Saturday, February 28, 2015

Mirrors in the Headphone Section

I expect to see mirrors in all sorts of public places.  Gym walls are lined with them, so people can gaze at themselves as they work out.  Stores with clothing sections.  Bars.  Restaurants.  Elevators.  People like looking at themselves.  Part vanity.  Part desire to make sure we don’t look like complete idiots.  As if running our fingers through our hair will change that.

But a few weeks ago, I got a cultural jolt with mirrors.  I try to do all my audio/computer shopping at B&H Photo on the west side of midtown Manhattan.  I love the place.  Owned and operated by Hasidic Jews offering every-day prices on stuff that always matches up to sales prices in big-box retailers.  They’re hard to beat.  And it’s always a kick to have a relevant conversation regarding high-tech audio and computer equipment with deeply Jewish guys, who you would figure would be hard to talk to, but tend to be very hang loose and open, fully understanding their products and customers.

I often go on Fridays, which is a mistake.  They’re Hasidic Jews … they’re home by sunset every Friday, meaning they close down the store around 1:00 that day.  It’s like the fall of Saigon going there over lunch on a Friday, the sense of urgency overwhelming as customers are looking to make purchases before being pushed out of the place by announcements at 12:45.  They’re closed Saturdays, too.  And on many odd Jewish holidays that I’m far from having memorized.

A few weeks ago, I decided to treat myself and buy a real set of headphones.  I’ve written in the past of my trusty Radio Shack Nova 40’s that got me through my teenage years.  They were cheap and dependable, but shitty, much like the now-failing Radio Shack empire.  The earbuds I’ve had over the years, again, dependable, but they’ve all been pretty average under $50 earbuds.

So, I read a few audiophile websites and realized to get a really top-end pair, I’d have to go higher than $300 in most cases.  I didn’t need that level of quality.  I was thinking more the $150-$200 level of headphones that most audiophiles would scoff at, but average people, like me, would find entirely worthwhile.

Once I found the headphone section at B&H, I could see I had dozens of choices, whether I wanted to drop $30 for a very low-end pair, or well over $300 if I wanted that high-end audiophile experience.  (Let's cut the shit: audiophiles tend to be assholes in my book.  I can’t stand them, can’t stand the prissy, precious meticulousness so many of them have towards music and have never picture myself sitting in that mahogany-lined den listening to Dark Side of the Moon on my $5,000 system in my ascot and kimono.  Not my way of life.  Much more in the "wearing my Fruit of the Loom underwear and listening to Rocket to Russia on the Soundesign console in my basement apartment" camp.)

I settled on a pair of Bose headphones for about $180 that sounded very good when I sampled them, very clear, deep and full, the kind of sound that appealed to me in that price range.  Forget about calling audiophiles “assholes” – writing what I just wrote about Bose headphones has done much more to mark me as a rank bullshit artist to these folks.  They hate Bose by the legion.  Bose is everything wrong with audiophile equipment: over-priced equipment aimed at people with too much money and not enough sense.

Yeah, well, they also make pretty good product, whether audiophile snobs can acknowledge that or not.  I’m not a “Bose” man the same way I’m not an “Apple” man.  My audio, video and computer tastes are all over the map, different products for different purposes, I tend to mix and match and like what I have.  I hated iPods for years, until I actually owned one.  I still hate the completely closed system of it, and their inability to grasp that making a larger SSD drive player for people who don’t want to depend on streaming for music would be a good move.  But the 160 GB iPod Classic is simply the best audio invention of my lifetime, in regards to how I relate and listen to music.  The 250 GB version I ordered from some dude in China on E Bay offering these Frankenstein iPods because Apple refused to go past 160 GB?  It’s my prized possession: I use it every day and wonder what’s going to happen when it craps out as Apple shows no signs of making larger-capacity audio devices.

As I was trying on those Bose headphones, I looked at myself in the mirror.

Wait a minute.  Let me think about this.  What the fuck am I doing staring at myself in the mirror of an audio department?  Why is there a mirror here?  Have I ever seen a mirror in any audio department before today?

