A DJ earbud?
June 30, 2006 9:57 AM   Subscribe

Why do DJs use only one headphone?

Every time I see a DJ in a music video/movie, they have their head bent to the side, listening to one of their pair of headphones. Why don't they replace their headphones with a single earbud or something similar? Why all the extra hardware and neck-cricking? They're usually standing next to speakers anyway, it's not like the headphones block that much sound, right?
posted by pantsrobot to Media & Arts (40 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
 
As a former student radio DJ, I can make an educated guess that using one headphone like that is so the DJ can simultaneously listen to/keep tabs on the current track being played (on the main channel, out the main speakers) while queuing up the next track (on a secondary channel through the headphones).

Even with the advent of CDs and the death of vinyl, the two-track queue is necessary so the DJ can synchronize the beats of the two tracks and blend one seamlessly with the next. Once the tracks are synched, he can fade the new one in while fading the old one out, with no interruption to the pounding dance beat.
posted by BigLankyBastard at 10:07 AM on June 30, 2006


I do it because it a) it helps me to hear the audio as others hear it b) permits me to hear what's going on around me, rather than just my music c) gives me far better audio quality than some crappy little earbud.

Now, I've long DJd in the radio station sense. DJs with a pair of turntables need to queue up the next song and pick out their beats and samples, while simultaneously making sure that what everybody is listening to at this moment sounds decent.
posted by waldo at 10:08 AM on June 30, 2006


Sometimes you want to hear the track in both ears, then match it with the PA using only one side.
posted by The Jesse Helms at 10:09 AM on June 30, 2006


And the reason they use big headphones instead of an earbud is for the sound quality - the larger headphone allows for the ambient noise to be blocked out completely. They hear one track exclusively in one ear and the live track in the other ear - probably makes it easier to seperate them and figure out which one is too fast or slow.
posted by kdern at 10:09 AM on June 30, 2006


And its really loud in clubs, and earbud is not going to work.
posted by The Jesse Helms at 10:10 AM on June 30, 2006


They hold them up their ear briefly while cueing up the next record. Putting in and pulling out an earbud would be super annoying, plus full-size headphones are much much louder than earbuds.
posted by cillit bang at 10:10 AM on June 30, 2006


When I was a college d.j., we did this because the station couldn't afford much of anything let alone specialised headphones. We had those '70s-era gonzo-huge ones with the giant padded ears. You didn't have a speaker on when the mic was on (it cut out automatically so you wouldn't feedback). The headphones allowed you to hear whether your voice was as loud as the music had just been, and, in fact, whether you were broadcasting at all. Since we had rather elderly equipment, it was a real possibility that your co-hosts mic might not come on, and since the d.j.s weren't professionals it was a real possibility that we would just forget to turn something on. The headphones helped us catch a lot of mistakes.

We didn't have to crick our necks, though. We wore the headphones on both sides of our head and twisted the right side one up to sit against our head, so they were secure but we could listen to the studio with one ear and the broadcast with the other.
posted by joannemerriam at 10:12 AM on June 30, 2006


Sound isolating earbuds usually work much better than the headphone versions, wouldn't these be the best solution (no heavy headphones constantly around your neck) ? And does the audio quality really matter in an environment like a loud club? I'd imagine the headphones wouldn't drown out the exterior noise either.
We might be going into personal preference territory here, but I still don't understand why he/she can't just leave one earbud plugged in to do all the beatmatching and queuing, and the other ear free for listening to the current sound.
posted by pantsrobot at 10:16 AM on June 30, 2006


but I still don't understand why he/she can't just leave one earbud plugged in to do all the beatmatching and queuing, and the other ear free for listening to the current sound

No one knows you're the dj is if you wear earbuds. Earbuds look retarded. There's a history and a culture associated with the headphones that is lost when wearing earbuds. Earbuds are easy to lose in the dark.


posted by The Jesse Helms at 10:26 AM on June 30, 2006


Hmm, so not for purely functional reasons then? I guess that makes sense
posted by pantsrobot at 10:36 AM on June 30, 2006


Earbuds sound like crap. And, personally, I find them very painful even for short amounts of time. But even beyond that, earbuds have a 3.55mm jack, every mixing board I've ever used has a quarter inch input, which is standard on the big kind of headphones you'll see DJs use.

