Why Do I Test Headphones in Coffee Shops?

Ah little speakers, my old nemesis

Alex Rowe
4 min readSep 6, 2019


Photo by Toa Heftiba on Unsplash

I like coffee shops.

The delicious beverages. And the smells of said beverages.

The free Wi-Fi.

The ability to get out of my apartment yet also still be completely isolated inside a screen.

Coffee shops offer it all. And they’re also a great place to test closed-back headphones and gaming headsets.

One of the key advantages to closed-back headphones is their noise isolation, whether that’s through passive or active measures.

Sure, closed-back pairs usually give up a little on the soundstage front, and they’re tricky to tune because of the way sound bounces around in the ear cups.

But, there’s nothing like a closed-back headphone and some favorite music when you want to get away without really getting away.

My apartment isn’t that loud, outside of one small air conditioner and the occasional dropped-bowling-ball-noise from the neighbors upstairs.

While we often think of coffee shops as quiet sanctuaries of hot cafe delights, the reality is that they’re quite cacophonous.

Espresso machines. Coffee grinders. Other patrons who are actually talking instead of staring at screens. Children running by.

And the little speakers.

Photo taken by me just the other day. These little guys must be defeated! With…even smaller speakers!

One worldwide coffee chain whose name rhymes with Starbucks has built out an entire music delivery system linked in directly to Spotify, delivering curated lists of pop and classic music through little speakers all over the planet at every hour of the day.

Not even the indie coffee shop down the road from my place is free from this influence.

They have a slapped-together music system featuring a CD player wired in to a pair of off-the-shelf Logitech computer speakers that they’ve placed near the ceiling, and use it to blast whatever they’re feeling that day.

Trying to block out music with your own music is a fantastic and delightfully stupid test of headphone isolation.

Lots of folks use closed-back or ANC headphones for commuting on buses, trains, and planes, and while I don’t often personally do that, I think a coffee shop is a fair analog.

They have droning AC systems, crowd noises, and that ever-present music.

Gaming headsets always advertise that they’re great for loud gaming tournaments or LAN centers, but I think the vast majority of players use them at home.

Still, the coffee shop works as a stand-in for this too.

When I first got into reviewing headphones online four years ago, it was almost an accident.

I do my other non-writing-things-online job out of my apartment and I work strange hours, so it’s nice to get out of the house sometimes. Writing became the perfect break that was also still work.

I started going to the local coffee shop to get some writing done on my laptop, and after a few weeks I realized that I didn’t always want to listen to the music they were playing.

Such a big problem, I know.

Headphones were the obvious answer.

Photo by Petr Sevcovic on Unsplash

Prior to this realization, I was never a “headphones in pubic” guy.

I had always loved audio gear and music, but I’d never really thought to take that stuff with me outside.

It hasn’t been socially acceptable for very long.

Ten years ago, you’d almost never see anyone using headphones outside, and looking at a screen in a coffee shop was tantamount to the highest social crimes.

Thankfully that all changed and I can now ignore people while sitting near them and drinking a thing.

Once I started headphoning, I couldn’t go back.

Suddenly I was down the nightmarish gear rabbit hole, chasing the hardware instead of the music.

Even when I’m not reviewing a pair and just writing something like this, I still have headphones on.

Sometimes things do line up just right and the little speakers play the music you actually want to listen to.

But more often than not, they’re just serving as the background to the background.

The noise floor so you can enjoy yourself and not just feel like you’re in an empty hole.

Like when you go to Target.

Did you know they don’t play music in their stores? It’s so weird!

For whatever reason, I want there to always be background music when I’m at a place, but sometimes I want to block it out with my own different music or silence.

I know that doesn’t make rational sense. But human behavior is full of these lovely quirks.



Alex Rowe

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