Friday, June 20, 2014

Ear candy

I just received a pair of HiFiMan HE-300 home headphones in the mail today, my third major headphone purchase in the last three years. Now I have a Ferrari red leather Phiaton MS-400 set, hooked up to a NuForce uDAC-3 headphone amp for the office, my Bose QC-15 noise cancelling ‘phones for the train, and this set for home. Plus a pair of Altec earbuds for all points in between.

Right out of the box, the HiFi Mans sounded flat and congested, which is the opposite of what a pair of open-backed cans should sound like. Open-backed means that instead of cups that hold all the sound in, these drivers are not sealed around the ear. Sound leaks out, and the effect is similar to speakers in a room where you can hear natural sound in an open environment – the opposite of earbuds. The manual says they need 150 hours of break-in (6 days) so I’m driving them with my Yamaha receiver tuned to the Peter Gabriel station on Pandora. I’m sure they will sound much better after a few days of break-in.

I’ve had headphones since I was little, but I don’t think I’ve ever had three sets of full-size headphones before. It’s mainly a function of circumstances: I work in an open office environment and my primary job is writing, so I need the office set to tune the noise out. I commute by train rather than by car, so the noise-cancelling is a welcome feature. Why don’t I use the Bose in the office? Well, frankly, the Phiatons sound a lot better, especially driven by the NuForce from my laptop. I listen to live concert DVDs all day to help me block out distractions ("Rockin' at work" - Nov. 18, 2011).

The home headphones came from the realization that I can’t get Amazon to stream music over AirPlay to my home receiver. So all the music I can now access with Prime Music I can only play on my mediocre Altec Lansing computer speakers, or via headphones. Since I don’t want to cart my Phiatons back and forth from the office, a set for home made the most sense.

I’m going to date myself a bit here, but I still remember the first set of headphones I fell in love with. I was shopping at a store called Cactus Records and Tapes, a chain of music stores in Houston that now only has one location left, on South Shepherd at Richmond. I used to ride my bicycle to the store to buy records and one day they had a curious box sitting on the counter with a pair of headphones hooked up to it. It was a vertically loading CD player, one of the first ever sold in the US. This was back when there was only one tiny bin of classical music CDs – packaged in cardboard longboxes so they would fit into record bins – in a whole store of records and tapes.

Curiosity piqued, I put on the Koss PRO-4X headphones and pushed play. From a velvety black silence, the London Symphony Orchestra exploded with the first bars of John Williams’ overture to Star Wars. There could be arguably no better introduction to digital music for a young person raised on the acoustic limitations and surface noise of records and tapes. I remember hearing the triangle roll very prominently – I wager if I were to hear the same setup and early digital recording today, it would sound horrible – but that was impressive to my young, untrained ears. I was hooked.

I later convinced my dad, a classical music fan, to buy a Technics CD player for the home stereo – we were one of the first people in our circle of friends to have one. And of course I had to have those Koss headphones as well, with piezo-electric tweeters capable of reproducing from 10 Hz to 40 kHz, far beyond the range of human hearing. This was back in the day when such lofty claims were difficult to enforce.

I used the Koss phones until the earpads literally fell off – they weren’t that well-made. I’ve always coveted a pair of Sennheisers, but they were always a little outside of what I wanted to spend at the time. When I was really young, I even played around with a crude wireless headset that used a loop antenna to broadcast an audio signal - meaning I ran hundreds of feet of cable around my house so I could listen to music anywhere within that loop. My brother had a pair of classic AKG 240s that I liked, but I mostly made do with smaller portable headphones in the age of the Walkman, the mp3 player (I bought my first unbranded one in Hong Kong on a family trip) and finally the iPod. I had a string of JVC and Sony headphones (some of which got passed down to Puck to be used up and destroyed) before I finally spent some bucks for the Bose headphones.

The most interesting pair of headphones was in my last full-blown home theater in Houston, a wireless set of off-ear Sonys that used an infrared transmitter decoding a Dolby Digital signal and simulating it using a multi-driver open-air earphone. I had two headsets so two people could watch and listen to movies in surround sound in almost complete silence, yet still hear any interruptions. I also found that one overseas and I can't find anything like it today. I think today's headphone junkies prefer to block out external sounds with fully enclosed earcups.

Although I disdain Bose as a brand (the joke when I used to sell stereos was “No highs, no lows, must be a Bose”) their noise cancellation circuitry in their headphones is impressive. I’ve invited many of my co-workers to try them on, just to see the wide-eyed reaction when they realize how quiet it can be if you eliminate noise, as if you were in a recording studio. And while the fidelity is adequate for casual iPod listening, the actual musical performance is just mediocre. The best feature is that the music comes from that inky black silence afforded by the noise-cancelling, just like my first experience with the compact disc many years ago.