Headphone Heaven at Audio High
Headphone enthusiasts had a field day at Mountain View, CA retailer Audio High on January 25, when both Sankar Thiagasamudram, President and co-founder of Audeze, and Lorr Kramer, VP of North American Operations for Smyth Research, presented their latest and greatest. In a refreshing change of pace, both men dispensed with the usual canned presentations followed by group listening. Instead, they welcomed anyone who wished to partake to a generous personal audition.
Before the event began, I had an opportunity to speak with Thiagasamudram about the planar magnetic headphone company he cofounded with Alex Rosson at the end of 2008. Both men met in the film industry, where they are involved in post-production.
"Soon after we met," Thiagasamudram (pictured above) explained, "we began playing around with speakers and headphones. When we took our sample headphone to Canjam in LAit was basically an off-the-shelf headphone into which we had inserted our own speakerspeople liked it so much that we sold 25 of them. Then we decided to take things more seriously."
Seriousness, at least in this case, came in waves. When the two men released Audeze's first planar magnetic headphone, the LCD-2 ($945), they made a bet that they'd sell 50 of them. That bet dissolved soon after their baby became #1 on Head-Fi. A year ago, faced with a three-month order backlog, they transitioned from hobby mode. What was once an online affair has now become a company with an international dealership presence.
The LCD-3 ($1995), Audeze's planar magnetic flagship, was released in November 2011. Suspended between its internal rows of opposing inernal magnets lies a flat diaphragm that is even thinner than in the LCD-2. Onto this exceedingly thin sheet of polyamide (a type of plastic) is etched a circuit, which enables the diaphragm to move when energized by a signal. While Audeze is still putting the finishing touches on a series of videos that will illustrate the process, Thiagasamudram did reveal that one of their first pilots, which used sugar to dramatize how the diaphragm moves when excited, had to be scrapped when the heat from the high-speed cameras necessary to capture the process melted the stuff.
Every Audeze headphone comes with its own unique graph that shows frequency response as measured in a dummy head. Thiagasamudram notes that Inner Fidelity's's Tyll Hertzens, who regularly measures headphones, has shown the low frequency response of Audeze's headphones as flat "to the limits of microphone technique."
"Our goal has always been to make the best headphones in the world," he says. "We've always liked the immediacy of the planar sound. When we built them, we tested them with a combination of Indian classical music and the electronic music that Alex releases on his own indie label. A lot of dance music producers and classical music producers buy our headphones because of their accuracy."
I had a good period of time at Audio High in which to audition the LCD-3s. Going between Mahler and Monk, I was extremely impressed by their smoothness and clarity throughout the range, and how easily they revealed differences in sound quality between different CD players (the Chord Red Reference Mk.III and Meridian 808.3 Signature Reference) and headphone amplifiers (Emmeline The Dark Star by Ray Samuels Audio, Chord Toucan, Musical Fidelity M1 HPA, and Bellari HA540). Not only are the remarkably accurate LCD-3s a pleasure to listen to, but when paired with a good headphone amp, they also offer a pretty bulletproof way for reviewers and consumers to compare the sound of different sources without having to account for speaker room interaction variables.
The variable that Kramer had to account for in my personal demonstration of Smyth Research's amazing process was the unusual shape of my outer ear canals. Smyth's Realiser A8 package ($2910 ordered direct, $3760 with Stax SRS-2170 entry-level headphones; also available with other headphones when ordered from dealers) uses headphones (in this case Audeze's LCD-3) to virtually reconstruct "the complete experience of listening to actual loudspeakers in an actual room, in up to eight-channel surround."
The demo began when Kramer attempted to insert miniature, foam-cradled microphone probes into my ears. Unfortunately, the same canal that says "phooey" to most foam earplugs, and forces me to wrap the wires for my Shure earbuds around my ears in anything but GQ fashion, took a lot of time to appease. I had to draw upon my experience in a former lifetime, when I posed a model in most of New York City's art schools, to remain motionless as first Kramer, then I fussed and fiddled until the little foam inserts stayed in place.
Once past that little obstacle, Kramer painlessly measured my ears' responses as he tracked my head's movements between the left and right speakers of the room's surround set-up. Once everything had been calculated, my headphone experience was almost identical to listening to the sound of the five speakers. I was even able to turn my head within the 30° radius of the front two loudspeakers and maintain all the depth, air, and spatial cues experienced when listening to the speakers directly.
After some additional fine tweaking using pink noise, which basically erased the small difference I thought I heard between the two, I was convinced. Given that Smyth Research's uncanny process even enables you to emulate virtual 5.1 and 7.1 channel sound from a stereo set-up, I can easily understand why a host of mixing and mastering engineers use Smyth Research's technology to emulate exactly what consumers will hear when listening to the recordings they help produce. Smyth Research's process is especially useful when engineers find themselves in remote locations, or consigned to crummy cubicles equipped with plastic speakers, and need to achieve accurate mixes.
For audiophiles whose room set-ups, budgets, or spouse-imposed constraints make a good quality surround system impractical or impossible, Smyth Research offers a viable, "you are there" headphone alternative. You can play music late at night, or through your portable iWhatever, and replicate the joy of listening to a two-channel or surround system at ideal volume.
It gets even better. If you measure your ears' response in a much finer set-up than your own, you can emulate that experience when you return to your humble shack. (Stephen Mejias, are you listening?) And if you can manage to measure the recalcitrant spouseI'm currently looking for volunteers to help pin mine down long enoughand add a headphone amplifier to the A8 playback chain, the two of you can sit side-by-side with your headphones and experience collective audiophile nirvana.