When I was in high school my favorite album was Pinkerton by the band Weezer. I listened to that album every night before going to bed. I was in a band myself, getting into recording and mixing. I listened intently to Pinkerton and other Weezer albums trying to pick out every guitar track. I made detailed notes about where each instrument/vocal part appeared in the mix. I studied the arrangements of the songs just as much as any of my homework.
The entire time I did this I was listening to these records on earbuds or cheap headphones - the kind they used to give out on planes. When I started to record my own music, I got fed up with them and asked my parents for a pair of real, over-the-ear, headphones. That Christmas, I got a pair of Sony MDR-V700s. (Note: Yes these are DJ headphones and are geared towards electronic and hip-hop music. But they are very capable of reproducing other genres.)
The first thing I listened to on the 700s was Pinkerton. I put in the CD, plugged in the headphones, and pushed play. I was amazed at the clarity - everything was crisp and bright. This much I had expected. What came next was unexpected. Thirty seconds into the first song I heard a guitar part I had never heard before. I was astounded. I had studied that album inside and out. I knew all of the guitar parts, yet here was a guitar I had never heard before. I started the track over and listened closely. I had not imagined it. It was faint, but it was definitely there. From then on I was convinced that not all headphones were created equally.
Several years later, I was in college recording an album professionally. In the control room, even before the instruments were properly equalized, the mix would sound phenomenal. Every night we would take a CD of that day’s session and listen to it on the drive home. It always sounded terrible in the car. We would listen to it on small portable stereos. What had sounded so good on $10k+ studio monitors always sounded muddy and uneven on lesser speakers. We would go back the next day and tweak all of the parts that sounded bad on the cheaper stereos. I was always a little bitter about this because we had to assume that people would be listening to our music on iPods, and mix to the lowest common denomimator - earbuds.
You would think that a song would sound the same everywhere. I mean, why wouldn’t it? But when you think about the huge variations in speakers, even between headphones and earbuds (never mind actual stereos), there’s no way it could. The equipment you use to listen to music matters. Sound is an interesting thing. It’s all physics - pressure waves in the air. No two speakers move air exactly the same way, so a song cannot sound exactly the same everywhere.
One of the nice things about headphones, though, is that mid-range headphones ($50-$150) will sound orders of magnitude better than cheap headphones and earbuds. You do not have to spend much at all to get a huge improvement in sound quality. I’m sure everyone knows someone with a big pair of over-the-ear headphones. Take your iPod over to that person and ask to listen to your favorite song on their headphones. Turn up the volume a reasonable amount, close your eyes and just listen. I can assure you it will sound incredible compared to earbuds. When you’re convinced, go buy a pair of ugly and generic-looking headphones for under $100. They will be the best investment you’ve made in a while.