Whether you’re fed up with the earbuds that came with your phone and just want to dip your feet into enthusiast audio or you’ve finally stuffed your Fostex T50RP with enough plasticine, craft felt, and toothpicks to get it sounding just right and now it’s time to get some high end IEMs to match, you should always try before you buy, because your ears are unique, and your music taste is unique. After working in a headphone store, I can confidently say that 99% of people do this the wrong way. So here’s the right way…
1. Bring your own music.
The store will have test tracks to show off their gear with, but that’s exactly the problem. The store owner has picked these tracks specifically because they’re well mastered and simple, so they’ll sound good on pretty much anything. If you love listening to garage rock you might not want a super detailed headphone that will expose every flaw in those recordings. You’ll probably prefer something that smooths things over a little. If the store gets you to test equipment with a hip hop track you might walk out with some equipment that reproduces fantastic bass, but what use is that if you listen mainly to folk and acoustic rock? Make a playlist that covers as broad a range of your favourite genres and artists (different artists within the same genre will have different mixing preferences) as possible. Make sure it’s at least 20 minutes long. At least.
2. Give it time.
It’s very tempting to switch rapidly between two potential options to try and hear the difference between them, but ultimately this is foolish. This is especially true for headphones. Biologically speaking, your brain is basically the same as those of prehistoric cavemen. Headphones make sound appear to come from inside your head. Each headphone does this differently, and your auditory cortex cannot cope with this. It’s like when you get a new phone: Although the home button is still in the same spot, and the notification drawer still pulls down from the top of the screen, this one has a slightly bigger screen and a slightly different theme, and it just feels all wrong. It takes a couple days for everything to become second nature again. Similarly, it takes your brain a while to make sense of what’s going on when you put on a new pair of headphones. I think you need to give yourself at least 20 minutes with a pair before you can start making accurate judgements about it, hence the 20 minute playlist. Just put it on and listen all the way through.
#3. Listen through the gear, not to the gear.
Ultimately, this is a device for listening to music. There is plenty of audio gear out there that will give you a huge “wow” moment from the first pluck of a guitar string. This is not always the gear that you will enjoy listening to for hours on end. You may find on a particular item that the treble, although vivid and sparkly at first, quickly becomes sharp and fatiguing. You may find that the bass, although gobsmackingly powerful upon first impressions, drowns out the rest of the music upon further inspection. What you’re looking for is the piece that best conveys the emotions of your favourite music. So how do you find it?
#4. The best equipment is the most unremarkable.
While you’re spending your 20+ minutes listening, listen for things that irk you. Maybe the vocals sound a little nasal, maybe kick drums come out as a sloppy “boooooom” rather than a tight “thwack”, maybe every time a vocalist utters a sharp syllable you feel like someone’s sticking daggers in your ears. If at the end of the audition there are niggles that haven’t faded away as your brain has become acclimatised, then this is not the piece for you. However, if when you finish listening, you’ve completely forgotten about the piece you’re auditioning, and you’ve had a nice time enjoying some of your favourite tracks, then you’ve found a winner. The best equipment for you is the piece that doesn’t get in the way. It’s the piece that disappears and leaves you completely immersed in your music.