When I DJ I use studio headphones, if it wouldn't make me look like a tool I'd use them with my mp3 player during my commute, the sound is just that good.

And yes, the only time I ever use headphones is when beatmatching or setting up the next track (say, if I want to cut the intro out or whatever). I'll generally take them off at other times so I can hear people when they make requests.

Also, in a club atmosphere, if you're doing something that does require concentration, like beatmatching, nothing says "leave the DJ alone for a second" pulling on a giant pair of headphones.
posted by Kellydamnit at 10:49 AM on June 30, 2006


As well as looking cool, there is also a certain amount of gadget-lust attached to headphones, as well as turntables, needles, record cases and pretty much everything a DJ wears / brings to a party.

I'm not a DJ, but I prefer big, awesome looking, ear enveloping headphones. Earbuds are so 5 years ago.
posted by utsutsu at 10:51 AM on June 30, 2006


No, pantsrobot, The Jesse Helms is being purposely sarcastic.

There is certainly *some* fashion in choosing to wear mostly closed-type headphones over earbuds, but primarily it is functional. For one, it's fucking *LOUD* in a DJ booth -- you can often turn the monitors down if it's set-up right, but clubs are hardly ever set up right -- an earbud *may* be able to get as much volume as a closed-ear type headphone, but it's going to be hard to hear the important parts (to beat-matching) of the track : 1) the highs, and 2) the bass. Not to mention that many earbuds are of low quality, as far as sound reproduction is concerned (whether or not this matters to DJs is, I guess, a different subject).

Secondly, earbuds, as previously mentioned, would be a pain in the ass to work with -- most DJs have the headphones on ONLY when they're beat-matching or queuing. This is going to be at most, 2-3 minutes for the former and maybe a minute or thirty seconds for the latter -- you're not going to want to have to pop in and out an earbud for every few minutes -- with a closed-ear type, you can just grab it from around your neck and push it to your ear.

thirdly, and yes, making some concessions to TJH, DJing with a earbud would look a little stupid*, and in many clubs, part of the DJs job is setting a vibe for the club (because oftentimes, you're also the promoter). You're going to dress up a little bit if you're a DJ.

As for having only one ear on at a time, many DJs beatmatch, which *requires* them to be able to hear both tracks at once -- you *can* do this in the headphones alone (which happens at plenty of parties where people don't have monitors) but it's much more difficult than having one ear listening to the queued track and the other listening to the one currently playing.** Even if you're just queuing a track, it's likely you're going to want to hear what's going on at the moment. I have seen dj headsets that only have one ear (they look kinda like a telephone) that you can tuck under your chin that speak to this purpose.

* which would actually make it very cool. look for this to come to a NYC club near you in the next few months

**Interestingly enough, many DJs also have a "monitor" ear, so occasionally, if there's only one monitor, you'll see people moving it to one side or the other depending on the DJs prefernce.

posted by fishfucker at 10:53 AM on June 30, 2006


it's not like the headphones block that much sound, right?

Actually, a good pair of DJ headphones provide about 20db of isolation. Now, if you want to use earbuds, you first need to remember that earbuds cause hearing loss. I wouldn't listen to anything at more than a quiet volume on them under the best of conditions.

Earbuds provide next to no isolation. This means that to be able to hear the cue from the mixer as well on earbuds as you do on headphones, you'd need to make the earbuds 20dB louder than their already-dangerous dj-volume - and remember, dB measurements are on a logarithmic scale.

