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What is an Audiophile, and what make headphones great?

Discussion in 'Sound Science' started by theos53, Sep 19, 2014.
  1. TheoS53
    Firstly, I'm not sure if I have put this in the correct section, but it seemed the most appropriate.

    Anyways, I little bit of background info; I haven't been in the "High-end" audio crowd for very long, a few months at most. I very often find myself coming to Head-Fi to check out reviews etc. To my surprise, my ears are actually quite good. Not good enough (like the vast majority of people) to distinguish between a FLAC and MP3 at 320kbps...although I'm sure someone like Daniel Kish would easily be able to do that lol. But I find myself to be good enough to be able to distinguish between great and ok headphones. 
    Currently I have a Fiio X5, e12 amp, and JVC FXZ200 buds. I love the setup, and I realise there is no need for the amp in order to power the buds, but I solely use the amp for the little bit of a bass boost. My first "pro" music player was a Cowon J3. I absolutely love the X5, the only thing I miss about the J3 is the bass. Man that thing can go low. I don't think I would call myself a bass head, but I'm in the school of thought that bass should be felt more than heard. There's just something about being able to literally feel the music that gets me tingling. However, the X5 has loads more clarity, which I happily accept over the bass of the J3 any day (I dont mean to say the X5 has poor bass...it doesn't). 

    Recently, I decided to invest in a set of cans, and have settled on the ATH-m40x. I know the 50's are far more popular, but after doing some research and looking up reviews, I decided to go with the 40's as they sound more neutral....and for the sake of bang-for-buck, I firmly believe them to be the best (neutrally) sounding cans available at even double or triple their price range (perhaps even more than that). Whilst doing my research I stumbled upon Sonic Sense Pro Audio. What these guys have done is fantastic, and what I believe to be the only way you can truly compare headphones without physically testing them.
     
    Here's a vid on how they do it: 
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jnK1Gq7txYA&list=UUMyZJifcyFLUjQv553QTQ8w
     
    I think it's fair to say that this is the most ideal way to compare headphones, as you can switch between the source track and the recording instantly in an ABX test. Which brings me to the question of what or who and audiophile is. 
    When I ventured into this little world, I often came across the term audiophile, but didn't quite understand the concept. The reason for not understanding (what I believe to be) the true meaning of "audiophile" is because more often than not, the term is thrown around loosely by people who claim to be audiphiles, but they didn't quite grasp the concept either. 
    My version of what or who an audiophile is, is someone who is in the pursuit to get the purest, most unadulterated sound possible...to hear it as close to the way it was recorded. I guess, the true meaning of the Beats motto. 
    But then you get music lovers...the vast majority of people who are in the pursuit to get the most enjoyable experience. You see, unfortunately we are all at the mercy of our brains. What we like/dislike, what sounds good and what sounds crap all depends on our bodies. If you like something, whether it be a genre of music, a certain type of food or colour...everything comes down to Serotonin and Dopamine. Those are the chemicals responsible for making us feel (what we interpret to be) happy. But far too often I see people who claim to be audiophiles judge and look down upon those who have "sub-par" equipment. The point is, if whatever you have makes you enjoy your music to the fullest, enjoy the heck out of it, and to hell with anyone who tells you that you're an idiot for using what you do (sadly I often come across that on various forums, not just this one).
    Now, I'm sure that most of us can agree that Beats products don't sound very good (possibly because we have experienced better), are epically overpriced, and that their motto is horribly misleading (I'll prove that shortly). 
    So, what makes a set of headphones good? YOU DO. Often reading on the forums I come across the idea of "they aren't neutral, but definitely the most fun to listen to". Well, fun is fun, fun is good, fun means you're enjoying it...so why should you pick something else? Simply put, you shouldn't. Demo the products and pick whatever you enjoy more, not what someone else tells you to enjoy. However, keep in mind that your position on a "great" set of headphones will most likely change over time. When I first got the J3 it sounded incredible and I enjoyed every moment I used it...until I got the X5 and thought "wow, the J3 is just gonna gather dust now".

