Should headphones for mobile use have a different tuning than headphones for music listening only?

I'm in the midst of reviewing a couple of Bluetooth noise canceling headphones. It seems to me these headphones have good tuning for movies and telecom as they seem to bring out speech intelligibility quite well. But I'm not sure I like the tuning for music.

It has me wondering though, maybe tunings for mobile headphones that are often used for movies, telecom, and YouTubes should be different than cans used primarily for music. I'm quite curious if InnerFidelity readers think one tuning fits all listening situations, or if different tunings might be prefered. What do you think?

Should headphones for mobile use have a different tuning than headphones for music listening only?
Flat is flat. Neutral is the goal in all cases. That's hard enough...don't make it harder.
31% (23 votes)
Some small differences might be worthwhile, but you must be able to switch back to neutral at will.
40% (30 votes)
Sure, it's likely there's a better tuning for portable cans. Serious music listening should use wires anyway.
29% (22 votes)
Total votes: 75

AllanMarcus's picture

I just got a ZVox SoundBase 570 for a lesser used TV in my house. The SoundBase has an "AccuVoice" button that boosts the frequencies int eh dialog range, thus making giving the sound a tinny quality, but it does make it easier to make our some voices. There is no reason BT headphones could do the same. I little "vocal boost" button on one cup would allow for the best of both worlds.

AllanMarcus's picture

opps, I didn't read the poll close enough. Switch it off at will: that's my preferred option.

maelob's picture

If you are going to be using them outside with extra noise, I believe the tuning should compensate for that, especially the bass, However in a quiet environment is a different story. Next time you review portable cans take them outside, go to the mall, ride the bus, then compare that to home quiet listening and let us know the difference.

maelob's picture

Forgot to mention, obviously you can increase the volume but for me the whole point is to listen to music at safe levels.

ELPCU's picture

Although I think most, if not all, headphones for critical listening are wired, in the future it might be changed.

Outdoor and indoor usage is different since there is more noise outside, and typically outdoor headphone can boost some of bass to compensate noise.

Impulse's picture

As alluded to above, plenty of movies have good soundtracks, and many have effects that dig deeper into the bass... Elevated bass might just make a mess of things there. I dunno why a neutral headphone would have trouble with dialog and vocals anyway.

OTOH mobile use of headphones that don't seal perfectly and/or lack NC (so everything outside NC and very isolating IEM) does pose it's own challenges... And by mobile use I mean truly mobile, not sitting at home with a tablet kinda mobile.

Bass does drop off with sealed headphones and in ears particularly, and in large public spaces a weird echo reverb can get mixed in... I use my V-Moda XS at certain places precisely because I *don't* want the ultimate isolation of my IEM (I wanna hear if they're talking over an airport terminal PA, etc).

Perhaps that kinda headphone *should* be tuned with that kinda noisy/intrusive environment in mind. OTOH that seems like a slippery slope, there's lots of varying degrees of environmental noise people might wear them in (plane engine noise is very different from crowd chatter at food court, etc.).

Plenty of people will buy that kinda headphone simply for mixed home & portable use too, tuning it too much for the latter can greatly detract from the former. Perhaps it's best to leave well enough alone and point people towards IEM and NC if they need isolation.

Journeyman's picture

should be tuned to use in noisy environments/street.
Also anyone really serious about music will use cables and probably avoid NC headphones.
The general public will not really care about a flat response.
That's why Beats came to be, people care more about the design, practical use and a fun sounding response.
Even so I think devs should give the chance for someone with Bluetooth NC headphones to have a flat response via switch or app on both NC and non NC modes.The 3 answers don't really cut it but I voted on the last one.

tinyaudio's picture

I don't think headphones should be tuned differently - because they are "only" reproductive systems. When a source contains speech that should be understood more clearly, it is the job of the creator (the producing audio engineer) to make sure the material is intelligible.
If this means that e.g. 5 kHz need to be boosted, then this should be done during production of the audio/video media, and not via tuning of the headphone used to listen to said media.

GREQ's picture

The reason modern art galleries are designed with white walls and neutral lighting is so that all pieces of art are given the same conditions for the viewer.
Realistically preserving the lighting conditions and environment is impossible due to endless physical variables, even more so in our own homes or indeed outdoors in public, those conditions are ever changing.
Consider how much more complex this becomes when we considerthe viewers unique ability to see.

The same is true for audio.

tinyaudio's picture

It is already being done though.
When mixing engineers want to put focus on a specific instrument, they process it differently during mixing.
Broadcast engineer use different processing for the voice of the host & guests than recording engineers use for singing.

ELPCU's picture

The problem is listening environment can be changed so easily.

Broadcasting environment is 'recording environment', so you only need to change setting for one specific recording environment.

On the other hand, customer can listen music in quiet room or noisy environment. So there is no one answer that fix all issues.

Let me give you a example.

Typically, outdoor noise are mostly low frequency, so let's say recording engineer boost some bass to negate outdoor noise. It means the song become over-bassy when you listen in a quiet room.

