For many people, a good set of closed-back, over-ear headphones is the core of the personal listening experience. Properly designed, they seal out much of the sound of your surroundings, are comfortable enough to wear for hours at a time, and sound terrific, often with better bass than other types of headphones.
A YouTube video I recently watched got me thinking more deeply about my work than I have in a while. No, it wasn’t a video by some great audio scientist or famed writer or philosopher of aesthetics. It was a program from VH1 Classic’s series Rock Icons 2015, featuring none other than Officer of the Order of Canada (and Rush bassist and singer) Geddy Lee -- and he wasn’t even talking about sound.
Look around on the Internet and you’ll find innumerable lists of the best five or six or ten of a given type of product. It’s wise to be skeptical of such lists. Their compilers may or may not have any real knowledge of their subjects, and may not even have actually tried every item on a list. Still, I often Google things like “best hybrid cars” or “best torque wrenches” or “best coffeemakers” or “best bass amps.” I sometimes get good advice, and at the very least, I usually find out about a few products I wasn’t aware of. So in that spirit, this month I offer my list of the five earphones that have most impressed me as delivering outstanding sound for the price.
It seems that every audio-electronics company now feels it should offer a headphone amplifier. Many headphone manufacturers have introduced their own amps. New companies have been formed solely to launch headphone amps. Even cable companies have gotten into the act. For a niche product in a category that barely existed ten years ago, and that for most situations isn’t required, headphone amps are sure getting a lot of attention. It drives me crazy.
Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary, 11th Edition defines audiophile as “a person who is enthusiastic about high-fidelity sound reproduction.” The word first appeared in print in 1951, in an era in which audio gear bore little resemblance to what we use today. Since then, the working definition of audiophile also seems to have changed. Look on any online audio forum, or in the comments section of an audio blog, and you’ll see that the word is now commonly used to mean “a person who believes certain things about audio.”
I had an ear-opening experience recently while researching an article for JazzTimes about Tidal, a CD-quality music-streaming service launched late last year. Tidal uses FLAC lossless data compression, so it delivers a bit-for-bit reproduction of what’s on a CD. All of the well-known streaming services, such as Pandora and Spotify, use lossy data compression (usually MP3 or AAC) that discards most of the data of a digital audio recording. Simply put, the idea behind such lossy compression algorithms is that the data they discard represent sound that would be difficult for your ear to detect. Lossy compression is, of course, also used for most digital downloads, including the ones available through iTunes and Amazon.
As I write this, I’ve been back from the 2015 Consumer Electronics Show for two weeks. I’ve had some time to think about what I saw and heard, and chat with manufacturers and other journalists. I haven’t talked to anyone who thought this CES revealed any big breakthroughs in audio, but even while I was still there, navigating the human glacier that was the Las Vegas Convention Center and making my way through the crowded hallways of the audio exhibits at the Venetian, a few clear trends were emerging.
Now that I’ve had a chance to look back at 2014, it’s pretty obvious what the biggest story in audio was. Headphones? Old news. Wireless speakers? There are a lot, but most are pretty much the same. High-resolution audio? Still waiting to take off. Dolby Atmos? Cool, but too complicated for most people. No, the big story in audio was the emergence of a largely new but rapidly growing category of product: ultra-low-budget audio.
Ultra-low-budget audio began to emerge a couple of years ago, mostly as products sold through Parts Express and Monoprice. You could say it began with the Dayton Audio B652, a bookshelf speaker that costs about $40 USD per pair and sounds OK -- better, at least, than most of the single-box, wireless audio systems so popular today. Or you could say it began with the line of budget speakers designed for Pioneer by engineering whiz Andrew Jones, exemplified by the SP-BS22-LR bookshelf model ($129/pair).
Heard about the new killer on the loose? Don’t worry, it’s only killing subwoofers.
I’m talking about the soundtrack to Edge of Tomorrow. In the film’s first few seconds, high-level tones at 29, 24, and 19Hz in the LFE channel are causing the drivers in some subwoofers to bottom out -- a potentially damaging situation in which the woofer’s voice coil is hurled so far back that it slams against the back plate. Not only have I read Internet reports about this, I experienced it with a subwoofer I was testing. This scary situation reminded me of the old audiophile shibboleth “Simpler is better.”
I first encountered these deep tones while testing a different subwoofer. Although much smaller than the sub that had the problem, this one didn’t emit so much as a single audible chuff of port noise, yet it still gave me the awesome thrill ride that the engineers who mixed Edge of Tomorrow intended. What was the difference? The smaller subwoofer had a fairly steep subsonic high-pass filter at about 20Hz, to attenuate any potentially damaging subsonic tones. It apparently also had a fairly conservative limiter setting that throttled back the sub’s amplifier before it could damage the driver.
Some audio enthusiasts might applaud, in theory, the simpler approach of using a shallower high-pass filter and a less aggressive limiter setting. Some might even say that it’s preferable to have no high-pass filter and no limiter. But I don’t see what’s “musical” or “accurate” about a subwoofer bottoming out.
As I write this, I’m preparing to attend two events: the 137th Audio Engineering Society Convention, in Los Angeles, and the Rocky Mountain Audio Fest, in Denver. Although both events focus on audio, they couldn’t be more different. At AES, much of the focus is on the evolving and developing science of audio; I counted 17 presentations covering loudspeakers alone. At RMAF, even though there will be plenty of manufacturers who take a scientific approach to sound, much of the focus is on products that reject science -- for example, speakers using full-range drivers or esoteric horn configurations, amplifiers that put out only a few watts of power, and various tweaks that are unlikely ever to be proven effective.
Part of the reason I go to RMAF is to see and hear such products. They’re always interesting, and once in a while one of them surprises me by performing better than I expected. And I don’t have any problem with consumers buying these products. It’s their money, and if they get enjoyment out of them -- no matter the actual result or effect -- who am I to say there’s something wrong with it?
What does bother me is that so many audiophiles seem to feel that scientists are allied against them. Or, as one headphone enthusiast put it to me during a big Twitter battle in August, “I don’t need scientists telling me what kind of sound I should like.”