Head phones for the money are the best speakers and set up"room" youll ever get....theres nothing in the way but the music directly to your ears!!
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My take on this issue is there are a number of answers, actually a combination of factors involved. It's been no secret that quality headphones can easily outstrip the majority of systems. At least the ones that haven't reached the level of sophistication required to be on equal footing or beyond quality phones.
For years, other than the obvious reasons for headphone use, I used my Sennheiser HD600's as a reference to compare my sound system against. After four or five years of diligent upgrades, my speaker system has finally reached parity, and beyond, my headhphones. I wasn't sure it would ever happen but it finally has.
System synergy, with the combination of electronics, cabling, loudspeakers that match the above, and perhaps most importantly, how they interact with your room, effects whether your audio system can outdo good 'phones.
So many variables that a sound system has to overcome, that are, for the most part, not an issue with 'phones.
It takes time, but with a good measuring stick, you will eventually get where you want to be. Enjoy the challenge.
Nothing wrong with room audio systems (assuming proper set up and associated room acoustics). IMHO its far superior to listening to earphones (my last set were STAX). For the most part in earphones you get lots of detail and the ability (with good earphones) to accurately access what is on the recording - a great monitor.
But the price you pay is a loss of the sense of 3 dimensional imaging one gets in a good traditional set up. Most ear phones, even those trying not to, put all of the music in your (fore)head - you do not hear its source as coming from different, and appropriate places, as in a natural acoustic.
Odds are that if you think headphones are 'superior' you have either never heard a properly set up room system or have no appreciation for what it can do.
FWIW when I first encountered my STAX phones in a B&M store I couldn't imagine what anyone could hear to justifing the huge price (I'd heard & owned other phones). But, what the hell, I listened and bought them on the spot. I used them for about a year mostly for the reasons you mention. But as my room system/set up improved so did my preference for the acoustic added by the room.
Horses for courses.
Headphone systems, just like conventional systems also have many level of sound quality and price.
Although it's true that a smartly put together headphone system can sound very respectable with a minuscule investment compared to a conventional system.
In my experience, my headphone system is a highly modified Headroom Max with AKG-701s, when state of the art headphone performance is maxed out, a very high level conventional system can and will continue many steps beyond in realism and overall performance.
There are also a number of things a conventional system can do that is simply not possible for headphones to achieve.
Examples would be realistic visceral bass ie moving lots of air, and the interaction of the music with the outside environment, walls carpet etc. The same interactions live music goes through.
As good as headphones can sound, they're still far less representative of real music than very good conventional systems.
I agree completely with Newbee. The phones are jaw dropping stupendous, however, they are not real sound in real space. As my room gets better and better, I listen to my earphones less. Although the sound of good earphones are incredibly good, they also are just not real. I always recommend them - especially to those with small budgets for this crazy hobby, or small rooms. I certainly would rather listen to earphones then poor speakers, or improperly set up speakers, or a room that has slap echo, boomy bass, etc.
I agree with you head phones don't have realistic (visceral) bass and the soundstage is very artificial, but they give tons of details and they have better tonal balance than most audio set ups with speakers. The strange thing is: even with mid-fi gear the high resolution still remains and the sound doesn't lose it's smoothness.
Something not being mentioned here is "efficiency". Headphones are going to be much easier to driver than typical passive speaker systems, through passive crossover networks and such. Also, yes, woofers driving a larger space are not as efficient overall - unless you get more woofers in volved, and likely active woofers at that.
Then, of course, yes, acoustics of the room come into play, associated equipment choices, set up, etc.
You should always consider variables when considering any medium, factor, issue, etc.
the same issue goes for car system efficiency vs. most home setup's. The woofers are not only closer to so many boundaries in relation to wave length - that they are reinforcing more of the bass frequencies- but the size of the woofers in relation to the amount of air is a much greater precentage. Again, efficiency for dynamic potential is higher in this "pressure pot" situation. It's likely a simmilar situation with the headphones, I pressume
Stringreen: even with mid-fi non dedicated head phone amp the sound through head phones is better (with better tonality and fine dynamic shadings) than many high-end set ups. That is the dilemma. One more thing: though head phones many mediocre recordings become listenable --> I simply hear much more details through the phones. Of course the sound gets better with better head phone amps.
