There’s No Such Thing As Perfect Headphones

A lesson about finding your personal satisfaction

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Photo taken by Alex Rowe, February 2019, outside Portland, OR.

et me tell you about a fun scenario I go through in my Medium responses or Twitter replies every single week of my life.

Someone I’ve never talked to before writes in. Sometimes they proclaim they’re a fan of my work, and other times they just get right to it. They always want to know: which of two different headphones they’ve been considering is the best?

Nearly every time, they two pairs they’re considering are popular models with scads of reviews, technical data, YouTube breakdowns, and other information available online. In spite of this, I take some of my personal time to reiterate the opinions I’ve already shared in my review, and to explain a little bit about the subjective nature of audio in the hopes of prompting some thoughtful discussion

But they don’t want thoughtful discussion, or the suggestion that maybe best doesn’t exist. They just want to know which one to buy, and they want me, an enthusiast at the very bottom of the ladder of experts, to tell them which one that is.

So I keep going. I carefully collate more opinions I’ve already written and the opinions of other trusted online sources, and gently conclude that either option would be great, and they’re going to have to try one before they truly know what they personally like. Buy from a place with a good return policy. Thanks for reading.

Then, inevitably, ten times out of ten, the following happens: they decide to buy a third popular pair that they never mentioned to me. I call this phenomenon “Secret Option C.”

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Photo by FuYong Hua on Unsplash

This makes me laugh every single time, and it exposes a couple of truths. Firstly, they were never actually counting on my “expert” opinion at all. Secondly, there’s no such thing as “best” in the audio world.

There just isn’t. Best is entirely, one-hundred-percent subjective. Enjoying audio is not like trying to determine which of two numbers is bigger. Math provides simple, objective answers in a way that music and audio equipment do not.

Is it possible for some equipment to render audio more accurately to the source than other gear? Absolutely. We have measurements and compensation curves and data about which sorts of audio tend to be preferred by the marketplace.

But everyone still has their own preferences. And different gear is built around this plethora of opinions.

You might love a strong bass and I might prefer a strong treble. You might want the comfiest thing in the world with high isolation and I might want a bigger soundstage. You might like wireless tech and I might prefer an old-fashioned cable.

None of those things have a concrete definition of “better.” They’re all just personal opinions. Comfort is especially notorious. I might love the way something fits on my particular big dumb head, and you might hate it, and we’re both right.

That’s just the way this stuff goes.

In audio, your personal experience is going to trump mine every time, and the only thing I can do is share my own thoughts.

That’s why, long ago, I stopped trying to find the best and instead focus on “interesting to me.” It wasn’t easy. I’ve seen the marketing for things like the $1700 Sennheiser HD800S. I’ve read the millions of positive reviews and the hype fests on the forums. It’s all promising you the world.

I mean, look at this crazy video. It’s well produced, sure, but think for a second. Did this tell you anything, specifically, about what perfect sound even is? Or about what they’ve actually done to get closer to that? No. It was just a hype machine, with pretty images and music.

And I’m not even really trying to pick on Sennheiser here. Everyone does this in the tech space, and Sennheiser’s made some amazing products over the years.

But they’re just headphones. They’re a means to an end of actually enjoying audio. And they cost Sennheiser a fraction of their price to make. They’re selling you hype designed to prey on your need for the best technology, a need that never goes away until you try actively to switch it off.

Once you do though, you can start having a good time, and you can spend the money you save on new content instead of new gear that feeds the obsession.

This applies to any hobby, not just headphones.

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Photo by Alex Holyoake on Unsplash

I love finding a surprise in a dusty corner of my local electronics store. I love trying out wacky new designs. And I’m totally fine with wearing a $17 headphone that sounds a little funky every single day if it’s the comfiest thing I’ve tried in years.

Not once have I had to worry how I’m going to afford something, or second guess myself over whether it was “the best according to the internet.” I just chased my interests and bought what appealed in my price range.

I try to remember that online opinions only exist to help inform me of new stuff, not directly shape who I am as a person.

Once you stop chasing the best, you’ll see that “good” is all that matters. And you’ll change the focus of your hobby from what others think is good to what you think is good.

The weird inherent human need to find something better, to always outdo what we’ve already got, is a latent vestigial survival instinct that was never meant to function in a world where we’re trying to buy products.

Marketing preys upon this, trying to get you hyped up about some new innovation just to part you from your cash. That’s its whole job.

If a lot of experts think a low-priced headphone is good, then it’s probably good, even if there are “more expensive and better” options out there. Why not try the accepted good thing for yourself and see if you enjoy it?

Endless pursuit of “better” gets in the way of the actual hobby, and it’s an instinct I have to shut down all the time. It’s why I very rarely spend more than $100 on audio gear. I could drop two grand on a pile of aluminum and sexy design that promises me Perfect Sound…whatever that is. Or, I could have incredible comfort and okay sound for $17. The first is a marketing gimmick. The second is the path to true audio enjoyment.

That and actually listening to music.

Written by

I do radio voice work by day, and write by day and night. I studied film and production. I love audio, design, and music. Also video games.

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