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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.

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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.

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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

Ragav 2 days ago Sennheiser IE 300 Earphones
@Robin28Thank you so much! Much appreciated!
How many decibels do you think these put out with an iphone or android phone?
Brent Butterworth 7 days ago Phiaton 900 Legacy Bluetooth Headphones
@BenThe Phiaton measurements are correct. We'll work on fixing the Technics measurements. I think just ...
Robin28 13 days ago Sennheiser IE 300 Earphones
@RagavBrent wrote more about the HD 600 in an older version of that Wirecutter guide ...
Brent Butterworth 17 days ago Phiaton 900 Legacy Bluetooth Headphones
@BenThanks for pointing that out, Ben, we'll take a look. We did a full review ...
Hi Brent Just wanted to point out that your first measurement graph for the Phiaton's ...
Giacomo Traballoni 24 days ago Beyerdynamic Free Byrd True Wireless Earphones
I've replaced my Status Between Pro (great product overall except for reliability) after a failure ...
Brent Butterworth 28 days ago Phiaton 900 Legacy Bluetooth Headphones
@JorgeI think they sound better. I actually prefer the Phiaton's noise canceling because it doesn't ...
I read the review and want to ask directly if these are better than the ...
Dave Angelo Obico 1 months ago Are There Valid Objections to the Harman Curve?
Heres my take. The etymotic target for iems sounds better for me with a boost ...