Headphones Part II

Is the ubiquity of headphones just another emblem of catastrophic social decline edging us even deeper into narcissism...


Certainly, headphones are an obvious method of exercising autonomy, control—choosing what you’ll hear and when, rather than gamely enduring whatever the environment might inflict upon you. In that way, they are defensive; users insist upon privacy (you can’t hear what I hear, and I can’t hear you) in otherwise lawless and unpredictable spaces. Should we think of headphones, then, as just another emblem of catastrophic social decline, a tool that edges us even deeper into narcissism, solipsism, vast unsociability? Another signifier of that most plainly American ideology: independence at any cost?

It turns out that observers have been fretting about headphones—and the disconnection they facilitate—for decades. Early Walkman prototypes included a second headphone jack so you could share your tunes with a buddy; Sony C.E.O. Akio Morita later admitted that he “thought it would be considered rude for one person to be listening to his music in isolation.” In 1981, just two years after the Walkman was introduced to the U.S. market (at two hundred dollars, it was an upper-middle-class indulgence), a Times writer described the view on the streets: “Suddenly, waves of people were walking about with little foam-rubber circles on their ears and expressions of transport on their faces in a scene that was almost Orwellian.” Another story, from 1980, described a man having to sell his Walkman to save his marriage: “ ‘My wife insisted that I was tuning her out for reggae,’ he said sadly.” In 1999, in an article commemorating the Walkman’s twentieth anniversary, the reporter Phil Patton wrote, “The Walkman and its rivals quickly became a landmark in the history of media and a symbol of an inwardly focused era.”

Read enough archived editorials, and you begin to believe that as long as human beings have wandered the Earth’s surface, reluctantly grunting at each other about the weather, we have also been entrenched in “an inwardly focused era.” Portable audio, then, is likely more a reflection than an engine of our egotism. The sociologist Edward Hall, in his book “The Hidden Dimension,” from 1966, introduced the discipline of proxemics, which he defined as “the interrelated observations and theories of man’s use of space as a specialized elaboration of culture.” Hall is responsible for the notion of so-called personal space, or the invisible force field most Americans ensconce themselves in while moving through public places; a breach of implied boundaries (per Hall, the human ego extends about a foot and a half outside the body) is neither welcome nor tolerated. No indiscriminate or uninvited contact, the social contract goes. Certainly never any uncomfortably close talking! As W. H. Auden wrote in his poem “Prologue: The Birth of Architecture,” “Some thirty inches from my nose / The frontier of my person goes.” Headphones help demarcate personal space. They allow us to feel cloistered, safe, and comfortably alone.

One of the more interesting revelations included in the Sol Republic survey is the news that empowerment anthems—like Survivor’s “Eye of the Tiger,” Katy Perry’s “Roar,” Kanye West’s “Stronger,” and (no joke) the “Chariots of Fire” theme—are especially popular among headphone devotees. People like to stomp around to jams that instantly position them as scrappy and determined underdogs, overcoming tremendous odds. (The original music video for “Eye of the Tiger” features the members of Survivor marching down the street in combat formation, their collective gaze unblinking, their strides assured; it turns out they’re simply walking to band practice in a garage.) These days, people seem to be perpetually gearing themselves up for the epic battle of merely existing. At the end of the day, jogging up to our front doors, we are all Rocky, reaching the summit, conquering that last step: “Just a man / and his will / to survive!” We rip our headphones off, triumphantly. We did it! Another day closer to death!

As more and more people choose to listen to music on headphones—and we are now nearly forty years deep into portable audio; I have a friend who claims he only listens to music on headphones—it seems silly not to wonder how that technology might be beginning to dictate content. If headphones allow for more introspection, do headphone users favor introspective sounds? If there’s been a thematic through line in the past several years of pop music, it’s been messages of self-reliance and liberation, songs that place us at the center of our own heroic arcs. Obviously, that’s hardly new terrain for pop, but I’d argue that it has reached a noticeable apex this decade. Are headphones partially responsible for the shift?

