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Headphone sound: 4 reasons for different impressions

Headphone sound: 4 reasons for different impressions

How a headphone sounds doesn't just have to do with its components. A large part of the perceived sound quality can be explained by the design and, above all, the user, according to xiaomist audio expert Stefan.

Whether a graphics card is fast enough for Crysis' current game hits can be clearly determined by the frame rate - there are no felt truths in this regard. It is different with headphones, here it sometimes seems as if the users in Amazon reviews wrote about completely different models: one complained of "shrill highs", another praised "the many details in the high-frequency range". Now who is right? Well, there are actually reasons for these contradictory assessments, which are also scientifically proven .

1. The seat is crucial

Let's start with a mundane fact: Headphones only sound the way they're supposed to sound if they fit well. This applies both to over-ears, which enclose the entire ear, and to in-ears, which have to seal the ear canal. Even if there is a tiny gap (e.g. due to a thick frame or silicone adapters that are too small), you can usually tell by the lack of bass. I personally have this problem with the Apple AirPods (2nd gen., without "Pro"), which do not want to fit my ear canals due to their "open-fit design" (without silicone sleeves). Either I keep pressing them slightly inwards with my fingers - or the sound is thin and tinny. So it has nothing to do with what comes out of the drivers - but with what gets to my eardrum.

This phenomenon comes in infinite gradations and is the simplest explanation for someone complaining about the "complete lack of low frequency range" in a review. At least for in-ears there is a "trick": replace the normal silicone fittings with memory foam eartips. They fit better and seal well.

2. Every ear is different, says science

How successfully the eardrum functions as a "hearing aid" can be explained by a combination of shape, angular position, and composition.
Jonathan P. Fay (University of Michigan) in The discordant eardrum (2006)

How does an eardrum in a human ear react to sounds? How well is it able to convert captured sound energy? Especially in the range from 2 kHz upwards (high tones), different measured values ​​can be determined. The distances are sometimes a stately 20 decibels at the highest pitches - depending on the shape of the eardrum (deep, normal, flat).

In other words, the eardrums in our ears are like microphones – you are born with a specific model that cannot be changed afterwards. In addition, there are differently shaped ear canals, which together have a significant influence on perception. This can even go so far that a weakness in a headphone model (e.g. overemphasis on the treble) can become a strength for some users. But it also means that our sound perception differs from person to person "due to the hardware". The sound experience is subjective .

3. Spatial awareness is important and insanely complex

Ever heard of the head-related transfer function (HRTF)? Well, we humans are pretty good at locating sounds, which increases the odds of surviving in Jurassic Park in nature. We hear and know what is happening next to, above and below us without having to look there.

Location is the result of a process involving the pinna (shape), head and torso (shoulder area). But that's only one part, because from then on spatial perception takes place "as an extremely complex, psychoacoustic process in the auditory center of the brain" (Jürgen Schröder, Lowbeats). When listening to music, this ability comes into play when, in front of our inner eye, we hear the drummer starting on the left side of the "sound stage" while the saxophone is playing on the right.

So you can easily imagine where the problem lies: commercially available (in-ear) headphones partially bypass this sound localization. The body lacks important clues, the spatial impression of a recording does not come close to the original (being there live). Some techniques for 3D sound can provide impressive spatiality in music and games over headphones, including HRTF, but then based on the average values ​​​​of many people. The perfect surround sound experience with headphones, on the other hand, requires complex individual measurements and appropriately processed sound material.

4. Ok Boomers

Hearing ability changes throughout life. While as a child or young person you can easily perceive frequencies up to 20,000 Hertz, this threshold moves down a bit every year. The high tones are heard more and more softly or not at all . Regular discos and concerts also play their part. Even a single New Year's Eve firecracker can leave a bang trauma (damage to the inner ear). As a boomer senior, sooner or later you will also suffer from presbycusis (deafness due to old age). Exactly when is different for each individual and depends on factors such as hereditary predisposition and diet.

Further to the topic:
I went to the techno club with 180 euro hearing protection

For headphones, this means that how a model sounds also depends on your age and hearing ability. A sound that seems too brilliant and exhausting for young people could seem just right for older semesters. Finally, personal taste should be mentioned, which can change. " I was young and needed the bass ," say some hip-hop veterans who have banned the subwoofer from the trunk and now prefer jazz with a neutral equalizer setting.

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