The problem with headphones

July 24, 2017
 by Paul McGowan

I like headphones. Readers of this blog know that I went through a whole period of not liking them, then being introduced to the wonderful Audeze products, which changed my mind. Long history there. I learned.

Headphones have many great traits and advantages. They are not colored by the room. They can get really good bass—better, often, than speakers—and they’re resolving power is unmatched.

But headphones don’t reproduce what we hear in real life. Speakers come closer.

When we go to a concert we feel the music through our skin. If we’re near enough, it can physically vibrate our bodies.

Our ears naturally hear everything together. Sounds from the left and sounds from the right. Those sounds, of course, are delayed in the ear farthest away. It’s what makes imaging natural and we hear the orchestra or band in front of us when live, divorced and behind the loudspeakers in a proper listening room.

Headphones block one ear from hearing what the other does. There are crossfeed schemes galore, but they are just Band Aids.

Headphones are great in their space, but let’s not fool ourselves into believing they can bring us closer to the absolute sound—to a high-end experience that transports us to another venue where the recording took place.

No. For that, we need loudspeakers and rooms.

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33 comments on “The problem with headphones”

  1. Paul,

    if it was Audeze at your side, it was Grado on mine.
    With Grado products there is something very special which only a few brands have – one can (at least I can) hear their passion for music when I use them. Without doing any advertising they still have their faithful customers.


  2. Are you not willing to accept, Paul, that it is impossible to reproduce music as if the musicians were in music room one? Maybe you should imagine a big band playing in music room one creating the same sound pressure as in the concert hall. I doubt it will sound good or even similar to the delicate concert hall sound. Headphone listening requires different recording techniques (dummy head for instance) allowing to recreate the wave field at your ears as it is in the concert hall. Thus the lacking crosstalk is an advantage! The unsolved problem is that the dummy head has a different HRTF than generated by your shoulders, head-shape and pinnae. In-head localisation is another unsolved issue. However for simulating real body shaking bass waves you can add motor driven body-shakers to your listening seat!

    1. Addendum. At least, if someone would want to simulate the sound wave patterns in a (miniaturized) listening room as found in a concert hall he should at least respect the same laws and dimensionless numbers derived from the theory of dimension analysis an engineer does when testing miniaturized models in a wind tunnel. I doubt anybody does even might be impossible. Finally there are still rather crude approaches recreating the essence (?) or individual preference for just a good sound. However too often the basics of psychoacoustic are disregarded.

    2. No Paul, I am not willing to accept it unless you’re referring to absolutes. Meaning, of course it’s hard to imagine a perfect representation of the exact event recreated in your home. I may not live long enough to hear that.

      But, it is now good enough to suspend disbelief. Think of it like a modern movie using CGI. Film studios have gotten so good I can rarely tell the difference between what’s real and what’s not. But, I still know it’s a movie. I have agreed to suspend disbelief and once I do that, I can sit back and marvel at what I heard.

      A good pair of loudspeakers connected to a proper electronic setup is like that. We know it’s not real, but it’s close enough to let our guard down and believe it is.

      1. That’s a very good argument, which I support!

        I just question if, in a narrow sense, it is the correct goal for making equipment. Might be, that for simulating the real thing at home, based on compromised recordings and media, there are different demands than if a musician could blow directly into the amp by (in theory) non compromised mics. Then a manufacturer would know, guiding through everything 1:1 is always right 😉

        But in a wide sense of course the goal is valid.

        What I mean is maybe better explained in low fi:
        if a small bluetooth speaker would be designed by the rules of high end, without equalling out its limited size or the limitations of MP3, not using psychoacoustic effects etc., it would be a very frustrating product, as it would have i.e. nearly no bass etc.

        What I think is, that our recordings and media, unoptimized rooms etc. are limited, too, even in high end usage. I don’t know if it’s always the right way to pretend as if everything that comes before and after one’s own product is perfect and use this as an in reality non existing precondition for designs.

      2. I doubt, Paul, that you are focussing on the quality of the picture alone when looking to a movie. You are rather focused on the story told and on the dialogues. Parallel your fantasy/imagination how the story might continue comes into the game. Your eyes have not to focus on different levels of depth due to the 2-D character of the picture we are used to. They rather scan the picture plane and focus on specific actors. Similar to the cocktail-party effect in audio? But the sound from speakers still remain 3-D in the listening room. Thus your video-audio analogy is not that good. The process of hearing seems to be much more complex than the process of viewing. Same might be true for the problems for any technology reproducing sound. Maybe only mono might allow the best reproduction of a single (!) singer or single (!) instrument. As soon as you introduce the stereo element in both video and audio things are getting really crazy.

