Headphone Redux

by admin on February 11, 2011 · 14 comments

in Headphones, Misc

by Anthony Kershaw

When did headphones become an important weapon of choice for audiophiles?

Let’s be clear of the Audiophilia (my) stance. Headphones are convenient, they are in the domain of thin-walled residents, and many significant others love them, but in no way do they represent what I think represents natural, musical sound.

I’ve heard the best. And, at length. Stax and Sennheiser Orpheus, chief among them. I own several sets of headphones. I’ve got some ear burrowing Etymotics inner earphones, the dreaded Apple buds for looking cool at the coffee shop and on the subway, and a set of Bose Quiet Comfort 15s for air travel and while my significant other is watching Criminal Minds and I want to listen to soccer podcasts.

Headphones are big business. So much so, that some audiophile writers are focusing many column inches on them. Sex sells, I guess. HeadFi is a huge forum with many advertisers and hundreds of thousands of posts. Good for them. A forum is a great way to discuss and suggest and learn.

But, the fact remains. All headphones give a constricted, two dimensional view of a musical event. If your brain can trick itself into a 3D representation of a great hall and orchestra, with life size images (not imaging), for example, good for you. Mine can’t. In my world, musicality is helped in no small way by reflections and other room interactions coming from (two, hopefully) point sources a distance away.

Like computers, corkscrews, and chainsaws, headphones are good tools. No more. As an audiophile, they are a last resort. With the advent of the MP3 and the iPod, headphones have taken on a power all their own. The lobby is powerful. Look, if money’s an option, get an iPod, a cheap DAC and some AudioEngine powered speakers. At least the brain has a fighting chance.

Audiophiles, we’ve had CDs, solid state, 5.1, audio files, iPods, etc thrust upon us as the next best thing. They’re not! And the same goes for headphones. Fight the good fight. If we don’t, nobody will.

photo credit

{ 14 comments… read them below or add one }

roy harris 02.11.11 at 12:27 pm

i agree with anthony. i owned stax head phones and a stax head phone amp. both lasted a few months and were sold.

for me listening to musc through headphones is unsatisfactory.

i’d rather listen to a car radio.

headphones produce a very unrealistic sound of recorded music.

Atane 02.11.11 at 12:50 pm

I’m not so sure I agree with you completely. I will concede that good ol’ fashioned speakers and an amp/preamp with your source of choice is ideal, but I won’t dismiss headphones outright. Many people actually prefer headphones (I’m not one of them mind you), but I’ve thoroughly enjoyed being a head-fi enthusiast for many years. Sound reproduction from headphones in my opinion isn’t necessarily inferior, it’s just different. Different like how vanilla ice-cream is different from chocolate ice-cream. It boils down to preference. I won’t debate personal preferences with people, that’s their prerogative.

I’ve been to head-fi meets, and regular hifi shows. The difference in demographics is readily apparent. There are a lot more young people (and women) attending CANJAM and the like, than say RMAF for example. If I were a betting man, I’d wager on CANJAM being the future. For many friends in NYC, headphones are their only choice. Apartment living will do that to you. For some, it’s an affordable way to get involved in hifi, so it’s their gateway drug so to speak. Fine by me. The world isn’t exactly overflowing with hifi enthusiasts, so the more the merrier.

For others, it’s just what they prefer. I know quite a few people who have spent a small fortune on their head-fi rigs, and to be honest, many of them sound wonderful to my ears. Just not sure I’m comfortable with spending upwards of $30K for a headphone system! But to each their own.

I think the bigger issue is the lossy music people listen to on headphones, not the headphones themselves. My experience with 24/96 FLAC and Apple Lossless on high end headphones with tube and SS amplification has been marvelous. Would I trade it in for a traditional hifi system? No, but it certainly has its place. I look at it like it’s dinner at a restaurant. The hifi system is the main course, while the head-fi rig are the appetizers and breadsticks. They all play a role, and you know, I’ve been to restaurants that had better appetizers than their main course…lol


admin 02.11.11 at 2:30 pm

Great response. Thx bud.

My problem is that most of my musical life is spent either within an orchestra, in front of one or sitting in a hall listening to one. Even the venerable Stax’ gives an impression of miniature. And when listening to Sonny Rollins, for instance, I want Sonny to stand tall with a three foot tenor blowing hard. I just don’t hear (see) it. Ever.

Also, the Xray quality is very unpleasant. The flesh is ripped off so much.

