On the Strengths and Weaknesses of Headphones and Speakers

I've said this stuff here and there, but I think it's time to make my opinions official. For a long time in the past, headphones were considered the bastard step-child of audio reproduction devices. Heck, they were considered accessories and sold along side cables and power strips in the past.

That time has come and gone (thank goodness) and today headphones are on a more even footing as the cadre of headphone enthusiasts swell the audiophile ranks and consumers rush to tune up their smartphone. But the question remains: Are headphones as good as speakers? Let's take a look.

Visceral Impact
Visceral impact is the ability to convey a sense of shear power and presence felt in the body as opposed to being purely heard. Bass that thumps your chest and impact that makes your eyes blink. Here, headphones simply can't, and never will, be up to the abilities of speakers. Even with the aid of tactile sub-woofers like the Subpac products (which was interesting, but not a perfectly satisfying substitute) you're simply never going to get the body sense of being in a room full of sound.

Advantage speakers.

Audio Imaging
Here too, speakers have a distinct advantage: They actually make real sound that propagates through free-space and approaches your head in the same was sound from and instrument would. The effectively planar sonic wavefront bounces off your ears and provides cues to your brain in a perfectly natural way.

Headphones are acoustic couplers, and do not present the ears with sound in the same way as if they were receiving sound through real space. Headphones are a completely un-natural way to listen in that regard, and fall far short of sounding like sound coming from outside your head.

Headphones also prevent you from hearing sounds in both ears as you would in natural space. In front of a speaker system, you hear the left speaker in both the left and right ears. But because the right ear is slightly further away from the left speaker than the left ear, it hears the sound slightly after the left ear. This is called the "inter-aural time difference" (ITD); for a speaker 30 degrees off to one side of your head, the ITD is about 300 microseconds. This time delay between ears as sound moves off to the side is the single most important psychoacoustic cue used to identify the left-to-right position of a sound source.

With headphones, the left channel is heard only by the left ear, and the right channel is heard only by the right ear. That means any audio on one channel only (quite a bit with a stereo signal) is only heard in one ear. This is completely un-natural. The only time you ever hear sound in one ear only under normal conditions is if a bug gets into your ear canal and starts buzzing. Other then that (horrifying) situation, you always hear sounds in both ears.

In my opinion, this is why with headphones you very typically get audio images that reside inside your head, and are often characterized by a blob on the left, a blob on the right, and a blob in the middle.

Headphones don't image nearly as well or naturally as speakers. Advantage speakers.*

* Crossfeed and "audio virtualizers" can help headphones image better, but, to date, I've never heard anything that sounds like it's really coming out of your head. On the other hand, researchers are currently working very hard to get immersive and convincing audio imaging into headphones. I think that with significant improvements in headphone designs to improve transient response, the aid of DSP algorithms that synthesize HRTF (head related transfer function), and head trackers to provide acoustic feedback that matches head movement, we will at some point get headphones that can do pretty amazing things in terms of spatial cognition. Maybe even stuff that speakers would be unable to achieve. But in the end, I don't think we'll ever get headphones that deliver a natural (relatively speaking, as speakers aren't as natural as the real thing of course) acoustic image as well speakers.

Advantage, still speakers.

Resolution
This is where headphones, theoretically, smack-down speakers. Speakers have: multiple drivers; cross-overs; are distant from your ears, send sound through a room with indeterminate acoustic characteristics; and power amplifiers that have to produce lots of juice from multiple output devices. (All that, generally speaking, of course.)

Headphones have: a single driver (usually); an inch or two from your ears; and with low-power demand from the amp. No room absorption; no cross-overs; no room reflections; and the intimacy and silencing effects of headphones. How often have you heard the exclamation, "I put the headphones on my head and heard things in familiar music I've never heard before on speakers."

On the other hand, headphones, in my opinion, are not as mature as speakers, and transient response on headphones has a long way to go before they really get good. None the less, I've heard detail and resolution on headphones that I've never heard on speakers.

Advantage headphones.

Summary
Headphones will never have the visceral impact and imaging of speakers. And speakers will forever be trying to play catch-up with the resolution of headphones...and will find themselves falling further and further behind as time goes on.

But in the end, headphones are a completely artificial way to hear sound while speakers deliver sound in a natural way. There's no doubt in my mind that given the opportunity, I will always prefer speaker listening. That opportunity, however, will never be available on an airplane, open office space, or while mowing the lawn. Truth is: A music lover will always be best served by a mix of both headphones and speakers in their life.

