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POSITIVE FEEDBACK ONLINE - ISSUE 12
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My Audio - It’s the Music, Stupid
by Gary Beard

The last time PFO published my slightly off-kilter ramblings, I had christened my occasional contribution to the Audio Discourse section "The Real World Audiophile." After having lived with that idea for a while, I have decided to file it away in the circular PDA. I was attempting to find an expressive title, a hook—not a whale-sized hook, just one big enough for a memorable minnow. That title now sounds pretentious, if not arrogant—a bad combination. We are all real world audiophiles, of course, but some worlds are just different than others. That said, I still want to create a straightforward theme for my simplistic, semi-conscious musings. Casting off the bondage of review writing is liberating, and letting the reader know when I think I’ve caught a big one is the real fun of writing for me.

The Days of Wine and Headphones

My life seems to be a series of learning events, some good and some not so good. Hobbies are no different, and audio—whether you believe it is a hobby or a way of life—has been a non-stop roller coaster of learning for me. In the last few months, the learning curve has been straight up, with headphones at the forefront. I discovered the Internet forum Headfi (www.head-fi.org) more than two years ago. At first, I just lurked, learning a great deal reading the posts of the headphone cognoscenti, and of course enjoying a good laugh now and then. Headfiers are a fun bunch for the most part. I was interested in headphones, not as a main avenue for listening, but as an occasional diversion, and to protect my family from the ravages of rock-and-roll-propelled decibels. I was surprised how much headphone-related stuff there was—it’s amazing. Even more amazing are the numbers of people who listen to headphones nearly exclusively. Some have reasons related to noise control and/or living arrangements. Others are relative youngsters who have grown up with the Walkman and the Gameboy, so listening via headphones is as natural as playing a video game. Truly surprising is the number of audiophiles who prefer listening to headphones instead of speakers. They have no logistical, environmental, or physical reason, but they like headphones better! Yes, I know what you are thinking. It was hard for me to believe, too.

The Ears Have It

After one false start involving the purchase and subsequent sale of a great sounding Berning Micro-Zotl amp due to my old nemesis, allergy-related ear pain, I acquired a pair (why are they called a pair when there’s only one?) of Sennheiser HD600s. As Sennheiser’s top headphones (until the recently released HD650), the 600s have a devoted following and nearly as many detractors. They are a great value even at the retail price, and are very good headphones, but it is arguable where they fall on the list of the world’s best. As is the case with speakers, headphones have a sound of their own. Sennheiser detractors feel them to be overly warm, veiled, and distant. I have not had an opportunity to compare them to any other top phones except the recently reviewed AKG K1000, so my opinion will carry little weight, but I do know that they are very comfortable—not a small thing with something strapped to your neuron-filled melon—and they sound excellent to me. The main caveat seems to be their 300-ohm input impedance, which makes them a bit hard to drive, so choosing the correct amp is a key to getting the best sound. Anyone who believes the amp and the source make little difference in the sound of headphones is unlikely to hear the HD600s at their best. They are warm and inviting, with nicely rounded, tuneful bass, not unlike the sound most people associate with tubes. I hear some of the distance that their detractors complain about, but if they are truly as veiled as many contend, I need more high-end headphone experience to hear it. They simply sound mellow to me, without a hint of aggressive treble or tizziness, just smoothness and fullness. Treble extension, while good, is perhaps a little rolled off, not enough to obscure the detail that headphones are known for, but enough to keep my ears from melting. Even without having heard other high-end phones, I have to rate these highly.

I have been using them with a variety of CD players, receivers, computer soundcards, an old Marantz 1070 integrated, and a couple of excellent dedicated headphone amplifiers. At first, I enjoyed my late night listening sessions, but was not overwhelmed by headphone fanaticism. That changed after a few evenings listening to the Ray Samuels Emmeline HR-2 and the Meier Corda HA-1 Mark II headphone amps. Ever so slowly, like a good pot of chili, I found my headphones to be gaining flavor and depth with each taste. I found it easy to forget that I was supposed to be reviewing the amps and just let my eyes close, my head bob, and my body become mush. I found myself putting the headphones on my head even when nothing could prevent me from firing up my speakers for a full-tilt boogie. I found myself immersed in music in a way I had never been before. It was, and is, a contagious feeling.

I am not blessed with money flowing out of my body orifices, but if I were in that enviable position, I would have a dedicated audio room complete with systems of every flavor. I would also have one of the world’s most expensive dedicated headphone systems, and I would sit alone in the dark, in my skivvies, listening to the relatively unknown "Orpheus in my Underwear." (I am not referring to the famous orchestral piece by Offenbach, but to the once top-of-the-line, $15,000-dollar Sennheiser Orpheus Electrostatic Headphone System, no longer in production.) Bad jokes aside, while I may have spent a filet mignon or two on audio gear, that scenario ain’t gonna happen unless I win the lottery, find out my uncle is Bill Gates, or divorce my wife and marry the author of the Harry Potter books. "The latter has an extremely low instance of probability," chimes my better half. How I hate pragmatism. So now what am I, a lowly audio nut with a busted bankroll, to do? I find myself more than merely attracted to the sound of headphones. They are seducing me, and I am faced with a dilemma. What dilemma, you may ask? Please do, that’s why I’m writing this, for goodness sake. Okay, that’s better. Thanks.