As for a 30G setup, that I’d like to hear. The 15G Orpheus didn’t do it for me.

roy harris 02.11.11 at 9:18 pm

hi atane:

most endeavors of life are a matter of opinion. there is very little knowledge and facts are hard to corroborate.

your take of necessity as the mother of invention is relevant to conditions like living in smaller spaces.

your analogy with regard to flavors of ice cream is interesting. i applaud you for your audio ecmenicalism.

now, here is one for you:

are you willing to concede that one can attain as much musical staisfaction listening to a car radio as listening to a “good” stereo, or to carry it to estremes, is it not sufficient to hear in your head music as it is to hear it emanting from a source–internal production vs external production .

i think a stereo system provides an opportunity to get closer to the timbre of an strument, but does not necessarily enhance the pleasure of hearing the music. it’s the music not the medium that counts, in my opinion.

i’m applying your chocolate vs vanilla ice cream paradigm.

what do you think of this philosophical position ?

roy harris 02.11.11 at 9:20 pm

i apologize for three typos–spelling errors. i hope you can get past them

Atane 02.12.11 at 10:37 am

Hi Roy,

I will definitely concede and say that a person can get equal satisfaction listening to a car radio as they can a good stereo system. An audiophile might shriek at that statement, but most music lovers are not audiophiles. My non audiophile friends can appreciate my humble system and they have heard really expensive systems, but at the end of the day, they go back to their mp3s, iPod docks etc. They are enjoying their music just as much as I enjoy mine. They just aren’t concerned about audiophile minutiae. It used to confuse me a few years ago. I was one of those guys that liked to proselytize hifi, and the virtues to quality audio, lossless music, vinyl etc thinking that if people only heard a nice system, then they would see the light. I finally accepted that most people just aren’t interested, even after you take the time to educate them. They want convenience first, quality is an afterthought. For the most part, the only people that care about timbre, realism, warmth, soundstage etc are people like us.

I remember reading a thread on the AVSforum with the home theater guys talking about how netflix streaming is causing the public to accept “good enough” quality because it’s convenient. It might be convenient, but it’s grossly inferior to blu-ray in terms of picture & audio quality, but convenience trumps all. Perhaps, this is what happened to audio in general.


admin 02.12.11 at 7:31 pm

Perceptive. Sad, but perceptive.

Tom R 02.16.11 at 10:06 am

I’m not sure it’s sad if they enjoy it just as much as you. Pain, and therefore delight, is relative.

JB 02.17.11 at 11:13 am

That was a rather brave article, Anthony! It certainly goes against most of what one reads out there.
Like you, I also find headphones a major limitation if we’re talking high fidelity. You cannot forget you’re listening to headphones. You cannot for a second think you’re there. I’ve tried expensive, celebrated headphones and I’m just wondering what the fuss is about. The music never gets out of your head. There is something deeply unnatural about it.
They’re a bit like my Tivoli radio. I love it and I love listening to music through it, and I do that a lot. But I would never call any of these high fidelity. And at least, my radio doesn’t put music somewhere in my skull.
Now that begs the question, does one need high fidelity to enjoy music? I don’t think so. But given the choice, I will certainly go for a proper, dedicated system.

admin 02.17.11 at 11:45 am

Thanks for the thoughtful comment, JB. You get my drift, completely. ‘Unnatural’.

Too much glad handing in audio. Gotta be brave, sometime. That said, if folks like headphones, enjoy. But, if I have a choice, I’ll always go for a well setup system.

Cheers, a

Bill Woods 02.19.11 at 8:43 pm

Let me just state up front that I love headphones. Always have. I’ve always admired the way they convey details and the extremely wide frequency ranges on the higher end cans. They’re not exactly a substitute for the maggies in my main system, but they were never meant to be. Just like the big rigs, the options are vast and I won’t spend more than $1,000.00 on a headphone system that may include 3 different sets of cans. That being said, there now exists at the tippy top end of headphone technology, the Smyth Research Realizer. Imagine if you will, a headphone system that uses sophisticated microphones and EQ curve callibrations to make your headphones sound identical to your home system. Even to the point that sounds pan from ear to ear as you turn your head.

But that in itself says quite a bit. When the chips are down, the state of the art in headphone technology is based on the ability to sound like a large high-end home system. And on that note, I will concede that the big systems are and will always be slightly superior to headphone systems. But, a really nice headphone system can put everything else short of a reference audiophile setup to shame. But not for too long if Smyth Research has any say in the matter.

Anyone interested in researching the Realizer should read the excellent review in the Stereophile archives from about 2-3 months ago if memory serves me.


John 02.22.11 at 10:24 am

“most music lovers are not audiophiles” And guess what Atane neither is Paul McCartney of the Beatles! By the same token many audiophiles are more concerned about the mechanics of music production than they are about the music.

Rick 02.27.11 at 8:40 am

Very interesting. How I wish I could use my speakers. In Spain I live in a quad!
Four houses joined to make a square foot print. The audio listened to in one can be listened to in all, unless you care about your neighbors comfort. Some of mine do not.
I use headphones from an FM radio transmission set up connected to my computer and switched through my Trio amp, also an fm radio tuner switched also through the amp. This gives me the option to use headphones connected to the amp, or the FM ones so I can go walk-about. The speakers are switched of on the amp, and they live in a cupboard.
I do not think the concrete echo chamber that I live in gives good audio listening and find that head-phones are my only option to listen to any good audio any way. A transistor portable radio is my choice for every day listening any ware. A car radio on the move though.
The head sets are of dubious quality when compared to high end stuff but all I need at this time. Who knows a good quality pair may come to me one day.

Best wishes to all

admin 02.27.11 at 8:59 am

Thanks for the interesting, informative comment, Rick. And, welcome.

Sometimes, headphones are the only recourse. As I said, a good tool.

Cheers, a

Leave a Comment

You can use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>