I'll add that there is a special case with audiophiles and their big rigs. When listening to your main stereo system and find yourself confronted with sound that you can't quite make out, having a good headphone system in your rig will allow you to more closely hear the sounds of interest. I think every big rig should have a headphone component.

Headphones, like speakers, are a legitimate way to listen, and both deserve their own categories in which to stand on their own merit.

Headphones as an audio accessory? Bah. Get off my lawn!

COMMENTS
Audrius's picture

Speakers will be obsolete soon (in 10 to 20 years). To listen to speakers is barbaric way to listen to music - you shake and rattle all your environments and neighbors. Why will you need this cumbersome audio equipment (monoblock amps et al.) when small personal player will give superior quality?
And headphones are natural way of hearing recorded sounds, because with them you hear sound like microphones heard.
No mo loudspeakers in near future!

neo's picture

wtf are you talking about..are you stoned??

Bald1's picture

I really need a good laygh tonight and OMG you provided a raucous one!

As an aside you really out to have your water checked. Methinks it tis tainted. :)

poleepkwa's picture

I was just using my headphones to fine tune my DIY speakers response last night - the amount of damping behind the drivers.

Jim Tavegia's picture

My speakers include my old Large Advents, AR-58's (the last remake of the famed AR-3a), 2-way JBL Loft 40's and 3-way ES-30's, JBL SF-12M (2-way 12" sound reinfocement floor monitors, 2 pair, and harder to listen to for just music playback, but that is not their purpose), and older AR-15s (2-way 6" in a rear vented cabinet.

All of the speakers, IMHO, sound more alike than dissimilar. The rooms do make a difference and where I have them really plays into their overall sound quality, but I keep all of them at least 4 feet away from side and rear walls and off the floor by 2 feet.

My headphones are AKG K-701s and 2 pair of K-271s ( for my studio use), Sennheiser HD-380s, 2 pair of Sony 7506's, Focal Spirit Pros (that don't get much use anymore), Shure SE-215s IEM for mobile use, Koss Porta-Pros, and a pair of old Grado 80s. To me the headphones have a much wider variation in sound presentation than my speakers. My favs are the AKGs. The Focals are just too dull to me (sad at $350) and the Sennheiser HD 380s have resonance peaks (to me) at 2.5khz (+6db) and 8khz(+3db) that is only problematic on some music with a lot of energy in those regions. On 95% of my music it is not an issue. I really like them generally for $150 and more so than the Sony 7506s for general listening.

I am to the point now that I will not buy any cans either without hearing them firsts or with a full right of return if not satisfied. Each of us have hearing responses that are all over the place that it can make buying headphones we like more troublesome than I would have ever thought.

ab_ba's picture

The way music is recorded and engineered depends on how artists and their engineers believe we will listen to it.

If it’s classical music, a jazz ensemble, or live blues, then speakers are going to do that best, because imaging is vital to re-creating the original event. That’s “the absolute sound”.

If it’s rock, each musician was probably alone in a soundproof chamber playing to a click track or an instrument track. The spatial image is put in by the engineers. It can still be wonderful and convincing, but even more important, impact is what matters for rock.

If the music was made by a kid with a laptop, then listen to it the way he made it - with headphones. DJ Shadow, J Dilla, Nicolas Jaar, lots of great artists working these days compose this way. These recordings have space, but it’s totally manufactured, and headphones probably render the music truer to the artist’s intentions than speakers do. When I listen to electronic music through headphones, I hear so much resolution that I’m pretty sure that’s how the musician wanted me to listen. All that resolution and micro-detail is lost on everything but the very best speaker setups. I’m pretty sure these guys aren’t making their music for folks who can afford $20,000+ stereos.

And then of course, as we all know, there is music that was engineered to sound good on FM radio through car speakers.

David Byrne’s book, How Music Works, points out that this phenomenon has been with us since the beginning of recorded music - music has been recorded and even composed (think of the 3 1/2 minute song) to match how the artists expect it would be listened to.

