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. My only excuse for relying on it for so long is that it felt good enough. It got me through to the next hit, while obscuring the world I was missing. Which brings me back to the larger point.

In 2009 Wired senior editor Robert Capps wrote an influential piece on the “Good Enough Revolution.” The basic insight was that above a certain threshold, technology consumers seem happy to accept lower quality in exchange for convenience.

Once cell phone coverage was broad and reliable enough, for example, people started abandoning land-line phones. Once the cameras inside smartphones became good enough, people stopped buying so many digital cameras; these days you have to be a professional photographer or a serious hobbyist to be willing to spring for a DSLR. And so on.

The iPod revolution was central to Capps’s argument. In order to squeeze lots of songs onto our music players or smartphones, we turned to compression standards like MP3 or AAC, which throw away much of the data in a CD-quality recording. There’s an eternal, raging argument among audiophiles over whether the lost detail is audible to humans. Most people don’t seem to miss it. But what’s beyond dispute, as Capps observes, is that the ability to “carry thousands of songs in our pockets…mattered a lot more to music lovers than the single measure of quality we had previously applied to recorded music—fidelity.”

Music labels and record stores paid a steep price for that defection to mobile. And in the end, maybe consumers did too.

We love our smartphones because they fit in our pockets and yet take over the functions of so many of our old stand-alone gadgets—phones, CD players, still and video cameras, televisions, GPS units, digital recorders, e-book readers, fitness trackers, barcode scanners, and many more. The problem is that many of these older technologies were highly optimized to carry specific types of information. Forcing it all onto a single digital platform has required many compromises, and it’s easy to forget what we’ve given up along the way.

Despite years of progress, electronic text still isn’t as legible as printed text. Movies shot digitally don’t look as good as those shot on film stock. CD sound, to many people, lacks the richness of vinyl. Text chats aren’t as authentic or empathic as in-person conversations.

And maybe it should have been obvious to me all along, but earbuds don’t sound as good as speakers. If you want to experience recorded music the way it was meant to be heard, you need some kind of home sound system. And as I found out, you don’t have to pay an outrageous amount for that privilege.

There’s nothing wrong with “good enough” technologies. But you should always ask yourself: good enough for what?

If you still care about real sound, as I do, the first step to recovery may simply be to admit you have a problem. Take out the earbuds—and start listening to a higher speaker.

Photo by Chris Betcher, Flickr Creative Commons license