Headphones are similar. The high-end ones perform better, so to speak. So, what exactly does a headphone performance consist of?
(1) Frequency Range: Humans perceive sound as changes in air pressure. There are two basic ways in which this is measured/represented. The amount of this pressure (called SPL), and Frequency with which this change occurs. Humans auditory sensors can detect over 100 dB (Decibel) of changes in SPL, and sounds with frequencies between 20 and 20,000 Hz (Hertz/Cycles per second).
So, the primary goal of a headphone is to provide a sound experience that covers as much of human perception as possible. But few can, because, due to limitations in the manufacturing technology, limits on the production cost, limitations of the laws of physics achieving that goal is any thing but easy.
Manufacturers try to produce headphones, that can produce any frequency between 20 and 20,000 Hz, at any loudness level required (say 20 to 120 dB), needing the same amount of power (displaying uniform electrical character), without any side effects (distortions etc).
Since manufacturers can’t exactly meet the goal, they (are supposed to) state what is the deviation from the above in their product. They provide this stat in form of +-dBs. This deviation is also part of the standard specifications.
The science of acoustics says that an ideal headphone (or any sound reproducing equipment for that matter) should reproduce as close to the requirement as possible. In the audio world such behavior of an equipment is called Ruler-flat frequency response. But in practice, neither such a behavior is possible to achieve nor it is liked by the consumers. An overwhelming majority of end-users prefer a bit of Boom-and-sizzle in their sound. Hence, manufacturers sometimes tune their product to produce a specific type of sound which is different from the ideal. Different manufacturers have a different interpretation of what their product should sound like, or manufacturers make their products keeping certain consumer segments in mind. Hence even as different headphones are meant to sound good, they often deviate away from their ideal behavior. Some manufactures always adhere to a specific kind of tailoring (called voicing) of reproduced sound in their product. Such sound is called the house sound of the manufacturer.
By now, it should be plenty clear why different headphones do/should sound different. Next question is – what do high end headphones do different. Well, they either of
(a) produce a much closer to ideal sound (which is very hard to do)
(b) produce a sound that is their USP
(c) behave in a way more suitable to certain application (specialized products).
(2) Distortion: Distortion is the inability of a headphone to produce exactly the note (the frequency, the amplitude) it is being asked to produce. Distortion is expressed in the form of percentage and is often a part of the specification. Distortion is mostly unwanted. Products that have less distortion are harder to produce, hence cost more.
(3) SPL: Products that can perform well at high SPLs or low SPLs are harder to produce. Hence they cost more. This is often a neglected aspect of sound equipment, that should be but, unfortunately, is not a part of standard specifications.
(4) Equipment compatibility: In an ideal world, an ideal headphone will play well with any other equipment. Unfortunately, that’s not the case. Producing a headphone that can play equally well with other equipment of different caliber is extremely hard. Some high-end phones try to be easy to drive, while still producing quality sound.
They say, the proof of pudding lies in eating. This holds true pretty well when it comes to sound reproduction. Whether a high-end headphone is worth its price or not can only be judged by listening to it.
High-end headphones provide a visceral experience, one that can be soul stirring, and even spiritual. Good headphone have the ability to virtually transport you to the original recording venue, and make you feel you are there. There is a sense of palpability in the sound that will make the entire venue come alive. All that of course depends on the entire rig one is listening to (headphone alone cannot make all the magic). Often the sense of realism you get from a rig is a function of how much money and effort has gone in to it.
Post time: Nov-08-2021