This audiophool has a multitude of difficult decisions to make. How to fit my hi-fi hobby into real life is one set of problems: Where, how, and when will I listen?

What kind of setup makes me happiest and fits into my reality of a listening space? Whether the music or the equipment is most important is another difficult question: Do I want warm and inviting, tubey sort of sound, or am I a cool-as-a-cucumber detail fanatic? Do I care if I hear clicks and pops from a badly worn LP? Does a bit of tube noise bother me? Am I an SACD guy or a DVD-A guy?

As long as the music is flowing and I am enjoying it, do I really care if my playback system is the "best"? Tough questions? You bet they are, and the biggest problem is that time and experience change them with regularity.

The Winds of Change

Audio and music listening are never static. My previous choices might have been very different if, armed with the knowledge I have acquired, I could rewind ("Sherman, set the Wayback Machine to 1999") and start over. This headphone thang has stripped a veil from a few of my thoughts, but alas, added a heapin’ helpin’ of opacity to others. In the last few years I have concluded that soundstaging and imaging are two of my great audio loves. Headphones do a strange kind of stage and image dance, but in a way that is more at odds with a great speaker than in concert with it, no pun intended.

In my formative years, I spent hours upon hours listening to music with friends. Most of the time the music was not just background noise, we listened intently and enjoyed every moment. These days, I can’t get anyone, save for my son and audio bud Brian B., to listen to my system with me. At the magical age of 17, my kid always has something going on, so five minutes of concentration is his limit. Brian and I are always evaluating gear, and rarely have time just to sit, drink a beer, and listen without a result in mind. This has taken away some of the enjoyment for me, and it seems unlikely to change. Headphones, on the other hand, give me this mysterious and mystical audio joy. They transport me into the event and set me awash in music. Damn it all, I love ‘em, and I don’t care who knows it. Do note that I do not feel this way about any old $10 ‘phones driven by a cheap Walkman radio. We are talking Serious Headphoning, with audiophile-approved headphone gear!

Headphone listening is not just a micro-clique of high end audio. There is something to be had for everyone. While certainly not cheap, high quality headphone gear can be purchased for a relatively modest sum in comparison to a fine speaker system. You can spend thousands if you want, but hundreds will give you a very good start, and a little over a thousand well-placed George Washingtons is enough to buy a nice amp and perhaps a couple different flavors of headphones. This brings up another possibility with headphones—because of their relatively low price and small size, collecting headphones is a viable, potentially fun, and—as the boys and girls at Headfi will tell you—enticing option. Ultimately, I would love to be a collector, and I can say with honesty that if I had to give up my speakers for a time, I would be okay with it, given what I have heard from headphones. However, all things are not perfect, and what started out to be a thrill ride of audio ups has had its share of downs as well.

Since the seeds of this narrative were sown, I have made a few difficult decisions. Not all were decisions I thought I’d have to make. In the time between beginning this piece and completing it, I acquired a very, very, very good OTL SET headphone amp, the wonderful SinglePower Audio Supra (a full review will appear on PFO in the future), but the reoccurrence of serious ear pain caused me to find it a new home only months after having it custom built for me. I can still listen to headphones, but only for a short time before my ears start to hurt, so a world-class amp such as the Supra was being woefully underutilized. I felt strongly that someone who could really enjoy it should own the amp, so the Supra was the second causality of the Tin-Ear War. As is usually the case, the clouds parted, revealing the silver lining. In my case it was a renewed love affair with my Merlin TSM-M speakers. I have reaped immense enjoyment from my foray into headphone gear, and I vow to regain control over my allergic ears as soon as possible so that I can revisit that wondrously magic headphone sound.

It’s the Music, Stupid

What has this heady experience taught me? When I began this soapbox essay on headphones, I really thought I would be telling you that I had relegated my speakers to the "easy listening" room in favor of a seriously high end headphone system. Much to my surprise, the last few months have proved enlightening in a number of ways. My findings are fairly straightforward. I truly enjoy listening to headphones, and have found that they are a viable alternative to speaker-based systems. The audio buffs that have found musical refuge in headphones are just as defiantly committed to their hobby as any other audiophiles, and through their promotion, design, and DIY efforts, high fidelity headphone audio is an exciting world to explore. I’ve now done a bit of that exploration, say the North American continent, and while I have concluded that speakers are still my favorite way to listen to music, headphones give music lovers a host of listening options that have their own undeniable attractions. I will continue to review headphone gear whenever the opportunity presents itself. I don’t really have a tin ear, only painful ones, and perhaps some day soon, with the help of some new allergy meds, I’ll be able to listen to headphones long enough to again make them a focal point in my listening environment. I welcome that turn of events.

There is one thing that my excursion into headphones has clarified for me, and that is where music fits into my life. Headphones bring music into sharp relief, making it easier for me to forget about things like soundstage and imaging, helping me to get in touch with the emotive forces of the performance while leaving all else behind. As a reviewer and should-be-committed audiophile, I find that, more often than not, equipment becomes the focus of this hobby. Having tried for some time to reverse this disturbing trend, my rediscovery of music is the real centerpiece of this discourse. I never want the gear to become the be-all end-all of this hobby, because for me, it is and always will be about the music. Without great music, who would care about how or how well it is delivered?

 

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