I wonder about the ambiant noise level in your listening room. It may be masking the details of your speakers. Headphones have close proximity to your ears and anywhere from a little to a lot of isolation. This can make it easier to hear details.
I've got excellent headphones, AKG K701s driven by a Woo Audio WA6 single-ended, class-A amp. You can see my speaker rig in the link below my name here. Anyway, I judge the health of both systems by how close they are to each other. They are very close in all respects, including detail. For the best listening on the speaker system I keep the ambiant noise level low, often turning off the AC, making sure the dishwasher is off, etc.
Headphones are more transparent for a number of reasons.
1. No need to deal with room issues - no reflections, suckouts, etc.
2. No need to solve coherence and phase issues with large multi-driver speakers.
3. No crossover in the way - therefore simpler and purer signal path.
4. Amplifiers are low power - therefore fewer gain stages. Again, can be made simpler and purer.
A small (single) driver can do many things so much better than larger drivers. Less mass means faster response times, less resonance (ringing and/or stored energy), and because the sound is being delivered very close to the ears, SPL levels don't need to be nearly as high, resulting in less distortion. It's much easier for head/earphones to be cleaner, more linear, more detailed, in a word, more 'accurate.' In addition to this, you've eliminated the room's acoustics which may contribute a higher proportion of total sound heard than you might expect, possibly more than half.
What you gain in detail and intimacy, you loose in soundstage and imaging. I've not heard binaural recordings. They may be the answer to the "inside your head" effect. However, you'd need 'bodyphones' to get the visceral delivery to *feel* the bass.
I have the Sony MDR 10 headphones. These are one of the best phones out there. As enjoyable as they are, I still prefer my main stereo system most of the time. When I decide to listen to music, I go downstairs, turn on the stereo and kick back. I never choose headphones. The only time I listen to the headphones anymore is when I might put something on before going to sleep. Headphone system is in the bedroom.
I do Pro Audio location recording ( but on the low end pro scale..lol) . Mostly ambient nature and wildlife. Working in my studio with near field speakers is kinda like headphones. You hear everything. What happens is you are aware of what you want your far field system to sound like. Welcome to the audiophile world quest...LOL! Like mentioned before. The far field system is by far the goal of the recording engineer. We use quality near fields, cheap computer speakers and ( for me) 2 sets of headphones. I have the old standby for many years Sony 7506 that is used in tons of studios. The other is Sennheiser HD 25 ( which is what I use in the field and studio )
The sound engineer that made the recording was to be heard in the far field and tested it through near field, headphones and far field play back.
Well my hifi life is short compared to may here. I have been into the gig for about 10 years now. My hifi life started with headphones at college. I need headphones because of my roommate. I had bose speakers at the time (ignorance is bliss!). I bought what else... bose headphones and really like them at the time. I then started on a quest looking for what was better that bose (if possible.... j/k). I bought a pair of Sennheiser 650s and a pair of Grado Alessandro Music Series Two and the rest is history.
I have owned thousands of dollars of headphone gear (10+ pairs of top models from many of the top companies) and all kinds of amps. After 4 years of playing with headphones I have sold them all but Sennheiser 650 (first love) and Grado RS-1s. They both are collecting dust right now because I own a house now. I love the sound stage of speakers and every thing else that headphones do well speakers can too. They just cost more $$$.
At night I listen to my first pair of "real" speakers (B&W 703s) that are now in the secondary system in the bedroom. I do break out the headphones for old time sake but they always leave my ear ringing so I try not to use them for too long.
For those that do not own good headphones you should go out... no run out and buy a pair. They can be a real eye/ear opener.... just hope that you have a good speaker system or you will get to itch to upgrade.
Simple answer, because speakers to be equal to headphones would need to be sealed to your head! In otherwords the outside environment your speakers are running in is over 50% of the sound results which is just as important as the speakers themselves... Headphones are not in a room, hell they are not even really capable of making too many mistakes as they are 1" from your eardrum.
Its similar to sitting in a car with a good stereo system, its almost a sealed speaker all in itself, the evironment is much more controlled.