27 November 2011

Good* Headphones

I've been learning all about headphones the last two weeks, as I am in the market to get a pair. I was originally looking at the SRH750DJs, but I think I've been dissuaded. Basically, it comes down to what criteria one uses to establish the category of a 'good' pair of headphones. I think this is, as far as I can tell from my reading, the expert description of a good pair of headphones:
Headphones which accurately represent the original mix of the music clearly and evenly at the broadest frequency range. They are balanced and represent the sound the same way regardless of volume.
So, when someone says, 'I want headphones with really good bass,' you can tell that they probably don't know much about headphones and you will probably be able to sell them a pair of Dre Beats. They have 'good bass' that is actually not so good.

This PhD has ruined my life. I want headphones, so I formed a research question, did a literature review, did some data collection, and then made a decision about what I would buy. I swear to god, I'm not a Positivist. I'm a Pragmatist--a William James Pragmatist, not a Barack Obama pragmatist--who trusts procedural objectivity.

This accuracy bit is really a new thought to me. Good headphones let you hear the way the song was actually mixed (i.e., the way the artist has, in theory, wanted you to hear it) and if you have a headphone that skews towards the DJ smile (high lows and high highs with a depressed middle), you reinterpret the sound, perhaps to your preference, perhaps not. If you are listening to a Fleet Foxes song, you don't want to have overpowering bass: you want to hear it clearly in balance to the amazing harmonies that are happening across the frequency scale. Worse, if you enjoy some Biggie every now and then, the bass is so pronounced in the mix already that if you put on a headphone that represents the bass too powerfully, you get an unpleasant experience full of distortion. You want Biggie to kick down the door, but you don't want him to kick it down in a way that injures the person on the other side.

This is an extended metaphor: is it a story or a scenario? I suppose it's a story: it has two events--Biggie kicks down the door and injures someone.

I've always thought of Bose headphones as the best, but they aren't: they are the best for a particular category of people who have money. They want something they describe as a great headphone: comfortable and which makes the music they listen to sound good, along with a bunch of other criteria that have nothing to do with sound (portability, isolation, style).

Emic words describe the world  of particular experience, not exact, precise, replicable things. The Positivist throws out the emic terms: they aren't reliable, they differ so much among people. The Positivist, however, sells no headphones because those emic terms determine who buys what. The world is a complicated place, it turns out: much more often unreliable.

For me, portability, durability, price, and isolation are also important criteria, but again, they are different questions than the sound of the headphone. I also want a headphone that's classic, not stylish. The Beats look 'great' today (if 'great' is whatever everyone else is into at the moment), break tomorrow. I also want ones that aren't going to fall apart in two years, right after the manufacturer warranty is up. And I want good sound at low levels on the underground and none of this sound-cancelling apparatus crap (who wants to carry around AAA batteries anyway). I want them to sound good at work, walking to Middlesex, on the train, and on the underground.

So, I think it's the Sennheiser HD25-ii (basic edition) for me. A bit pricey, and that's what's holding me back. But if I use them for ten years, well, it will be worth it, I think. The guy at the store turned me on to them. Twisting the headband he says, 'The Shures have replacement earpads and cables, but it's the hinges that break. The hinge breaks and you're screwed.' The Sennheiser's have a little bit of smile, but not overwhelming. I, after all, like 'good bass' myself. They're not reference headphones, but they're close enough and I am not actually a professional so it doesn't matter that much. They isolate well and they're about half the weight of the other DJ headphones I tried. All the parts are also user replaceable so when I do break them, I'm not screwed. They aren't stylish, which means (I suppose, but am not sure of) they are less likely to be stolen. They are, however, classic. Iconic. Like Ray Ban Wayfayers and Levis. Right up my alley. They're on ear as opposed to over ear, but I think they're more comfortable because they're so light.

Now, to convince myself that they're actually worth it and I can justify the cost to myself.
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