Wednesday, 18 July 2012

What? Headphones

Music in the Digital Age readers, this is what you bought me. Thanks! #SR80i #gratitude

You see them under every fresh tree: the youth of both sexes enjoying music through some hip, colorful, brand of headphones. The question I couldn’t stop thinking of was whether these kids know something I don’t or whether these headphones, primarily of the Beats by Dr Dre / Monster line, are the victims of fashion.
In the name of science I made my way to a Harvey Norman to try these headphones out. Armed with an iPhone loaded with my favorite music, with which I am quite familiar, I tried listening to some of those fashionable gadgets. My first impression with the Dr Dres should come at no surprise: they are heavily tailored to boost bass frequencies. The problem there is that the resulting effect is not as nice as boosting low frequencies on proper bottom reaching speakers: your stomach doesn’t shake when you listen to headphones. The other problem is that, obviously, this boost represents a distortion: if the artist wanted low frequencies to be elevated this way, they would have done so in their original creation; they wouldn’t have waited for Dr Dre to step into the picture.
My second impression? Those colorful Beats headphone, the ones most popular with the kids, sound awful! They sound the way old transistors sound when played from the next room, not the way headphones that sell for around $100 should. True, their active noise cancellation works well, but it only works to make the otherwise dreadful reproduction of music even more obvious.
Things got significantly better when I got to try the $400-$500 products in the Beats range. They still suffered from elevated lows, but they were offering good musical reproduction overall. Something that could, to one extent or another, compete with my set of $100 headphones.

Before telling you all about my great headphones and how smart I am for choosing them, let’s pause for a few paragraphs to discuss what’s the deal with headphones in the first place. Clarify the misinformation with some simple facts, as they say.
Headphones come in three main shapes and sizes:
  1. Headphones that cover your ear, disconnecting the listener from the environment (to one extent or another).
  2. Open ended headphones: These cover your ears but do not block them from external sounds. For example, instead of the tight seal around the ear the above headphones use, open headphones use foam to cushion the ears.
  3. Earbuds: Those small headphones you push down your ears.

You might want to suggest the need to add a couple more headphone types to this list: the passive noise cancelling headphones and the active noise cancelling headphones. I would beg to differ: the latter are not a class of headphones but rather an attribute of the headphones.
Passive noise cancellation is probably the product of an overly creative marketing department. It is simply another term to describe headphone that block the listener from the environment, which means you won’t find passive noise cancellers of the second type but you will with the first and the third. Indeed, every pair of headphone belonging to the first type are “passive noise cancelling” ones; it’s just that not all marketing departments choose to sell them that way.
The active noise cancellation headphones are significantly more sophisticated. The easiest way to identify them is by the fact these headphones are powered (i.e., they have batteries). They work by utilizing microphones that listen to background noise around you and then generating the opposite sound in the music they play so as to cancel that background noise. As before, it is obvious such designs would work well with some types of headphones but not the other. In practice, active noise cancellation can have remarkable effects on steady background noise (like the type you get when flying), but they’re next to useless when it comes to dealing with variable noise, as when you’re next to a group of loud talkers.

Now that we can pretend to understand what types of headphones exist out there I can go back to my personal preferences. Before I go down that path I do want to emphasize there is no silver bullet and everyone can have their own preference. There is, however, the slight matter of fidelity where differences can be measured and objectively assessed.
When all is said and done, my preference is to go for the second type of headphones. It's a matter of comfort, the comfort I don't get when there are seals around my ears, as well as being able to be aware of the environment around me while still enjoying my music. Environmental awareness counts when one is crossing a road, but also when one is working, which is where I tend to do most of my listening. On the other hand, this type of headphones performs rather badly at the street, in the sense it allows background noise to interfere with the music. As for earbuds, I don't know which ears they are meant to fit but they certainly don't fit mine - they keep on falling off. They also inject sound directly into the ear, which exposes the ear to potentially higher damage from excessive sound levels than the other headphone types.
With that in mind, my choice of headphones are the Grado SR80i (pictured). They are not the best headphones ever, but at $100 at Amazon (where I got them from) they are excellent value for money. The point about them is that they come from the affordable audiophile point of view: they're very retro, and between their thick cable and the length of their thick cable they are not meant for portable use. As I said, I listen to them mostly at the office, sitting at my desk.
If you are after a more portable friendly design that offers a good combination of sound and value for money, the AKG K450 (currently selling for $66 at Amazon) are great. Other AKG models aren't bad, either. The K450 are sealed headphones and they are rather smallish (or is it that my head is too big?), but starting with their carry-box they are very portability friendly.

Thus this post comes to a close. If there is any message I wanted to convey then this is it: do not fall for trends, but rather choose your headphones wisely based on what they are meant to achieve and based on actual performance. You will pay less, and you are also likely to enjoy better sound. Win-win.

Image by Dubber, Creative Commons license

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