Perfect sound forever? On the subject of expensive headphones

One of the more irritating aspects of being the owner of a teenager is the impossibility of communicating with them because of the constant presence of earbuds/airpods. I suppose the benefit of huge over-ear headphones is that at least they’re a clear visual cue that you will not be heard.

(Classic Dad joke: move your lips in the direction of the teenager without saying anything.)

£550 is a lot of money for a set of headphones. This is the price of Apple’s recently announced Airpods Max (stupid name). As I mentioned on the Twitter, the only reason for such pricing is to make your expensive headphones seem cheap. When I was in the home recording game, I used a pair of 80ohm Beyerdynamic DT770 Pros. When I bought them, in the early 2000s, they seemed luxuriously expensive, around the same price as the then-ubiquitous DT100 headphones, which were widely used by professionals as their reference headphones.

Now, there’s a difference between “reference” loudspeakers or headphones and the best sounding speakers and headphones. The idea of a reference device is that you listen to everything on it and it becomes transparent and neutral, allowing you to gauge the quality of your mix/recording without “colour”.

One of the problems of audio equipment is that it’s really hard to write objectively about sound, and so sight-based metaphors start creeping in. Transparent. Colour. What the fuck does this all mean?

As someone with a little bit of this in my background, I’m always sceptical of consumer equipment. What exactly are you getting for your £550? Some kind of chip-based audio processing, an automatic EQ, various “modes”, and so on. Do I want this? I kind of don’t. I tend to think that, for example, George Martin at his peak had better ears for this than I will ever have, and I’m pretty sure that Abbey Road sounds amazing out of the box, as it were, and should require no boosting or enhancing. I kind of want my equipment to allow as much of the original recording to reach my ears, as, um, transparently as possible. No software algorithm or Silicon Valley programmer is going to know more about how the fucking Beatles should sound than the fucking Beatles themselves.

I’ve said it before, but one of the absolutely insane features of our modern age is that people are apparently willing to spend enormous sums of money on audio equipment (in the form of “smart” speakers, airplay speakers, bluetooth speakers, headphones, earbuds, etc.) in order to listen to compressed music streamed or downloaded over the internet. Some people are apparently going to spend £550 on Apple’s Airpods Max in order to stream music and/or movies over the internet.

Maybe we’ll eventually get to the stage (5G?) where the music we download and stream is of a higher quality than a bog-standard CD or vinyl LP, but there is currently a weird disconnect between the expense of the equipment and the shoddy quality of the source. What exactly do people think they’re going to hear?

Anyway, you know they’re not serious audio equipment, because you don’t know how many ohms they come with. Another criticism: whereas the original Airpods completely changed the paradigm of “wireless” headphones, these Airpods Max cleave to the traditional design of over-ear headphones. It’s as if Apple didn’t even try to design them without a band. Imagine a set of cups that went over your ears without the necessity of the hairdo-destroying band. It would be like science fiction.

And, according to John Gruber, they weigh a ton. I can’t help thinking these are nothing more than a status symbol, a late capitalist shibboleth, and a symptom of decadence. At the end of the world, they’ll say, people started turning away from the problems, deciding that solving them was too much effort. They shut themselves away from each other wearing elaborate and heavy contraptions to close their senses off from their environment, in full retreat from reality. 

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