Not to bore you too much with the sausage-making process, but what follows is not the article I originally intended to write this month. The goal here was to author an introductory article for budding audio enthusiasts who probably already have a lot of experience listening to headphones but perhaps don’t know what they get—and what they give up—when moving to a proper component stereo system.
But, as I often do when I’m preparing to write such articles, I called my friend and mentor, Brent Butterworth—who also just so happens to edit SoundStage! Solo, a publication dedicated to headphones—to brainstorm.
Once our call was done and I listened to the recording, I realized our conversation was far more entertaining than anything I could sit down and write myself. So what follows is an edited transcript of our call, with 95% of the profanity removed or bowdlerized and quite a few diversions about our four-legged family members left on the cutting-room floor.
Dennis Burger: So, we’ve been tasked with relitigating the great “headphones vs. speakers” debate. Well, I’ve been tasked with such. I’m dragging you along for the ride because I figure if anyone can make this subject entertaining, it’s you.
Let’s start by talking about conventional wisdom when it comes to headphones vs. speakers. I think our starting assumptions are that headphones suffer in terms of imaging and soundstaging and consistency, but they benefit from less room interaction. I don’t know if one is necessarily better than the other. They’re different. But what are your thoughts on that?
Brent Butterworth: Well, the paradigm of speakers in a room is that you’re trying to make it sound like an actual live performance, right?
DB: Eh . . . are you, though? Is that even an achievable goal?
BB: Well . . . more or less, yes. That has been the goal—not always, mind you, but for a number of decades now. And these days, it’s perhaps less relevant, because what’s a live performance of deadmau5 supposed to sound like? He hooks his MacBook into a USB thing that’s connected to a PA, and he pushes a button.
But anyway, speakers can kinda give you something resembling the impression that there’s a violin or singer in the room with you. You can go buy a set of $300 bookshelf speakers—the Elac Debut 2.0 B-something whatevers—and set them up with some cheap but competent amplifier, and they’ll give you a rock-solid center image. They’ll have a beautiful soundstage. They’ll sound somewhat like there’s a guitar player in the room with you. Any competent bookshelf speaker and amplifier will do that with no processing at all.
Whereas headphones really cannot do that without a virtualizer. They just can’t. And I’m talking about conventional headphones here. There are designs that are spaced out from your ears, like the RAAL Requisite headphones, to give you more spaciousness, but they still don’t sound like speakers in a room.
However, it’s possible that headphones can be done in a weird form factor that gives you the soundstage of speakers in a room, and I didn’t think that was possible until a couple of days ago, when I received these Anker Soundcore Frames.
They have different glasses you can choose from. I, of course, chose the glasses that look most like 1970s Miles Davis.
DB: I think Robert Downey Jr. would wear those.
BB: I chose the coolest of all the possible lenses you can get. Unfortunately, I can’t see through them. And I’m still trying to figure out how they work, but I put them on and I was honestly shocked for a second. I seriously thought that the speakers I use in my lab for noise-canceling measurements were on.
So I think there are two transducers per ear. Now, obviously they don’t have any bass, and the sound quality has a long way to go. But they have a spatial presentation that is very much like speakers. And they actually center, which, because I have big pinnae, a lot of the headphone virtualizers don’t do for me. But this thing centers.
And then there’s also the Smyth Realiser. That thing works. It uses microphones you insert into your ear canals, and it figures out your native head-related transfer function, not a predetermined HRTF model. And then it applies that to the music. And it’s really hard to tell the difference between headphones and speakers when you’re listening through that thing.
All of this is just a long-winded way of saying that headphones can be as good, but it takes a lot of work. And maybe we’ll get to the point where they figure out how to do HRTF through smartphone photos and actually have it work really well, instead of kinda sorta working-ish. But we’re a long way off from that. Headphone designers are still trying to achieve what speakers achieved 50 or 60 years ago.
DB: You know, I think that plays right into something I think you and I will agree on: a good speaker just sounds like a good speaker. There’s some minor variation in sound between brands and lines, but by and large, a good speaker just sort of sounds like all the things Floyd [Toole] detailed in his research, or as close as possible given different design parameters and budget constraints.
But every time I strap on a different brand of headphones, it feels like an utterly different listening experience. I can put on a pair of headphones and tell you how and where and by how much they deviate from the Harman curve—certainly not to the level of precision that you and Lauren [Dragan] are capable of, but to a good degree. Good enough to fix it with some EQ fiddling. And it seems to be that a lot of times, the higher-end, boutique headphones miss the mark most drastically. But most headphones do to some extent.
