Culture Vulture

Feeling very alive and very old with designer headphones

High-end "cans" are changing the way music is consumed and physically experienced

As a child of the late-1970s and 1980s, I owned headphones that came with my Sony Walkman: huge, crown-spanning, with foam ear pads that slowly disintegrated.

Donning a pair felt and looked alien, but I thought they looked cool with my rainbow-laced roller-skates.

Recently, I bought a pair of those newfangled, "designer" headphones. The Skullcandy Crusher headphones cost about $120 after discount at my neighbourhood mall and came with a built-in amp that required the insertion of an AA battery into the left ear pad. I spent more time than I cared to admit, standing in front of the shelves, choosing a colour and pattern, before opting for the bright green, glow-in-the- dark version. My Apple earbud- using husband scoffed at what he considered a juvenile choice.

That night, testing my headphones, I started laughing and shook my spouse awake. The headphones, with a slider for dialing up the bass frequencies, were insane. When the bass line from electronic dance music kicked in, my new "cans" - as headphones are known colloquially - began literally jumping against my cheek. When the dub-step tracks I put on bottomed out, weird growls and groans were coaxed out. Even Taylor Swift songs had sound effects and lingering vibrations I never noticed on normal speakers.

So this is what music sounds like to the scores of young people I see on the streets with ears plugged into their music-playing smart- phones. One literally throbbed with the beat. As the scales fell from my, ahem, ears, I felt simultaneously very alive and very old.

Alive, because the ridiculously bass-heavy headphones were doing something to my brain, pumping out music in a way I had never felt before, so different from the tinny earphones of yore.

Headphones are already offering us heightened hearing; making us bionic in a way that does not warrant a second look.

Old, because I realised that youth constantly exploits advances in technology to experience pop culture, to make it truly theirs, in a way that relative "old fogeys" will never get. While radio stations rotated new music, like a kind of dog whistle or secret signal, only the young with the right kind of aural gear are receiving it in a particular, ordained way.

Music heard on old consumer tech, on the standard-issue earbuds my husband used, for example, was not the same as heard on high-end cans. I felt like I had accidentally stumbled upon a subversive secret. What if someone coded messages that could only be heard using certain headphones? Hidden tracks streamed automatically on websites, which would just be silence on device speakers? The wannabe sci-fi novelist in me had a field day.

For a while now, the media such as the venerable BBC have clogged up the blogosphere with think-pieces and concerns about the rise and rise of headphone culture, starting with the mega success of rapper- producer- entrepreneur Dr. Dre's Beats brand of designer headphones (in 2014, Apple bought Beats for US$3 billion, on the back of Beats' estimated annual sales of US$2 billion). Experts and religious leaders fretted about how plugging into a personal soundscape was creating a society full of people who refused to speak to one another; who were becoming less efficient, productive and friendly.

What they were missing, however, was the somewhat obvious fact that this consumer technology is inexorably changing music, not just the way it is consumed, but physically experienced.

Earlier this month, British musician and the BBC Sound of 2016 poll-topper Jack Garratt said in an interview with The Guardian newspaper that he used Beats headphones, "not because they're the best - they have a clean enough sound, if a bit bass and treble heavy - but because they're what a lot of people listen to music on".

He added: "I want my music to sound good on whatever people are listening - laptop speakers, those crappy little white ones you get with your PC." Love them or hate them, the ubiquitous-ness of fashionable brands of headphones and the sound they push out are already influencing the creative decisions made by musicians.

That said, three stalwarts of the Singapore indie music scene I spoke to said they do not factor in "gimmicky" mass-market headphones into their music-making. Instead, they favoured the more balanced sound of serious audiophile brands such as Sennheiser, Aurisonics and Shure. As composer/sound designer (and Padres frontman and Mee Pok Man) Joe Ng puts it: "No sane (sound) engineer should use 'coloured' monitors or headphones to mix."

Still, I cannot help but wonder if headphones are like the germs of contemporary music: They are all over the place, a nuisance, but are constantly mutating in order to fundamentally change our cultural DNA.

Already, there are headphones that claim to make you high. Nervana, slated to go on sale later this year, reportedly works by pushing an electrical current through your ear canal in order to stimulate the brain's Vagus nerve. This in turn promotes the production of dopamine, which helps control the brain's reward and pleasure centres. The product, which comprises a hand-held "generator" device and headphones, syncs up with music from the user's digital tunes collection and sends out pulses in time with it.

Chinese company Vinci has trade-launched its Smart Hearable, a wireless and hands-free music player housed in a pair of headphones, which reacts to one's body and mood to select and automatically play music. According to the company's press release, the gadget can "respond with a song that best suits the moment by analysing data collected from the user, including heart rate, current location and scenarios through intelligent algorithms".

New York-based Doppler Labs began shipping its Here Active Listening System last month. It acts as a portable equaliser for your ears. The wireless ear wearables allow a user to adjust his sound environment, for example, by cancelling out the sound of babies crying or by allowing him to mix the bass, mids and trebles to his satisfaction at a live gig. While these are not headphones per se, again, they present new possibilities for the way consumer technology will shape music in the future.

In 2012, writer Derek Thompson wrote in The Atlantic magazine that the "triumph of headphones" is, in part, that they create an oasis of privacy in public spaces. "In a crowded world, real estate is the ultimate scarce resource," he concluded. "A headphone is a small invisible fence around our minds - making space, creating separation, helping us listen to ourselves."

One could argue that headphones are also extensions of ourselves, binding us to a certain demographic, sub-culture and highly differentiated taste groups. Beyond displaying our allegiance by the logos on designer headphones, we are flagging our aural preferences with the headphones we choose. And soon, we will be signalling the ways we are in tune with how sound waves and music affect our physical and mental states - manipulating these with the help of consumer technology.

After all, we may still be leery of VR glasses and titanium legs, but headphones are already offering us heightened hearing; making us bionic in a way that does not warrant a second look.

Well, that is, if you excuse the glow-in-the-dark green.

•The writer is co-founder of art and literary journal

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on February 23, 2016, with the headline 'Feeling very alive and very old with designer headphones'. Print Edition | Subscribe