A look at how unnatural headphones are and what is being done to fix them.
THE PROBLEM WITH HEADPHONES
For most people, headphones are the second thing we reach for the most after our phones. We listen to headphones every day but most of us are completely oblivious to the fact that they are a deeply flawed way to listen to music or anything for that matter.
In the real world, sound travels to our ears usually from a distance. In doing so, it interacts with the environment. It might gain or lose energy, it might get absorbed by its surroundings, or it might be reflected. It takes on the character of the room as it reaches our ears, which is why you sound echoey when you speak in a small room and any venue where sound is important, i.e., the cinema or concert hall, requires a certain extent of acoustical treatment. Then there’s also the matter of cross-feed, which is sound from the right speaker entering our left ears and sound from the left speaker entering our right. This enables us to localize sound.
Headphones, by virtue of being so close to our ears, don’t get affected in the same way. Though they are still affected by other factors, such as the headphone’s ear tips or pads and the shape of our ears, these are overruled by their proximity to our eardrums. Headphones are literally pumping sounds directly into our ears and into our heads. This means there’s no interaction with a room and no cross-feed, and ultimately results in a lack of soundstage - audiophile speak for the acoustic image presented to the listener. This also explains why some dyed-in-the wool audiophiles insist on listening only to loudspeakers.
For many, the lack of soundstage is the primary problem of headphone listening. The goal of any good loudspeakers and headphones is realism and the lack of a believable soundstage is an obstacle for even the best and most technologically advanced headphones. Compared to loudspeakers, headphones sound considerably more congested and some even have a stuck in your head sound that makes it seem like the source of the sound is emanating from the middle of your skull. Obviously, this is completely unnatural and not the way any artist intended for the listener to enjoy their work.
Fortunately, some of the greatest minds in the audio industry have been hard at work over the past few decades to come up with solutions to this problem. Here’s how audio companies are attempting to solve this problem.
HOW SHOULD HEADPHONES SOUND?
The short answer is through a lot of research and development. Driver technologies have improved tremendously over the past decade thanks to new materials and new manufacturing processes. We know have drivers that are extremely rigid and well controlled and can reproduce sound across a wide frequency range with very little distortion. But all of this means nothing if we cannot get the headphone to sound right. But what is right?
Up until about five years ago, headphone manufacturers were designing headphones using a combination of diffuse-field and free field target responses. The diffuse-field target response is based on the premise that a headphone should sound like loudspeakers in a reverberant room whereas the free-field target response is based on the premise that headphones should like loudspeakers in an anechoic chamber. Target responses are crucial in designing loudspeakers and headphones as it provides a reference for engineers as to how their products should sound. But, as we all know, the average listening environment isn’t a perfectly anechoic room nor is it a reverberant room. It is typically somewhere in between. And so, headphone engineers soon realized that a different target response was necessary.
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