If you're like most Americans, you've probably owned at least a few different pairs of headphones in the course of your life. And you may have noticed that not all of them sound the same, even given the same source. Some might go hard on the bass, while others accentuate high notes.
What, as Jerry Seinfeld would say, is the deal with that?
To answer the question, we'll need to dig into the science of sound reproduction—but don't worry, we'll keep it simple. Music nerds often talk about “highs”, “mids”, and “lows” in their favorite tunes. These refer to the frequency of each given note. High notes, like those of a flute, have a high frequency; low notes, like those of a bass drum, have a low frequency.
Headphone manufacturers can choose to emphasize certain frequencies (i.e. make them louder), and minimize others. This is called “frequency response”, and it's one of the most important parts of our headphone tests. Ultimately, there are two main flavors of frequency response used in headphones today: “consumer” and “studio” profiles.
The “consumer” profile acknowledges that it's easier for humans to hear mid- and high-frequency sounds than it is to hear low-frequency sounds. For example, when you’re walking down the street, you hear the high-pitched wail of an ambulance siren long before you hear the lower frequency sound of the ambulance rolling down the road. To compensate, consumer headphones boost the loudness of low-frequency notes and correspondingly reduces the loudness of most mid- and high-frequency notes. The result is a bass-heavy sound profile that suits lots of popular contemporary music.
"Studio" headphones, meanwhile, leave the loudness of individual frequencies more or less alone. In general, they seek to reproduce sounds as they were recorded. That makes them ideal for use by producers in the recording studio, but they can also be useful for consumers who prefer a more natural soundscape.
Which profile is "correct"?
It depends entirely on what you're listening to.
For some kinds of audio, the consumer profile doesn't make a lot of sense. Take podcasts, where you're mostly listening to people speaking into a mic. In this case, you simply don't need headphones with extra bass emphasis. And if you're into classical music, consumer headphones may obscure or misrepresent the delicate interplay of an orchestra's myriad instruments. But if you listen to a lot of hip-hop or EDM—or spend a lot of time playing video games—headphones with a consumer profile (and the Beats brand in particular) are made for you.
Either way, if you're looking to buy headphones, our reviews always let you know what to expect from a given pair. Be sure to check out our list of the best headphones available right now and our most recent headphone reviews for more info.