The Entry Level #29

It wasn't very long ago that I boasted, in my casual, self-effacing way, that I didn't really like headphones—that I didn't need headphones. Because most people in the New York metropolitan area would rather die than communicate with each other, they use headphones as a sort of fortress of solitude, shielding themselves not only from their physical environment but from all other living creatures. I, however, claimed to enjoy listening to the sounds of the world around me—even screeching tires, blaring sirens, and the drone of air ducts could be musical. La-di-da. Besides, I argued, in my beautiful mind music was always playing. I'd wake up singing the happy pop songs of my youth ("I wanna dance with somebody / I wanna feel the heat with somebody"), spend the afternoon reciting the poetry of Kendrick Lamar ("Bitch, don't kill my vibe / bitch, don't kill my vibe"), and lull myself to sleep with the theme song from M*A*S*H.

Mine was a full and happy life. Headphones? Why bother?

Mostly, though, I was afraid of being like everyone else—afraid of being normal.

That was then. I'm a changed man now, smarter and better looking.

It began as a diversion: Each day, on my way to work, I'd count the number of people wearing headphones. One morning, during the 13-minute walk from the corner of Sixth Avenue and 32nd Street to our office at 261 Madison Avenue, I counted 103 people wearing some sort of headphone. A whopping 36 of them, suckers all, used Apple's white earbuds. Most of the others—an even assortment of bankers, poseurs, hipsters, guidos, and thugs—wore one of several colorful Beats models. All of these people, too weak to be left alone with even their simplest thoughts and too insecure to avoid any of the latest trends, were despicable. I shook my head at them, frowned, felt sad for the dying world.

Over time, however, I noticed more and more people moving beyond the earbuds, beyond the Beats, wearing headphones that, under normal circumstances, could never be confused with mere fashion accessories: Weighing down the heads of innocent commuters I saw unwieldy Sennheisers, completely inconvenient Grados, even the most awkward AKGs. Did these people know what they were listening through? And what music were they hearing? Hmm . . .

It came to a head, so to speak, when I started seeing regular dudes, first wearing elegant Bowers & Wilkins P3s, and then the larger, even more luxurious P5s—the ones with all the gleaming metal and soft, luscious leather. Who were these guys, stepping into my audiophile yard, climbing up my audiophile stoop, knocking on my audiophile front door? Did they have cushy, high-paying jobs? Go home to big-eyed Zooey Deschanels and ginger-haired Jessica Chastains? Drop their perfectly toned asses into lovely Eames Lounge Chairs? Play their white-label Blue Note LPs on Continuum Audio Caliburns through Wilson Audio XLFs driven by Dan D'Agostino Momentums? And what was I doing, serenading myself with silly rap songs, passing time by counting the number of people wearing headphones on a loud and crowded train?

I was Lena Dunham to their collective Patrick Wilson. A change was taking place: I wanted to be more like them.

This strange metamorphosis gained traction last November, when I moved into Ms. Little's apartment. Because it took longer than I'd expected to get the hi-fi system sounding its best in the new, larger space, I turned to headphones to keep me satisfied. It was a practical move, and it worked, but I couldn't have been prepared for the residual effects. Besides merely keeping me satisfied, the headphones made my days altogether more enjoyable.

For the most part, the source component was my blue, 8GB iPod Nano. I used it out of necessity—it's the only iPod I have, and I'm one of six remaining New York Metro-area residents who don't yet own a smartphone—but it led to three unexpected discoveries. First, I found that, when it comes to the iPod and the music files therein, I would very happily sacrifice quality for quantity. Crazy, I know—but deleting the two remaining lossless albums I'd stored on the iPod (Party Intellectuals, by Marc Ribot's Ceramic Dog, and Ernie's Conspiracy, by Orquesta la Conspiración) allowed me to stuff it with a ton of 320kbps MP3s. It's a very simple equation: More music equals more happiness. When the time comes for me to assemble a high-end music-server system, I'll do it the right way, slowly and painfully, with files of only the highest and holiest resolution—but for the iPod, more is better.

