Submitted by Kuosch on Tue, 2020-05-05 - 14:39

It is somewhat common in the audio community to present the question: which one is better, headphones or speakers? The short answer: Both. The longer answer is: they're different ways of listening, both with their own strengths and weaknesses. Which solution works best depends not only on technical factors, but also personal preferences and certain external factors. In this blog post I'll try to summarise some of these factors.

Let's start by assuming a sum of money X. We can use this to purchase either headphones, or a pair of speakers. More often than not, we get a better sound quality from the headphones. Headphones, being so close to ears, only need to move a small amount of air to create a given sound pressure level, whereas speakers need to move the sound waves through the whole room. It is easier to engineer headphones to sound good because of the limited amount of air involved. But it is also the greatest weakness in headphones. Naturally we hear sound with both ears, with a time and level difference between the ears depending on the direction where the sound is coming from. With headphones, we can't hear these spatial cues from our environment, causing the sound to appear to be arriving from within our head, although the severity of this effect is personal.

As said, listening through speakers offers a sense of space, but it also means that the sound quality is not dependent on the speakers alone, but has very much to do with the interaction of sound within the listening room. This generally requires good planning and experimentation in speaker placement, and sometimes also expensive treatments to control the sound. Room equalization is also an option, but this requires measurement and signal processing equipment as part of the listening equipment, driving up the overall system price.

Headphones:
• Better sound quality on a given budget
• No spatial cues
• Complex target curve
• Personal soundscape
• Independent of room acoustics

Speakers:
• More expensive
• Natural spatial cues
• Flat target response
• Everybody nearby hears
• Depend on environment

If you want to enjoy your music without others hearing, choose headphones. If you are tight on budget, choose headphones. If budget is not an issue and you want the best, go for speakers. If you don't want to bother with room treatment and speaker placements, pick headphones. If you want to move around while listening, speakers can be easier. These are not strict rules, but just an attempt to demonstrate the various possibilities when choosing a listening method. In the end, the correct answer to the opening question depends on your specific circumstances and your preferences, so the only one who can answer the question is yourself.

I'll get to more detail about the topics mentioned here in future posts.