The Danger From Headphones

Below is an English translation of a recent article "Gefahr aus dem Kopfhörer" (The Danger From Headphones) written by Matthias Hohensee over at Valley Talk. His article refers to my recent investigations into whether younger generations prefer lossy MP over higher quality music file formats. The preliminary results of that study were reported in the article I recently posted called, “Some New Evidence that Generation Y May Prefer Accurate Sound Reproduction”.
Matthias makes a good point about listener preference for MP3 becoming a moot issue with higher quality file formats becoming the standard, as bandwidth and music storage costs drop. I only briefly mentioned this in my slide presentation (see slide 7), but it deserves repeating. The days of low quality music downloads are numbered, I hope. Then, the main sound quality issue will become the recordings themselves, and the quality of the headphones and loudspeakers through which the recordings are heard. What are your thoughts on this matter?

The Danger from Headphones
by Matthias Hohensee
from Valley Talk 6.30.2010
Can the Germans be really proud of MP3 or has the digital stroke of genius desensitized the hearing of a complete generation?

When Angela Merkel recently visited the prestigious Stanford University in Silicon Valley and enumerated German technology services, she also mentioned the data compression method MP3. The technology that was largely developed by scientists at the Fraunhofer Institute has changed the music industry, even though it’s mainly U.S. companies that profit from the MP3 player market.
But can the Germans be really proud of MP3? Or has the digital stroke of genius desensitized the hearing of a complete generation? At least the observations of Jonathan Berger suggest this. Over the years the Stanford professor of music has been asking his students if they are satisfied with compressed music files, or if they prefer the full Hi-Fi sound.
He came to a surprising result: For years, the number of those who preferred the sound of ‘packed’ music to the uncompressed audio spectrum seems to grow steadily. Berger concludes that the taste of sound has changed.
Good sound is measurable
Sean Olive, on the other hand, considers Berger's insight as nonsense: "Good, accurately reproduced sound is not a question of taste, but scientifically measurable." And this is the way he should see it. After all, Olive is the head of acoustic research at Harman International. The U.S. manufacturer is considered to be THE address for sophisticated sound systems.
Alarmed by Berger's observations Olive recently invited Los Angeles high school students to the Harman studios for extensive tests. "Everyone could hear the difference between different compacted sound files - and preferred less compressed songs," says the scientist relieved.

Danger from headphones
Now, Olive is not really unbiased, after all Harman sells nearly three billion dollars worth of high-end audio technology per year. But in fact, technical progress makes Olive's worries already obsolete. In times of high-speed Internet, data compression does not play the same role as it did in the nineties when the music piracy supplier Napster made MP3 popular.
The songs that were exchanged back then were extremely compressed in order to distribute them via the still slow Internet connections – but also to spare the limited memory of computers and MP3 players. Today the vendors such as Apple and Amazon are selling songs which are formatted in such a way that only real audiophiles can hear the difference to music CDs.
And so the real dangers for the hearing of ‘generation iPod’ aren’t the highly compressed music files, but simply the volume adjustment of their headphones.

Acknowledgements: Thank you to the author Matthias Hohensee for permission to repost his article here, and to Alena Winterhoff for the English translation.

Original Resource is Audio Musings by Sean Olive