We all do it. We tend to pigeonhole systems (especially transducers like headphones and loudspeakers) as having specific characteristics that ally themselves to a particular genre. We often hear of loudspeakers being ‘good for rock’ or ‘great for classical’, but does this really have any meaning?
Having listened to many loudspeakers that fall into these categories, there is a pejorative element to these statements; it’s as if people who don’t like a genre of music and don’t like a type of loudspeakers tie these two disparate musical elements together into one big ball of dislike. Granted, like any stereotyping exercise, there is a distorted grain of almost truth underlying these statements. In essence, a loudspeaker that accents loudness over accuracy falls into the ‘rock’ category, while a loudspeaker that goes for accuracy at the expense of loudness is considered ‘good for classical’. But these sweeping statements mask a lot.
First, these two elements of a loudspeaker’s performance are not necessarily mutually exclusive, and you can have a loudspeaker that is capable of playing music at high volumes, yet retain its dynamic range and tonal accuracy. This tends to be what marks out high-end loudspeaker designs from cheaper models that need to trade these elements against one another. Second, these sweeping generalisations are fairly insulting to the musical genres they claim to define. ‘Good for classical’ often implies a notion of classical music that is seen as lifeless, anodyne, and undynamic, presumably by those who have never experienced Mahler’s Eighth Symphony live. On the other hand, the ‘good for rock’ slight seems to view rock music as just noise, with no requirement for subtlety and analysis. Both are flawed premises.
However, transducers do have particular characters, but those characteristics do not necessarily or broadly relate to cookie-cutter notions of ‘classical’ or ‘jazz’ or ‘rock’. Interestingly, the easiest way of spotting this is in the headphone world, and this created something of an epiphany for me.
In listening to the Chord Electronics Mojo DAC and headphone amp, I naturally tried the device through a range of headphones in a broadly price-matched manner. And it was looking back at the quartet of go-to sub-£500 headphones I used here that I made a striking discovery about my own listening. All four were useful – and used regularly – but their radically different tonal balances and performance made each one useful in entirely different ways. I found I reach for each one of them for different occasions; not when I am in a classical mood or want to play some rock, but throughout different times of the day, or different settings.
For traveling, I use a pair of AKG N60NR noise cancelling headphones because they are small, light, run for ten hours on a single USB charge, and are remarkably good at getting rid of the noises of airports and aircraft. For commuting, I use a pair of Audio Technica ATH-MSR7 closed-back headphones, which are accurate and lightweight, look good, and have interchangeable cables for when I need to use an in-line microphone. For recording I use a pair of Sennheiser HD-25-1 II closed-back headphones because they are exceptionally detailed (especially on voice, which is useful when recording interviews). And for late night use I use the appropriately named NightHawk by AudioQuest because it’s one of the most comfortable headphones I have ever used and its unforced, satisfying sound makes it a natural for relaxing in the evening.
All four headphones all do different things, all equally valid, and all equally right for the task in hand. I could easily change these headphones for dozens of similar models at any price range (Bose in place of AKG, Sennheiser Momentums instead of the Audio Technicas, Sony MDR-7506 instead of the HD-25s, and so on). In fairness, I’d find the NightHawk hardest to swap out because of its long-listening comfort, but nothing’s impossible. But these are the ones I like at the moment.
I don’t find any of these headphones overly ‘good’ at playing a specific genre; they are great all-rounders in their own ways. But their own ways are very different ways. And that’s where the epiphany part comes in. You see, looking at this from an audiophile perspective what I’ve described here (changing transducer with your mood and requirements during the day) is all but impossible because it would require multiple systems. That’s the difference between ‘man cave’ and ‘bat cave’. But the fact is, we do change what we need from our music replay systems over the course of a day: sometimes we need studio-monitor analysis, sometimes we want something far less demanding for background sounds, and sometimes we want something smooth and satisfying, and laid back enough to listen through the evening.
Because we have been unable to do that, we have created the mostly-false notion of systems that are good at one kind of music and not others. As if the system itself had its own tastes. OK so the sign of a good designer is catholic tastes and that should be reflected in the products they design. More importantly, if you design any audio component using an extremely limited selection of music, don’t be surprised if it only plays that musical selection well. But, a good design should transcend the tastes of the designer and work on anything.
We need to stop thinking of ‘good for…’ designs and start thinking of what kind of demands we make on our audio systems. In the headphone space, the choice becomes easy… you buy a few very different sets of headphones to meet all those needs as best as possible. But for a loudspeaker-based audiophile, we’re probably talking compromise, working out how much of your listening is spent in close analysis of the music, how much is spent in a more reflective mood, and how often you will play at whisper or at party levels. Few systems are good at all these things (and the ones that cover most of the bases are usually exotically priced) and once you find your priorities, you might find yourself listening to a lot more music.
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