January 30, 2012

Dre Beats Headphones and Transcendent Ideals in Sound

Beats by Dr. Dre are popular because they don't reproduce music as much as they transform it. They are the right headphones for the current era, because their design "customizes" the sound for the listener who wants bass. Music is never finished; we can chop and screw, add bass, slow it down 100x, mash it up with something else. And people will buy headphones that finish the music in the way they like.  -- Mark Richardson, from "Permission to Avalanche" on the Resonant Frequency blog at Pitchfork.

I'm posting this because I recently made a snide comment about Dre Beats headphones in a post (if you care, you can go back to a 1/26 post on my tumblr feed, but that's not really necessary).  I used to work at a place which sold them, and since I spend a lot of time listening to music on headphones, I was looking into buying a pair.  The Dre Beats display in the store had the phones in demo mode with hip hop tracks cued up, and of course, they sounded great.  One day I got bored & decided to test them by splicing in my personal mp3 player so I could check how other types of music sound on the Beats.  First I fired up some Death Grips, and then Shabazz Palaces, and they both sounded great (naturally), though I sometimes actually dial the bass back on hip hop to get more texture, and the Beats just overwhelmed everything with bass.  Oh, but what great bass it was!

Next, I went the opposite route and played some of the second movement of Ives's Fourth Symphony.  Predictably, it sounded totally like shit; but no big deal, I generally keep most of my classical music on its own dedicated mp3 player, so I could also keep an old pair of headphones exclusively for that player.  After that, I pulled up some Stooges demos and played them: shit!  The blistering edge was drowned in a river of sludge.  Skipping around to other songs, the Beats turned all my punk rock to mud.  Useless!

So anyway, to the point above: people will "buy headphones to finish the music the way they like"; but in this case, they are making a very binary choice, and they are choosing somebody else's finish on the music.  I understand (as pointed out in the article) that the ideal of "neutral" headphones or audio equipment is based on a snobby-if-not-elitist classical music prejudice, but the neutral equipment is also best suited to sculpt the music the way you want.  I remember back in the 70's and 80's how graphic EQs were the cool hi-fi accessory.  Of course, the audiophile knows that EQs are meant to tailor the output to each individual room to match the room acoustics to some ideal sound, but that's not how I used mine: I usually cranked my mid-highs to give my Stooges records an even more buzzsaw-like quality.  I had special EQ curves for my Zappa and Beefheart albums to emphasize the guitar.  And, just a little tweak in the low-mids really helped those Black Sabbath records sound even more evil!  Essentially, what I was doing was altering the "sacred" object (the original recording).  An audophile would have thought my EQs were an atrocity, but I really loved the sound.  In the same way, neutral headphones allow me to develop (as much as possible) my own sound for my listening using EQ controls on the devices. 

Right there is my ambivalence: Richardson's fundamental assumption is that transformation happens, and his assertion is that individualizing music (and it is individualizing music, not just the "listening experience", as some lifestyle salesmen will fashion it) is fundamentally worthwhile & even creative.  I believe that.  Even if I do posit that there is a phantasmic idea of "ideal sound", and even if this ghost is present when I listen to the reproduction of music, it is not something that I fixate on, or even acknowledge as a goal.  And I do like the idea that "music is never finished".  We have very specific cultural concepts of art as static, unchanging object.  Even experimental ideas of performance art, ephemeral art, disposable art, etc., somehow refer back to the idea of art as object, usually not critiquing the idea so much as using that concept as the point of difference.  The idea that recordings, usually conceived as static artifacts even when considered separate from the performance, can be altered and remade by the choice of playback equipment, is a very modernist (and recently a very pop culture) conceit.

However, as to the core of this particular discussion, Dre Beats headphones "finish" music in a fairly uninteresting and predictable way.  And, it is not your way, it is Dre's way.  It's disconcerting that Beats headphones actually add a kind of "factory preset" to your listening that you can't override.  Further, this "factory preset" once again moves the focus from the immanent back to the transcendent; only this time, the transcendent is not some ideal music out there, but rather some ideal mix as projected by a corporation whose face is Dr. Dre.  It is theoretically possible to use Dre Beats headphones in a way that re-contextualizes their purpose - and I think Richardson, with his avant-bass aesthetics, shows one way that can be done - but, more than any other equipment that I can think of, Beats resist such re-contextualization.  It is not that they are limited to what they can do so much as they are so supremely focused toward one specific purpose, and that purpose is dictated by the creators.

All equipment transforms music to some degree.  The idea of "neutral" reproduction equipment is a transcendent, Apollonian ideal that can never be achieved (and perhaps an ideal that it's not even desirable to attempt).  My beef with Beats headphones is less that they transform music, but rather that they only give you one limited option.  I am, by all means, in favor of alteration and transformation: just let it be yours, and not Dr. Dre's.

