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Byte M.E.

Headphones are not always music to your ears

  • By Scott Shuey Deputy Business Editor
  • Published: 13:14 January 7, 2013
  • Gulf News

Over the last few weeks, I’ve been getting phone calls asking me to do a story on headphones. These aren’t just for any headphones. These are, according the public relations people who pimp them, really, REALLY good headphones. They’re great for gamers, I’ve been told. They’re great for listening to music. They’re great for losing your hearing while listening to gunshots and explosions on your favourite DVD, because they’re so GREAT.

(Yes, this is how a disturbing number of my phone calls sound these days. Add the phrase “Did you get the press release?” and you’ll understand why I dread the sound of a ringing phone.) You’ve seen these headphones around, I’m sure. They’re big, they’re shiny, and they’re usually worn by some teenager walking down the street, oblivious to the fact he’s about to be run over because he’s cranked the volume so high he can’t hear my Jeep bearing down on him.

Now, I don’t have a problem with people who use headphone to help shut out the world. I’m a firm believer in the fact that the only way to get any peace and quiet at work is to put on a pair of headphones and turn the volume all the way to 11. But what gets me about the people who wear these new headphones is that they’ve gone out and spent Dh1,500 (or more) on a pair of studio quality headlines and plugged them into (gasp) an iPhone, a Samsung Galaxy, or any other device than plays Mp3.

Most of the people reading this will now be thinking, “Huh? So what?”

It’s a con, people. Using Beats by Dre headphones to listen to the music you’ve ripped from your CD – or more likely, something you’ve pirated off the internet – will not give you a superior listening experience, unless you know what you’re doing. And most people don’t.

Now, before I tell you why and before I start getting angry emails, let me say it’s not because there is anything wrong with the headphones. When Dr. Dre decided to develop his line of headphones, there was a good reason for it. Dre, and other musicians like him, use high-end equipment to produce music that just can’t be reproduced well by the small earhole-sized headphones that come almost as an after though in your Dh2,500 smart phone. Beats by Dre were meant to fill a hole in the market by people who really know music.

But there is a big difference between what a professional musician hears in the studio and what you’re listening to. If you’re like most people, when you turn on your iPod, you’re listening to a compressed music file playing at 128 kbps. In computer term, compression might as well mean “with little bits cut out.” As things go, 128 kbps is the middle ground of sound quality. It’s not horrible, but it’s not really good either. I have music files in my library that are as low as 56kpbs, which only the tone-deaf could love.

Why would anyone intentionally do this to music? Because the 129 kbps “standard” was created in a time when most people didn’t have 5 terabytes of storage dedicated to a 2 million file music collection. Today, even though disk storage is much cheaper than it used to be, most of the music you download from a legitimate site, such as iTunes, only comes in 256kbps. That’s a lot better than 128 kbps but still nowhere near the quality of FLAC (Free Lossless Audio Codec), ALAC (Apple Lossless Audio Codec), or the other lossless file types that are out there. Although, to be fair, you probably can’t tell the difference between a lossless track and one playing at 320kbps, which is the maximum bitrate available with MP3.

But that still doesn’t change the fact that most of my music library is still at 128kbps. The only way for you to increase the bit-rate of your music is to re-rip your old CDs – which for many of who would require you to actually purchase them - or re-download your old music collection, neither of which I’m willing to spend my free time doing. I’m certainly not going to re-create my music library just to justify a pair of Dh1,500 headphones.

Frankly, on only a daily basis, I probably wouldn’t notice the quality of my music. I’m just fine listening to most music at 128 kbps. The only thing that a Dh1,500 headset is going to remind me of is that I should have never switched over from vinyl.

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Douglas Okasaki writes about media and more

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