The battle between headphone and speaker listeners has been waging for almost 100 years. Some people swear by headphones, others swear by speakers. Rarely will one group switch to the other side. But are there some things that each is missing out on? We think so!
Obviously the biggest difference between headphones and speakers is the fact that one is limited to just your ears and the other makes sound in a room. Headphones are great when you want privacy. Many models also feature noise cancelation or at least noise suppression so that you can tune out the world and concentrate really well on the music, or another task that you might be working on. It's not possible to listen to music on speakers inside a coffee shop or on the bus. The drawback of course is that headphones isolate you from the world and are anti-social. Also, even if you have wireless ones, it's hard to walk around in your home without dropouts, plus you'll have something heavy on your head or at least in your ears. Speakers provide sound all over so you can relax and move around freely or do physical tasks without worrying about headphones falling off, or becoming dangerous.
Part of the beauty of speakers is that they can provide a realistic illusion of having a band or performer in a room. With even the best headphones, it's pretty hard to be fooled into believing there is a real performance happening. The "in-your-head" feeling is a common complaint of headphones. With modern designs this has certainly been getting better. Many higher quality headphones are open back designs which allow ambient noise to come in. When this ambient noise mixes with the music it actually helps fool your brain a bit into believing that the music is more a part of the room you're in. Open headphones are also a lot safer because you can hear people shouting at you or car horns honking if you're crossing the street.
As well, many quality headphones position the drivers further away from the ears and sometimes at an angle so as to approximate a typical angled speaker setup. This helps a lot with sound-staging. However, even the finest headphones struggle to compete with speakers for that "you are there" feeling. For home based workers who normally swear by speakers, we often set up a really small pair of bookshelf speakers on their desk. Because the distance is small, you don't need to listen loud to enjoy the music so people aren't likely to be annoyed. The benefit is that in a near-field listening situation like this you can get absolutely incredible imaging. You'll swear that you're looking into the room where the band was recorded. Obviously in larger rooms with larger speakers, you can take this soundstage and realism to pretty amazing levels.
One distinct advantage of headphones compared to most speakers is that they can be much more accurate. Of course there is a big quality difference from headphone to headphone, but by nature, it is much easier to engineer a small driver that sits close to the ear and has no box or room interaction. Speakers have multiple drivers, crossovers, box resonance, and room interactions which all colour the sound. The materials in headphones are comparatively simple and easy to control. As a result, many of the headphones we've selected are a factor of two to ten times as accurate as equivalently priced speakers. If you're recording or simply on a budget and you really care about hearing your music accurately, then headphones can be a great choice. In fact, there are a few headphones that are so accurate that they outperform even the best speakers at any price. Of course you don't get the other advantages of speakers, but if you are not able to use speakers at your work or home we can show you some true audiophile sound regardless.
Another oft-overlooked factor between headphones and speakers is volume. Because there are no room cues in headphones, most people listen 25%-50% louder on headphones than they otherwise would on speakers. This can be really dangerous. We are big proponents of protecting your hearing. Any modern headphone driven by a mobile phone is capable of giving you hearing damage very easily. If you're listening for more than an hour a day, you should monitor your volume level and keep it to a low level. If you hear your headphones distorting or you have blown a pair of headphones before, then you 100% have hearing damage from that. Most headphones will play to 100+ dB very easily. Hearing damage starts at 80dB with extended listening. For comparison, a large truck idling at 1 metre is about 85dB. Listening to hip hop at the maximum volume on your phone will certainly be over 100dB and can cause instantaneous hearing damage.
Finally, headphones don't give any physical feeling of sound. The bass doesn't vibrate your body. Speakers by contrast have the ability to energize a room with sound which gives another dimension to the reality of the performance. For dancing, you can't beat speakers!
Whether you are used to speakers or headphones, come in for a comparison using the same song on both and we'll show you just how different they can be.