Living in a headphone bubble

Ear-gear protects you from distraction, but it can also stop you from hearing things you need to hear

A lot of headbanging goes on before choosing a new pair of headphones. Wires or wireless? The comfy embrace of over-the-ear cushions or the intimacy of in-ear tunes? It's a difficult decision to make when the right apparatus turns public space into a private utopia.

Put on headphones and up goes an invisible force field. A perfect little personal bubble isolates you from annoyances like a colleague wanting a synonym for "disconnected".

Plug in or pair your headphones to a media source and unplug from the things you don't want or need to hear. Is someone a cubicle away yelling down a bad phone connection? Turn up the volume on Lady Gaga singing Telephone. Tune out distractions and smile as the singer warbles "I can't hear a thing".

Road maintenance or construction noise hammering on your nerves during the weekend? Close your eyes, slip on your ear-gear and let the strains of Men At Work soothe. Or why not stream an episode of Breaking Bad? Play both as loud as you want through your headphones. It won't disturb anyone else.

Headphones help keep public space blissfully free of individual annoyances. I'd like to run in a public park soothed by the sounds of rushing water and chirping birds. At peak times, my best bet is to play WildLife Sounds through my headphones. Recorded twittering drowns out the squeals of children and barks of dogs.

When I face a sleepy commute on a crowded bus stuck in traffic, my workout playlist energises. I bob my head in solidarity with all the other commuters tuned in to their private audio worlds.


ST ILLUSTRATION: ADAM LEE

There was a time when buses were noisy with chatter. Sometimes it induced headaches. Other times, I would strike up a conversation with perfect strangers over a stumble or a book in my hands. No more. We commuters are separate creatures now, united in our love of privacy.

We are also united in horror when one commuter breaks the unwritten rule of silence. Forgetting herself, she breaks into a song from her K-pop playlist.

The majority condemns her with glares of disdain. As she goes quiet, I realise the tune is quite catchy. I can't very well ask her for the title now. I'll just put my headphones back on and raise the volume. (Odd how my playlist suddenly seems a little boring.)

My love affair with headphones began when I was 12. We had an old Sony Walkman at home, the kind that played eight-track tapes with music recorded on electromagnetic ribbons. The headphones fitted over the ears. A thin foam cushion pretended it would alleviate the pain of hard plastic digging into the pinnae. It didn't, but my brother and I still fought over who got to wear the torture band.

We shared a bedroom and the eagle-eyed oversight of parents and grandparents who always wanted to know where we were and what we were doing. Plugging into the Walkman gave us much-needed privacy. Nobody had to know how often I rewound and replayed Seal's Kiss From A Rose. My brother could be Bryan Adams crooning into a ladle, until our mother came in, turned on all the lights and blinked in confusion.

The march of technology changed the Walkman into a Discman, then a mini-disc player, then an MP3 player. The headphones became in-ear bullets or pillowy cushions that hooked over the ears. Some came with wires that tangled in shirt buttons. Others were hands-free and power-hungry.

Sharing music remained a token of friendship or love. Remember the thrill when a crush placed his headphones over your head? Or friends shared an earpiece each, so both could bop heads in time to the same tune?

At my first few jobs, meetings and impromptu cubicle discussions often took up more time than actual productive work. Headphones became my defence. "I'm busy, don't talk to me," said the wires snaking down my shirt front.

At home, it was the same. When I had a bad day, week, month or even year, I clamped on my headphones and listened to The Rembrandts and singing I'll Be There For You, theme song of the sitcom Friends.

"I knocked on your door," my flatmate and best friend might say. "Didn't you hear?"

I didn't. I was wearing my headphones and she was part of the problem - until she left to study overseas. Then I was left to regret the talks we didn't have.

I love headphones but, for years, happily bought the cheapest I could find ($2 or less). Then I got serious about running and swimming. Suddenly, a three-figure price seemed downright economical for headphones that were waterproof, sweat-proof and had a built-in microphone to allow me to take work calls without disturbing the peace.

Most of my friends pay $200 or more without blinking for headphones. One visited a listening bar in Hong Kong where customers tested the latest ear-gear in silent seriousness. We take our tech seriously, comparing AfterShokz with Beats By Dre, Jabra and old favourite Bose.

We have to. We wear headphones almost all the time. At work, there are phone calls to take and defences to erect against inane chatter. On the commute, there are audio books, soap operas and YouTube videos to reduce boredom.

Protective bubbles of personal entertainment do have their dangers. I noticed one after I broke my elbow in late 2014. Commuters on MRT trains and buses were very kind about giving me a seat or giving my cast a wide berth so as not to jostle it. But first I had to get their attention by tugging on their sleeves or poking them with my good fingers.

People around me were plugged into their cellphones and tablets. Encased in their bubbles, they did not register my 171cm-tall self. Once, a man plonked down next to me and jostled my cast. I screeched, but he didn't notice until his companion poked him in the side.

"Headphones say: 'I'm anti-social,'" says one friend. "When I have my headphones on, it excuses me from talking to people. I have an excuse not to notice them."

Headphones are a godsend for the socially awkward. Why embarrass yourself trying to make small talk with people clearly different from you, who will probably hate and judge you? Plug in and let the bubble of personal space protect you. Let it soothe you with songs and videos cherry-picked for your consumption by a computer algorithm that notes your tastes and does its best to reinforce them.

Social media has my number. Spotify and YouTube recommend anime hits, classical music, female folk singers and G-rated comedians (you would be surprised how small that playlist is).

The thing is, I have FOMO. Fear of missing out. What else is out there? What am I missing out on?

I take off my headphones and borrow someone else's.

My brother's playlist contributes German electropop and Sanskrit rap. My mother reminds me about Simon & Garfunkel.

The real revelation comes from a friend whose music I did not expect to like at all. He likes Justin Bieber, for crying out loud. But he also likes funky indiepop singer Miike Snow, whose Genghis Khan blew me away. The video is hilarious, the lyrics melodious.

Who knew? It seems people can surprise you even though you thought you had them pegged.

After much use of search engines, I also found that K-pop number the singing commuter performed during my bus ride. Dope by BTS, which, by the way, starts with "Ayo ladies and gentlemen", not "All jellybabies and spacemen".

It's cute, it has a jazz vibe, I'm glad I heard it even though it caught me off-guard the first time.

If I see the singer on the bus again, I'll have to thank her. Maybe start a conversation, if she is willing to take her headphones off and listen.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on December 18, 2016, with the headline 'Living in a headphone bubble'. Print Edition | Subscribe