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Speakers vs. Headphones: Which is Better? (and Why Do Earbuds Suck?)

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Convenience and portability are major benefits of listening to headphones or earbuds, but there are physical limitations to what those can do compared to a full-on speaker system.

With metal specifically, those limitations can suck the energy and aggression out of the music. And with all of us still currently cooped up, working, playing and exercising in our homes, why keep using those crappy earphones you’ve got?

Let’s explore further to find out the science behind why those cheap earbuds you’re currently listening to music with have got to go and why you (and your music) deserve something better.

Frequency Response

Humans with perfect hearing can perceive frequencies from 20 Hz to 20 kHz, though only babies can actually hear frequencies as high as 20 kHz. Young adults top out at around 15 or 16 kHz — and it can be much lower if you expose yourself to lots of loud sound (guilty!) — while seniors often can’t hear anything above 12 kHz or even lower.

Still, your audio system should accurately reproduce as wide a frequency range as possible in order to hear as much of the music as your hearing allows. Many earbuds, especially cheap ones, can’t reach much above 10 kHz. Also, many start cutting out any bass below 100 Hz or so. That’s a lot of sound you’re NOT hearing. By contrast, most speakers can reproduce up to 20 kHz and beyond, and if they can’t reach all the way down to 20 Hz, you can easily add a subwoofer.

Speaking of bass, that’s yet another reason to invest in a set of decent speakers. Thanks to something called “room gain,” low frequencies from a sealed speaker or subwoofer in a smaller room (where the longest dimension is less than 20 feet) are actually boosted, allowing a speaker with weak bass to sound much deeper and hit with more impact. We don’t need to tell you how important that visceral feel is for metal.

Another, more technical advantage of listening on speakers is the often-overlooked effect of hearing the sound from all channels in both ears. Because of the distance between you and each speaker, the sound from each speaker reaches each ear at slightly different times; for example, the sound from the right speaker reaches your left ear a few milliseconds after it hits your right ear, and vice versa. You likely can’t actively perceive this tiny time difference between the ears, but it provides a sense of space that is completely absent when listening on headphones and enriches the listening experience in a subtle but important way.

Fatal Flaws of Earbuds

Even if your earbuds have a wide measured frequency response, most are severely lacking with bass — weak to nonexistent — with dynamics that are an inaccurate, buzzy mess. That’s because earbuds typically do not seal the entrance to your ear canals, which is essential for good sound quality. In-ear monitors that fully seal the entrance to your ear canal and over-the-ear headphones often sound much better, but still won’t match what a proper speaker set can provide.

As far as Bluetooth, there’s a special level of techno-hell reserved for wireless earbuds, which often have connectivity and power issues. Another disadvantage of all Bluetooth headphones is the high level of data compression used to transmit the wireless signal, which inevitably lowers the overall sound quality. (The same is true for wireless Bluetooth sources sending audio to a speaker system, so it’s best to avoid Bluetooth altogether if you’re concerned about getting the best possible sound quality.)

We don’t want this to come off as a lecture, because we all know metal is meant to be played loud, but doing so can also damage your hearing. This danger is much greater with headphones, which can deliver damaging levels far more easily than speakers, because the headphones’ drivers are mere millimeters from your eardrums. On top of that, most cheap headphones suffer serious distortion when played anywhere near reference. Loud is fun, but hearing loss and ringing ears is not.

Beyond Music

Even the most devoted metal fans might want to turn their music system into a home theater from time to time. A speaker system can serve up that pleasure much more effectively than headphones, especially when it comes to surround sound.

Speakers do a much better job re-creating the live-concert experience. A potent subwoofer energizes a room to the point that it can actually compress your chest with pounding bass. And if you have a surround speaker system, a multichannel Blu-ray or streaming concert puts you in the middle of the audience and the ambient sound becomes much more pronounced. You miss out on a lot of that immersion on headphones.

Of course you can’t throw a 7.1 surround sound system in your pocket when heading out to walk the dog, but listening to metal on speakers offers a more immersive, social, and versatile experience than headphones.

Then there’s sharing the experience with friends (it’s coming back!). Listening on speakers is a social experience, while headphones isolate you from each other. Yes, a group of people could all stream the same tracks simultaneously on headphones, but what kind of party is that?

We’re obviously biased, but what do you prefer?

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This post is sponsored by SVS High Performance Speakers, Subwoofers and Accessories, delivering thrilling and immersive home audio experiences and unmatched performance for the price.

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