Since 1979, we’ve had a problem. Back then, Sony debuted a bulky but wonderful new widget called the Walkman. Folks everywhere slowly latched onto the product, which cut the cord between them and their “stereos.” Nowadays, most of us own an iSomethings — In my case, it’s three iPods of various vintages.
The Walkman not only made our audio portable but it introduced an ever larger population of consumers to the beauty, or bane, of daily headphone use. The walkcreature phenom also created the ear bud, a hideous invention that should be banned from any discussion of high fidelity music.
Until fairly recently, headphones were generally either cheap and small, such as those nasty ear buds I mentioned, or big and often a bit costly if you wanted high fidelity. In the 1980s, prior research in hearing aids and on–stage monitoring for musicians led to the development of the first high fidelity, in–ear monitors. Over time, improvements have been made and the technology has become widespread to the point where now, most quality headphone manufactures offer one or more in–ear varieties, which I’ll call earphones. Unlike headphones, which sit on or around your outer ears, supra–aural or circumaural respectively, earphones are intra–aural since they sit right in your ear canal. This has several advantages and a few disadvantages.
Why Stick It?
What I think is the most compelling advantage of a properly fitted earphone is the ability to significantly reduce the sound of the world around you, without big, cushy pads or high clamping pressure to seal out noise. For commuters who travel on public transportation or road warriors who often are in the air, this is a beautiful thing. Whereas “noise cancelling” headphones have active electronics that attempt to reduce the perception of ambient noise, always with limited success as it’s an imperfect solution, earphones physically block outside sound from reaching your ear drums in the first place. Because of that, you can listen at significantly reduced playback volumes, which means less long–term hearing loss.
Their small size and light weight relative to most headphones also contribute to their comfort. In addition, intra–aural phones are very hat-friendly, easily residing under a tuque, ear muffs, deerstalker or helmet, something that can’t be said for headphones. Finally, with proper fitting, earphones can also yield serious bass. That beefy low end response is something usually found lacking with ear buds and many open-air headphones. Unlike speakers, which launch their energy into your whole body, ’phones won’t provide any perceivable bass below about 40 Hz so, don’t expect the pant-flapping and gut-churning low end you’d get from a properly set up subwoofer.
The complaint I most often hear about earphones also has to do with comfort, or lack thereof…Some people are not content with something stuck in their ears for a prolonged period of time. I must say that this is often associated with either improper fitting or, experience using “memory foam” ear plugs which can press aggressively against your ear canal and cause discomfort. Another downside with earphones is hygiene or, yes, lack thereof…Specifically, how often you clean your ears! Some of us are prodigious cerumen producers and some are not. With earphones, you’ll be reminded daily of your aural hygiene habits. More on waxy buildup later…
The last down side I’ll mention is, with earphones, I can often hear my pulse behind the music during quiet passages, especially during exercise. If you stick your little fingers in your ears in a quiet location after jogging, you’ll probably hear what I mean. Not a biggie but, something to consider.
For this article, I’ve chosen as earphone examples two moderately priced but very hi–fi products from companies with very differing views of what’s “right.” They are contemporaries, from old, very well respected firms. In the German corner, we have Sennheiser electronic GmbH & Co. KG, a manufacturer of audio gear since 1946 and maker of some of my favorite microphones. In the American corner, we have Klipsch Group, a loudspeaker manufacturer also since 1946. The first professional recording studio I worked in had a Klipschorn in each of its four corners for glorious quad playback…w00t! Each firm is quintessentially true to their home country and their products reflect that background.