The morning commute in any city has always had a certain insect-like quality, as hordes of us proceed at speed and in large numbers to a destination in order to carry out humdrum activities. A few decades ago, we suddenly gained antennae of metal, plastic and foam rubber, and these seemed to bestow upon us a dreamlike, somewhat glazed expression as we moved about. Of late, those antennae have been getting bigger, more colourful and much more expensive, and if the belaboured analogy wasn’t already apparent, I’m talking about headphones. An item once heavily invested in only by geeky audiophiles has, in the last couple of years, become an essential fashion accessory, with its off-duty place around the neck as important to one’s overall look as its position across the head. We’ve been persuaded that we need these things, and we’ve obediently gone out and bought them.
The trend has largely been driven by Beats, the headphone company and music streaming service founded by the rapper and entrepreneur Dr Dre, and bought last week by Apple for $3bn. Our adoration of smartphones is accelerating the trend. Why stick with barely adequate earbuds provided by your phone’s manufacturer when Dr Dre has promised that Beats headphones will let you hear the music “the way the artists hear it”?
The accuracy of Dre’s promise has been ferociously argued during Beats’ rise to prominence. The consensus from audiophiles is that Beats headphones generally provide a “visceral bass thump” that might be a world away from the sound an artist originally intended; if anything, the effect is more akin to that of burying your head in a bass speaker at a nightclub.
But that’s what many people seem to want, and it certainly hasn’t affected sales; celebrity endorsements from the likes of Lady Gaga, Wayne Rooney and Justin Bieber have helped Beats to outflank competitors such as Sennheiser, which is now having to think more about style and not just about content. Beats, for its part, has received plaudits for one of its final pre-Apple headsets, the Solo 2, which tones down the bass a bit. Phew.
One alarming consequence of our obsession with headphones is the damage they can do to our hearing, something that noise-cancelling headphones can help with by allowing lower volumes of music to be heard above extraneous racket. Another is the way they allow us to shut out the outside world, thereby increasing our sense of social isolation.
As we proceed hither and thither, spurning contact with each other in favour of beats and rhymes, you can’t help but wonder how alien observers would interpret our relationship with headphones. Maybe they’d misinterpret them as life support systems. But maybe that’s almost what they are becoming.