Portable music and the evolution of hi-fi headphones
What expensive trainers were in the 80s and 90s and iPods in the noughties, headphones are shaping up to be for the 10s: the ultimate must-have status symbol, especially for young people. Part of this trend is the natural consequence of the digital music revolution finally coming of age. Whereas we were once amazed by the ability of an MP3 player to contain an entire CD collection, we’re now looking beyond that: We want our digital music to be portable but to also sound good.
The popularity of MP3 players starting with the iPod from 2001 onwards heralded one negative development: Once music became easy to access and consume, it turned into a throw-away commodity. People became so engrossed in sampling new songs, creating playlists, and amassing huge digital music collections, that many stopped pausing to really listen to the sound coming out of those nifty little devices and the earbuds that came with them. Measured against the wonder of greater convenience and the sudden availability of so much of the world’s music, their mediocre sound was deemed good enough.
Earbuds were also miniature design marvels compared to the on-ear headphones with their cheap spongy ear pads that were in use since the Walkman brought headphones out of the audiophile domain and onto the street in the 1980s. Earbuds were so of-the-millennium. They were sleek and discrete and all of audio seemed to be following the same trend toward miniaturization.
The limits of miniaturization?
But maybe there are some things that simply can’t be – or shouldn’t be – miniaturized. That seemed to be the message behind the sudden appearance of large over-ear headphones in the late 00s. These larger headphones almost always deliver better sound quality than earbuds – not an unimportant point because, in terms of sound quality, headphones are far more decisive than which MP3 player or smartphone one uses. Suddenly, having gigantic headphones attached to a mini MP3 device became a statement. It said that the wearer wasn’t willing to completely sacrifice sound quality to achieve greater convenience. Not that the bigger size of the new headphones is altogether disadvantageous. Over- and on-ear headphones happen to have plenty of room for colourful logos on the earpieces and their large size make them a wearable accessory along the lines of cool sunglasses or a handbag. Headphones have become the ultimate statement piece of the present day.
There is a third way: In-ears offer great sound and portability
The world is now divided into those who still use earbuds and connoisseurs of sound who prefer hi-fi headphones. But wait, there is a third option: in-ear headphones. Sometimes called in-ear monitors (IEMs) or canalphones, these are not to be confused with earbuds, although both are small and highly portable. As their name would suggest, in-ear headphones are small loudspeakers that are actually inserted into the ear canal as opposed to earbuds which rest – often awkwardly – just outside of it. Many in-ear manufacturers supply various ear pieces so that you can select a pair that fits snugly. Some very high-end manufacturers even make custom molds of a person’s ear canal for the ultimate fit. A silicon or rubber coating, however, usually means that even an approximate fit can create a good seal. This effectively blocks out all outside noise, even better than do closed over-ear headphones.
Can in-ear headphones damage hearing?
But can’t the drivers’ close proximity to the ear drum damage it? The answer to this is no, because it’s ultimately volume that damages the ear drum, regardless of how close the driver that creates this volume is to it. A very large subwoofer across the room at maximum volume, for instance, will be far more likely to damage the ear than the tiny drivers in in-ear headphones at normal volume. One could even argue that high-volumes are less likely to be resorted to with in-ears. Their noise-blocking characteristics means that you won’t need to turn the volume up too high to hear your music over outside noise. The greater levels of pressure are not an issue for your hearing, because the eardrum can easily adjust to different pressure levels. Some people, however, find the pressure in the ear canal unpleasant and many companies utilize overpressure systems to release some of it.
Small really can sound good – sometimes even great!
Many find it difficult to believe that in-ears can be any good since most earbuds generally aren’t. They assume that such small drivers simply cannot be capable of creating decent sound; yet in-ear headphones are no different than other speakers: there are those that might be too heavy on the bass to suit some, others might be too bright, while some offer really good balance and transparency. The good ones are able to achieve hi-fi sound the same way other speakers do – by careful driver selection. The sealed, noise reduced environment that well-fitted in-ears create also facilitates a better listening experience by allowing this sound to be fully heard and enjoyed. Some audiophiles claim that in-ears lack the “out-of-head” feeling that many good on- and over-ear headphones are able to achieve. Be that as it may, the extra convenience and noise-blocking characteristics of in-ears is compensation enough for most people, especially those who rather like the sleek and discreet aspect of earbuds, if not their sound.
In conclusion, it should be noted that a new generation of earbuds has also arisen with markedly better sound quality than their predecessors. These can still be a great option for those who, perhaps for safety reasons, do not want to entirely block out outside noise. Headphone users have therefore never had more choices than now. What exciting times we live in!