Over the last year or so, I’ve had a chance to do something I don’t think any reviewer has done before: listen to and measure a whole bunch of headphone amps. I went into this process with a lot of curiosity and few preconceptions. I knew that from a theoretical standpoint, headphone amps can make a bigger difference in what you hear than speaker amps do. I wasn’t sure, though, how big that difference would be, or how much I’d care about it. But after a year of listening and technical explorations, I’ve come to some interesting conclusions.
I think I saw the future of headphone technology at the recent 2019 Audio Engineering Society International Conference on Headphone Technology, held in San Francisco from August 27 to 29. My vision came during a presentation by Ramani Duraiswami, a professor at the University of Maryland and also president and founder of VisiSonics, a company dedicated to 3D audio reproduction, mostly for gaming applications. Duraiswami’s presentation didn’t awaken me to any concepts I hadn’t heard of before -- but it did give me the faith that the processing needed to make headphones sound as good and natural as a high-quality set of stereo (or surround) speakers is within our grasp.
After writing in-depth about noise canceling for several years, I thought I knew most of what there was to know about it. But at this week’s 2019 Audio Engineering Society International Conference on Headphone Technology in San Francisco, I saw two presentations that changed my thinking about noise-canceling technology in headphones -- and proposed ways to improve the technology and our methods of evaluating it.
Running measurements of speakers and headphones on a regular basis teaches you many things about audio that you’d probably never otherwise learn, but it has a side benefit I haven’t seen discussed: it lets you monitor your hearing. The tests, which involve tones played through the devices under test, typically start at the high frequencies and run down to the low frequencies, and as your hearing degrades with age, you see more and more numbers tick away on the display before you can start to hear the tones.
It never fails. Write an article about noise-canceling headphones for a mainstream publication, as my colleague Geoff Morrison did for The New York Times, and you’ll hear from readers about a variety of “hacks” for doing noise-canceling with better fidelity and/or for less money and/or to eliminate the dreaded phenomenon of eardrum suck. The most common suggestion is to use earplugs in conjunction with standard passive headphones. Others suggest using high-quality earphones and putting noise-canceling (or passive) headphones over them.
Binaural recordings -- which use microphones placed inside simulated ears on a dummy head -- produce an uncannily realistic sense of space when heard through headphones. But because binaural recordings tend to sound only so-so when heard through speakers, most record labels and engineers don’t release them. For the last couple of years, Chesky Records has produced almost all of its recordings in the Binaural+ format, and I use them in all of my headphone reviews. So when I recently got a press release from Chesky touting Jazz, the latest release from bassist/singer Casey Abrams, recorded “using our new recording methodology which features a stereo ribbon microphone,” I worried that this golden era of binaural recording was over.