Speakers vs Headphones Listening

Discussion in 'General Audio Discussion' started by rhythmdevils, Nov 30, 2022.

  1. rhythmdevils

    rhythmdevils MOT: rhythmdevils audio

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    I spent a bunch of time the other day listening to music on my speakers. Which I haven’t done in a while. And I started thinking about and noticing how I listen to music differently on speakers vs headphones. And why.

    When I’m listening to my speakers, I’m just listening to music, it’s very simple. The melodies, the rhythms, the emotions the music evokes and the places it takes me through memories and dreams and combinations of the two.

    When I’m listening to headphones I’m doing this too in equal measure, but I’m also way more focussed on the sound, not just the music.

    Why is this?

    I think it’s because I have always owned speakers that were free of any serious issues. Even in middle school and then high school when my parents got me a Denon setup, they sounded like slightly less resolving and refined versions of my parents many thousand dollar B&W Nautilus 803 setup. Then in college I got a pair of Mackie HR624 (mk1’s- not the new made in China mk2’s) monitors and they sounded the same as my Denon setup just more resolving/dynamc/refined.

    Unless you buy something weird, it’s really hard to buy very bad speakers. They’re almost all pretty much free of any major f**k ups. Presonus (isn’t that the one?) makes a million models of cheap monitors that all just sound like music. No issues that are bad enough to even be called minor.

    Compare that to my history with headphones.

    I spent over a decade listening to headphones with very serious colorations and errors and problems and I was bothered by it that whole time while trying to focus on the music. From the dullness of Sennheisers to the peaky John Grados to shit like Ultrasones that are just abominations and shouldn’t even be able to call themselves headphones. In simple terms, I spent over a decade bothered by the severe colorations in headphones.

    And so I developed a strong desire to not be bothered by the colorations in my headphones so I could just listen to music the way I did with speakers. But all this time forced to think about the sound kind of corrupted my experience. I’ve now managed to make planar magnetic headphones and iems that sound like music to me, but I am still focussed on the sound because I have put so much thought into the sound of headphones both in my desire to be free of serious acoustic problems but also in what developed as a serious appreciation for the beauty of the sound of music. And then wanting better sound, not just wanting to be free of bothersome artifacts caused by the transducer system.

    It’s developed into a real joy appreciating the sound of music, but it is also a distraction and a curse. And I wonder what my relationship with music would be like if headphones were better 15 years ago. It’s kind of a blessing to be enriched by this new aspect of music- how it sounds- but it’s also a curse because in some ways it’s a distraction from the music itself. It’s kind of a separate thing.

    My speakers are decidedly mid-fi in relation to the speaker hifi world but they have always sounded good enough to me and I’ve never lusted for better speakers than my Mackies. Better has always felt like a luxury and not a necessity. They have impeccable tone that is absolutely perfect, every instrument and voice sounds real and true. And they’re completely flat in FR and free of any ringing or meaningful distortion. I’m happy with them, even though I know that better is out there.

    There’s really no end to my dreams of the sound headphones could create on the other hand. I find it incredibly beautiful.

    But this appreciation was born out of a desire to be free of shittiness.

    I find my unholy obsessive pursuit of better sound in headphones interesting when compared to my pretty simple satisfaction with my speakers. It’s quite a contrast and a different way of listening to music.

    I wish the headphone market was full of normal sounding headphones. But then again, if it were I might not have put the thought into it to develop such a deep understanding and relationship with music. But I do hope that for the younger generation, it’s possible to buy decently priced headphones that just sound like music.
     
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  2. k4rstar

    k4rstar Britney fan club president

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    I have 3 thoughts on the subject

    thought 1
    I'm sure you are already aware but the lack of normal sounding headphones comes from the acoustic challenge of firing a tweeter-sized driver directly into the ear cavity. Sometimes people talk about headphones being free from negative room effects. Well it works both ways, rooms can have the positive effect of randomizing sound waves and freeing the listener's perception from the flaws of the speakers. There have been a few attempts to capture this affect in headphone form, the most famous being the Sony R10 and its cups.

    I disagree about 'almost all' speakers being free of major f**k ups though. I think you need to hear more of what is possible vs. what is common on the market.

