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Bass or Clarity - The Headphone Debate

Bass Monster Headphones

This morning I was alerted to a rather interesting debate. Following the recent article we published on the Beats brand, it feels like a natural progression to discuss the variation in sound across the range. As a self confessed audiophile, you might expect my personal argument to be obvious, however, this discussion really does need to account for the needs of a general population and I shall account for this within the forthcoming article.


The picture that you see to the right is of the Sony XB ('Xtra Bass) range which was released in 2009. It was introduced to the market with the explicit aim of providing consumers with a range of ear/headphones that have 'enhanced' bass capabilities. Obviously, this was a range which was intended for the 'Hi-Fi' market or users which like a pronunciation of bass frequencies to compliment their music tastes, typically electronic music genres, and in no way produced for monitoring or an accurate representation of the music itself.


For a number of years now the sonic quality of portable music mediums has developed alongside the possibility of carrying hundreds, if not thousands, of tracks within the pocket of the music consumer. Where these formats have become increasingly affordable, and without reference to 'lossy' formats of music such as MP3, the weak link has become the headphones themselves and therefore innovation has been driven to accommodate the music genres and fashion styles of the average majority. In turn this has meant that consumers are paying more for their portable players and the fashion branding of music technology.


Depending on your stance within this argument, you may see the fact that the high-street has moreover accommodated the sale and distribution of ear/headphones thats sonic quality have been coloured, is either a good or bad thing. This is not to say that this is not a completely new revolution. For years ear/headphone manufacturers have either deliberately accented 'happy equalisation' techniques within the tuning of the drivers to make their headphones appear to perform better for cost effectiveness or have deliberately coloured the audio so that they 'best suit' the tonality of various music genres for a target consumer.


?Interestingly this has fuelled an influx of students and 'project producers' whom are taking to using brands of ear/headphones thats inherent nature of design is to colour the audio... In this department I do feel that the people whom are using these products are missing out on what sound naturally is and the reason for this is that you don't need hyped bass to appreciate or 'feel' the music more. An analysis of this might suggest that because they believe in 'premium quality' audio marketing, this has made them think that they are suitable for professional audio applications. This is a huge mistake because they have no guarantee that the music they produce will be translated well on other playback devices and will lead to hours of tweaking... Sennheiser are pretty much the only 'pro-audio' brand which are on the high-street, but even they have succumbed to producing a wide variety of models to sell more units and appear more marketable. Then again I am yet to see a pair of ear/headphones, on the high-street, properly marketed as 'monitor' quality... You don't see people walking around with monitor earphone branded products such as those produced by Beyerdynamic because they are not marketed for this... They are aimed to suit the studio and their design in terms of the driver housing (shape, size, material and cable design) and visual colour is not always for aesthetic reasons, it is because they rely on physics to accent neutrality or sonic scope to fit into the studio/professional environment.


The reason why the studio is designed, locked away from the marketing of brands, is because the most important thing when producing a record is to capture and replicate the music at the highest sound quality and so that it translates well on a wide variety of playback devices; amongst other things. In some respect it does sadden me that some producers have taken to mixing or mastering music on iPod earphones, so that they can guarantee the overall tone for the vast population, but then again this is all sonic evolution. Either way it cannot be a good thing for the consumer to become disproportionately swamped with a tone of music which is in no way organic. Personally when I listen to music I want it to sound like music and I define this by neutral clarity, it just isn't pleasing for my ears to either plough music to a stupid volume or to accent the bass or treble frequencies... I really don't get 2.1 systems... They are typically comprised of two satellite speakers, which are so limited in quality that they only produce high mid-range and treble frequencies, that they demand a subwoofer to be present so that a muddied bass fills the overall sonic shortfalls.


Now we turn to ending of the 'why clarity' debate, it is simply explained. The fact is that it genuinely is more expensive to produce a product which aims to be neutral in its sonic replication. The need to test these products so that they conform to 'monitor' quality is so extensive that it can cost a huge amount in research and development. Although, if certain consumers of branded headphone ranges are paying for the aesthetic design and costs of marketing then surely these brands can afford to make music sound more organic; the problem is that we are in a revolution where 'BASS' rules all and that is what the majority of the market demands. As they have been brought up around this hearing music played through a system that is considered 'neutral' may be under whelming. Even when consumers attend live performances they demand volume and pumping bass - so ironically the sound engineer will turn to his outboard gating and compression units to provide this on the kick drum, snare and bass guitar... The crowd goes wild.


As we come to an ending of the debate I have to say that my vision of the future of sound and it's sonic appearance is one blurred by a nature vs nurture debate. We are in the centre of a sonic nurture era where coloration has become a disturbed common practice in and amongst the influx of electronic music genres however, we should always remember what music naturally sounds like. The moment we forget this is the moment we stop caring for our art. To put this in context this is like taking away an artists paint brush, pens, ink, paper, pencils and nerves in the finger (so they can feel their actions) and replacing it with a touch screen device loaded with a digital canvas, digital pens, digital widths and digital everything.


Edd Harris

This morning I was alerted to a rather interesting debate. Following the recent article we published on the Beats brand, it feels like a natural progression to discuss the variation in sound across the range. As a self confessed audiophile, you...

Edd Harris  - 10th March 2013

Article Ref: #BassOrClarity