As the holiday approaches the number of advertisements –both overt and stealth– has increased exponentially. I had one fly under my radar by riding on a Facebook recommendation though, and I had to laugh because the person recommending the product …well, let’s just say that they were about the last person I would think to ask when it came to the product being promoted.
Let’s talk about headphones. The very best pair of headphones I ever had cost me a whole $15, brand new in the box. I have no idea of the brand name, the most prominent marking on the box declared they were made in Japan. But these earphones were amazing. They had clear crisp lows, crisp clear mid-range, and (yes) crisp and clear highs. They really brought out the best in the various recordings I had, whether vinyl, tape or radio –which were the choices at the time I had them. Even that ultra low, low note at the end of Emerson, Lake and Palmer’s Lucky Man (which many people didn’t even know was in there because many hi fi systems and speakers couldn’t reproduce it) came through clear as a bell. These things were just phenomenal.
That taught me that price wasn’t always an indicator of quality, and some of the cheapest, no-name crap could actually be a diamond in the rough, just as those headphones. But I also learned something else from those headphones. A friend of mine tried them out after listening to me swoon over them a few times. He listened to the Who’s Baba Riley, Steppenwolf’s Never Too Late, and the aforementioned Lucky Man. In the end, he pulled them off and said “harrumph. They’re okay, I guess.” I was floored. Stunned. Shocked –and maybe a little offended. How on earth could he not be totally enthralled with the sound of these headphones? Then he said “You should try mine. I have a pair of Technics somethingorothers. Top of the line. They have a frequency range from .001Hz to 300,000 kilohertz. Since that’s an impossible excellent frequency range, I figured I’d experience what $350 could buy. I had only to listen to Emerson, Lake and Palmer to shrug them off and announce: “These things suck.” After the fist fight, we agreed to disagree about who had the better headphones and went to the Portland Arena to see Pink Floyd.
As the years flew by, I would again and again hear this or that person recommend headphones. Sometimes they sounded okay and sometimes they didn’t. Some were muddled and dull and others were brassy and shrill. Some boasted excellent bass, which I discovered is code for over-amplification of low frequencies for those who enjoy their synapses homogenized. Some boasted crystal clear highs –which was code for so shrill they could detach retinas. And so, as the years went by and I played any number of musical headphone games with a long list of competing listeners I concluded something. None of us hears things the same way. The headphones that Person A enjoys are very likely going to be shunned by Person B, and vice versa.
As my education in science continued, I began to learn about both audio and the ear, and I found after years of research that no two people hear the same way. Of course, I’d already figured this out, but now I had clear scientific evidence of my theory, and I could point to it in a book. It said “No two people hear things exactly the same way.” It went on for longer than my attention span would tolerate, but it explained chapter and verse why this was so. Very compelling reading. If you have a long attention span. Anyway, from that point on I stopped listening to people who recommended headphones to me. I might give a pair of the lauded phones a try, but I certainly wouldn’t plop down hard earned money to buy a pair of earphones unless I’d tried them out. This used to mean I had to cart around a few of my favorite records and convince the store to let me play them on their equipment so that I might listen through their phones. These days I just carry my phone around to accomplish the same task. Actually, using the phone is better because I can’t be fooled into thinking headphones are great by having them attached to bazillion dollar audiophile equipment. Some headphone sales people are very crafty. I keep a copy of Lucky Man, along with offerings from J Geils, The Doobie Brothers, Pink Floyd, … well, the truth is that I have a whole 64 GB Type 10 SDHC card in there that holds about 4000 tunes. It would hold more, but that’s generally the number of records I bought or downloaded from the Internet. Basically, I can test the hell out of any headphones vying for my ownership.
I have about 30 pairs of headphones, and ironically, none of them are very good. Some came along with some device I purchased, or along with a software package. For instance, a couple of video games came with headsets as did my copy of Dragon Naturally Speaking. (What a piece of junk THAT is! The program, I mean. The headphones aren’t too bad.) I have tried headphones by Sony, Sennheiser, Bose, Altec Lansing, JBL, and on and on. I mean, there’s some really top names in there. But none of them have the excellence of that cheapo pair of earphones I bought in a variety store back in the early seventies. To be fair, my hearing is suffering as I pile on the years, so the chances are good that my ears aren’t up to the abilities some of these products are. But I can stillhope, and I do.
The thing is, and all I’m trying to convey here is this: there are some things that others can’t recommend to you. Headphones are one of them. Because we, like the pretty little snowflakes of pre-global warming winters, are so different, when it comes to headphones, one man’s treasure is another man’s tuna milkshake. So if you want to buy someone a pair of headphones, just get them a gift certificate and let ‘em go get the ones they like.
It’s the only sure way.