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The (underestimated?) individualism of headphone listening (loose thoughts)

respice finem

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#1
I'm new here and I'm neither an audio professional, nor a native English speaker, so apologies in advance for possible mistakes.
Coming from a medical profession and being a daily headphone listener, I've tried out quite a few headphones from cheap to ridiculously expensive, and would like to share a few thoughts and observations, which are important to me. Those refer to cable-based "conventional" over-ear headphones, I don't use IEMs, somehow I get tired of them in a matter of minutes.
1. Above the "dirt cheap" level, price doesn't seem to be a sound quality guarantee, as it usually is in other categories of audio equipment. I've come across 150€ headphones sounding better (= closer to the live performance) than others costing ten times as much.
2. The best headphones are useless if they're not comfortable for the user's individual head and ears. Having to correct the fit etc. is distracting or even annoying, and sooner rather than later, the headphones are collecting dust...
3. As we all know, "headphones stereo" differs considerably from "loudspeaker stereo", and even crossfeed only helps so much. The absence of "room sound" may lead to hearing much too loud with headphones with some listeners, while it doesn't seem to bother others. There seem to be two "predefined" (by early "programming" of their hearing?) groups of listeners. For one group, headphones will always be a "necessary evil", for the other they'll beat (subjectively of course) every pair of loudspeakers out there. The latter group tends to "overdamping" of their listening rooms, until the acoustics is somewhat similar to that of headphones - their rooms are never "dead enough".

OK - why am I writing all this? With my current listening room (ca 26 m2 L-shape) I've shifted from loudspeaker listening to headphone listening, as far as stereo goes. The speakers (5.1.2 nearfield setup) are predominantly for surround (film and concerts) and casual TV sound. I cannot convert the (living) room to a studio, for many reasons, and despite many m2 of absorbers and such, an L-shaped room will remain what it is... I've been listening via headphones since my childhood, which may also play an important role in this current "shift". Another subjective observation I've made: The headphone EQ corrections proposed by the respective websites do not fit my hearing at all, which is understandable (I'm 53 and a long-time sports shooter, so I'm already pretty much deaf above 10 kHz), the form and angle of the ears will also have their effects...

Considering the above, I'm wondering, whether the general approach to headphone measurements and EQ might be too, well, generalistic. One might say, OK, every pair of ears is different, but we are listening to loudspeaker-based systems (and natural sound) with those same ears, aren't we? Certainly, but... with headphones, the whole "listening room" is only the size and shape of the earlobes plus the headphones themselves - the earlobes suddenly make for perhaps 30-50% of it. I'm inclined to think that it may be only possible to get the "real" frequency response of any given pair of headphones for the specific user, if she/he gets a chance to bring his individual ears anatomy, as well as the (again individual) "hearing age" into play. Not that I have any idea how to achieve this technically, but I think such an approach might make more practical sense, than just applying "general" EQ, which is almost guaranteed to fail individually without correcting for individual anatomical features (as well as aging hearing for many of us). Then again, there are variations in manufacturing batches etc. - the "circle of confusion" strikes again, it seems... That annoys me a bit, because, not being an engineer but coming from an engineers' family, I'm left with choosing my headphones by listening comparisons alone, not a "technically oriented approach" by any means. Having an individualized, but still objective headphones EQ would be nice - but how? In-ear measurement mic?

I must try to keep my future postings shorter than this one ;)
 
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maverickronin

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#2
3. As we all know, "headphones stereo" differs considerably from "loudspeaker stereo", and even crossfeed only helps so much.
This is huge factor and it's rarely discussed. I am continually amazed at how few people listen to headphones without crossfeed or any other kind of more advanced HRTF simulation.

There's also the effect of a frequency response on spatialization as well. Headphone listening is so divorced from conventional stereo mixes that expectations of accuracy or target can differ wildly. It makes me wonder if some people like a specific FR because of how it adjusts the soundstage.

At least that's how I've been dialing in my EQ curves lately...

It would be nice if there was some research on this topic.

Considering the above, I'm wondering, whether the general approach to headphone measurements and EQ might be too, well, generalistic.
There is the Smyth Realiser.

