Across the Great Divide: Can We Love Headphones & Speakers Equally?

Steve Guttenberg and I talk on the phone fairly regularly. One reoccurring topic is about how and why headphones have or haven't penetrated various markets, and in particular, why aren't they getting more attention from traditional audiophiles.

We thought it would be fun to share a recent conversation with you.


Tyll Hertsens: I been thinking about what we're going to talk about here, and I think it's about headphones being credible for the old guard audiophiles out there. Is that what we're talking about?

Steve Guttenberg: For example, the average Stereophile reader?

TH: Sure.

SG: Yes...I say with some hesitation. And I'll tell you why...

TH: Sure!

SG: I was talking with Michael Trei this morning and he reminded me of something very important: In the late 1980s when I was selling high-end audio at Sound by Singer in NYC we sold a lot of Stax headphones. Stax was always a staple, but later we sold a ton of the first generations of Grado headphones, the ones designed by Joe Grado, not John Grado who currently runs the company. As I recall those Grados were fairly expensive for the time, the first three models were $400, $500, and $600, and that was more than twenty years ago! We also sold a 5 watt Class A Krell headphone amp, the KSA-5. So there was definitely a time when high-end dealers embraced headphones. I can't put my finger on when they lost interest, but it's not just the high-end dealers, the audiophile press and the vast majority of traditional audiophiles are out of the headphone loop. They might know something's happening, but they surely don't know what it is.

TH: So, what happened? If I think back to that time, I see the high-end audio hobby as more DIY with stuff like Heathkit and home built speakers. It was more laid back. Then hard-core enthusiasts started turning pro, started making killer but expensive gear, and maybe headphones just didn't have the credibility when compared to the big-rigs appearing. Where did headphones start loosing ground?

SG: I really don't know, but back in the day a lot of audiophiles were into recording—live music or taping LPs—and they were more likely to use headphones. I used headphones when I made mix tapes and later mix CDs. For some, headphones were seen as a viable alternative to speakers, but I don't think too many audiophiles see them that way anymore.

TH: I suspect amateur recordists were as likely to consider themselves as participating in the entry-level audio pro market as the audiophile market. What really gets me though is that there's serious money being spent on headphones today and the high-end audio dealers seem to be completely uncaring, or maybe oblivious to the fact. Geez, you'd think they'd want a piece of the least of the high-end headphone pie.

SG: I'm friendly with all the high-end brick and mortar dealers in NYC, and two or three years ago I started talking to them one-on-one, trying to turn them onto the better headphones. They'd listen, nod their heads, fain interest, but do absolutely nothing. I wasn't urging them to stock $200 or $300 headphones, no, I suggested cherry-picking the lines and stick with the $1,000+ Abyss, Audeze, Hifiman, or the better Sennheiser, Beyerdynamic, etc., ones that weren't heavily discounted all over the Web. Hey, NYC rents are crazy expensive, I know these dealers don't want to waste time demo-ing inexpensive headphones, and then lose sales to the internet. I'd also urge dealers to check out high-end headphone amps and USB DACs. It seemed like a no-brainer to me, but I just got blank stares, the dealers weren't interested. Some guys thought I was on commission, like I was going to get a piece of the action! I was not, and I told them so, but I could see why they thought I had something to gain. Then again, most of my audiophile pals are disinterested, so maybe the dealers are right to shun headphones, I don't know.

TH: I'm trying to make some sense of this....but there just seems to be some sort of rational disconnect. When home theater hit big a while ago, both Manufacturers and dealers jumped on the bandwagon with vigor. But, it seems to me, headphones are hitting BIG over the past few years, just as big as home theater, but dealers aren't taking notice. Heck, I'd go out on a limb and say there are probably significantly more people in the headphone hobby than in the high-end two-channel audio hobby...though there might be more money spent on high-end traditional audio vs. high-end headphones.

Stereophile has done a pretty darned good job of covering headphones over the past 20 years...Wes Phillips, John Atkinson, Sam Tellig, and Stephen Mejias have all covered headphones multiple times. And I see traditional high-end manufacturers responding in a pretty big way as well; PSB, Polk, Cardas, NAD, Klipsch, Martin Logan, and many others are all coming into the market. But dealers don't seem to be reacting hardly at all.

I. Just. Don't. Get. It. What's the problem here?

SG: The "problem" with headphones is......they don't sound like speakers. That leaves a lot of audiophiles cold, the sound is inside the head, and that sound doesn't connect. Of course, that's less true with some headphones, the AKG K1000 and the Abyss SB-1266—and that's one I truly love, the SB-1266s really open up the soundstage—but it's nothing like listening to speakers. I think headphone sound will always be an interior experience, and attempts to make headphones image like speakers bring their own set of problems.

I had the Smyth Realizer system at home for review, and its out-of-head "effect" can be fairly convincing, but I found the processing artifacts bothersome over time. I'm making a leap that if the DTS Headphone X gets off the ground non-audiophiles won't accept it. The unreality of sounds floating in space is quite disorienting, and not in a pleasant way. No, headphone sound is its own thing, and I think it's best to take it on its own terms. I'm not sure that the average Stereophile reader is ready to embrace headphone sound. Some of the things they want from speakers—like soundstaging, dynamic impact, pants flapping bass—ain't gonna happen over headphones. Sure, they'll get resolution and transparency to die for, but that may not be enough.

