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Ever wondered why music sounds so different on headphones compared to loudspeakers?


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So you're saying that recordings are mixed only on loudspeakers, not headphones?

 

We are saying that one cannot optimize for both 'cause there are objective and measurable differences between listening with headphones vs. loudspeakers.

When listening with loudspeakers the sound from one channel reaches (differently) both ears while it does'nt with headphones and cross-feed that has been used as a solution has pros and cons that are discussed in that article.

Warning: My posts may be biased even if in good faith, I work for Dirac Research :-)

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We are saying that one cannot optimize for both 'cause there are objective and measurable differences between listening with headphones vs. loudspeakers.

When listening with loudspeakers the sound from one channel reaches (differently) both ears while it does'nt with headphones and cross-feed that has been used as a solution has pros and cons that are discussed in that article.

 

That's a great 1950's theory, but I'd like to remind you that not only are the vast majority of listeners using headphones today, but the vast majority of audiophile listeners are also using headphones. And yes, recordings today are mixed for both at the same time.

 

BTW, I have Dirac players for several earphone brands.

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Although I can happily listen to music on headphones, I have never enjoyed the experience much and for me it is no substitute for listening with speakers. With speakers I feel like I am listening to music, a performance or whatever. With headphones, with any recording, it feels artificial, I simply have this sensation that the music is in my head, this limits my enjoyment, I just don't like it much!

 

 

Is it just me?

Windows 10 PC, Roon, HQPlayer, SOtM sMS-200Ultra, tX-USBultra, Paul Hynes SR4 (x2), Mutec REF10, Mutec MC3+USB, Devialet 1000Pro, KEF Blade.  Plus Pro-Ject Signature 12 TT for playing my 'legacy' vinyl collection.

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@ Daletorn,

 

I don't see where we disagree, if that is the case...

 

For sure there is a large number of listeners who use headphones and the cross-feed solution (with its pros and cons) is debated at length for example in the Sound Science section of Head-Fi that you know well:

Soundstage Width and Cross-feed: Some Observations

 

Also I don't think that the sheer facts about the differences outlined in our article would become obsolete because well known since the 50's... what's interesting (from my biased point of view) is the possibility of overcoming the limits of current cross-feed solutions by implementing a method which includes the time-difference cues without giving comb filtering.

 

@ Confused

 

It's not just you :) ... while headphone sound can be excellent in several aspects I think that there is room for improvement for the reasons that you mentioned

 

Flavio

Warning: My posts may be biased even if in good faith, I work for Dirac Research :-)

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Although I can happily listen to music on headphones, I have never enjoyed the experience much and for me it is no substitute for listening with speakers. With speakers I feel like I am listening to music, a performance or whatever. With headphones, with any recording, it feels artificial, I simply have this sensation that the music is in my head, this limits my enjoyment, I just don't like it much! Is it just me?

 

No, not just you. We all have our preferences. I prefer headphones for the better sound and clarity, not to mention the linear deep bass that can't be gotten with speakers, in a room with resonant nodes.

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@ Daletorn, I don't see where we disagree, if that is the case...

For sure there is a large number of listeners who use headphones and the cross-feed solution (with its pros and cons) is debated at length for example in the Sound Science section of Head-Fi that you know well:

Soundstage Width and Cross-feed: Some Observations

Also I don't think that the sheer facts about the differences outlined in our article would become obsolete because well known since the 50's, what's interesting (from my biased point of view) is the possibility of overcoming the limits of current cross-feed solutions by implementing a method which includes the time-difference cues without giving comb filtering. @ Confused It's not just you :) ... while headphone sound can be excellent in several aspects I think that there is room for improvement for the reasons that you mentioned. Flavio

 

As I noted in another post, and while speakers provide drama and freedom from a headset and wires, there are things speakers just can't do, short of a $million room and a hi-fi system costing nearly as much - just one example, the linear bass that extends all the way down, totally free of "room nodes". I'm aware that Dirac tries to compensate for that, but the result is still muddy with affordable speakers. The "large number of listeners" you note isn't just large, it's the overwhelming majority.

