HeadRoom Max headphone amplifier Page 2

Head Games
Tyll was an audiophile with a real he-man hi-fi who one day realized that he was hardly ever at home to enjoy it. Glancing around the airport terminal that proved to be his personal road to Tarsus, Tyll noticed how many people were wearing cheap'n'crappy headsets attached to personal stereos. Hey! he thought. What if all that time people spend listening to music on the go could be turned into a high-quality listening experience? Thus was planted the seed that grew into HeadRoom—these days, the company offers mail-order convenience for a variety of headphone amplifier/processors, a full line of high-end headphones, and even a line of headphone and travel accessories.

One common thread in the growing line of HeadRoom amplifier/processors is their proprietary (although licensable) module, which attempts to ameliorate the hard-left/center/hard-right imaging that makes headphone listening an ordeal for so many people. I'll describe the process involved briefly for the purposes of this review, but those interested in fully understanding it are advised to check out the Stereophile reviews referenced above.

HeadRoom's crossfeed circuit bleeds a measured amount of opposite-channel information into each stereo channel, in order to cure the hard-left/hard-right image location common to 'phones listening. Also, by adding time delay, it compensates for Inter-Aural Time Difference (ITD), which is one of the ways the brain establishes the location of sounds. The net result of this blending of sounds and timing is an image that does not inhabit the head, but rather seems to be located more in front of you, spread laterally across a soundstage. The processed sound is not the same as listening through speakers, but it sounds less artificial than the unprocessed signal—and is far less fatiguing to listen to.

HeadRoom licenses the module to other companies—so far Sonic Frontiers, Audio Alchemy, and Counterpoint have all bought in. HeadRoom also offers the module to DIYers for $89, which seems a pretty reasonable price, given the elegance of the design. Tyll told me that the biggest stumbling block to improving the quality of the process was the availability of better surface-mount parts (see Sidebar).

Heads Up
Like most audiophiles, I was not aware that HeadRoom even wanted to assault the state of the art until I visited their booth at HI-FI '96 last June. Sitting on the table next to their other offerings was a unit that looked like Krell's own version of a headphone amp. It had half-inch-thick, anthracite-gray-anodized front and rear panels. The fascia boasted a pair of Neutrik locking quarter-inch phone jacks, a huge volume knob, two knife switches deeply inset into the massive panel—one for selecting or bypassing the processor, the other activating a low-pass filter—and a power LED sunk into the metalwork; the rear panel sported two pairs of spiffy RCA jacks, an IEC mains plug, and an on/off switch.

I listened to a few pieces of music and damn near voted the Max HeadRoom Best Sound of Show on the spot—which could have been because it was the only time that week that my listening was undisturbed by adjacent conversation.

"I want one!" I said to Tyll. He just smirked.

"I had no idea you were working on this. Were people demanding it?" I asked.

"There are always people who want to know if you can do better," Tyll answered. "The fact of the matter is that I think the Home HeadRoom is pretty darn good—certainly the best we could do with the parts available at the time. But Burr-Brown put out a new chip, and I began to think that I could crack Class A of Stereophile's "Recommended Components." In fact, the reason I designed the Max to have the thick faceplate and rear panel—which are expensive—was to have a unit that qualified for Class A. I was convinced that if the unit didn't cost at least $1000, it had no chance to be in there. I think Max belongs there." (footnote 1)

Having heard the HeadRoom Max, I'm glad we didn't give the Home a Class A rating. If Tyll had been satisfied, he might have never given us Max, and that would have been a shame.