CanJam Socal 2019: Final Thoughts and wrap-up

Are headphones - all grown up?

My big takeaway from CanJam Socal 2019 was just how far headphones have come in the last few years. There’s a real sense that the industry has ‘grown up’ and come into its own.

Companies have matured and a hierarchy of niches and sonic profiles has been established. I think that we’re still in a wild west of sorts with headphones though.

I attended a few seminars at the show, namely one on the ‘convergence’ of two-channel and headphones, and another with Dr. Sean Olive presenting his research on what has come to be known as the ‘Harman curve.’ I’ll speak a little more about the content of these seminars in a moment, but I think the mere inclusion of them is telling.

First of all, the number of over-ear headphones with excellent frequency responses is increasing, but the really interesting thing to observe was how many IEMs are starting to follow something resembling the Harman curve, and I think it makes an even bigger difference here than with over-ear headphones. IEMs vary so widely in fit and resulting frequency response that there is rarely consensus on what sounds good and what doesn’t. Most notably bass and presence region wonkiness are the first things to standout in IEM listening, so having a baseline curve to work off of makes great sense.

The IEMs I heard which were roughly in the range of the Harman curve had a sense of wide open soundstaging and clarity that I haven’t heard from many over-ear headphones, and I find it interesting that the Harman curve for IEMs varies little from the full-size headphone curve, except for a few dB lift in the bass. This indicates to me that the team at Harman believes either the ear does a fairly good job of filtering out the effects of the pinnae and outer ear, or that the curve works regardless or perhaps even in tandem with those effects. At least, that was one of my takeaways from his session.

InnerFidelity file image.

The Olive session itself, which I’ve seen a few times, though it’s gone through a few updates over the years, is always excellent. This year in particular he focused at the enormous amount of data science that was performed in pursuit of the curve. His slides went quickly but hinted at an enormously detailed and painstaking approach to minimizing external factors and eliminating variables, especially with regards to the question of ‘if a frequency response curve can be correlated to sound quality,’ which at first glance is a bold assumption. The presentation touched on a number of factors related to how questioning and listener bias was addressed – and speaking as someone who’s done some psychoacoustic testing, they did so very effectively in my opinion – but most interesting of all was the application of rigorous empirical methods to a test which is essentially a subjective test.

My experience in cognitive psychology and testing is that the field is riddled with flawed experiments and difficulties, often because experiments frame an essentially objective question with fairly subjective testing parameters. In this case, Dr. Olive compellingly demonstrated across cultural, gender and professional divides, that the curve holds up. There were some very interesting observations on the gender front, but sample size was low enough that I would have to ask Olive more questions to get a better sense of the results shown.

In any case, the team also assembled a list of several hundred headphones from inexpensive to very expensive to see how they matched the curve. While the obvious point that many folks have repeated is that price doesn’t have much correlation with sound quality – defined here as adhering closely to the Harman curve – I thought it was interesting to see all the data plotted seemed to trend towards a couple key price points where headphones matched the curve. The slide went by very quickly, but if I read it right, there were 2-3 headphones at the $80, $800 and $2,000 USD price points that seemed to be nearest the Harman curve. I’m still digesting some of the info from the presentation, but a comment from a friend of mine at the show stuck with me. This person is predominantly a speaker listener, and even before attending the Harman curve seminar they commented that, “frequency response is 80 per cent of headphones.” Really spot-on in my opinion.

The Convergence Panel.

The other session discussed the convergence of two-channel and headphones, and I found the whole thing a bit ham-fisted, though the panelists were certainly great. Jason Stoddard of Schiit Audio made a great point to the effect that headphones don’t necessarily need to be made to do what speakers do and vice versa. While I’m personally an avid speaker as well as headphone fan, I think one of the big takeaways from this session was the applications for headphones in gaming and VR. I doubt VR enthusiasts will ever have the sort of mobility-impairing headphone rigs true headphone enthusiasts enjoy. I saw a lot of interesting gaming products at the show that were ditching inbuilt spatial surround and other technologies in favor of an excellent 2-channel headphone experience. This makes sense in my mind for two big reasons, the first being that gaming has more to do with headphones than speakers do, and that game audio is built for headphones and spatiality.

What I mean by this is that, much like binaural recordings are made just for headphones, most games have a Dolby headphone mode or surround mode, and my recent experience with a lot of open-world games like the recent Assassin’s Creed Oddysey, Red Dead Redemption 2 and first-person shooters, is that they have some phenomenal sound-design mapping. I’ll be talking about this high-end gaming angle more as I go forward because I feel it’s an important and interesting direction that will continue to see attention from both consumers and companies in the audiophile headphone space.

With those still-lingering thoughts in my head, and unfortunately with a lot of gear I just didn’t have space to cover, I’ll close out my CanJam SoCal 2019 coverage. A big thanks to Jude, Brian, Warren and the entire crew at Head-fi who pulled off this wonderful event, as well as all the manufacturers who attended. If you haven’t attended a Canjam yet, I highly encourage it.

A sweet ride on display at CanJam SoCal 2019.


pbarach's picture

Did Sean Olive's presentation list the models of headphones that fit the curve?

Grover Neville's picture

They dod not unfortunately, even when specifically asked. Looking at measurements one can figure out a few. The Focal Stellia is one of them, I believe the Mr. Speakers Aeon closed is another, and there was one around $80 or so I think that I haven’t been able to figure out.

KaiS's picture

There is a huge misunderstanding going on that you can see all over the Internet headphones community:

You cannot just apply the Harman Compensation Curve to just any headphones measurement system.
It's only valid if you use the exact same arangement Sean Olive uses, it's specially adapted only to this system.
At best below 800 Hz other measurement systems can about match, but even then the low frequency range is questionable because of different seal situations.

Today a lot of people think they can measure headphones with just anything and compare these measurements with the ones done by others.

But this is not the case.

Getting valid, sensefull and comparable results is tricky and needs a lot of experience.
Comparisons of headphones can only be done on the same system.
The range between 800Hz and 5kHz is extremely depending on the rig construction, the coupler type and microphone placement:
Flat board, artificial pinnae of any make, mic at ear canal entrance or ear drum reference point, freefield or pressurefield microphone capsules, ... etc. - to name a few.

The range above 5 kHz is hardly reproducible even on the same system without taking special provisions, and cannot, to the slightest, be compared between different rigs at all.
Then comes unit to unit differences in the headphones and even in the commercially available measurement systems themselves.
Overall you can easily get far more than 20-30dB variations on measurements of the same headphone.

Finally you step into the minefield of different compensation curves, often based on very personal decisions.

I am often looking for measurements, but always take them with more then a grain of salt when I see them, looking for information about the circumstances they were made in.

I think it's very unfortunate that Tylls Rig has retired, although not perfect it's huge database gave a good starting point.

BTW: when can we expect the new measurements on that were promised over a year ago?
Or did you put this project aside completely, maybe in the light of the problems mentioned above?