I often hear audiophiles dissing noise-canceling headphones. This leads me to wonder how often they fly, because conventional over- and on-ear headphones really don’t work well on airplanes. Except perhaps on the very quietest new airliners, the droning, low-frequency noise of jet engines tends to drown out the midrange and treble of conventional over- or on-ear headphones, forcing you to crank the volume to ear-straining levels. Headphones equipped with active noise canceling can reduce this ambient low-frequency noise by 10-40dB, making it easier to hear your music and movies and, in my experience, reducing the fatigue of airline travel.
My recent review of the AudioQuest NightHawk headphones, and a survey of open-back headphones priced below $500 got me thinking again about breaking in headphones and speakers. AudioQuest says the NightHawks require 150 hours of break-in. That’s not an uncommon assertion: HiFiMan, too, recommends 150 hours of break-in for its headphones. The idea that headphones and speakers require break-in is generally accepted among audiophiles and headphone enthusiasts. The practice may seem harmless, but I think it might influence buying decisions in unsuspected ways.
On a recent, 40-day road trip, I learned a lot about audio. Although my trip had audio-related elements -- meeting with reviewers, engineers, and enthusiasts in six US states and British Columbia, and attending a weeklong summer jazz camp -- the biggest revelations about audio came from six weeks of doing almost all of my listening through a car stereo system, to recordings sourced from my Samsung Galaxy S6 smartphone, a few CDs, and whatever I could tune in on AM or FM.
My big revelation? That the audio industry is wasting a lot of time on things that don’t matter much, and overlooking a huge opportunity.
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.