BB: Yeah, I’m not sure that there’s much variance in terms of what listeners actually like; however, there’s a lot more variance in manufacturers’ opinions on what headphones should sound like. And the Harman curve is helping that a lot. It’s based on listener preferences, and it turns out that what people preferred in their research was the curve that most resembled the sound of good speakers in a good listening room. But I still get headphones that measure all over the map, and manufacturers who will admit, “Oh, yeah, we make stuff with all sorts of different voicings to suit all sorts of different tastes.” So there’s a lot more variance in headphones.
Whereas in speakers, among the speaker cognoscenti—the speaker manufacturers that are most respected by technically knowledgeable reviewers and audiophiles—they basically all agree on what constitutes a good speaker. There’s a bit of variance, but not much. Kevin Voecks of Revel told me that he always wanted to make his speakers’ on-axis response just absolutely dead flat. Whereas Paul Barton puts a tiny little dip in the midrange—very subtle.
DB: Like the BBC dip?
BB: Yeah, the midrange drops down by like a decibel or something, but I don’t think it’s for the same reason the BBC engineers did it. It’s because he thinks there’s too much build-up of brightness in the room. It’s subtle enough to where, although you can see it in the measurements, it looks like it could be a normal anomaly and not a conscious voicing choice.
But those are minor differences. Everybody basically agrees on what a good speaker should sound like. And anyone who doesn’t agree with that when it comes to speakers is pretty much thought of, by the people who really know speakers, as an outlier, to put it as nicely as I can.
DB: Maybe I’m going off on a diversion here, but I have these Sony over-ear wireless headphones. 1000XM4 or something like that. I can’t keep up with all of these stupid model numbers, either. When I pulled them out of the box and put them on my head, I thought, “Hey, yeah, these things sound good. They’re really fine.” But after five minutes of playing around with the EQ, holy crap! They were among the best wireless headphones I’ve ever heard.
But in stereo systems, room correction and DSP still aren’t as common as I think they should be—certainly not as common as they are in surround sound. So when I get in an “outlier” speaker that sounds fine overall but has some specific problems that keep it from being to my taste, it’s a lot harder to do something about it, short of adding an outboard room-correction system like a miniDSP.
It’s a lot easier to dial in the sound of a headphone. To personalize it, if you will. Although in my case, “personalize” is shorthand for “remove whatever personality the engineer decided to introduce to make their product sound different.”
BB: Yes, and of course, even for headphones that don’t have their own built-in EQ capabilities, you can download an app and basically have a correction curve for all sorts of different headphones. So, unlike with a stereo system that doesn’t have DSP capabilities, there’s a lot you can do with the sound of headphones. There’s also this guy named Crinacle who does a ton of headphone measurements and has correction curves that you can use to bring your headphones up to the Harman curve.
So it’s really easy and cheap to fix your headphones, whereas fixing your speakers—as you point out—is not easy or cheap. If you get a miniDSP, you kinda need to know what you’re doing. You need to understand speaker engineering, which few consumers—or reviewers for that matter—do.
But if you bought lousy speakers designed by someone who didn’t understand how speakers work . . . I recently saw an ad for some two-way bookshelf speakers that were like $5000 or $6000, and just in an idle moment, I thought I’d check them out. And I want to say it was like an 8″ woofer and a three-quarter-inch tweeter, and the crossover was at 3.6kHz. I was like, this is a $5000 or $6000 speaker designed by someone who had no clue what they were doing.
I calculated the wavelength where the 8″ driver starts beaming, which is the distance from the peak of the surround to the opposite peak of the surround, because that’s your effective radiating area. And it basically starts beaming at around 2kHz. So, for like an octave, it’s beaming at you, right in the band where your hearing is the most sensitive. It’s just so wrong. But it probably gets like six stars out of five on some of the crazier audiophile publications.
DB: Let’s stop talking about other people and talk about you. You and Ron Cyger have a new album out now, Take2. I know you did a lot of work on mixing and arranging the album. Did you do most of that work on speakers or on headphones?
BB: Mostly speakers. I used the JBL 305P MkIIs, which are cheap and really well-engineered. John Kellogg [currently of DTS, formerly Dolby], whom we both know, was telling me, “All the studio dudes in LA are buying a pair of those, and a lot of them are mixing on them. And they all use them at home.” And John himself owns several, in addition to the larger versions. So I figured I should get a pair, and they were like $129 each on sale. And they’re great!
I found that sometimes it’s much more convenient to do stuff on headphones, though, if you’re doing some minor things, just to see if stuff works. You know, my studio is wherever I set up my pile of gear. So, I’ll set the speakers up, and maybe I have to get up and turn them on, so sometimes I would just plug in a pair of headphones to make minor tweaks to the album.
