Even with the crappy ear buds that come with your portable music devices, listening to music using both buds is essential in the stereo world.
Ok, I’ve stated this, but the question you all want answered is “why?”
I don’t want to make this too technical of a discussion because my knowledge of brain functions and musical engineering is pre-novice, but I think I can get the message across in a simple way. You probably already know this anyway, but, just in case…
I will do this by example by giving you a detention homework assignment. Get yourself a copy of the Metallica song, “Some Kind of Monster.” Yes, I know it’s from the album everyone hates, St. Anger, the album for which everyone complains about the sound of the snare drum. Please, cooperate for the purpose of this assignment. Listen to the song three ways: with both ear buds, with only the left ear bud, and with only the right ear bud. Pay close attention to the whole song, but pay particular attention to the section between 1:06 and 1:16, that thrashy, fast guitar riff.
The purpose of this exercise is to demonstrate how the two channels delivered to your ear buds are not equivalent in most modern music. This particular example was chosen because there are very obvious parts of the song which are absent from one channel or the other; it is clear to hear the difference.
If you listen closely to the guitar section between 1:06 and 1:16 on each individual channel, they are close, but discernible. In fact, for most of the music recorded by Metallica, the guitar from left channel (conveniently labelled with “L” on your ear bud) corresponds to that of James Hetfield, rhythm guitarist and lead singer of the group. When you listen to this part on the right channel, you will hear Kirk Hammett’s variation on the riff; however, when you listen to both channels, it will sound like what you hear from the left channel. I’ve read that there is an human auditory preference for music in the left ear, and I am suspicious that Metallica and their producers know how to exploit this while mixing the music.
Metallica isn’t the only group doing this. This is actually common, and you wouldn’t even notice unless you were looking for it, but even the stuff you hear on the radio is like that. I doubt many of us are listening to the radio using headphones, but, if you do, try to take notice of this.
Through modern technology and preservation of originals, people are going back releasing stereo mixes of many old artists whose recordings were originally released in mono. An example of this that I don’t stop talking about is The Beatles. In 2009, remastered box sets of the entire Beatles studio discography were released, in stereo and mono. While the stereo box set is the more popular set in the stereo age, the mono box set has received more critical praise. I have not heard the updated mono mixes, but am looking forward to having an opportunity to do so in the near future. The advantage of the mono mixes is the ability to listen to them in one channel without the need for special equipment.
So next time you want to share ear buds with someone, make sure you’re listening to something that isn’t missing information in individual channels, a mono mix is preferable. Otherwise, go out and buy the damn mono ear buds or at least the Belkin Rockstar.
And for God’s sake, please get yourself a set of quality listening equipment.
[This was in no way intended to insult the intelligence of anybody. That is, of course, unless I see you sharing ear buds with people, in which case, stop.]