Second, I discovered that I freaking love iTunes. I visited the iTunes store with the laser-like purpose of buying single tracks from Dr. Dre's The Chronic 2001 and Bruce Springsteen's Born to Run, and while I succeeded at that, I was also compelled to purchase several other complete albums: Snoop Dogg's Doggystyle, A$AP Rocky's Long.Live.A$AP, Jam City's Classical Curves, Kendrick Lamar's Overly Dedicated, Raime's Quarter Turns Over a Living Line, and Sonny Sharrock's Guitar. Silly me: I've often lamented the impossibility of finding every album I want in a single place, doomed instead to buy some from Other Music, others from Iris Records, still others from Forced Exposure, and so on, when in fact iTunes offers just about every album I can dream of. (The only artist with which I managed to stump the system was The Caretaker, aka Leyland James Kirby, whose many excellent releases are sold directly through his label, History Always Favours the Winners.) And it probably goes without saying that the iTunes user interface is as refreshingly intuitive as it is pretty to look at.

Could Apple offer high-resolution files? Absolutely. Why don't they? As reported by AudioStream.com's Michael Lavorgna, Apple's "Mastered for iTunes" program suggests that the company is merely awaiting the right time. A PDF downloadable from Apple.com explains: "As technology advances and bandwidth, storage, battery life, and processor power increase, keeping the highest quality masters available in our systems allows for full advantage of future improvements to your music."

Exciting news. Still, I suspect the demand for hi-rez files is currently too small for Apple to become seriously invested. For now, 256kbps is the default encoding rate of an iTunes music file—meager by audiophile standards, good enough for most listeners—but if and when Apple does decide to flip that switch and offer hi-rez files, the entire digital-music landscape will dramatically change. This isn't to say that I'll be rushing away from vinyl—I still obsess over LPs—but it's nice to know that when I can't find a physical copy of a particular album at my local record shop, I can probably find its digital counterpart at the iTunes store. For those whose ears can stand no less than the absolute highest fidelity, there's great stuff at Blue Coast Records, Channel Classics, HDtracks, M•A Recordings, and 2L. But don't expect to find Snoop Dogg, Kendrick Lamar, or Sonny Sharrock—I checked.

The last discovery is closely related to the first and, at least to me, just as surprising: During the time my hi-fi system was in flux, I listened to more music than ever before. And even MP3s sound better than the stuff that typically plays in my mind. La-di-da.

But some habits are harder than others to break. On the train this morning, I counted 37 people wearing headphones. I'm not including the guy whose Sony in-ears were blasting his shitty club music so loud that people in the next car could hear it—those were more like megaphones—but I do include the girl with the pale orange earbuds that I happen to know she received for free, from Victoria's Secret, with her recent purchase of Pink-brand panties. And I include myself. No doubt about it: I'm becoming more and more normal every day.

Eh, not entirely—I'm still cooler than everybody else. I was listening to the Underachievers' awesome new mix tape, Indigoism (320kbps MP3 from download, Brainfeeder), through Skullcandy Roc Nation Aviator headphones, the ones with the translucent brown earcaps and the sexy gold hardware: a fitting tribute to Ray-Ban's time-honored sunglasses.

Skullcandy Roc Nation Aviator headphones
I was initially turned on to the Roc Nation Aviators ($149.95) by Tyll Hertsens, editor of InnerFidelity.com, who reviewed them in March 2011. If you're like me, you're still a little foggy on the relationship between Skullcandy and Roc Nation, the company founded in 2008 by Shawn "Jay-Z" Carter. Skullcandy makes headphones, but what, exactly, does Roc Nation do, and how does that relate to the Aviator? A look at the Roc Nation website revealed "a fully functioning entertainment company" that handles artist, songwriter, producer, and engineer management; music publishing; touring and merchandising; film and television projects; new business ventures; and album releases. "Artists signed to Roc Nation partake in full-rights deals, which are all-encompassing and include ticket sales, record sales, and all forms of endorsements."

