Are your headphones doing music justice?

By Michael Deeds


If you’re like the rest of the world, music is part of your daily routine.

You crank it at the gym. You blare it in the car. You hum along to it while boiling pasta for dinner.

You can’t imagine life without music. But are you hearing it?

Until a few weeks ago, I wasn’t — at least with any regularity. Most of my listening was done through earbuds, computer speakers and iPod docks — convenient, low-quality options. Just like you, right? I’m not sure when this happened to me. To us. It has everything to do with the proliferation of downloadable music and portable listening devices.

But I had an epiphany recently. I have since reconnected with music. And I ain’t going back.

The first slap in the face came on a weeknight. Rifling through a drawer, I found a forgotten pair of Sennheiser HD-280 Pro headphones. I haven’t used them as much as I’d hoped. I use earbuds.

On a whim, I plugged them into my laptop. The first random song I clicked was by ‘90s ghoul-metal band White Zombie.

What the — ? I did not remember White Zombie sounding anything like this: immersive, clear. I sampled another band: Steely Dan. Another: Rush. I clicked from song to song. Everything was so stunning. I finally forced myself to bed at 1:30 a.m.

Dragging into work the next morning, headphones in hand, I felt excited. Ashamed. Stupid.

For the past few years, I’ve been listening to music at my desk through Sennheiser CX 300B buds. An upgrade from stock iPod earbuds? Yes. But these HD-280 Pro cans crush those. The downside: They feel like wearing a football helmet. The upside: Instruments separate, unfold, like a peacock’s feathers. Even tunes streaming online.

I couldn’t stop. This was the music I remembered hearing before everything was played through tiny iStuff speakers and earbuds. I had to find my way back home.

The next step took place in a cinderblock workshop next to my house. I spend hours in that old room listening to tunes with friends. There’s a beer fridge. And pretzels. Life is good in the shop.

Why on Earth were we using an iPod speaker dock placed on a workbench when I had decade-old B&W LM1 bookshelf speakers gathering dust in an upstairs closet? Because I was lazy. I had no audio receiver to drive those two speakers.

I spent a Saturday combing thrift stores. I landed a 1988 Denon DRA-425 for $40. I hooked my iPod to it. I hung the speakers from the ceiling.

The music in that shop boomed and radiated from heaven. We heard — and felt — details and texture that we had forgotten existed.

In the last two weeks, I’ve treated visitors to the Eagles’ live, pristine “Hotel California” from the “Hell Freezes Over” album. I’ve savored acoustic guitar juxtaposed gorgeously with beating drums on Nine Inch Nails’ “Somewhat Damaged.” I’ve freaked out to the robotic transcendence of Autechre. I’ve analyzed sheets of atmospheric guitar from Caterwaul. I’ve appreciated the nuances of Dave Brubeck’s time signatures and John Nemeth’s powerful singing voice.

Last weekend, after requesting the Cars’ “Hello Again” three times in a row, my 4-year-old suddenly asked me about the song’s melody, which he recognized as keyboards.

I’m not sure if I was more proud of the boy or the modest, rewarding sound system.

How did I ever let myself drift away from truly hearing music? If there’s any solace, it’s that I have company.

A generation of listeners has grown up believing that those white Apple earbuds deliver music as it was intended.

What’s the excuse for the rest of us? The seduction of technology — and price. Actual speakers and headphones do cost a little more.

Greg Nettles, audio/ video consultant at The Stereo Shoppe in Boise, Idaho, says my sonic rebirth isn’t unusual: “I encounter it constantly.” Last year, he helped his teenage son see the light. He took home Grado SR60 headphones to replace his kid’s iPod earbuds: “I said, ‘You know, this is crap. You’re my son! You can’t listen to this.’”

Not everyone derives infinite pleasure from reproduced music. But if it’s in your DNA — and, trust me, I’m no audiophile — it’s like tasting the most delicious meal ever.

Best of all, I never get full.

“There’s an emotional bond with music,” Nettles said. “When you can hear more of the music coming through, it just touches more of that emotional spirit we get that makes us laugh, that makes us cry.”

Not everyone will understand my tale, but I knew Nettles would appreciate it.

I just hope to shake the world’s shoulders as a reminder: Listening to music isn’t the same as hearing it. You may be missing out.

“God bless you for doing it, man,” Nettles said.