[SoundStage!]All In Your Head
Back-Issue Article

April 2004

Ten Reasons to Buy a Dedicated Headphone System

In the movie You’ve Got Mail, Meg Ryan’s character, Kathleen Kelly, a children’s-bookstore owner, is dating Greg Kinnear’s character, Frank Navasky, a newspaper columnist obsessed with typewriters. At one point he surprises Kathleen with an electric typewriter he bought. He hits a key and lovingly comments on how it sounds. He is even infatuated with how it soothingly purrs while powered on. Kathleen thinks for a second about where she’s seen that typewriter before, and then walks to the other end of the table and uncovers an identical typewriter he placed there earlier. Later in the movie, when Kathleen’s bookstore is facing financial problems, a friend stops by for a visit, worried that the store had already folded. As she leaves she announces that the injustice happening to Kathleen is just the type of story that would outrage the "nut over at the Observer." Kathleen asks her which nut, to which her friend replies, "The one so in love with his typewriter."

I see a lot of Frank Navasky in myself, but the object of my passion is listening to music with headphones. Admittedly, I talk about headphones and amps a lot, and I often get the same response the neighbor’s dog gives when he hears something strange: a blank stare, a slight turning of the head, and a look that expresses that he doesn't comprehend what he just heard.

For this month’s installment I wanted to share some of the reasons why owning a dedicated headphone system makes sense, and under what circumstances such a system makes perfect sense. It is loosely presented in a David Letterman-style top-ten list.

200404_stealth.jpg (25701 bytes)10.) High acceptance factor. Headphone rigs are almost never eyesores, and some are downright attractive. Many are designed to be as nearly pleasing to the eye as they are to the ear. The Ray Samuels Emmeline II The Stealth is but one example of a great-looking headphone amp/preamp combo.

9.) Simplicity. How is a headphone rig simple? There is a lot less stuff to connect and position than with a standard audio system. There are fewer components and less wiring to worry about in order to get the sound just right. A truly great headphone rig includes two power cords, one pair of interconnects, an amp, a source, and a set of headphones.

8.) Diminutive size. There are no large speakers or subwoofers to manhandle, maneuver, or set up. There are no runs of speaker cables to pick up hum from the AC line. A headphone system doesn’t take a ton of space to place and store. To save even more space, options abound -- such as using your computer sound card for a source with nothing but a pair of headphones added. A portable CD or MP3 player and efficient headphones can also produce incredible sound with virtually no real estate used.

7.) Isolating. Headphones go one step farther than speakers -- they isolate your ears from external noise that can destroy the sound your system makes. By reducing the noise level before it reaches your ears you effectively make the music louder, and therefore you can listen to it at safer levels. Listening to speakers while the workers jackhammer outside your house will ruin your enjoyment. So will noises generated by neighbors, traffic, trains, subways, a crying baby, and a child starting to learn violin. (Yes, some people buy isolating headphones after someone in the family starts music lessons.)

6.) Sound immersion. A surround-sound system envelops you with sound in a way that is untouchable by any other means. The only problem is that setting one up can be difficult or impossible if your listening environment doesn’t allow for the proper placement of all those speakers. Headphones are now so good that they can literally envelop you in sound. When I recently received a new CD of Celtic music, I took off my headphones several times before I realized that a sound I heard coming from directly behind my left ear was coming from the headphones themselves. When this happens late at night, it is quite unnerving to say the least.

5.) No room requirements or placement issues. Speakers require careful placement consideration in order to obtain the best sound from them. Most speakers will sound pretty bad if placed improperly. Furniture needs to be arranged so that sound from each speaker reaches the listener without obstruction, absorption, or unwanted reflections. Oddly shaped listening rooms make this task downright impossible without significant tradeoffs. Headphones are basically plopped onto your head and away you go. You may need some slight adjustments to get the sound and fit just the way you like them, but this takes a few seconds and is easily repeatable.

4.) Portability. A speaker system is normally big and bulky, so changing from one room to another is difficult, and taking the system to work or the gym is impossible. A headphone system is very different. If you want good music at the office, just hook up your source to the amp, connect the headphones, and sonic bliss awaits you. Your entire system can be taken apart and placed into a backpack and set up again in minutes.

3.) Unintrusive sound. This sounds weird, but what I mean is that you won’t disturb your neighbors or roommates with your music. Listening to your favorite recordings at 3AM on your stereo rig might be fun, but if your music is played at a higher volume than the walls can block, your neighbors might lynch you. Headphones don’t project sound loud enough to disturb anyone more than a few feet away. (That is, unless you listen loud enough to damage your hearing. Don’t!)

2.) Low start-up costs. For someone who wants to get started in the world of high-end sound, a headphone rig requires a very small entry fee. An entire headphone rig can be put together for under $500 and still provide a level of sound untouchable in a speaker-based system for anywhere near the same cost. For those with even lower budgets, the simple addition of a decent pair of headphones to your computer sound card or available headphone jack will yield excellent results.

1.) Very high price: performance ratio. In today’s economy, a headphone system makes a lot of financial sense. The features and sound quality available today make high-end music reproduction affordable for more people who never thought they could afford truly high-end sound. It has been said of Plato that his philosophical teachings were "caviar for the multitudes." A dedicated headphone rig brings audiophile caviar to the multitudes.

Due to the recent explosion of great-sounding and ever-lower-priced headphones and amps, headphone listening is now a viable alternative for those who find themselves in one or more of the situations I describe above. I’d be lying if I said headphones are perfect, and you’d be wrong in assuming that they are only meant to replace speakers. Headphone listening has its tradeoffs, but what it allows are certain things that simply can’t be obtained in any other way. More to come on this.

...Doug Paratore
dougp@soundstage.com

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