What is the technical term for the distorted, rumbly, windy sound headphones or speakers make when they are unable to properly play a high amplitude bass tone? The sound when the driver is not following the audio wave, but is instead skipping (or adding) sound wave peaks not in the input signal.

2 Answers 2


What you are actually hearing is square waves. What happens when a speaker is fed a signal that exceeds the amplitude it can produce is that the speaker coil projects the diaphram to the limit of how far it can travel. This results in an abrupt stop to the sound pressure and it stays pegged at the extreme end until the signal amplitude falls enough for it to move away from the extreme.

The term clipping is applied because the normal waveform exceeds the maximum amplitude and is clipped off at the maximum. It is worth noting that this occurs at any frequency of sound, but tends to be more noticeable on lower frequencies due to the power of lower frequencies and the fact that the speaker is pegged to an extreme for longer at a time. It generally takes on a more rattly sound at higher frequencies since the speaker is more rapidly thrust between extreme limits.


A number of terms can be applied:

  • clipping
  • electromagnetically saturated
  • warping

Also seen written on a repair tag at a major recording studio in L.A. circa 1975: "This VOT [voice of the theater] sounds like Vapid Schmooy"

"The loudspeaker is by far the poorest link in the reproduction chain for all forms of distortion, and this includes nonlinear distortion, frequency response distortion, phase distortion, and time distortion. Compared to the electronics of a system, loudspeakers are horrible."

source: http://www.enjoythemusic.com/magazine/bas/0708/

Wiki on distortion: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Distortion

Also many electric guitar players will call less than desirable bass tone, "mud" or "muddy".

  • I should add that this type of distortion is unusually quiet... as in, the bass gets louder and louder, then when it starts failing it gets a waffling, windy, quieter distorted sound. I was hoping this particular type of distortion had a name... all the distortions you named are more generic and apply to many variations of distortion than this specific one.
    – Myrddin Emrys
    Jul 3, 2013 at 19:31
  • All distortions have a source such as clipping at input to the amp, or some stage in the amp is not biased correctly, or an impedance mismatch at the speaker wherein the energy transfer is not optimized. Identifying the source will help you narrow down the name you are looking for.
    – filzilla
    Jul 3, 2013 at 20:09

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