That missing element

January 25, 2018
 by Paul McGowan

Life is often a series of trade-offs. We gain here, lose there, creating tough choices because gains and losses are rarely black and white.

Such is the case with headphones for me. On the one hand, they are wonderfully focused sonic microscopes. They offer privacy and intimacy, and their output seamlessly covers the entire range of audio frequencies few loudspeakers can match.

And yet, I prefer loudspeakers.

Loudspeakers offer one thing headphones cannot. Their sound is palpable. Just like live music.

I notice increasing numbers of young music lovers enraptured by headphones. And I do not mean Earbuds. Master and Dynamics, Audeze decorate heads still with hair. The good stuff. But not for me.

Maybe it's because I grew up with the sound of loudspeakers and live music, or maybe feeling music's air pressure on my skin adds another dimension missing with cans covering my ears.

I've put a few more thoughts together on the matter in this video available here.

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33 comments on “That missing element”

  1. Same is valid for me.

    Maybe even more than the palpable sound, the layered transparency (different than the transparency of headphones) is most important for me from speakers. It kind of floods and clears my brain when I come home with the head full of other stuff and need a rest. Transparency and physical impact of sound is like a brain wash and emotional regeneration for me.

  2. My ears never ever tolerated extended listening via headphones. There was one exception some 25 years ago: AKG-K1000. AKG even offered a dedicated headphone amp and binaural processor for avoiding in-head-localisation. I think a headphone mandatorily requires dummy head recordings and some processing regarding the individual HRTF for getting best and most authentic results. One of their major advantages: room acoustics doesn’t matter; no room treatment required!

  3. The hearing aid companies have a bright future. The number of folks playing music at the volumes they do, through in ear headphones, is amazing to me. I play my music at high volumes at times on my stereo, but the speakers aren't sitting in my ear canal, pointing straight at my ear drum. There has to be long term effects from it.

  4. As Audio is a personal experience therefore subjective, it is a fact that many adult people feel comfortable with the use of headphones, and that there are these gadgets with the most varied prices and qualities.

    With the exponentially extended use of mobile phones and tablets, young people try to emulate the sound of the kind of music they listen to in concerts, raising the volume to dangerous levels. Since there are only millimeters between the sound source and the membrane of the eardrums, this fact increases the possibility that a new generation will destroy their hearing prematurely.

    I think that headphones have their application in the professional field of recording, whose users use them with caution.

    Never, but I have never listened to music with headphones because I feel an unnatural sensation, the friends who use them tell me that they feel auditory fatigue shortly after the session started with these devices.

    I prefer the speakers that with all the technical limitations they have, give me a more comfortable feeling in the long listening sessions.

    1. Besides the fact that even the most wonderful headphones have a degree of discomfort after a while, I still get a feeling of "auditory compression" (I doubt that's a quantifiable thing) or a numbing of my hearing. No I don't blast them for common sense reasons but I did in my younger days. It doesn't seem to matter how loud they are. I still get that compressed feeling. Open air designs seem less so, but all have it to some degree. But for me, sharing music and the musical experience is so very important. The value of this was first made evident to me when I realized that thousands of us at Jones beach were all listening to the same radio station at that same moment and I felt a sense of oneness or comradery, later to be more personalized with home audio and close friends and family. How many fellow audio buffs have not felt the joy when a respected friend comes over for a listen and smiles and says, "That sounds wonderful." It makes all the tinkering that much more fulfilling. Headphones can't do that very well even if they do have their place.

      1. Actually, I have no experience in the use of headphones, I know there are some very expensive, but the principle is the same: Excite the eardrum to a very close distance.

        The first and only time I've heard one was when a dealer suggested I try one, and when I put them on, I felt that the sound was coming from inside my head, which I considered against nature.

        I can not talk about it more for the reason noted in the first sentence of this post.


  5. Headphones and speakers obviously provide a different experience and purpose. I have always been a headphone user, back to the days of the iconic Sennheiser HD 414. I would agree with jazznut that the layering of sound over a person is preferable, but headphones offer a way to listen and enjoy with a minimal of fuss, no room treatments, no amplification issues, no WAF! I use headphones daily, at night usually just laying in bed switching gears and winding down from the day. Battery powered Oppo headphone amp and upgraded audio-based lightning cable to my iPhone pulls in whatever music I desire using Roon, Tidal, JRemote or other sources.

