If you are like me, you listen to music on your laptop, in the car, on the train, on the bus, while walking to the post office, while cooking a subpar meal, before bed after Netflix, during Netflix, and so on. Each setting is acoustically different, and to be honest, I don’t think there is a sound system that can satisfy a listener in every setting for a few reasons including: 1. every track is recorded and mixed differently 2. people have different tastes of acoustics for different content/ style of music. In this blog post, I would like to talk (as briefly as possible) about my recent experiences and purchase(s) of headphones. And please keep in mind this is not for audiophiles, but also keep in mind I am a professional musician that has (many) other expenses in life.
What are you looking for?
First, I think it is important to know (exactly) what you are looking for. If you don’t know what you’re looking for, that is fine- your taste in acoustics will develop by starting to have a discerning ear, and may vary throughout genres of music you listen to. Start by noting where you may use your headphones the most, listening to what kind of stuff.
For me: I was looking specifically for a set of over ear headphones to use in public spaces like the NYC subways, the streets, and the inside of a flying airplane (which sounds very different from a parked airplane)- basically the spaces with lots of ambient noises.
Things you may consider even before looking:
- earphones vs headphones
- earphones (in-ear) that go deep inside your ear vs that don’t
- on ear vs over ear headphones that sit on your ears vs over ear headphones that seal your ears completely
- closed back headphones (the back of the speakers are sealed and therefore better in areas with lots of background noise) vs open back headphones (back of the speakers are “open,” better for in-home use, personal choice for large-scale classical music)
- regular vs noise-cancelling vs noise-reducing headphones
For me: I was initially looking for over ear headphones that seal the ears very well, because NYC can be a very noisy place. Why not simply increase the volume? Putting your volume on very high can really hurt your ears. Not just hurt your ears, but permanently damage your ears. And say what you will about that, but that’s something I choose to not risk doing.
What are your options?
Where do you live? What kind of stores are nearby where you can try a selection of headphones and compare them back to back? What kind of deals can you get? How close is your birthday? What is your budget?
For me: I have had my fair share of bad/ short-lived relationships with Wal-Greens/ Duane Reade/ Delta Airplane -purchased headphones. Initially I thought I’m not at a position where I can justify investing in quality headphones, until I realized I had spent just as much money in crappy headphones that would break like clockwork after some time. It was only recently that I found B&H store/ warehouse in Manhattan by Penn Station, where they stock hundreds of different earphones/ headphones and you can also try a huge selection of them. So one day I boxed in a morning in my schedule to pay a pilgrimage to this holy place to try and learn about various headphones in the current market and my own preferences. I was also going for under-$100-budget and for the headphones that come with interchangeable cables. This is huge because usually the first thing to break in headphones (inexpensive and expensive) is the cord.
How much “bulky” are you comfortable handling?
For me: I’m not a huge person, and usually I already carry at least two instruments at a time in addition to a bag with miscellaneous stuff in it (yes I think I do indeed wobble when I walk). I really don’t need more luggage, especially in subways or if I’m in some suburb in Long Island to teach, I would have to walk with all this stuff for more than 15 minutes one way. AND I’m a sweaty person to begin with! And what if it rains? Do you have a safe space for your headphones on you? Also, if you use headphones mostly out of home, I would personally try to stay away with headphones with very very long cords. They can be unbelievably annoying after you purchase a set of headphones with the mindset of, “Hey it’s better than a very very short cord!” Is it? IS IT REALLY?
How much do you care about looks?
This is often over-looked (haha not sorry). But seriously. Maybe you work at an investment banking firm and you don’t want to be seen in your suit with headphones with skulls on them. Maybe you see others with headphones with chic gold plating on them and don’t want to be wearing something stylistically gross in comparison. Maybe you want your discerning audiophile friends (I’m sorry if you have these friends) to think of you as more than a sub-human. Everything plays a part in this.
What is your body like?
For me: I have a very big head and kind of a short body (like a bowling pin), with ears that support abnormally small ear canals. This rules out earphones for me (which I think is kind of a blessing because there are SO MANY to choose from). If I wear huge headphones, I look ridiculous.
HOW do I try the headphones?
I find myself listening mostly to classical, jazz, bluegrass, and funk. This is kind of a huge range. When I play pop music I need it to be not sounding simply in layers like: voice-piano-bass. I want a nice and convincing balance/ blend. I find LPs provide this very well. But when I listen to classical music I need to be able to hear with clarity. And when I listen to jazz I need to be able to hear the double bass, and not just sort-of-hear-75%-imagined-in-my-head kind of bass.
So? Pick maybe three songs of different styles you are most likely to listen to on a regular basis. Don’t be discouraged if especially in the beginning none of the headphones you try meet your expectation. Certain types of music are (“arguably”) best live. But some are not! I mean… have you listened to the Black Eyed Peas live? I thankfully haven’t but you get the idea. Listening to three selected tracks will give you an idea of how the headphones sound with each track/ style.
(to be continued in Headphones/ part 2)