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This post is only partially about equipment, but it does beg the question: what kind of headphones do I use that are so much superior to Dre Beats?

Well, here you go:
Bose QuietComfort 15 headphones.  They are $300 headphones, and lord knows I would not have ponied up that kind of money on my own.  I managed to win a pair as part of a work incentive, and I use them so much I am starting to develop callouses behind my ears.  You can, with a little help from the player, get plenty of smooth (not boomy) bass out of these headphones.  If I had to replace them & didn't feel like spending more than $100, I would probably go with these Sennheiser HD205 II headphones.  If I felt a little more flush, I would go with the Sennheiser HD 598, although by that point you are almost back to the price of the Bose.

Klipsch Image S4 earbuds.  Everything in this CNET review of these earbuds hold true, as far as I can tell.  I replaced a set of Bose earbuds, and these are clearly better.  They fit very well, with plenty of comfort, and once you get them seated in your ear (you'll have to adjust them not for comfort, but for best sound and stereo image), they stay there, unlike the Bose I always had to keep adjusting when I worked out.  Also, while not specifically noise cancelling, they actually shut out more outside sound than my Bose noise cancelling headphones.  And, they're under $80.  These should be the first headphones you buy for an mp3 player or iPhone.

As far as mp3 players go, I refuse to buy an iPod, and pretty much all the rest seem to be inferior.  I've got an Ibiza Rhapsody which has great features and a lot of capacity (30 gb), but the sound is mediocre and the thing crashes ALL THE FUCKING TIME.  My three cheap little Samsung mp3 players are good for what they are (i.e., cheap), and the sound is actually comparable to more expensive units.  But, the fact remains, they are fairly limited, inexpensive little devices.  

These days, all music player functionality is being shifted over to phones, and I really haven't spent a lot of time shopping them.  Once again, I refuse to buy an iPhone (for now, anyway), but I finally joined the smartphone generation by buying (actually, getting a $50 upgrade for re-upping my phone contract) a Blackberry Torch 9810.  I've spent a little time with the music player, and it seems pretty decent, but I haven't even bothered to get into the controls to see if there is a decent EQ adjustment.  One day, I'll go out & get a 32 gig micro SD card and spend some quality time with the music player on this.

Well, that's it for the consumer bullshit on this one.


mwhybark said...

"I generally keep most of my classical music on its own dedicated mp3 player,"


I can't abide headphones. The man that stands behind me with a baseball bat will surely succeed in his nefarious objective whenever I don them. I have a cheap pair of unsealed Sonys for GarageBand and four track usage, but wearing them is entering a room that holds my death.

I can't recall if this was the case during my brief, chaotic forays in the booth at QAX.

Bill Zink said...

Yes, if that isn't apartheid I don't know what is . . .

I've been a headphone guy since my teens: my parents actively disliked the music I listened to, not to mention the volume I preferred when listening to it.

QAX had a couple of 6" x 9" car speakers under the console for cue speakers, so I usually only used the headphones when I was on the mic. For some reason, I had to hear my voice when I was speaking, else I couldn't place it in context. But, as far as running sets between spiels, I never used the headphones either. I usually had the studio monitors cranked way up, but the cue speakers beneath the console had enough differentiation to them that I could still cue up things without a problem. Rarely, I would have to turn down the monitors to hear a subtle cue . . . but only because I ran the monitors at a ridiculous volume.

I have lately become very adept with headphones. I won't wear them when I drive or ride my bike, but I tend to wear them wherever I walk, including the grocery.

Paul said...

Nice post Bill. I too read this article and wanted to appreciate it for challenging the "audiophile" ideal. However, I think altering the music's sound to fit your taste/genre should be left up to "pre-monitor" processing and not be done, without choice, in the monitor.

comfortstarr said...


You might be amused by that article.

Bill Zink said...

Good stuff. You almost feel sorry for Monster. Almost.

I sold all that Monster stuff at h h gregg. The thing that killed me was selling high-end HDMI cables: they are a rip-off, plain and simple. HDMI cables transmit digital signals, and digital signals are not susceptible to signal degradation - one of the genuine benefits of digital signals - under normal circumstances. So if a cable transmits a digital signal, the signal doesn't improve with better wire. In the lengths we sold (from 3 to 20 ft.) there is absolutely no functional difference from the cheapest to the most expensive. The fact that our management insisted we try to step up to more expensive cables is one of the few times I felt they asked us to lie to customers (although, I honestly believe some of them bought into Monster's hype).

So no, I don't feel too sorry for Monster.