    P.S. the Koss Stereophone company has been making normal sounding headphones for decades.

    thought 2
    I see a lot of headphone people put a lot of 'stuff' in their chain. DDCs, USB isolators, power conditioners, weird cables, big black DACs, nuclear reactor amps, etc. Of course you can have all this stuff in a speaker chain too, but I find it interesting when the headphone aficionado's first speaker setup is a pair of active monitors hooked up to his computer with a passive or digital volume control and remarks to himself "wow this sounds really normal, I wonder if all that 'stuff' I have to listen to headphones is really necessary?"

    thought 3
    You raise a point about listening to sounds vs. listening to music. This was conceptualized into a framework by Anatoly Likhnitsky, in which he described us as listening with 4 levels of perception. The first 2 levels are more concerned with sounds distinct from music, the 3rd level has to do with the emotion we feel from those sounds, and the 4th level is abstract from sound entirely and has to do with the aesthetic created by the complex organization of sounds.

    It seems that when we are in tweaker mode, we hone in on the 1st and 2nd level of perception and listening becomes a chore, we no longer receive satisfaction from music as we are not engaged on the 3rd and 4th. It is possible to also do the opposite, ignore the flaws on the 1st and 2nd level in favor of letting music take hold on us. This is how people listen to acoustic gramophone's which are full of objective distortions and noise but extremely interesting to listen to nonetheless.
     
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  3. Jh4db536

    Jh4db536 Friend

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    When i listen to my speakers i hear a bit of the Room (or lack of) and associated acoustics. When i listen to headphones i know i'm just hearing the headphones without room and positioning effect. (bk20 v hd800) i think they behave and sound very similar.

    That being said, the speakers are just different and way more revealing than headphones. Speakers are clearer, higher resolution, imaging issues will show up instantly and i use the same Amp chain for both.

    I've learned recently that i have to tune for both separately; what is good for one does not necessarily improve the other. Rolling <tubes/caps/etc> in my amp or source for example will determine staging and imaging for speakers, but kill the rich enjoyment for headphones and vice versa. Making the headphone sound good does not necessarily do well on speakers.
     
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  4. yotacowboy

    yotacowboy McRibs Kind of Guy

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    I totally disagree! IME, speakers play your room acoustics before they play your music. In my 20+ years dicking around with speakers, I really do think that we're hearing 80% room and 20% speakers.
     
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  5. Philimon

    Philimon Friend

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    Headphone’s “room” are the earpads, enclosure, etc. You want some bass gain? Put your speakers nearer the wall boundaries or put deeper pads on your headphone.

    Yes. Small studio monitor is a compromise and not free from f**k ups. All speakers and headphones are chosen compromises. If you want to hear different aesthetics / compromises from your studio monitor then try a crossoverless widebander (like BK20), open baffle, a big 3 way, etc (see diyaudio). All of which can be had for less than the price of a fancy headphone cable.
     
  6. E_Schaaf

    E_Schaaf MOT: E.T.A Headphones

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    On my speakers, I can always hear rolloff and room nodes in the lows and bloom in the low mids, and I always have a sense that there can never be instantaneous starts and stops to transient energy (even if the broader swings are more intense). I suppose these things are part of what our ears expect of 'real/normal sounds' in 'real/normal spaces'. It makes sense that this would be perceived more like live music with acoustic or electroacoustic instruments. The speakers sit in front of me, and the sound they project more or less 'fits' the aural FOV my ears can readily appreciate. Imaging has depth and sounds take up more palpable spaces. The sound is in the room with me... even though I can easily hear how things get mucked up if I lean back or forward in my chair, walk across the room, turn my head, etc. However, when I'm listening I don't care - I've accepted it can never be 'perfect' if such a thing exists (it doesn't).

    On a pair of over-ear headphones, I can always hear some smearing or glare somewhere in the upper mids and/or highs. I attribute this quite a bit to the fact that earpads (the 'room' of my headphones), headphone drivers and enclosures, always will have a tendency to glare at higher frequencies where my ears are more sensitive than their speaker equivalents due to their smaller size. These colorations are also generally narrower, less 'randomized' you could say, which may be a part of what makes them more perceptually egregious/distracting. A close driver-to-ear distance with no angling means the aural FOV can be far 'larger than life' to the point where things sound more like everything is everywhere instead of having a concrete front-of-head image. Like sitting front row at an IMAX movie, the screen is too large to see anything. The number of recordings where elements in the mix are not perfectly center-panned and phase-locked between channels (or inversely, overly hard-panned) can be a huge distraction and make me think something is wrong. I don't get that on speakers where there's inherent crossfeed involved - discrete channels also play into this uncanniness. Not to mention the drivers sit within the 'cone of confusion' for your ears.

