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Headphones: Why they sound different for you than for me

Last updated on December 8, 2019

How a headset sounds is not just about its components. A large part of the perceived sound quality can be explained by the design and above all the user, says GIGA audio expert Stefan.

Whether a graphics card fast enough for Crysis Current game hits is, which can be clearly determined by frame rate – in this there are no perceived truths. Unlike headphones, here it sometimes seems almost as if the users have written in Amazon reviews on completely different models: one complains “shrill heights”, another praises “the many details in the treble range”. Who is right? Well, there are actually reasons for these conflicting assessments that are scientifically proven.

1. The seat is crucial

Let’s start with a trivial fact: Headphones only sound the way they should sound when they sit well. This applies both to over-ears, where the entire ear is enclosed, and to in-ears, which have to seal the ear canal. Even if there is a tiny gap (for example, a thick strap or too small silicone pieces), you can usually tell from the lack of bass. Personally, I have this problem with the Apple AirPods (without “Pro”), which due to their “open-fit design” (without silicone fittings) do not want to fit my ear canals. Either I push them in with my fingers again and again – or the sound is thin and tinny. It has nothing to do with what comes out of the drivers – but that what matters in my eardrum.

This phenomenon exists in infinite gradations and it is the simplest explanation that someone complains in a review about the “completely missing low frequency range”. At least for In-Ears there is a “trick”: replace the normal silicone passages with Eartips from memory foam . The nestle better and seal excellent.

2. Every ear is different, says the science

How successful the eardrum works as a “hearing aid” can be explained by a combination of shape, angular position and composition.
Jonathan P. Fay (University of Michigan) in “The discordant eardrum” (2006)

How does an eardrum in the ear of a human respond to sounds? How well is it capable of implementing trapped sound energy? Especially in the range from 2 kHz upwards (high tones), different measured values can be detected. The intervals are sometimes a stately 20 decibels at the highest pitches – depending on the shape of the eardrum (deep, normal, flat).

In other words: The eardrums in our ears are like microphones – you come with a certain model on the world, which can not be changed later. There are also differently shaped ear canals, which together significantly influences the perception. This can even go so far that from a weakness of a headphone model (eg, over-emphasizing the heights) can be a strength in so many users. But also means that our sound perception “hardware-related” from person to person is different. The sound experience is subjective.

3. Space perception is important and incredibly complex

Ever heard of the outer-ear transfer function (HRTF)? Well, we humans can locate sounds pretty well, what the chances of survival in Jurassic Park increased in nature. We hear and know what happens next to, above and below us, without having to look there. The location is the result of a process in which the auricles (shape), the head and the trunk (shoulder) play a role. But that’s just one part, because from then on, perception of space “takes place as an extremely complex, psychoacoustic process in the brain’s hearing center” ( Jürgen Schröder, Lowbeats ). When listening to music, this ability comes into play when, in our mind’s eye, we hear the drummer playing on the left side of the “sound stage” while the saxophone is playing on the right.

So you can easily imagine where the problem lies: Commercial (in-ear) headphones circumvent this sound localization in part. The body lacks important clues, the spatial impression of a recording does not come close to the original (be there live). Some techniques for 3D sound can provide impressive space for music and games through headphones, including HRTF ( see Oculus ), but based on averages of many people. The perfect surround sound experience with headphones, however, requires complex individual measurements and appropriately processed sound material.

4. Ok, Boomer

Hearing changes over the course of life. While as a child or adolescent you can easily hear frequencies up to 20,000 hertz, every year this threshold goes down a bit. The high notes are becoming quieter or no longer perceived. Regular disco and concert tours also play their part. Even a single New Year’s Bullfighter can leave a bang trauma (damage to the inner ear). As Boomer Senior meets sooner or later also the Presbyakusis (presbycusis). When exactly that is individually different and depends on factors such as hereditary predisposition and nutrition.

For headphones that means: How a model sounds depends on your age and hearing. A sound that seems too brilliant and exhausting for young people might look just right for older students. Finally, the personal taste is mentioned, which can change. ” I was young and needed the bass ,” say some hip hop veterans who have banned the subwoofer from the trunk and now prefer jazz on neutral equalizer position.

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