I think it was the iPod turning point in tech that emboldened engineers, music artists, and manufacturers to push the envelope of what headphones were capable of reproducing, and along with it a tribe was born. As digital music technology, and formats advanced, so did headphone technology, and those who were their acolytes. Did anyone in their wildest dreams 10 years ago imagine planar-magnetic ear buds?
Now in 2017 we have portable Digital Audio Players (DAPs) that can handle studio-resolution file formats up to 32bit/384kHZ PCM, and DSD 512 (as well as MQA). To me, this signals the end of any perceived quality-playback gap between what traditionally would have to be handled by a separate digital source, DAC, amplification, cabling, and loudspeakers in a home system. So after all these years, and all these leaps in technology the headphone-set have two-channel, reference-audio quality that they can take with them anywhere. Is this the “why?” that headphone culture has sought to insulate itself from mainstream two-channel high fidelity?
For years they weren’t able to sonically match what those with freestanding transducers were experiencing, but that’s no longer the case. Just like the holy grail of two-channel playback is about time travelling to the moment a recording was made, so too is the world of personal audio focused on that same principle of ultimate transparency to source. The biggest difference to me seems that those seeking that ticket to ride back in time with loudspeakers can be social about it. Those looking to have their ticket punched with headphones are riding solo. Perhaps it’s just the nature of the experience. I guess in a world of rapidly-shrinking personal space, a great DAP/headphone rig lets people take their living room with them wherever they go. And that’s a pursuit worthy of unique acknowledgement in my books. It’s also a pursuit that has become it’s own multi-billion dollar industry.
Headphones, and headphone culture is big business. Just ask Beats, and Apple, Bang & Olufsen, Focal, Grado or Sennheiser (to name only a few). The headphone world today is no longer the realm of my grandfather, and his little portable radio, and clear, sun-yellowed ear plugs. It’s $4,000 beryllium-driver headphones paired with similarly-priced Digital Audio Players, and portable amplifiers/streamers. Headphones have come much farther in many technical respects than traditional two-channel systems, and as much as they offer sound-wise in comparison to a traditional stereo rig, I still find myself wanting to share the music I listen to with those in my life: Socially, while we’re together, not separated by the insular condition that is the inherent nature of headphones. Maybe that’s why I’m still trying to come to terms with what happened to headphone culture (and why). To me both high fidelity and headphone fidelity are parts of a whole. I guess I’m still just that kid on the rug between the speakers.