Big hair and glasses can make good headphones sound bad

Headphones don’t like my hair.

Which is an unfortunate reality for someone who has spent 50 % of his lifestyle becoming a minimal obsessed with headphones.

Obtaining great seem good quality out of most headphones demands a great seal, but yrs of testing headphones have shown most only do not attempt to account for extra voluminous hairstyles like the fro I’ve been increasing in excess of the pandemic. People who don eyeglasses typically face related difficulties, as the glasses can interfere with the seal to a related extent.

It is a more substantial challenge than you could feel – and we can evaluate it.

Good audio typically necessitates a fantastic seal

I initially found this issue back again in 2018 whilst tests a pair of superior-end noise-canceling headphones. I was nonetheless ready to declare the headphones junk until finally I bought my hair minimize to a neat fade.

With that refreshing new ‘do, the headphones suddenly sounded fantastic — and it was not just from the dopamine strike of a excellent Dominican haircut.

I was already very well knowledgeable of the great importance of a superior seal as a person who generally listened to IEMs at the time, but I’d underestimated the spectacular impact it could have on entire-size headphones as well. I’m confident that when two people today experience the similar pair of headphones differently, that big difference normally arrives down to the difference in the seal good quality.

JBL headphones

On IEMs, it is typically pretty apparent when you have a negative seal. With headphones, the distinction can be much more subtle. I believed I was by now receiving a great seal as the headphones ended up supplying good noise isolation. Nevertheless the sub-bass seemed to be missing, and the headphones experienced an irregular amount of money of distortion for anything retailing for $400.

Also, my impressions of the headphone just didn’t line up with other individuals I’d study at all, and although there is normally some subjectivity to audio, it’s not actually that subjective. Anything was amiss. These headphones, like so many many others I’ve tested given that, just did not like my hair.

The facts

It’s commonly less complicated to recognize a bad seal with shut-back again headphones that don’t offer you sound canceling. This tends to occur out as an clear absence of bass, a little something we can see clearly by taking frequency reaction measurements with and without the need of a whole seal.

Consider the JBL 710BT, a pair of headphones I bought due to the fact they are remarkably neutral for the value. The problem is, even nevertheless the information proves they are capable of neutral seem, I’ve rarely seasoned this neutrality. On my ears, they usually just do not have sufficient bass except if I actively press the headphones from my ears. 

(Be aware: these frequency reaction measurements are not employing marketplace-regular equipment and shouldn’t be made use of as an absolute reference of efficiency. But they are great sufficient for these comparative needs).

In blue is the headphone’s functionality with a right seal. I was not in a position to locate a wig that matched my hairstyle in time for publication, so the red curve demonstrates how the same headphones carry out immediately after placing a pair of glasses on the exam rig for a free seal.

Which is a spectacular loss of bass. Although not all scenarios of bass reduction will be this spectacular, the graph over demonstrates my preliminary impression of the headphones: they experienced pretty much no bass.

A negative seal is ample to wholly improve the character of a pair of headphones. And even if you really do not listen to bassy new music, bass existence affects your perception of the relaxation of the frequency range.

Granted, most scenarios of a negative seal possibly won’t be that extraordinary, but right after executing hundreds of these headphone measurements (I usually reposition a headphone numerous periods to take an regular in shape), it is quick to see how modest adjustments in positioning can produce audible variations in sound quality. Even a few decibels missing can make or break your notion of a pair of headphones.

I’m not just buying on the JBLs below – I selected them due to the fact they’re an example of a fantastic headphone turned bitter by a bad seal. I’ve found comparable final results countless instances around tests dozens of headphones in all selling price ranges, whilst some are pickier than others about positioning.

What about noise-canceling headphones?

Noise-canceling headphones make points a small a lot more intriguing. Lots of of them, this kind of as the new Sony WH-1000XM5, in fact use their constructed-in microphones to detect a poor seal and make up for it by boosting the bass. If you look at out the details on a web site like Rtings, you are going to see that the shut-again headphones with the most reliable frequency reaction are inclined to be sounds-canceling types.

This is normally a good factor as it would make headphones much significantly less finicky about positioning. Our ears are most delicate to frequency response, so as prolonged as all the frequencies are adequately balanced, a pair of headphones will usually audio fantastic. Commonly.

But increasing the bass over and above the headphone’s default tuning will come at the value of distortion. This is especially correct for the drivers in sounds-canceling headphones, which are by now pulling double duty by canceling out the soundwaves of the outside the house planet.

