Friday, April 29, 2011

Listening to the World Through the Headphones of a Child

I try to be a frugal kind of guy, so when I needed a pair of headphones so I could unobtrusively listen to music when my college roommate was working, I went for the cheapest option: blue plastic with small-ish faux leather ear cushions and a thin adjustable headband. These headphones served me well for many years, surviving several college move-ins and move-outs, home relocations, and new jobs.

Then, a few days ago, they broke. Part of the headband snapped in such a way that, even when taped together, it fit awkwardly on my already awkward head. With tears in my eyes, I headed off to Best Buy to find another place that would sell something comparable to what I had been using all these years.

You know those movies where some schmoe travels into the future by accident or wakes up after being in stasis for a few decades, only to find that everything is hilariously different from the world he remembers? Well, if you subtract the hilarious bit, I felt like that kind of schmoe.

First of all, my local Best Buy has headphones in about five different locations across the store, no doubt because they believe you'll buy whichever one you happen to see first. Second of all, after doing a complete sweep of the store (though I didn't check the bathroom for headphones), I discovered that there are two options anymore: ghastly expensive state-of-the-art noise-cancelling headsets in a size reserved for the people who wave sticks at airplanes, and teensy foreign objects that you shove into your ear. This would not do.

Wal-Mart had a better selection of merchandise priced for a guy who just wants to listen to music without blaring the speakers and subjecting his coworkers to Swedish death metal and Dan Fogelberg. Turning up the volume on the headphones is noise cancellation enough for me.

After a few minutes of examining the nicely organized shelf, I picked out the only option that wasn't the price of a small goat, designed like a piece of rejected Borg technology, or a choking hazard for my ears: I bought children's headphones.

Nearly identical to the broken pair I owned (except black, with foam ear cushions, and not broken), I was now set for the next 5-7 years or so, at which point they'll be streaming music directly into our brains or shoving speakers up our noses. As you may note from the package illustration above, these lovely headphones turn boys into raucous headbangers (judging from the music notes above his head, I'd say he's listening to Handel), and the girls into puppets. I kid; it's a cute illustration. The best part is where the package designer mistook "lowers volume" to mean "makes everything five times as loud as it's supposed to be," because David Bowie was almost the last thing I ever heard when the headphones roared to life on their maiden voyage.

Once I fixed the volume and cleared the stardust from my ears, I discovered something I didn't realize I had been missing: sound quality. Whether by superior craftsmanship or some arcane mystery, I was hearing music with a clarity and richness I have rarely experienced. I've always been more concerned with the content than the physical presentation of my audio and video; big-screen televisions are nice, and huge surround sound speakers are fun, but as long as it gets the job done, I'm usually pretty satisfied. But now I was hearing things I'm not sure I ever noticed, or fully appreciated. It's as though the guy from Blue Öyster Cult was sitting on my desk, playing cowbell right in front of me.

I need to get out more often.

Now I get a full bass sound, crisper vocals, and cushier ear cushions. Aside from a Pandora playlist that doesn't insist on bringing Gary Numan back for 1-2 encores after every song he performs, what more could a guy ask for?

Don't answer that; I already know. I shoulda sprung for the pink headphones.


Matt Link said...

Your music is now in 3D!.... sorta (insert the THX theme and just about every late 90's cliche of how awesome 3 dimensions makes things.)

Sweet, thanks for the info on that! I've actually been looking for a decent pair of headphones that not only aren't your typical ear buds (I go through the Sony ones every year or so, plus the sound quality drops rapidly once you've used them for a week or so... not so awesome), but also aren't going to break the bank and compete with the movie tech sets of Tron.

So these headphones you got, they won't blare sound out for others to hear if you decide to turn up the volume a notch or 3, right? If not, then I may have to go pick some up for myself!

Flashman85 said...

So far, I've had no complaints except that the cord is super-short and there's no manually adjustable volume on the headset itself. But, they're comfy and inexpensive and have good sound quality, so if you see 'em, go for 'em!