HeadRoom BlockHead headphone amplifier Page 3
Don't pass out when you see that the Clou Red cables with XLRs for the BlockHead will set you back $350. Hertsens says the Clou Red and Sennheiser HD 600s are as good as it gets for the BlockHead. As this is a direct-sales operation, all other prices are listed on their website too.
The heart of the matter
The Crossfield Audio Image Processor, according to Tyll Hertsens (and many of the boys at Stereophile), makes headphone listening more natural. As this is covered in WP's original review of the Max and John Atkinson's January 1994 review of the original Supreme——I'll just go over the basics.
When listening to speakers in a room, you hear both the left and the right channels in each ear. Not so with headphones. When slapping a pair of cans directly on your ears, you lose some of the spatial or acoustic cues the brain needs to locate sounds in space. Like when that hungry saber-tooth tiger spots you bopping along, snapping your fingers to the latest Britney Spears recording. (You deserve to be eaten! Kidding, just kidding.)
Despite this, your brain attempts to laterally locate sounds. The result, says Hertsens, is a "troubling blobs-in-the-head sonic image. Your brain ends up frustrated and fatigued." I'll tell ya, mine's always like that!
The Crossfield Processor solves this problem. Analog filters are used to strip an attenuated signal from each channel, delay it slightly, and feed it to the opposite ear. This is the acoustic info your brain needs to create a believable audio image within your head. The added information "eases the burden on your brain by spreading out the clumped image in your head. Ahh, sweet relief." Hertsens is nothing if not poetic.
He explained to me that the processor mimics the acoustic path taken by typical in-room speakers and your ears. Even though both ears hear the sounds from both speakers, one side's sound is delayed by the width of your head—that's the Inter-Aural Time Difference. The signal fed the opposite ear is attenuated about 10dB, with a delay of about 350 microseconds.
How's that blob in your head doing?
It takes an expensive system to create that special intimacy with the music that many audiophiles crave, and the BlockHead ain't exactly cheap. You'll need a good CD player to drive it, plus appropriate headphones and a special double-run cable. But that's still a lot less than you might spend on a full-blown audio system for a similarly sublime effect.
I had a fine playback system in the BAT VK-D5SE CD player with short runs of AudioQuest Amazon balanced interconnects, Clou Reds, and all Powersnakes Python AC cords into a PS Audio Power Plant 300 running at "555." The Plant was connected to the wall by its own Lab Cable. Instant fine sound.
Auditioning headphones and headphone amps can be a wonderfully visceral experience. In our loft, if Kathleen starts talking at the other end of the loft, I usually hear her and drop the 'phones back off my head. It's not a question of volume—I just hear her through the music. But with the BlockHead/BAT combo, I became so lost and involved in a recent release, Boozoo Bajou's Satta (sd069), that when K-10 did speak, I had no idea she was saying anything. Satta was so visceral and encompassing with the Crossfield Processor on at Medium gain and Medium brightness, and I was so immersed in the delightful sound, that I heard nothing but the music. My involvement was total.
The factors that go into creating such a presentation are myriad. There were a clarity and transparency from top to bottom that the Cary CAD-300-SEI, my previous headphone setup reference (footnote 2) had no chance of re-creating—even with Western Electric 300B tubes. Soft and forgiving on top and at roughly the same price, the Cary integrated makes everything sweet as apple pie (if not totally extended), with a midrange to die for and slightly mushy bass. But I could listen to it for hours on end. I often did.
This is the very antithesis of the presentation I got from the BlockHead/BAT, which sounded more like the Stax System II (Stereophile, July 2001, Vol.24 No.7)—which I couldn't listen to all day long. If I had a pair of Staxes now, I'm sure they'd be absolutely fatiguing in comparison to the BlockHeads. (I still have the Cary CAD-300-SEI, and did make direct comparisons.)
Footnote 2: Stereophile, March 1995, Vol.18 No.3, Sidebar to Cary CAD-1610-SE review.