Now, the effects of distortion are often exaggerated in the audio earth. In reality, it normally takes quite a little bit of distortion just before most folks observe it, especially at bass frequencies. Moreover, based on the type, distortion doesn’t even usually audio bad (electric guitars seem cool because of distortion, immediately after all). It is a challenging topic that is outside of the scope of this posting.

Nevertheless, pushing a driver past its restrictions does not generally produce enjoyable effects. Sad to say, numerous sounds-canceling headphones I’ve tested have endured from troublesome distortion when listening at higher volumes – distortion that disappears as shortly as I take care of the seal.

Here’s some a lot more knowledge for you. The graph under displays how the Sony headphones accomplish at high volumes with (purple) and with out (blue) eyeglasses again.

Sony WH-1000XM5 frequency response with and without a bad seal

The frequency reaction modifications, but the variation is much significantly less remarkable than with the JBLs. Again, this is commonly a very good thing. But at substantial volumes, I have observed sound-canceling headphones like these will regularly distort with hefty bass until I just take further care to assure a correct seal. 

Here’s the distortion with the great seal.

Sony WH-1000XM5 distortion wth a good seal

And here’s the distortion with a lousy seal:

Sony WH-1000XM5 distortion wth a bad seal

For our needs, you just need to have to know a person point about the previously mentioned graphs: the distortion in the bass is substantially better with a lousy seal. And the distortion rises even appreciably bigger as I solution the headphone’s greatest volume.

All that getting explained, I want to be distinct that the earlier mentioned graphs by yourself aren’t conclusive on their very own. The audibility of distortion is an oft-debated subject matter, and proving audibility would need more sophisticated checks than I’m capable to offer. Some experiments exhibit individuals are not able to detect a great deal better distortion degrees than the kinds offered earlier mentioned. So these graphs are genuinely just meant to display that there is a noticeable distortion boost with the terrible seal.

But coupled with the fact that I can in fact, you know, listen to the distortion on many these kinds of ANC headphones – it’s significantly from refined – it is crystal clear there can be implications to hoping to overcompensate for a poor seal.

What can I do about it?

Regrettably, the physics of sound means it is always likely to be much more complicated to get great audio with a lousy headphone seal. But armed with the earlier mentioned know-how, you can make some educated choices and adjustments to enhance your listening working experience.

Test your fit

It could possibly seem to be clear, but in advance of you trash your headphones, you must merely test messing about with their suit. Sometimes slight changes to the headband — whether to increase tension or regulate positioning — can make a marked variance in the seal you are ready to attain. Shift the cups close to to regulate their in good shape on your noggin right up until you truly feel you are receiving the greatest seal you can accomplish. Move tufts of hair out of the way, or check out repositioning your glasses a little bit. 

You may obtain which is just enough to make the audio excellent satisfactory once more, even if it is not great to consistently be checking for a right match. 

Get thicker pads

Although most makers could be unwilling to provide solutions, firms like Dekoni Audio make aftermarket earpads for a wide variety of headphones.

It is value noting that earpads are an integral section of a headphone’s audio — specially closed-again headphones. Modifying them will alter the sound, specially as this normally implies shifting the foam filter in front of the driver as very well. But considering you aren’t getting the supposed sound with a terrible seal anyway, odds are diverse pads can only increase audio top quality.

Increase the bass (if your headphones can handle it)

If you have a way to implement EQ to your headphones, you ought to attempt simply elevating the bass to your liking.

Indeed, I know: we’ve presently set up that some headphones only just cannot tackle a considerable bass enhance. 

But headphones range appreciably in their distortion profiles, and non-ANC headphones really should have a minor more respiration area as to how significantly you can elevate the bass ahead of distortion gets to be problematic. Significant-conclusion headphones can generally take care of a substantial bass improve with no it starting to be plainly audible.

All that issues is that the headphones actually audio fantastic. If you just can’t listen to the distortion, it may possibly as properly not be there.

Open-again headphones

So much, we’ve been chatting solely about closed-back again headphones which are developed with a excellent seal in brain. But open up-again headphones are developed to be exactly the opposite — they are intended to sound their very best though allowing seems from the outside the house in and out.

This is largely to give headphones a more roomy sound, but the open up-again design and style has the secondary advantage of staying significantly a lot less finicky about having a suitable seal.