Global feedback — not that applied to an amplifier’s feedback circuit but the polling of this publication’s social media channels: Facebook, Twitter and YouTube. Up for call-and-response this time around are headphones and loudspeakers. The likelihood of readers/viewers using both during their day to day was obvious. I wanted to know which transducer design got the most airtime: do you listen more often through headphones or through loudspeakers?
Loudspeakers give us something headphones cannot: sound on skin where music isn’t just heard by the ear-brain but felt by the body. That’s the theory. Alas, heavy doses of reality are never far away.
When we listen to loudspeakers, we hear the loudspeaker’s output but also its wall, ceiling and floor reflections. In other words, we hear the loudspeaker interact with the room. Acoustically treating a room to minimise those reflections (plus standing waves) can be costly. Often such treatments sit at direct odds with the one’s decor. Effective room treatments aren’t cheap. Good-looking room treatments are expensive.
Headphones remove the room. First reflections be gone! Could this be why we net superior detail retrieval and a greater sense of intimacy when the same money is spent on headphones instead of loudspeakers? Dropping €5000 on a pair of high-end headphones + DAC/amplifier will put you close to the summit of what’s possible in head-fi. €5000 on a pair of loudspeakers + DAC/amplifier is but warm-up act for high-end hi-fi.
Want to hear all of the music and not an edited version, its low bass cut off at the knees by a pair of standmount speakers? A full-range headphone system will cost us less to assemble than a full-range loudspeaker system. Headphones give us far more wallop for our dollar.
Elsewhere, headphones aren’t just a preference; they’re a necessity. If the rest of the family want to watch TV and we have no dedicated listening room, headphones become Hobson’s choice. Here we’d opt for closed-back headphones so that the TV’s sound doesn’t disturb our listening and our music doesn’t audibly puncture the TV atmosphere.
Our hand (on headphones) might also be forced by room dimensions that rule out a satisfactory loudspeaker sound. Or it might be forced by neighbourly harmony. Loudspeakers are the enemy of Berlin’s Alt-Bau dwellers where paper-thin walls and floors are the norms. Those listening home alone or in private office spaces can enjoy the wide sonic vistas and airier top end (I’m generalising) of open-backed models.
Cars aside, loudspeaker systems aren’t portable. Listening to music outsiude of the house – in the street, on public transportation and at the office – we find our heads once again pushed between headphones or IEMs. Bluetooth models can free us from cables and their tangles but wired IEMs/headphones still have a race to run. Their audible edge over wireless models is clear, especially for listeners not needing active noise cancellation (ANC). For those who care about sound quality, ANC gives us more in background noise elimination than it drops via Bluetooth’s lossy compression. ANC is, for me, the only compelling reason to go Bluetooth in 2019.
Many loudspeaker listeners choose to listen alone. For those who reject the classic Eames chair in favour of a couch that seats more than one, a loudspeaker system lets others listen along with you. ‘Member sociability? A headphone’s most obvious shortcoming is that it doesn’t encourage us to engage in shared listening experiences. When people turn to headphones for their day-to-day music fix, they privatise their listening. They are locked away, their ears double-glazed to the rest of the world. Could this be why live shows – a shared experience for all – are more popular than ever?
Surface issues scratched, on with the results.
Facebook’s 640 voters tell us that loudspeakers remain their firm favourite:
Over on Twitter, 496 poll respondents peg loudspeakers as their preferred medium but by a narrower margin:
YouTube’s greater mainstream reach served up a much larger sample. Almost 5000 people responded to the ‘headphones vs loudspeakers’ poll with the latter winning out once again but my a smaller margin still: for every 2 headphone listeners, there are 3 sitting in front of a pair of loudspeakers.
As always, that’s interesting.