I was looking out the window. I was waiting for the plane to take off. I was wearing Monster Cable's Beats by Dr. Dre Studio headphones ($349.95). I was listening to Pens' burning, fuzzed-out, 27-minute onslaught, Hey Friend, What You Doing? (320kbps MP3; LP, De Stijl IND071). I was shouting with sudden shock and pain.
I remember my first experience with headphones. In 1960, I bought a set of Trimm dual 'phones (less than $5) and rewired them for stereo. The experience was remarkable for several reasons. First, it brought the sounds into my headI was thrilled with the impact. Second, stereo effects, especially with Enoch Light's ping-pong LPs (eg, Provocative Percussion, Command RS800SD), were striking. Third, I could play them really loud without bothering others. Of course, they had no bass, brittle treble, distorted at high levels, and their wire headband and Bakelite earpieces were uncomfortable. My fascination with this gimmick quickly faded.
I once spoke to a blacksmith (named Smith, actually) about the wonderfully patterned bowie knives he made of Damascus steel. Struck by the contrast between the massive brutality of the knives themselves and the delicate beauty of the steel from which they were wrought, I asked Smith why he worked in Damascus, expecting him to extol its legendary temper or its aggressive cutting edge. After all, he was a pretty macho guy with a physique like, well, the village blacksmith's (Google it, young 'uns). He thought for a minute before responding, quietly, "Beauty is its own reward."
Phiaton is the brand name used by the South Korean Cresyn Company. Wes Phillips reviewed Phiaton's conventional closed-back Moderna MS 400 headphones in January 2009 and was as impressed by the sound quality as he was by their appearance. The PS 200 ($249), the only in-ear headphone sold by Phiaton, also has a striking appearance: the black rear face, which is all someone sitting next to you in the subway will see, resembles the turbine blades of a fan-jet engine. There are two balanced-armature drive-units, with a passive crossover network.
The outer walls of the Cooper Square Hotel reflect blue sky and angle gently as they rise to the penthouse suite. When construction on the hotel began, New Yorkers cried “Abomination!” at the idea of a glass-sheathed high-rise towering over the short brick buildings of the East Village. Now that the Cooper Square Hotel has integrated itself into the Bowery’s landscape, it is the ambitions of the building’s architects that are remembered, not New Yorkers’ gripes.
The Emmeline SR-71 portable headphone amplifier ($395) is small but not light. Housed in an extruded-aluminum chassis with a bolt-on faceplate and a rear panel and battery cover that attaches with a thumb-screw, it measures 3.5" by 2.5" by 1.5" and weighs 11oz. That sounds light, especially compared to some of the headphone amps I've carted around in the past—not to mention their four–D-cell extended power supplies—but in the iPod era, it's the portable equivalent of a class-A power amp. So why would anybody be willing to lug it around?
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.
Sometimes, the only thing that'll soothe the cares and lift the thoughts of man is kicking back and letting glorious music wash over you. Isn't that why we're all here? But no sooner do you sit yourself down in the sweet spot and cue up, say, Mozart's 40th, than you hear:
Drum me out of the High End if you must, but I have a shameful confession to make: I love headphones. I know, I know, I'm supposed to preface my comment with a lofty disclaimer, such as, "Of course, given my refined sensibilities, I could never derive satisfaction from such a compromised listening apparatus, but many of you seem to enjoy them." Well, pardon me for saying so, but pfffftttt!
Sennheiser's long-awaited (seven years) HD800 sure isn't subtleat least, not in appearance. The HD800's large earpieces are made from a combination of absorbing composites and functional metal accents, and are huge. Of course, they have to be to house the 56mm ring-radiator transducersand to mount them so they're firing "back" to your ears from the front. Also not subtle is the price: $1399.95.
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.
While headphone listening remains secondary to that of loudspeakers for most serious listeners, it's still an important alternative for many. And while good conventional headphones exist, electrostatics are usually considered first when the highest playback quality is required. As always, there are exceptions (Grado's headphones come immediately to mind), but most high-end headphones are electrostaticsuch designs offer the benefits of electrostatic loudspeakers without their dynamic limitations. Last year I reviewed the Koss ESP/950 electrostatics (Vol.15 No.12), a remarkable set of headphones from the company that practically invented headphones for serious home listening. Here I listen to examples from two other companies, each known for its headphones since Pluto was a pup.
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.
I got early into personal stereos. I lost my driving license for a while in the mid-1970ssomething about a stop sign and "failure to observe"so I used to take the train to a regular bass-playing gig I had in Brighton, on England's south coast. Not only did I conclude that any audio magazine worth its cover price had to have enough meat in it to last the two-hour journey and back again, I also built myself an op-ampbased, battery-powered amplifier to drive a pair of RadioShack headphones. Desperate times called for desperate measures, and my only source was a mono cassette recorder. Inside-the-head mono is as mono desperately does, so once I got my license back, it was back to the car and stereo FM radio. It wasn't until a) I moved to New York City to become a strap-hanging commuter and b) bought a 2003-vintage 30GB iPod (which I still use) that music on the move again began to play a major role in my listening.