Headphones vs. speakers

April 23, 2021
 by Paul McGowan

I’ve never understood the rift between headphone and speaker advocates.

Chat rooms, forums, and blog posts by the hundreds are rife with strong opinions why one’s superior to the other. It is constantly pointed out that headphones are more full range, lower distortion, generally have only one driver, are easy to drive, and so on. Defenders and provocateurs of loudspeakers point out that headphones miss out on any visceral feel, they cannot recreate a true sense of room, and they do not encourage sharing.

The arguments and battles seem rather endless.

I take a different, more moderate view. I like both.

Instead of pointing out the flaws inherent in each, I prefer to instead focus on the positives afforded by these very different methods of playing music.

Each is high-end and each provides an entirely different and unique listening experience.

It’s not that one’s better than the other.

We could safely suggest that both bring us closer to the music in ways the other misses.

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25 comments on “Headphones vs. speakers”

  1. Cans are great for watching TV in bed, when my wife doesn’t want to be disturbed.
    However they just can’t provide the visceral component of the music, unless I am
    also sitting on a chair that has been rigged with butt-kickers (my subwoofer chair)
    Over the decades I have tried time & time again to appreciate listening to music
    through cans, but my brain just ain’t buyin’ it.
    Nothing beats ‘the wall of sound’ or a sublime ‘3D holographic image’ coming from in front of you.
    I have heard Paul McGowan talk, many times, about his IRSV floorstanders & Terri’s KEF LS50’s, but I’ve never hear him talk about his (insert brand) headphones 🙂

    **CtA**
    You come to this site, an AUDIO site, & you tell people not to trust their ears.
    I would suggest that it is you who makes the stupid comments on this site.
    (From yesterday’s post)

  2. Personally, I have never enjoyed headphones. Regardless of the sound quality, they sound and feel unnatural. And I despise feeling disconnected from my environment. And last but not least, its embarrassing to get caught singing with headphones on 😉

  3. It’s very different, but if there were a high quality option for headphones, which doesn’t put me on a 2m rope around the preamp or DAC, there would be a beginning…but I never heard of a Stax/tube or comparable quality wireless.

  4. I would concur with Paul in that I like both. They are different but can certainly be rewarding in their own way.

    Having said that however, most of my headphone listening anymore is wireless via Bluetooth and an iDevice so fidelity can be called compromised (I do not 100% agree with this I think the sound can be quite good but you have to have a set of headphones with a good DAC chip of its own). I have picked headphones with excellent sound quality via BT and that can also be hard wired as well for a better stationary effect.

    I did pick up an aftermarket dongle for my iPad that converts USB-C to 3 1/2 mm plug and passes everything all the way up to DSD to my headphones so I can listen wired. That’s kind of fun to do however the iPad is bulky so I only do this when I am just sitting around. iPhone/lightning cord seems to be limited so much lower resolution no aftermarket high resolution cord available for it except limited to 48Khz.

  5. I listen to audio books on headphones when I’m riding my tractor. Music is much more engaging coming from a properly set up stereo system. That being said, I’m amazed at the relatively recent popularity of headphones, especially among younger listeners. Perhaps it will lead to more interest in home stereos.

  6. I pulled out my wired headphones yesterday to see if they still sounded okay and got 2 negative reactions. First, the cat thought the cord was a string toy and began playing with it. Next, my spouse came over and said hey, why can’t I hear the music too?
    So, back in the cabinet they went.

  7. I have a dedicated sound room and travel around in a Motorhome. I have over 7000 recordings (2.5 TB) on a server at home with a duplicated external HD for traveling. I much more prefer my home system for its realism. I use the headphones when away in the motorhome as any other setup is impractical. I enjoy the cans on the road since that is the only setup that brings me the music. Not realistic but pleasurable.
    It’s like digital and vinyl. I use and enjoy both depending which has the best recording engineering.

  8. To me, they are so different. The stereo speakers system can create an illusion of musicians playing in front of the listeners but the headphones can only create an illusion inside the heads of the listeners which is strange to me. I can never really enjoy music from a headphone because of that.

  9. I have always liked headphones for many different reasons. My current room set up is divided, half 2channel and the other is movie surround. Two completely different systems and sounds. My headphone are all ran with my PSA Sprouts. My Administrator likes for the two of us to be in the same room(witch ever one) together, so when she’s watching something that I absolutely do not want to see, I pop the cans on and we are off to the races. For me it’s what ever I’m facing at the time as long I get to listen. 🙂 But make no mistake, nothing can replace my speakers!

  10. From the days of the Pioneer SE-505’s I had in the 70’s, still today hold their weight. There is a time and a place for everything in the audio realm.