TH: I think I agree with least in part, headphones are different sounding than speakers. The way I'd put it is that when listening to speakers you are immersed in the sound field, which is the natural way we listen—though I'd point out that speaker reproduction is somewhat unnatural compared to the real thing both in terms of the reproduction itself and because the recording process abstracts the "real thing" as well. With headphones it sort of the opposite: the sound field is within you. Most people would call it an intimate experience. They're both unnatural, but I'd agree that headphones are probably more so.

So, do you think it's all as simple as that? That headphones are just less like the natural sounds we hear?

SG: Speaker sound is more's a more physical experience, you connect with music in a very different way. Speakers drive the room, and that's the problem, you can never eliminate room acoustics from the equation. Headphones directly inject sound into your ears, so you're more likely to really hear the recording, a la carte. That's a biggie, and no speaker, even the world's best, can ever do that, but here's the thing we have to get across to audiophiles: great headphones deliver a far more accurate rendering of a recording than ANY speaker can. I don't care how good your speakers are, your room's acoustics radically influence the sound, and while headphones and ears have their interface issues, it's nothing compared with speakers and rooms. With headphones you're plugged-in to the recording in a far more direct's not even close. Room and speaker correction DSP systems are mere band-aids, the headphone/ear interface is inherently more accurate. Oh, and one other thing, full-size headphones all have full-range, wide bandwidth drivers and no crossover networks, no single driver hi-fi speaker comes even close to be truly full range. So for those audiophiles who want to hear their music in the most accurate way possible, headphones are the answer.

TH: I think it probably amounts to the same thing, but I like to put it a little differently: Speakers will forever and always be superior to headphones in imaging, and no headphone will ever image as well as a good speaker system. And speakers will forever and always be superior to headphones in terms of visceral impact—chest thumping bass, eye blinking impact—and no headphone will ever deliver visceral impact as well as a good speaker system. But in exactly the same sense and magnitude, headphones will forever and always be superior to speakers in terms of resolution, and no speaker system will ever deliver resolution as well as a good headphone set-up.

I don't think any big-rig stereo system is complete without a commensurately good headphone system. Here's why: Let's say you're listening to your killer two-channel system and you hear something you just can't quite identify. Maybe it was a chair creaking, or maybe it was a musician saying something in a low voice. If you've got a good headphone rig, you could switch over to it and then pear deeply into the sound to tell what's going on. Headphones are like an audio microscope.

SG: It's funny, headphone lovers and two-channel audiophiles have a lot in common. We both obsess about sound quality, way more than the average person, and we're more likely to listen to music without multitasking. We're willing to pay a lot more for better sounding gear. Oh, and we share an attraction to cool gear, gear love looms large. Most of the manufacturers are never so large as to be unapproachable. An Audeze customer can get Sankar on the phone, and anyone who's serious about Wilson Audio speakers, can ring up Dave Wilson. I really doubt too many Porsche owners ever chat with a Porsche engineer.

TH: I agree. We all need DACs and sources, and we're all obsessed with gear and sound quality. We all love our music as well. Other than some differences in the character of the sound differing between speakers and headphones, are there any other differences?

SG: I think the one thing that really does separate headphone people from two-channel audiophiles is where we listen. I'm guessing that most headphones are listened to outside the home, and high-end audiophile listening is always a home activity. What percentage of Inner Fidelity readers listen at home vs. outside the home?

TH: Hmm. Well, there are two types of InnerFidelity readers: hard-core headphiles and the general public when they Google search for reviews. Speaking of the hard-core crowd, I'd guess quite a few listen with headphones at home, for sure, but I think most headphiles are somewhat place agnostic. Headphones give you the ability to enjoy good fidelity just about anywhere. Most headphiles are equipped with a variety of gear that allows them to listen at home on a killer rig, maybe a smaller desktop rig at work, and then a more portable system to use when they're mobile. That's one of the things that I just don't get: If audiophiles love their music, why aren't they interested in getting their fix in places other than home?

SG: I'd guess most Stereophile readers have headphones, just not a serious set of cans. They see headphones as a cheap and cheerful way of listening on-the-go, and maybe when they listen at home they really focus on the music and sound in ways that are far less likely outdoors or on a plane. As always, everyone is different, I'm painting in broad strokes.

TH: Well, I'd bet the average headphile has better quality speakers than the average Audiophiles has in quality headphones.

TH and SG: Ha ha ha ha!

SG: Headphones or speakers, neither one delivers the perfect recreation of the event, but sometimes with headphones I feel like my head is inside the soundfield, and my ears are where the mics were. Speakers never do that. I think audiophiles should have speakers and headphones, and considering that even the best headphones are a tiny fraction of the price of most of the world's best speakers that's not asking a lot. Even the Stax 009 at $5000+ is a lot less expensive than many high-enders pay for speaker cables!

TH: Absolutely! Headphone geeks have long said that headphones are WAY more cost efficient than speakers in terms of sound quality per dollar. Headphones are a great gateway drug to get folks into high-fidelity audio.

