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Headphones or Speakers

One thing I think is lost during audio debate and discussion these days is whether we are discussing listening on speakers or headphones. I find them to be very different.

Music is very complex vibration. When it is made by an instrument or voice it agitates the air and sends sound waves in all directions. We receive this vibration through multiple inputs:

  • our ears
  • our hair including eyelashes, facial hair, and body hair
  • our chest cavity (pressure)
  • our joints (vibration)
  • our skin (secondary vibration/touch/air movement)

The ear uses a very complex liquid-based limiter/expander inside of the spiral-shaped cochlea, after being amplified by the mallet/anvil/stirrup, which is after the tympanic membrane on the input chain. Thousands of microscopic hairs in triangle shaped clusters determine qualities of the sound, and the binaural earbrain works with amazing precision and speed to stereoscopically place sounds in spaces.  I could spend my life studying the Organ of Corti: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Organ_of_Corti


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Welcome To The Cochlea. We hear you.

 

If the sound or the overall space you are in changes you know instantly, for this is the primary tool of survival.  You can hear a door open, a presence in the room, a misfiring speaker cable, etc..

This signal, when played through speakers, enters the actual room and becomes part of the room sound. The listeners head moves, turns, walks around, and otherwise is constantly changing axis’ and distances from the speakers and from the reflections of the wall/floor/ceiling.

Our ears use all of their evolutionary powers to decode the sound in the room and by moving about we are getting different versions of the sound with every movement. This is all stored subconciously.

The speakers themselves are moving air around the room, vibrations into the room, and all of the vibration inputs of your body are activated. The table, the floor, the plants, the computer keyboard – it’s all vibrating along with the music.

 


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Moving air for fun.

 

When listening with headphones the actual room is removed from the experience. All inputs outside of the ears are removed from the experience.  There is very little ability to move around the sound or the room the sound is in. The virtual center of the soundstage does not exist in front of you and have real dimension, it exists inside of you, somewhere between your left and right headphone, with dimensions that must be imagined.

If the drums sound huge you know they can’t actually fit inside of your head, even though that’s where the sound originates from. You must suspend disbelief to even enjoy headphones.

Note here that I do indeed enjoy headphones. This is not a takedown of headphones, just making the point about the differences.

 


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Also moving air for fun.

 

 

With speakers the huge drum is almost living in your room. Close your eyes and it might appear.  You can even move around it if you want.

The total amount of data that is transmitted from speakers > headphones.

The total of amount of data received and processed from speakers > headphones.

Headphone listening is both necessary and enjoyable, but it is very different than speaker through air listening.

I hope we remember this when talking audio: vibration requires movement to work. Headphones are tiny snapshot of vibration injected directly to our middle ear, which is not a natural listening experience.