We asked Bowers & Wilkins Applied Research Engineer Stuart Nevill to stick his head over the parapet one more time and choose eight tracks that really benefit from being listened to on headphones.
Ok, so he hijacked a Black Mambazo track but it was my introduction into hi-fi by way of headphones; like most kids I couldn’t afford decent speakers or indeed buying the music in the first place so I confess this intro was via a tape recording of my mate’s dad’s vinyl. Beautifully recorded harmonies that opened the doors somewhat to “world” music. A better pair of headphones enables you to pick out individual voices by physical location, at least in the bits without Paul.
This track sounds terrible on headphones, really! So it is only here to illustrate what headphones can’t do (and encourage you to buy a great pair of speakers too). It starts off nicely enough with the ambiance of the venue but then switches to crass ’60s left and right stereo. On good speakers you get a massively deep and wide sound-stage with the artists around you, on headphones the vocals are painfully one-sided. We had the pleasure of hearing this track from the original reels at Abbey Road some years ago whilst they were doing the (very faithful) remaster. Perhaps a headphone-friendly mix could be made?
It is really nice that a simple pair of headphones can take you somewhere even if in this case it is a toilet. This isn’t an audiophile track by any stretch of the imagination and in fact it sounds terrible on loudspeakers because although our brains are quite good at filtering the music from the echoes of one listening room, adding a second makes it really difficult. On headphones, however, we only hear the room it was recorded in so it is intelligible and the space is very real. The “non-toilet” track was only available on the single.
Roots Manuva: Here we go again
There is an incredible industrial bass on this track that almost works better on headphones than it does on domestic speakers. The sound reminds me of the slap echoes I heard in steel walled corridors of Richard Serra’s exhibition at the Guggenheim in Bilbao.
Nirvana: Come as you are
Worth listening to both the album version and the “unplugged in New York” version. People think of Nirvana for grunge but the production on both is excellent and on headphones it is great to be able to follow what individual band members are doing. Never my thing at the time but have come to appreciate them now.
A somewhat underrated and overlooked track in my humble opinion! A great song with a novel almost machine gun rhythm, beautifully produced and with an added novelty of a few “BBC sound effects library” grade noises, the pinnacle being the stereo unzipping near the end which is amusing on headphones. Be careful that you don’t start singing along to the lyrics in a public space. I think Andre 3000 won the battle with this track.
Aphex twin: Analogue Bubblebath
This time your headphones take you into the heart of old (even at the time) electronic kit. Richard James’ early work is all about textures and if ever a track did exactly what it said on the tin or sleeve, this is it. Great headphone listening, preferably tucked up in bed with the lights off, and although you are at the heart of the machine it really doesn’t sound synthetic.
Diana Krall: Stop this World
Like all of the team at Steyning, I have absolutely no idea of the musical merit of this track. Diana is certainly a good singer and this is probably a good song but as far as we are concerned this is sadly just a test signal. It is one of the tracks we listen to over and over again because it is very well recorded and has a decent spectrum of challenging frequencies. So if this doesn’t sound well balanced on your Bowers & Wilkins headphones nothing will. Obviously this isn’t the ONLY music we listen to to tune them but don’t be jealous if you believed audio design was about listening to great music all day long.
[Please note, the tracks on the player below are MP3 quality and we recommend you purchase the tracks in the highest quality format available to really appreciate them]