Open or Closed?

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I've been listening to a lot of headphones lately - in-ear, on-ear, over-ear, if it has a transducer I've been sticking it near my ears. Doing all this headphone listening has brought me to the realization that yes, there is such a thing as too much bass. Also in-ear, on-ear open-air and enclosed headphones handle bass in different ways.

Personally, I prefer the bass from an open-air headphone such as the Stax Pro Lambda, AKG K-701, or Grado RS-1 to that from a closed-earcup design. Why? I don't care for the pressurization from bass transients created by in-ear and closed-earcup designs. On open ear headphones the bass transients have somewhere to go besides your inner ear so you don't experience an increase in air-pressure every time something goes boom.

Now, some folks feel the opposite - they want to feel the bass pressure gently pushing in on every transient. For some, it's only "real" bass if it exerts some physical pressure. I understand their point - at rock concerts the bass can practically squeeze the air out of your lungs and certainly does pressurize your ears. Car audio can also do the same thing - when the bass transients hit, it can feel like someone has boxed your ears. I've even experienced this phenomenon in a listening room - I visited a room that held a pair of Dunlavy SC-V speakers that had been soundproofed and sealed so tightly that every time a low bass note hit you could feel the pressure on your ears. When the door was open the problem vanished - just like going from a closed to an open ear headphone!

I think trying to intentionally design earphones that simulate "the crushing bass of a live concert" is a sonic exercise that leads one way - down. But until we have a rash of perforated eardrums from headphone bass transients I suspect the "arms race" for "realistic bass" will continue unabated. And if you love bass-heavy earphones, I think you are going to be in hog heaven for quite some time.

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