 

Bottom line: Not only is a high-quality speaker system with flat response and good detail from 20 hz to near 20 khz unattainable for the middle class today, the fact is that fewer and fewer people have the luxury to set up a system in their own house that can play music at audiophile volume levels on speakers, without disturbing anyone.

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We are saying that one cannot optimize for both 'cause there are objective and measurable differences between listening with headphones vs. loudspeakers.

When listening with loudspeakers the sound from one channel reaches (differently) both ears while it does'nt with headphones and cross-feed that has been used as a solution has pros and cons that are discussed in that article.

 

This crossfeed issue is crucial and I don't think it should get lost in this discussion. I'm accustomed to the phenomenon being referred to as crosstalk, but regardless, it's what helps the stereo image sound integrated and cohesive. It's also why most stereo speakers sound better when placed relatively close together, i.e. at approximately a 30 degree angle/spread from the listening position vs a 45 degree.

 

I'm not a vinyl person myself, but it's also worth noting that the crosstalk generated by the stylus and cartridge, and variable based on the equipment, the particular record, and even variable by frequency, is a major part of what makes vinyl sound different, and to many folks better, than digital.

 

Again, I am not a vinyl person myself, so I'm not arguing that vinyl is better or that crosstalk/crossfeed is always good. I'm just saying it's an important factor in how we perceive and often enjoy music.

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This crossfeed issue is crucial and I don't think it should get lost in this discussion. I'm accustomed to the phenomenon being referred to as crosstalk, but regardless, it's what helps the stereo image sound integrated and cohesive. It's also why most stereo speakers sound better when placed relatively close together, i.e. at approximately a 30 degree angle/spread from the listening position vs a 45 degree.

I'm not a vinyl person myself, but it's also worth noting that the crosstalk generated by the stylus and cartridge, and variable based on the equipment, the particular record, and even variable by frequency, is a major part of what makes vinyl sound different, and to many folks better, than digital. Again, I am not a vinyl person myself, so I'm not arguing that vinyl is better or that crosstalk/crossfeed is always good. I'm just saying it's an important factor in how we perceive and often enjoy music.

 

Stereophile had a great article on why vinyl sounds different, and why a lot of people prefer it. The gist of it is that the stylus does something that neither digital nor analog tape playback does - the stylus generates its own current by its physical action in the record grooves, and then the amps amplify that sound. Tape and digital players have to construct that voltage from magnetism or bytes of computer data. That is bound to sound different.

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Stereophile had a great article on why vinyl sounds different, and why a lot of people prefer it. The gist of it is that the stylus does something that neither digital nor analog tape playback does - the stylus generates its own current by its physical action in the record grooves, and then the amps amplify that sound. Tape and digital players have to construct that voltage from magnetism or bytes of computer data. That is bound to sound different.

A moving magnetic tape generates a current in the coils of the playback head. A stylus moves a magnet which generates a current in coils (vice versa for moving coil models). I fail to see a fundamental difference. It's magnetic induction in both cases.

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No, not just you. We all have our preferences. I prefer headphones for the better sound and clarity, not to mention the linear deep bass that can't be gotten with speakers, in a room with resonant nodes.
I will not dispute you about what headphones can do but, because they cannot convey a natural soundstage, even with cross-feed circuitry, I cannot tolerate them (with an exception or two).

Kal Rubinson

Senior Contributing Editor, Stereophile

 

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A moving magnetic tape generates a current in the coils of the playback head. A stylus moves a magnet which generates a current in coils (vice versa for moving coil models). I fail to see a fundamental difference. It's magnetic induction in both cases.

 

The link and the quote:

 

But here's the big one: Considered against literally every music-playback medium ever conceived and created, the analog disc is the only one that generates its own electrical signal. Every other medium in existence—even analog tape—depends on an external power supply to create a source signal.

 

Listening #138 Page 2 | Stereophile.com

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The link and the quote:

 

But here's the big one: Considered against literally every music-playback medium ever conceived and created, the analog disc is the only one that generates its own electrical signal. Every other medium in existence—even analog tape—depends on an external power supply to create a source signal.

 

Listening #138 Page 2 | Stereophile.com

 

You're forgetting about the motor driving the turntable. Where did you think the energy came from?

