There’s no doubt about it; we’re living in the Golden Age of Headphone Design. At every price category, headphones have never sounded better. I’ve heard more than a few $10 in-ears that were pretty respectable, lots of mid-priced winners, and a couple of $5,000 state of the art, full-size beauties that blew my mind. Today’s best headphones are higher resolution devices than the finest $100,000 speakers. You can hear superior detailing and clarity from headphones and typical room acoustic problems with speakers are completely eliminated. With the best headphones you hear what the microphones “heard,” and nothing else.
Of course a stellar headphone can’t make a poor quality recording sound great, so if you want to hear your headphones’ full potential you have to listen to the best recordings. Now sure, sound quality is a matter of taste, but I prefer recordings that sound as much like the real thing as possible. In other words, recordings free of compression, peak limiting, equalization, digital reverberation, Auto-Tune, or any studio processing tricks. That describes the sound of every Chesky recording ever made. They’re always pure and natural. We’ve included an assortment of the latest Chesky recordings to show off the best of what your headphones can do.
We’ve all gotten used to hearing music mixed and mastered to sound consistently loud, so a whisper quiet vocal is as loud as a scream. The uncompressed music tracks on this sampler retain their natural soft-to-loud dynamics, so you’ll probably have to turn up the volume on your phone or amplifier a notch or two from your normal listening level to enjoy the music’s full dynamic range.
Over the last few years Chesky Records has used a B&K 4100 D Binaural “head” that has microphones where the head’s “ears” would be. That one B&K is the only mic present at the sessions; no other mics are used to pick up individual instruments or voices. These Chesky Binaural+ recordings can also be enjoyed over stereo speakers.
In addition to the music tracks we have included a selection of tracks that can test your headphone’s dynamic range and imaging capabilities. Bear in mind that Binaural+’s 360 degree spatial cues will sound very different on in-ear, on-ear, and over-the-ear headphones. With the best headphones you will experience an “ear-witness” perspective; you hear what the binaural head heard at the session, exactly. There’s no after the fact mixing or alteration to the balance. There can’t be, as it’s a live to two-track recording. So if you own a bunch of headphones, check out how different they sound on the music and test tracks. You might be surprised by what you hear.
Soft-to-loud dynamic range compression is often cited as the #1 problem affecting sound quality on nearly all contemporary recordings, and I have to agree. Sadly, few music lovers have ever heard uncompressed recordings. Dynamic range compression is unrelated to lossy data compression formats like MP3 or Dolby Digital. No, I’m referring to dynamic range compression, the intentional squashing of the naturally occurring soft-to loud dynamics of voices and instruments. That’s why we’ve included a series of test tracks that demonstrate the musically disastrous effects of compression. For each group of dynamic range tests you’ll first hear the music in its natural, uncompressed state, followed by the very same track with a moderate amount of compression, and then one more time with a maximally compressed and peak limited sound mix. The differences are far from subtle; it’s a shame that few artists ever release their music in an uncompressed, or even only a mildly compressed version. Once the original sound has been compressed, it can never sound completely natural.
—Steve Guttenberg, February, 2014