An Expensive Cheap Headphone : A Paradox
Introduction – Subjectivism, Objectivism, Neutrality and a long rant
It’s not the consumers job to know what they want.
Was it ever? Music and how we consume it constantly changes. The factor progressing the evolution seems to be portability. Cassettes took over when the Walkman appeared. CDs seriously took over when players started appearing in cars. Mini-Disc had a short-lived period of glory, but was easily killed off by the iPod-offspring. The smartphone severely injured the iPod. Streaming is bleeding the P2P-community (conveniently suiting both The Man and The Consumer). Last but not least “Loudspeaker”? Isn’t that something that’s built-in somewhere in one’s netbook and flat-TV?”. Exactly. Quad erat demonstrandum.
What this is showing us is that the audiophile journey doesn’t start with a 70′s vintage Marantz receiver and modified Klipsch horns any more. It starts with an iPod Nano and iBuds at the age of 12-13. Headphones are transitioning from being an auxiliary “sound on the move”/”the kids are asleep”-item to “this is how I enjoy music”. But this is nothing new to most of us. It’s just a re-cap of the past 5 years.
#1: Nowadays the music journey starts and is centered around headphones and digital audio.
In the land of headphones we have lots of flavors. Every manufacturer has their own notion of what headphones should sound like, to suit the audience they’re targeting. Even though every manufacturer gives the impressions that this is exactly the sound they wanted to create, let’s be honest about it. It’s a mix of the (1) technology used (i.e. driver types, material, baffle, damping etc.) (2) manufacturing costs and/or LEAN (i.e. can we attain an approximation of the sound while retaining some marginal to make a few bucks) and last but not least (3) this is the way we’ve always done it and what the consumer wants. Some might say that the more choices the better. Freedom to choose makes us happier. Nope. Wrong. Modern science shows that 2 choices are indeed better than 1, 3 still better than 2, etc. But at a certain point it saturates and then, the unhappiness actually can over-weigh, since we start obsessing about “Well I bought this one, but if I would have bought the other one ‘bass would have been better’ or ‘it would have been 100 USD cheaper’ etc.” Prof. Dan Gilbert has several talks that can be found online about this. Check it out, if the prior part sounds whack.
How many of us really started this hobby with the vision to have 20 headphones and 6 amps, and be switching back-and-forth as soon as we change track? Come on seriously. We are trying to adapt our equipment to (1) suit our variability in music choice and mood (2) to improve flaws in amps/headphones . But maybe it’s the result of not being able to choose because we simply can’t make up our minds of what is best or (god forbid) the differences aren’t that big after a while. We’re looking at the same picture but we emphasize different parts of it. There’s still no established standard to measure headphones, that all manufacturers use. I’m talking about the flat line that cleaned up the great variability in speaker hi-fi. It will come eventually. Until then… What are we buying if we don’t really know what is what and “what sound signature is closest to the perfect balance”? What I’m trying to say is not that we can’t trust our ears. Our ears are fine, our references are not so fine. Wait, what does he mean? Easy, don’t flame me on this one, but it’s my generalized opinion that we (and by that I mean the most of us including me) don’t have a good reference to compare with. How many of us have actually heard a reference loudspeaker rig in a acoustically treated room? Now that’s neutrality and sound stage. And to some extent it’s the same way most of the music that we listen to is recorded, mixed and mastered. But a reference headphone rig? The opinions differ. Let’s discuss it through an example.
What is reference? Generally speaking I would say that when a potential buyer of an approx 1000 USD-headphone starts reading around, three different groups are quite evident. Each preaching their own reference. (1) The LCD-2′ers, (2) The HE-500′ers and (3) The HD-800′ers. And I like generalizing so here we go… (1) Great bass, soft mids, good for “normal music” but lacks air and separation (2) Less bass, a tiny bit more air in the treble (and cheaper than the rest) (3) Bright, “bad” bass, fantastic sound stage to be used with well-recorded music.
This is not the truth, but you recognize it right? I however don’t agree with a word of what I just wrote. A LCD-2/LCD-3 driven well is very close to a well-driven HD-800 which in turn comes very close to a well-driven HE-500/HE-6. But another important thing. When driven correctly (or should I say synergistic) they all start measuring even flatter. So the combinations that we choose with our ears, actually has some scientific basis. But all can not be measured. And what should we strive for?