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I will not dispute you about what headphones can do but, because they cannot convey a natural soundstage, even with cross-feed circuitry, I cannot tolerate them (with an exception or two).

 

Kind of a non-sequitur right out of the gate. Ever hear of binaural recording? It's not merely natural sounding, it's superior to any speaker reproduction by design. So then the question becomes, "how much of that is engineered into today's audiophile recordings?", not whether it's built in.

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You're forgetting about the motor driving the turntable. Where did you think the energy came from?

 

I didn't forget anything. I quoted an article from an authoritative audiophile journal that has been reviewed and unchallenged. It's the stylus in the groove that generates the current. The fact that a motor exists somewhere back in the chain is like trying to get back to the mystery of quantum mechanics just to explain fire.

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Very funny.

 

I guess what you're sneering at is 50 years of Sterophile publishing of thousands of informative articles, all of which you find useless. And the hundreds of thousands of Stereophile readers by extension are just deplorables or whatever. Wow! You must be really well informed.

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I didn't forget anything. I quoted an article from an authoritative audiophile journal that has been reviewed and unchallenged. It's the stylus in the groove that generates the current. The fact that a motor exists somewhere back in the chain is like trying to get back to the mystery of quantum mechanics just to explain fire.

 

Seriously, how do you think the stylus "generates" current? By wiggling a magnet next to a pair of coils (or the other way around), right? Now what makes it wiggle? It's the force exerted on it by the turntable driving the disc around. Moving the stylus requires energy as per Newton's laws of motion, and the turntable motor is what provides this energy.

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Seriously, how do you think the stylus "generates" current? By wiggling a magnet next to a pair of coils (or the other way around), right? Now what makes it wiggle? It's the force exerted on it by the turntable driving the disc around. Moving the stylus requires energy as per Newton's laws of motion, and the turntable motor is what provides this energy.

 

The fact that the Sun provides energy for photosynthesis has nothing to do with science examining the processes of photosynthesis. For all science cares, God could be breathing fire on the Earth.

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The fact that the Sun provides energy for photosynthesis has nothing to do with science examining the processes of photosynthesis. For all science cares, God could be breathing fire on the Earth.

 

You said something about a non-sequitur...

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Kind of a non-sequitur right out of the gate. Ever hear of binaural recording? It's not merely natural sounding, it's superior to any speaker reproduction by design.
Nope. That is one of the few exceptions alluded to. However, it is nearly impossible to find a wide selection of binaural recordings.

 

So then the question becomes, "how much of that is engineered into today's audiophile recordings?", not whether it's built in.
I cannot answer that. Can you tell us how much and how?

Kal Rubinson

Senior Contributing Editor, Stereophile

 

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I am one of the people who does most of his high-end investing and listening on headphone setups. For me there are two reasons:

  • Noise, and
  • Cost

 

Even though I live in a big Texas-sized house, I don't have a space where I can listen to music at realistic levels without disturbing my family. Also, I aspire to a high-end setup. To achieve that with a loudspeaker-based system would take many 10s of kilobucks, far more than I could afford at this point.

 

If you look below at my system topology, I've assembled a fairly high-end headphone setup, at a fraction of the cost.

 

Yes, in an ideal world, with cost not a concern, and in a well-tuned space, I do think the speaker listening environment is more satisfying. However, with those constraints in place, for many people the headphone setup can yield a far more high-end and satisfying experience.

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Nope. That is one of the few exceptions alluded to. However, it is nearly impossible to find a wide selection of binaural recordings.

I cannot answer that. Can you tell us how much and how?

 

As a Stereophile editor and/or writer, you would be expected to know the answer better than I, and after all I'm just a guy who has reviewed 160 or so headphones purchased with my own money. But I can offer you a reality check. If you believe that major recordings of refined music today are ignoring the ever-growing audiophile headphone market in favor of the shrinking number of audiophile speaker installations, then I'd say that doesn't pass the credibility litmus test. If I do have to do the research to prove how and where recording/mixing engineers are making sure that headphone spatial cues are included in recordings that are also expected to play on speakers, then I'll do it on a bet for money, to make it worthwhile.

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