Now Pirates in Headphonedom. Argh!
Before I send you off to read an interesting document, I'd like to offer some context from my point of view. Though headphones have been around for a long, long time, it's my opinion that the headphone market as a whole is still far from mature.
Until maybe 20 years ago, headphones were thought of as accessories, and were looked down upon by audiophiles as inferior methods for reproducing audio. As a practical matter, I agreed at the time because, with the exception of Stax electrostatic cans, there really weren't many good sounding cans. I'd say the first really good sounding headphones started showing up in the early '90s, and I'd point to the Beyerdynamic DT801 and a bit later the Sennheiser HD 560 as two examples.
Because of the prevailing opinion among audiophiles that headphones sucked, these headphones got little traction for their makers until the headphone hobby began to rally and grow on HeadWize.org, and subsequently on Head-Fi.org. Once the hobby began to hum along, it took a great deal of time for headphone hobbyists to garner the numbers and expertise to develop well-formed opinions about headphones. I feel it's really only in the last five years or so that headphiles have developed the collective understanding to put well considered pressure on headphone makers to make good sounding headphones.
Unfortunately, at about the same time as hobbyists were developing their chops, Dr. Dre and Monster did their thing to whip up a frothing market for overpriced headphones among the impressionable urban youth. They were wildly successful building a market centered around fashion and bling, which had very little, if anything, to do with the art and science of audio reproduction.
We now find ourselves in a market where consumer demand and perceived value of headphones is very high, but where that perception of value has very little to do with the quality of the sound. And this market is hot, hot, hot! Audio companies of all kinds are throwing their hats in the ring as fast as they can because they know demand, margins, and profits are high; and because this market is being driven by the consuming public--a huge, though unsophisticated, force--hobbyists remain a relatively weak voice despite their ever-improving discernment.
What to do?
For the last 15 years or so, I've invested a great deal of energy in the objective measurement of headphones. I've done this because I feel the need to find a way to evaluate the audio reproduction performance of headphones in an objective way. My personal subjective evaluation of headphones is weak in the sense that it's mine alone and we all have the right to our personal opinions, so my opinion is just one among many--regardless of how expert it may be. But an objective measurement is much closer to "fact," and therefore can have much greater weight and import than a personal opinion. If objective measurements can be indicators of audio fidelity--and I believe they can--then measurements can act as a firm guide for manufacturers and enthusiasts in their efforts to design and find good headphones. Measurements provide a road map of sorts that will help orient us on our search.
I'm not alone in my desire to objectively evaluate headphones. There is a well developed science around audio reproduction, and the Audio Engineering Society has published hundreds of peer reviewed papers on the acoustics of headphones. Competent headphone design companies employ engineers trained in this science. Unfortunately, they live behind the closed doors of these manufacturers and under the same roof as the rabid marketing and PR departments that know very well that selling headphones today has less to do with sound quality, and more to do with speed to market, fashion, and celebrity endorsements. It seems to me that most companies making headphones today are simply not focused on sound quality as an important design goal. Why should they be? Consumers aren't demanding it.
Well, that's beginning to change. I may have been the first to publish headphone measurements, but I'm now far from the only source of headphone measurements on the web. Sound and Vision, Goldenears, and Reviewed.com have headphone measurements on their sites. Maybe more importantly, the headphone hobbyists themselves have started measuring headphones. I see this surge in interest in headphone measurement as an effort on the part of people who have a significant interest in headphone sound quality to speak with a voice more powerful than simple opinion about something we headphone enthusiasts have known for a long time: Most headphones suck!
Headphones may be jewelry, and headphones may be a fashion or status statement, but headphones are first and foremost a way to reproduce the art of music. Manufacturers need to get that; consumers need to get that; and until they do, satisfactory listening will be a hit and miss affair. I think the availability of headphone measurements can play an important role in focusing enthusiasts' and consumers', and thereby manufacturers', attentions on what's really important: sound quality.
But what about the pirates?
Just like raising children, moving this market from its current candy-colored adolescence toward a mature adulthood will be a messy affair prone to learning lessons by making mistakes. I tend to try to forward that maturing process here at InnerFidelity by finding really good products and applauding them, and I tend not to bother writing negative reviews of poor performers. But that's just me. Others might not be quite so polite. Others may be sick of getting excited about new offerings from makers and shelling out big bucks for what ought to be good headphones, only to be disappointed yet again by poor performance. Others may build headphone measurement systems as their weapons of war against lackluster and misguided efforts by makers in an effort to expose their weaknesses. Such is the way of the world. Enter the pirates.
Captained by Purrin and his measurement system that delivers cumulative spectral decay plots, which exposes resonances in headphones, and crewed by the likes of Anaxilus (a wizened DIYer) and Arnaud (an acoustics engineer at an automotive firm), a new forum has appeared that focuses on objective measures and discerning subjective impressions. While I think the tone and focus of attention there may sometimes be too negative and critical to be consistently constructive, I also see it as a natural pendulum swing away from the rampant fanboyism and indiscriminate "flavor of the month" excitement that has characterized the hobby previously.
Caution: There be pirates beyond.