One of the best movie experiences of my life was watching John Krasinski’s A Quiet Place on a 13.5” MacBook Pro screen with puffy $20 over-ear headphones. I was visiting my then-girlfriend (now wife)’s family in Maryland for a holiday. As most family holiday gatherings go, it was cramped with people, luggage, and anything but space. When I couldn’t sleep and everyone else was out cold, I wanted to watch a movie. The idea of turning on the TV never crossed my mind; I was too uncomfortable for that. Enter: my laptop, headphones, and A Quiet Place.
I knew I was committing a mortal sin against cinema, at least that’s what I believed. “This goes against the intentions of the filmmakers,” the voice inside my head complained, “You’re not even watching the same movie as them.” In 2018, I hardly watched any movies this way. In fact, I still mostly stick to the biggest screen I have available when possible. That’s why I watched A Quiet Place that night rather than Seven Samurai or some other movie I viewed as more prestigious than a first-time director’s horror debut. If it was a crime to watch a movie on a 13.5” screen, it couldn’t be something the mobs of Film Twitter could come after me for.
One hour and thirty-five minutes later, I took off my headphones that had more than a few drops of sweat dripping from them—and felt dirty. Not only had I sinned against cinema, but I enjoyed it. I noticed the sweat, which baffled me because I wasn’t hot at all and rarely sweat; it was strictly empathy-sweat, a first for me. For the entire length of the runtime, I felt utterly immersed in the film. In particular, the sounds of A Quiet Place, when listened to through my bulky headphones, felt unlike anything I had ever experienced in a movie or television viewing before.
Directors want us to watch their movies on big, big screens. Obviously.
The big vs. small screen discourse is not really as much of a debate as it is a meme at this point, with some inevitable punchline about how directors like Christopher Nolan and David Lynch have been perceived (even if not accurately) to disdain viewers who watch their movies on smaller screens. Most people who care about movies, whether they are part of the production industry or Letterboxd, all agree that it genuinely makes for the optimum viewing experience to best approximate the intentions of the filmmakers.
In-home viewing, it’s “best” to watch a movie without pausing it, so as to not interrupt the tempo. To keep the lights off, so as to not provide unintended visual backgrounds. And, of course, to use the biggest screen possible to semi-replicate the large screens of theatrical releases.
I pretty much agree with all of this. But if the implementation of filmmaker intentions ends with the visual format, we miss out on the fact that film is an audio-visual medium, not just a visual medium. Small-screen viewing accompanied by headphones upholds the audio part of the medium better than most home television viewings: the sound of the film is purer to the directorial intention with the use of headphones.
I understand that not all small-screen viewings (such as on a laptop, tablet, or phone) are accompanied by headphones. But, speaking from personal experience, it seems that people use smaller screens when they lack both the privacy and the convenience of a larger screen, a combination that often also results in the use of headphones. At the very least, it’s safe to say movie and television viewers use headphones more often with smaller screens than with their television sets (at least right now).
It’s not hard to understand from a sonic-technical perspective why movies sound better through headphones than speakers. It’s the same reason why listening to music through quality headphones beats a pool-party Bluetooth speaker any day. With headphones, the listener is closer to the source of the sound, resulting in less sound being lost. With less space from the source of the sound to our ears, more of the sound waves actually make it to our ears. In A Quiet Place, every footstep, every breath is intensified; the work of foley artists, who recreate and reimagine sounds for film and television, feels not incidental but essential to the dramatic flow of the story.
An insider’s perspective.
This comes as no surprise for a movie with a plot that heavily involves sound, but it’s also true of other audio experiences. I semi-professionally master audiobooks for self-published authors and have produced multiple books that have passed Audiobook Creation Exchange (ACX) standards to be published on most audiobook platforms. Part of my job involves making sure the noise floor is no higher than -60dB RMS, which isn’t quite dead noise but more of an empty room sound. Since I work with self-published authors who record the audio themselves as non-professional voice actors or narrators with relatively cheap USB microphones, hitting -60dB without distorting the audio is the hardest part of my job.
I get easily frustrated and tell myself I’m never producing another book or podcast again. When this happens, I unplug my headphones and listen to it over my MacBook’s built-in speakers. The flaws are magically gone, the noise floor sounds great—I can’t hear the author’s over-pronounced plosive sounds (think of a popping “P” sound), nor their incessant mouth breathing, nor the fan in the background.
While removing the headphones reduces my stress and raises confidence in my audiobook work, I do hear less of the audio. It helps in my case because the noises I’m not hearing weren’t intended. They aren’t supposed to be part of the end product. For a regular feature film, with countless people working in sound-related departments with hefty budgets, the sounds are intentional. The footsteps and breaths are both meant to be heard and with headphones, you hear everything you’re meant to—and that’s the most significant defense I can give for small screen entertainment.