Damn. Roc Nation owns you, Willow Smith.

Within the very nice Aviator packaging I found a note attributed to Jay-Z that further explained: "Our passion is creating amazing music. We're dedicated to delivering the best in live performances. Now with the Roc Nation/Skullcandy partnership, we're offering the best way for people to experience the soundtrack of their lives." Hmm . . . The partnership strikes me as one of those "business development" things that I've never really understood but that seem to make a lot of money for everyone involved. It perhaps explains why there's a New York Yankees–branded Aviator, but no Mets model—Jay-Z is a Yankees fan. (Hip, hip, Jorge!)

The Aviators are medium-size, over-the-ear headphones with 40mm Mylar drive-units, each with a neodymium magnet. Published specs include a frequency range of 20Hz–20kHz, an impedance of 33 ohms, and a total harmonic distortion of less than 0.1%. The 1.3m-long, nylon-braided, detachable cable has a 3.5mm gold-plated plug and a three-button control for selecting tracks, adjusting volume, and taking phone calls. I never actually used the control, but the buttons themselves felt a bit chintzy and were positioned unusually high on the cable—bringing them down a bit would provide easier access.

Skullcandy offers the Aviators in a wide variety of attractive finishes—or, for an extra $30, you can customize your own set, mixing and matching headbands, frames, earcaps, and cords. For this month's cover shot, photographer Eric Swanson and art director Natalie Brown-Baca selected the all-red Aviators. Both the cover model and my review sample exhibited outstanding fit and finish (and, just as important, sounded the same). Tasteful details abound: Skullcandy's skull logo is cleanly laser-etched on the 3.5mm connector, embossed on the three-button control, printed on the joints of the headband, even discreetly stitched into the cloth inside the earpads—clever, subtle, and sexy: only you, and those you share it with will know it's there.

To my eyes, the Skullcandy Aviators are absolutely beautiful: sleek and stylish, with just the right amount of swagger, but nevertheless purposeful and classic. I'm far from alone in thinking so. If you disregard everything else I have to say about every other product I review from now until the end of time, trust me on this: Men and women alike are attracted to these headphones.

In Las Vegas, during the 2013 Consumer Electronics Show, people were obvious about it. For instance, on Saturday, at around 5:45am, as I walked out of my hotel room, three young women (one redhead, one brunette, one blonde—believe it or not) were walking toward their own. As we passed each other in the hall, the blonde, who was staring intently at the Aviators around my neck, exclaimed, "Oh my god, he's wearing the headphones!" Perhaps she'd seen them draped around Anne Hathaway's slender neck on the cover of the January issue of Glamour.

"Good morning," I ventured. But the giggling women had already vanished into their room.

I could easily describe several other embarrassing interactions, but it should be enough to say that throughout the entire review period, on trains, on planes, and on the street, from Jersey City to Las Vegas, I consistently turned heads with the Aviators. Attractive strangers struck up conversations, my audiophile buddies busted my chops, Ms. Little gave me sweet compliments, and Natalie absolutely fell in love (with the headphones).

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COMMENTS
Ariel Bitran's picture

I too remember your "i don't like headphones" days. Good thing that's over. 

Et Quelle's picture

They are made to handle electronic drums and not real instruments. Hence; Dr. Dre

Stephen Mejias's picture

They are made to handle electronic drums and not real instruments. Hence; Dr. Dre

That's an interesting thought and it's exactly why I tried them with many types of pop music, including tracks produced by both Jimmy Iovine and Dr. Dre. Yet the Beats headphones invariably lacked the clarity, detail, and overall balance and impact of the other 'phones I tried.

In other words, even with pop and hip-hop, the Beats fall short.

The music that I found most enjoyable through the Beats typically featured fairly simple arrangements, was dynamically restricted but had lots of midrange energy, and made great use of stereo effects. The Haxan Cloak's Excavation, for instance, sounded thrilling and wonderfully physical through the Beats. But even that album was better served by other headphones. 

