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How (and why) to choose good headphones

technofile  by al fasoldt

Columns and commentaries in a life-long dance with technology

Simple gray rule

How (and why) to choose good headphones

By Al Fasoldt

Copyright © 1989, The Syracuse Newspapers

My son taught me the importance of headphones one night about 13 years ago, when he was 9 years old.

I was listening to a tape recording I had made. The music was sweet, the sound was true and my son was in tears as I turned to see him slumped at the top of the stairs.

"It's too loud, dad! I can't sleep!"

It was 2:45 in the morning-an ideal time for recreation, considering the hours I worked. But that was not the kind of argument that a father makes to a son who is losing sleep, and so I invested in a pair of good headphones.

They've served me well in the intervening years and my son grew up sleeping soundly each night.

At first I missed the sense of sound in the room when I enjoyed my music at those odd hours in the morning. But after a while I began to appreciate the virtues of private listening, too. The sound was a lot better in some ways.

For one thing, I didn't have to put up with the boxy echoes that always made the music sound artificial in my living room. The room was the wrong shape for sound: it was practically square. Sound waves b-bounced l-like t-this a-all t-the t-time. It had been driving me c-crazy.

For another, I discovered what J.S. Bach and Virgil Fox knew all along—that nothing sounds as sexy as a pipe organ. This revelation might not have come to me if I hadn't drained a half-year's petty cash on the best headphones I could find.

They were big and heavy and almost unforgivable uncomfortable. But they made up for everything by the way they coaxed the big pipes of my favorite organs to life inside my head.

Those headphones were electrostatic models. They had thin metal plates that vibrated straight out and straight back. Most headphones of that day had little loudspeakers inside the earcup that had paper or plastic cones that vibrated, and these cones stretched out in an uneven motion and then pulled back in. The straight-out-and-back motion of the metal plates kept the sound clear and pure.

Metal was soon replaced by a special kind of plastic in the fanciest headphones and the electrostatic design has pretty much given way to a simpler magnetic system. That's the way my current headphones work and the sound is even better than what I heard from the monster electrostatics of 13 years ago.

Best of all, my headphones are so comfortable that I can wear them for an entire evening without feeling like I had been starring in a Visegrip commercial.

But I began to wonder if it was time for a newer model so I checked out a half-dozen contenders at local hi-fi shops. (Unlike loudspeaker auditioning, in which you must hear them in your own listening room to know how they really sound, headphone trials can take place in any quiet room. So feel free to take your favorite CDs to an audio store and compare all you want.)

None of the headphones I listened to sounded more accurate than my own headphones, which are made by Yamaha. But there were a few that seemed to sound better, mostly because they had more punch to the mid-range and higher frequencies.

How can it be that one device can be more accurate while another can sound better? "Accurate," in this case, means honesty in playback. An accurate loudspeaker or headphone won't emphasize one sound over another.

But in this age of fast food and quick desires, accuracy can be dull.

Engineers who mix rock albums already know that and they usually add a punchy mid-range even before it gets to your amplifier.

So the punch—whether it's added before or after—can often add some life to the sound. That's not bad, but it's not necessarily good, either.

Take the case of a chef, for example. If the chef added pepper to everything, the food would taste pretty tangy—all the time. You'd get tired of it fast. (And you'd get a new chef, too.)

And of course you'd hardly think the food tasted natural.

But back to headphones. You'll probably be a lot happier with an accurate-sounding model than one that's been spiced up. Unless the engineer's twiddling has been nixed in the mix, you'll end up with a double boost-once at the studio and once alongside your head.

You can get tired of that pretty fast.

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