Are Objective Headphone Measurements Relevant to Audiophile's Subjective Experience? Page 2
TH: Sure. The question is: How long is this ‘eventually’ of which you speak? Lemme give you a for instance: It was either Corey Greenberg or myself that first put the meme out there that Grado headphones are great for rock. That was probably 20 years ago now, and at the time I think it was true. But over time, many new headphones have come out, and I think many of them would be far better for rock. I think what makes a great rock headphone is dynamic punch, slammin’ bass, and highs that are gentle on the ears. Well Grados have very good midrange punch, but their bass is loose and low in level, and their highs are piercing. I’d take an Audeze LCD-2 over a Grado for rock every time.
Here’s the thing though, you’d be strung up by your heals on Head-Fi if you were to say that Grados suck for rock. It just goes against the common belief. The group-think is a strong pressure for people to become unwilling to change their mind.
Measurements provide an alternative to the common wisdom (which may be right or wrong) for evaluating the array of headphones available. Measurements put a more objectively reliable stake in the ground around which people can calibrate their search and appreciation of headphones.
SG: OK, but the goal is to listen to music, not measure it. We all know that most buyers – Head-Fiers, audiophiles and non-audiophiles -- tend to prefer headphones with elevated bass response. That's why truly flat/accurate headphones are rare, not because they are so difficult to design and manufacture, I think it's because they wouldn't be huge sellers. The Etymotic ER-4P IEMs is flatter than most, but I don't enjoy them as much as my Jerry Harvey 'phones, which have more bass oomph. Then again, recording engineers don't use calibrated measurement microphones to record vocalists, they use mikes that flatter the human voice. The same "colored" mike selection process applies to guitars, pianos, drums, etc. Accuracy, schmacuracy, we like what we like.
TH: Regarding recordists not using calibrated mikes for vocals, but using mikes that flatter the voice: I’m totally down with that. That’s their art and prerogative. But for me, I want to hear that recording exactly as the artist, engineers, and producers intended it to sound. My greatest personal desire for a headphone system is transparency. I want to hear what’s on the disk.
SG: The objectivists want to believe the most accurate playback system is always the best approach, but that view ignores the sonic variability of recordings and the sound preferences in play. If most of the music you like sounds like crap, hearing it "accurately" might not be the best way to go. It's hardly a theoretical problem, more and more contemporary music sounds really bad and distorted, so it's up to each buyer to get the system that works best for them. There are no universal solutions.
TH: Indeed. That’s why I think measurements are a good coarse sorting tool, but in the end you have to have the listening experience to find things that you like for the music you listen to.
Regarding bass response: I think there is technically justifiable reason for people to want more bass on headphones than would normally be considered flat. When listening to speakers, we get a good proportion of our perception of the low notes from bone conductions, and chest and nasal cavity compression. The sound ends up in our inner ear, but it’s not coming through the ear canal. With headphones we don’t get any of that, so to compensate we bump up the bass. I reckon a bass boost of up to around 5dB below 120Hz is about right. Jerry Harvey gets it.
SG: So flat is not where it's at, it's not the ultimate goal. Then we also have to consider where you listen, and how noisy the environment is. The Beats by Dr. Dre may have thumpy bass in your quiet living room, but the bass can sound surprisingly well balanced when you're groovin' to your favorite tunes in the New York City subway. It's possible a more neutral headphone might sound less good than a worse measuring/less accurate model in some circumstances. Nowadays most people listen to headphones in noisy environments. Maybe at home it makes sense to use a flat headphone and a fatter sounding one for traveling. Of course, the bass boost requirements vary with the setting, trains and buses have more low frequency thumps and bumps than aircraft cabin noise.
TH: Absolutely. But measurements can help there too, if a person is willing to take the time to understand the measurements, and makes the observation that they’ll be listening in noisy places where they’d like a little more bass than usual, they can then look for headphones that measure more bass heavy.
I have to tell you, even there the measurements aren’t the whole story. Headphone measurements are very hard to take, and one of the big problems with headphone measurements is they're not exactly repeatable from one time to the next. There are plenty of places where figuring out what’s neutral can be very hard. Hell, most audiophiles are male, and my dummy uses a head with an average human size, which includes females. So the head is smaller than most men’s head ….
SG: (Laughing) That just seems wrong, you're stuck with a "politically correct" measurement head! As a subjectivist I have my own set of insecurities, and I worry that I might miss something really important about the sound in a review, but then I remember that the measurement guys aren't right 100% of the time either. I just have my ears, just like everybody else, all I have over the average audiophile is (probably) a more extensive history of hearing the world's best gear in my career as a high-end audio salesman, and as an audio critic. Even with all that I can't predict what the readers will like, because they're each looking for a different sound. That's what hi-fi stores are for, they advise people on a one-on-one basis.
I think a good reviewer can provide more useful information about a product than a wiggly line on a measurement chart can.
TH: I think reviews and measurements are both valid … and both have weaknesses. Dancing about architecture as a reviewer speaks about the sound he/she hears can be as meaningless as squiggly line drawn by a machine. But if done artfully or with precision respectively, they can be meaningful and relevant. Measurements, like reviews, can help you find headphones that you might be interested in, but at some point you have to push aside the measurements and opinions of others and start listening for yourself.
I would advocate people learn what neutral is, and what their preferences are relative to neutral. Then measurements can go a long way toward pointing people in the right direction.
So Steve, now that we've had this conversation would you characterize me as an objectivist or a subjectivist?
SG: (Laughing) I think you're right down the middle, well no, you're near the middle, with objectivist bias.
TH: That's probably true and indicative of my relationship with headphones. It’s my job to evaluate headphones for a large audience with a wide variety of tastes, so I try to be objective and not be overly swayed by my personal tastes.
So, what do you think after this conversation?
SG: Measurements might have some value for consumers, I think you’ve moved me a tiny notch toward the objective direction.
TH: Cool. I think I’m pretty much stuck here where I am, sorta one foot on either side of the fence.
SG: What really bugs me are the people who insist on ABX testing. I'm no scientist, but it's weird that blind testing mostly proves there are no differences even when two products are very different. Blind testers can't reliably tell the difference between coffee and tea. The audio guys who steadfastly believe in blind testing have it easy, they can buy the cheapest crap and live happily ever after!
TH: Ha! I’m right there with ya. Your brain is not an AP tester, and thinking it’s going to readily tell subtle differences between signals in an analytical way is ridiculous. But I’m equally as reviled by people sticking dots on their wall and demagnetizing CDs.
SG: Yeah, I’m really not much for that tweaky stuff.
TH: The middle way is narrow. I think people tend to take the easy way out and jump onto one bandwagon or the other.
SG: Audio is a belief system. Some of the people who really love vinyl think all digital recordings sound awful, and some digiphiles think the same about LPs. There are lots of die-hard tube guys who can't tolerate solid-state and vice-versa. I know lots of two-channel audiophiles who turn up their noses at home theater -- the lines are drawn -- and some groups never budge from their original positions. Again, I see very little consensus in audio, we're each into our own thing.
TH: Yup. It’s like me loving MOG. It’s 320kB MP3, but I can listen to new music all day long. I love exploring for new sounds.
SG: And if you like something, you can buy it in a higher resolution format.
TH: Yeah … well … I think my attention span is usually too short for that. By the time I’ve heard something 3 or 4 times I’m ready to spend my time doing more exploring. But, that’s just me … people gotta do what works for them.
SG: That works for me.