Hearing a new sound: Investing in headphones and our evolving relationship with music

“My first ‘good’ headphones—a pair of Bose AE2s—sat waiting for me under the tree this past Christmas, and as I flipped through my iPod looking for their Very First Song, I felt like I was being made to play some version of the famous Desert Island game: What song would take me into a brand new musical world? I decided to go with Lady Gaga’s “Sexxx Dreams”, and I heard a song I knew and loved transformed: Beats that simply burped before rumbled with menace and gobbled up space, synths sizzled like high-voltage power lin­es, new notes burst into frame like fireworks. I’ve had my new headphones for about a month now, and I have experiences like that every day. Music I’ve been hearing for years is reborn, and I start to appreciate it in new ways. It reminds me that the songs and albums weaving through my life aren’t static; they evolve with me, changing with context and medium and something as simple as the headphones I use to hear them.”

– Jamieson Cox in Confessions of an Earbud Apologist for Pitchfork



I too got headphones for Christmas. And they changed my life. It absolutely does prove how small changes—in time, in context, in environment—affect our relationship to the music we already are connected to. David Byrne testified to this in his book “How Music Works” when he wrote, “Depending on where you hear it–in a concert hall or on the street–or what the intention is, the same piece of music could either be an annoying intrusion, abrasive and assaulting, or you could find yourself dancing to it. How music works, or doesn’t work, is determined not just by what it is in isolation (if such a condition can ever be said to exist) but in large part by what surrounds it, where you hear it and when you hear it. How it’s performed, how it’s sold and distributed, how it’s recorded, who performs it, whom you hear it with, and of, of course, finally, what it sounds like: these are the things that determine not only if a piece of music works–if it it successfully achieves what it sets out to accomplish–but also what it is.”

When listening to recorded music, part of this formula includes whether the sound is delivered through computer speakers, headphones, or other methods.

I never wore Apple earbuds because I’m really weird about my ears and don’t like sticking things inside of them. (one time the doctor told me my ears were broke and don’t clean out the wax the way they are supposed to). Instead of earbuds, I preferred the ear-clip headphones, and often super cheap ones. For the last several years I’ve been planning to invest in a quality pair of headphones in the $300 range (on the lower end of the spectrum for now), but I was living off of loans while in grad school then unemployed for a year. Once I landed my fulltime job I started researching a bit, but really wasn’t sure what to get. Luckily my brother considers himself an audiophile and schooled me in all things headphones: impedance, ohms, semi-open, closed. We also discussed brands, and I settled on AKGs. After about a month of this, it was Christmas. So I selected a few pairs, and included the links on my Christmas list. Best gift ever. I’m wearing them right now. I went with the open headphones so I only use them at home, but I’m okay with that. I’ll keep on using the ear-clips in public. Next step, updating the speakers in my car, where I listen to a lot of music.

Author’s note: This was originally written in February 2014 (about a 2013 Christmas gift)


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