  3. Planers for me make the best headphones
    They are closer to ribbon speakers.
    Audizee that I own and have heard at length all of the models.
    Are nice sound but for me slow
    For me a better and faster is hifiman
    HE6 was the best model they produced its draw back was the massive power needed to drive. There newer he1000 is close to them but has some mid resessed issues.

    Headphones can give details speakers don’t unless we play our IRS loud.
    In someways they are like a microscope into the Music. Where they hit the wall is ambience of the recording. They also don’t show staging well.
    The best over all headlphones I ever heard and I am buying the next gen of them from another company
    We’re made by quad they are called the float.
    Looks dumb until you hear them. They get you all that speakers give except the bass moving your body.

    I have had and owned many flagships over the years each headphone has its good and bad but what makes each one sing best is the amp used. This is where most will never get how good they can be.

    Stats have the rep of being tops
    He90 or He70 I have amd the stax 009. what they do is give the absolute last detail of the music. But the price for this is weight of the music
    This is I think why planners are better. Each headphone has its own color to add and bass on some is bloated perhaps some of us have learned to like that bloat. When I finally moved my bass towers to the offset on sides as they are now. The first thing I noticed was where did the bass go. After using them for a while I now have detailed bass I did not have before. Planners boom too
    All do. Stats don’t and the hd800 is close to stats in that they don’t boom amd yield the best fake staging of any headphone short of the float types.
    As for recordings made for headphones that’s a good point to make.
    I feel very few recordings are made for any one medium playback type. So we are screwed in so many ways.
    Bad beef please add in as you are there at the beginning and know what the concept is at the start.

    Lastly few SS dacs yield great sound on headphones a tube dac is far better at giving us or me a great sound.
    Even the Msb sel 2 does not like a tube dac. What tubes yields the sound we like best is where great sound starts.

  4. I have a basic Stax planar and not much experience with better headphones.

    For me headphones are a great experience to check how it sounds when quite free of room resonances and to show fine details in silky sound. But headphones totally miss all that’s most fascinating for me when listening to speakers:

    proper sound staging, a kind of holographic portrait of voice/instrument/sound events and physical impact.

  5. This is where I oftentimes think my nearfield setup at my computer has the advantage. Sitting barely two feet from the speakers eliminates the room for the most part from consideration. In my case I have a well regarded NAD D3020 driving a pair of Audioengine P4 passive speakers. The PSAudio Sprout/Elac combo would perform as well or better I am sure. I have paired mine with a sub that lives under the desk (and doubles as a footrest LOL). It’s not headphones, it’s not a full sized kit, but serves the purpose.

    I am a daily headphone listener, at night as I transition from the day to sleep laying in the dark in bed! On-the-ear closed back for me, although I have tried over the ear closed back as well but didn’t like them. I have yet to try some good over ear open back models, the new Focal cans seem intriguing in that respect. This is another area of constant discussion, regarding the style and type of headphones.

  6. I only listen to my headphones when the playing of my stereo system might be distracting for someone else. Headphones can be impressive in what they do but speakers sound more realistic to me. As Paul mentioned, you don’t physically feel the bass energy. I tend to sometimes get into extensive listening sessions and as I do , the volume levels slowly increase. I might be playing a song like Steppenwolf’s , Magic Carpet Ride and I can’t help but turn up the volume for maximum impact. My hearing isn’t what it used to be and I don’t want to damage it further. With my loudspeakers I can easily measure the sound levels but with headphones I am not aware of a method to quickly and accurately do this.

    1. I have some old Grado SR60 headphones with replaced earpads. They sound ok connected to computer or ipod, but the possibility of ruining my hearing frightens me, so I mostly listen to speakers.
      However, I had the opportunity to listen to some high quality closed back phones in a friend’s home mastering studio. I don’t know whether it was the phones or the lack of manipulation of his homemade recording, but the sound was some of the best I’ve ever heard.

  7. For me the difference is that when I go to a performance I don’t have the sensation of having a couple of doughnuts strapped to my head.
    Having just bought a decent pair of headphones, I’ve still not got used to them. I’ve not really got past the point that headphones address the issue that you can’t take your stereo with you on holiday.