Speakers versus headphones allow you to enjoy different aspects of the same recordings, sure, but also, they are suitable for different types of music. If you’re a headphones guy, put $1-2K into a decent speaker rig, so you have your options. Focus on something where imaging is the strength, because that will best complement your headphone listening. Get some Kef LS50’s if you’re into rock - their imaging is laserlike: precise and tight. Or if you prefer jazz and classical, get a pair of Magneplanar 0.7’s. Their sound field is bigger and more diffuse. Both are wonderful, and cost as much as your really good headphones did. Get an old integrated amp for now, and upgrade later.

Sorrodje's picture

Thks ;)

bradleyp's picture

If you want impact and imaging and neutrality while still getting a huge dose of detail, set up a good nearfield rig on your desk like the pros do. The sound is detailed, immersive, and punchy; and your ears don't sweat, you can still hear when someone wants your attention, and room interaction is fairly minimal. And you can do it all for the price of a fancy-schmancy cable. Have your cake and eat it, too, I say.

yage's picture

I'm not sure if you've ever mentioned this - what's in your loudspeaker setup? Inquiring minds would like to know...

tony's picture

Loudspeaker owners need an actual House,

Headphones accompany a person everywhere,
so tiny they can get lost in a pocket,
cost next to nothing,
available nearly everywhere and thru all of the Sales Channels,
operate at full potential with well under 38 milliwatts of Amp energy,
don't bother others,
have superb sound quality,
Women buy and use them -- even older Mature women,
they even work as a phone headset -- seamlessly,

I'm certain the above are only some of the advantages.

I love and loved Loudspeakers, I've owned quite a few nice, room-filling Audio Systems, these systems had a cost of about $10,000 in 1980 Dollars!, probably 5x that price in Today's money but I couldn't fit any of my lovely Systems into my complex life today. So why bother?

Besides,
Could I confine myself to a room with a Lazy-boy, a pair of Pro-Ac Tabletts - an Electrocompaniet Amp & Preamp, Speaker Stands, pricy loudspeaker cables? Plus I'd have to Acoustically treat the Room Walls and Ceiling ( reflective surfaces ) like Harmon did for the Room housing those JBL M-2s, phew, would my wife's decorating Ingrid tolerate me wasting house space for "any" of that "ugly" stuff?, I'd ruin her design themes.

Audiophiles ( like me ) are considered to be like closet drinkers, we're belong in the basement.

A Sound bar might be OK, if it can be invisible.

As a past "Member of the Trade", I've noticed the few Steve Guttenbergs still out there spending "all" their discretionary money on Audio stuff. There are a very few in the Loudspeaker segment, most buy eBay Amps and Receiver gear !

Conversely, nearly every headphone Audiophile owns scads of "NEW" headphone gear ( they've lost count on the number they own ).

Loudspeakers are for the few that own homes, began this hobby before the 1970s and stayed with it. We're the "Old-School" Audiophiles, darn few of us left.

Tony in Michigan

ps. there's a picture of the wife of Schiit's founder, Jason Stoddard, wiring electronics, at the Schiit Factory, wearing : White Wire Headphones. Women love these headphone things.

Josuah's picture

I still find a high end speaker setup will outperform a high end headphone setup on resolution. But you'll need to spend a lot more than you would on the headphone setup.

peterinvan@yahoo.com's picture

I enjoy my speakers, and admit that they provide the best soundstage and instrument separation. However, after a few years of regular headphone listening, I am not having a problem with the center of the sound field or locating instruments on the stage. I suspect that brain plasticity may be capable of "filling in" the missing cross-feed from one ear to another. Would love to see some research in this area.

jk6661's picture

I dunno... My LCD3's image better than most speakers I've heard with my Smyth Realiser (after taking HRTF measurements with an extremely expensive commercial system in a well-treated room). Tyll briefly mentions devices like the Realiser, but I don't think he gives them enough credit.

Raymund's picture

The Koss KSC75 ear clip headphones sound most similar to loudspeakers to me. They project an audio image that is outside of my head though very close. My other headphones and earphones, such as the Sennheiser 580, AKG-701, Etymotic ER4, Phonak Audeo PFE, Fiio EX1 (Dunu Titan 1) sound better in many respects, but their audio image is more confined.
May be some designs could improve upon headphone imaging.

Beagle's picture

I agree that speakers are the only way to really hear music properly. And you don't need a house to enjoy the benefits of speakers. However, music is enjoyable on both headphones and loudspeakers. If all you've ever known is headphone listening, what you don't know won't hurt you.

Jeffrey Mann's picture

I harbor a very different opinion than previous posters.