I was using the AKG K371 headphones, which are right on the Harman curve. So, I’d be listening to these K371s, and I’d pull ’em off and listen to the speakers, and I was like, “Wow! The tonal balance is just about the same!”
So I didn’t need to rely on the speakers for a tonal balance reference, because I had among the only headphones and speakers you can buy that were designed along the same philosophies by really good engineers who were capable of making everything conform to a certain paradigm.
The speakers were more for the spatial presentation. I wanted to get the panning right, and I listened to a lot of other records that I liked to see how they panned things.
DB: I hope Are You Experienced wasn’t one of those albums.
BB: It was not. [Laughs]
I mean, I do love Led Zeppelin II, which pans even the drums all over the place. But I wanted to go more for the sound of a good ’70s jazz record, like the CTI Records stuff, because by the early ’70s, people finally figured out what to do with stereo. It stopped being a gimmick, and mixers started trying to make it sound more like a band on a stage.
I wouldn’t hold my mixes up as exemplars of anything great, but mixing is still something I don’t think I could have gotten right on headphones.
DB: Well, the most important thing here is that you have experience mixing music that was recorded for mass consumption, which is something that not a lot of audio writers have.
BB: Well, yeah. And now I use those tunes to judge audio equipment because I know exactly what they’re supposed to sound like. Of course, when I’m reviewing headphones, I also listen to a lot of Ariana Grande and the Weeknd, and those sorts of recordings have a lot more hard-panned stuff. So it’s kind of exciting and fun to listen to modern pop mixes, and since most people these days are listening to their music on headphones, you can really appreciate the hard-panned stuff more.
DB: That plays right into something else I wanted to explore here. I find that I enjoy listening to some types of music more on headphones. Like, if I’m going to put on the Allman Brothers Band’s Eat a Peach, I’m gonna grab my Audeze cans, plug ’em in, close my eyes, and get lost in the music.
But Electric Ladyland? No. Never. That one’s coming through speakers, or I just rarely ever listen to it. And a lot of that comes down to the wacky, batshit panning we mentioned before, which is really pushed to the extreme with a lot of Hendrix’s stuff.
But with the Allman Brothers Band, it’s not an issue of panning or soundstage or anything like that for me. For me, it’s about those tiny little nuances in the recording that are more tactile and present when I’m listening to headphones. The hum of Duane and Dickey’s tube guitar amps. The different textures of their strings. The infinitesimally small details that just get lost in the room no matter how well I’ve engineered and installed my acoustical treatments.
BB: I can see that. I think I probably enjoy most everything more on speakers, but what you’re describing plays into another aspect of headphones we haven’t discussed yet: your noise floor is, of course, a lot lower with headphones. I mean, the noise floor in your house is going to be, what, 35dB? 45dB?
DB: I’m sitting in my two-channel listening room as we speak, and I’m pulling out the SPL meter app on my phone. It’s—hang on, shh—30dB.
Brent: Well, it’s a lot higher for a lot of people, depending on your house and your surroundings. Much, much higher if you’re living on 1st Avenue and 70th Street in Manhattan and you’re in a second-floor apartment overlooking the avenue, which is where all the trucks go. Said from experience.
Most closed-back headphones are going to knock down everything above 1kHz by 15 to 35dB. So you’re going to lose all that high-frequency noise. And you’ll be able to hear more high-frequency detail as a result because there’s nothing competing with it. You’re not dealing with noise from your refrigerator or traffic. So that’s a huge advantage of headphones. You might have a greater ability to hear details in the music that you might not otherwise.
DB: Does any of that influence what you prefer to listen to on one or the other?
BB: You know, most of the music I listen to during the day is coming out of my Amazon Echo Studio.
DB: Same. Well, a stereo pair of Studios.
BB: That thing sounds really good. And I’m always testing Bluetooth speakers and soundbars. So my ability to listen to stereo speakers is somewhat limited by time. And by interest, frankly. Because Bluetooth speakers and soundbars are still all over the map when it comes to sound quality, so you never know what you’re going to get, and it’s always fascinating for me to hear what engineers can do—or not do—with a few cheap little drivers in a plastic enclosure.
But stereo speakers have been essentially perfected. Properly designed speakers of today are about as good as electromechanical transducers are going to get, and I see no reason to believe they’re going to get better, unless you do something like that BACCH-SP stereo purifier, which does make a better in-room stereo presentation. I don’t know if you’ve heard that thing.
DB: I haven’t.
BB: I’ve written about it.
DB: Well, yeah, I’ve read your report. I just haven’t heard it myself.
BB: It’s incredible. Mind you, it really only works for one person, but wow. It’s just great. But the actual, physical speakers themselves? They’re perfected. Yeah, people will come out with some new tweeter that sounds good, but is it really going to be significantly better than tweeters we’ve had for 20 years? Nah.
