Saturday, November 7, 2015

Factors that Influence Listeners’ Preferred Bass and Treble Levels in Headphones

Most people would agree that headphone purchase decisions are heavily influenced by the brand and styling (size,  weight, color, quality of  materials).   But what is considered stylish and fashionable  by me is not shared by my 15-year old daughter (this week donning purple hair), and vice versa. In other words, the perceived visual aesthetic  of the headphone  is really in the the eyes and mind of the beholder, and this can vary with age, gender, culture, and other demographic category. 

But what about sound quality?  To what extent does the consumer's  age, gender, culture and prior listening experience influence their taste in headphone sound quality?  Is there a scientific basis for headphone manufacturers to design headphones that have different amounts of bass and treble aimed to satisfy the tastes of a targeted demographic group? 

To answer this question, we recently conducted a  study on factors that influence listeners’ preferred bass and treble balance in headphone sound reproduction. Using a method of adjustment a total of 249 listeners adjusted the relative treble and bass levels of a headphone that was first equalized at the eardrum reference point (DRP) to match the in-room steady-state response of a reference loudspeaker in a reference listening room. Listeners repeated the adjustment five times using three stereo music programs. The listeners included males and females from different age groups, listening experiences, and nationalities (Canada, USA, Germany and China).  The results provide evidence that the preferred bass and treble balances in headphones was influenced by several factors including program, and the listeners’ age, gender, and prior listening experience. The younger and less experienced listeners on average preferred more bass and treble in their headphones compared to the older, more experienced listeners. Female listeners on average preferred about 1 dB bass and 2 dB treble than their male counterparts. Listeners over 55 years preferred less bass and more treble than the younger listeners suggested that they were compensating for possible hearing loss that is associated with increased age.

We recently presented the results of this study at the 139th Audio Engineering Society Convention in New York City, October 29th-November 1, 2015. The paper is available for download in AES e-library. A PDF copy of the presentation can be found here. Or you can view an animated version of the presentation on Youtube.