Meeting strangers at social events, I've learned not to say that I write about hi-fi for a living. It's generally a conversation killer—unless your idea of scintillating repartee is "People make a living doing that?" (Short answer: Not many, and not really.)
In his July 2003 "The Fifth Element" column, John Marks enthusiastically wrote about the Benchmark Media Systems DAC1 D/A processor and headphone amplifier. Comparing its sound playing CDs with that of a three-times-more-expensive Marantz SA-14 SACD player, he concluded that the DAC 1's "Red Book" performance was at least as good as that of the Marantz, being "slightly more articulate in the musical line, and slightly more detailed in spatial nuances, particularly the localization of individual images in space, and in soundstage depth."
I first saw the Shure SE530 at the 2006 Consumer Electronics Show, when it was dubbed the E500. The '500 shared the current product's three-armature driver technology and in-ear, sound-isolating, sleeve fitting scheme, but that early prototype seemed almost crude in comparison with the SE530.
I want to start this year's gift recommendations by briefly revisiting the results of my Musical Cultural Literacy for Americans write-in competition, which ran in the April issue. All 12 winning entries of 12 selections each are posted online (footnote 1).
The recording project I've mentioned before in this column, that of documenting the historical and significant pipe organs of Rhode Island, is finally (!) in the can. (Except that today, of course, we no longer use cans. Or tape, for that matter.) It has been a learning and growing experience for us all—more than a dozen remote-location recording dates, spread over eight months.
In New York and other major cities, I understand, bus accidents are a real problem. Buses turn right and failing to yield to pedestrians. Clueless pedestrians walk in front of buses. I haven't seen any statistics, but I'm guessing that in this era of cell phones and iPods, the problem has gotten worse: not only do such devices distract you, they make it harder to hear warning signs—such as the sound of a municipal bus bearing down on your ass.
For many years I have used three sets of headphones, all from Grado Laboratories: the Reference RS-1 ($695), the SR-125 ($125), and the SR-60 ($60). I've always favored Grado headphones because the minimal-resonance design philosophy that I feel is responsible for the uncolored midrange of their moving-iron cartridges extends throughout their headphone range as well. Recently, however, I've achieved a new perspective regarding the SR-125 'phones that I felt would be of interest to Stereophile readers.
It's hard to know what to call the SHA-Gold. It is a superb headphone amplifier—maybe even the target all future headphone amps need to shoot at—but it's also a full-function preamplifier. At two grand, it's not exactly a unit you'd add to your current system just to get a headphone connection...Wait a minute! What am I saying? I'm sure that there are folks out there who would add this to their existing reference systems as casually as I'd buy the Audio Alchemy headphone amplifier—but they'd be missing out on a great line stage.
For headphone listeners, this is truly a golden age—we have multiple choices at many different price levels. During the course of this review, I had as many as five headphone amplifiers (and, in several cases, multiple power supplies) set up for comparison. Yet many people don't understand why we might want a headphone amp in the first place.
What, I hear you asking, is an integrated drive? The MID is part of McCormack's much lauded "Micro" series (see my review of their Micro Line Drive in Vol.18 No.6), which are designed to offer the same dedication to quality as McCormack's full-size components, but at a lower price (and in a smaller package). The MID was initially the Micro Headphone Drive, sporting two ½" stereo phone-jacks on the front panel, a two-position input switch, and a volume control. The rear boasted two inputs and an output (controlled by the volume pot). It was designed to be a high-quality headphone amp and a minimalist preamp. In this configuration, I ran into it at the 1995 WCES where—almost as a gag—Steve McCormack had made up a few ½" stereo phone-plug to 5-way binding post connectors. He could, he explained, run small speakers from the headphone outputs. There was a serious purpose behind the joke, of course. Showing that the MHD could drive speakers spoke volumes for its ability to drive headphones.
I was cruising at 36,000 feet, totally relaxed, listening to Richard Thompson. Looking down at my lap, I caught sight of a little box with a glowing green light. Switching off this light was like turning on the noise—the 767 was roaring like a locomotive and the ambient sound hit me like a fist. Thompson's crisp Celtic chordings turned mushy, undetailed, and dull. I felt weary. Whoa, I wouldn't do that again if I were you, laddie! I fumbled for the switch and reactivated the NoiseGuard circuitry on my Sennheiser HDC 451 noise-canceling headsets. Thompson's guitar rang out clearly, the airplane quieted to sound like an S-class Benz, and I relaxed into a calm reverie with only one worry clouding my contentment. But I patted my pocket: yup, still two cognacs left. Everything would be all right.
I've been a little remiss in writing about one of the best tools for travel I've experienced recently: Ray Samuels Audio's Emmeline The Hornet ($350), a tiny (3" L by 2" W by 1" H) rechargeable portable headphone amplifier. I tend to travel with my iPod packed with hi-rez music files and a pair of low-impedance headphones. That's not a marriage made in heaven, so I also need a headphone amplifier. Over the years, portable headphone amps have gotten better and better while getting smaller and smaller. The Hornet is the smallest I've discovered so far and is my current favorite.
All of a sudden, it seems there's a renaissance in in-ear monitors. Used to be there was just Etymotic, but now Etymotic, Shure, and Ultimate Ears are all producing high-performance in-ear headphones. It's almost enough to make me suspect we audiophiles have become a marketing juggernaut.
Oh mama, was I ever excited when I heard rumors of the existence of AKG's K 701! If you're among the audiophiles who sneer at those of us who like headphones, you're probably rolling your eyes and thinking I must lack a rich inner life.
In his bimonthly column, "The Fifth Element," John Marks has tried to identify pro-audio components that would be of interest to audiophiles. In his June 2005 episode, John wrote about Grace Design's m902 D/A headphone amplifier ($1695), the Colorado company's replacement for the 901, which had long been a favorite of his. Changes include: the handling of single-wire sample rates of up to 192kHz; unbalanced analog outputs, controlled by the front volume control, to allow the unit to be used as a preamplifier; a cross-feed processing circuit licensed from www.meier-audio.de; power-supply revisions; and the provision of a USB digital input, in addition to S/PDIF, AES/EBU, and TosLink.