  8. When I was about 14 years old and an audiophile, I read an article in one of the hobbyist magazines about binaural sound played through headphones. This was in the early 1960s. It seemed like a very clever idea. The sound that fell on your ears listening to live music would fall on microphones where your ears would have been, recorded on two channel tape and then put right back in your ears by the headphones exactly where they would have been had you been there for the live music. There were two explanations for the way sound was heard directionally. One was that sound arrived in each ear at a different time and the other was that the ear closer to the source heard it louder. Years later HRTF was added and people got excited about the shape of their outer ears. But my excitement ended reading the last paragraph where it said that the idea doesn’t work because the sound seems to be coming from inside your head. This was explained as the result of the sound turning with your head when your head turned. I point out that binaural sound recorded and played this way meets all three of the criteria above. About ten years later when I came to understand the physics of sound and acoustics I asked a question no one else seemed to have asked before. Why does it matter? The answer gave me great insight into how hearing works and more insight into how sound works. Obviously something crucial was missing from the prevailing understanding, something of critical importance. What I had been led to believe was just plain wrong. It doesn’t work that way. At that time I threw away my audiophile cap and put my science and engineering cap on instead. Suddenly this wasn’t a toy anymore, it was an engineering problem to be solved.

  9. Speakers have the opposite problem, crossfeed cancellation. Ralph Glasgal and Edgar Choueiri have done a lot of work on this, which defined the problem fairly well but fall short of a general solution. The problems are the equations depend upon individual head geometry and blow up to outputs louder and faster than speakers. This is then solved by phase shifting, but that is temporal and spatial distortion.

    I keep buying headphones hoping that one will sound good. I find different points on tradeoffs, and ended up with different phones for the different reasons I need them. Sennheiser HD590 have the most accurate bass, and are very comfortable for long term listening like late night TV. The Beyerdynamic DT770M Pro have broadband noise defense better than noise-cancellation phones (-35dB) from circum-aural cups and sealing pads, and with better sound quality by avoiding the processing. These are essential for live recording so I can adjust the microphone position while blocking the room sound. Shure E2C serve for editing on the train, since they fit in my purse, block external sound and have relatively flat FR.

    The best overall spectral balance I can remember was classic Beyer DT48, but they were heavy and squeezed my head like a vice to maintain the very sensitive positioning. The only good soundstaging was a headphone demonstration by Michael Gerzon at the 1978 AES. This was through a rack of custom electronic modules that processed 4 channel Ambisonics B format into binaural and included headphone compensation.

      1. I had no idea! All of my speakers use AMT tweeters. Dr. Heil is one of my heroes, and now he has provided us with the math and measurements to prove the Schroeder model of hearing. All I have been saying is based on one premise:

        The pinnae are DIRECTIONAL PHASE ENCODERS.

        When I heard confirmation of this sentence from Dr. Manfred Schroeder, it explained all the psycho-acoustic anomalies of music reproduction that I had compiled for 35 years.

        Now I find out that Dr. Oskar Heil was pursuing exactly the same course I have been on since my epiphany in 2001.

        1. So I can’t spell well. I cannot make a cohesive post but I can hear great lol. His tweeters and mid drivers are excellent. I have owned the he90 the he70 the stax 009. The he 6 the hd800 and many others. Even have heard the new he1 stat from sennhisser. The truth his headphones are so much more like your Ina room not around your head.
          So glad you know him. When I get the new flagships I intend to post of them everywhere. It’s a shame he really is leading edge and almost no one knows him or his works.

      2. The mechanics of the Ergo AMT are based on the Jecklin Float – I have a pair of Jecklins with dynamic drivers and one out, I can try mounting a pair of AMT drivers in them.

        1. Please do I would love to read about your findings. I have some
          Kind of spacial herring issue.
          With both ears I am fine and very good for 60. But if I close up one ear
          It’s whacked. One ear is as the room
          Sounds with two. But the other ear is a whole different sound
          Headphones do not allow me to have the full staging that some claim. But woth the floats or the new amt ones it’s fantastic

  10. Great topic. I own T5 Berdnamics and the Audeze inSine 20’s with both cables. Both deliver a wonderful audio experience with the right input source and quality of recordings.

    Paul I agree the headphone approach just like analog is not the answer either. Neither is “surround sound.”

    I’ve heard my share of recordings made exclusively for headphones as well as remasters for surround. Each deliver a different experience but neither replicate that “live experience”

    I believe that the “real deal” of what we expect gets “foiled” or”spoiled” in so many ways…. especially amps mixing boards PA’s acoustics etc.

    Those “live” acoustic sometimes “unplugged” performances really seem to translate to getting you there when you can hear a pin drop and the mix and placement of picrophones or simply the acoustics is properly balanced.

    We have become so dependent on all of the amplification and mixing and poor acoustics that it too plays a huge part into how that experience is both live and recorded.