SG: I love the Sony MDR-V6, man, it's wonderful, and sells for less than $100! So even I, a pretty hard-core audiophile, can thoroughly enjoy music and sound on a cheap headphone, as long as the recording is good.

Eventually, the high-end guys will embrace headphones, I'm just not sure how or when that will happen. Headphones, headphone amps and DACs fit the existing high-end retailing model—certainly better than big screen displays and room lighting systems. Sure, the online retailers can do a fine job, but you can't beat hands-on, or should I say heads-on experience. I sold high-end audio for sixteen years, I know that world, I'd love to see it include headphones in a serious way. One NYC dealer, AudioArts, just started importing a terrific German headphone amp, MalValve, and now selling Stax headphones. I've heard he doing well with them, so we'll see. It would be great to hear from the readers about any brick and mortar retailers who are already doing it.

TH: Indeed, I'd love to hear from readers of high-end dealers selling headphones. I don't think the dealers are the source of the divide...I tend to think some of the things we covered above regarding the sound characteristics are more likely the source, and time will allow audiophiles to "get it" as they get used to headphones more and more. But I do think dealers are missing an opportunity.

Most high-end stores are a little bit like a social club. Steady customers, who are flush with gear and not in any need of something new, will often go to a high-end store just to chat with like-minded folk. So, say a guy walks into the store with no intention of buying something—his system is complete and he's satisfied, he's just killing a little time around cool gear. Now, if the store owner had some headphone gear, he might be able to make some of the statements we've made here about the advantages of headphones and turn a casual visit from a customer into another sale.

SG: I like that! Something new for the sales guys to talk about! It's a whole new world, and everybody benefits. More reasons for the dealers to pony up, and get in touch with what's happening with headphones.

Final Thoughts
My conversation with Steve was actually much, much longer than the version presented above. We've excerpted the dialog to reflect the two important points:

  1. Headphones are not inferior to speakers, they're just different. Speakers are better at delivering sound in a natural way, and they're better at imaging and palpable impact. But headphones are more accurate and resolving. They also deliver better sound dollar-for-dollar, and allow you to listen to your music with high quality wherever you might go. (Of course all this assumes good and comparable equipment.)
  2. While the press and manufacturers are addressing the headphone market, high-end dealers seem to be missing the boat. Dealers are very likely to be able to capitalize on their existing satisfied customer base by using the above outlined headphone capabilities to sell repeat customers a type of product that they are unlikely to currently have.

My suggestion to InnerFidelity readers is to visit your local high-end store with some good cans in hand, and talk to the sales people and/or store owners about some of the cool headphone products available these days. I would show them things like the Audeze LCD-2, Sennheiser HD 800, Burson Conductor, CEntrance HiFi M8, Shure SE 864, and the myriad other relatively expensive high-end headphone gear that is not commonly available at discounted prices on the internet. Encourage them to set up a small headphone listening station in their shop, and help them figure out how it might integrate into the gear and space already available.

I don't think the dealers are to blame here, I think headphones are just different and time and experience will slowly win over audio enthusiasts of all kind to the benefits of good headphone reproduction. Basically, I don't think they know about the world of headphone enthusiasm, and they just need a bit of education. Feel free to point them towards InnerFidelity as a good place to have a look-see.

And tell them about CanJam at Rocky Mountain Audio Fest. It's an ideal way for them to have a look at headphone gear that may be appropriate for their business. And tell them if they see a guy in an Hawaiian shirt to tap me on the shoulder and ask about how to sell headphones...I've got quite a bit to say!

Limp's picture

Sorry to be obtuse, but when are we done with all this prolix fuff and can get back on the program, you know, reviewing headphones?
It's been months since there have been any worthwhile consumer advice on here (though I do enjoy your travelogues).

sszorin's picture

Limp said : "Sorry to be obtuse, but when are we done with all this prolix fuff and can get back on the program, you know, reviewing headphones?"

Have a look around this website, check past postings and articles and you will find out that it is not strictly headphones reviews site. Thank God for that, a bit more than one dimensional approach to things related to headphones is needed. 

Seth195208's picture playing and listening has been hard wired into our brains as a social activity. To someone who is not used to listening to headphones, they can seem lonely and isolating, the exact opposite of our instinctual expectations. I personally like to listen to headphones when my high end rig and musical tastes would intrude upon someone else's personal aural sanctity.

sszorin's picture

Do not forget the blessings of good closed and sound isolating headphones when one has to escape from a talkative woman. 

planetpowers's picture

I have been an audiophile since the of 14 (about 33 years). I don't do anything that doesn't have music attached to it. I am relatively new to nicer headphones. Although, due to a Stereophile recommendation in 1994, I started with the Radio Shack Optimus CD3400 with a pair of Grado SR60s. I started with vinyl. Added CDs, and finally discovered FLAC and ALAC. I've been going to concerts since I was a kid as well.

In 1986, I installed my first car audio system which quickly snowballed into multiple amplifiers and multiple speakers.

