Reading old issues of hi-fi mags will tell you that audiophiles have always disagreed. But thanks to the anonymity afforded by the Internet, today’s disagreements seem more intense, particularly among headphone enthusiasts. I often see e-mails, comments, and tweets from people trashing me or a different reviewer or another enthusiast for liking some headphone they don’t, or disliking some headphone they love. I almost never read such criticism regarding speakers.
Often, the language goes something like, “Oh, so you like [insert example of bad sound: bloated bass, soft treble, colored midrange, etc.].”
Or the reverse: “Well, you just don’t like [insert key element of good sound: treble, bass, accuracy, etc.].”
Should you listen to these people? Might they be right, and might your taste in headphones be flawed, or downright wrong? Before you decide, consider a couple of things.
When rumors that Dolby would this year announce a home version of its Atmos object-based surround-sound technology, many audio enthusiasts reacted with sighs and rolled eyes. “We don’t need more channels!” one leading audio researcher complained to me. “Nobody’s going to put speakers on the ceiling,” a speaker manufacturer predicted, after seeing the shelves I’d added to accommodate height speakers in my home theater.
I agreed with them. I thought, as many audio pros and enthusiasts seem to, that Atmos is just more channels -- kind of like Audyssey DSX or Dolby’s own Pro Logic IIz. But as I learned at two recent demonstrations of Atmos -- one at Pioneer’s US headquarters, in Long Beach, California; the other at Dolby Laboratories’ office in Burbank, California -- Atmos is a lot more than more channels.
If you’re not hip to Atmos, it’s a surround-sound technology that adds so-called “objects” to a 5.1- or 7.1-channel soundtrack. The objects are sounds that can effectively be placed anywhere around or above you. Rather than assigning an object to a particular channel, an Atmos soundtrack encodes the sound, plus that sound’s timing and directional vectors. If you’ve been to an Atmos-equipped commercial cinema and seen any of the roughly 150 movies mixed in Atmos, you should have some idea of the extra realism it can bring to film sound.
In the world of loudspeakers, nothing provokes so much controversy as subwoofers. At one extreme are enthusiasts, reviewers, and manufacturers who seem to regard subwoofers as little more than appliances. They often say that subs possess no identifiable sonic character, and that a sub’s distortion, frequency response, and maximum output measurement tell you everything you need to know about it. At the other extreme are those who feel that subwoofers have characteristics that can be judged only by ear, and who use words such as tuneful, musical, and fast to describe the sound of their subs.
The former group seems to comprise mostly home-theater enthusiasts and makers of mass-market or “mid-fi” audio gear. The latter group seems composed mostly of audiophiles and high-end audio companies. Which side is right?
Both. And neither.
As I write this, I’m in the middle of a rambling road trip from Los Angeles to Vancouver, BC, and back. I always relish road trips, because they give me the chance to listen to music for hours on end without interruption -- a treat I rarely get back home, where there are always review samples to return, speakers and headphones that need measuring, and dishes to be done. Between Bend, Oregon, and Yakima, Washington, I put on a recent favorite, jazz saxophonist David Binney’s Lifted Land, which features Binney’s acoustic quartet. And as often happens when I listen to relatively pure recordings like this one in a non-ideal setting, I had to crank up the level to hear the soft parts, then turn it back down so the loud parts weren’t so loud.
I found myself wishing that Lifted Land had used more dynamic-range compression. Most of the times I’ve listened to Lifted Land, I’ve been in transit, either in my car or wearing headphones. Both of these situations are much more common for me now than the old paradigm of listening in the living room. In both situations, dynamic-range compression (DRC) would have improved my listening experience. If memory serves, I’ve listened to Lifted Land just once on my big Revel-Krell stereo system.
This experience made me think back to two blogs I wrote a couple of months ago, in which I reported on research that indicates that: 1) Except in extreme cases, focused listeners don’t necessarily dislike DRC; and 2) Extreme DRC is much less prevalent now than it was ten years ago.
Someone from a company that sells mass-market audio/video gear called me the other day to ask if I knew anyone who could replace their audio product manager, who’d recently resigned. Right off the bat, I couldn’t think of anyone -- and not because I don’t know enough people in audio. It’s because the job of developing audio products has radically changed in the past decade -- and, in my opinion, has gotten much more difficult.
Most of the audio gear we used in, say, 2000 was straightforward stuff: loudspeakers, amplifiers, receivers. The rules for making all those products were defined decades ago. There’s no big mystery to making a good conventional speaker or amp, and in most cases, the design engineer has the budget to do something halfway decent. Even a $200/pair bookshelf speaker will probably have a reasonable crossover network, a fairly stiff enclosure of MDF, and acceptable drivers.
This isn’t the case with the hot audio products of today, such as soundbars, and AirPlay and Bluetooth speakers. Even models costing as little as $200 or $300 must include built-in amplification, some sort of wireless receiver, maybe a remote control, maybe some sort of iOS or Android app, and, probably, a really slick industrial design -- all in addition to the actual speaker elements.
The new $1099 USD Oppo PM-1 planar-magnetic headphones have headphone enthusiasts more excited than they’ve been in months. My test sample just arrived, and from what I gather we’ll be reading a lot of reviews of the PM-1 in the coming weeks. We’ll also be seeing lab measurements of the PM-1, and reading debates about what those measurements mean.
I thought this would be a great time to discuss how and why interpreting headphone measurements isn’t like interpreting speaker measurements.
