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.