FOSTEX: Why use good headphones?

Aggravating a dealer or two!

Whether dealers like it or not, there are certain things that headphones can achieve which even the world's finest stand-alone hifi systems can't. There’s no magic to this. It’s purely the fact that the driver mechanism of the headphone is within an inch or two of the receptive areas of the human ear. Whereas the standalone hifi system must by definition be at least six to eight feet away from the listener.

The point being that air is a useful conductor of sound – but not necessarily a precise or exact one. Inevitably the nature of the sound that the human ear picks up is influenced by the air density, the humidity within the air, to say nothing of the room acoustics.

Headphones don't suffer from any of these particular challenges.

Having said this headphones are not without their own difficulties. The very act of having the driver mechanism so close to your ear means that any imperfection, distortion or studio trickery, becomes more immediately apparent, more frequently, than it would in the majority, but not all, or standalone hifi systems.

For example, vinyl replay through headphones can be slightly irritating unless the records are themselves scrupulously clean in order to avoid clicks and pops and other irritations. While indeed the same irritations can be heard clearly on stand-alone systems, it’s apparent that for the majority of listeners, they are less intrusive and the reverse is true for headphone listeners, where in the main it’s more intrusive.

Worth it with MP3?

Given the popularity of MP3 players, which are in the main portable, it’s surprising how few of their users have recognised the positive benefits of using a decent set of headphones. Given the rather poor 'ear bud' type which are given away with MP3 players, this makes the matter all the more curious. On the other hand when MP3 listeners are introduced to decent, and I don’t necessarily mean expensive headphones, the enjoyment they experience is a revelation.

So for those inclined to MP3 players, is it true to say that in terms of bang for one’s buck it is possible to get more musical enjoyment by spending £x on decent headphones rather than £x o a ‘better’ MP3 player? Certainly; and yes, it is. In fact I’d go further. I’d say definitely. Okay, so far, so good. But does the argument hold true if you compared headphones at say £3x to those at £x? Yes, it does.

But does this carry on for ever?

Err, no. not exactly. This is where the so called “law” of diminishing returns applies. The headphones at £x have an easy task compared to the rubbish supplied by the MP3 makers. “Chalk and cheese” is being too kind. The headphones at £3x will in the main provide more clarity and more detail and will do so at a lower volume – which in these ear-safety-conscious times is a boon. And the bass will generally feel faster, tauter, more tuneful and less “one-note” and voices will sound more natural too. At this point it’s down to the listener’s judgement to determine if these improvements are worth the extra money.

Can retailers go one stage further?

At this point it’s down to the listener’s judgement to determine if these improvements are worth the extra money.

Usually it is – but in these credit-crunch times they might not be affordable. Intelligent, far-sighted and customer-centric headphone retailers will offer a generous trade-in allowance on your first set of decent headphones against a superior pair. Even the most generous of these dealers though will offer you nothing – except possibly sympathy – in response to your desire to trade-in your original in-ear or ‘bud’ type headphones !

In conclusion, you think you ‘know’ your MP3 recordings? Well if you have a decent pair of headphones then you might well do. If not, then think again, be open minded to the surprise of being amazed, and make that small investment to open the door to headphones that will surpass anything you’ve heard previously.

Epilogue; so what do I use?

  1. Very old Sony MDR-51 originally supplied with the Sony Pro Walkman
  2. Goldring G1000 noise-cancelling (only when travelling)
  3. A very old pair of STAX SRX Mk3 with SRD-7 energiser; utterly, utterly BRILLIANT!

And ...... I might just audition a pair from Fostex

Thank you for your attention.

Howard Popeck


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