As I write this, I’ve just returned from the Rocky Mountain Audio Fest, where I moderated a panel titled “Best Headphone Rigs vs. State-of-the-Art Audio Systems.” One comment, from PSB Speakers founder and chief engineer Paul Barton, especially stuck with me. As best I can recall, he said, “Once you go to blind testing, where the listeners can’t see the identity of the products, everything changes,” and he punctuated it with a wave of both arms.
Asked the question I pose in the title of this article, most of the people I deal with in the audio industry with would say, “Of course.” But a few -- including most high-end audio publications and some high-end audio manufacturers -- might say, “No.” “Trust your ears,” they tell us over and over, implying that whatever you hear, or think you hear, is just as real and valid -- and perhaps even more so -- than conclusions derived from blind testing, laboratory measurements, or scientific research.
High-end audio thrives on controversy, and recently, when the Wall Street Journal published an article titled “Why Vinyl’s Boom Is Over,” it got plenty. The high-end audio press attacked the author’s article, WSJ staff reporter Neil Shah. It’s an infuriating piece that presents as fact statements that are little more than opinion. But while it’s depressing that the editorial staff of the WSJ (who are not the same people responsible for the paper’s notoriously provocative editorial page) let this one through, the article does raise a couple of issues that vinyl-loving audiophiles should ponder.
There’s only one headphone model whose sudden disappearance would literally change the world of audio: Sony’s MDR-7506. Introduced in 1991, the MDR-7506es have become something of a standard for audio and video production. I’ve worked in and visited innumerable recording studios across the country, as well as quite a few radio and TV stations, and I can’t remember ever not seeing a set of ’7506es -- more likely, several pairs -- either in use or easily within the engineers’ reach.
In the last six weeks, I’ve been to two audio shows -- High End, in Munich, and the Los Angeles Audio Show -- while fielding my usual volume of new-product announcements and visits to manufacturers. In that time I’ve witnessed the debuts of hundreds of audio components. What strikes me, though, is not the large number of products I’ve seen, but the extremely small number that I remember.
I’ve just reached a milestone: the first time in my life I can recall passing an independent record store without going in. I did give the shop -- in downtown Ljubljana, Slovenia -- a good once-over. But faced with the prospect of missing one of Ljubljana’s other attractions because of the 30 to 60 minutes I’d spend browsing the store’s racks, all to acquire more records that I wouldn’t be able to play except in my listening room, I kept moving.
Last November, Samsung announced it had purchased Harman International, parent company of AKG, Infinity, JBL, Mark Levinson, Revel, and other audio brands. Most observers speculated that Samsung made the move to get into the automotive electronics business, where Harman is a powerhouse. But a recent report from A/V industry insider website Strata-gee.com speculates that much of Samsung’s motivation springs from the desire to use Harman’s audio technology to improve its smartphones.
Since I began measuring the performance of headphones six years ago, it’s been quite a journey. Not a journey through a picturesque mountain landscape dotted with rustic inns, but more like one through searing deserts and freezing snowscapes packed with predators and empty of civilized comforts. The prevailing standard for headphone measurements, IEC 60268-7, was originally published in 1984 by the International Electrotechnical Commission, “a non-profit, non-governmental international standards organization that prepares and publishes International Standards for all electrical, electronic and related technologies,” per Wikipedia. It’s an in-depth and well-considered standard, but most of it is now more than an entire human generation old -- in technological terms, perhaps ten generations. Some of its recommendations have been called into question by more recent research, and some reflect limitations and conditions that time has erased.
We’ve heard a lot of debate recently about the value of science. As I write this, marches are being planned in which tens of thousands of people are expected to express their views on the subject. In audio, though, this is nothing new. For decades, we’ve witnessed arguments -- often shockingly acrimonious ones -- about the value of science in audio.
My assignment at last month’s Consumer Electronics Show, in Las Vegas, was to cover headphones -- a chore I thought might leave me plenty of free time to check out new speakers and subwoofers. But so many new headphones were launched that covering the category took up almost all of my time at the show. Much as I love high-end, audiophile-oriented headphones -- and there were plenty of new ones at CES 2017 -- I was just as excited to see promising new models at prices as low as $14.99. In fact, the most important trend was the introduction of many new headphone models that combined noise canceling with Bluetooth wireless operation, neither of which would be considered an audiophile feature, though both are vital to those who rely on headphones to keep them entertained as they wander the world.