The Headphones


Note: I haven’t proofed this, nor even read it. I just vomited out on the page. I’ve made a goal to instead of just thinking “oh that’d be interesting to write about,” actually sit down and write about at least one thing per week. Here’s my first shot. It’s about the interplay between how and why we use things. It’s kinda long…

The Headphones

This morning I returned a $300, top-of-the-line, pair of headphones. Now these weren’t just headphones that I got for christmas, or any old other thing that I had come across. The purchase of these headphones was a calculated, well thought out decision, and given my financial status these days as “graduate student” any $300 purchase has to be. I had the money and was plenty excited when I handed over my debit card at the checkout, so what changed?

Pulling them out of the box, seeing their slick carrying case, putting the battery in for the “active noise canceling,” feeling the excitement of a kid with a new toy. These things define what headphones can be.

I tested them around the house (all the air conditioner noise was gone and so was the traffic outside), I tested them at the cafe (that annoying conversation next to me was silent, and so was that muffled roar that we get so used to). The headphones removed all of this… but something else began to creep in.

I was listening to a recording of a smaller band in which stomping and clapping provide the rhythm, and on every syncopated stomp, there was a little crackle in the headphones. Nothing too major, but it was there. I noticed that on other recordings, I would think “they should have mixed this with more bass,” or “the keyboards here are too much,” or “their recording equipment really can’t pick this up like it needed to.” I realized that with the crystal clear sounds of my $300 headphones came another little present: I could hear all of the “defects” in my music and these headphones made them crystal clear and impossible to ignore.

I realized that while I liked the headphones (I liked them a LOT) I was having trouble using them for what I bought them for: listening to music. I could no longer focus on the point, if you will. After three days of really trying to justify to myself keeping them, it became really clear what I had to do. I had to take them back.

So I’m not actually writing right now because I care particularly much about having to return these headphones. It was disappointing, sure, but these things happen. I’m writing because it made me think about how we interact with some of the objects of our daily lives. These headphones were basically the nicest, most technologically advanced, sound-conveyance devices I could buy; they were the best “how” to listen to music, but they couldn’t help me reach “why” I listened to music. It’s this interplay of “why” and “how” that shows up a lot these days. Super high-resolution may technically be the best way to watch TV, but if you can’t focus on anything but the protagonist’s stubble or wrinkles, so much so that you start to miss the story, isn’t something a little bit mismatched?

That’s kind of why a lot of this “HD” technology is kind of lost on me. With video these days, 99% of what I can now see or hear that I couldn’t before isn’t really going to add to why I’m watching it: the story. A bomb’s about to go off? You can damn well bet the main character’s going to be stressed. I don’t need to see the beads of sweat forming in each crease of skin to tell me that. Frankly, I find it a little bit distracting… but that’s just me. Some people really want to see that, and for them this technology really works.

For audio, as I’ve already explained, the latest and greatest didn’t work. I think part of it was also that these headphones conflicted with how I (I think “we” as in our population is appropriate, but people might disagree so I’ll stick with me) consume music a lot of the time, which is as a background object. I felt guilty using something so expensive when I really just wanted to hear another voice or Bob Dylan turned way down low while I cranked away on a physics problem. It felt like buying a 42″ flat screen to use as a really expensive light.

I guess I feel reluctant to speak more broadly and say that I think we’re losing sight of the “why” in our society, but in order to make this more than just a personal memoir (of my three-day $300 headphones) I will. I definitely invite disagreement.

The attitude these days is “bigger,” “better,” etc., but do we really question why we need bigger and better? Walking to class, do you really need to hear Jay-Z as if he were right next to you and have all of the noise around you canceled out? Seems a bit unsafe to me. Why do we need the highest resolution known to mankind when we’re in if for the story? It extends beyond that though: why do you need that luxury car when your in it for ten minutes to get to work in the morning and ten minutes to get home, with maybe a few errands in between? Why do you need a V8 when you’ll never drive over eighty miles per hour?

I guess I’m on a slippery slope, because my intention isn’t to rag on those who have those things, but more to question the mismatch between the “how” and “why” of the things we own and create.

One place that this doesn’t appear, and also a good illustration of the idea, is tools. The “how” and “why” of a tool are the exact same. Why? Well, I bought this drill because I have put up 20 rooms of drywall. How? Well, I need to do it as quickly as possible, and the more comfortably and easily I can do it, the more I’ll get done and still have energy to keep working.

No one would argue with someone spending extra money on the nicest chainsaw on the market that stayed sharper longer, etc. if they were a tree person. Need to cut down one tree in your lifetime? You probably need the $20 model from Walmart.

Where it all gets the most interesting though, is that maybe there’s an upper limit to “how” awesome something can be before it’s TOO awesome and detracts from its ultimate purpose. Just like I touched that ceiling with the headphones, I wonder if people run into it with other things? Maybe we SHOULD run into it more often. People might say to themselves “this is really great stuff, but I really can’t use it to its full potential.” Right? Hah. I doubt it. I guess it was the first time I had hit that point, but a lot of people (ahem here in LA) never will. I do wonder what would be different if everyone really did question if their things helped them accomplish what they were looking for.

To bring it full circle, I was listening to “99% invisible,” a podcast hosted by Roman Mars, where they discuss the “built” world (as in things that we create as people). I was specifically listening to one about a square in San Francisco called UN Plaza. It was designed around an incredibly “designed” fountain that would ultimately provide an incredible public space between city hall and the harbor where marches could come through and the government and the city could be celebrated. As a sort of co-point, this new space was intended to help rejuvenate the part of town in which it fell.

For all the best intentions, it was an utter failure and now remains fenced off, home homeless people, a toilet, and generally a place you don’t want to be. I can’t perfectly cast this into my “how” and “why” mismatch theory, but it does have the feel of the same thing. Why do we have public spaces? Not to celebrate the government, but to give back to the people. How should you accomplish this? Probably not a big cement square with a big fountain with a bunch of nooks and crannies, that is if you don’t want people with nowhere else to go there. Maybe this isn’t a clash of the “how” and “why,” but rather the “what” and the “where.” … Or something.

So how do you unify all of those things? The who, what, when, where, why, and how? The fountain and my headphones are examples where one or more of these elements clash so badly that it simply can’t work. Can anything fully accomplish it? I think so.

I think nature accomplishes it, and I think farmers are close to it. I think things that we do for survival in our environment (whatever it may be, school, the wilderness, or anything else) accomplish it. I feel it when I cook a good meal, or when I fall asleep next to my girlfriend. The things that make us truly happy have accomplish of those things, and they usually do so quietly, maybe even silently, and when you look back on them you think “wow, you know what? That really was amazing.”

I think that’s the key: it usually comes quietly. Listen for it. And I’ll give you one final hint: it probably doesn’t cost $300.