Utopianemo's picture

I enjoyed your article; I am almost inspired enough to move beyond my base model Grados and buy something more.....well, stylish, anyway. And although I can't bear to put any song I enjoy on my iPhone in anything less than lossless(make playlists on your computer and switch the songs out as you feel fit), I am glad iTunes is adding to your enjoyment of music.

But you kind of threw me for a moment with the A$AP Rocky thing. Are you being serious? Now, I hope I'm not coming off as insulting, but you do know there's another rapper named Aesop Rock from New York who's been making music since the late '90s, right? And you are aware Aesop is infinitely more talented at his craft than A$AP, right?

Maybe you don't agree. Given the iTunes tracks you mentioned above, maybe you don't like headiness in your hip-hop. In any case, if you haven't checked out Aesop, Give his album "None Shall Pass" a listen, Especially the title track, or "Five Fingers", or  "The Harbor is Yours", or pretty much any track on the album. You'll be doing yourself a favor. If you're feeling particularly adventurous, try "Cycles to Gehenna" or "Ruby '81" or "ZZZ Top" off his latest album "Skelethon".

Stephen Mejias's picture

I'm glad you enjoyed the article. Thank you.

But you kind of threw me for a moment with the A$AP Rocky thing. Are you being serious?

Yes. I'm very curious about many types of music, regardless of genre or audience, from the very underground to the very mainstream; and A$AP Rocky, as you know, has been getting lots of press recently, which in turn inspired my curiosity. The first few times I listened to Long.Live.A$AP, I didn't enjoy it very much. I was hoping for something with more lyrical substance. But, the more I listen, the more I do enjoy his voice, timing, and flow. I'm also a sucker for pop music, in general, and I particularly enjoy the tracks "Fuckin Problems" (featuring Kendrick Lamar, Drake, and 2 Chainz), "Hell" (featuring Santigold), "PMW" (featuring Schoolboy Q), and "1Train" (which features just about everyone). I think the album offers plenty of rewards, actually. I enjoy it.

But my enjoyment of the album is beside the point: I purchased it because I was (seriously) curious about it.

Now, I hope I'm not coming off as insulting, but you do know there's another rapper named Aesop Rock from New York who's been making music since the late '90s, right?

Yes.

And you are aware Aesop is infinitely more talented at his craft than A$AP, right?

I think a lot of people would agree with you. Personally, however, I've never enjoyed Aesop's delivery or the sound of his voice, so, despite his headier content and more sophisticated word choice, I have to pass him by.

I don't know anything about the relationship between the two artists.

Utopianemo's picture

I respect your opinion. Aesop isn't for everyone.  In spite of my respect for him, his slow songs don't do it for me. But most of the content on his last two albums is really spectacular.  

Other than being from NYC, the only similarities between Aesop Rock and A$AP Rocky of which I am aware are the ridiculously similar names--which in Rap culture amounts to either a blatant bite or a moronically ignorant mishap. 

DJ Solar Bear's picture

...when you find out about MOG!

 

Seriously though, I just found your column, and really dig it. Thanks!

emmdub's picture

Hello. My august 2013 issue arrived today. I was disappointed to see two letters in defense of Stephen Mejias, with none opposed. I was further disappointed by another infuriatingly bad column from SM. I'm sure SM is a swell guy; it's unfortunate that his overall approach to writing is so rankling to me and others. Dudley effectively vouched for the guy by referencing his admittedly witty conception of the alignment protractor as Jesus' choice; but nevertheless SM's column is so chock full of inanities and forehead slappers that I have to comment.

Stipulations:

1. You can't please all the people all the time. So many people whine about Fremer's (quarter? half?) megabuck system, it makes editorial sense to cover some relatively cheap stuff every month. No problem there. 