    So, getting back to my choice of the m40x. For me it just makes sense to get neutral sounding headphones, because you can always change the sound signature within the equaliser settings on your player. You can still do that to some extent with non-neutral headphones, but not quite to the same degree. To test for the most neutral sounding cans, I downloaded the sound files from their site and did some ABX test in Foobar to see how the cans compare to one another. And this is the only reason why I say Beats don't sound good, and that the m40x are such a fantastic value product (better than the HD800 in my opinion). What I did was to ABX between the source file and the recorded audio from each set of cans independently, and to see if I could hear a difference between the 2.
     
    Here are screenshots of my test results:

    Source vs m40x
    2v2xkix.jpg
     
    Source vs Beats Pro
    xqeyz5.jpg
     
     
    Source vs Beats Solo
    2uyskyr.jpg
     
     
    Source vs Beats Studio
    13zbvnk.jpg
     
     
    Source vs HD800
    2i6l35e.jpg
     
     
    As you can see with the Beats variety, it was a piece of cake to distinguish between the cans and the source, only the Studios threw me off for one of the tests. The HD800 was a lot more difficult to distinguish, but the m40x was pretty impossible.
     
    As I typed this I realised that, just for the heck of it, I should probably do the same test with the ever popular m50x. 
    nnr1fm.jpg
     
     
    To my surprise there was a pretty clear difference, the sound felt more open on the source file, and the mids sounded recessed on the m50x recording. 

    I know some of you my suggest that my tests are flawed due to the fact that there are so many variables at play here...the recording equipment, my PC's sound card, my speakers etc, and will not be an accurate representation of what the cans sound like in real life. And I completely agree with you...however, the point of these tests were not to try and simulate a real word experience of the sound quality, but simply to compare the different cans to each other. In scientific terms, there is a difference between accuracy and precision. My tests are accurate, since the recording equipment at Sonic Sense, my PC's sound card and speakers remain a constant, the only variable being the headphones. So yes, with better equipment you may be even to hear even more significant differences between them, but not less, and the point is that even on fairly low end products on my side (as I'm pretty sure the equipment Sonic Sense uses is very good), differences could still be heard with reference to the source file, and as such is a completely fair test purely for the sake of comparison. 

    I hope some of this might be useful to people, and I strongly recommend the Sonic Sense audio files for comparing headphones.

    Rock on people [​IMG] 
     
  2. castleofargh Contributor
    just thought I'd butt in about your "audiophile vs audio lover" idea. they pretty much share the same idea in a different language. we all here are audiophiles, it has nothing to do with our knowledge or expectations of what good sound is.
     
     
    otherwise, while reading people in here, it feels like most will mix "neutral" with "natural" and "like a live performance" as soon as they simply enjoy the sound with no relation to the actual meaning of those words. we're probably the biggest word abusing community you can get ^_^.
     
     
    else about your test, it's interesting, and if it works well for you you should keep it that way. but I think a lot of us came up with our own redneck way of doing the same with test tones or specific parts of a particular piece of music. I have a few tracks that aren't anything special except that I know them very very well, and they are enough for me to identify most of the characteristics of a headphone(at least I feel like it's enough ^_^). one track for a particular thing, another track for something else ...
    but coming up with some common method could help people talk about the same things when describing a headphone, so maybe your suggestion is a possibility?
     
  3. TheoS53
    For a while I thought the same thing about the term "audiophile". But then I realised that there actually is a difference between the idea of an audiophile and a music lover, and I specifically use the term "music lover" rather than "audio lover" as I feel the difference comes down to those who appreciate and enjoy the details in audio, and those who appreciate and enjoy the rhythm of music instead. But unfortunately it seems that many have adopted some kind of BS superiority complex to the term audiophile.

    About my test, I guess I would describe it as a digital test. By that I mean it's a fairly fool proof method to test for the difference in sound signatures between different cans with reference to one another, but more importantly with reference to a source file. The reason I say it's a digital test is because you're simply testing to notice a difference, but how big or small the difference are would require a far more detailed test involving numeric measurements.
     