    That being said, in my perception, it is absolutely false to say that my speakers are more resolving than my headphones. They resolve different things. A deep descending synthetic bassline grounded in the bottom octave of my perception (my speakers can't reach it), the impossibly razor over-sharp start and stop of an electronic clap or snare, the exaggeration of 'mosquito farts', the obviousness of heavily noise-shaped dithering, the impossibly fast click of a sample being triggered that was improperly cut, the sense that you can count the number of oscillations in a square or sawtooth synths as if they were different transients are all things my headphones render in a way I find more exciting to listen to than my speakers and does engage me more with the content of certain music... That being said, maybe these 'details' are things that are disengaging rather than engaging to hear for some folks.

    If there's a general trend to be found with my habits and preferences, I prefer synthetic and over-produced music on headphones 100% of the time. Stuff likely made with headphone listeners - and headphone limitations - in mind. But most music produced before the 2010s using primarily 'real instruments', speakers are the way. Of course there are gradations in each category - open baffle earspeakers, near-field speakers, etc etc. Maybe I've just never heard speakers 'good enough' to change my mind. But that's my 0.02c.
     
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    Last edited: Nov 30, 2022
  7. supertransformingdhruv

    supertransformingdhruv Almost "Made"

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    +1 on this. I've spent more time & nervosa (maybe not money, but there are folks on this exact forum doing more serious remodeling) dealing with the room acoustics than I've spent on the entire headphone situation. Hours of walking around clapping, measuring my room with REW, moving a panel or foam square around, moving my loudspeaker, subwoofer, or furniture a quarter-inch, listening for difference and then doing the whole thing again.

    That said, I really do prefer speakers to headphones. While I find it easier to listen critically to a speaker system, I also find it easier to turn my critical brain off and just enjoy the music with a decent speaker system. There's a certain naturalness to it-- sound in a room brings spatial cues that feel more correct and real, you feel the bass in your chest and belly, the music comes at you from all sides, your arm hair stands on end and you can feel the air vibrate around you-- that really does it for me.

    One distinction I do want to crack open a bit is near-field vs diffuse-field. Near-field listening, i.e. studio monitors up close, feels like headphones with extra steps to me. I hear it, I can listen to it, I can even think critically about what I'm hearing, but I don't get the same mood-altering engagement that I get with speakers in a room 8 feet away. Headphones are like this for me as well, except they have the advantages of being more private & removing the room altogether. I've also definitely heard better headphone systems than near-field systems, so there is the bias of personal experience to consider.

    TL;DR: It's definitely all in what you've taught yourself to like.
     
  8. Philimon

    Philimon Friend

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    Yes.

    1. What is your reference? You say Hendrix sounds more real on Grado? You were there during the recording, mastering, and processing from tape to digital ? Oh, youve never even once heard live instruments before.

    2. Accept that you cant get perfection but you can at least optimize for your preference and constraints. Audiophile nervosa is real. Realize if Apple Airpods Pro sound at least 80% as good as your main rig at a fraction of the cost but with 10x more convenience then audiophile hobby is a bit masochistic. Keep perspective, know which gear gives you more satisfaction per cost (time, money, effort, etc)…In my case I dont buy expensive cables or tubes and I barely buy amps or dacs.

    3. Do you derive most satisfaction from (a) listening to new music, (b) trying new gear, or (c) participating on the forums? For me it’s a cyclical causal relationship but am happiest during prolonged periods of (a).

    4. Come to terms that at the end youre having no more connection and satisfaction with the music than you did when having just Porta Pro + iPod 10+years and $1k+ ago. Why is that and my god what have I done?!

    5. You get old and die.
     
  9. luckybaer

    luckybaer Friend

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    I wonder if being so close to the ear or actually in the ear has something to do with why there seems to be such a wide variance between the sound signatures of headphones and IEMs?

    IOW, does how our ears are formed or shaped drive speaker makers as much as I am sure accounting for anatomical realities drive those tuning headphones and IEMs?

    Speakers can sound goofy if the room’s acoustics are bad (an ear canal or outer ear is shaped oddly), and they can sound “off” if placement is wrong (iem not stuffed far enough in, etc.).

    <shrugs> I’m just rambling nonsensically… :)
     
  10. purr1n

    purr1n Desire for betterer is endless.

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    I've never worried about the room when it comes to speakers. I do have furniture though and will strategically locate stuff. I find that addressing first reflections takes care of 90% of most problems. The rest of the furniture cuts down on room reverb. High ceilings and slab foundation does help. Room modes in bass are part of the speaker experience and still exist in mix stages.

