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Headphone Guy
By Thiravudh Khoman

I'm a headphone kind of guy. What I mean by this is that I invariably listen to music through headphones rather than loudspeakers. When I was in college, I had a habit of listening to music while I studied, and so as not to disturb anyone (especially at night), I would don a pair of headphones. Furthermore, it was and still is, MUCH cheaper to buy a good pair of headphones than it is to buy a good pair of speakers, and sound quality is much better when music is being piped in close to your ears (ignoring for the moment, what excessive volume can do to your eardrums).

Living With Headphones

I've gotten so used to using earphones that I've taken the "extreme" step of removing the speakers from two of my Compaq multimedia monitors - they were taking valuable "air" space anyway. And, it probably wouldn't surprise you to know that any freebie multimedia speakers I acquire are automatically dumped into a closet somewhere.

For my wife, my use of headphones is a double-edged sword. On the "plus" side, she doesn't have to join me in listening to Kate Bush screech "Wuthering Heights" umpteen times. On the "minus" side, though, she finds it much harder to get my attention, short of throwing some projectile in the vicinity of my head. My wife isn't much of a "sound" person, you see. Not only won't she deign to wear earphones, she doesn't care for any kind of sound at all - even when she's playing computer games. I mean, what fun is it to play Pacman without the gobbling sounds?

My kids, though, are a chip off the old man's block, and have no qualms about using headphones. Of course, the fact that they've probably never seen a computer with external speakers may have something to do with this. I'm grateful, though, since I'm spared from having to listen to the noises from THEIR games. Talk about ecological balance: my wife plays her games in silence; me, I'm writing this piece while listening to Richard Harris complain about a soggy cake; and Waew, my oldest daughter, is relishing the dinging of Extreme Pinball - all of us oblivious to each other and with no noise pollution, thank-you.

Inside-the-Ear Headphones

Audiophile headphones from days gone by (Koss, Sennheiser, et alia.) don't seem to work very well with computer sound cards. I think they require too much amperage to be pumped through them to get any decent volume.

Thus, my first "computer" headphone was swiped from a Sony Walkman. Designed to fit INSIDE the ear rather than resting against your ear, these are the kind with an adjustable band on top as with regular headphones (vide here). There's another in-your-ear model that has dual cones that are inserted into your ears, hearing-aid style. Personally, I don't like these as I can never seem to get them to stay put, short of jamming them really hard and deep into my ears.

Incredibly light and providing superb sound quality, these headphones have a few problems worth noting. The biggest problem is that if you're not the sole user, you're going to be spending a good deal of your productive life adjusting the head band after someone else has used it. Also, because the speaker side of the headphone actually goes inside your ear, you're going to be sharing earwax with everyone else. Finally, and the biggest concern, is that you must be VERY careful with the volume. If your sound card generates a blast of sound for some reason, you can easily damage your hearing.

Back-of-the-Head Headphones

A more current design has the retaining band wrapped around the BACK of your head rather than resting on TOP of it (vide here). Actually, what holds the phones up are now your ears rather than your head. Several companies make these, but being especially partial to Sony products, mine's a Sony. The best thing about this design is that it can fit a wide variety of head sizes as is. Wow, my 7-year old daughter, and I can swap this kind of headphone with nary an adjustment (there's nowhere for you to make adjustments anyway!). On the downside, though, is the fact that the padded speakers now rest on the outside of your ear and this makes the sound less luscious than in-your-ear designs.

Actually, combination back-of-the-head/in-your-ear headphones also exist, and I've even had the chance to try one. Unfortunately, I didn't like it (translation: it wasn't a Sony). More to the point: it was difficult to put on, uncomfortable to wear, and sounded awful.

Internet Telephony Headphones

One thing that these headphones lack is a built-in microphone, Walkmen don't usually have recording capabilities (those that do tend to have integrated microphones, similar to dictaphones). However, with the advent of internet telephony, headphones with "boom" mikes attached are becoming common place. If you think about it, these devices have existed for ages - simply look at what telephone operators wear. The difference is that these newer phones have TWO ear cups instead of just one and are usually (but not always) designed for listening to high quality music, not just human voices.

A company called Plantronics (https://www.plantronics.com) in the U.S. which has made headsets for telephone operators since time immemorial, has started coming out with units suitable not only for internet telephony but also for listening to music. Net2Phone (see: https://www.yapgear.com/headset.htm) and Microsoft (https://www.microsoft.com/sidewinder/devices/GV/default.htm) both sell OEM versions of such a headset. I recently bought one of the Net2Phone phones, which costed US$40 (but with a US$10 quasi-phone card included). For the past 3 months, some friends in Thailand have been calling me here in the U.S. using Dialpad (https://www.dialpad.com), going from PC-to-telephone. Unfortunately, the line quality has been uneven and with my new cable modem in place, I wanted to see if PC-to-PC communications (also using Dialpad) would be better, since the digital-to-analog conversion on the last leg would no longer be necessary. (Note: The sound IS better.)

First things first though. I tried my new Net2Phone/Plantronics headset with Winamp to see what the sound quality was like playing MP3's. To my surprise, I found the sound quality was indistinguishable from my Sony behind-the-ear phones. Wow, nice, very nice (good-bye, Sony). One other thing I really like about this headset is that the boom mike is as good as I've ever used. It rotates effortlessly on all 3 axes, unlike some Panthip Plaza headsets I've used.

Speaking of Panthip, I've yet to see any Plantronics products on sale in Thailand, although I do expect the Microsoft Sidewinder Game Voice (the Plantronics OEM) to wash onto Thailand's shores sooner than later. Meanwhile, the current crop of mike-equipped headphones available at Panthip range from terrible to acceptable. Stay clear of the cheap, flimsy, plastic models since they suffer from feedback problems. Somewhat acceptable is a bulky, 300 Baht model by "Jifen" which is fine for internet phoning, but leaves a bit to be desired when it comes to musical appreciation.

Copyright © 2000, Thiravudh Khoman