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What is Frequency Response in headphones?

by Bethann E. Danley

Looking to buy a new headphone but wondering what frequency you should be looking at when making the purchase? There are a few things that you need to note here, including the fact that you may have different taste to music than others. Before coming to that though, we will take at how frequency matters.

Frequency Response

Have you ever heard a dog whistle? well, no, I wasn’t referring to a ‘whistling dog’. My inquiry was about those whistles which dog owners/trainers use to summon their dogs. Yes, that. Chances are, you haven’t. Neither have I. And I am pretty sure that none of us has. Nothing wrong with our hearing then. That’s how we are built and wired. The human ear can only hear frequencies in the range of 20 Hertz to 20,000 Hertz (Hz), because the universe did not intend us to hear how it is scheming against us.

And so, even our headphones have to reproduce sound within that range for us to be able to hear it. But you will frequently find headphones boasting of reproducing sounds of extremely low frequencies (as low as 5 Hz or lower!) to extremely high frequencies (as high as 35,000 Hz or more).

Frequency Response

When we just cannot hear them, do such low and high frequencies really matter? Let’s find out.

What does Headphone Frequency Response mean?

How a device responds to sound across a range of frequencies denotes its frequency response. In other words, it is the measure of a headphone’s ability to reproduce all frequencies equally. (Now you realize what that stereo equalizer in your music player is for)

Wideband Frequency Response

In the above range, 20 Hz represents the bass and 20,000 Hz represents the treble. The mids, or midrange frequencies, lie between them. Frequencies below 20 Hz and above 20,000 Hz form the wideband frequency response. Though these frequencies cannot be heard, they can definitely be felt and add to the overall listening experience. However, a wider frequency response does not necessarily translate into better sound quality.

Most headphones deviate within a range of + /- 3 dB from the ‘flat’ response (explained below). Though this is common, the lower the number, the better.

Speaking Graphically

Let us plot these sound frequencies on a chart/graph paper.

  • Take frequencies on the X-axis and amplitude on the Y-axis.
  • Then, for headphones with a true flat sound signature, this should be a straight line at zero decibel sound.
  • Here, the left end of the line would represent the bass, whereas the right end would represent the treble.
  • For headphones which are considered bass heavy, the left side of the line would be high, but the right side would be low.
  • High on the right side but low on the left side would mean the headphones give more weight to the ‘highs’ and have lower bass.

The Significance of Frequency Response

People have different tastes in music. By this, I do not mean different genres only. Two people listening to the same song may prefer to emphasize or suppress different frequencies of sound. While I may prefer strong vocals, my colleague may prefer a heavy bass.

Sound purists often emphasize on a neutral, or flat, frequency response. This means there is no over, or under, emphasis on any particular frequency. You can listen to the music just as it was recorded and intended to be heard, without any change in the reproduction.

Two different speakers/headphones may have the same frequency specifications, yet, sound very different. This may be a result of some particular hardware, or software (used in the manufacturing of the speakers/headphones), that favors a particular frequency more than others. Manual tuning the stereo equalizer may come in handy here.

Frequencies matter!!

How many times have you been annoyed by your dog barking in the middle of the night for no apparent reason? Remember, they might be hearing (and / or seeing) something that you can’t. Ghosts, anyone? Oh! You don’t believe in them. But they are supposed to be just another spectrum of frequencies, aren’t they? However, that’s a topic for another sunny day. Over and Out.

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