The keys to understanding the appeal of headphone listening are price and familiarity.
Unsurprisingly, the iPod is credited for the resurgence of interest in headphones. When the iPod hit, there was talk about how good the supplied earbuds were; however, improved headsets were a big part of the first wave of accessories, and have been ever since. There is less talk these days about the quality of the included ‘buds.
So iPods/mp3 players are the familiarity leg – it would be strange, after a while, to be in public and not see people with things sticking out of their ears.
Price, mingled with a couple of fainter trends, is the less obvious leg. At its simplest level, you customize your player with a cheap, decorative set of ‘phones. Since you can’t compete – a la boomboxes – for the biggest, most button laden player, and thanks to Apple the aesthetic doesn’t run that way, anyway, you have a limited field in which to show off. It’s basically down to color, case and ‘phones, all three within reach of many young people.
Further up the listening food chain price joins computer-based audio, meaning everything from using your P.C. to play back the tunes that are also on your iPod to much more sophisticated lossless transfers of music from cd to hard drive, played back through jewel-like miniature amplifiers and speakers and, in many cases, headphones.
The sound is ‘smaller’ than it was in the 70s and 80s when big receivers and speakers dominated the basement rec room, but it fits well with a population that spends a lot of time in front of keyboard and screen. It’s also much cheaper to get truly high quality sound with a computer set-up, and that seems to appeal to some younger listeners.
Finally, there is a return to D.I.Y. for some audio projects, which again acts to keep quality up and prices down. My favorite ‘little audio’ is the cMoy headphone amp, different examples of which can be purchased off ebay. Enterprising makers are putting these little amps into Altoid tins, which end up being exactly the right size for a small board of circuits and a 9 volt battery. You can’t do speakers that way, but you can power a decent set of headphones respectably.
Consider this: you can put together a system that gives you a fair taste of high end audio quality like this – Sansa Clip + mp3 player for just under $60, Grado SR-60i headphones for $79 and the very best cMoy amp off ebay for $70. (You can do also all of the above cheaper if you shop them.)
So for a hair over $200 you can have something very pleasing, very musical, something that you can listen to with pleasure for an extended time. Plus, you can improve things bit by bit, and hear the improvements each step of the way. Get more flexibility and somewhat better sound with an Oppo universal player; improve the Oppo and the phones with a dac or a dac/amp; bring the better source and amp up by getting a better HP. You can end up with several combinations of headphones and amp for the price of one moderately good ‘traditional’ stereo component. For the sound fanatic, the DIYer and the music lover, it’s an almost irresistible combination.