I get frustrated when people criticize the practice of audio measurement without having examined the issue in any depth -- but with headphones, I can forgive. The measurements for most audio products, such as speakers and amplifiers, are well established and easy to grasp. Even in high school, when I barely knew a capacitor from a choke, I could understand most of the measurements Julian Hirsch published in Stereo Review. But headphone measurements are nowhere near as intuitive -- a problem I hope to solve with this article.


Thanks to recent research, we now understand a lot about headphones. But there’s one part of the headphone puzzle that I haven’t understood at all, and until a few weeks ago, neither did anyone else I’d talked with. It’s a phenomenon I call “eardrum suck,” and it occurs with some noise-canceling headphones. When you put the headphones on and activate the noise-canceling function, it can cause a feeling like riding a high-speed elevator, where you’re whisked abruptly into a region of lower atmospheric pressure, and the higher-pressure air inside your ear pushes your eardrums out slightly. For many, including me, it’s an effect so uncomfortable it can cause us to leave our expensive noise-canceling headphones in a drawer, unused.

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I recently got a request to review a headphone amplifier -- just an amp, with no DAC built in -- priced close to $10,000. This and many other products I’ve recently seen at audio shows have me wondering if the high-end audio industry has shifted away from its original purpose -- achieving better music reproduction than mass-market audio gear can provide -- and toward building audio gear intended more as objects of consumerist desire than as a means of achieving genuine improvements in musical reproduction.

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When I reviewed the Bowers & Wilkins P9 Signature headphones, I found much to praise in their looks, materials, and build quality. While industrial design at Bowers & Wilkins is always top-flight, it was obvious that the company’s engineers had also put a lot of work into the acoustic design -- evidenced by the earcup suspension, attention to resonance reduction, and angled drivers with proper surrounds. Sonically, the P9 Signatures did an exceptional job delivering soundstage cues, a real sense of space, and explosive dynamics. What was more problematic from an audiophile perspective was their frequency balance.

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When SoundStage! founder Doug Schneider and I created SoundStage! Solo, we decided to try some ideas that other SoundStage! Network sites had never explored. We expanded the publishing schedule, added a comments section to the articles, and -- at Doug’s suggestion, and against my hesitation -- introduced ratings. Why did Doug’s suggestion worry me? Because I’d asked the “ratings or no ratings?” question so many times since I started as a tech journalist in 1989, and I’d never really come up with a satisfactory answer.


I don’t often participate in online audio forums; I have a great outlet here at SoundStage! Solo, and don’t want to invade someone else’s space. But I do read the forums to see what audio enthusiasts think about various products, and about the reviews of those products. While reading online forums can sometimes diminish one’s faith in humanity, I generally like what I see on headphone forums.

Latest Comments

If this reason for the "eardrum suck" is correct, then playing some background noise should ...
@MauroI'm looking forward to hearing what you think! It's frustrating to me that so many ...
This article is (obviously) pretty biased towards Knowles.

Some informations written here are just not true ...
@Brent ButterworthThanks for replying. I will try to get one of these expensive earphones..and one of ...
Doug Schneider 12 days ago What's the Future of High-End Headphones?
@STOP_THE_GIFWhat "goif" are we talking about exactly?

Please STOP the f/%?&*ing goif on top of EVERY f/$%%?&*ing page!!! It's unbearable, makes the ...
Hi Brent, I bought the Soundcore Q20s on your recommendation in the comments below back ...
@MauroI'm still a long ways from figuring that out. Earphones are different -- I would ...
This article screams: Trust the expert!

Brent, what's the fuss with high-end earphones?
I have never managed ...
Todd 17 days ago Technics EAH-TZ700 Earphones
Do you ever wonder HOW earphones can be this expensive? Serious question. I cannot understand ...