    Recent experiences with live shows had me thinking along this line. What I observed was the lack of fine detail and clarity through most systems and PA’s and much of it may be the equipment, setup, acoustics etc… Did it sound awesome for a live show experience and the intimacy with the artist being there and all the other sensory stimuli being affected. Was it something to savor yes. What happens if you bring that same sound from that venue into your audio room try it in stereo or surround through loudspeakers or headphones? To me I notice the same lack of detail from most venues when a digital recording through microphones with no mix from inline connections direct from the mixing board is used.

    I can agree that loudspeakers in stereo or surround is closer to the “real thing” and that what’s going to get us these “closest to the real” in the same room would be to properly capture/record that artist in the same room and then playback in that same room as the ultimate comparison.

    But what if we had the very finest audio gear available instead of a typical PA at Red Rocks played the best tracks and put the artist right there as well …

    I thought the other night what some of my recordings might sound like if played with some of the best audio equipment on the planet compared to the artist live through those inferior PA’s they use….

  11. It’s easy to suspend disbelief when listening to electronic music in your home. The black boxes that generate the music are not much different looking than the black boxes in your stereo rig.

  12. 25 years ago I bought two pairs of Sony MDR V6s recommended by Consumer Reports. My neighbor had a pair and after listening to them once I knew that’s what I wanted. They were $67 each from J&R (no longer in business.) IMO these are wonderful sounding headphones and I still enjoy them very much. If you shop for a pair, be careful there are fake ones out there and they are not good at all. Here’s a review from YouTube and another clip that tells you how to identify the fakes.

  13. Two main disadvantages of headphones are 1. One has to get used to having something stuck in one’s ears or sitting on them which can be very uncomfortable and some people just can not get used to it. 2. In real life the sound is direct and reflected the latter if it is in an enclosed space. The resultant sound perception is what one can call natural as in that is how it happens. With earphones the sound is in your head and around it. Quite unnatural. If one wants to experience reality then speakers are the only way and large ones at that because large amounts of air needs to be moved to hear life size instruments and voices and have your body feel the sound which is integral to the experience of reality, something you make clear in your post. Yet earphones are the only option for those who can not afford loud speakers for whatever reason whether it is at home or because one is out and about and obviously can not carry speaker. Timely subject because earphone manufacturers are on a roll. Regards.

  14. Paul, I think you really hit on something beyond the headphone issue. I use and like headphones almost only when spinning, and for me, between the endorphins and the physical rhythm of my legs moving to a beat and me rocking gets me into a music listening zone I rarely otherwise get from my real stereos.
    But the real listening comes from the real stereos and it is because of the palpability of their sound. Like you said you have to feel it. It does take volume and bass plus certain hard to define organic qualities. Indulge me a movie example.
    I have watched a movie called “In the Heart of the Sea” 3 times. Twice with sound and once with SOUND. There is a scene where the wooden whaling ship gets under full sail. Only when I watched it with SOUND did I have the experience that I was on a ship, rocking and moving through waves while I was feeling the cool wind hitting my face, smelling of salt and mist getting me wet.
    Maybe that is one of the defining characteristics separating sound lovers (audiophiles) from non audiophiles. Wanting to be awash in clean beautiful sound or not.

  15. has anyone here heard the jecklin float or quad float. The newer ones are heil. Crazy sitting on top of your head open on an angle on the sides.
    Hands down best headphones made you just look dumb and everyone in the room hears your music. Having said that there is no need need for speakers only maybe a subwoofer to make you feel the bass.
    I have the new ones flagship on order.

    1. I heard the Jecklins years ago. It was odd to sit there unable to move. Bought Stax electrostatics and then years later gave them to a friend who listened to headphones much more than I.
      Really listening to headphones is an experience. I see everyone running around with buds and think it is not really listening.

      1. Lol
        I am one of them CIEM guys. There is many ways to listen the ones I use also cancel the ambient sound by about 30 DB great on subways
        And you can listen at
        Low levels way below what I do in my room anyway.
        Aside from how they felt or looked
        How did they sound compared to other headphones ?

  16. I agree Paul that headphones can be very good but never equal in emotional impact hearing what a well set up audio system can do. the wave launch and dynamics and Bass slam .with all the interplay of separate instruments hitting you at different sound pressure levels and musical shadings Micro,end macro details in space .even the best headphones cannot give you that realism As you are sitting there basking in your favorite tunes getting goose bumps and thinking And remembering specific songs and situations from your past . As the saying goes
    Only Music can calm the savage beast.

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