I have been an audiophile for 45 years and I exclusively used speakers for the first 35 years using a LP-based audio setup in the $50,000 - $100,000 range. I now exclusively use a HE 1000 headphone powered by a Violelectric V281 headphone amplifier. I get much more musically accurate sound from my headphone than I ever previously experienced with any speaker-based system - please note that I define "musically accurate" as being a reproduced sound that more closely approximates the "real life" sound of classical orchestra instruments in an orchestral hall or opera singers in an opera hall. My HE 1000 headphone can also resolve microdetails much better than any speaker that I have ever heard (even speakers costing >$50,000) by a large order of magnitude. I also find that it can image better than any speaker system (in terms of differentiating each instrument from other instruments without smearing/congestion of the musical information) - although the topic of "imaging" is controversial because headphones obviously image different than speakers. I have found that neither speakers or headphones create an accurate image of a "real life" orchestral or opera soundstage, but I don't care because I place maximum emphasis on "musical accuracy" and I suspect that my HE100 headphones is much more "musically accurate" than any existent speaker system.

Rabbit's picture

Stereo recordings sound unnatural on headphones since they weren't made with headphones in mind. Binaural sounds more natural as far as imaging goes on a headphone so perhaps music production during the recording process needs to change for headphones and then there might be a stronger case when you compare.

Johan B's picture

My KEF uniQ drivers in my old XQ20 speakers give superb resolution. And when we talk nearfield monitors resolution there is fierce competition between speakers and headphones. My in-ear headphones Sony MDR EX 650AP give the last word in deep bass all though my Monitor Audio speakers have real punch. Will speakers overtake headphones? Never! There is simply not enough energy and space in a headphone to compete. And that is exactly what makes a good headphone a fascinating device!

vforrest's picture

Headphone listening is a private experience. Loudspeaker listening can be a social experience shared with other listeners.

Vade Forrester

Jeffrey Mann's picture

Rabbit wrote-: "Stereo recordings sound unnatural on headphones since they weren't made with headphones in mind."

I totally disagree! I only listen to classical music and opera, and my stereo recordings sound very natural when using headphones. I have no problem projecting the musical soundstage into an "imaginary space" well in front of my head, and I can clearly delineate all the instrumental/voice performers in their respective image-spaces.

Most classical/opera recordings are multi-miked (often 10-20 microphones)and the final placement of images in the musical soundstage (that is created by the studio engineer) is "artificial" and not directly related to the "real space" of the recording studio. Classical opera recording engineers are very skillful at creating special musical soundstage effects (eg. making it sound that an opera singer is walking across the stage while siging an aria, or coming into a room through an open door, or having an "effect" where some singers sound like they are located in a different room or even outdoors at variable distances) and these musical soundstage effects are clearly discernible when listening via headphones.

Jeff.

reaper6's picture

I have a pair of KRK studio monitors and when i can (my upstairs neighbours are away) i always prefer to listen to them.
I find them to be superior in every aspect: impact, imaging and resolution too, but they are desktop monitoring speakers so the resolution aspect is obviously pumped compared to normal speakers.

gamerfreak5665's picture

I have been experimentin with various plugins specifically meant for headphones, a program called "Sonarworks" and another called "ToneBoosters Isone. Sonarworks takes your headphones and EQs them to have a speaker-like monitor flat sound, similar to the Harman reference curve but with flatter bass. The TB Isone plugin simulates a 2 channel speaker setup, and has adjustable HRTF settings to match your size head and ears. Combining the two is absolutely amazing. In fact, in my opinion, it sounddoesn't better than most speaker setups. There is a very real sense of space, especially when using high quality headphones. I personally use the HD650. If I don't want the sound of reflections from the room, there is even an anechoic chamber setting in TB Isone. On top of that, there are adjustable crossfeed settings.
I honestly think many modern DSP plugins have equaled or even surpassed speaker setups. Sure, you don't feel the thumping visceral bass in your chest. But I can definitely see these plugins eventually replacing speaker setups in the near future, something like the Smyth Realism but more affordable and more convenient.

johnjen's picture

"Visceral impact is the ability to convey a sense of shear power and presence felt in the body as opposed to being purely heard. Bass that thumps your chest and impact that makes your eyes blink. Here, headphones simply can't, and never will, be up to the abilities of speakers."