    I observe as well the trend of people using real headphones as opposed to earbuds (I see people mowing lawns or using loud equipment with earbuds blaring to drown out the noise, yikes how loud that must be) but have to say I have never seen anyone wear anything as good as the Audeze. Around me all are adorned with Beats and Bose as the marketing folks at those companies have succeeded in convincing the public that those brands represent ithe epitome of sound. Buds still seem to be the norm in my area, far outnumbering any use of real cans.

    Headphones for utilitarian reasons is another subject, I posted the other day an aside about some new Sony noise-cancelling headphones I bought and how much better the sound quality is from them than I think the Bose noise-cancelling headphones are that most people rave about (when they rave about them it’s generally due to the noise canceling properties not the sound quality). Sony hit the mark in sound quality as well so if you are in the market give the 1000 over-the-ears a try!

    That brings up a whole other component of headphone listening: over ear, on ear, open backed, closed back, ear buds etc. Many opinions there as well from users and reviewers!

    1. For airplanes and so forth, I much prefer in-ears that cut outside noise by around 23dB, vs. having the cans pummel my eardrums with the opposite-phase noise along with the program material. Unless they’ve figured out another way to do noise cancelling.

      1. I would absolutely agree with you that passive noise cancellation with no electronics involved would be preferable. However, my last few trips have involved the smaller regional jets of less than 100 seat capacity and those have been so loud inside that my passive solution with earbuds/Comply foam tips or over-ear-closed-back no longer worked without having to crank the volume to uncomfortable levels so I caved and went the electronic route!

        I could not see ever using the active noise headphones in an every day/non-travel environment.

  6. My brother (who does more HP listening than I do) mentioned something interesting the other day, which also touches on the many controversies that pop up here over objective and subjective listening experience.

    He was listening with headphones to the music track from a video with the TV off, and the sound was in his head. Turned the video on, and the sound was now coming from the area of the images out in front of him (no change in the sound). Listening in the dark is yet another thing. You can’t extract or divorce the sense of hearing from the other senses, like the physical sensation of being pummeled with the output of large speakers or subs.

    Paul, you need to shoot a Maxell ad parody photo ; )

    1. I have personally found that different brands and styles of headphones place the soundstage differently. I had never thought so much about that until I started to experiment with different brands, and find some highly rated headphones to not be acceptable because of the image placement.

      My current headphones are thinksound ON2 over ear and I had someone audition them the other day who commented they could see why I like them because for them it sounded just like listening to a set of speakers regarding imaging. Certainly not a replacement for a full sized speaker well placed in a room but acceptable for those times it is needed.

      1. Hi Larry....

        I was forced into investing in headphones because I live in an apartment. I never liked them before. I picked up a pair of used Sennheiser HD 650's. Not exactly happy with them... Now? Those Thinksound ON2's look promising... and cost less.

        hmmmmmmmm..... Thanks for mentioning them.

        1. I have been a fan of that company’s products since reading a review in Stereophile of the original ms01 earbuds many years ago when Stephen Mejias did his column. I upgraded to on-ear headphones when they introduced them and then upgraded further to the latest version. You are correct that for the price I don’t think they can be easily matched. Stereophile has the ON2 on their A list of headphones against considerably more expensive competition (queue up now those folks who think that magazine has no idea what they are talking about ha ha). As I said I like them because they are very neutral. If you pick up a pair let me know sometime what you think of them, they do offer at home tryouts.

  7. One more, who is not fond of headphones. Although I have never heard any of the best. I have thought that if I ended up in an assisted living facility, in the hopefully far away future, well then a high end pair with a dedicated amp might be necessary.

    When I first got into stereo gear, I did get a set, the sound with some LPs was interesting, but with eye glasses they were never comfortable. I did get to hear what was considered the headphone in the early'70s the Koss Pro AA. They were heavy, that is all I remember, and they had fluid in their cups.
    I also bought a pair of Superex Electrostatics that retailed for $100, expensive at the time. They were designed to be wired from the amps speaker terminals. With my Crown D150 I fried both pots. When my electronics buddy replaced the pots, I got a look inside. I don't think they were truly electrostatics. Does anyone remember them?
    After reading a review on the Grado SR60, I bought a pair. Those I still have, I recently replaced the pads, as they had dried out, turning to mostly to dust. I sometimes use them when I work in Vinyl Studio. But I never listen for pleasure. Oh, I did buy a $35 pair of Koss sport phones for the gym. Worked just fine with my RCA MP3 player.
    While I believe today's top of line can be very special, I have no interest in them. I much prefer speakers.

