Finding balance

July 14, 2022
 by Paul McGowan

It's likely no coincidence that my favorite headphones are from Audeze. They are based on the same planar magnetic technology behind PS Audio's speakers.

I've tried a number of their headphones but currently, in the mix room at Octave Records, I am enjoying a pair of their LCDMX4 which they tout as being best for mixing and mastering.

What I find fascinating about headphones is how very different in comparison to loudspeakers some aspects of the sound are. Tonally, they are nearly identical, but that's where the similarities end.

It's somewhat of a jarring experience to commutate between speakers and headphones on the same mix.

Some of this is to be expected. Loudspeakers have the room to contend with and the listener sits multiple feet away from them. Headphones, on the other hand, are the ultimate nearfield monitors. The source of sound from those planar magnetic drivers sits mere inches from your eardrums.

The challenge of course is finding the proper balance between them. We make decisions in the mix so the music sounds live when played back in the room on speakers. Speakers are the default standard. (Might be interesting someday to do an entire mix just for headphone users).

For me, these headphones are like a magnifying glass. They allow one to zoom in on fine details to hear deeper into the music than is possible on a loudspeaker.

The trap, I suspect, is leaning too hard in either direction: setting balances based solely on one form of reproduction than the other.

As most things in life turn out, the art is in finding a proper balance.

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29 comments on “Finding balance”

  1. I will never understand why manufacturers of high-end audio equipment invest that huge budgets for marginal improvements in sound quality while not only the theory of stereo requires crosstalk cancellation (XTC) for the pair of loudspeakers and cross-feed and HRTF-compensation for headphones - and of course recording technologies optimized for this way of reproduction - but also the experience with existing products shows huge improvements for a small budget. My DAC has options for both: XTC and cross-feed. Even Roon offers crossfeed. And BACCH SP ( https://www.theoretica.us/bacch-sp.html ) offers even more sophisticated signal processing in head-tracking.

  2. Awe Yes. Getting the Balance right. A quick good tribute to the late Andy Fletcher “Fletch” of Depeche Mode should be a noted theme to Paul’s post.

    https://youtu.be/XWK7QLvuI-I

    Anyhow. Both are so great. Loudspeakers or headphones that is. Once one tailors either setup properly you are really in for it and it is a worthy investment for any strong music lover. Getting the balance right for me simply comes down to affordability and practicality.
    I invested way more time, research and money into a really great headphone set up mainly because my environment and lifestyle tailor more to it.
    I always say to people if you can do both and afford to do it properly, do it!!! 🙂

    In The Meantime. Paul. I’d absolutely love an Octave disc tailored mainly for headphone listening. That would be amazing and maybe Octave will pull a Chesky Records and do a Binaural recording. 😉

    I’m always ready to listen, especially with giant Driver cannons strapped to my head. Love my headphones. I a big appreciator of them. 🙂

  3. I'm not comfortable listening to music through cans for more than about 20 minutes at a time.
    20 minutes is about my limit no matter how good they are; I suspect that I'm just 'can-o-phobic' 😀
    One big thing missing from listening through cans is the lack of 'feelable' bass.
    There's no BASS when listening through headphones & for me that's too big of a loss.
    I went as far as to attach a pair of ALPINE - 'SWS-BE45' Bass Engines to the bottom of
    the chair that I sit in when I listen through cans & it does make a great improvement to
    the overall opening up of the soundstage.
    However I obviously much prefer a front-facing soundstage coming from a big pair of
    loudspeakers rather than a 'in-the-middle-of-my-head' band of musicians.
    Of course, as always YMMV ✌

  4. Headphones are good for checking certain things in the system. However, if you move your head, the soundstage turns with you. Just not natural, even though they resolve the midrange and upwards better. However, as FR said, the bass is tight but has no presence.

    1. You should try the B&W P-7 headphones. Lots of musical bass presence that gives a sense of feel to it. Very musical headphones that have an immediacy to the sound like no other. The Beyerdynamic DT 990 pro also give a good sense of bass feel. As the Sennheiser HD650 and to a lesser extent the HD600 do. Those headphones are about the best you can do, headphones are never going to have the full feel of the bass that we love with speakers. I have not tried this yet but I was thinking about running a subwoofer with the main speakers off while using my headphones to add the missing feel of the bass. Anyone ever try this?

  5. As we age our ability to balance declines and part of the mechanism for enabling balance is the inner ear. A recent scientific study concluded that training our ears by listening to music on a high quality system was able to drastically reduced that decline. Fact.

    This information was brought to you from the fool’s errand school of logic.

    Kind of on topic and off topic at the same time. At least the first sentence is true.

  6. For several years I used listening to inner-ear phones as an incentive to walk for exercise, to where I pretty much gave up speaker listening. I got a great set of 'phones and people here will laugh because I really liked how the music sounded from an iPod. But when I got back into speaker listening (and gained weight), I was amazed at how much I missed it, and how much I was missing. I agree with Paul that 'phones are like a microscope that can allow you to hear/see things in greater detail - and I'm sure that's important for recording/mixing, but I think humans were meant to hear things from a greater distance than one inch, so if I can't hear those details from my speakers, I can probably live without them in favor of a more natural experience overall.

  7. IMO headphones deprive you of almost everything that is essential for playback over speakers. They hopefully shouldn’t play a too big role in mixing/mastering.

    Says someone who never mixed or mastered anything.

