New Britneyology

Listening to Britney on Headphones! Part 1.

Posted by: Karenannanina on: July 9, 2011

Anyone who’s been reading my stuff for the last 7 years will know that I constantly bang on about listening to Britney with good quality headphones. A reference to them is an essential part of every “In-Depth” review at NewBritneyology.com. I know some people think this is hilarious, but I can’t legislate for those who are determined to embrace their own ignorance. My enthusiasm for headphones isn’t some kind of weird, perverted fetish – you really do miss a lot if you never use them.

Obviously I don’t expect people to go rushing around on buses, trains and bicycles with massive “cans” clamped to their heads. Perhaps I should clarify that by “headphones” I mean the things that surround your ears rather than going inside them. For listening on the move, there’s no realistic alternative to those horrible little in-ear things known as earphones. But if you want to pass judgment on Britney’s singing ability (and let’s face it, who doesn’t ?) you should be prepared to take the trouble to be properly informed, and to get some proper headphones for home use.

I’m not saying you should get rid of your speakers. Goodness knows, I’d be the worst hypocrite if I said that – my home set-up involves a 300-watt amplifier and 150-watt subwoofer. A good thing my nearest neigbor lives 150 yards away. But speakers give you a very different listening experience to headphones. Music fills the room and the big fat bass (or maybe the kick drum) makes the windows rattle. But it’s not an analytical approach. It’s a wall of sound. I would never write a review of a Britney album based on hearing it on speakers.

But why headphones? Aren’t earphones pretty much the same thing and just as good? The simple answer is – no, they’re not. I’m not going to bore you with a lot of technical stuff, but the way the sound waves communicate with your ears is totally different, and with earphones there are too many factors that compromise what you’re hearing. You may think you’re hearing everything that’s on the record, but you aren’t.

In my Britney reviews I always talk about the virtual “soundstage” inside your head, and where the various components of the track are located. With earphones, you get a more constricted, compressed “soundstage” and it can be difficult to separate the components. As someone recently told me, “With earphones the music plays “inside” your head rather than coming at you from the outside, to left and right.” In my experience earphones also fail to give you any sense of depth to front and back. On headphones, when you listen to “The Answer”, P. Diddy’s words “Talk to me” seem to come from behind your left shoulder. So do Britney’s words “Don’t hang up” in the eponymous song. On earphones, everything is placed in a 45-degree “V” around front-center.

Earphones fail to reveal many subtleties. For example, on “Shadow”, the swirling atmospherics can’t be “placed” at all whereas with good headphones you can detect their circular motion between the center and right “channels”. Headphones also reveal that, during the chorus, the effect has been created of Britney standing front center, with a group of backing singers arranged in a semi-circle behind her. In the last 2 lines of each verse and during the middle-eight, three Britneys sing in harmony, one left, one right, one center. But with earphones, as with speakers, these individual elements simply merge together.

On “Piece of Me”, the majority of people are convinced that Britney’s voice has been electronically altered. Wikipedia, for example, comments “Spears’s voice is heavily synthesized”, But this is untrue. With the benefit of good-quality headphones you can distinguish the vocals from the effects and it turns out that a few words, and ONLY a few words, in the song are overlaid with a kind of muted electronic fuzz. It’s like seeing something behind net curtains. But with earphones this effect cannot be isolated from an overall impression of fuzz.

Reviewing “Blackout”, Kelefa Sanneh says “Even when not buried in electronics, her distinctive singing voice sounds unusually vague, and sometimes it’s hard to be sure it’s hers. It isn’t always. On this album, unlike on previous ones, Ms. Spears isn’t credited with doing any of her own backing vocals.” From those remarks it’s clear that Sanneh wasn’t listening with a decent set of headphones, because if you do, you’re never in any doubt that it’s Britney, AND that she’s singing almost all of the vocals herself.

It’s almost universally accepted that Britney hardly sings a natural note on “Femme Fatale”. The mind-numbing cliche is that her voice is “heavily autotuned”. She herself remarked in an interview that she’d decided to use more electronics this time. But with good headphones, what do you actually hear? In fact, her lead vocal is natural on about 90 percent of the album! There are maybe two or three songs where her voice is electronically altered in the verse, here and there a few words are blatantly synthesized for dramatic effect, and one track a synthesizer is mixed in with her vocal on the center channel, but that’s all! I won’t spoil your fun by saying where these things happen – you’ll have to buy some headphones…

But which headphones? They don’t have to be crazily expensive. One of my dad’s friends had Stax electrostatic ‘phones that were too pricey for us, even though we all were mightily impressed by hearing Jimi Hendrix’s “All Along The Watchtower” seemingly circling our heads like an angry hornet. My own headphones are Sennheiser HD580s, which were five-star rated and said to be studio quality in their day but are no longer available. I would recommend that you buy something in the same category. Don’t spend less than about $200. If that seems a lot, consider that custom-fitted in-ear phones can cost over $500!

Finally, I should say that the analytical quality of your ‘phones will be somewhat nullified if the music source is a compressed sound file like an MP3 or an AAC, which will have a high level of distortion, and severely limited frequency and dynamic ranges. It would be best to listen to Britney on CD. Yes, in physical form!! And if you do…. I can guarantee a revelation! It will be like hearing these albums again for the first time, but in high-definition and 3D! You’ll be amazed at how good they are, and probably surprised to find that most of the shade thrown at Britney’s voice is based on misinformation and prejudice.

In Part Two of this article, next week, I’ll take you on a guided headphone tour of Britney’s albums.

1 Response to "Listening to Britney on Headphones! Part 1."

It sounds like that reviewer is hearing Keri Hilson and whoever does back up on Ooh Ooh Baby. I’ve never quite been able to tell if it’s Britney doing back ups on Heaven On Earth, any guesses? I know she does the whispers but the back most voice for each line of each verse sounds slightly different to Britney’s but maybe she just took an (even) airer approach…

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  • Karenannanina: I agree with you about the residency. It's the road to irrelevance for an artist. But a new album would be a golden blessing for her fans. Her albums
  • George: Spot on thoughts on the issue. Honestly, I don't... really care whether she does the residency or not? As long as there is new music, I'm fine. P.S: G
  • Sarah G: You should write an In-Depth of Glory or even Mood Ring (that's a groovy tune)