  8. About six years of “cans” when I was on the air ruined the headphone experience for me. Now, as a voice actor, I don’t use them at all unless in someone else’s studio for cues, and even then I leave one ear open.

  9. I couldn't agree more. I like to feel my music, which is not to say I'm cranking the volume to 11, but I do enjoy the full body experience that loudspeakers provide. The only time I wear cans is when I'm drumming, and that's more to protect my hearing and, obviously, listen to the track I'm playing to.

  10. Look folks, we like distortion. How many pairs of planar speakers have been sold over the decades? 100% of that reflected back-wave is distortion. IT IS NOT ON THE CD! Floyd Toole and Sean Olive found that people like speakers that have wide EVEN FR dispersion. Toole coined it as an " Immersive effect" None of these reflections are on the CD either. But our brains are trained to hear direct sound and sounds reflecting off the walls. I used to work for a defense contractor and we used multi million dollar chambers that are as perfectly anechoic as is possible. Talking to each other inside one of those was completely annoying. Way worse than talking outside.

    As audiophiles we just need to get over the idea of perfect reproduction. Chasing away as much distortion and noise is admirable but the idea of perfect reproduction is impossible. At best we find distortion generators that make an "illusion" that our brains accept.

    1. >>>>>>> Look folks, we like distortion. How many pairs of planar speakers have been sold over the decades? 100% of that reflected back-wave is distortion. <<<<<<

      Might be better to have some back-wave distortion added in than to listen to the distortion of the total absence of back-wave phenomena that takes place in a real live performance.. One major distortion we all experience, is the absence of the reflected sound that makes live performances so exciting to experience.

      1. I agree. It's all about creating an illusion. Go listen to Ray Kimber's 4 channel iso-mic demos and you realize how second class two channel is to start with.

  11. About 40 years ago I had a pair of the top of the line Koss headphones and never really liked listening to music through them. I always preferred listening through speakers and still do. I have a pair of Shure SE 450 in ear phones for airplane travel and when working out. They provide sufficient quality and noise reduction, but those are the only times I use them.

    For me, music is to be shared and I prefer having friends over to listen to records. Can't do that with headphones.

    1. AFAIK, the best noise cancelling headphones are Bose. The military uses them. They might not equal the best sounding but for flying on an airplane or other noisy areas they worked much better than other brands. I almost bought a pair but I left the job that required so much air travel.

      1. I see far more Bose headphones on the airplane than any other. I used to have a pair, but opted for the Shure in ear phones because I wanted better sound quality and didn't like the feel of headphones over my ears. With the Shures, noise cancelling is a function of how good the seal is, which also affects the quality of bass response.

  12. Paul, you could always listen to headphones combined with a subwoofer if you want that "visceral feel" of your tactile sensations being stimulated by bass. I'm the kind of person who shops until I find something I like and then stick with it. I don't buy a car I've wanted and then a week later start shopping for a replacement that might be better. If I find there is something I don't like about it I try to fix it before I replace it. I had a lot of headphones in the early days. I didn't really like them but most weren't very good. Koss Pro 4A were at least comfortable with their liquid filled ear cushions. However I've been using Sony MDR V6 for over 25 years and have no intention of shopping for something "better." I still like them very much and they were a bargain at $67 a pair. Evidently professionals like them too because they are still being manufactured, bought, and used by recording engineers who want accuracy. Headphones have their place offering privacy and portability speakers don't. But they're usually not my best choice for listening either.

