You can say one thing for sure about 2020: there was probably never another year in which headphones were more important—whether they were being used for monitoring Zoom meetings, letting the kids watch their online classes without driving you crazy, or blocking out the noise when the lessons were done and the kids were driving you crazy. Just as important was our headphones’ ability to bring us music and movies that soothed our souls while not distracting other members of the household.
We seem to be experiencing a minor revolution in audio product testing. For the last two decades, audio product testing has been almost entirely subjective, rarely based on anything more than the opinion of a single listener, formed in uncontrolled, sighted tests. Until recently, SoundStage! was one of only a few audio publishing outlets presenting controlled, objective testing—specifically, audio measurements. But recently, measurements have become more common on websites, online forums, and YouTube. As someone who, since the late 1990s, has been nagging for more audio measurements in reviews, I should be happy about this—and I am, but it has me concerned, too.
Two recent experiences have reminded me of an old and very important lesson about audio I and many thousands of other audio enthusiasts learned decades ago. But the lesson seems mostly forgotten. The first experience was a couple of “run-ins” with other audio writers -- one directly, on Facebook, and the other indirectly, through an editor friend of mine. The second was recording and mixing I’ve done for what will soon be my first jazz album: a collaboration with saxophonist Ron Cyger under the name Take 2.
With a few rare outliers excepted, there are two different types of earphone drivers: dynamic drivers and balanced armatures. Although great earphones have been made with either type of driver, and often contain both types, the two drivers are very different in form and performance. Most headphone enthusiasts understand the concept of dynamic drivers, which are basically just miniaturized versions of conventional speakers, but many do not understand how balanced armatures work, or what their advantages and disadvantages are.
I think I just heard the future of headphones -- and I wasn’t really even listening to headphones. Technically, the product I was listening to is a PSAP, or personal sound amplification product: the Nuheara IQbuds2 Max, which I’m measuring for a technical publication along with some other PSAPs. The Nuheara IQbuds2 Max earbuds ($399 USD) are basically a set of true wireless earbuds with features added for hearing enhancement. Like many audio products that have come before them, the IQbuds2 Max earbuds seek to adapt their output to best suit the listener’s hearing characteristics. The difference is that this product actually seems to work.
My column last month, “The Biggest Lie in Audio,” sparked lots of commentary, but it also raised questions that are tough to answer. While most of the people commenting on the article here and elsewhere found it to be a welcome relief from what some have called the “faith based” approach of many audio publications, some weren’t so complimentary. A few derided science-oriented, “objectivist” writers as “narrow-minded” because they criticize audio products that don’t conform to generally accepted performance standards. Some insist that there’s no such thing as “accuracy” (they always put that word in quotes) in music reproduction, so audio writers have no basis on which to criticize outlier products.