Cover Your Ears!

It’s happened to all of us at one time or another: You’ve just popped an action movie into the player, settled back on the couch with a cold one (meaning of course a cold slab of yesterday’s meat loaf) all prepared to crank the sound as high as possible until the subwoofer causes all the closet doors to rattle and buzz, when you suddenly realize, dang it—it’s 3:00 in the morning. Your two-week-old quintuplets just got to sleep after an epic struggle, your great-grandfather who lives in the attic has gout and any noise over a whisper causes him to cry out in agony, and the world-record house of cards you have set up on your dining-room table is scheduled to be examined by the certifying team from the Guinness Book the very next day. You have little choice but to either abandon your movie or go to plan B: headphones. 

For many, the choice is clear: death before headphones. If you’ve spent an enormous amount of time and energy choosing just the right speakers and matching them with an A/V receiver or separates, to let them sit idle while you pipe all that glorious sound through a tiny, ridiculous-looking headset is, frankly, like kissing your sister. Or like having a Maserati Quattroporte that you’re not allowed to drive. Although you can sit in the passenger’s seat (which has been covered in plastic) and listen to the stereo. Through headphones. (And don’t touch the climate controls.)

There’s something unnatural about sound originating just milli- meters from your inner ear, the waves sealed into the tiny chambers at the sides of your skull with the aid of vinyl-covered foam cups. Sound is meant to breathe, expand outward, explore the boundaries of the room, and interact with the outer ear. But headphones ignore the pinna, and the sound blasts directly into the ear canal, shoving past the tympanic membrane and muscling its way directly into the cochlea. It’s rude.

Dignity is hard to come by while you’re outfitted with headphones. We stopped wearing earmuffs when we were four (you did, didn’t you?) because we realized just that. But as adults, we dismiss the obvious, convincing ourselves that they don’t look half bad or, if our powers of self-delusion are particularly strong, that they even look kind of sleek and cool. Which of course is a filthy lie. “Aha,” I hear you saying, “but what about those snappy, sexy little ear buds? All the cool cats are wearing them.” Hey, if you want to wedge a greasy little saucer of Chinese-made plastic into the folds of your ear, more power to you. Just don’t think for a minute that you are stylin’.

Beyond the look, there’s the isolation, the intentional entombing effect. Not only does it keep us from hearing the entirely healthy, behavior-correcting shame directed our way, it can be dangerous. You should approach anyone wearing headphones with as much caution as you’d use coming up behind someone cutting through plate steel with a welding torch. They are physically with us but mentally in another world. Startle them, and for reasons they don’t take the time to explain, they may shriek, jump several feet into the air, and begin slapping you roughly on the way down. This is no way to behave. I will acknowledge one distinct benefit: Headphones are terrific for staving off unwanted conversations on airplanes. Should someone try to open one, a deliberate, highly exaggerated removal of your headphones accented with a loud, “I’m sorry?! What’s that?!” is enough to discourage even the heartiest talker.

And the cord. The accursed cord. How many pairs of glasses have been tugged sharply off, how many people nearly clotheslined or strangled, how many hundreds of cold, half-full paper cups of coffee have been overturned—by me alone, in this case—by those wretchedly inconvenient cords? Yes, paper coffee cups are also an abomination, but they’re hardly a suitable topic for this magazine. See my 5,000-word rant in the trade magazine Disposable Beverage Unit Monthly. Paradoxically both too short and too long at the same time, the headphone cord can convert the simplest movement into a violent act, yanking the plug from its receptacle and sending it rifling toward your eye. Or it can wrap itself innumerable times around the leg of a desk chair, flinging you out a window when you attempt to stand and leaving you hanging by that same cord, loathing yet depending upon it for your very life. I think it’s no exaggeration to say that headphone cords are responsible for the vast majority of hurt and suffering on the planet today. 

Ah, but they’ve solved this, you say. True, cordless headphones do exist, although there aren’t that many available models and the reviews for them aren’t very encouraging (full disclosure: I’ve never tried them). But even if they worked splendidly, I’d still feel about them the way I feel about Segways: You’ve figured out a way to marginally improve the act of walking on flat terrain but in the process created a different, perhaps even larger problem—you’re on a Segway. You could be the walking embodiment of cool—Steve McQueen, Gary Cooper, Cary Grant, and Robert Mitchum all rolled into one—but you put on that goofy headset, and even junior-high-school kids are compelled to point at you and yell, “Nnnneeeeerd!”

Until they perfect ultrasonic directional speakers or invent something that injects sound directly into our cerebral cortex (and I’m sure the device that does it will have to clamp onto the backs of our necks via two vinyl-covered, foam-lined cups), then headphones will remain in our lives as a necessary evil. But the emphasis—curse that damnable cord—will always be on the evil.

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