You could not pay me enough money to use earbuds loud enough to overpower a thumping 102dB club system.
posted by Jairus at 11:07 AM on June 30, 2006


You guys must all have tried some really crap earbuds. Maybe earbud isn't even the right term. I'm talking a quality pair, like the Shure E2c, not some piece of shit you get at radio shack for free with your walkman. Anyway, in my experience, a properly fit pair of earphones has vastly superior sound isolation to any pair of regular headphones (no matter how large) as the ear canal is sealed. And they have absolutely no problem in the bass department either, for the same reason. So from the standpoint of a noisy environment I would choose in-ear models any day. The only downside is that it can take a few moments to put them in and take them out, as they have to be properly inserted. And they don't look cool. But there is no problem with sound quality.
posted by Rhomboid at 11:14 AM on June 30, 2006


When I DJ I use studio headphones, if it wouldn't make me look like a tool I'd use them with my mp3 player during my commute, the sound is just that good.

I do not DJ, but I do wear studio headphones on the bus. I perceive my particular look would more accurately be described as "nerd" than "tool", but since the quality of the listening experience is so much better, and because I'm a nerd either way, it's a no-brainer for me.

And other than being small enough to fit in your pocket, earbuds don't have much going for them, in my opinion.
posted by Hildago at 11:21 AM on June 30, 2006


Rhomboid, even with a good pair of Shures or Etymotics, you've still got hearing damage issues. I like DJing, and I hope to be doing it in twenty years. I'll keep my headphones.
posted by Jairus at 11:42 AM on June 30, 2006


I second what Jaiarus is saying. The sealed ear canal gives better sound isolation, but is also the reason that they can cause permanent damage at high volumes. You need that added open air to diffuse the pressurized air created by the sound waves. Not necessary at low volumes, but the idea of ear buds in a dj booth makes my ears hurt just thinking about it.
posted by p3t3 at 11:44 AM on June 30, 2006


Rhomboid, I thought the same thing, but I know some people refer to the Shures as "in-ear monitors" as opposed to the iPod "earbuds". The former create a tight seal that blocks out the ambient noise, requiring a lower volume from the earpiece to be able to hear the music.
posted by rxrfrx at 11:50 AM on June 30, 2006


"not like the headphones block that much sound, right"

While not a headphone my Peltor headset is good for 30db.
posted by Mitheral at 11:56 AM on June 30, 2006


I've DJ'd at everything from house parties to one of the largest clubs in the US, and there are a few reasons I use headphones the way I do.

The main reason is that you need to listen to multiple sources of sound.

You need to listen to the monitor first and foremost. That's the large speaker in the dj booth that has to be loud enough to mask the sound in the main room. The reason you use a monitor instead of listening to the sound on the main dance floor is that there is a delay between when music comes out of the speakers on the dance floor and when it reaches the dj booth, due to the speed of sound. When you're beatmatching, you need very precise timing.

Sometimes, you need to turn the monitor down, too, and listen to the main dancefloor to make sure it's loud enough but not so loud it's distorted. You can do a lot just looking at the meters, but you really should listen from time to time, or even walk out on the dance floor yourself.

You need the headphones to 'cue' music, that is to listen to sound from the other channels on the mixer without mixing it into the main channel. You need large headphones because sometimes what you are listening to can be somewhat minimal-- sometimes you are just listening to hi-hats and snares, and you need to mask out the sound from the monitor in that ear.

I sometimes mix by leaving my headphones around my neck and turning the volume up all the way, and sometimes I turn the headphones off entirely and just make adjustments from listening to the monitor. It just depends on the environment and the songs I'm playing.

You can also mix entirely with the headphones on both ears and not use the monitor at all. There have been times when I've had to do that because a monitor is non-existent or blown. For example, I played at a pool party where I was actually 20 feet above where the speakers were with no monitors, and I did the whole set with headphones on both ears.

It's not the best way to dj, because it isolates you somewhat from the effect of what you're doing on the dance floor.

If you are not beatmatching, you really don't need to use headphones at all, except to find the beginning of the song.

