The Next Track, Episode #220 – Headphones, Take 3

This is the third time we discuss headphones on The Next Track. Both Doug and Kirk have found that they use fewer headphones, and use headphones differently than in the past.

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The Headphones I Use (Updated)

I often get e-mail from readers asking about what audio equipment I use. While I’m not an audiophile, I do listen to music on decent equipment. While I like listening to music with headphones, I do realize that it is, in some ways, artificial to listen with them. Instruments that are off to one side sound much further away from the center of the soundscape than when you listen to a stereo. I like the effect of having the music "in my head," but for some types of music, and some recordings, this isn’t ideal. This is the case with some symphony recordings, and some recordings of string quartets, where the instruments are separated too much. Generally, rock and jazz sound fine with headphones, but with any kind of music, good headphones are unforgiving. It’s much easier to hear any weaknesses in a recording when listening with headphones. Nevertheless, I do use headphones often. Here are the headphones I use.

Note that I’ve updated this article several times since I first posted it in 2012; this latest update was written in October 2021.

Podcasting

Sennheiser px 100 iiiWhen I’m podcasting, I need to hear both my own voice and the voice of my co-hosts and guests, but there is no need for audio quality, so I use a light, simple pair of headphones. I currently use the Sennheiser PX 100-IIi. I used to use these headphones on the go, and they are great, since they have an inline volume control and mic. This means that when I was walking, and listening to music on my iPhone, I could take a call without removing the headphones. For other uses, the volume control and play/pause button made it a bit easier to listen to music. The sound quality of this headphone is surprisingly good, though don’t expect a lot of bass from this headphone. But, again, for podcasting, I just need something light, and these are ideal. However, they are no longer available, and I’ll eventually need to replace them with something similar.

On the go

AirpodsAs mentioned above, I used to use light, wired headphones when I was out walking. Now, I use Apple’s AirPods; not the Pro model, because I don’t like in-canal earbuds, because I can hear my breathing. The AirPods are great for basic listening, the music quality isn’t great, but it’s good enough. The convenience factor is probably the most important. Since there’s no longer a headphone jack on the iPhone, I can’t use wired headphones on the go any more. (To be fair, you can use a Lightning to Headphone Jack adapter, but that’s one more gadget to have.)

Blocking out noise

Airpods maxThere are times when I want to listen outdoors and not hear the sounds around me. My neighbors may be mowing lawns, which, where I live, are quite large. After having had a couple of different noise-cancelling headphones, I recently bought Apple’s AirPods Max, which, while overpriced, are extremely comfortable, and the noise cancellation is very effective. These are Bluetooth headphones, but with a Lightning to 3.5mm Audio Cable, you can plug the AirPods Max into a headphone jack and get the full quality of audio, rather than Bluetooth compression.

Wireless listening

In the previous version of this article, back in 2012, I had only one type of wireless headphones. Now, as you can see above, I have two: AirPods and AirPods Max. So now I use one or the other when I want to listen unencumbered by cables.

Watching movies or TV shows

I had a revelation a few months ago, when I bought Apple’s AirPods Max. While I don’t like listening to music in Apple’s spatial audio, because it’s too artificial, but I enjoy watching movies and TV shows on my iPad, and the AirPods Max, which offer surround sound, are simply perfect. I don’t like the head-tracking feature – if you turn your head, the audio turns, as though you’re actually hearing it from the device you’re watching – but the surround sound is excellent.

Serious listening

Akg k702I have to have one "good" over-ear headphone, though I have to admit that I rarely use this any more. I have AKG K702, which are very large, very comfortable, and airy with excellent sound. The bass isn’t overdone, the treble is clear, and the definition is subtle and balanced. These are open headphones, so you don’t want to use these if you’re listening to music with other people around you. The foam rings are soft and plush, and the headband is comfortable. I can wear these for hours and not get tired, which isn’t always the case with full-sized headphones. But for most serious listening, I use speakers.

What’s next?

It’s interesting that, compared to the previous version of this article, I’ve reduced the number of headphones I use. The headphones I use for podcasting don’t really count; they’re not for music, they’re just for a task. So that leaves me with two headphones I use regularly: Apple’s AirPods and AirPods Max.

I’m no longer that interested in headphones. Over the years, I’ve had a couple dozen different models, and I don’t feel that I need to try to get better and better headphones. These days, I’m mostly interested in flexibility. Yes, that means that I listen to Bluetooth headphones most of the time, which uses lossy compression, but things sound good enough. Though I don’t often listen to music on headphones and home, and prefer listening to music on speakers.

If you have any favorite headphones, feel free to mention them in the comments.