If you can get a hold of one...
and if you already have a top quality speaker system and listening room you can calibrate it with...
 

rtos

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#3
Having an individualized, but still objective headphones EQ would be nice - but how?
I use a frequency sweep (at a normal listening level) using a sine wave sweep generator and note any significant deviations from equal loudness across the audio band. Then, I EQ as needed based around a reference frequency (I use 1 kHz) so that all frequencies sound of equal loudness. A parametric EQ is essential to handle any narrow peaks/dips. (I've been using MathAudio's Headphone EQ, which has a handy built-in frequency sweep generator).

While this approach is of course subjective as far as identifying perceived loudness levels, it is an objective and repeatable method for achieving a neutral (or other if preferred) 'target response' for your headphone/ears listening environment.
 

pavuol

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#4
... Having an individualized, but still objective headphones EQ would be nice - but how? In-ear measurement mic?
There are already some attempts for a headphone with personalised sound similar to the way you describe - nuraphone. (personally I haven't studied how matured this tech is nor its reviews though..) Maybe you have heard about it already, I don't know.

PS: so what headphones are your favorite currently?
 

pierre

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respice finem

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...so what headphones are your favorite currently?
Having had many different ones over the years, for now I prefer Beyerdynamic T1 Mk2 (600 Ohms) for classical and DT 1990 Pro (250 Ohms) for pretty much everything else. Bot have much (but fairly clean) treble (which subjectively fits my aging hearing without much EQ), and are very comfortable. Before them, I've had the Sennheiser HD600, which was probably more balanced sonically but slowly falling apart with daily use, and (maybe only my sample) had an audible bass distortion problem at higher listening levels.
 

noobie1

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#8
I'm new here and I'm neither an audio professional, nor a native English speaker, so apologies in advance for possible mistakes.
Coming from a medical profession and being a daily headphone listener, I've tried out quite a few headphones from cheap to ridiculously expensive, and would like to share a few thoughts and observations, which are important to me. Those refer to cable-based "conventional" over-ear headphones, I don't use IEMs, somehow I get tired of them in a matter of minutes.
1. Above the "dirt cheap" level, price doesn't seem to be a sound quality guarantee, as it usually is in other categories of audio equipment. I've come across 150€ headphones sounding better (= closer to the live performance) than others costing ten times as much.
2. The best headphones are useless if they're not comfortable for the user's individual head and ears. Having to correct the fit etc. is distracting or even annoying, and sooner rather than later, the headphones are collecting dust...
3. As we all know, "headphones stereo" differs considerably from "loudspeaker stereo", and even crossfeed only helps so much. The absence of "room sound" may lead to hearing much too loud with headphones with some listeners, while it doesn't seem to bother others. There seem to be two "predefined" (by early "programming" of their hearing?) groups of listeners. For one group, headphones will always be a "necessary evil", for the other they'll beat (subjectively of course) every pair of loudspeakers out there. The latter group tends to "overdamping" of their listening rooms, until the acoustics is somewhat similar to that of headphones - their rooms are never "dead enough".

OK - why am I writing all this? With my current listening room (ca 26 m2 L-shape) I've shifted from loudspeaker listening to headphone listening, as far as stereo goes. The speakers (5.1.2 nearfield setup) are predominantly for surround (film and concerts) and casual TV sound. I cannot convert the (living) room to a studio, for many reasons, and despite many m2 of absorbers and such, an L-shaped room will remain what it is... I've been listening via headphones since my childhood, which may also play an important role in this current "shift". Another subjective observation I've made: The headphone EQ corrections proposed by the respective websites do not fit my hearing at all, which is understandable (I'm 53 and a long-time sports shooter, so I'm already pretty much deaf above 10 kHz), the form and angle of the ears will also have their effects...

