our budget and set of needs.
Thanks for stopping by and tuning in, I hope you enjoyed this post! If you want to leave a comment or ask a question, feel free to drop one below.
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Sonic Elevation: Ride The Waves.