    Personally, I think too much has been made of room interactions. I'm old school though, so buzzing and noise in amps and cracks and pops in records and hiss don't bother me all that much.
     
  11. Gazny

    Gazny MOT: ETA Audio

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    Maybe “we” just criticize headphones more and no longer listen to the music. Seems many people demand the sense of awe. Without it we just say reasons we think it doesn’t take us there.

    The same way you feel about headphones people feel about speakers and vice versa.

    I like to think tweaks to solve problems are bad, and snake oil as the problem is never fixed. Tweak to perfect your sound but know fully it never will be. As when you are accustomed to it, the awe will be gone.
     
  12. Entropy

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    I think there's a point to be made here, but I also don't quite agree with everything.
    I recently RMA'd my speaker amplifier. Took over a month to get it back, and I didn't have anything to power my speakers during that time. The amount of time that I spent engaged in listening shot way down, despite the fact that I have reasonable headphones and iems that are better with technicalities/nuanced detail, and are tuned relatively close to my preference curve (with a little eq help, at least). I've had my current speaker setup (aside from my amp) for about 9 months now and haven't changed much, but I find it is and was much easier to engage with and enjoy music while I'm listening to my speakers. There's no sense of awe here, hasn't been for months. I just prefer my speakers.

    I definitely do believe that awe and novelty do often glamorize the listening experience, and that effect wears off over time, but still think that it doesn't necessarily define one's experience with headphones/speakers. On another note, though, your message reminded me of how some people like to have unique gear on rotation to keep the experience of listening novel and interesting.
     
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  13. Cspirou

    Cspirou They call me Sparky

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    From a measurement standpoint it seems like speakers are “easy”. Just make sure that FR is flat from 100Hz to 10kHz and you’re mostly the way there. For headphones we really have no common agreement on what a curve should look like.

    Also most speakers have crossovers which is basically amp level EQ. Headphones are mainly standalone drivers that go straight to the amp. Acoustic treatments are the primary form of modifying FR which is much harder (but possibly more rewarding) than using EQ
     
  14. yotacowboy

    yotacowboy McRibs Kind of Guy

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    I kind of agree with this, except with the caveat that active EQ-ing/convolution in the digital domain really doesn't sound that great to me unless it's only acting under 100-200Hz. It's not exactly a "philosophy of EQ," but I think that mechanical "problems" in a speaker setup that affect FR should really be dealt with through mechanical means, i.e., 89 part x-overs with 14 notch filters, 24db slopes, and impedance Zobel networks everywhere mostly sound flat (FR) but also flat in macro/microdynamics. Using electrical EQ or digital EQ for mechanical FR aberrations in a speaker driver/cabinet system can introduce phase issues that, despite some measurement Jihadist claims otherwise, f**k up the sound, imho.
     
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  15. JanMc

    JanMc New

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    I feel like a lot of the difference is that we hear speakers with our whole bodies but only hear phones with our ears. To me, this makes speakers better since I feel the music as well as hear it and that adds a lot to the experience and makes it a much more 'real life' experience since that is how we hear/feel most noise.
     
  16. ColtMrFire

    ColtMrFire Writes better fan fics than you

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    I would not call one "better" than the other, it's about what each brings to the table for the listener. Headphones are a more intimate, immersive experience. Sometimes I want that and it's not something speakers can give me. Sometimes I want the large scale, grand, more realistic experience, so speakers.
     
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  17. Caryking

    Caryking New

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    I’ve said the following for years…. An individual’s sound system, whether speakers or headphones, should be tailored to your preferences. Don’t think you will recreate live or how it was originally recorded. It’s not happening…

    So, determine what you value in your system: is it soundstaging, detail or low-level resolution, musical (whatever that means to you), or anything else. Focus on your primary value and work hard to get it.

    Lastly, don’t give a damn what others may think about your system and enjoy the music.
     
  18. Bowmoreman

    Bowmoreman Facebook Friend

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    This greatly depends on the speakers. It’s the primary reason I fell in love with Planars 30+ years ago; they just “excite” far fewer room nodes, etc. (if, and it’s a big if, you have the right size/shape room).

    With my Apogee’s, it’s definitely more 80/20 the other way-round… (to my ears).

    Reminds me I gotta go and FIND my old pair of Star SR5/SRD-6 headphones I used back in College… I’ve moved cross country (from Arizona to Massachusetts to Colorado to Massachusetts to Texas and to New Hampshire since I last used them). I know there in one of those 500+ boxes of stuff somewhere
     

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