  8. This observation suggests that there might be a market for parallel mixes: one made using headphones, intended for playback on headphones; and another made using speakers, optimized for playback on speakers. Any customer could select which one they prefer, or even purchase both for different situations as their mood strikes. Technology has now improved to the point where such nuances are both meaningful and feasible.

    1. Perfect solution. Although by the time the tracks are mixed for both speakers and headphones the person doing the mix will never want to hear those songs again. But Paul should go for it. Maybe he'll find an algorithm that can translate the speaker mix to a headphone mix without redoing the whole process.

  9. And at only $3,000 (retail), we shuold a have a pair for the 5% listining...

    I'm guessing Paul's set was comped, or less than $1,000 for professional courtesy pricing.

    I' had a variety of Sennheisers ofer the years, including some IEMs used for audio-books, and occasional music from an iFi HP/DAC after hours.

    Main HP kit is Sennheiser 660HD with balanced cable and the SPL Phonitor xe. This model has configurable parameters like crossfeeed amound and angle - a cool feature.

    I mostly like loudspeaker listening.

    I did download a Chesky sampler to try it out...

  10. Having been blown away by the Shure SE846 IEMs years ago, I got sucked down the hare hole of personal audio... (Technically 😉 I had a pair of Technics EAH-820s in the 80s - they were not bad). I started with the LCD-X and was rather underwhelmed, up'd to the LCDMX4. I was still rather underwhelmed. Focal Clear MG, Fostex TH900 MK2, THX00, DT1990Pro (very good for the $$) later, they are all good... but not 'blown away' level. I started to question this whole headphone gig. Then.... (queue angel choir) I tried the Hifiman Arya. OutSTANDING! That should have been the end. (And we laughed and we laughed..) Next up, the Abyss Diana TC. New class winner. However of all the aforementioned headphones, the Aryas are by far my favorite daily driver.

    However I can certainly see how the MX4s are perfect as a reference standard for studio. But for listening enjoyment, Arya takes the ribbon. I do want to sample the Susvara one day...
    Ok, AND the Sony ZR1, Empyrean, Utopia and HE1000. And Stax.
    Maybe if I actually SELL some of the aforementioned headphones.... or one of the amplifiers.... ah, who am I kidding. What's a relatively decent kidney goin for these days?

    Just ordered a Ifi Audio Pro iCan Signature yesterday.
    The first step is admitting you HAVE a problem.

    Hi my name is Jeff and I have eight pairs of headphones, three DACs and four headphone amplifiers…. It’s been six weeks since my last cable purchase...
    “Hiiiiii. Jeeeeefffffff”

    Some nights I just listen, most nights I EVENTUALLY just listen, but should I be a WEE bit concerned with the absolute enjoyment I get from listening to a track and performing constant neurotic multiple swaps between 7 pairs of phones and four amplifiers? Tis sheer inexplicable audio fun it is.

    But I WILL admit, after a few hours of headphone time, I am almost always drawn to the soundroom to end the evening listening sessio...
    Jeepers H, would you LOOK at the time?? Good thing I'm self employed!! Shuddup your yammering & get to WORK ya lazy SOT!!! Yikesshemia!

    1. I think you’ve got the right attitude my addict friend. 😉
      I’m not far behind you. I rotate about 5 headphones including one pair of IEMS. I’ve got 3 amplifiers and 3 DACS, so the choices of tuning preference feel endless for me. I love it cause I’m really not very big into EQ.
      Anyhow enjoy man. Nice to know another fellow headphone enthusiast.

      1. Hiiiiiiii Neeeeeph!

        Invitation to share your gear and views on said gear. I'm always keen to get real peoples' feedback! Joshua Valour is my go-to reviewer as my tastes (in headphones) seem to align with his.

        RME ADI2 FS DAC - because I DO like EQ. I AM a tweaker.
        Douk Audio ONE Little Bear MC103-Pro XLR Switcher - great for switching between amps
        Ifi Audio Pro iCan Signature (Arriving soon!) this SHOULD replace the Liquid Platinum and THX.. (and we LAUGHED...)
        Audio-GD Master 19 Headphone Amplifier - a nice powerful clean neutral large class A room furnace.
        Monoprice Liquid Platinum - Tube hybrid - very pleasant.
        Monolith THX AAA 887 - haven't had long enough to really speculate.

        Abyss Diana TC - Wow.
        Audeze LCD-MX4 - I seem to be in the minority not going ga ga over these...
        Hifiman Arya - Daily drivers. Hard to beat.
        Beyerdynamic DT1990 Pro - very good (relative budget) phone.
        Focal Clear MG - again, seem to be in the minority not going ga ga over these...
        Fostex TH900 MK2 - bass monsters but NEEEED EQ.
        Fostex THX00 Ebony w/Lawson Mods - use these mostly on my Korg keyboard.
        Shure SE-846 - A 4 way IEM. Amazing technology for the (very effective) bass driver.
        Fiio X7
        Fiio K5

        1. And hello to you, Pip! 🙂

          My goodness. That is a great arsenal of equipment you have there. Best of all, with all that gear you have you could really teach budding audiophiles what truly constitutes an upgradable path. 🙂 The Diversity of gear you have is terrific.

          Anyhow. I like Josh as well. He’s candid and his videographer skills are first rate. Also, I have a feeling that Josh may have influenced you to buy those Diana Phi TC’s? He gives quite a rave review on those. Very convincing!

          Enjoy the music my friend. Nice to hear from you.

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