Q: How much did you spend on your headphones?
A: Not enough.
I don’t know much. But I do know a few things:
That last statement is a cliché, and thus as a skilled writer, I usually avoid it like the plague. Which brings us to the topic of headphones.
Sales of in-ear, on-ear, and over-ear headphones are reaching contagion levels. The market is seeing 15% growth this year compared to last year, from 228 million units to 260 million units. In dollar terms, that’s an increase from $5 billion to $6 billion. The reason is simple: Sales of portable A/V devices such as smartphones and tablets are soaring, and for many people, headphones are the primary means of music playback. The question is what that means for sound quality.
Sometimes headphones are awesome. On a long plane flight, noise-canceling headphones are heavenly. Dollar for dollar, headphones can deliver way more fidelity than a pair of similarly priced loudspeakers. When you buy expensive loudspeakers, a good chunk of your budget goes into sturdy cabinets and fancy finishes. Although headphones can be fancy, too, proportionally more of the budget can go into the transducers themselves. With high-quality headphones, you may hear details in your favorite tracks that loudspeakers had concealed for years.
But high-quality headphones account for only a tiny part of the market. The bulk of the sales are cheap in-ear models like the bundled earbuds that cost manufacturers well below a buck. That poses a serious problem for sound quality.
The funny thing is that when portable music players first appeared, many audiophiles worried that data-reduction algorithms (like MP3) would ruin sound quality. As it turns out, at a high bit rate, some consider data reduction a non- factor. The real culprit is the portability of the device itself. With a tiny music player, who wants to be tied to big speakers? Headphones make more sense.
Unhelpfully, cost-conscious device makers usually bundle in terrible-sounding headphones, and uneducated listeners unwittingly inflict pain and suffering on themselves by continuing to use the bundled headphones. Device docks offer some hope, but many of them seem more concerned with style than substance and employ iffy speakers. An even harder engineering problem is getting good sound from the tiny speakers buried in phones and tablets. Audio engineers labor mightily to overcome the limitations of the built-in speakers to sometimes deliver surprisingly good sound, but it’s a very tough nut to crack.
Frankly, nothing can compare to the way big, high-quality loudspeakers can light up a room. The air moves, the room shakes, and you feel the music; only loudspeakers can do that. With headphones, it’s all in your head, and that’s just not the same. But that exquisite loudspeaker experience carries a price. Conventional wisdom says that about half of your equipment budget should go to the cost of speakers. Compare that to the average retail price of aftermarket headphones — a mere $22. Even though headphones are more fidelity-efficient than speakers, that’s nowhere near the price of obtaining fidelity.
You can’t stop progress. Portability and convenience have always been contrary to sound quality, and now they appear to have won the contest. Headphone playback has become the new normal. But we should not tolerate a global decline in sound quality. The solution is simple: Return to the old rule. Tally the true cost of your portable play- back devices and divide by half. That’s the amount you should spend on headphones.
There’s something else I know: The more things change, the more they stay the same.
Ken C. Pohlmann is well known as an audio educator, consultant, and author. He is a professor emeritus at the University of Miami in Coral Gables, and the author of numerous articles and books, including Principles of Digital Audio and Master Handbook of Acoustics.
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