17. May 2021 · Comments Off on Stu’s Views – Headphones, Paranoia and Isolationism · Categories: Comment, Hifi News, Views Of Stu · Tags: , ,

I recently got a pair of rather splendid in-ear headphones sent for review and a few things struck me about headphones and the way that we (or I) consume music.

My preferred way to listen to music is through a pair of loudspeakers, and, more often than not, at fairly high volume. I’m well aware that this option isn’t open to all people and there are of course times when I have to don a pair of cans so as not to annoy the other member of the household, though that is very few and far between. We have a few pairs of headphones and I do clamp them to my head once in a while by way of keeping my ear in, but the truth is I find it a somewhat unnerving experience.

There are clear benefits to listening to music on headphones, of that there can be no doubt, and one of the main advantages I have found is that you are completely immersed in the music and pretty much oblivious to your surroundings – with caveats (read on). This cocooning effect is, I imagine, similar to being in a sensory deprivation tank – only deprived of just one key sense and so not like a sensory deprivation tank at all. Put the headphones on, turn up the music and close your eyes and you are free to let your consciousness and emotions drift hither and thither as the music and your inner senses take you.

In many ways then the headphone experience could be seen as being more all-encompassing, and that isolating the listener from external stimuli should make it a deeper and potentially more connecting way of listening to music. Only thing is, I really don’t find it to be like that at all. What happens when I put on a pair of headphones and isolate myself from what is going on around me is I get a bit nervy, and any sound I do hear from the outside world freaks me out a bit – I surely can’t be on my own in this? I sometimes get a bit paranoid – “was that little itch on my left arm a spider? Best open my eyes and find out.” I suppose, like meditation, that you have to allow yourself to be taken over completely by the music (or nothingness in the case of meditation) and go with it, it’s just that I’m not very good at that kind of thing – I don’t think – and I allow myself to be easily distracted by external stuff. I’m also a nosey sod and so like to know what is going on around me. Conversely, I suppose that that hyper-awareness of everything also allows you to more easily mentally delve into the music you are listening to.

Don’t get me wrong, I, like pretty much every bloke of my age, have listened to Dark Side Of The Moon in a blacked-out room with headphones on whilst being suitably herbaceously-enhanced, and, yes, it’s a pretty cool experience, but not one I want to have the pleasure of every single time I listen to the record.

Listening through a pair of loudspeakers can’t hope to give you that isolationist feeling to the same extent, though it can get very close at times, and so I do understand fully why some people actually prefer the headphone experience – and I do actually get quite into it when I do bother to pop headphones on.

There are times when it’s just impractical to have speakers and everything it takes to make them make a noise. Carrying a full-on HiFi system around with you on business trips, commuting journeys and any other out-of-the-house excursion isn’t really all that convenient, and setting up a boom box in a crowded train carriage may not be all that to the liking of your fellow passengers. In these circumstances then it’s a given that a good pair of headphones or in-ears are a must for music lovers.  And I do sometimes use a portable player and in-ears if I go away on trips – though actually going away on a trip is that long ago I’ve almost forgotten what it’s like. My onboard bag usually has my laptop, camera, phone, and tablet in it, and then when I actually remember there’s also the portable player and in-ears. I usually set out with really good intentions and make playlists of tunes I think I ought to be listening to on the journey, albums I’ve neglected to listen to for a while, or new records that I feel I should be checking out like the rest of the cool kids in school. The truth of the matter is that we pretty much exclusively travel as a pair and travel is something of an experience we enjoy “just for the sake of it.” We relish the train picnic and the odd looks we get whilst unpacking a three-course lunch (with wine, plates, and cutlery) whilst our adopted country folk chow down on tinfoil encased cheese and ham baguettes. I love to gaze out of the window and watch the new vistas flash by and the sound of the wheels as they move over the track. We chat, we read, we eat and we drink, but rarely do we sit and listen to music, and more often than not the headphones and player remain unused in my bag. However, when I do listen I do get right into the music, and looking back in my mind’s eye I can distinctly remember listening to Ziggy Stardust, and in particular the first opening bars, and thinking how great it sounded coming out of nowhere.

It’s an odd thing in many ways is the way we listen to music. Sometimes it is a solitary pastime where we fall into the music in some kind of transcendental state and get taken this way and that, whilst at other times the act of listening to music is a shared experience and more of an adjunct to human interaction (think background music whilst you eat), whilst at other times still, say in a club or at a concert, the experience is a collective and shared experience where many become one moving (or seated) mass.

The market for headphones and portable players is humongous, and one that is pretty much demographically universal in its appeal it would seem – it’s perhaps the one area of music playback where the lead is coming very much from the younger generations of music lovers.

Barely a day goes by where my in-box filter isn’t straining under the cyber-weight of emails from companies X, Y, and Z (and A, B, and C) offering the chance to try yet another set of in-ears, or to have a sample sent in the hope that I will buy and try to flog many thousands of pairs. Needless to say, you don’t see many in-ear reviews on our pages as the market just seems awash with them – and mostly they seem to be of a generic kind where all that changes is the label attached at the same factory in China. The ones you may see on our pages will have to be something a little different or special about them – most just get a rudimentary listen and tossed back in their boxes with a “Same as…” comment!

We are social animals in the main (except when we feel a bit isolationist), and shared music can be a joyous and life-affirming venture. However, just as many people around the world find insight and comprehension in meditation, many also love the experience of the solitary audio experience  – and so do I…now and then…but not all the time…and only when I remember.

As I started to write this a new pair of in-ears were popped into the post-box, and that had me revisiting several pairs that we have on hand by way of evaluating their competitive performance. Actually, I enjoyed these particular in-ears quite a bit, but I still felt a bit like a fish out of water whilst testing them out.

First-world problems, I know!

 

 

 

 

 

Stuart Smith

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