Getting used to it - the benefits of owning multiple headphones

Over the past year I’ve had the opportunity to evaluate far more headphones than ever before (thanks to headphones.com and this community of course), and this has led me to be able to compare far more headphones directly to one another than in the past. My go-to daily headphones are of course the ZMF Verite and the Focal Elegia, but over the course of reviewing many other headphones, they invariably get compared to everything else that’s come across my desk. The conclusion I’ve been able to draw - so far - is that the perfect headphone is as elusive in practice as the concept is vague. I find that there are several reasons for this, and if anything what I’m about to say is a strong justification for owning and using multiple different headphones with different sound signatures.

One reason is that for the most part, I don’t just listen to one type of music. Maybe some people only listen to jazz or only listen to rock or metal, but I find myself a bit all over the place for what I gravitate towards. Typically for more acoustic and instrumental music like jazz, I’ll prefer brighter headphones - ones that are able to give extra clarity to balance out some of the warm and smooth tones of the genre - and for more upbeat music I switch to headphones that are especially smooth and non-fatiguing throughout the treble instead.

But I find the most important reason for owning multiple headphones is actually our brain’s tendency to get used to a certain sound signature. If you listen to the same headphone for 8 hours in a day, it won’t really matter what its tonality is (within reason), the brain is typically able to adjust to that sound and make it appear normal. If you switch headphones at a certain point, and then switch back, the tonality differences are far more apparent, and in many cases far more enjoyable. It’s as if the brain needs a bit of an adjustment reset to fully understand the way something sounds.

If you think about why we listen to headphones that have a raw frequency response the way that many of them do (not flat but with a response that follows the various gain factors of the human torso, head, and ear), the reason for this is because that’s what we’re used to hearing the world as. This is what it’s like to hear a flat-measuring speaker in a room. If we use a headphone that has a markedly different sound signature, maybe one that doesn’t elevate as highly at 2khz or doesn’t dip as strongly at 10khz, it may sound strange to us initially. But if we listen to it long enough, this can have the effect of normalizing that sound signature. It’s only when you take them off and listen to the world again that those deviations become salient again.

To me this means a number of things. First, it means that we probably don’t need to care as meticulously about frequency response - as long as it’s close enough to a given target and there are no glaring issues. Unless you find a headphone that has a frequency response to perfectly fit with the various gain factors of your physical ear shape, to some degree your brain is adjusting and normalizing every headphone. As long as the tonality follows the general headphone target curve that emphasizes clarity for the human ear, we’ll be able to get used to the sound signature. It’s when we start owning multiple headphones and comparing them regularly that these sound signatures become more interesting. When our brains are no longer in a constant state of being attuned to a given deviation from the way the world naturally sounds to individual ears, we’re able to better notice and describe those deviations.

Second, it means that a headphone’s technical qualities that aren’t strictly captured by tonal balance and tonality are all the more important - so things like detail ability, speed, dynamics, stage etc. While it’s possible to get used to a certain tonality, absence of detail or muddy decay doesn’t normalize the same way. It may be less noticeable or annoying over time, but the inability to isolate individual instrument lines doesn’t exactly improve. For this reason, I tend to be particularly interested in headphones that do something unique with transducer technology. Whether its Focal’s composite M-shaped dome style, or nano-scale planars, highly capable drivers and their implementation get me more excited about new headphones - far more so than potential improvements to tonality.

Lastly, this underscores the importance of selecting headphones with specific music in mind, rather than what we think is most neutral. In many ways ‘neutral’ is the moving target that our brains are constantly normalizing to. I find myself far too often listening to a headphone and trying to think if it’s the perfect tonality for my ears, when really what I should be doing is listening to the headphone as it performs with certain types of music. Yes, there are all-rounders, and there are headphones that do well with multiple genres, but if I instead think about how to potentially get the most out of a piano recording, it’s not with headphones that I consider great all-rounders.

This again shows why it’s important to have multiple headphones - and I get that for many of us this statement is a bit of an obvious one, but at the very least it’s a bit of justification beyond simply “because I wanted it”. When you have multiple headphones (and regularly switch between them), the very real differences in tonality - and in many ways the real benefits of certain tonalities for certain types of music - come across quite strongly. In my mind, this is one of the better ways to get the most out of the headphones we do have. So I’ll leave you with a bit of counter-intuitive wisdom: To best enjoy headphones that you love, buy another pair of headphones that has a different sound signature.

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Exactly why I focus on the (currently) unmeasurables like detail and stage. That is what makes the hobby so interesting - headphone sound quality is not at all a “solved” problem it would seem. I can’t assume a specific FR preference, so focusing on that which is more independent of that preference and that which requires a human to evaluate seems logical, as long as FR is within reason or EQable within reason, in my case.

