Trading Quality for Ease: Confessions of an Earbud Junkie

Xconomy National — 

This is the story of a reawakening. I’ve come home to the world of real home stereo sound, after too many years hooked on music trickling through smartphone earbuds and devices with small, crappy speakers.

Don’t worry, I haven’t turned into an audiophile. I’m not going to preach to you about some $40,000 turntable with a magnetically levitated platter and a side-force-free tone arm. But I do think the story of my personal audio journey has a moral. It’s about the way new technologies like smartphones can lure us into trading quality for ease.

I still think smartphones are great, and I’m not giving up my iPhone. But if these handheld devices become the conduits for all the key interactions in our lives—not just for music, but for news, entertainment, books, conversation, and the rest—there’s a danger that we’ll become addicted to their convenience, and forget the richer world we’ve turned away from.

I got hooked on earbuds in the usual way: the first ones were free (they came with my old iPod). Also, the year the iPhone came out, 2007, was the last time I lived in a place with a real home sound system. After that, I just couldn’t be bothered to invest in big speakers.

When I wanted to listen to music, I plugged Apple’s earbuds or some other cheap brand into my phone. Later I got an Apple TV and played music through the speakers built into my TV. Then I got a little black Jawbone Jambox, which pairs with a phone over Bluetooth and uses a software technique called “binaural audio” to mimic devices with wider speaker separation.

I reviewed the Jambox favorably, along with some other Bluetooth speakers, back in 2013. But at the time I was still addicted to mobility and convenience. I focused on how cool it was that a device 6 inches long could produce a boombox-size noise, not on the fact that even a boombox’s sound is pretty flat.

“Sound, today, is all about portability,” I wrote. “The idea of the living-room hi-fi became old hat the day the Sony Walkman hit the scene in 1980, and now that most of our music is stored or streamed on our mobile devices, there’s simply less need for speakers.”

How naïve I was—trapped in the junkie’s cycle of settling for the next little hit.

My decision to get clean finally came a few weeks ago.

My friend, the classical composer Graham Ramsay, has been a relentless and merciless critic of my Jambox. So I finally let him drag me into Q Audio, a Cambridge, MA, Hi-Fi playground. I walked out with an NAD D 3020 integrated amplifier and a pair of Paradigm Atom Monitor v7 bookshelf speakers.

At $199 each, the Atoms are hardly the biggest, fanciest, or costliest speakers around. But because I’ve been mainlining low-fi sound for so long, installing them was like moving into a concert hall. I immediately realized what I’d been missing all these years. Unlike earbuds, the Atoms make me feel like I’m in the same room with the performers on a recording.

It’s not just about fidelity. Of course the sound from the Atoms is crisp and clear, with authentic bass, even at low volumes. But beyond that, there’s something about music played through decent speakers—probably any decent speakers—that you just don’t get with earbuds, or even with high-end headphones.

When you’re wearing in-ear or over-ear devices, all of the sound is coming directly from the source. Your brain has to do the mixing between the left and right channels, and the stereo image ends up floating somewhere between your ears.

But with speakers, some of the sound is bouncing off nearby walls and other surfaces. The room itself helps to mix the waves before they ever hit your body, and each ear gets a combination of signals from the left and the right. Ideally—depending on speaker placement and the size and configuration of your listening space—the stereo image winds up in front of you, not inside you. The end result is a bigger, more natural sound.

As a child of the Walkman, the iPod, and the iPhone, I had forgotten all that. Now, when I listen to the Catalyst Quartet performing Bach’s Goldberg Variations on my earbuds or my Jambox, it sounds as if they’re bowing away on rubber strings through a curtain of Tyvek. Over the Atoms, by contrast, the sound is warm, precise, and alive.

There are still times when earbuds or headphones are more appropriate than speakers—like when I’m exercising outdoors (obviously), working at the office, or listening on a plane or late at night when I might disturb neighbors. But when I’m at home on the weekends or evenings, I usually have no reason not to use the Atoms. I’ve configured my television to send sound to the NAD amplifier, so I can stop using my TV’s tinny speakers. I connected my Blu-ray player to the NAD as well, so I’m rediscovering my dusty old collection of CDs and DVDs.

As for the Jambox: I’m throwing that off the balcony. … Next Page »

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