Anyone who's ever used a pair of $10 drugstore headphones knows that tinny, bass-free buzz that tells you you're not hearing a song the way it's meant to be heard. Unless you're a true audiophile, though, the exact qualities that define high-quality sound can be harder to pin down. What actually makes something sound good? Here's a quick education in being a smarter listener.
1. Isolate the music
Just 15 minutes of exposure to high-decibel noise or music can begin to cause permanent hearing loss. Your ears adapt to volume changes as they try to recalibrate to a comfortable equilibrium, so you may end up listening to your music at a much higher volume than necessary. (If you're gradually turning up your music as you move around the world, you'll eventually you'll find yourself listening at top volume without even realizing it.) Plus, when you're playing music louder than it's intended to be played, the resulting overmodulation can result in distortion and loss of detail. Ironically, turning the music down can make the sound richer and more detailed than when you're blasting it at top-decibel.
But turning the volume down doesn't help much if it means your music is drowned out the din of your surroundings. It would be nice if you could always do your listening in a soundproof chamber without the interference of outside noise, but that's rarely an option. Luckily, headphones have come a long way, and the best noise-canceling technology can now virtually eliminate everything except the sound you want to hear.
The wrinkle here is that not all ambient noise is the same: the sound of a screeching baby lies on a totally different section of the audio spectrum than a passing train or your bickering neighbors. Just like you shouldn't try to put out a grease fire with water, different types of audio call for a whole range of cancellation methods, and you want your headphones to be smart and flexible enough to deal with everything you throw at them. Beats took this into account while developing dual-mode Adaptive Noise Canceling feature: they actually went out into the field to research the different kinds of noise that might interfere with your listening, and designed their Studio headphones to sense what's going on in your environment and adapt to it seamlessly — whether you're sitting on an airplane or lying on the beach. Once you've tuned out all the sound around you, you'll start to hear things in the music that you never noticed before.
2. Go wireless
Experiencing music in different environments will bring you out of your comfort zone to uncover new characteristics of your favorite songs – but ambient noise isn't the only thing keeping you from concentrating fully on what you're listening to. When you're trying to go mobile with your listening, it's easy to get distracted when your headphone wires get snagged on subway turnstiles or tangled up with your keys. (Not to mention the annoyance of constantly having to plug and unplug as you move around.)
Wireless headphone, on the other hand, let you focus 100% on the music and become a more active listener. So first things first: untether yourself from your laptop and phone. Bluetooth standards have improved by leaps and bounds in recent years, and Beats Studio Wireless gives you a range of up to 30 feet to move while also providing you with the best wireless sound out there.
3. Pick apart the song – sonically
Like learning to tell faces apart, you can learn to recognize subtle but important differences in sound. The first step is to try mentally deconstructing the music as you listen to it. Once you focus fully on the song, you'll hear new textures and nuances that might not have been immediately apparent. Can you pick out the notes and rhythms that each individual instrument is playing? Can you tell where those instruments fall in the mix? Are they coming from the left, the right, or somewhere in the middle? Can you really feel the bass? If you're listening carefully, you should notice that the sound has the three-dimensional quality of a detailed stereo field. This creates the illusion that different parts of the mix are coming from different physical locations, just like they were when they were originally being played.
These are the very details that can turn into a muddy sonic mess when your listening equipment isn't what it should be. Ideally, you want to feel like you're hearing the music as if it's being played live right in front of you. With the Beats Acoustic Engine™, what you'll get is about as close to the raw, intimate studio sound as you can get, without the synthetic, artificial tones that many headphones can often emit.
Want to start hearing music like it was meant to be heard? Start at Beats By Dre.
Nicole Bruce is a Chicago-based writer covering design, technology, art, travel, culture, wellness, and sustainable lifestyles. You can follow her on Twitter @nicoleabruce.