This snapped me out of my Bose reverie and made me realize: there are mirrors here for all the dipshits buying Beats headphones.  Let me clarify: there’s nothing really wrong with Beats headphones.  The pair I sampled before the Bose pair really didn’t sound that bad.  It’s just the comparable version to what I was buying was just over $200 as opposed to under $180 and sounded very bass heavy, which I guess is more a demographics than audio thing with how they're built and for whom they're built.

I’m forever seeing guys (always guys) wearing Beats headphones on the streets and subway.  I’d hardly call the people wearing them "assholes."  They’re not rapping to themselves like idiots have in the past.  They’re not audio snobs.  They’re not solely hipsters (although I’ve seen more than a few hipsters wearing them).  They’re usually younger guys, sometimes stylish, sometimes not.  But proudly wearing their Beats headphones.

What I really liked about the Bose headphones: they were light and looked very cheap.  They looked basic.  Which is exactly what I want from a headphone!  Black, small ear cups, close-fitting, they don’t look like anything special, don’t draw attention to the fact that I’m wearing a $180 pair of headphones for a $300 listening device.  There were a few other name brands in the same price range, like Sennheiser, that would draw accolades from audiophiles, but they simply looked too bulky to wear in public, or had wires coming from the cups, looked too fragile in some cases, etc.

Headphones are not a fashion statement … to me.  But that mirror made me realize, read it and weep, THEY ARE a fashion statement to some people.  Mostly younger, in their 20s, maybe 30s at the latest, who want to appear stylish and “with it” in some sense.  Frankly, I liked the Beats headphones I sampled, they weren’t bad, but I can’t stand the logo, the act of drawing attention to something I’m wearing on my head in public.  It’s probably why I avoided iPods for years: I never could stand the “fashion sense” attached to these things.  I’m about the music, not the device, not the headphones, not the receiver, not the speakers, not the turntable, not the CD player.  I care about the music.  Period.

But what kind of dick poses in front of a mirror in a headphones section of a store to see how he looks wearing a pair of Beats headphones?  Making a duck face?  Snapping a selfie and tweeting it to various friends: How do I look?  Of course, not one has the heart to honestly respond: Like a dick.  Because chances are he’s tweeting other dicks.  Who are probably thinking: Bro, chill!

It unnerved me.  And from what I’ve heard from friends, it’s not unusual to see mirrors around headphone sections in any store now.  I really don’t get the impression anyone buying Sennheiser or Bose or Audio Technica or Beyer or Grado cares all that much about how they look while wearing them.  I do care, but more so in the sense of not wearing a gaudy/flashy piece of audio equipment that would encourage someone to rob me at gun or knifepoint.  Then again, I’ve had that concept driven home to me by moving to New York City in the 80’s and living in ragged neighborhoods for a long time, knowing that people can and will be targets for the things they wear in public.

It’s not even that.  It’s that nagging self absorption I’ve been noticing since the turn of the century, the turning inwards of an entire society, the gazing at one’s self routinely and constantly, whether literally in a mirror in a headphone section of a store, or on Facebook or any other social media, or with a cellphone on a crowded staircase during rush hour … or, shit, let’s face it, everywhere now, all the time.  I’m forever hustling around people on the sidewalk who, I can tell coming up behind them by their body language, are so self absorbed and unattached to their surroundings that it’s too irritating to get stuck behind them for more than a few feet.

Then again, why am I buying headphones?  To turn on my music and turn inwards in some sense, away from the world, into myself.  Headphones are all about self absorption, when you think about it.  Always have been: put them on and tune the world out.  I realize that in some deep, abiding sense.  It just seems like overkill and a radical error to attach fashion sense to something that already implies self absorption, literally in the act of using the product itself.  Nobody should be using the headphones for any reason but to listen to music in a better manner than ear buds.  But now we have this creepy, physical aspect of using headphones as another layer of narcissism for something that’s already insular enough.

I give up?  No, like most of you, I just shake my head and walk on.  The world will move forward with me, and these assholes, and everyone else who doesn’t even pay attention to nonsense like this.  When the cyborgs are killing us with laser beams a few years down the road, I can assure you, none of them will be wearing Beats headphones or have any need for Twitter, mirrors, iPhones or headphones.  Robots, take over the world and kill us already!
Mirrors in the headphone section ... and pink champagne on ice.  We are all just prisoners here of our own device.