Headphones and HD-Audio

I drove south to Newport Beach yesterday to check out the setup for this weekend’s Newport Beach Audio Show. It’s become a pretty big deal spread over two hotels by the John Wayne Airport. While I was there, I ran into a member of the LA and OC Audio Society and a staff member from the show. We chatted briefly about the gulf that exists between established audiophiles of my generation and the younger demographic. Mike, the staff member, said the key was personal listening…listening to music through headphones.

I agree that headphones are increasing in popularity but I’m not completely convinced that the current headphones situation is all that promising. It’s clear that audio shows from the Rocky Mountain Audio Fest, Salon Image et Son and the AXPONA show have designated sections of their events to spotlight headphones, headphone amps and other accessories. Young music fans are buying into more expensive headphones…although not necessarily better phones. Take for example the Dr. Dre “Beats” headphones phenomenon; they are expensive but not good for listening to quality audio.

The other point that Mike made during the brief chat we had was about being able to use your portable player, you Smartphone as the source for your new and improved headphones. He pointed to Russ and said, “you’ve got the player right in your pocket”. This is where I have to disagree. The quality of the source is one of, if not THE most important factor in the fidelity of the music that reaches your ears. If the file that you’re playing back on your iPhone is a low quality MP3 file at 128 kbps, then the best converters and headphones aren’t going to make it sound great. If you playback crappy audio files on great systems, you’ll only get all of the crappy audio that you started with. Argh!

Even if you download a real HD-Audio file from iTrax.com or one of the other sites that are delivering new HD recordings (not the upsampled stuff from the older catalogs), the fidelity will suffer because of the DACs and headphones circuits in the phone. The folks at Astell and Kern have the right approach regarding quality portable playback. Their player is capable of great fidelity but their machine is a separate and expensive device. I know there are people working on elevating the DACs in Smartphones to 96 kHz/24-bits but we’re still some many months away from that reality.

Then there’s the question of headphones and surround music. I’m unable to listen to standard stereo playback anymore. I’ve been making 5.1 surround music for over a decade and it’s SO MUCH better than stereo that I have surround playback in my car. I want 5.1 surround playback in my headphones too! And it’s possible.

This is the paradigm shift that the younger generation has been waiting for. Imagine listening to EDM (Electronic Dance Music) in fully immersive surround while you’re riding the bus or walking down the street. We’re there. Tomorrow I’ll share with you this piece of the puzzle.


Mark Waldrep, aka Dr. AIX, has been producing and engineering music for over 40 years. He learned electronics as a teenager from his HAM radio father while learning to play the guitar. Mark received the first doctorate in music composition from UCLA in 1986 for a "binaural" electronic music composition. Other advanced degrees include an MS in computer science, an MFA/MA in music, BM in music and a BA in art. As an engineer and producer, Mark has worked on projects for the Rolling Stones, 311, Tool, KISS, Blink 182, Blues Traveler, Britney Spears, the San Francisco Symphony, The Dover Quartet, Willie Nelson, Paul Williams, The Allman Brothers, Bad Company and many more. Dr. Waldrep has been an innovator when it comes to multimedia and music. He created the first enhanced CDs in the 90s, the first DVD-Videos released in the U.S., the first web-connected DVD, the first DVD-Audio title, the first music Blu-ray disc and the first 3D Music Album. Additionally, he launched the first High Definition Music Download site in 2007 called iTrax.com. A frequency speaker at audio events, author of numerous articles, Dr. Waldrep is currently writing a book on the production and reproduction of high-end music called, "High-End Audio: A Practical Guide to Production and Playback". The book should be completed in the fall of 2013.

2 thoughts on “Headphones and HD-Audio

  • May 25, 2016 at 5:01 pm

    May i know which headphone is a true 5.1 surround, i haven’t found any possible model existing

    • May 26, 2016 at 3:13 pm

      There are some headphone manufacturers trying to build “surround” headphones but they universally fall short of the goal of immersive sound. I would suggest you investigate the Smyth Research Room Realizer. It is by far the best device for bringing surround sound into a normal set of headphones…complete with motion tracking. The downside is that the device is not inexpensive and you need to have your ear measured in the room you want to simulate.


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