I'm not wealthy. I have owned AKG k701s, and Westone UM3Xs, but I have not listened to anything nicer. I simply cannot fathom how a pair of headphones is ever going to sound as good as a nice home set-up or a nice car set-up. I have quite a bit of experience listening to very nice home and car set-ups. I do woodwork for Fortune 500 CEOs and CFOs who can afford anything. The last mansion I worked on was toured by the POTUS, and included a theater/listening room with Focal Grand Utopia EM speakers for the fronts soundstage. If what you're describing is true, I'm really missing out by not owning a pair of Audeze type cans. But, music is not just resolution and detail. It's tactile. My criteria for being really impressed with any high end audio system includes being able to feel the impact of the snare drum. Not just the bass drum. I play guitar and my brother is a drummer. I fell in love with live music when the school band played for us in the fifth grade. You could feel the snap of the snare drum, and feel the impact of the bass drum and timpani drums. You get none of this with headphones. None that really translates to the feeling of live music.

I am not arguing against headphones in any way. I wear headphones and in ear monitors more than almost anyone. I am a woodworker, and I use them for hearing protection for 40-80 hours a week. I use a headphone amp when I listen to music, and just the straight IEMs when I listen to podcasts and audiobooks. I love headphones. But they will never be speakers. And speakers will never be close to a true high end car audio system when it comes to reproducing the sound and feel of live music.

Jonathan Scull's picture

Tyll, Steve, this was a terrific conversation. Having become a HUGE headphone fan since starting to work with Audeze -- have my LCD-2s on as we speak -- I've discovered a new and exciting way to listen to music. It's FUN again! And the level of detail and dynamics is awesome. If you're listening on speakers and pick up something in the mix that you really want to hear... put headphones on! I've found that while it is of course "in your head" with open-back planar magnetics the soundstage spreads out before me and moving my head around doesn't bug me in the least. It's like... a new freedom! C'mon dealers, wake up!

Seth195208's picture

 This is the most inteligent conversation I have read concerning the high end and headphones.

drm870's picture

There aren't a lot of boutique-style shops in my area for high-end speakers (as far as I know), but Ovation AV is one of them. They focus more on home theater than hi-fi, so to speak, but I'm happy to report that they stock headphones and earphones from Grado, Klipsch, Sennheiser, Yamaha, and AKG. Granted, the products they stock are all entry-level to mid-fi -- and they have little in the way of amps or DACs -- but I'd say they're at least aware of the demand.

Jazz Casual's picture

To sum up: (a) headphones sound different to loudspeakers; (b) most people prefer loudspeakers; (c) some people prefer headphones; (d) some people like both; (e) loudspeakers create a more realistic soundstage than headphones and a more visceral listening experience; and (f) headphones are more resolving than loudspeakers. 

Having frequented Head-Fi and other headphone forums for some time, this conversation has been a revelation. ;)

Frank I's picture

Nice job Tyll bringing this to the readers attention. I agree with the assesment. I been in the hobby foir 37 years and embraced portable audio and headphones 5 years ago. I review mostly headphone and headphone related gear. The 2 channel market needs to grow . Many brick and mortar dealers have been disappearing at an alarming rate. The largest growth the industry is coming from headphones and portable audio. I too hope more brick and mortar dealers decide to sell some of the better headphones. 

At the California Audio Show we dedicated much time and space to help make our headmaster event  a success.  We were able to attract a 32 percent increase in attendance to the California Audio show because of the committment from headphone listerners.  They are the future in this hobby and also  excellent prospects for 2 channels systems.  The 2 channel high end market needs them to survive. Many high end dealers are missing the opportunity to get younger people into their stores and also to get them more interested in quality listening through speakers  as well.  I see dealers adding high end headphones systems as an excellent way to attract new customers. They love music and write big check for their portable systems,

The headphone and portable audio market is thriving and dealers need to get on board to keep the future generation interested in our great hobby and help them understand what good high end setups  can provide. A  great cross selling opportunity, and in my opinion what is needed to help make both consumer shows more successful and what is needed for brick and mortar stores to flourish and grow.  Super article!!

Frank Iacone

mikemercer's picture

I just spoke about this at the The Los Angeles and Orange County Audio Society event at Audio High in LA last weekend. I said that the headphones vs. loudspeakers outlook in OVER.   

There's plenty of room for ALL of us! Especially those of us who LOVE both - me included in that camp

Three Toes of Fury's picture

At first i thought this post was going to rehash the previous post (headphile vs audiophile) but rather,  it builds upon, and expands upon,  the subject.    Awesome conversation with some really great insights. 

As for headphone representation in brick and mortar...i think its increasing the more common (and few remaining) electronic based stores.  Best Buy being the biggest example.    While they are shrinking areas such as CDs (sniff) and dvds (sniff), they are adding quite a bit of inventory of cans.   However those cans are not the high end such as tyll mentions and, no surprises,  are targeting buyers that may be more focused in the style of headphones rather than sound (@#@# Beats).    Thats not to say there isnt a positive outcome...there is...because i come across more mid range sennheisers and such.     This is the reason i was pleased to see tylls report from visiting phillips.    For the more we see manufacturers trying to produce great sounding headphones in the mid-range cost area,  the more people will be able to experience and afford great sound.   

