In the recent internet publication, Recording Magazine, Robert Auld discusses the many benefits that headphones have over loudspeakers in our mixing or monitoring position. Lets summarize his positions and then discuss them.
No Room Sound
His first position is that they are not dependent on room acoustics. This is a true statement and headphones can be even be better than near field monitoring where we sit near field in an attempt to minimize the room sound. It is really only an attempt because we still have the low frequency issues in the room even though middle and high frequencies issues have been managed through our near field positioning.
Only One Driver
Headphones have one driver. Speakers or monitors have numerous drivers all connected with crossovers sending this frequency to one speaker and that frequency to another speaker. This is an unnatural electronic act which tries to duplicate the mono sound produced in nature by most sound generating devices such as animals. Animals generate full spectrum sounds within their given range through the use of only one “speaker” If you have multiple speakers in nature it always comes from many different animals speaking their respective part in the same time.
Mono Speaker – More Natural Sound
If you have ever listened to mono recordings played back through a full range speaker, you will know that there is a definite clarity and separation between the sounds. I had the pleasure in a movie theater in New York of having the music they play while you were coming in the theater and taking your seat, played through a single speaker positioned at center stage front. The sound was amazing and had an involvement to it that made me stare at the speaker as I was listening. I could not believe my ears.
Only One Polar Pattern
Robert also correctly states that there is no agreed upon universal if you will polar pattern for sound distribution from our loudspeakers. This is true. All hi-fi speaker manufactures I know, always take the sound distribution patterns into consideration and how these given sound energy from their design spreads out and interacts with the room boundary surfaces. With headphones you do not have this issue. In headphones, there is one speaker and there is no room for polar patterns to be an issue because there is no room in the space between the driver in the headphone and your head for any patterns of any type to develop except direct energy transmission from the headphone driver through the ear canal to the eardrum.
Some speakers have narrow fields of distribution. Some have more full and not so focused. Neither is right or wrong, they are just different design approaches that probably favor the designer’s tastes more than the consumers. If the customer likes the sound of a manufacturers speaker, he buys the designer’s idea of musical presentation in a small room scenario.
All of these issues like single speaker with no crossover, no room effects, and no multiple driver radiation patterns to deal with all contribute to what Robert calls lower crosstalk. With lower crosstalk, we have greater detail in the presentation and are much better able to access attack and decay rates in instruments and achieve high levels of separation in our vocals and instruments. Robert goes on to say that guys that record classical like headphones because of the fact that they can hear more and if an engineer can hear more, he or she stands a much better chance at having a better mix.
Inexpensive and Portable
Headphones are also reasonably inexpensive, light weight, and portable which lends themselves to use in many different locations and environments. You can not beat a good headphone/amp/converter set up fro high resolution detail and image. With all of this sonic exception comes cheaper pricing when one compares headphones to loudspeakers, especially hi-fi loudspeakers. Ease of operation combined with mobility, headphones do have a lot going for them.
Dynamic Vs. Electrostatic
With headphones we have dynamic and electrostatic headphones. Dynamic headphones can have open or closed backs. Therefore, we do not have much difference in the sound producing drivers as one uses a small driver and one uses a small strip of metal to produce the sound energy for listening. Bass energy is usually good with headphones and it is amazing to me that such low frequency energy can be produced with such a small driver. Although some headphones I have listened to still struggle with the low end detail and layering similar to what happens in small room acoustic situations where low frequency energy build up produces modal resonances.
Headphones do offer many advantages. We have a single, sound energy generating driver that produces a sound without the need for multiple drivers that have electronic crossover pathways to contend with. With a single driver we have no speaker polar dispersion patterns to deal with, only the direct signal from the driver to our ear canal. We have eliminated room sound because we have no side, front, or rear wall reflections to contend with. We tried with near field monitoring with speakers but we still get low frequency room sound. Clarity and definition are the strong points with costs and portability coming in a close second when one compares headphones to loudspeakers.