The Nightmare of Subjectivity: Headphone Reviews

It’s absurdly easy for me to fall into the perilous trap of calling a headphone “the best.” I do it all the time. Other reviewers, even ones I love, do it constantly.

Me wearing the Steelseries Arctis, the most recent headphone of roughly a million I’ve called The Best.

It’s frustrating. I often feel like I’m writing too many positive, enthusiastic reviews, and not enough truly critical ones. Part of it is that I’m self-funding this ridiculous odyssey, and so I only tend to purchase products that I have an actual interest in.

I’ve been thinking about the way I write tech/game/movie criticism for almost 15 years. I used to write game reviews for a magazine. Anyone remember magazines? ;) Back then, and still to this day, I’d feel really good upon completing a review for about 48 hours…and then I’d get a strange sense of buyers remorse. Only it’s more like “reviewers remorse.”

Wait, what if this review overly affects people’s purchasing decisions?

What if some new flaw comes to light that renders part of my opinion problematic?

Maybe I’ll return to this a little bit later and not agree with myself at all. What then?

Reviews are a real challenge to write for a few reasons. First, time. We are stuck in a linear progression of time, and a lot of folks out there treat their opinions in the same way. “I only want to experience things that are better than everything I’ve seen before, and if a new thing is not better, it is lame and disappointing.” Or perhaps “Everything I liked in the past is stupid now because I am better than I was and those things held no value even then.”

While that last point can sometimes be valuable, as self-introspection allows us to see how we’ve grown over time…I’ve found that opinions and preferences don’t actually work like this, at least for me. This type of linear thinking leads me into a weird rabbit hole of frustration, and is, I believe, entirely responsible for the creation of the phrase “guilty pleasure.” We use this to justify liking something that doesn’t sit at the pinnacle of our modern “line” of opinions.

I’ve got news for you: A guilty pleasure is just a pleasure. Please don’t feel guilty about it. Your likes and dislikes aren’t competing with each other all the time, they’re just thoughts in your brain.

I’ve started trying to think of preferences in a new way. Opinions and enjoyment are not on a linear spectrum, they’re more like a sphere. The sphere expands to take in new interests, and occasionally old ones are lost along the way, but that doesn’t invalidate them.

Let’s apply this metaphor to headphones. Multiple audiophile communities online are always looking for “the best” gear. It’s common practice for individuals to declare their “Endgame” setup: the gear that, given an unlimited budget, they would buy and be satisfied with forever. In the meantime, they work their way down an invisible path towards that Endgame goal.

This is a stupid thing. In my opinion.

Every headphone sounds different. This doesn’t always seem like a big deal, but it’s the dark secret you learn to appreciate if you’re crazy like me and you buy too many pairs.

Sometimes, this difference is hard to quantify. A computer that has better hardware is going to be faster at doing intensive tasks. Headphones don’t work like this. They often have different tunings rather than being better or worse than each other.

I think this is why so many headphone reviews spend a bunch of time on design, build, and comfort…mine included. These elements are easy to compare to each other, and relatively easy to objectively rate. While some designs may not be for everyone, comfort and build tend to be universal concepts.

Sound, on the other hand, is so difficult to describe in words. We have a vocabulary of accepted terms like “Warm,” “bright,” and “veiled.” These terms have been developed over the course of the last 50 years of criticism.

But unless you’ve heard a bunch of different models and then read reviews/measurements of said models, it can be hard to truly know for yourself what those words mean. Someone can say that a headphone sounds good, but until you actually hear it, you won’t know if it sounds good for you.

This calls into being the actual elephant in the room here: subjectivity and the nature of reviews. Criticism is ultimately a subjective field; a reviewer presents their opinion and backs it up with tales of their experiences. Unfortunately, much of the language we have at our disposal in the review world is objective in nature.

“This game is good.”

“This movie is bad.”

“This pair of headphones sounds better than that pair of headphones.”

These are actually entirely subjective statements, but their language is objective. Sometimes, we soften or enhance these statements through the use of phrases like “I think that” or “in my opinion” or “I believe,” but that feels like a bandage on the problem to me. The greatest criticism dances around these problems, exposing the art of the thing along with its “quality,” but readers don’t always want that.

The audience expects a review to have a score. A number. An objective measurement of how “good” something is. You need look no further than the resounding success of sites like Metacritic and Rotten Tomatoes for evidence of how prominent this approach is.

Again, sometimes it makes sense to rank things on a continuum. Bose headphones are more expensive both to produce and purchase than the cheap headphones on the endcap at a grocery store, and as a result, they don’t feel like they’re made of tissue paper. But someone out there may actually prefer the sound of the cheapo model to the high end one.

This conundrum makes me feel crazy. I have a small collection of headphones, because I’ve realized I can’t just own one that sounds perfect for everything. That doesn’t exist. Some days I’m in the mood for more detail. Some days I want high-end detail. Some days I want comfort and quiet background music, and I’m not even paying attention to sound quality.

Depending on the mood I’m in on the day of the review, a headphone might be “the best” or merely “okay.” Build/comfort/features are easy to put on a line and compare against other models…but sound quality is a nebulous thing I’ll either like or dislike. My listening ability has also greatly improved over time. I can hear nuances and differences I couldn’t before. I can detect the effect that my brain getting used to a sound has on my hearing. I can appreciate different things about a headphone that other people might hate.

Not everyone will go down this rabbit hole, but it’s a necessary evil to engage with these sorts of challenges to become a deeper fan of any thing, not just headphones.

My general enthusiasm for tech stuff can also be a problem, because it makes it easy to overlook something than many consumers might see as a flaw if I think that it’s interesting. I’m not good at calling that out sometimes.

I hate that I’ve fallen into “the best” trap so much. I’ve written a ranked headphone list. I’ve done a bunch of headphone face-offs. If you’ve read any of those, you’ll notice that I always have a hard time comparing sound quality. It’s the most disputed category every time.

Beyond a certain basic level of competence, it feels like someone is asking me “What’s better? This good burrito or this other good burrito?”

I don’t know, man. I like burritos.

So. It’s time to shake things up. I’m going to try an experiment. I’m going to throw out my traditional reviewing style, and try to buck the formulas that have been so ingrained in me from my own background, and my constant consumption of other criticism. (Side note: I love reading/watching reviews of all kinds. It’s one of my favorite genres of art, if we can call it that. I studied literary criticism in college. I think I read more criticism than any other type of text).

I’m going to revisit some old headphones in my collection. I’m going to talk about the sound at the beginning, and how they perform with different types of audio, independent of the larger market. I’m going to touch on design/build/features, but only as they relate to the value of the product. I’m going to try and better account for the overall enjoyment I’ve had of something, and not how “good” it is as a thing.

I’m going to write some more game reviews sometime soon too, and I’m going to try and avoid the “graphics/sound/gameplay/fun factor” pit.

Many others have barreled down this path before. Several big magazines and sites have, at times, tried to do away with review scores, often to their own detriment. One advantage that I have here is that almost no one reads these things I write unless I put Apple, Bose, or Beats in the title.

That’s sad and weird all on its own.

Use reviews and criticism as a way to get a sense of something, and then go try it out. Take advantage of return policies. Watch footage on Youtube. Do research instead of letting others do it for you. Don’t take review scores as some kind of religious truth. Don’t try and rank everything on a line. Allow your preferences to coexist with each other.

These statements are just as much for myself as they are for anyone else to read. Thank you for your time.

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