Thanks mainly to work started at the Canadian National Research Council (where the SoundStage! Network does its speaker measurements) and continued at Harman International, we know a lot about what speaker measurements mean. Even most casual audio enthusiasts understand that a relatively flat on-axis response in a loudspeaker is a good thing. The equipment and techniques for speaker measurement are well standardized, so any two competent engineers are likely to get similar results, even if one’s working in an anechoic chamber and the other’s working in a basement.
You’ve probably heard by now about the big splash Neil Young made with his new Pono high-resolution music player at last month’s SXSW show in Austin, Texas. I’ve read a lot of commentary about Pono. Some pundits insist you can’t hear a difference between high-resolution files and CD. Some are convinced you can hear a difference and are thus cautiously -- very cautiously -- optimistic about Pono.
But I think people are missing a larger point here, and it’s a point that many have missed since the rise of high-end audio back in the 1980s or so.
I’m at least happy that a musician with some cred is pushing the idea of sound quality, and is doing it in a way that is actually likely to achieve good sound quality. Of course, Young isn’t the first celeb to tout the importance of good sound. Dr. Dre talked about sound quality when he launched Beats. Then he went and sold colossally bass-heavy headphones that seemed to audio experts to achieve exactly the opposite. Other manufacturers copied that sound, missing the fact that people were buying Beats mostly for fashion, and we ended up with a couple of years’ worth of mostly bad-sounding mass-market headphones. (Fortunately, Beats is now getting more serious about sound.)
I got an earful -- well, an eyeful anyway -- when I used Facebook to promote my recent review of the new Beats Pill XL Bluetooth speaker. Given that it was a Bluetooth speaker and a Beats product, I expected that someone who’s never heard the product (which at the time had been out for only about two weeks) would attack me for giving the Pill XL an overall positive review.
It took only about 30 minutes. One of my Facebook friends who runs an audio store commented, “Tell the truth. All these modern ‘ghetto blasters’ are a piss-poor replacement for a real stereo.”
If any one product category dominated the recent CES, it was definitely Bluetooth speakers. I reported on 57 of them, and those were just the ones I thought were newsworthy. And I bet that not one of the companies offering a new Bluetooth speaker had “must replace a real stereo” in its list of product development goals. They don’t think in those terms, any more than Toyota worries about whether the Camry can beat a Porsche 911 in a quarter-mile.
Much as the high-end audio community might wish that your average person would spend an hour or two every day sitting in front of a traditional stereo listening intently to music, almost no one uses a stereo that way anymore. Most people like to play music while they work, while they clean the house, while they hang out in the backyard, and when they travel. Bluetooth speakers do all of that easily. Sure, you can blast most traditional stereos loud enough to cover your whole house, but not without annoying everyone you live with -- and probably your neighbors.
There probably aren’t quite as many reasons why people choose to listen to music through headphones as there are people who do so, but there are a great many. Some don’t wish to disturb others with their music -- or are fearful of the repercussions that may result if they do. Since the introduction of the Sony Walkman, headphones have been the primary means of listening to your music when you’re out and about, thankfully replacing the boom box carried on the shoulder. The Apple iPod and other products like it, in combination with the storage and distribution of music transitioning to computer files, has made music on the go ubiquitous. There is also a group of consumers who genuinely prefer listening to their music through headphones, even when high-quality speakers are at hand.
I grew up in a house with a moderately sized stereo of mass-market quality and a few tabletop radios. There was often music playing, both at home and in the car, but sitting down and paying attention to it was rare. For that, we went to concerts. I had a mini system in my college dorm room, which was fine for background music while studying, or for listening more attentively to pop, rock, and jazz. It didn’t really serve for classical. I wasn’t a music student, but I took very seriously my playing of trombone in the college orchestra, and I wanted to understand how my part fit into the overall fabric of whatever pieces we were playing. In the music library, I could hear recordings of whatever I wanted through headphones, and I discovered on those recordings a wealth of musical information of which I’d previously been unaware. Needless to say, I bought a decent pair of headphones and used them to listen to all genres of music. It would be many more years -- and many thousands of dollars -- before I found a speaker-based system that could deliver half the musical information I could hear through a pair of good headphones.
As part of SoundStage! Xperience’s expanding coverage of headphones and earphones, we’d like to draw readers’ attention to some recent binaural releases.
Binaural recordings are intended to be played back through headphones. They’re usually made by positioning two microphones the same distance apart as the distance between the average listener’s ears, with a baffle between them. Some are made with more sophisticated setups that include a detailed facsimile of a human head, with a microphone inserted in each of the head’s ear canals -- a device usually called a kunstkopf or dummy head. There are many resources on the Web that give detailed information about the history and methods of binaural recording, so I won’t go into them here.
Properly done, a binaural recording can produce an even more immersive listening experience than the best surround-sound loudspeaker array. Even when the recordings are compressed to MP3 files and played through inferior equipment, much of the sense of space remains. With the number of people now listening through headphones -- both at their computers and with portable players -- I’ve been awaiting a resurgence in binaural recordings. I’m still waiting.
There are two reasons why more artists and recording engineers haven’t embraced binaural techniques. First, a convincing binaural recording requires musicians to be playing together in a real space, which is not how most modern recordings are made. Second, binaural recordings can sound odd when played through loudspeakers. The solution to the second problem is to make two versions of the recording available: one intended for headphone playback, the other for use with speakers.