11 Nov 0
Every search for the perfect listening experience eventually comes to the point when the question that needs answering is – headphones or speakers? It is a thing of personal preference, of course, and there’s not a consensus in the audiophile community that one is intrinsically better than the other. There is plenty of debate about the merits of each one of them, which might sound a bit unnecessary to an average consumer who thinks the main difference is in portability. If seen like that, headphones could be considered to be speakers that were designed to be very small so they could be worn on the head, or in the ears. And while the physics of sound production is the same for both, there is still plenty of difference between the two that might affect the listening experience.
Let’s look at their work environments first. Speakers operate in a room trough which sound travels and bounces off of things before getting to our ear canals. Headphones skip the middleman, so to say, by blasting sound waves directly into our ears. So, the things they have in common is that they both create sound waves which eventually end up in our ear where the whole process of hearing starts, that bit in the middle which speakers have and headphones don’t – the bit which involves sound traveling through a room – makes a lot of difference. So much difference, in fact, that audiophiles who want to get the most out of their high-quality speakers have to create special listening rooms that are tuned to the exact speakers.
Headphones, on the other hand, do not require their owners to create special rooms for listening to them, but they have a problem of their own. Because of their closeness to the ear canal, and because no two ear canals are alike, a same pair of headphones can sound drastically different to different people. While this generally does not affect the quality of the sound that is produced by the headphones – a pair of Schultz earphones produce quality sound because they were designed to produce high quality sound – it does affect the perception of quality, which is what makes it harder to find good-sounding headphones than good-sounding speakers.
Another point that affects the performance of headphones and speakers is that stereo recording is usually done with speakers in mind. The difference between headphones and speakers is that with speakers both ears hear both channels simultaneously, while in headphones each ear hears only one channel. The result of this is that with headphones, music is perceived as originating from within the head, instead from all around the listener. This is easily rectified by using a crossfeed processor, which sends a bit of the sound from one channel to the other and vice versa, making headphones sound more like speakers.
Of course, because they don’t have very large drivers, headphones can never produce that hard-hitting bass sound speakers can. On the other hand, a lot of audiophiles would say that it’s a good tradeoff for the level of detail and precision headphones are able to produce and speakers can’t.