Hello faithful readers of JLA,
I’ve been busy and lazy since moving to the new city. I’m trying to get back into regular posting, so here goes.
I’ve written a lot of mainly fluffy pieces about the world of headphones, but this post really aims at the heart of our beliefs. Let’s evaluate how people judge what “sounds good.” Sometimes people look at shiny metal, smooth wood, or big brand names and think “that piece of audio equipment sounds good.” This is obvious when one is made aware of the thought, but for some, it still influences our decisions in making audio purchases. Since a lot of music is listened to in the car, people shopping for their next vehicle put a lot of emphasis on what brand of stereo is installed. Looking at headphones, one might think that the Dre Beats or Bose QuietComforts automagically sounds great because the shell is nice and smooth. Some companies prey on consumers’ value of image in order to make money, so judging by visuals alone won’t land you with a solid set of headphones. Often, it’s the weirder looking units that provide the best sound.
“Houston, these headphones you gave us look like they came off a page of Import Tuner.”
It seems odd how important visual appeal is in the business of audio. If headphones are shiny, then they must sound like a choir of angels showering in unicorn tears, right? I won’t knock a set for looking cool, but there’s a point after which visual appeal takes precedence and priority over all else. There’s something to be said about mechanical and structural integrity, but there are also many DIY modifications users can make that add great depth and texture to their listening.
One time, an audio DIY nerd and I were talking about a new amp making the rounds, and I wanted to see what he thought of it. He said something to the tune of “I listened to it, but the power supply capacitors made the bass too boomy.” Now, how in the heck were his ears able to hear something that specific? There is certainly an effect of power supply quality on amplifiers, but most opamps have such high power supply rejection ratio that a dirty power supply, let alone a specific component in the power supply, has barely audible impact. It’s like saying a slice of bread tastes weird because the flour wasn’t sifted enough. Certain people in certain situations can notice the impact of these components on the whole, such as if they’re in prototype testing or doing a double blind ABX test, but these are situations are far removed and highly specific. Then there are also people who look at datasheets for opamps and say it sounds horrible. We won’t get into that.
There’s a field of study called psychoacoustics that is relevant to this discussion. While psychoacoustics really takes into account the effects of sound waves on the ear and as well as human perception, it bears repeating that something that looks good doesn’t necessarily sound good.
In my previous life, I was enrolled in a piano curriculum that emphasized ear training. I don’t know if it ever goes away, but I at least retain some ability to judge what sounds good. I believe everyone is able to develop their ability to judge good and bad sounds if they quieted their souls more. Try this experiment: on any given weekend afternoon, when the dishes and laundry are put away, lunch is packed in the fridge for the next day, and you find yourself with a free block of 30 minutes, grab your favourite album in your quietest space, and sit back and just listen to it. Let the screech of the guitarist’s hands across the strings send shivers up and down your spine. Listen to the double kick drum pound against your ears, and follow the cellist taking the bass line for a walk. Let down your guard for a minute, and let the music reach your soul once again.