DB: I mean, the biggest development I’ve seen in speakers in the past 20 years is that the really good stuff just keeps getting more and more affordable.
Brent: Yeah. Exactly.
DB: At any rate, bubba, let’s wrap this up. The mandate our SoundStage! overlords gave us was to discuss what you gain and what you lose by moving from speakers to headphones and vice versa. So let’s talk pros and cons.
Pros of speakers: better soundstage and better consistency. Overall, they’ve just got that shit figured out.
BB: They just sound more natural in their presentation. A good stereo system is going to sound more relaxed. And I hate to use that word, because music isn’t necessarily supposed to sound relaxed. But if you’re listening to, say, Miles Davis—the Paul Chambers–era stuff—you don’t want to hear the sort of pumping, pounding bass you get from a lot of headphones, especially the closed-back ones. Speakers rarely do that—unless you have some giant sealed subwoofer, you’re probably not going to hear that pumping sound out of a home stereo system.
DB: Cons, though: you’re more susceptible to ambient noise. And let’s not forget room acoustics! I think far too many people overlook the effect of the room on the sound of a stereo system.
BB: The importance of room acoustics is often understated—and it’s often overstated. But it’s important. Very important. And it’s a massive variable. As is environmental noise.
DB: So it’s safe to say that one of the biggest advantages of headphones over speakers, aside from easier customization, is noise control—well, at least with closed-back cans and earphones—as well as taking the room out of the equation.
BB: Yeah, and there’s the fact that with headphones you’re free to play them louder. Some of us have spouses or significant others who don’t want to hear what we’re listening to. So headphones let you listen as loudly as you want. That can also be a problem because people are, to some extent, going deaf from listening to headphones.
DB: Another big downside to most headphones: the sensation of having music emanating from inside your cranium.
BB: Right. And that can be fixed, and I believe that “sound in the middle of your head” experience will someday be less common. But we’re way off from that. It’s a fixable problem. I believe it’ll one day be easy to access a headphone virtualizer that’s tuned specifically for your HRTF that doesn’t cost $3000 and isn’t a pain to use.
DB: Speaking of which, you’ve already mentioned the cost of speakers, but what’s your gut sense for how much you need to spend to get a good, complete in-room stereo setup?
BB: Well, it depends on how you define “good.” I would define “good” as, like, the Elac Debut 2.0 B6—whatever it’s called. They really need to work on their model numbers. But that’s a good benchmark for a good level of quality sound reproduction. There are any number of good bookshelf speakers for not a lot of money. The Triangle Borea BR03 is just fantastic, and it’s $600 per pair. It’s really, really, really good.
DB: So let’s say $400 to $600 for the speakers. And how about the electronics? I’m currently reviewing a $550 integrated amp from Emotiva with built-in DAC, FM radio tuner, good bass management, fantastic Bluetooth receiver—it’s just amazing for the money.
BB: Yeah, get that or the Cambridge Audio stereo receiver, or the Yamaha, or get yourself an NAD integrated for $400 or $500. Or just use an A/V receiver and don’t use the extra channels.
DB: So it sounds like you and I agree that you can put together a stereo system that absolutely slaps for, like, $800 to $1000.
BB: Yeah, maybe a little more if you want to plug in a dedicated streamer or turntable. There are a lot of different ways you can spend $1000 on a really good stereo system, though.
DB: OK, so what about a good headphone setup?
BB: Well, however much your phone cost—and I don’t think anybody really knows how much they spent on their phone, but whatever. Plus—I dunno—AKG K371s are like $150. They’re great. Or the new HiFiMan cans for $150. What are those called? HE400se, I think? They’re among the best headphones HiFiMan has ever made. They’re basically a version of the Deva Bluetooth ones, without the Bluetooth.
Mind you, they’re a little hard to drive, so you’re probably better off adding a DAC-dongle thing. There are $50 DAC-dongle things now that are perfectly fine.
DB: But how many people have phones with headphone jacks these days, bubba?
BB: Well, that’s a good point. I mean, I still have a headphone jack on my phone. This is a Galaxy S10. When I bought it, they tried to sell me the S20, but I noticed the lack of a headphone jack. So I got the S10 instead. But this is probably going to be the last phone I’ll be able to buy with a headphone jack.
Wait a minute, though. If this one lasts two years, maybe in two years I’ll just get the cheapest POS phone you can buy, because who cares? Why do I need a fancy phone then?
DB: I mean, it’s gotta play Angry Birds.
Brent: Come on, Dennis. Any phone will play Angry Birds. Be serious!
. . . Dennis Burger