Peace .n. Living in Stereo





thecanman's picture

"I had the Smyth Realizer system at home for review, and its out-of-head "effect" can be fairly convincing, but I found the processing artifacts bothersome over time. I'm making a leap that if the DTS Headphone X gets off the ground non-audiophiles won't accept it. The unreality of sounds floating in space is quite disorienting, and not in a pleasant way."

I could not disagree more. For me, the Smyth Realiser has made headphone listening palatable because it sounds like I'm listening to speakers. I strongly dislike the "in the head" effect of headphones, and the Realiser's "out of the head" effect is amazingly convincing and not bothersome or disorienting to me in the slightest. Also, because my Realiser measurements were taken using a dealer's ~150K audio system in an excellent-sounding room (neither of which I will ever own), I find imaging to actually be better than many high-end, two-channel systems I've heard; with a decent recording, I can point to each instrument/singer in space about 20 feet in front of me and about 100 degrees left-right. All in my 10X15' office with my two-year-old sleeping in the next room.

Lofty's picture

Hey, wait a minute! That storefront photo is the now-closed Vesuvio Bakery on Prince St. in NYC, Just thought you'd want to know.

JIGF's picture

I know the topic is headphone vs speaker, but I want to make a tangent and discuss the live vs recorded issue as well.

I have attended many live music events (acoustic and amplified), and sometimes I wonder if even live is better than recorded at all when it comes to really connecting with a piece of music; comfort, venue, people you are with, lightning, smells, all this influence on the music experience.

When you go to a live event you have no control over how good it is, and many times it becomes a matter of luck wether the event rocks your socks or not. Recordings have also a certain degree of luck, or chance, to its quality, but if it rocks, at least it is set in stone. So that's how I come to the idea that maybe recordings are better than live events. The epitome though, would be to be at the live event, have it rock, be an amazing experience,  and also have it recorded.

I mean, yes, live music can never really, trully, and unmistakeably, be recorded and re poduced to a t, but the music is there, the message is there. So, what is better if you want to really connect with music? Speakers or headphones.

I say both. They are both amazing devices, and I think we should be grateful we live in a place of time and space that allows such choices. And as Steven Pinker would say, in the end, it is all about eating cheesecake; don't worry so much about it, and simply enjoy eating it!'s picture

(at least as of now)

I'm 25 and have for my entire life lived in conditions that have rendered it impossible, as a practical matter, to listen to speakers in a satisfactory manner. At even the slightest hint of bass, I inevitably received a knock on the door, leaving the ears that were so purposefully mesmerized by the music dejected and unsatisfied.

After about 3 and half years with a high end headphone system, I have come to find speakers a bit "distant" relative to headphones. To clarify, it's not that I don't thoroughly enjoy speakers. I simply have acclimated, due to unavoidable circumstances, toward the more intimate nature of headphones. I listen to my high-end headphones every day, and every day, I have the experience of multiple artists playing me private concerts. By this statement, I mean that the sense of intimacy is magnified by the device's characteristic lifelike transparency, the quality in particular which, for me, causes speakers to sound more distant than headphones.

I have to share the sound of speakers with others and/or with my environment. With headphones, that sound is all mine. It is completely and undoubtedly mine, to envelop and savor, as though the music and I were one, and not a petty environmental entertainer or momentary distraction.

One day, I know I will buy a speaker setup that will change the way I think about music, but even then, it will never replace, never lead me to forget, how my ears came to hear music the way they do.

JIGF's picture

As a 22 year old who was first intruduced at 17 to better music reproduction in the way of a Sennheiser HD555 out of a laptop jack, and has fallen on the hi fi spire, I completely resonate with this.

Seth195208's picture

...this kind of perspective. Well said.

paul's picture

Headphone listening has not become mainstream with "traditional audiophiles". We know this because headphones are not carried in high-end audio stores. Sorry, wrong!

For the most part, the "new" headphone "culture" is the result of portable digital music players. Digital music are computers and computers are the internet. No brick builidings.

But for a couple of iDevices and a pair of Klipsch headphones bought in a pinch, I have spent thousands of dollars on the internet. My research is done on the internet. My buying is done on the internet.

Brick stores don't carry headphone equipment because that is not where headphone people buy their gear. 

veggieboy2001's picture

I am enjoying the musings...not just from two of my favorite reviewers, but from everyone else as well.

  A long(ish) time a go I was an audio salesman (does anybody remember Nobody Beats The Wiz?) which turned me on to the high(er) end audio (really mid-fi mostly). This set me up with my (still current) audio set up which my whole family enjoys.

However,it is only recently that I have been turned on to the joys of headphones. This despite the fact that we had a good amount of headphones for sale, and on display. I think one reason is that it seems to be a challenge to set up a good way to audition them. 

Most big box stores have a terrible set up...too often I have to hunch over or otherwise contort myself so that I can have the 'phones sit well on my head (because the cord is restrained in some fashion or another for the sake of security). If by, some miracle it's not too difficult to put them on properly, you still have to either plug your source into one of the wires they provide (which may or may not be working in both channels), or use the music they have. Much this music is unfamiliar and coming from an unknown source (mp3? WAV?, how is it amped?) You have no real knowledge how the headphones would interact with YOUR gear at home.

