If you have ever had the pleasure, or perhaps the displeasure, of stepping into a recording studio then you have an idea of the sheer mass of equipment that populates a studio. That isn’t even including the mixing equipment that will be in whatever office a recording is sent off to for mastering at the mixing studio. If you’re lucky, a great mixing studio will have a setup that is not only focused but also loaded with precise instrumentation to get the most out of every single beat and note. So why is it that so many people roll around blasting the new Cattle Decapitation or Nile album through apple earbuds?
In this month’s Many Faces of Manny we discuss sound quality and the importance of having a good set of headphones (better known as “cans” by dorky audiophiles).
We aren’t going to get very technical here. No one is going to talk about impedance, ohms, decibel waves, and logarithms. So whatever your background, we will explore why you, a listener of heavy music, should actually care about the quality of your headphones. And please, stop worrying about how your headphones look. Beats By Dre are terrible. You could get the same quality for a fifth of the price. Headphones are not an accessory. They are a conveyor of fine audio. If you have less than perfect vision you wouldn’t look at Kees Van Dongen’s garish portrait work without your trusty eyeglasses. So why should your ears be any different? Why is one sensory experience being valued more than the other?
There’s a common misconception held by those outside (and inside sadly) the metal community that metal is “bad.” Sure, the first wave of black metal tends to sound like the cassette player is eating your tape. Sure, many bands attempt to cut costs and go for similar sound quality on their demo. But there is a ton of metal out there and most of it is recorded, mixed, and mastered brilliantly. Further, recording techniques, along with mixing and mastering techniques, can really help set the evil or dark atmosphere that best enhances the band’s sound. And those techniques have been honed and perfected over years of practice.
So when you go to slip in those Apple earbuds or some headphones you purchased at Urban Outfitters for the look, just take a moment to think about what you’re doing. This band (and their production team) that you supposedly love and respect wrote, recorded, produced, mixed, and mastered that music. All of this took many months and many dollars. Every single nanosecond of the album was poured over with the most finite and accurate equipment ever built. All for the sole purpose of making the album sound as brilliant, huge, and perfect as possible. And here you go throwing on your Skullcandy “Uprock” or WeSC “Street Conga” headphones, destroying every single ounce of work that was done by all those people along the way. You’re not only disrespecting the music, you’re disrespecting yourself.
I remember being warned that if I listen to my headphones too loudly I will go deaf. Turns out, that actually happens. Scientific research has shown that excessively loud headphone usage actually does lead to hearing damage. And when you put sub-par headphones on, and you can’t entirely hear the highs, or the bass just isn’t enough for you, the reaction is to turn up the volume. You have to do this because the quality of headphones is so low that the calibration and soundstage create an imbalance that can only be “remedied” by playing your music excessively loud. And by “remedied” I mean you can hear those extremes better.
Here’s a fun fact: the best test of headphones, or speakers for that matter, is how they perform at low volumes. A great, excellent speaker, e.g. Martin Logan, Legacy Audio, DeVORE Fidelity or Voce Divinas, will perform just as clearly at it’s lowest volume as it will at its highest. This means the balance of frequencies will be exactly the same at all volumes, thus preventing the listener from having to increase volume to get at those hard to reach frequencies.
Well, the same goes for headphones. A quality pair of cans, be it Grado, Audeze, or Ultrasone, will produce just as well at low volumes as they do at high volumes. So why risk your eardrums, disrespect your favorite artist, and miss out on all those tiny details that separate one album from the other? It’s time you stepped up and got some real headphones like an adult. And the best part about headphones is that for a mere few hundred dollars you can get a set of headphones that will produce the sound quality of a sixty-thousand dollar (or more) home theater system.
For what it’s worth I personally own two pairs of headphones (which were both wonderful gives from my doting wife). My travel headphones, which I also use at the gym, are Grado GR8e’s. These are the only in-ears I have ever heard that are able to mimic the sound of a real pair of headphones (because of a single moving armiture design). When I’m at home, reviewing albums, I use my Grado SR-225i’s. They are open-back, meaning the sound bleeds a ton, but that allows for the most distinguishable and beautiful sound quality on the planet. There is simply no comparison to the quality open-backed headphones. The Grado soundstage is simply unmatched, in my opinion. You’ve heard from me, so now let’s hear what some fellow head-bangers have to say on the subject.
I spoke with the team over at Brooklyn based Grado Labs, which includes a few fans of the heavier stuff. They let me know that, regardless of the style of music their goal, “is to be faithful to the recorded event and get you [the listener] closer to [the] music” which allows, “the artist [to] speak in [their] own words to [the] listener.”
I was also able to reach out to my buddy Jeremiah Nelson who is probably one of the most knowledgeable headphone advocates currently hanging out on twitter.
Your Apple earbuds are doing you a disservice. The music you listen to has so much more to offer. Bands are pouring their hearts and their money into creating the best quality recording they can. You dishonor yourself and the musicians you love by using crappy headphones or earbuds.
Grado is a fantastic company, but they aren’t your only option. I’ve been through a lot of headphones from AKG, Sennheiser, Sony, Shure, and others. AKG makes well rounded, crystal clear headphones that are fun to listen to. My current setup consists of open and closed-back cans from AKG. Sennheiser headphones lean toward warmer mids and highs. Sony makes some booming, bass-heavy headphones, as well as an industry standard in the MDR7506/MDRV6. Shure is the king of in-ear monitors, although they can be pricey. You don’t have to spend a lot, though. Do some research, ask people you trust, and look online to find a good deal. Just please, for the love of your ears and the amazing music in the world, upgrade your headphones.
Jeremiah’s points are well taken. I sincerely agree that if you do not pay attention to what you’re pushing music through, you are doing a disservice to the musician, the music and to yourself. There are a ton of options out there. Heck, the Shure SE-215 in-ears have been reduced to a mere $99 and include all the construction value of the much more expensive (roughly $499) Shure SE-535 including removing cables, incredible noise isolation, and a really fair amount of bass.
I personally have invested so much into my headphones because when I listen to music I want to be able to hear the full range of the music. Most people today listen to music on their cell phones or laptops using the cheap ear buds that comes with their cell phones. Listening to music has become something you put on in the background, say, while surfing Facebook or the web.
But with real headphones, listening to music becomes the activity itself. You put the headphones on, sit back and listen to the music. Now all the true highs and lows come to life. The music takes on a real fullness to it that you don’t hear unless you’re fully surrounded by it with nice headphones, and by nice headphones I’m not talking the crummy beats headphones that with some fancy packaging and marketing have become the popular headphone to have. When, if people would simply do some research, they would see they are extremely cheaply built, terribly built, headphones.
So there you have it, folks. Do yourself and the musicians a solid and go out and get some quality headphones. For starters, I recommend the Grado SR60e. They are open back which makes them better for home listening than the urban commute. If you’re looking for something to take around town, grab the Shure SE-215 in ears mentioned in more detail above. For less than $100 you could change the way you hear music forever.