Did you ever have canned plums? If you have, you know that they’re not really anything like the color of fresh plums, but more of a burgundy or “oxblood” color or maybe a sort of maroon. If you haven’t had them, you should; they’re really quite delicious although, like canned peaches, canned grapefruit, or canned asparagus, they’re nothing at all like the real (freash) thing.
The reason that I bring up canned plums is that, in my younger days, when I first got out of high school and into college, I discovered fashion for the first time, and actually became quite the clotheshorse. Trying to look like the adult gentleman that I fancied myself to be, I bought, for the first time ever, more than just one suit – some of which were even vested. There’s no better way for a young man to look like a young man trying to look like an older man than for him to wear a three-piece suit, unless, of course, he wears that suit with wingtip shoes, a topcoat, and a snap-brim hat, like everybody (but especially FBI agents) used to wear in the movies. At least that’s what it seemed to me in the late 1950s and early 60s, when that was exactly what I did.
In those days, if it was fashionable, I could almost always be counted-on to wear it. The one thing, though, that I would NOT wear, EVER, was clothing of that canned plum color.
You know, yourself, that every few years, fashion designers for both sexes try to make new business for themselves by creating some new “hot” color so they can sell you a new “now” wardrobe of just that hue. For men, one of the colors that keeps coming around, but never quite takes-off is canned plum. I’ve never liked it, and have never bought it because not only is it, for me, an unflattering color, but practically no other color seems to go with it.
Headphones are, for me, another “canned plum” product: When I got into Hi-Fi, I bought some (Brush piezoelectrics, pilot style) just to complete my system: Like a fashion item, they were there; they were popular; I could afford them; so what the heck, I bought them. I didn’t actually NEED headphones until I got into location recording, where they were necessary as monitors, and when I did, I replaced the High-impedance Brush ‘phones with some lightweight “on-the-ear” low impedance dynamics from AKG.
The AKGs were fine sounding, and the Stax Sigma and Lambda Pro electrostatics that I bought years later when, after a long hiatus, I dropped back into the Hi-Fi hobby, were even better — the Lambda Pros STILL being, IMHO, among the very best audio transducers of any kind (including some violently expensive speakers) that I have ever heard. The Sigmas, too, were quite good, although not up to the standard set by the Lambda Pros.
The Sigmas were an attempt to solve the problem, shared by virtually all headphones (and I say “virtually” only because I haven’t heard ALL of the headphones on the market) of – weirdly – imaging INSIDE your head, instead of around or in front of you, as would be the case with natural sound or speakers. They didn’t really work, though, and, to my knowledge, neither has anything else, including the vaunted AKG k1000, which tried to do something similar with variable position (instead of fixed-position, like the Sigmas) driver elements.
Actually, although I own several sets of what are recognized as at-least-much-better-than-average headphones, except for just recently, as preparation for this article, I haven’t used any of them for years, and, basically, I don’t like them. I’ve already mentioned the “inside your head” imaging problem, but there are other problems, too, that make headphones, for me, not a viable listening option.
One of the most important of those problems (again, FOR ME) also has to do with imaging. As you may already know, if you’ve read other things I’ve written, the things about a good System most likely to “turn me on” are its imaging and soundstaging. With speakers, if they’re doing those things well, I can turn off the lights (or at least shut my eyes) and imagine that I’m actually in the concert or recording venue, enjoying a “live” performance. If, during the course of my listening, I change position or even just the position of my head, just as it would be in reality, nothing happens, and the performers stay just where they were, doing whatever they were doing. With headphones, though, if I change the position of my head, the positions of the performers change with me, instantly following me around in a way that could never happen in reality and that immediately blows my illusion and reminds me that I’m listening to a recording and not live music. When you consider that it’s not just the music that I want, but also that illusion, and that it keeps-on getting blown every time I do anything other than sit stone still, you’ll understand why headphones just don’t do it for me.
Another problem with headphones, also having to do with motion, is the fact that when I listen to headphones I (at least with the ‘phones that I own) have to do it at the end of a “leash”. All of my ‘phones are wired, so where I sit must be within the length of their cable, and I’m always conscious of (or perhaps I just imagine) the weight of the cable pulling on me.
Headphones seem to be enjoying their current renaissance because of all of the portable music sources now available, and many people in our industry seem to believe (or at least to hope) that it will usher in a similar renaissance of the Hi-Fi hobby in general. I don’t think so; there are too many things (in my opinion) working against it, not the least of which are the facts that neither the sound of the headphone formats nor of the majority of affordably-priced ‘phones is all that good and, frankly, the bulk of the customers for them don’t seem to care.
I think that it’s more likely the equivalent of the fashion designers trying, over and over again, over time, to introduce canned plum as a men’s fashion color. Even if they have one good season with it, there’s not likely to be another one to follow.