On the other hand, this is where the high end stores have an advantage, since these businesses are set up in a more personal way, they can set you up comfortably, make recommendations etc. Some stores not far from me ( B&H, AC Gears) have an adequate set up, but a noisy environment. Not the best, but better than most. It really is a wonder that more high end stores haven't caught on to this market. Even if they don't fully believe in the product, the opportunity is still there. Quite a shame. (I'm still trying to find somewhere in the NYC area to demo the Phillips X-1).

vforrest's picture

I am an audiophile who listens to both speakers and headphones. Seems to me  there are two factors that deter many audiophiles from listening to headphones:


1) Listening to speakers can be a social experience. In other words, several people can listen to music over speakers and can discuss what they hear. Headphones make it hard to interact with others.


2) Headphones aren't as comfortable as speakers. With speakers, you don't have anything on your head or in your ears, and (in most cases) no relatively short cord tethering you to an amplifier.


Vade Forrester

eggil's picture

Very enjoyable reading as always.

johnjen's picture

I really don't care if its speakers or headphones.

I aim to get sucked into the music.

As in, I AM THERE! (or, is it hear?) cool (man these smilies are atrocioussmiley

If it's a toe tapping, head weaving & bobbing, and sing along time, that is my aim and my joy.

I like headphones 'better' because I can achieve these sought after results far more simply, easier, faster, and way less expensively.  And it would seem with more repeated and consistent results.


ps how many have memorized the lyrics to Mov'n to Montana and sing along? laugh

mir's picture

It's funny to read these statements about headphones being superior than loudspeakers in terms of resolution, etc... :-)

Maybe authors have never been to some of the best mastering rooms in the world and they haven't really heard some of the finest PMC/Barefoot/Tyler/... monitors at all.

Not even HD800, Abyss or the best Stax headphones come close to reproducing full-range sonical resolution as these monitors do in a room perfectly tuned from the scratch.

If you're unsure whether you cannot hear all the clicks/pops/distortions/etc... coupled with overwhelming amount of details and incredible resolution on monitoring speakers (yes, speakers, not headphones), you really owe yourself a visit to some of the finest mastering rooms in the world :-)

johnjen's picture

I suspect that what is heard in those venues has more to do with the quality of the source material (1st generation of Ultra Hi-Rez digital data streams and a highly equalized "room perfectly tuned from the scratch" rather than the speakers per se.

And i can relate directly if not in quantity at least in quality.  I am running a set of $30-40 Dayton speakers driven by a $20 Lepai amp from my $5K DAC and it sounds great.  I think it may have more to do with the source material than my $50 speaker setup.  But in true DIY I am considering modifying the speakers, and upgrading the tweeters to $15 units.  I don't know though, I mean to jump from $50 to $65 is a 30% increase in my total investment.  That'll take some serious consideration/justification.cheeky

Which does bring up an interesting 'marketing opportunity' for those in the recording biz.  That being, offering direct downloads of those very same "Ultra Hi-Rez digital data streams" (and other hi-rez versions as well) instead of the lame and comprimised cd quality versions.

Perhaps its an idea whose time will come in due course.





Submitted by mir on September 23, 2013 - 12:24am.

It's funny to read these statements about headphones being superior than loudspeakers in terms of resolution, etc... Smile

Maybe authors have never been to some of the best mastering rooms in the world and they haven't really heard some of the finest PMC/Barefoot/Tyler/... monitors at all.

Not even HD800, Abyss or the best Stax headphones come close to reproducing full-range sonical resolution as these monitors do in a room perfectly tuned from the scratch.

If you're unsure whether you cannot hear all the clicks/pops/distortions/etc... coupled with overwhelming amount of details and incredible resolution on monitoring speakers (yes, speakers, not headphones), you really owe yourself a visit to some of the finest mastering rooms in the world Smile

Jazz Casual's picture

I'll contact my travel agent and ask him to arrange a world tour of the world's finest mastering rooms. Hopefully my jam packed itinerary will allow for the briefest of vists to some other notable places of interest like the Vatican City, the Acropolis, the Great Wall of China and maybe even the Grand Canyon. There should be masteriing studios just around the corner from those places right?  

Jim Tavegia's picture

Every time I listen to these I ask myself why am I not listening on these more than I do? They are so good.  The habit of listening on  speakers is one that is hard to break. 

johnjen's picture

I find that listening to speakers has been relagated to the role of playing background music or just general filler.  When I want to seriously listen, its time to sit down, shut up, strap on the cans and start bob'n and weav'n.

Of course the fact that my speaker system costs $50 (as noted above) may have something to do with it but still my degree of personal involvement is WAY higher with my 800's.


XVII's picture

From the point of view of psychology happiness exists only when it is possible to share. The headphones do not allow to share emotions - I'm listening, or my friend, but not together. It's not a very social thing. No social things initially less popular in the world inhabited with social animals, as Aristotle called the people.

That's it. Sorry for my english I'm not a native speaker.

Lunatique's picture

Some of you probably know me from head-fi, where I often post long educational posts on understanding audio, how to alter the signal chain for better accuracy/neutrality, and reviews. But despite being part of that community and own my share of headphones, I prefer speakers by far, even considering the drawbacks of room acoustics. The two main reasons are ergonomics, and sound quality.

