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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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I recently got a request to review a headphone amplifier -- just an amp, with no DAC built in -- priced close to $10,000. This and many other products I’ve recently seen at audio shows have me wondering if the high-end audio industry has shifted away from its original purpose -- achieving better music reproduction than mass-market audio gear can provide -- and toward building audio gear intended more as objects of consumerist desire than as a means of achieving genuine improvements in musical reproduction.

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Great review. I just discovered you as a reviewer and I'm wondering if you have ...
Brent Butterworth 2 days ago When Is the Amp Important?
@RyanThanks! Give the SoundStage editors 100% of the credit for the integrity and courage. I ...
Ryan 2 days ago When Is the Amp Important?
Really appreciate your integrity and courage to write this, as this (accurate) message is counter ...
@Brent Butterworth
I looked at the overlaid curves in the graph that you attached. The Edifier S3 ...
@Brent Butterworthhey thanks, will be out on Dec 10?
Brent Butterworth 4 days ago When Is the Amp Important?
@gzostDescribing these things as "solved problems" is right on target.
gzost 4 days ago When Is the Amp Important?
Clearly stating that DACs and amps are a solved problem and that cables do not ...
Brent Butterworth 4 days ago Edifier Stax Spirit S3 Bluetooth Headphones
@Joe Werner I haven't heard the Oppos in years, and the THX Pandas I sent to another ...
Can you compare with the Oppo PM-3s and THX Pandas?


I realize you may not have ...
Brent Butterworth 11 days ago Focal Utopia Headphones
@Bill SizerIt's not out of the question. But unfortunately, DCA usually arranges for about five reviews ...