January 13, 2020

Small audio big change — the impact of headphones and small speakers on our music

With listening experiences now emphasizing the small and the intimate, how does that factor in how music is produced now? We take a glimpse at how the prevalence of headphones and small speakers have changed music.

The Small Speaker Effect

Nowadays, we bring music with us everywhere we go and it’s not hard to find at least one friend at a gathering who brought a portable Bluetooth speaker. The ubiquity of not just these personal speakers but also the even smaller ones we find in laptops, tablets and smartphones means music production is catering to lower common denominators.

In a Quartz article by Dan Kopf, he notes some of the key technical impacts:

  • Drivers: Drivers are the key component of sound devices that emit audio. Quality varies, but it’s safe to not everyone is an audiophile and therefore uses cheaper headphones with lower quality drivers. Further, integrated speakers in a laptop aren’t usually that great simply because there’s no impetus to improve on them.
  • Highs/Lows: Because of the limitations of lower-quality speakers, they can’t accurately reproduce the treble and bass (high and low frequencies) that were mastered in the studio. The result is unpleasant and harsh sounds.
  • Reduced Dynamic Range: This means songs are mixed with less dynamic range, and that music production involves testing with smaller speakers such as on smartphones to see if the sound is still perceived as loud or present.

The Podcast Effect

The rise of the podcast as well as listening for therapeutic effect has emphasized privacy and a sense of intimacy around our listening habits, which of course, means a greater role for headphone and earbuds. In an article for The New Yorker by Amanda Petrusich, she points out some of the effects on music production, which again, cater to the needs of the listener:

  • Performance: he notes Selena Gomez and Billie Elish’s tendency to sing closer to the mic almost as if whispering (not unlike ASMR, cut less potentially creepy).
  • Lyrics: the cultural emphasis on the personal narrative means songs might be trying to make “one-on-one” connections between artist and listener. Petrusich notes the highly personal, introspective and confessionary lyrics of Drake and Kanye and wonders if headphone-centric listening encourages certain music genres.
  • Privacy: In a similar vein, she references former Talking Heads frontman David Byrne (who wrote How Music Works) on how certain music genres encourage headphone usage because well, no one necessarily wants to blast their overly emo, offensive or sensual music tastes for everyone to hear (and judge).

The Takeaway

Unsurprisingly, music as a medium is going through shifts directly impacted by the way we experience the world more privately, through smaller personal devices including smartphones. This isn’t too unlike the decision to stay at home and watch certain genres of movies while we’re only willing to go to movie theaters for big epics.

But aside from just being a matter of personal preferences (to which the music needs to adapt, as it always has), there are, of course, negatives that include the real physical dangers of constantly tuning out the rest of the world as well as early hearing loss for both listeners and the people mastering for headphones.

Yet, on the other hand, headphones could simply be a necessary adaptation in an increasingly noisy and distracted world and as mentioned before, can invite us to look inward (which isn’t always a bad thing).

Unless you’re an audiophile, you might not care if the sound of music dramatically shifts as long as it sounds fine and gives you what you need. But just like the risk of going through life wearing rose-colored glasses, there is something to be said about spending too much of your day with a drastically altered soundscape in your ears.

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