Ergonomics - To me, headphones was always a necessary evil, and not my first choice of listening, for the very simple fact that I must put something on my head, and I must take it off when I need to walk away from my desk (I don't use wireless headphones because none of them match the sound quality of the best high-end wired headphones). If I was outside, then I'd have no choice but to use headphones, so the situation forces headphones on me. If I wanted privacy or to not affect the people around me with whatever I was listening, headphone is also the only choice. But in situations where I can use speakers without any concerns, I will always choose speakers, because they are simply more convenient. I can walk around and don't have deal with an extra object I need to be aware (or I'll accidentally pulled or trip over the cable, or bend and have it slide off my head). Also, headphones make it much harder to hear if someone was trying to get your attention, because it diminishes your general awareness more than speakers do. 

Sound Quality - I don't agree that headphones have higher resolution. I'm a composer and I deal with mixing/mastering, so my gold standard for sound quality is a high-end mastering studio with professionally designed acoustics and high-end monitors that sound stunning. No headphone can touch that. Even if a pair of headphones measure extremely well and are able to reproduce the hearing range of 20Hz-20KHz perfectly, it still won't have the visceral quality of speakers--not just in the sonic vibrations of the low frequencies, but also in the mids and highs as well. When soundwave excites the molecules in the air and interact with your ears, something extra happens, and this is the magic that's missing from headphones. It's not just the HRTF, because we have excellent DPS plugins today (such as the TB Isone) that can simulate HRTF very convincingly, but that's still not quite enough.

In my home studio, I have a pair of Klein+Hummel O 300D's and they are one of the most respected studio monitors ever made, and I have extensive acoustic treatment working in conjunction with room correction (IK Multimedia ARC System 2), and the sound I get from that setup makes me never feel any reason to want to put on a pair of headphones. My LCD-2 is only used when the wife is sleeping (I did not build structural isolation into the studio--just broadband absorption), and as soon as she wakes up I go right back to using the O 300D's. When I do use the LCD-2, I have a custom EQ curve that makes it as neutral as possible, and TB Isone to make it sound like speakers in an acoustically treated room. It makes a huge difference in how much better everything sounds, but it still doesn't have the convenience or the sense of verity of a pair of high-end monitors. 

When do I recommend headphone over speakers? - There are specific situations where I recommend people to get heaphones over speakers, and they are:

1) They cannot afford quality studio monitors with adequate frequency range ((I think down to 35Hz is adequate for most needs, including most music productions, unless you are doing mixing/mastering for movies/games where the score and sound effects do reach down to 20Hz). I would say the entry point to high-end starts at near $3,000 a pair--something like the Event Opal would be a great example of a very nice sounding pair at that price point. There are excellent monitors that cost less, but they rarely have enough range in the bottom end at lower price points, due to the smaller drivers. Here's a great link to get an idea of high-end studio monitors (I've sorted the page by price, from high to low):

2) Even if they can afford quality monitors, they don't have a suitable listening space that is acoustically ideal, or can be treated to become more ideal (including a tiny space that's not only terrible for acoustics, but also has no space for the larger studio monitors). Having a nice pair of speakers but letting the room modes screw up the sound is like throwing money away--you are NOT getting what you paid for. So a nice pair of speakers MUST go hand-in-hand with good acoustics, or else don't bother. (I'm talking about audiophile/professional level of quality, not casual consumer quality.)

3) You are always in situations where you cannot use speakers at work or at home, or you are traveling all the time.

In any of those three situations, a pair of high-end headphones with a quality HTRF plugin/hardware unit (HRTF is much more realistic sounding than just a simple crossfeed) will be the better choice, because you won't be limited by your listening environment, and you can get high quality sound for relatively much lower price.

I do not believe you must spend a few thousand dollars on a pair of bleeding-edge headphone and then shell out nearly as much for a high-end headphone amplifier in order to get there. I think you can get really close with just several hundred to a thousand dollars on a pair of headphones that's got amazing bang for the buck (such as the LCD-2), a standard pro audio headpone monitor/amp that costs only about $100 (such as the Samson C-Control, or just a small pro audio mixer, or just a quality soundcard with headphone amp or an audio interface that has a good enough headphone output). Adding a custom EQ curve (to smooth out all the spikes and dips in the frequency response) and a HRTF plugin, you'd be enjoying very nice sound quality for just a little over a thousand dollars. If you choose a headphone that's cheaper than the LCD-2 but still rated highly by trustworthy reviewers (such as Tyll), then you'd get there for even lower cost (though I do think the LCD-2 is the perfect sweetspot for quality vs. price, and it's nearly impossible to beat that deal currently).

Jazz Casual's picture

Thank you for another "long educational post" ;) but it'll take more than adjusting the EQ to rectify the LCD-2's dimensionally flat, closed-in sound and cumbersome design.  

ultrabike's picture

Great article! I believe BestBuy Magnolia is starting to carry better qualty headphones, but me thinks not the top tier yet... It'll get there.

bogdanb's picture

I was fortunate enough to see an installation made with the help of ultrasonic sound spekers, since it was crowded the sound started to be reflected by the bodies, and i didn't realise or understood at the moment that the sound was created next to my ear insted of being created in front of the speaker.