The Next Track, Episode #219 – Reissues, Remixes, and Remasters

The recording industry doesn’t just make money from new releases, but regularly reissues older releases to exploit their back catalog. Some of these are just repackaged, and others are remixed or remastered. We discuss the issues around these releases, and what all these re- terms mean.

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The Next Track, Episode #218 – Sholto Kynoch, Pianist and Director of the Oxford Lieder Festival

Pianist Sholto Kynoch founded the Oxford Lieder Festival in 2002, and it has become the most important festival for lieder and song in the UK. We discuss the festival, and how listeners around the world can watch nearly 100 concerts via streaming in October.

Help support The Next Track by making regular donations via Patreon. We’re ad-free and self-sustaining so your support is what keeps us going. Thanks!

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The Next Track, Episode #217 – To Stream or to Own Music Redux

In episode #2 of The Next Track, we discussed streaming versus owning music. That was five years ago. We decided to revisit the topic, to see if we’ve changed our minds.

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The Next Track, Episode #215 – People Aren’t Listening to Much New Music

More than two-thirds of music listened to in the US is old music. Music less than 18 months old accounts for only a third of listening, and this share is dropping. We discuss what this means for the future of the music industry.

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The Next Track, Episode #214 – Chris Connaker on Music with Dolby Atmos and Spatial Audio

With Apple offering some music with Dolby Atmos and/or Spatial Audio on Apple Music, we talk with Chris Connaker about whether this is a Good Thing for music.

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The Next Track, Episode #213 – The Grateful Dead’s 100 Essential Songs, with Bob Trudeau

This week’s guest, Bob Trudeau, has co-authored a book, with Barry Barnes, about the Grateful Dead’s 100 Essential Songs. Even if you’re not a fan of the Grateful Dead, this episode is an interesting discussion of a band’s repertoire.

Help support The Next Track by making regular donations via Patreon. We’re ad-free and self-sustaining so your support is what keeps us going. Thanks!

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The Next Track, Episode #212 – Caoilfhionn Rose’s Second Album, Truly

We’re happy to welcome back Caoilfhionn Rose to discuss the recording and release of her second album Truly. Caoilfhionn is a young singer from Manchester, and continues the lineage of great music from that city.

Help support The Next Track by making regular donations via Patreon. We’re ad-free and self-sustaining so your support is what keeps us going. Thanks!

Support The Next Track.

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Why Hi-Res Lossless Music from Apple Music Won’t Sound Different when Played on Macs (Unless You Change a Setting)

I haven’t written much about Apple’s new foray into lossless, high-resolution, and Dolby Atmos music. I’ve written about high-resolution music plenty over the years, and it’s clear that, for the vast majority of listeners, it’s just marketing and won’t make a difference.

But Apple has added music formats that can’t even be played back on Macs, without changing a hidden setting. Here’s why.

I started playing this album, which is marked Hi-Res Lossless. High-resolution music has both bit depths and sample rates that are higher than the standard 16-bit, 44.1 kHz. So to play it back correctly, your Mac has be able to play the music at those settings. And it won’t, at least not out of the box.

Open the Audio-MIDI Setup app, which is in /Applications/Utilities. You’ll see the sample rate that your Mac is using.

Audio midi

The Music app doesn’t cause this to change automatically, so you’ll need to change it. And while you can probably leave it set to 96,000 Hz all the time, this could cause problems if you’re playing back music at other sample rates.

Audiophiles who have libraries of high resolution have been complaining about this for years, and because of this setting, alternative music player apps, which can adjust for sample rates, have become popular in that niche. I would have expected that Apple would have resolved this issue when they started offering high-resolution music.

Note that there’s no way to know the correct sample rate of the music, if you’re streaming it from Apple Music. Even if you’ve added an Apple Music track to your library, select a track, press Command-I, then check the File tab, it won’t dispaly the sample rate. In fact, it doesn’t even say that it’s high resolution.

No sample rate

These files don’t display their bit rate, so you can’t even calculate backwards from the file size to know what the actual resolution is. In this example, the file is 37.2 MB, which, according to this audio file size calculator, fits the size for a file at 1040 kbps. That’s quite low for a 24-bit, 96 kHz file, so it’s clear that it’s hard to figure this out.

Don’t worry if you don’t understand any of this; it’s not meant for you. Those who understand what I’m talking about will know what it means. As for the rest, just enjoy the music.

Update: As a correspondant pointed out, you can see the bit depth and sample rate if you don’t have Dolby Atmos on in the Playback preferences of the Music app. Click the Lossless icon in the LCD to see that information in a popup.

Bit rate lossless

But if tracks have Dolby Atmos, you can’t see that information.