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.
Almost all audio product reviews share the same conceit: the idea that the opinions of the person doing the review will correspond with yours. That’s because almost all evaluations of audio products are performed by a single reviewer, with negligible, if any, solicitation of or mention of others’ opinions. The premise has always been that because the writer is an expert, he (or in very rare cases, she) will understand the product well enough to predict whether or not an audio product will be a good choice for you -- or at least he or she will be able to describe the product’s characteristics accurately enough for you to get a good idea of whether or not you’ll like it.