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 headphonesthat 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 meeven 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 elseafraid 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 othersan even assortment of bankers, poseurs, hipsters, guidos, and thugswore 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 P5sthe 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 necessityit's the only iPod I have, and I'm one of six remaining New York Metro-area residents who don't yet own a smartphonebut 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 knowbut 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 resolutionbut 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 filemeager by audiophile standards, good enough for most listenersbut 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 vinylI still obsess over LPsbut 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, MA Recordings, and 2L. But don't expect to find Snoop Dogg, Kendrick Lamar, or Sonny SharrockI 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 itthose were more like megaphonesbut 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 entirelyI'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 Yankeesbranded Aviator, but no Mets modelJay-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 20Hz20kHz, 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 cablebringing them down a bit would provide easier access.
Skullcandy offers the Aviators in a wide variety of attractive finishesor, 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 earpadsclever, 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 blondebelieve 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).