  4. TheoS53
    I realise that the screenshots are quite blurry, so here are the full rez images 
     
    test1.jpg
     
    test2.jpg
     
    test3.jpg
     
    test4.jpg
     
    test5.jpg
     
    test6.jpg
     
    web123 likes this.
  5. mikeaj
    One thing to keep in mind about those audio recordings is that they're via a dummy head / simulator / mic / etc. That's the best way to do it, but gear aside, there are some limitations. Same caveats apply as to a headphone measurement site's data, like InnerFidelity's.

    The sound the mics pick up depend on the shape of the head and ears, the seal, the acoustic behavior of the ear canal and the apparatus. It is supposed to simulate some kind of average human response. Thing is, the sealing and interaction between the headphone and any given listener is somewhat different (by a few / several dB in the treble, a likewise significant amount in the bass depending on seal), and the magnitude of differences across frequencies is not quite consistent between listener and listener across headphones or between headphone and headphone across listeners. So literally, which sounds closest to source to your ears may not be the thing that sounds closest to source for the dummy head's ears. It just... probably will, to a certain, often large extent.

    Also, the other obvious thing is the recording not transmitting finish / fit / build / comfort information. Actually, it would be quite incredible if it did.
     
  6. TheoS53
    I couldn't agree more...it's not the be all and end all of tests, but pretty close. Of course, as you said, this does not provide you with a feel for the build and comfort of the cans (which are also very important), but purely for the sake of comparing the set's ability to reproduce the original source. 
     
  7. bigshot
     
    Hey wait a minute! I identify as a "HiFi Nut"!
     
    The difference is that audiophiles get good sound by spending money on expensive equipment. HiFi nuts roll up their sleeves and make great sound themselves using regular equipment.
     
    TheoS53 likes this.
  8. TheoS53
    LOL. Perhaps that is a better term to use then. 
     
  9. Head Injury
    I still "identify" as an audiophile. I just have to take the time to explain that I'm not one of the $10,000 tube amp, turntable and power cord ones, that I'm actually trying to be smart with my money.
     
    TheoS53 likes this.
  10. superjawes
    I think there are a couple problems with defining "audiophile" as someone trying to get the closest to "as recorded" sound.

    For starters, human heads and ears (in the case of headphones) have a huge impact on the perception of sound. The same is true for the characteristics of the room and speakers. Measuring headphones and speakers might get you close, but it is impossible to factor in everything, so we end up with some subjective characteristics regardless. This is kind of like the interesting question about what colors we see. (When we both look at a color, do we really see the same color?)

    The next major problem with this definition is that you're actually listening to a representation of the recorded music. Shocker, I know. But seriously, a studio is a very controlled environment for a reason. Sound engineers aren't necessarily trying to deliver a track that sounds like it was recorded in sound proof rooms. In fact, many instruments and vocals are recorded seprately. Now the sound engineer might have an idea in mind when he puts everything together. He might want the music to sound like a performance in an auditorium, or maybe a garage, or maybe he does want the sound proofed studio effect. But whatever he intended, your speakers and room could change how it sounds. In that case, what is "right"?

    So even if you cancel out the coloring effects of your equipment, room, and head, you might not be hearing the music just as the artist/engineer intended. Should you still be considered an "audiophile"? If your freind lets his room and equipment color the sound, hitting what was intended, is he an "audiophile," or does he get "downgraded" to "music lover" for not neutralizing his room effects?

    Virtually all humans are music lovers. The iPod wouldn't have been the revolution it was otherwise. But just because you love music doesn't mean that you're willing to go the extra mile (and spend the extra dollar) to get more accurate, detailed, and better sounding music. If you're willing to do those things, then it's fair to call yourself an "audiophile." At least that's my opinion :)

    Side note, the engineers at audio companies know that "perfectly neutral" isn't always right. This is why Harman is working on a target response curve for headphones. It's worth reading into what they're doing.
     
  11. bigshot
     
    Actually, that is exactly what you're doing. Studios calibrate their monitors to a flat frequency response. That way if you record some tracks in Los Angeles and move to New York and record some more, they will match. When you calibrate your own speakers to a balanced response, you're hearing what the engineers heard as long as your speakers are good enough.
     
    Lemon8 likes this.

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