2. Yes, almost all conceivable uses of time would be more profitable than bashing SM. But the same can be said of reading a stereo magazine. The guy aggressively rankles, it's as simple as that. When I get a little popcorn husk stuck in my gums, I relentlessly floss/brush/ toothpick/hack away at it until the offending particle is removed. I'm sorry SM, but you are an offensive particle. Trees died so that your comments could be distributed. They should therefore be at least modestly valuable.

3. I don't even own a stereo, I don't listen to much music anymore, but I love stereophile. I'm 38. I greatly enjoyed listening to lp's in my early 20's on a $250 stereo. But I don't really care anymore. I don't drink wine, but I am nevertheless greatly pleased when a wine critic describes a particular vintage as 'muscular and authoritative.' I'm just looking for interesting writing. Dudley and Atkinson always deliver that. SM never delivers that.

Beefs:

Though I'd already been annoyed by the intrusive and inane inclusion of Ms. Little and SM's other irrelevant and painfully uninteresting female acquaintances in earlier columns, I think the above article on beats really pushed me over the edge. I find myself wanting to break it down into outline form, so that one can really inspect the ratio of dubious insight versus wasted text. Instead I'll just note the relevant comments to be found in the first 1151(!) words of this article:

1. Lots of people wear headphones. 

2. Dude, you can fit a lot of low res songs on an ipod. Way more than if you use hi res songs. I like that.

3. itunes is awesome! In one convenient place, you can pick up obscurities like Snoop dog and springsteen hits! 

4. Inexplicably contra insight number 2, SM is "excited" by the prospect that apple might someday offer hi res downloads, since it promises to "dramatically change" "the entire digital-music landscape"! (Woot! In that awesome landscape, there'd be oodles of hi res songs available that people wouldn't load onto their devices, because 2.)

Really? Is it conceivable that ANY actual or possible reader of stereophile would actually be informed by these 4 claims? This is not news, and it's certainly not fit to print! Worst of all, these inane claims could have been expressed in significantly fewer than 100 words. JA I'm calling you out! You are a talented editor and writer. This crap is unjustifiable, and I have to believe you know it.

Let's turn our attention to the august column, wherein SM uses roughly 1000 words to inform us that 1. he was really surprised that his girlfriend likes the psb ps1 speakers, despite the fact that she's uninterested in fancier hifi gear. (I'll ignore the fact that no one cares, because there are more serious issues to address.) He could have just asked her why she likes them, and then told us the answer. But SM takes a bolder, curiously insulting path. He speculates that she's unintimidated by these simple, convenient speakers. She doesn't have to learn anything!

 This is nauseating dude! But unfortunately, when SM shifts his attention to statistics, it gets worse.

Stephen clumsily erects the straw man that "music streaming [is] a fad". SM, no one thinks that, no one says that, no one believes that. But even if someone did, it's important to note that none of your statistics could possibly refute this idea. Even if 100% of all music listeners were streaming music 100% of the time, it remains an open question whether current behavior will continue into the future.  Dude, I can't even italicize this sh1t with adequate boldness. I would have thought it would go with out saying that only time will tell if it's a fad. Certainly not what 23% of any subgroup is doing at present. (!!) Again, JA, I feel like you share some responsibility for this epic lameness. EDIT this crap!! 

More could be said, but I'll leave it here. I read stereophile because I've often found interesting writing in it. If you can't fire SM, please at least get serious about editing this trash. 

John Atkinson's picture

emmdub wrote:
I was further disappointed by another infuriatingly bad column from SM. . . If you can't fire SM, please at least get serious about editing this trash.

I think you must be reading a different column from the one I edited, emmdub. I thought Stephen's writing was carefully crafted, with a strong narrative, sufficent discussion of the strengths and weaknesses of the headphones being reviewed, and with the concluding discussion of the headphone market well-argued and supported by references to orignal sources.

Yes, Stephen writes with a distinctive voice and I accept that some readers might be put off by that voice. But that is true for every writer whose work I publish in Stereophile. As always, in such circumstances, all I can do is to advise readers to turn the page.

John Atkinson

Editor, Stereophile

tmsorosk's picture

  Well said emmdub . 

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