You'd probably be surprised to learn that headphones are the most common means for listening to music. No, I didn't get that from a book, but from personal observation. I'm referring here to personal portable stereo listeningthe ubiquitous Jogman with which a whole generation has retreated into its own private world, isolated from traffic noise, muggers, and, at home, housemates or parents screaming "Turn it down!"
While headphone listening remains secondary to that of loudspeakers for most serious listeners, it's still an important alternative for many. And while good conventional headphones exist, electrostatics are usually considered first when the highest playback quality is required. As always, there are exceptions (Grado's headphones come immediately to mind), but most high-end headphones are electrostaticsuch designs offer the benefits of electrostatic loudspeakers without their dynamic limitations. Last year I reviewed the Koss ESP/950 electrostatics (Vol.15 No.12), a remarkable set of headphones from the company that practically invented headphones for serious home listening. Here I listen to examples from two other companies, each known for its headphones since Pluto was a pup.
Ah, how the times change. When I reviewed Etymotic Research's ER-4S in-ear headphones in the July 1995 Stereophile, they seemed expensive to me at $330, but well worth that seemingly high price: at the time, they were the best headphones I'd heard. Nowadays, with reference headphones costing well north of a kilobuck, the price of the ER-4S seems relatively reasonable.
Love 'em or hate 'em, headphones serve a purpose. My first headphones were Kosses, and they were perfect for use in a college dorm. While I've always owned a pair or more over the years, somehow they never became my primary mode of listening, except in situations where using loudspeakers at satisfying levels risked eviction, bodily harm, or both.
YBA Design's new WD202 D/A processor and headphone amplifier showed up while I was turning the pages of Don and Jeff Breithaupt's Precious and Few: Pop Music of the Early '70s, recommended by John Marks in his October 2009 "Fifth Element" column. Each page drips with great examples of why the 1970s often wind up on the wrong end of the culture stick (the Osmonds, anyone? Terry Jacks?).
I have built up a large collection of CDs since the medium's launch more than a quarter century ago, along with a modest number of SACDs and a small number of DVD-As. But I find these days that, unless I'm getting down to some serious listening and can give the music my uninterrupted attention, I use iTunes to feed computer files to my high-end rig (footnote 1). I've mostly been using the superb-sounding combination of dCS Puccini U-Clock and Puccini player/DAC that I reviewed last December to take a USB feed from a Mac mini, but I've also been using the Bel Canto USB Link 24/96 and Stello U2 USB-S/PDIF converters, particularly for headphone listening, when I use one of those two format converters with a Benchmark DAC1 D/A headphone amplifier.
Here's a question for a Stereophile.com poll: What's the best hi-fi value of the last 15 years? I'd bet that, 16 years after its introduction, Grado Laboratories' SR60 headphones would get more than a few votes.
I was looking out the window. I was waiting for the plane to take off. I was wearing Monster Cable's Beats by Dr. Dre Studio headphones ($349.95). I was listening to Pens' burning, fuzzed-out, 27-minute onslaught, Hey Friend, What You Doing? (320kbps MP3; LP, De Stijl IND071). I was shouting with sudden shock and pain.
February is traditionally the month for music features, so I start this column with some recordings you really should hear. This year I had a greater-than-usual number of worthy candidates for "Records To Die For." Which discs got named as R2D4s and which got column coverage was, to quote the Iron Duke, a near-run thing.
Designed to be used onstage by musicians monitoring their sound and mix, in-ear monitors (IEMs) such as the new Westone 3 are great in situations where you want to hear nothing but the music. They're small and portable, and their high efficiency and easy impedance load mean they work well with portable players. IEMs are better than electronic-feedback, noise-reducing, closed circumaural phones at blocking out airplane engine noise and annoying neighbors who want to chat. They're also more compact, sound better, and don't require batteries.
I got early into personal stereos. I lost my driving license for a while in the mid-1970ssomething about a stop sign and "failure to observe"so I used to take the train to a regular bass-playing gig I had in Brighton, on England's south coast. Not only did I conclude that any audio magazine worth its cover price had to have enough meat in it to last the two-hour journey and back again, I also built myself an op-ampbased, battery-powered amplifier to drive a pair of RadioShack headphones. Desperate times called for desperate measures, and my only source was a mono cassette recorder. Inside-the-head mono is as mono desperately does, so once I got my license back, it was back to the car and stereo FM radio. It wasn't until a) I moved to New York City to become a strap-hanging commuter and b) bought a 2003-vintage 30GB iPod (which I still use) that music on the move again began to play a major role in my listening.
Phiaton is the brand name used by the South Korean Cresyn Company. Wes Phillips reviewed Phiaton's conventional closed-back Moderna MS 400 headphones in January 2009 and was as impressed by the sound quality as he was by their appearance. The PS 200 ($249), the only in-ear headphone sold by Phiaton, also has a striking appearance: the black rear face, which is all someone sitting next to you in the subway will see, resembles the turbine blades of a fan-jet engine. There are two balanced-armature drive-units, with a passive crossover network.
Sennheiser's long-awaited (seven years) HD800 sure isn't subtleat least, not in appearance. The HD800's large earpieces are made from a combination of absorbing composites and functional metal accents, and are huge. Of course, they have to be to house the 56mm ring-radiator transducersand to mount them so they're firing "back" to your ears from the front. Also not subtle is the price: $1399.95.
I once spoke to a blacksmith (named Smith, actually) about the wonderfully patterned bowie knives he made of Damascus steel. Struck by the contrast between the massive brutality of the knives themselves and the delicate beauty of the steel from which they were wrought, I asked Smith why he worked in Damascus, expecting him to extol its legendary temper or its aggressive cutting edge. After all, he was a pretty macho guy with a physique like, well, the village blacksmith's (Google it, young 'uns). He thought for a minute before responding, quietly, "Beauty is its own reward."
Most of this column is dedicated to two hi-fi products for the massesnot from Lvov, via Vladimir Lamm, of Lamm Industries; or from Leningrad, via Victor Khomenko, of Balanced Audio Technologies; nor from any other Soviet-born audio hero. (Neither Vladimir nor Victor is on the list of "Name of Russia" contenders for greatest Russian of all time.) Nor from any consumer audio company, but from the world of professional audio. An Iron Curtain almost separates the two.