So If that's the case, then there should be several versions of single song. Like, Version for quiet room, for mediocre noise, and for loud noise environment.

proxy17's picture

I do agree that subjectivity matters; however, I have trusted Innerfidelity as the reviews were most objective, discerning this crowded jumble of the headphone space and segments, for what they are. This cluster**** has become so apparent that it is evident on the Wall of Fame itself.

This is great, however I must say that the decision of buying a headphone must start from how they sound or how the reader weighs different criteria in a headphone, especially if the average person is shelling say more than 100 dollars. Some of the best examples are the reviews posted by bluetooth speaker reviewer (@clavinetjunkie)..

Two things, one way of making a more objective review may be asking the reader to weight criteria and auto suggesting..

Jim Tavegia's picture

all over the place. Some very good and others pretty bad. I watched some production clips of a show my wife and I like and they were using a Sennheiser e835/845? on a boom pole for dialogue. Not sure if this was a good choice.

The other issue is that if from TV all the processing that it goes through to get to us, the viewer, is very detrimental to clarity.

jim in cheyenne's picture

Where did equalization get lost?
General consensus that equalization makes for deterioraes the sound. One wants as littl as possible of that for music.
If one goes to non-music applications then that sound quality is not so important, and it is fine if your player or whatever provides you the option of changing the tuning. That sounds a lot like option 2, but I think that is better left in the player, not the headphone itself.
The music should be the fundamental objective for the headphone maker

zobel's picture

I do think option 2, with flat cans that can be adjusted in frequency response... be that by electronic EQ, or by adjusting the phones physically with adjustable ports, or the best answer. It is hard enough to design flat sounding, full range, efficient, dynamic, sound isolating, comfortable portable cans. I see no sense in designing headphones just for special non-musical applications.

wink's picture

Real aural transducers must have wires.
Wireless at the moment is a bad compromise.
Maybe in 20 years time wireless will have caught up

GREQ's picture

A headphone tuned to 'neutral' (or harman curve) might not take EQ well. Forcing EQ can cause a degredation in quality in lieu of a perceived flat response in loud environments, since our bass perception is the first thing to go.

Not all portable devices have EQ, or enough EQ options. So the headphone should strive to 'get it right' without need for EQ.

The only exception is a portable with ANC, since there will be little to no loss of bass perception.

donunus's picture

I didn't vote even though I like neutral and natural because the standard for that hasn't even been established lol

Puffy's picture

My opinion aligns with option 2 which is why I've titled this post the way I have. The AKG K267, God rest its soul, is my favorite on the go headphone by miles due to the ability to adjust the levels on the low end (which to me is the first to get drowned out while commuting) easily. The response is very neutral on the "studio" setting when I want to really hear a track, but when the bus/train starts moving, I can bump it up to the tune of +5dB on the low end so I don't lose it. The best parts are that it's easily reversible (switch on the cans, not on the end of the cable if you can find it) and that it's not the typical "bass boost" gimmick of yore. It's actually tastefully done and doesn't intrude much into overall presentation.

The major drawbacks, with regards to this discussion, are that the isolation is not the best and you have to build/buy a cable with a mic for telecom use.

If they were to bring it back in black with a stronger head band, I know I'd buy another set or two to pass out to friends and family. More if they sell for the ~$150 I got the originals for. If they'd cram some dynamat into the housing I'd even give them an extra $50 to save me the trouble.

Three Toes of Fury's picture

A good...or even better...a great headphone should do a fine job handling audio reproduction across the human frequency audio range. Period. And many of them do just that.

While there's certainly a way to market tuned headphones for different applications, why do so? It ends up boxing in the end user to ensure that they are using headphone A for their phone when doing calls, headphone B for their phone or audio source for music, and so on.

In some fields it makes total sense to create specific products for specific needs within a range. For example high end photography. Building specific prime lenses for specific photos makes sense because it is not realistic to create a lens that works as well across a huge range. In headphones it IS possible to create a headphone that works well across the ranges. So why not do so?

Peace n Living in Stereo


crazywipe2's picture

...with 80db of noise background.
If this means to boost the bass and upper-midrange a bit, it's fine.
Noise isolation it's the most important thing for a portable headphone. More is the isolation, more the background is cleaner, more is the fidelity of the sound.
The Sennheiser HD25 for example, It's amazing sounding at home, on a bus or train, even on a plane. This is a good benchmark for a portable headphone.

zobel's picture

You've been gone so long, I worry about you.

_daev's picture

Good question, but I think you are conflating "Content" with "Environment".

If you are discussing Content, then flat and wide range for music, posssible bass boost and wide range for movies, but narrow range possibly with eq for telecommunications for maximal intelligibility and voice punch.

If you are discussing Environment, then a noisy bass heavy subway ride, a walk on a windy beach, and sitting in a quiet living room are all very different cases and affect things like active or passive noise reduction, EQ, volume leveling, etc.

But in all cases any "default" behaviors need an override feature.


skris88's picture

What's wrong with using EQ?

On iOS devices the EQu app does a great, very visual, job.

Pokemonn's picture

Old people used to think the earth is flat. lol

Pokemonn's picture

Old people used to think the earth is flat. lol

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