Here's a question for a Stereophile.com poll: What's the best hi-fi value of the last 15 years? I'd bet that, 16 years after its introduction, Grado Laboratories' SR60 headphones would get more than a few votes.
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.
February is traditionally the month for music features, so I start this column with some recordings you really should hear. This year I had a greater-than-usual number of worthy candidates for "Records To Die For." Which discs got named as R2D4s and which got column coverage was, to quote the Iron Duke, a near-run thing.
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.
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.
Designed to be used onstage by musicians monitoring their sound and mix, in-ear monitors (IEMs) such as the new Westone 3 are great in situations where you want to hear nothing but the music. They're small and portable, and their high efficiency and easy impedance load mean they work well with portable players. IEMs are better than electronic-feedback, noise-reducing, closed circumaural phones at blocking out airplane engine noise and annoying neighbors who want to chat. They're also more compact, sound better, and don't require batteries.
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 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."
You know me. I'm not perzackly an audio slut, but I am easy. When Audio Advisor's Wayne Schuurman called me to pitch the Vincent KHV-1pre tube-transistor headphone amplifier, he pretty much had me at "tube" and "headphone." But I wasn't familiar with Vincent Audio.
When Audio Advisor's Wayne Schuurman contacted me about reviewing the Vincent Audio KHV-1pre headphone amplifier, I felt confident that I had everything I needed to handle the task, owning, as I do, both the AKG K701 and Sennheiser HD-650 headphones, which have long been my references. That oughta get 'er done, I thought.
Most of this column is dedicated to two hi-fi products for the massesnot from Lvov, via Vladimir Lamm, of Lamm Industries; or from Leningrad, via Victor Khomenko, of Balanced Audio Technologies; nor from any other Soviet-born audio hero. (Neither Vladimir nor Victor is on the list of "Name of Russia" contenders for greatest Russian of all time.) Nor from any consumer audio company, but from the world of professional audio. An Iron Curtain almost separates the two.
Headphones get pretty short shrift in much of the hi-fi press, which is puzzlingthe headphone market is burgeoning. I don't know what the equivalent US figures are, but in recent years the UK headphone market has increased by an annual 1520% in both units sold and overall revenue. It's easy to dismiss this as a natural byproduct of the Apple iPod phenomenon, but 20% of the market value is now accounted for by headphones costing over $120; a significant subset of consumers would seem to be looking for quality. When you also consider that many people's first exposure to higher-quality audio comes via headphones, there is ample reason for treating them more seriously.
Meeting strangers at social events, I've learned not to say that I write about hi-fi for a living. It's generally a conversation killer—unless your idea of scintillating repartee is "People make a living doing that?" (Short answer: Not many, and not really.)
In his July 2003 "The Fifth Element" column, John Marks enthusiastically wrote about the Benchmark Media Systems DAC1 D/A processor and headphone amplifier. Comparing its sound playing CDs with that of a three-times-more-expensive Marantz SA-14 SACD player, he concluded that the DAC 1's "Red Book" performance was at least as good as that of the Marantz, being "slightly more articulate in the musical line, and slightly more detailed in spatial nuances, particularly the localization of individual images in space, and in soundstage depth."
I want to start this year's gift recommendations by briefly revisiting the results of my Musical Cultural Literacy for Americans write-in competition, which ran in the April issue. All 12 winning entries of 12 selections each are posted online (footnote 1).