Start with a film you’ve seen countless times that way if it’s not for you, no harm is done. For me, any of the first three of the Pirates of the Caribbean movies work for this. Just try to appreciate and experience the full detail of the sound. If you’ve never done this before, I can virtually guarantee your viewing will feel fresh.
And then there’s surround sound.
Here’s another argument, though. If you’ve ever seen a movie where the audio and picture aren’t quite synchronized, you’ve likely experienced an extreme case of latency, a term that refers to the delay between audio entering a system and emerging from its source. For the most part, latency doesn’t affect the majority of your home viewing experiences since the brain can’t detect millisecond delays. But if latency is any larger, the brain sometimes does detect them, even if subconsciously, and your viewing is altered from the filmmakers’ intentions. Headphones reduce this risk better than most speakers.
Perhaps one of the most recognizable benefits of watching movies on headphones is their creation of a soundstage, which replicates a traditional soundstage of physical surround sound speakers being placed in different positions of a room to allow the ear to locate the physical position of sounds from different directions. When the monsters come in A Quiet Place, for example, you know what direction they’re lurking from before the characters turn their heads.
Different kinds of headphones do this in different ways—virtual and true surround sound. Virtual surround sound “attempts to mimic the natural discrepancies between what our left and right ears hear that enable us to sense the direction a sound is coming from,” according to Skybuds, a headphone review website maintained by professional audiophiles.
True surround sound “house[s] several mini speakers, complete with a subwoofer within each earpiece. This often leads to a bulkier design but allows for audio to be played through specific speakers at specific times, physically replicating those natural discrepancies to create an ultra-realistic listening experience.” With both, the sound better imitates the intentions of the filmmakers than non-surround sound listening, such as the soundbar speakers on the majority of high-definition televisions.
So, what’s possibly the best audio method for small screens?
More important than latency issues that rarely come up, and more unique to the sound delivery method of headphones, over-ear headphones cut out background noise better than any other sound delivery method, including surround sound speakers. If movies are meant to be watched in the dark, they are also meant to be listened to with as few sonic distractions as possible, and headphones better deliver on this intention than home television—and, depending on the crowd, even the theatrical experience.
Even simple earbuds cut out background noise in a way impossible for most home speaker systems; higher-quality noise-canceling headphones have an even stronger muscle for this, as would be expected. I can’t even imagine what watching A Quiet Place would feel like with noise-canceling headphones.
Related to all of the above characteristics, small screen viewing with the right audio methods can be a more immersive experience. I’ve struggled to get through movies during the COVID-19 pandemic at times, especially the cookie-cutter blockbusters made from pre-existing Intellectual Property (IP) like Space Jam: A New Legacy, which aired on HBO Max at the same as in theaters.
In a theatrical experience, I’m sure I still wouldn’t have admired the new Space Jam, but I expect I would have felt more engrossed in the movie during its runtime than I did on my television screen. Had I watched it on a small screen—which for me, usually means my wife is sleeping and I don’t want to wake her to watch something—I also would have felt more immersed since headphones have that impact. Personal experience aside, a 2010 academic article even found that “subjects with headphone delivery reported higher levels of immersion than subjects with speaker delivery.”
There isn’t one objectively correct way to watch a movie. But like writer-director James Gunn recently pointed out, “Movies don’t last because they’re seen on the big screen. Movies last because they’re seen on television. ‘Jaws’ isn’t still a classic because people are watching it in theaters.” Most viewers have even smaller screens available at their disposal than ever before—and they’re being used, even if less than traditional television screens. And people are still going to fall in love with new movies, rewatch them time and time again, and will help solidify a new category of classics regardless of what film lovers write in opinion pieces like this, whether in favor of larger or smaller screens.
Recognizing people are still going to watch movies on whatever screens they desire—or without headphones—it’s safe to say the majority of the discourse about small screens (where users frequently use headphones or earbuds) misses the crucial audio element. This omission isn’t insignificant seeing as the combination of audio and visuals is what makes film unique from other artistic mediums. Film is an audio-visual medium of equal value, and the discourse about screen size should take that into consideration.
Maybe your takeaway isn’t that small screens are good but that headphones can improve (some of) your cinematic experiences. That’s fine. I just can’t get myself to use wireless headphones while watching a movie on a normal television because many wireless headphones have unreliable latency issues. Meanwhile, wired headphones are too inconvenient for my home television screen. Not to mention the soundbar allows for a social experience that headphones deny, enabling the viewer to watch movies with others. Perhaps in an ideal home theater, a massive, high-quality screen would be married to wired, comfortable, noise-canceling headphones.
While movie watchers make concessions to the ideal experience in the meantime, cinephiles should grant more grace to those who watch movies on smaller screens—at least those who use headphones.