If you are in a quieter environment (say playing on a stereo system at home), you can actually beat match with no headphones at all by listening to the sound the needle itself makes in the groove. It's not as hard as it sounds, I've done it when I've forgotten to bring headphones to houseparties.
posted by empath at 11:59 AM on June 30, 2006


Uh, the Etymotic foam tips provide 42 dB of isolation. Are you saying that there is something inherent about sealed earphones that make them more dangerous than sealed headphones at the same perceived volume? I'm not sure I buy that.

But, uh, back on topic, yeah, it's a bitch to put those foam plugs in, I wouldn't want to be doing that every couple minutes.
posted by trevyn at 12:01 PM on June 30, 2006


Rhomboid: The only downside is that it can take a few moments to put them in and take them out, as they have to be properly inserted.

That's why you can't use them. You need to take your headphones off and on all the time.
posted by empath at 12:03 PM on June 30, 2006


Just as an aside. The hardest part of djing in public, as opposed to your bedroom isn't the beatmatching, it's figuring out how to deal with all the various soundsystems you run into. I wanted to just throw my records down and quit at some of the earliest gigs I played because I just couldn't cope with less than perfect conditions like working with no monitor or having only one channel working in my headphones.
posted by empath at 12:05 PM on June 30, 2006


inherent about sealed earphones that make them more dangerous than sealed headphones

except when I DJ they're rarely "sealed", usually hanging half off my ear.

Like empath said, half the time they're not over your ear at all, sometimes over both ears, but usually somewhere inbetween. And I find that most of the time I get the best balance of "headphone to monitors" for beatmatching by having the phone half off of one ear (my left ear). It allows the monitors for in one ear, and a mix of the cue and monitors in the other, and the added bonus of less ear damage ;)
posted by p3t3 at 12:11 PM on June 30, 2006


Are you saying that there is something inherent about sealed earphones that make them more dangerous than sealed headphones at the same perceived volume?

Yes. Sealing the ear canal and vibrating the air within it causes pressure issues that are not present when you seal an area around the ear that is many, many times larger.
posted by Jairus at 12:21 PM on June 30, 2006


I only use one because I need to pay attention to what the house is hearing as well as what I'm getting ready to cue up.

One of the most ...memorable experiences in the booth was a few years ago when I was still occasionally using both left and right. I couldn't find a specific track, and I had to go through each unmarked CD I had to find it. Cued it up, listened to the first minute or two to make sure it sounded good, got ready to start it up. When I was getting ready to fade in, I looked up at the crowd...who were all staring.

The CD that was playing live had been skipping for about a minute and a half.

Ever since then, it's one ear on the room, one ear on the board.
posted by geckoinpdx at 12:54 PM on June 30, 2006


but I still don't understand why he/she can't just leave one earbud plugged in to do all the beatmatching and queuing, and the other ear free for listening to the current sound

because a key part of a distressingly and increasingly pretentious dj-culture is letting everyone know that "i'm the DJ!!"... i know too many DJs who seem far more interested making sure everyone sees them rather than actually playing anything good.

less cynically it may be that earbuds do not block out ambient sound as well.
posted by modernnomad at 1:28 PM on June 30, 2006


i know too many DJs who seem far more interested making sure everyone sees them rather than actually playing anything good.

I think there are just as many djs out there who would prefer not to be seen at all. I'm naturally quite shy and very uncomfortable when i notice people watching me instead of dancing.
posted by empath at 1:32 PM on June 30, 2006


Just as an aside. The hardest part of djing in public, as opposed to your bedroom isn't the beatmatching, it's figuring out how to deal with all the various soundsystems you run into.

To continue the aside, I'd actually disagree. Dealing with real live people make it a million times harder. I've had to use some of the worst equipment in north america. (two diskmen wired into a mixer, with no moniter? been there, got electrocuted). It may just be because I'm in a very specific genre, though. if someone asks for anything top 40 I won't have it.

