On Headphones

by Thomas Brett

In a recent New York Times article on the dangers and downsides of headphone us, Virginia Heffernan makes the case that headphones–those little earbuds that are placed inside the ear, actually–put users at risk for early hearing loss.  Not only that, but they isolate us from one another; headphones are an antisocial technology.  Herffernan elaborates:

“Headphones work best for people who need or want to hear one sound story and no other; who don’t want to have to choose which sounds to listen to and which to ignore; and who don’t want their sounds overheard. Under these circumstances, headphones are extremely useful — and necessary for sound professionals, like intelligence and radio workers — but it’s a strange fact of our times that this rarefied experience of sound has become so common and widespread. In the name of living a sensory life, it’s worth letting sounds exist in their audio habitat more often, even if that means contending with interruptions and background sound.”

There is a lot to like here and also probe further.  First, I think it is a good thing that this “rarefied experience of sound” has become accessible to people besides sound professionals.  Why?  Because experiencing the multi-dimensional world of sound through a good set of headphones is a thrilling cognitive ride.  Even those little ipod ear bud headphones pumping out low-resolution MP3 files can sound decent enough.  And I think this immersive experience of headphone listening can be a part of living a good “sensory life.”  Second, “letting sounds exist in their audio habitat” is something that is in fact hard to do if you’re wearing headphones all the time.  So, yes: take some time to listen to your soundscape, to try to discern the endless layers of foreground and background sounds wherever you may be.  Finally, from a musician’s perspective, we need to remember that headphones are invaluable for close listening: it enables us to examine sounds as if under a microscope.  This may not be “natural” or how sounds are perceived in the everyday acoustic world, but listening to sound over a good set of headphones is to encounter the microworlds of sound.

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