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.
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.
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.
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.