I wonder if this will have a future in consumer electronics.... if it will change things...


any way, more you can see here:

and the one that i experienced is made by dr. Joseph Pompei from MIT Media Lab.

sdecker's picture

Interesting article and posts for me.  I got started in this 'music reproduction' pursuit in 1970 and haven't stopped.  From day one, headphones and speakers have always been equally necessary, satisfying and important to me.  Headphones were crucial growing up in our small house to hear music when everyone had gone to bed, or I needed to play music above background levels.  And at age 55 I'm about to put headphones on because my wife has gone to sleep early.  

The sonic differences are well-worn and well-known by now.  It's not like headphones are just recently invented.  As I've treated them as equals, I know well where headphones exceed speakers and vice versa, and have always accepted the apples vs oranges compromises of each.  My headphone rig upgrades have paralleled my speaker/amp upgrades.  I do pay attention to room acoustics to get all I can from my speakers.

It's some of the secondary points that are worth commenting on.

->  The guys commenting on great recording studios are right.  As well as what's possible with purpose-built end-user rooms.  A friend has a half-million dollar listening room designed by a master acoustics house and filled with proportionally high-end consumer gear.  Like the best studios, when you can afford the huge money and space, the best headphones can't touch the experience, including resolution to the source.  Some of this comes from the nearfield listening of some studios, and a lot of it comes from the transparency of first generation master tapes/files! 

->  Stereophile only pays lip service to headphones, though this is better than most conventional audiophile magazines.  Those writers who occasionally review good mainstream headphones talk about them as if they're reviewing a high-end cassette deck or FM tuner: good for what they are, but not 'real' equipment like speakers or a turntable or DAC.

->  The whole solo vs shared experience of music is a valid argument for whether to use speakers or headphones for a particular occasion.  

->  And the whole live vs recorded music is similarly valid to compare the relative merits of speakers and 'phones.

->  It's easier to listen to a lousy recording over speakers than headphones.

->  I'm one of those who can't enjoy music unless I'm 90%+ focused on it, so portable headphones/players hold little interest for me, nor background music throughout the rooms from my speakers.  But that's me, so with either transducer I'm sucked into the music and enjoying it a little differently with each.

->  I still think that you either get it or you don't.  This includes retailing high-end headphones systems at boutique stores.  Most consumers, even high-end 2ch folk, can marvel at what modern cans present, but it's a curiosity, not something they will integrate into their home rig.  Better-than-iPod earbuds, sure, but not something good enought to augment their speakers.  Usually.

->  The growth potential is where new (and often young) converts can get true high-end sound for no space requirements and far less money outlay, this aided by most of them growing up with poor-sounding portable players and being used to having earbuds in all the time.  Hi-rez downloads, a half decent DAC/headphone amp and good cans become a game-changer and can be the gateway drug to what's possible with speakers and a dedicated audio rig down the road.

I'll stop now.  These same conversations have seemed to go on for decades,  perhaps because I'm more sensitive to and aware of them, having always viewed headphones and speakers as two sides of the same musical coin...

scardella's picture

Based on this, while it has further drawbacks, why not cross over a high-end headphone to a sub?  It should be simple enough, now that there's that box that lets you use a receiver to power headphones (I think it's called the "Can Opener").  

That setup would allow you to have the visceral impact of a subwoofer combined with the resolution and detail of a high-end open headphone.

If you wanted to take it to the nth degree, you could use active x-overs to integrate traditional speakers, headphones AND subs. 

The drawbacks would be, of course, that it's really using up a whole room for one person's enjoyment, with some of the semi-unnaturalness of having the headphone on your head.

Aerocraft67's picture

Perhaps a big part of the reason high end physical audio boutiques don't bother with headphones is because headphones are even more easily transacted and shipped remotely, and that the physical presence of headphones is much less a factor than with speakers?

mr.pharmacist's picture

Nice article~

My attitude towards headphones is that I'd kinda rather not but that it has been 'forced' on me, as no doubt many others by various factors and am trying to make the most of it.

Pros-detail, resolution etc. Doesn't take up much space in an apartment. Easily transportable when moving.
Cons-lack of physicality. You may get the snare drum on headphones, but never the sense of chest compression that is part of the thrill of cranking up a pair of floorstanders with a high current amp. Another is that listening to music by yourself and being in essence 'tethered' to the amp can make it a somewhat solipsistic experience. Granted, with open headphones people can hear them whether they want to or not, but they're not sharing your inspired selection. A final disadvantage is good old stereo wars. There's nothing like making a subtle point to a neighbour to shut the hell up than the use of noise. Concorde take off is a favourite.

The disadvantages have interested me far more, and that's where the fun is. I don't want to suggest I dislike headphones, my Sennheiser HD600s never fail to upscale be that by amp mods, valve upgrades, outboard DAC, power supplies, cables, the whole shebang. But, if I had the choice offered by the space I'd be building up an audio set-up again (whilst keeping the headphone set up as it was the first amp I'd modded)