Considering the above, I'm wondering, whether the general approach to headphone measurements and EQ might be too, well, generalistic. One might say, OK, every pair of ears is different, but we are listening to loudspeaker-based systems (and natural sound) with those same ears, aren't we? Certainly, but... with headphones, the whole "listening room" is only the size and shape of the earlobes plus the headphones themselves - the earlobes suddenly make for perhaps 30-50% of it. I'm inclined to think that it may be only possible to get the "real" frequency response of any given pair of headphones for the specific user, if she/he gets a chance to bring his individual ears anatomy, as well as the (again individual) "hearing age" into play. Not that I have any idea how to achieve this technically, but I think such an approach might make more practical sense, than just applying "general" EQ, which is almost guaranteed to fail individually without correcting for individual anatomical features (as well as aging hearing for many of us). Then again, there are variations in manufacturing batches etc. - the "circle of confusion" strikes again, it seems... That annoys me a bit, because, not being an engineer but coming from an engineers' family, I'm left with choosing my headphones by listening comparisons alone, not a "technically oriented approach" by any means. Having an individualized, but still objective headphones EQ would be nice - but how? In-ear measurement mic?

I must try to keep my future postings shorter than this one ;)
I studied statistical mechanics in college. It is considered one of the great scientific ideas/achievement of the late 19th and 20th century. It strives to understand in mathematical terms, the behavior of large ensemble of atoms/molecules in terms of probabilistic behavior. Along the way, most people didn't pay too much attention to individual atoms/molecules or assumed that individual behavior was not too far off from the averaged view.

As science progressed, people developed tools that allowed that them to study individual molecules. What they found is that individual molecules can behave far far away from the averaged behavior. Not only that, past interpretations of bulk experiments were likely incorrect in view of the newly discovered molecular individualism.

All this is to say, that the Harman curve may represent the average preference for a large ensemble of headphone listeners but individual listeners can vary wildly in what they like. Same probably goes for speakers.
 
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respice finem

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Thread Starter #9
Exactly. Everyone's hearing (and generally senses) is slightly different than everyone else's. With age (starting already at approximately 30-35 years of age) the differences get bigger, there are many factors (genetic, behavioral etc.) influencing this. Many are trying to comply with a "standard" (like the preference index), which is not wrong in itself, but has its limits. Like, if the standard is to be wearing shoes when walking the streets, I should also wear shoes, but if my size is 43, I don't have to wear 39 because that's the most common size ;)
 
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stalepie2

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#10
I think with headphones a lot of people who are into it as a hobby buy a variety of them, because why keep buying different ones that sound much the same? They like trying out different styles. It's hard to find one that fits all kinds of music. For instance, I got the HD 25 to see if I enjoyed techno music more with them, since they're often used for DJing. But I don't think they're very good for ASMR.
 
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respice finem

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Yes. Like someone said long ago about loudspeakers, also applies here: "you can buy them with any sound that you like, but not one without a sound of its own"
 

Frank Dernie

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#12
Exactly. Everyone's hearing (and generally senses) is slightly different than everyone else's. With age (starting already at approximately 30-35 years of age) the differences get bigger, there are many factors (genetic, behavioral etc.) influencing this. Many are trying to comply with a "standard" (like the preference index), which is not wrong in itself, but has its limits. Like, if the standard is to be wearing shoes when walking the streets, I should also wear shoes, but if my size is 43, I don't have to wear 39 because that's the most common size ;)
True, but we all use our hearing, whatever the small differences, to listen to the real world as well as our hifi, so it still comes down to a preferred individual frequency response or something, not a side effect of a difference in hearing if one person prefers one slight deviation from accuracy and another person prefers a different deviation from accuracy - given that none of the headphones are actually accurate.

For me the most important thing is for my choice not to need EQ or any other dicking about for me to like it, just connect and use. If something exists which i like why get something else and manipulate it?
 
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respice finem

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Thread Starter #13
I agree in part, I'm always anxious (as a non-pro) to "add chaos to the error" instead of improving things. On the other hand, high-fidelity is not always pleasant-fidelity. I have no problem with heavily manipulated recordings, as for example of Miles Davis, which were recorded on equipment which was not really Hi-Fi. Neither with percussion-heavy rock. With classical, I know what certain instruments should sound like, and while I could not always blindly distinguish between an Amati violin and a Guarneri, I know it when a violin sounds off etc. etc. And what annoys me most, when i know I should hear things which I don't any more without EQ, which is the higher side of treble. That was probably the factor that brought me to preferring the "Beyer house sound", which would be probably annoingly "oversharpened" to myself 30 years ago.
One might say "but you hear differently then than you would in natural environment". That's right, but thers's one the catch: Nobody (apart from hearing aid carriers) uses headphones to hear in a natural environment.
 

stalepie2

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#15
The most confusing thing to me is the same thinking isn't really applied to displays. Generally people agree quite closely on what colors look like, contrast levels, and other aspects of picture quality, and they expect different brands to conform really closely, such as to 6500K white point. Not sure it was always that way. But it's very uniform now. But a TV is not a personal viewing device, like HMZ-T1 or a VR headset. So the fact that it's expected to be viewed by others plays into that.
 