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Stated in biological terms – a given device stimulates only some of your auditory receptors and neurons, and tends to interact with your unique anatomy. A different device stretches your experience and forces learning.

I agree within limits, as some products are effectively inferior versions of other products.

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Yeah that’s definitely true as well.

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I think this is really true of anything where we are focused on sensory stimulation. Even when it comes to food / snacks, having the same thing repeatedly reduces the impact of that food’s flavor. But when you follow up something spicy and savory with a sweet at the end, your memory and enjoyment of both flavors is enhanced.

I guess the trick lies in making the right selection of headphones to cover the widest range of flavors.

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Well written @Resolve

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That reminds me of the famous Pepsi challenge where Pepsi was generally preferred for a sip but Coke was preferred for higher volumes of consumption. Our brain perceives sensory input differently through repeated exposure to the same stimulus or the frame created by our previous experience.

I think about that all the time with headphones, as my subjective experience of a headphone is significantly impacted by how long I’ve been listening to it and what I was listening to previously. (This seems obvious, but I don’t think it’s discussed enough)

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Excellent article. I may cite it when justifying future purchases. :wink:

I’d like to add that if time permits (I appreciate the amount of time people spend on the content they create and post here, and elsewhere), I’d love to see more informational style pieces such as this one from our community members.

This type of article is especially helpful for newer community members as a valuable resource when first navigating through the headphone/hifi world.

Thanks.

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I think this is why it’s valuable to write down initial listening impressions of new gear. Our brains do become acclimated and these types of exercises aid us in being more objective.

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Coca cola for the win…lil known fact…as a kid I collected Coke memorabilia lol

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I think one thing that may be worth talking about more is good headphone pairings to tailor it to a person’s needs. Let’s say someone has $XXX budget and wants headphones to cover these needs:

  1. Work / On-the-go
  2. Home listening
  3. Some Jazz / Classical
  4. Some hip hop / EDM / Rock

We can come up with interesting combos that fit within each budget:

$400 budget:

  1. HE4XX (neutral / bright), home environment
  2. Meze 99 Noir (bassy / warm), on the go

$1000-ish budget:

  1. Hifiman Sundara
  2. ??

$10000 budget:

  1. Abyss 1266 Phi
  2. Verite C / Stellia
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Completely agree, though I doubt my wife will belive that :pleading_face: “but honey I need another pair of headphones for this type of music”

I will let you know how it goes, just have to play it cool :sunglasses:

Lol my wife is great though, she doesn’t “get it” but she is supportive of my headphone passion/hobby/addiction :headphones:

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As some say “Variety is the spice of life”.

And, show me a woman with only 1 pair of shoes.

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The reason that I have and have gone thru many headphones was to see what technology has done in this area of audio. How has it advanced from 20 years ago. Hows it stack up to a decent 2 ch stereo system?

As I dabbled in many sets of headphones, pcs, music players, dacs, amps learning what bit perfect was I started honing in on a setup that to me that would allow me to hear what the original source material has “in it”…

The openess and tonality was and still is very important to me.

To get to this point for me, it demanded that I try a wide variety of headphones and gear.

Now that I have found for me a really good setup, I find many of the headphones I went thru dont get much use anymore…even though I force myself to re-listen with them, mainly for gear comparisons over a range of impedances…

So the benefits to me were to help find that set of cans that allows me to have the best overall experience compared to my years of 2 ch listening…

Alex

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You’re saying my brain is flexible and adaptive?

Not according to my ex.

Well written, bravo.

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I laughed way to hard at that lol and I can relate

But yea well written @Resolve, I enjoy my HD 800 as much as my PreFazor LCD 2.2 and they are QUITE different,

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@FLTWS amen!

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I feel the same way about women as you do about headphones. Sure, I can and have gotten used to having only one, but if I could afford to have a harem full of beauties, like some Sultan somewhere, I’d certainly do that. :wink: :woman_with_headscarf: :bride_with_veil: :pregnant_woman: :mermaid:

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Married and divorced twice so I only have girlfriends now with the understanding that its not a monogamous relationship and I really like this life for the last 9 years. Granted 2 of these old girlfriends are from before first marriage, 2 are from between first and second marriage and 2 are from after second marriage. They all know about each other since they have all been over at my place a few times and also since 4 are flight attendants and the other 2 work in the airline/travel industry.

As for headphones I have too many (28 at last count) but I like the way that each is unique and even how they can change with various amps so I don’t intend to sell any at this point. I also like a fairly wide range of genres so having various headphones is goes with the territory for me.

And to complete the trifecta I also love various wines, so I live the idea that variety is the spice of life when it comes to “wine, women and song” :sunglasses:

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It’s a wonder you have the energy and strength to listen to your headphones. :wink:

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