  11. I love both. If I want to block out noise, or turn up the music, I use either my Audeze LCD-2s or my Focal Elegias, depending on noise levels. They bring out certain things in the music that I don’t hear through my speakers, and vice versa. But both headphones and speakers give me tons of pleasure. Sometimes I want dark chocolate, sometimes milk chocolate. But my tongue loves both. My ears love both the speakers and the cans.

  12. Most of us are in agreement. We like both. But if we ever have to move into an apartment building or assisted living situation where the sound partitions are inadequate, headphones would be the logical choice.

    1. A lot of people judge headphones based on their particular brand and their particular system. To sound their best, headphones have to be top quality and fed by a front end source and amplification system that is selected, setup and tweaked with as much care as a loudspeaker system. My system uses the same PS Audio DSMP and DS DAC front end as my loudspeaker system, feeding a balanced Woo Audio WA22 tube amp with NOS Tung-sol round plate signal tubes and upgraded power tubes. The balanced headphone cable is Stefan Audio Art “Endorphin”. Headphones are Senn HD-800. There may be better amps and phones out there, but I like the sound my system produces for the types of music I listen to. If I ever have to give up my loudspeaker system, I will still be happy.

  13. I agree with Paul, it is good to have both options. Problematic room resonance and all, I still do most of my listening over small SP-BS22-LR loudspeakers with the ports plugged with wool socks and the bass rolled off a bit (yaayyy, tone controls!) to tame the beast (mostly). I have a vintage pair of Stax electret earspeakers for detailed listening, but they hurt my pressure sensitive outer ears after only a single LP side. Ear buds are tolerable for longer periods, but mine are in need of replacement, unstable connector or something.

  14. When 10 PM rolls around and I want to listen to music, the headphones come out. I get to hear much more detail which is a whole new experience but it cannot replace listening to the three dimensionality and air of my system playing through speakers. So, I agree with all the others who use both transducers.

  15. “The arguments and battles [are] endless. Chat rooms, forums, and blog posts by the hundreds are rife with strong opinions…”

    At this point, it’s important to review the laws of audio, the world, the universe, and everything, according to the many great Americans posting here:

    * Subwoofers are bad, evil, and will ruin the music. You should never have any in your music system

    * Crossovers are bad, evil, and will ruin the music. Only full range drivers operating right into and thru their breakup modes are true, musical, and un-corrupted

    * Any 1950’s tube table radio is better than any modern high end system

    * Any acoustic 78 RPM record is better than any recording made after that – because electricity is evil and corrupt

    * High fidelity is bad, evil, and ruins the music. Only low fidelity is good fidelity

    * Science is a lie. There ain’t no molcules or atoms or covid

    Rock on

  16. I love the sound of well made headphones. I just hate wearing them. Its hard to lay on the couch or in bed wearing headphones and while the sound isn’t fatiquing wearing them sitting up can be. I cannot hear music when taking them off to do things around the house so then I have to switch the speaker’s back on. I like the sound of wired headphones better than wireless. The other problem is my NHT 2.9 speakers sound better than my headphones and I have some great headphones. Beyerdynamic 990 pro, Senheiser HD 600 HD 424 HD 414 and B&W P7. The NHT also sound good at low volume. There’s nothing like music emerging out of thin in the room. Still I do love the sound of good headphones, just not as much as I love my speakers. So I’m in the camp that I love both but most of the time I have no use for headphones except the few times I’m in the mood for them. The best case for headphones is when you cannot listen to your stereo for wherever reason or on a flight, train, or bus. Or if your speaker’s suck.

  17. For me, I don’t know how a true music lover can separate the 2 (headphones/loud speakers) because of a couple of major factors: 1) convenience 2) cost efficiency.

    I chose to go with headphones because of this. I can get a truly elite sound for a fraction of the cost of a truly elite loudspeaker set up and I also get that very accessible convenience and isolation. Having a young family now the headphone love is now more important than ever.

    Honestly guys. It is all win win for me. I absolutely love headphone listening. It really truly agrees with me. I’m in such awe of the visceral nature that my current headphone set up can Divulge, especially with my latest edition of the P3.
    Another thing. Thanks a lot, Paul! My brain is in such an over analytical state because of that P3 Stellar. I’m not really focusing and truly appreciating my music 100% of the time due to the new, holographic imaging I’m experiencing. I’m focused more on tone and soundstage, but all that will pass and I will get back into the music on a less analytical level.
    So, in the end both are great but the nod goes to headphones for me.
    My top 2 headphones are the HD 800 C’s and Audeze LCD XC’s.
    When you poor a lot of love and research into giving these headphones what they truly deserve I don’t think anyone could ever be sorry.

    Great post Paul!!

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