Even though we might start up liking our music experience flavored, a lot of us usually (if it’s monetary possible) end up searching for the neutrality in the headphones we chose. A single-blind study (not controlled, since they didn’t use a control/reference, we’ll get to that later) with 6 popular circum-aural headphones from Harman International (Harman/Kardon, AKG etc.) called “The Relationship between Perception and Measurement of Headphone Sound Quality” came to the following conclusion “In terms of overall sound quality, the most preferred headphones were perceived to have the most neutral spectral balance with the lowest coloration. When measured on an acoustic coupler, the most preferred headphones produced the smoothest and flattest amplitude response…” Interesting. Right?
#2: More choices are not always better, especially when a lot of us unfortunately do not have a norm of the sound signature from a flat sounding speaker rig. However some of us (that ‘fortunately’ have enough to spend) compulsively buy and sell gear until we find what – we didn’t initially know – we were searching for.
I sincerely hope that I’m not interpreted as judging or patronizing. That’s not my intent. What I’m trying to get to, is the point that started this intro “We do not know what we want”. We eventually understand what we want by experiencing what we don’t want. The Loudness War had to wreck some serious mayhem before we could look back and see what had happened (and of course the tech part evolving away from peak level metering toward general loudness metering). We had to listen to 128 kbps MP3′s before we could appreciate lossless CD-rips fully. – Now the whole bit-craze and kHz-madness has started. It reminds me of the megapixel-war in photography. Don’t even get me started. – And of course we try to navigate through all the headphone gear available finding the synergistic components that sound good for a reasonable (the meaning of that is highly individual) buck. I think it’s good that people are buying Beats. Because, at least they’re better than iBuds. And it’s a step in the right direction, even though it involves a slight deviation from the “shortest” path. Because it can never be wrong if we eventually end up where we should in the end.
On the other hand. Money. We all have a limited supply of it, and we try to balance our lives around it. Getting the most out of what we want to do in lots of aspects of life. Taking too many deviations in this hobby can get pretty costly after a while. So we need something to help us. Other than opinions. Because as always. We usually take part of an avid preference when listening to others, however not always knowing their reference. I’m not saying anyone is wrong. Neither am I saying that I am right. Oh, the contrary. We are all as right as we are wrong. If we haven’t had the possibility to listen to a lot of different rigs, of course Rig X (the best of the ones we have experienced for a prolonged time) will be the best we’ve ever heard. So… it takes a long while to build up a database in our head of different headphones, amps and sources and while doing this not letting our own recall bias affect our audio memory too much. It’s tricky.
#3: So the quest for neutrality or should I say perfect synergy, yields two things (1) lots of experience (2) a hole in our pockets (possibly larger than it should have been, if we would’ve had something more than just our ears and other people’s opinions to base our decisions on). So it’s a two-edged sword. And headphone amps and headphone are small items. Imagine the poor loudspeaker-guys in their quest. Ouch, now that’s a lot of lost dollars on shipping & handling.
“Subjective objectivist” is a good denomination about accepting measurements and the scientific approach in addition to using our ears. Don’t think that it has been used too much, but I think it explains what Tyll at InnerFidelity and Marv at Changstar/Effin’ Ringing are doing. Subjectivism isn’t everything and objectivism isn’t everything. They are both equally important. Neither is one more correct than the other. I think the future is in the complementing features of these two. Because, come on, “12 Hz – 20 kHz (-3 dB)” used by some manufacturers is like judging the comfort factor of a car by looking at its’ miles-per-gallon. And by the way. Is it a coincidence that cars became much safer to crash after EuroNCAP started conducting crash dummy tests? No of course not. We need references and objectivity. It’s an aid for us consumers when choosing.
All that talk and not a word about the headphones? This dude drank too much coffee. Nope, but I felt there was a need for some background before starting to wave the neutrality flag. Because I really like this trying-to-be-neutral-headphone. Also known as LFF Paradox or Paradox Sounds T50RP. Or the “500 to 1000 USD”-199 USD headphone.
Next page: A 800 USD T50RP?