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Eulogy for the perfect headphones

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I wish the doctor had mentioned hysteria before he broke my jaw.

After seven weeks of watching The Simpsons DVDs, eating cheddar soup through a syringe, and communicating through a dry erase board, I snapped. It was a cool summer evening, and the smell of fragrant — and, more importantly, solid — food wafted from the living room, where my parents were eating a snack. I was in the bathroom investigating my hair. It was frizzy and patchy from malnutrition, and atop my 95-pound frame, the person in the mirror was a stranger. Suddenly and without a hint of pain, a blood clot loosened, and red syrup filled my mouth until I couldn’t contain it. The blood surged past the metal locks that clinched my teeth together and over my dry lips, turning my chin into a waterfall.

My parents found me on the bathroom floor, caked in blood and laughing uncontrollably. They held me over the sink, allowing the juices to slowly drain through the tiny gaps in my wired grin. Then, finally, they moved me to the couch, and put my headphones over my ears so that — as I would piece together years later — I wouldn’t hear their panicked call to the doctor’s office.

The broken jaw was inevitable, a grand finale to two decades of surgeries meant to repair my full cleft lip and palate. My parents had been keenly aware that the procedure would become a grim coda to my teenage life, a rain cloud gradually approaching with adulthood. So, to help me look forward to two months with a wired jaw, and however many weeks of rehabilitation, they made a promise years in advance: when the time came, they’d help me buy one spectacular distraction.

We both knew a gift wasn’t a solution, but their generosity and enthusiasm around this purchase helped. After trips to the doctor throughout high school, we talked about the fantastic thing, this fount of material joy. Whatever it was, its positive weight, we told ourselves, would more than counter its corresponding burden.

In the months leading to the surgery, I fell in love with the idea of decadent headphones, the kind that cover your head like ear muffs, with a long wire that can plug into a headphone jack or an amp. I had this romantic notion that I’d zip through my sentence by listening to my mother’s record collection, my dad’s boxset of The Shadow radio dramas, and anything and everything I could find on the internet, which to a college freshman in 2005, was fat with “free” music.

The Sennheiser HD 650 was, in my 19-year-old opinion, a serious name that captured a sense of detached excellence. Its compelling moniker, along with reviews, supported my fantasy.

“The headphones certainly look the part,” wrote CNET. “The HD 650s' luxurious feel, the thickly padded headband and ear cushions, and the titanium-silver finish leave no doubt — even before you hear them, you can tell these are very special headphones.” As for the sound, reviewers used words like “sweetness” and “laid-back” and with those phrases I could project the raw happiness a pair of headphones would bring me.

Chris Plante

With my parents’ help, and what savings I’d mustered from a secretary gig, I bought $600 headphones. I didn’t open them until after the surgery, and for the first couple days, the elaborate boxing and dense manual kept me busy.

After a week, I didn’t have much interest in conversation. In the time it’d take me to scribble my thoughts onto the dry erase board, my family or friends would move to the next topic, or worse, they’d wait patiently, and I could see a mask of boredom gradually cover their faces. So I wore the headphones, a bratty way of shutting myself out from the world. They never came off. When I ate, when I walked my parents’ neighborhood, when I slept.

I broke them almost immediately — or, I should say, bruised them. One of the convex mesh plates that covered the left ear caved in when trapped for hours between my head and a pillow. The sound didn’t seem to be impacted, and compared to my soup-based diet, an aesthetic scuff was a non-issue.

Often our dependencies on objects come on gradually, as they do with security blankets or our smartphones. I loved my luxurious headphones. But I know that moment, reclined in my family’s living room, listening to I-can’t-even-remember-what, watching my mom and dad on the edge of the couch, hunched over the phone, those headphones became my personal retreat. The sound was sweet and laid-back; it was also transportive. The big, puffy earpieces felt like escape pods, and when I closed my eyes, I landed in a concert hall. The lights were off, but in the sound I could feel the yawning, empty, and welcoming space.

They followed me everywhere, treated with about as much care and respect as a childhood stuffed animal. They blocked out the radiator hiss in my first New York apartment. When I moved in with my girlfriend, they kept me company when I worked in the morning before she woke up. I took them on long strolls in the middle of July, despite them being over-ear headphones with warm padding, hardly ideal for blocking noise or preventing heat exhaustion. Wherever I was, I could close my eyes, and leap back to that peace.

This summer, I was sitting on my couch in my living room when the left earpiece, the one that had been dented so long ago, finally gave out. After a couple weeks of repair attempts, I accepted the inevitable, and began to look for new headphones. That lasted all of five minutes, before I ordered another pair of HD 650s.

I could tell you, in my inexpert opinion, how the sound is so precise that classical music, if you listen closely, divides into a collection of instruments, not a singular orchestral track. Or how these headphones became my go-to for flashy video games, making every crack of a gunshot feel just right. Or how the bass and treble are so perfectly mixed that an acoustic guitar vibrates from your ears to the tip of your spine. Or I could amortize the cost of an expensive gadget across a decade of use.

But headphones, like so many electronics, are generally excellent, and so acutely tuned to preferences that it’s difficult to parse what makes something truly special, and not merely great. What’s significant about the objects we cherish most, I think, is the unpredictable part they will play in our lives. Perhaps I would have attached myself to any pair of headphones on that cool summer evening, but I prefer to think that I needed a rare escape. I found it, placed over my ears by worried parents who desperately hoped this gift would help their son through another difficult night.