Just the other day while reviewing the Sennheiser HD 471 I had an interesting experience: In comparing three relatively neutral headphones (HD 471; HD 569; and ATH-M50x) I found my mind switching between analytical and experiential modes—some might say objective and subjective modes. What I found, oddly, was that while I could pick out the flaws of the HD 569 more easily than the HD 471, I also found it a more pleasing listening experience. It got me to thinking about measurable flaws, quantitative vs. qualitative differences, and the listening experience.

Cue up a little musing music.

Flawed Response
We’ll start with a fact: A few decades ago, Floyd Toole was able to strongly correlate listening pleasure and reproduction accuracy. Basically, the more neutral a speaker was, the more people liked it. High fidelity—truthfulness to the original signal—seems to win the day. The correlate to this is that deviation from neutral is not pleasant; measurably flawed reproduction will usually lead to degraded listener satisfaction. Why is that?

For me, flawed reproduction breaks the spell of experiencing the music as a whole. Ones attention is drawn to unnatural aspects of the music heard rather than attending to the musical experience itself. The mind switches from a subjective experiencing mode to an analytical mode where one is aware of the characteristics of reproduction. I would contend that these two ways of thinking are mutually exclusive; one cannot simultaneously be actively analyzing and subjectively experiencing.

I got a lot of flack for my Sony MDR-Z1R review wherein I stated, “I really don’t know what more to say. When I’d rather listen to the Audio Technica ATH-M50x we’ve got problems.” The reason I said that is with the ATH-M50x I find the flaws at a low enough level that I could switch away from analytical listening to experiential listening and simply enjoy the music; with the Sony Z1R I could never ignore the bass intrusion on the midrange or zingy spike at 10kHz. But that’s just me.

Had I paid $2.2k out of my own pocket for the Z1R I might have been more motivated to ignore the flaws and enter a non-judgemental experience and enjoy the music as presented. And herein lies the first rub: While it’s possible (in an ideal world) to measure a headphone and quantify the magnitude of its deviation from neutral, the quality of the subjective listening experience is largely under the control (consciously or unconsciously) of the listener and is mutable based on the listener’s willingness/desires/intentions.

While we can objectively answer the question of how far away from neutral a headphone deviates, we cannot answer the question of how far away from neutral a headphone has to be for it to force the switch in the listeners mind from experiential to analytical. A total n00b listener may never go into the analytical mode as they simply don’t have the skills. And, paradoxically, an experienced analytical listener may only enter the experiential mode on rare occasion.

For some over-enthusiastic subjective listeners a wide variety of headphone responses, some deviating strongly from neutral, provides an ideal field on which to overlay an array of connoisseur-like characteristics. “Headphone A sounds like cherry pie, and headphone B is more liver pate.” If one eschews the objective goal of neutrality in favor of the liberated subjective freedom of calling colorations a palate flavors, then one can enjoy almost any headphone. The problem with this paradigm is that the vector for good-better-best becomes untethered from objective headphone performance and lives more in the listeners mind than in the headphone itself. This is how the hype train ends up draining people’s wallets without reward.

Hobbyists can and should develop an analytical ear for neutrality. Manufacturers listen to what we say more than ever before; it’s important we provide an objective vector for good and call poor headphones poor rather than liver pate.

Near Neutral
Once we get near neutral the picture changes somewhat. (For the moment let’s not worry about the fact that we don’t really know what neutral on headphones is exactly.) For me, as a headphone approaches neutral, I find myself more able to experience the headphone as a whole. The particular flaws more easily melt into an overall character. For example, in the HD 471 review, I found the HD 471 had a somewhat boring character, and the HD 569 seemed more liquid and coherent—even though the HD 569 looked a little more flawed in the measurements. The listening experience was close enough to neutral on both that I was able to switch into a subjective mode in comparisons in which I found the HD 569 the superior listening experience despite the technicalities.

As a reviewer this can be a troubling situation: Do I describe the niggly technical differences between headphones, or do I describe the character of my subjective experience? While I can ascribe objective truth to technical deviations, once I enter the realm of subjective experience these matter not—the proof of the pudding is in the eating. On the other hand, my subjective experience will likely differ from yours; how truthful will my experience be relative to yours? Truth is, I don’t know.

The paradox is that nearing neutral objective measurements become less relevant, and the measure of a headphone’s performance becomes rooted in the subjective apprehension its character—which is inherent to the listener more than the headphone itself. What sounds bouncy to me may sound happy to you. Fortunately, Floyd Toole’s results give me a little confidence to think we humans are more similar than different, and once a headphone gets near neutral the magnitude of subjective ease and pleasure I gain will likely be related to other’s experience even though we may describe the qualitative details differently.

So, the good news for enthusiasts is that once we get near neutral and the meaningfulness of measurements diminish, our subjective impressions count all the more, and we can engage in a rich and productive dialog. For example: Is a little extra emphasis at 5-8kHz preferable for movie listening and phone calls? Is it worth a slightly piercing sound in music playback in order to have a broadly functional headset? Sennheiser seems to be doing that with their wireless products at the moment and I’m not sure whether it’s a good thing or a bad thing. I wish there were more trustworthy dialog in the community about this and other subtleties.

Perfect Neutrality
For the moment, let’s put aside the fact that there is no such thing as perfect neutrality. We’ll assume the unachievable limit of a perfectly transparent headphone where you can’t tell the difference between a violin in the room and what you hear on this headphone. What can you say about the headphone’s character?

It’s transparent…end of story.

You just hear the music as recorded. If you switch your mind into analytical mode you find there’s nothing in the headphone itself to analyze; your only alternative is to go into subjective mode and experience the music…not the headphone. Which is wonderful in my opinion; that’s what I’m looking for.

The problem with a perfect headphone is that headphone enthusiasts want to engage in a hobby of meaningful dialog. If all headphones were perfect, there’d be nothing to talk about.

Fortunately for us, there are no perfect headphones.

“What the hell is my take-away point in all this!?”
Good question. Here’s my advice:

  • If you see a long thread with a lot of flowery words about how a headphone sounds like unicorn breath and beach life, interspersed with a few comments from others saying it’s trash because of the bloated bass or has a piercing treble, you can probably disregard the headphone. Those with good listening skills won’t have much to say about a really bad headphone; those who are fooling themselves into the pleasure of a colorful subjective experience may have a lot to say about their rich fantasy.
  • If you find a thread where people are somewhat speechless, having a hard time identifying any objective problems, and having a hard time describing it other than mild overall impressions, pay attention. If people start using words like “transparent” and “clear”, pay special attention.
  • Look at the measurements. Know what the neutral target curve looks like and how your personal tastes may slightly deviate. I like it a little rolled-off up top with a bit of bass boost; you may differ. Once you find likely candidates, you must listen for yourself. With near-neutral headphones your subjective experience may be quite a bit different than modest deviations from neutral may indicate.
  • Develop your analytical listening skills so you can identify peaks and valleys in response and have a sense of their magnitude. If you identify significantly colored response and still like it, consider the possibility that you’re fooling yourself. Dig deeper, listen to a variety of music, listen to both good and bad recordings, you’ll likely come to hear the coloration for the flaw that it is…and then you’ll not be able to un-hear it as flawed. This is learning. The process is not necessarily comfortable, but you’ll end up with more deeply satisfying headphones.

Funny the things you think about doing yard work over the Labor Day weekend. Enjoy your week!