Don’t stress, use the right gear for the job

Whilst I consider myself an audiophile, I also like to think I’m a pragmatist i.e. best of both worlds: don’t go over the top with snake oil gear but at the same time recognise that sound quality plays a pivotal role on how I listen and enjoy music.

As developers, we use various ways to relax, in my case music plays a vital role - it decouples me from the “now”, triggers the creation of happy chems in the brain and finally re-syncs my contorted perception towards “beauty can exist in the world whatever the circumstances might be”.

In the last couple of months, a new requirement has risen: noise cancelling headphones, as the surrounding noise was having a negative effect on my productivity. I mostly use open back headphones, actually all of them are open back so they let outside noise easily in.

I addressed the finding of the perfect pair of noise cancelling headphones by also factoring in their sound quality. After some weeks a candidate emerged: Sony WH-1000XM4, the fourth iteration of their NC cans - the reviews and online consensus revealed top of the notch NC and more than OK sound quality.

To digress a bit, my reference cans are the old timers from Sennheiser: the venerable HD600s released in 1997 with their odd coating. People affectionately call them “kitchen”-cans. Luckily, I got the original looking ones from ‘97. The updated design looks in-sync with the modern times. Before them I tried other headphones: I went from Grados (SR225e) to Audeze (LCD-2f), which I still own but rarely use, also listened to a myriad of other models.

For me, the 600s timber, especially in the vocals department, doesn’t have any competition. They’re just magic if you will, just like the classic BBC monitors, nowadays best incarnated as the Harbeth P3ESR - they’re not perfect speakers by any means, but their timbre and reproduction of vocals are just magic.

Back to the Sony’s - bought them, the NC feature worked like a charm but I had a major disappointment in the sound quality department - out of the box they come tuned with a huge bass bump which bleeds into the mids and makes everything sound… well, muddy.

I spent again a week researching different EQ settings, various fixes to make them sound better. Finally, I used SoundSource coupled with Apple’s default AUNBandEQ (parametric EQ) to apply fixes I’ve found online . The results - quite impressive, the sound was much better, but it wasn’t perfect, most likely because there are many factors that influence each individual frequency perception like the shape of the ear, the length of the ear canal, the inherent subjectivity of the brain, etc.

This was a failed experiment. I truly believe you can EQ your headphones to fit your ears; the issue is the amount of energy you have to put into this and there’s always seemed to be that one track where a cymbal just sounds off or too edgy.

Therefore, I caved. I just set the “Vocal” profile in their DSP, which doesn’t sound horrible, and went on with my business, ignoring the issue for some time but still having a feeling that they aren’t good enough somehow.

Then it downed on me: I got them for a specific role - noise cancellation i.e. not to trick my brain that I’m listening to magic. When thinking in that specific structure, the dissent went away, because when I wanted magic, I could always switch to my 600s coupled with the Chord Mojo or the Burson Soloist brute and a tube buffer , all mixed with a quiet night: just sit back and enjoy the music.

As in programming and many other fields: use the right gear for the job and appreciate things for what they excel at.

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