College radio was great, but the first night in a club, when some huge drunk guy kept demanding (to my chest) that I play some classic rock (at a goth club. on industrial night), and then started to scream and make threats because I wouldn't, I wanted to run.
I ended up having to get him tossed out when he tried to push me over and get into the booth.
That was the very first time I was in a DJ booth with actual live human beings around me.

I'm still amazed I went back the next week.
posted by Kellydamnit at 1:33 PM on June 30, 2006


I got to the point at one bar where I put up a sign that said.

"NO I DO NOT HAVE HIP HOP"
posted by empath at 1:58 PM on June 30, 2006


And they have absolutely no problem in the bass department either, for the same reason.

I have Shure e2c in-ear phones as well, and this is ridiculous. While there's bass response, there's not nearly the response you get from over the ear headphones. Bass is as much noticeable physical vibration as it is audible sound and the house system is going to smother the earbuds every time. You can hear bass with earplugs in.
posted by mikeh at 2:05 PM on June 30, 2006


I use a huge honking headset when I do internet radio, and I usually only listen in one ear. I think my answer is probably pretty similar to the ones you've been given- I need to hear what's coming through my computer, but I also need to hear what's going on around me in my home. (I'm a little paranoid about people sneaking up behind me.)


Also, my hearing isn't as good in my left ear (and that side of my headset doesn't even work any more). That could contribute to it.
posted by Glitter Ninja at 2:11 PM on June 30, 2006


The simple answer is that you're listening to the record you're cueing up in the headphone with one ear, while matching it up to the main sound you're hearing "outside" with the other ear.

I actually try on headphones like clothes when it's time for a new pair. I like the big honking ones the most. After ten years of being a drum 'n bass dj, the head turned to the side thing feels very normal and natural to me. I don't care much for earbuds in any situation, which sometimes gets me funny looks when I'm listening to my mp3 player, but oh well :)
posted by First Post at 12:14 AM on July 1, 2006


Q-Bert uses an earbud a lot. Just sayin'.
posted by 31d1 at 5:01 PM on July 1, 2006


I have Shure e2c in-ear phones as well, and this is ridiculous. While there's bass response, there's not nearly the response you get from over the ear headphones.

They probably don't fit right. It took me a few weeks of fidding and changing earpieces on my e2cs before I got them properly wedged in my ears, at which point I could hear the bass. If they slip out just a little, well, you can tell there's bass but you don't feel it in your ear. It of course lacks the sensation of your whole outer ear vibrating with bass, but the bass delivered into your canal is quite good.

Of course, that's the reason you wouldn't want to use these as a DJ- it takes too long to get them in just right.
posted by rxrfrx at 5:59 AM on July 2, 2006


Yes. Sealing the ear canal and vibrating the air within it causes pressure issues that are not present when you seal an area around the ear that is many, many times larger.

The driver is also many, many times larger. Still not buying it.
posted by trevyn at 8:59 PM on July 3, 2006


The driver is also many, many times larger. Still not buying it.

Whatever. Go argue with Dean Garstecki of Northwestern University, who published the papers proving it.
posted by Jairus at 9:03 PM on July 3, 2006


(That may have come off in a very hostile tone, it wasn't meant to. Silly internets.)
posted by Jairus at 9:57 PM on July 3, 2006


I couldn't find anything that seemed relevant in Garstecki's list of publications.

Perhaps you're referring to his comments made here:

"Insert earphones can boost the signal by as much as six to nine decibels...you have a signal that is likely to be more intense..."

This appears to mean nothing more than that earbuds are more efficient, and capable of being driven to higher volumes. I can completely agree with the position that people may tend to listen to earbuds at louder volumes, simply because it is possible to do so without significant distortion.

However, a decibel is a measure of sound pressure, and is what is used to estimate dangerous sound levels. Lacking any research that differs, I am forced to believe that dB at the eardrum is dB at the eardrum, no matter where it came from.
posted by trevyn at 4:22 PM on July 4, 2006


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