HeadRoom Total BitHead headphone amplifier Page 2

For best performance, HeadRoom suggests setting all computer volume controls to max. In the case of Mac OS X, there's a main volume control on the desktop, another in System Preferences (along with one for balance), and another in iTunes. iTunes also has a neat 10-band graphic equalizer with multiple presets and manual settings you can name and save to memory, and yet another level control, found under Window in the iTunes menu.

What difference does it make?
Some readers will complain that the Total BitHead has nothing to do with high-end audio. I disagree. For one thing, if it takes an improvement in their MP3 listening to convince a younger generation that better sound is possible and preferable, I'm down with it. For another, you can import 16-bit/44.1kHz PCM to iTunes using Apple's lossless encoding (ALC), then transfer it to an iPod. John Atkinson's CSI-like bit forensics—see October, p.25—has proved that this works. It sounds it. So you can have both CD quality and an iPod's ultra-convenience. In fact, if you transfer LPs to CD and import that, your iPod can even play AAAF files (Analog After A Fashion).

My current headphone of choice is Shure's E5c in-ear model. Sure, the Shures are expensive at $500, but after a year's listening, I'm convinced they're worth it. They can be surprisingly comfortable, once you've chosen the correct in-ear plug size. Their isolation rivals that of any of the electronic noise-canceling models I've heard—and whether it has to do with the Shures' lack of electronics, two drive-units per channel, or something else, they sound much, much better. Plus, the E5cs are tiny, unobtrusive, lightweight, and my ears don't get hot and sweaty. I've had them in all across the ocean without fatigue—I've fallen asleep listening to music, awakened, and not known I was still wearing headphones.

I'll never forget the first time I heard the Shure E5cs. I was on a plane, and I had some solo piano on the iPod that I'd been listening to during recent flights: Murray Perahia performing J.S. Bach's English Suites (Sony/Legacy 093083). What I heard this time was very different in terms of midrange richness and, especially, texture. The sensation of hearing actual piano keys striking strings—something easily heard through loudspeakers—replaced the cardboard "tinkle" I'd become used to, and the bass became nuanced, nimble, and incredibly deep. Your results may be different, and you may prefer other 'phones—this is not a headphone review. My point is that, driven by the iPod, the Shures were impressive.

The first time I inserted the Total BitHead in the system, I was again in flight. At 30,000 feet, I played music I was very familiar with, including Olu Dara's intoxicating In the World from Natchez to New York (CD, Atlantic 83077-2), and some imported Travis EPs I'd picked up when I was obsessing over that band. Even with HeadRoom's processing switched off, the differences in the music's tonality, texture, coherence, solidity—and, especially, dynamic presentation—were startling. The Total BitHead seemed to equip the music with heavy-duty shocks and springs, giving it a tighter, more muscular drive. Rhythm, pacing, and musical flow improved significantly. At the same time, there was greater delicacy and image three-dimensionality. The iPod's mini-amp wasn't bad, but it couldn't control the Shures' drivers nearly as well.

Switching in the HeadRoom processing made a subtle but convincing improvement in soundstage coherence and in the system's ability to create a semi-credible three-dimensional picture in my head. Put it all together and, for the first time, I found myself saying, "I've got a high-end audio system in the sky!" Of course, getting it to sound that way requires ripping CDs in full resolution using Apple's lossless-compression scheme. Using any of the standard compression options hardens the top end and renders things crunchy and bright—but even then, the sound was greatly improved through the Total BitHead.

Once back home, I hooked up the Total BitHead to my Macintosh iBook G3 laptop's USB port. I was now able to access iTunes' graphic equalizer instead of the iPod's presets, and thus manipulate the system's performance to get the most from each selection. That and the lack of jet roar took the system's performance up a few more notches.

Right now, in fact, I'm sitting here typing this in my listening chair, enjoying my iTunes collection via the Total BitHead's USB port through the Shure E5c 'phones and staring at Sonus Faber's Stradivari Homage speakers, and you know what? I can't wait to get the headphones off so I can listen to the speakers. This portable stuff is good, but it's not that good.

The combo of Apple iPod, Shure E5c, and HeadRoom Total BitHead wasn't as good as a modest speaker-based audio system, and I didn't expect it to be—it was noticeably drier, more mechanical, and less spacious. But it did deliver the basic attributes that differentiate a high-quality listening experience from lesser varieties. It was so good that I found I could listen enthusiastically for long periods of time without boredom or fatigue setting in—something no other headphone system has offered me.

I found the combo good enough that, with it, I could accurately assess the sonic quality of unfamiliar recordings that I'd imported to the computer before listening to them on my home system. That made the Total BitHead and the rest of the assemblage a genuine reviewing tool.

Given its $269 price and level of performance, I highly recommend HeadRoom's Total BitHead. Just be careful about how loud you turn it up, both for the sake of your hearing and to get the best sound from the system. If you crank it up too high, the sound will be bright and edgy, though I think that's more a factor of overloaded ears than of the BitHead's sound. Whatever it is, a little volume goes a long way. And a long way is how far you can contentedly travel with the right headphones plugged into your ears and driven by HeadRoom's Total BitHead.

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