While these statements are generally true, it is possible to achieve "Bass that thumps your chest and impact that makes your eyes blink." on headphones. And granted it's not going to happen unless you dial the entire system in, but it is possible because I and others have felt thumps in our chest and have experienced an autonomic blink response on HP's.
Now, how my chest and insides feel that thump, I'm really not sure, but feeling it does happen none the less. Perhaps it's my mind 'filling in' the missing energetic interaction, but in any case I'll take it as it is quite the experience.

As for imaging, my 'take' on this aspect is it's a consequence of getting the setup and delivery of the acoustic signal properly delivered to us.
And it's not a primary design aspect in and of itself.
IOW if the setup is dialed in THEN imaging can become a wonderful aspect of the experience, ie. its an artifact or consequence of getting many other aspects setup and delivered correctly, not the least of which is the source recording itself.

Another aspect I seldom see mentioned and where HP's have a distinct advantage over speakers is in the dissipation and diffusing of the acoustic signal as it leaves the driver(s) and passes thru the air.
The greater the distance away from the driver the more the acoustic signal looses its intrinsic detail due to the atmosphere's interaction with the acoustic energy which tends to 'equalize' itself with a subsequent loss of detail as a result.

Just a few thoughts…

JJ

sdecker's picture

I've been compiling mental lists of speakers vs headphones since high school in the mid-70s. I grew up in a smallish house with my rock and roll losing out to my father's need for classical in the adjacent room, especially late at night. So since Day One I've always treated headphones and speakers as very different but equally engaging listening experiences, two sides of the same coin. Back then my Koss Pro-4AA had intimacy and detail over my KLH 32s, both driven by a Pioneer SX-525.

Decades later I'm still as enthused with both modes, and amazed my current speakers resolve nearly as much as my headphones, with all the additional (quality) electronics and cables involved. Both my rigs are about equally far up the high-end food chain and satisfy in the ways Tyll outlines.

But I agree with poster bradleyp that you can come close to the best of both worlds with a good nearfield studio monitor setup in a properly treated and equalized acoustic, like recording studios have been doing for eons. Just ask Bob Katz' opinion!

germay0653's picture

A stereo recording is receiving signals based on their microphone positions in the venue and all the timing of the sounds would be dependent on that positioning. They also receiving all of the reflections from all surfaces in the venue.

When listening to speakers, the room itself adds reflections/modes in addition to what's already been recorded but when listening to headphones aren't you listening to a more accurate representation as if you were at the venue?

Forgive my ignorance, as I'm not a recording engineer, but what determines the microphone positions for stereo recording purposes and why? Would recording for speaker playback dictate different positioning than when recording for headphone playback?

Johan B's picture

All true but often the music is also mixed to a stereo speaker system. The Yamaha NS10 was used as neutral show case (incredible waterfall plot). Sometimes specific Studio monitors are used from KRK, Adam, Etc. The producer gives the final touch. And you have ask that person if that was meant for speakers or headphones.

Arve's picture

You're not listening to a more accurate representation on headphones, no. The stereo field, as it's normally created relies on sound emitted from the left speaker to reach both ears, and likewise from the right speaker.

This is called stereo crosstalk, and is central to forming a sound stage, and is completely lost on headphones.

Could we record differently? yes - there are a number of so-called binaural recordings out there, but the major problem with those is that they don't work all that well on speakers, mono equipment, or in a car, so are overall less compatible.

germay0653's picture

Are not the microphones receiving sound, from the same source location that the sound is emanating from, at different arrival times because of the distance between the microphones, much like your ears would. Are they also receiving the reflections, present at the venue, arriving at the microphones much like they would for your ears.

Speakers in a completely untreated room are adding additional reflections/absorption that're not present in the recording thus coloring the sound arriving at your ears whereas with headphones that additional information it's not present?

Cats_Paw's picture

Headphones: Form factor, neighbors dont plan to kill you, you take em with you.
Speakers: Everything else.

frege's picture

I totally agree, a properly treated listening environment will allow fantastic speaker performance but a poor room will ruin the sound. I am living in a small house were propper acoustic treatment is not possible. Therefore speakers aren´t an option for serious listening. I am totally happy with my HD800 in combination with the phonitor 1 and i am certain that no speaker will perform in my living room like that combination. In my experience speakers and listening environment make 40% of the sound each, the other 20% is amplifier, mood and magic and marketing.

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