    Headphones taught me something very important that contributed to my understanding of sound. That something was why binaural sound played through headphones doesn't work. I knew they didn't work because I'd read it over and over again. It was also known why they don't work. When you turn your head the sound turns with it. The key to understanding was only one question, one step away which no one seemed to have asked. Why does that matter? They fulfill all three criteria people believe determines the ability to detect the direction of the source of sound. Sounds arrives at one ear slightly before the other. Sound is slightly louder in one ear than the other. And if made with microphones in a dummy's head HRTF requirements are satisfied too. But binaural sound played through headphones sounds like it's coming from inside your head or just outside your ear. Why doesn't it work? The answer is actually quite simple. Sound heard normally comes from a specific direction regardless of how you turn your head. It is a vector meaning it has both direction and intensity. Sound played through headphones have only intensity, it is the equivalent of two scalars. They have no direction. Your brain realizes this immediately. This was the first clue of not only why binaural sound through headphones didn't work but why speakers don't work either. While speakers produce vector fields those vector fields have virtually nothing in common with the fields produced by real musical instruments, not just at large venues where the reflections of the huge space are also vectors but even in your own home listening room. What are those vectors and how do you model, measure, and reconstruct them? That is the crux of the problem, not what speaker or amplifier or wire you buy. This is where the real problem is and where the real answers are to be found. Clearly the explanation of how humans and other higher animals detect direction is wrong. Is anyone in this industry doing any investigation and engineering related to that? Well they occasionally try in their own clumsy way but they're not very analytical about it. They're at best guessing and groping. While I haven't listened to their most recent efforts, just looking at their designs tells me they've still got a long way to go.

  13. Headphones are part of the audio myth that sound = ears.

    Hearing is a collection of senses that include vibrations entering through eyes and cranium, which include another two octaves of supersonic and ultrasonic treble; the hair in our skin, which also senses electro-static fields and wind; skin pressure and joint sensors which respond from static gravity acceleration (ZERO Hz) up to a few hundred Hz, along with the arches in our ears; and body cavities like lungs that go down below the lowest organ pipe, which is 8Hz for 128' sub-contrabass C.

    As for headphones, they are capable of far more accurate bass than speakers because (A) they ignore room resonances and (B) they don't have the universal bass resonance so they do not have the temporal distortion of woofers on bass rhythm instruments. This means they can reproduce not only 100Hz square waves, but also rectangular modulation envelopes that stump even servo-driven woofers.

    Headphones are also better than speakers for the artificial stereo of pan pots because they don't have cross-channel bleed. In all, headphones present a more consistent experience than speakers so it is easier to train to the transform between real music and reproduction - assuming you can make a real time or close in time comparison.

    BUT, I only use headphones when speakers are impossible because the sound is not allowed to project into the room.

  14. I think you guys are too hard on headphones 🙂 I love a great headphone system and have yet to hear a loudspeaker system that equals a good headphone system in ALL respects. No, I haven't heard Music Room One, but I've heard hundreds of other mega-buck loudspeaker systems at shows and in people's homes.

    Before assembling my current high-end loudspeaker audio system (including fine PS Audio components), I enjoyed my headphone system immensely and I continue to use it from time to time and keep it on reserve for future listening if for any reason my main audio system goes down or becomes unusable. My headphone system is a vintage Meridian 508.24 CDP, a modern Woo Audio WA22 tube headphone amp with rare and wonderful N.O.S. Tung-Sol 6sn7gt round plate tubes, Seinheisser HD800, Jorma Origo XLR interconnects, and Stefan Audio Art balanced headphone cable. The sound is glorious, realistic in its details, and puts me right in a fully-dimensioned 360-degree space. To me, it is the ultimate realism. No "in your head" annoyance or "R-L channel partitioned sound" that some describe. And my head and brain, at least, feel the air pressure of deep bass produced by the headphones. [I've tried simultaneously using subwoofers to pressurize the rest of my body, and while that may give an ounce of extra realism, it's not really necessary to experience.] I imagine that headphone listening requires some adjustment for some people. It's like wearing eyeglasses for the first time. It takes time for the brain to adjust. Also, it is like hearing a live orchestra for the first time--you hear and sense things that you never heard or sensed quite so precisely in a loudspeaker system. You might not even like reality's rough edges.

    One measure of an excellent high-end audio system is its ability to offer a commensurate level of detail, full-range impact and spatial re-creation of a great headphone system. A top-notch headphone system should not be more fatiguing than listening to a live performance. If a system presenting live orchestra sound does not become fatiguing after hours of continuous listening, then I question if it really does sound live! My two complaints of a headphone system is 1) after a while the slight pressure of the headphones against the sides of my head starts to get annoying, and 2) it's pretty much a one-person experience. Adding a second set of headphones gets expensive and trying to converse with the other person while listening through headphones is challenging, for obvious reasons.

    In summary, to say that a good loudspeaker system is superior to a good headphone system is a generalization that I am not ready to accept. I think there is a ways to go before one approach can be declared superior to the other. Each system has its place and purpose. Enjoy both!

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