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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.

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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.

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I got a surprising phone call a couple of weeks ago from a fellow audio writer working on an earphone review. He doesn’t review a lot of headphones or earphones, and didn’t know what to make of the latest review sample he’d received. “They have no bass at all. None. I don’t get it,” he said. I happen to have discussed this issue a few years ago with the manufacturer of these earphones, who told me, “I have a lot of customers who want that sound.” I’ve battled online with a few of them, who insist that headphones and earphones with elevated treble have more detail. I advised my colleague to write one of those “If this is the kind of thing you like, you’ll like this” reviews for which the old Stereo Review was notorious.

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It’s clear that the listening habits of headphone enthusiasts are changing. Recently, HiFiMan launched the Ananda BT headphones -- a Bluetooth version of its Ananda planar-magnetic headphones -- which, at $1199 USD, are arguably the first true audiophile-grade Bluetooth headphones. Clearly, there must be some interest even among hardcore headphone enthusiasts for playing music -- or whatever -- from smartphones.

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I get frustrated when people criticize the practice of audio measurement without having examined the issue in any depth -- but with headphones, I can forgive. The measurements for most audio products, such as speakers and amplifiers, are well established and easy to grasp. Even in high school, when I barely knew a capacitor from a choke, I could understand most of the measurements Julian Hirsch published in Stereo Review. But headphone measurements are nowhere near as intuitive -- a problem I hope to solve with this article.

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Thanks to recent research, we now understand a lot about headphones. But there’s one part of the headphone puzzle that I haven’t understood at all, and until a few weeks ago, neither did anyone else I’d talked with. It’s a phenomenon I call “eardrum suck,” and it occurs with some noise-canceling headphones. When you put the headphones on and activate the noise-canceling function, it can cause a feeling like riding a high-speed elevator, where you’re whisked abruptly into a region of lower atmospheric pressure, and the higher-pressure air inside your ear pushes your eardrums out slightly. For many, including me, it’s an effect so uncomfortable it can cause us to leave our expensive noise-canceling headphones in a drawer, unused.

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@Brent ButterworthThanks again for your reply. When I was in charge of my church's live audio, ...
@The big plehI haven't tried the Cleer Audio Alpha yet, but I have tried the Yamaha, which ...
@Brent ButterworthHave you seen some of the newer DSP tech used in some understated headphones like ...
@Napier LopezGreat explanation. It's hard to get audio enthusiasts past this idea that sound needs to ...
@Napier LopezThanks! Great to hear from you.
Great piece Brent! Really captured a lot of my thoughts on the topic with a ...
@z mitchellYou are correct, that the Harman curve is a measure of consumer preference, but that ...
@z mitchell

@z mitchell2 downvotes for simply pointing out that the Harman Curve was conceived due to research ...
@Jon1) Yes, I've looked at the AutoEQ project a little bit, but I can't say ...