2 Parts Of A Whole – A High Fidelity Culture Divided

by Rafe Arnott

Why did headphone culture hive-off from mainstream high fidelity? As a child growing up in the ’70s when headphone technology came of age, I can honestly say that I didn’t differentiate between listening to music through my father’s stereo in our living room, or listening to it through a pair of cans while lying on the rug between the speakers in that same space. It was just listening to music.

So what happened to headphones? Did the gulf dividing high fidelity and headphone fidelity just appear organically? Was it a conscience decision by people to identify more with the solace, and insulation that headphones seem to provide over two-channel listening? Or was it just marketing companies siloing-off another aspect of music reproduction for brand-identification, and profit? Was it the advent of portable music devices like the little pocket radio my grandfather used to listen to baseball games on in the afternoon quiet of the veranda?

The ability to take your music out of the traditional listening space and with you wherever you wanted certainly signalled a paradigm shift of how we viewed music’s place in our lives, and it’s social influence. You could argue that car stereos allowed us that freedom to leave our homes and take the music with us, but with that comes the tether of the automobile.  No, headphones were different.

Same goes for portable stereos or boomboxes. Portable, yes, but free for all to hear, not something that is exclusively one’s own to experience, so again a very different context socially. The popularity of headphones paired with a portable music player boomed through the ’70s, ’80s, and ‘90s as did the popularity of the cassette tape. No coincidence to be sure. Cassettes are small, could be bought cheaply, and not only played in your home or car but in portable cassette recorders/players made ubiquitous by Sony and their Walkman. Ditto the Discman, and the continuation of the personal audio revolution via digital technology with the compact disc, and to a much smaller degree the DAT (Digital Audio Tape). Soon everyone was listening to music in the privacy of their own headspace while riding their bicycles, rollerskating, jogging, commuting on public transit, etc.

The advent of digital music formats like AIFF, WAV, FLAC…and the heavy hitter of portable formats, the Mp3 – particularly when coupled with the Napster online file-sharing craze of 1999 ~ 2001 – ushered in a new age of personal music portability that Apple almost exclusively capitalized on with their iPod to the tune of billions of dollars in profits. Thousands of songs in your pocket wasn’t just savvy marketing, it was the crystalization that what was once the domain of a two-channel home set-up, was now truly something you could take with you anywhere. Again, headphones seem to be about separation. Untethering. Perhaps even being antisocial to a degree. Which is funny, because some of my friends who are deeply committed to headphones, and headphone culture are the most fun individuals to spend time with.

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  • Alan R. Christilaw

    The cheapest path to immersion is via headphones. That and apartment dwellings and small spaces folks don’t require large two channel systems. Headphones have a station right next to where your seated or standing, your entire collection of music (when your young) is on a phone. The Koss juiced from the old Marantz or Pioneer receiver? Was to keep the ‘ol lady quiet…

  • Gery Mayes

    For me, I’ve always enjoyed both headphones and speakers. Given the same Sound Quality or better, Mr. Christilaw hits the nail on the head by stating headphones/personal is the cheaper path.

    Like you Rafe, I was that kid on the carpet listening with headphones, Koss Pro 4A’s, but I was also interested in and built, that evolved over time, a full blown fixed room speaker system. Recently, I’ve often tried to weigh spending $$$ to upgrade my fixed (speaker) or portable/personal (headphone) systems and always end up going to the later because of the price/performance ratio. Who wouldn’t want to be able to listen to their full library of, plus be able to stream, music with the same quality anywhere (in the park, on a train, on a cruise, etc.) they want. There’s just more bang for your buck with todays technology going personal/portable.

  • pearlnoire

    I have something to say about people listening to their head phone everywhere you go.
    Like people staring at their phone and fiddling with them.
    Are they really listening to music or trying to switch of from the real world, and then, do they need any fancy head phone?
    I have my own opinion about it, but no need to stir up some!!!!!

    • Gery Mayes

      I’m sure that’s true for some demographic but certainly doesn’t apply to all.