Tks

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#16
This is huge factor and it's rarely discussed. I am continually amazed at how few people listen to headphones without crossfeed or any other kind of more advanced HRTF simulation.

There's also the effect of a frequency response on spatialization as well. Headphone listening is so divorced from conventional stereo mixes that expectations of accuracy or target can differ wildly. It makes me wonder if some people like a specific FR because of how it adjusts the soundstage.

At least that's how I've been dialing in my EQ curves lately...

It would be nice if there was some research on this topic.



There is the Smyth Realiser.

If you can get a hold of one...
and if you already have a top quality speaker system and listening room you can calibrate it with...
I'm more surprised portable listening devices like phones don't offer crossfeed options as a universal toggle or something..
 
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respice finem

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Thread Starter #17
...I am not making my point clearly enough, sorry.
I guess we both aren't ;) OK, let's put it that way: Any "hi-fi-ish" EQ aims to imitate the natural hearing experience, which is different between individuals (much more with headphones than with speakers), and even for the same individual during his life. For this very reason I think hedphone EQ should always be individualized. One of the problems is treble loss with age, some CDs that I own have treble information I know of but couldn't hear any more, without "boosting" this spectrum (or allowing the "Bayer sound" as I do). Then I can hear again, as I would have "in nature", but maybe 20 years ago. If I get used to this and go to a live concert, I can't "betray" my age so this will sound a bit "dull", but then, when was the last time...? Life's packed with compromises...
 

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#18
The most confusing thing to me is the same thinking isn't really applied to displays. Generally people agree quite closely on what colors look like, contrast levels, and other aspects of picture quality, and they expect different brands to conform really closely, such as to 6500K white point. Not sure it was always that way. But it's very uniform now. But a TV is not a personal viewing device, like HMZ-T1 or a VR headset. So the fact that it's expected to be viewed by others plays into that.
Pretty easy: since there are colorimeters available, people just choose to trust them. OTOH it's interesting if we all perceive colors the same.
 
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#19
For one group, headphones will always be a "necessary evil", for the other they'll beat (subjectively of course) every pair of loudspeakers out there.
Well in real life, there such an annoying bug feature™ most of us that aren't super rich have to deal with:

neighbours.

So yeah: as fun as well set up speakers are (especially in multichannel), nothing beats cans when you want to crank it worry-free. :D

As far as crossfeed goes: I tried it on the ADI but apart from the signal getting slightly quieter, I don't notice much of a difference. AFAIK it is intended for very old recordings that have the instruments separated by channel i.e.: a jazz trumpet blaring into your right ear only for the entire time, yes?
 

bluefuzz

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#20
I am continually amazed at how few people listen to headphones without crossfeed or any other kind of more advanced HRTF simulation.
I've tried using crossfeed. I find it just makes everything fuzzy and indistinct without adding any kind of 'realism' to the headphone experience. For me much of the attraction of headphone listening is the fact that it isn't like listening to loudspeakers. It's a different thing, and I don't expect or even particularly want it sound like 'real' loudspeakers. I enjoy the artificial 'band in my brain' effect and precise analytical positioning of instruments within my head. Having the kickdrum right between the eyes and the bassist with his left foot firmly planted on my corpus callosum is a unique experience that crossfeed, or similar effects, only reduces the enjoyment of.

I have a feeling that the differences in personal preference in headphones has less to do with measurable frequency response at the eardrum and more to do with the psychological biases and expectations within the brain of the listener. Some people are less able to set aside their expectation of 'real' sound and thus can not simply enjoy headphones for what they are.
 
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