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Headphones (or earbuds) don’t always make sense

by Chuck Solly | .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address) | Culture | January 31st, 2018

It turns out that there are problems with any type of listening device. Generally, listening devices fall under three categories: over-the-ear, the earphone encloses the ear completely, on-the ear, the earphone sits on the ear, and earbuds which go into the ear canal.

Over the ear headphones are supposed to seal the ear but when head shape, eyeglasses or hair compromise the seal, bass suffers. The less perfect the seal, the greater the bass losses. Even so, well-designed closed headphones tend to have deeper bass than open (on the ear) headphones.

Then again, since open headphones don't require a perfect seal to deliver full bass response, open headphones' bass sounds more consistent from one listener to the next.

Okay, what about earbuds? So if your in-ear headphones aren't doing a good job sealing out noise, you're not hearing their true sound quality. Experiment with the tips that came with the earbuds. Move them around in your ear but don’t let other people use them, you know, strange ear wax.

The overall design of the driver and headphone are much more important than driver size, but those differences don't show up in specs. The differences in design are only apparent when you listen.

Typical Frequency response specs are 15-28,000Hz. The first number in a frequency response spec refers to the deepest bass frequency the headphone can reproduce, the lower the number the better; and the second number refers to the highest frequency the headphone is capable of, and the higher the better.

If a headphone spec includes very high frequencies above 23,000Hz, that's a good sign, and the headphone might sound clearer than a headphone with a 18,000Hz spec. Granted, few people over the age of 20 hear these very high frequencies, but headphones with extended high frequencies also sound great in the treble range people of all ages can hear.

With in-ear headphones, the length, diameter and curvatures of the user's ear canals affect the listener's perceived frequency response. If your canals are close to the ones the engineers were designing for, you will hear the sound they intended. The more your canals diverge from the target, the less accurate the headphone's frequency response will be from 2,000Hz and up. In other words, the sound heard by people with ears that match the target will be very different than people with ears that don't.

The good news is that most people's ears are reasonably close to the design target, but there's no way to know if your ears are close to average.

With in-ear headphones, 6.5mm drivers easily generate very deep bass and excellent high-frequency sound. Larger drivers offer no advantage over smaller drivers. The overall design of the driver and headphone are much more important than driver size, but those differences don't show up in specs. The differences in design are only apparent when you listen.

Since headphone makers aren't consistent in the way they create specifications, consumers can't compare one headphone spec with another to learn which headphone will play loud enough to suit their needs.

So as it stands, headphone specs are mostly useless, but discussion is ongoing among headphone brands' engineers. New industry standards would go a long way to help consumers make informed choices.

That's going to take time; for now the best way to judge a headphone's sound is to listen to it.

I am thinking that for the time being, buy a ten-dollar pair of earbuds and use them until the headphone industry gets its act together. Also, don’t listen too loud for too long. Tinnitis is a terrible thing.

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