I wondered, too, about writers like Kanye West and Drake, two of the most critically and commercially successful rappers of our time, both prone to bald confessionalism. Drake’s album “Views,” released earlier this year, is fat with hyper-emotional asides. “Why you gotta fight with me at Cheesecake? / You know I love to go there,” he pleads in “Child’s Play.” Drake is not an un-self-aware figure—when he refers to enjoying a meal at the Cheesecake Factory, he is doing so with deep knowledge of his audience, and of what they find funny, and of what they find real—but a lyric like that is still revelatory, intimate, pure. It is precisely the kind of embarrassing thing we shout at the people closest to us right when we are at our most vulnerable; it is a sentiment intended for an audience of one.

Regardless of whether that intimacy is performative, it is, at the very least, magnified by the cocoon of headphones. In that moment, it’s you and Drake, alone—telling secrets, admitting frailty. “You know I love to go there.”

When I asked the Grammy-winning record producer Bob Power—who produced Erykah Badu’s “On and On” and D’Angelo’s “Brown Sugar,” and recorded A Tribe Called Quest’s first three albums—how hearing music through headphones technically varies from hearing it on an in-room stereo of some sort, he pointed out three differences (though all playback systems, he acknowledged, have their own sonic anomalies). The first is a heightened sense of the stereo field, as the left and right signals aren’t as intermingled as they would be via speakers connected to a receiver. (Some audiophiles will argue for the superiority—the more coherent feel—of mono sound, in which the channels aren’t separated out at all.) The second has to do with how extreme frequencies are rendered: “Because the bass and treble areas are hard to reproduce accurately, factory earbuds will often sound harsh, emphasizing the mid-range and upper mid-range. This is not necessarily because they are actively boosting the signal in those areas; it’s often because they are not handling the rest of the signal—the highs and lows—very well,” he explained. Finally—and most important—he noted “a sense of being closer to the music, usually referred to as presence. Even if the track has a lot of ambience, it will appear closer to the listener—[it’s] literally right in their ear.”

When I asked the same questions of Nick Sansano—who co-produced Sonic Youth’s “Daydream Nation” and “Goo,” and engineered tracks for Public Enemy’s “It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back” and “Fear of a Black Planet”—he also spoke to the ways in which widespread headphone use has begun to transform his job.

“Headphones—especially shitty ones, which are mostly what you see on the street—computer speakers, and small Bluetooth speakers have changed a great deal of what we do in the mixing and mastering stages of record production,” he wrote in an e-mail recently. “While good mixers have always switched on a single summed mono speaker to check important individual levels in a mix, we didn’t listen small to judge impact and visceral reaction. In a way, now we do.” He continued, “Headphone checks used to be just that, checks. But now I spend more and more mix-time on headphones, knowing that a huge portion of the audience will be doing the same. Along with greater ear fatigue on my part, a direct result of this reality is a stronger limiting of dynamic range, and a more deliberate limiting of the overall frequency bandwidth. We have to provide music that will translate within the limitations of earbuds, small speakers. Less dynamics essentially makes listeners perceive the song’s sound as loud and present.”

Ambling down a city street with headphones on—you know, maybe it’s dusk, maybe it’s midsummer, maybe you had a really nice day—is, without a doubt, one of life’s simplest and most perfect joys. Humans have long enjoyed secret communions with sound, and headphones allow for the development of a particularly private and tender relationship. How headphones’ sudden omnipresence might affect the ways in which musicians attempt to communicate with their audiences—how it might dictate what people require of or appreciate about songs; how it will change the way records are made and produced—is, of course, still being sorted out. It seems possible, though, that we are slowly reconfiguring music as a private pleasure—that, in fact, all pleasures, soon, may be private. We are all the lone stars of secret films, narrated by and in our own minds, and we seek out music that validates that position: separate, but forever plugged in.


Read More: Headphone Mag

About HamzaKhan

I'm Hamza Khan—a seasoned expert with six years of invaluable experience at industry giants like JBL and Samsung. From troubleshooting to shaping headphone designs, I continue to mold the future of audio technology.

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