Listening #158

In my sophomore year of high school, one of the greatest challenges my friends and I faced was the search for the perfect after-school hangout, perfect being defined as "having the least amount of adult supervision." Some of us lived in single-parent homes, but only one had a single parent for whom weekday surprise inspections were impossible, and that was Scott. So Scott's place—a downstairs apartment in a nice older house not far from school—got the nod.

Scott's place was also where I learned to distinguish the differences between monophonic and stereophonic playback. Most of us had our own mono record players at home, but the centerpiece of Scott's living room was a console stereo whose two loudspeakers were built into individual subenclosures that could be removed from the console and placed as far away as their wires would allow—probably no more than 8'.

I'm sure the idea behind that design was to accommodate larger rooms and greater numbers of listeners, but my friends and I put it to a use that was at once smaller and more grand: We placed the speakers on the floor, approximately 15" apart and facing each other, and took turns lying on our backs with our heads between them. Thus did our favorite albums—Abbey Road, Are You Experienced, the Woodstock soundtrack, et al—reveal their spatial secrets without benefit of intoxicants (with which none of us was yet acquainted). This approach to listening also offered the dual benefits of not wasting amplifier power and not disturbing the peace: For all the upstairs neighbors knew, we were studying.

Hearing a phase-shifted guitar solo zizz back and forth from speaker to speaker was great fun for the 16-year-old me. But such experiences may also have set the stage for a post-adolescent attitude in which spatial effects take top honors on my personal "No Fucks Given" list. Indeed, by the time I was told, in print and in person, that the primary goal of a high-end system was the accurate reproduction of something called a soundstage—silly me, thinking this was all about music!—I had already had enough spatial gimmickry to last me a lifetime, much of it endured while on my back.

Can do
Ironically, that was just about the time when the German firm Sennheiser introduced their model HD 414, often described as the world's first open-ear headphones (ie, they didn't completely isolate the user from the sounds of his or her surroundings). I wasn't aware of the Sennheisers at the time—obviously, I was too busy listening to the Moody Blues and the Firesign Theatre from a supine position—but the HD 414s crossed my radar three years later, when I landed a part-time job in a hi-fi shop that just happened to sell Sennheisers.

The HD 414s broke with tradition in another way: Rather than the vibrant grays and browns so popular with audio manufacturers—science had yet to discover the aphrodisiacal effects of brushed aluminum—the Sennheisers' earpads were bright yellow, set against a jet-black headband. Although Mother Nature uses that color scheme to elicit caution and fear in the presence of bees, wasps, hornets, venomous spiders, and school buses, Sennheiser used it to stir in the beholder a different emotion: whimsy, German-style.

At 19, I admired the HD 414s for their jaunty appearance and their clear sound. But although I could have bought a pair for myself for cost plus 10%—the shopkeeper's standard deal for staff purchases—I saved my money for books and records: I had no use for headphones. (This in spite of the fact that most integrated amps of the day had headphone jacks, my Sansui AU 505 included.) Even with open-ear 'phones, that style of listening made me feel cut off from my surroundings and caused me no small amount of anxiety. Whenever someone in my household needed my attention, the only way they could get it was by startling me—and I hate being startled. Besides, the combination of headphones and long hair tended to make my ears itch.

But there was something else behind my antipathy, something even more significant than anxiety or itchy ears. For me, filling a space with the music of my choice was like homesteading: a declaration of ownership, or at least tenancy, that signaled my independence from parents and friends, howsoever beloved. Playing my music out loud was like painting the walls or putting up posters. Good music, like good love and good food and good woodworking and good films, was and is often messy, sprawling, unpredictable stuff; it has almost never occurred to me that I should try to fit it into the smallish space behind my eyes, nor have I ever considered that the musical art with which I surround myself should be non-evident to the others in my life, unless they actively dislike it (footnote 1).

And because the adolescent me cared for neither headphones nor background music, it's a safe bet he would have had no interest in listening to music while walking, biking, jogging, driving, or raking leaves, all of which require thinking, to greater or lesser degrees. Thus the stage was set for the adult me to ignore the Walkman, the Discman, the iPod, and even the PonoPlayer (as much as I admire the last and hope it will succeed). On one or two occasions I have been tempted by materialism's siren song—to hold in my palm an Astell&Kern AK240 was to covet it, if only as a piece of beautifully made machinery—but I have always kept in mind how very unlikely I am ever to use such things. Spending the same amount of money on a rare record, to enjoy at home with the whole of my attention: That would bring me far greater pleasure.

Beats me
Forty-two years later, those feelings come to the fore whenever I see older friends, especially those who no longer enjoy independent living, who have been forced to do all of their listening via headphones. I'm not ready for that, and, with the grace of God, I never will be.

But the middle-aged me is an equipment reviewer, and there isn't a single type of product I haven't been asked to review, headphones included. Because Stereophile forbids reviewers from accepting loans of products they don't intend to review—a policy that helps prevent us from being beholden to equipment suppliers, just as it discourages the growth of unhealthy attitudes toward the not-small matter of value in consumer audio—I've accepted headphone samples only twice: when I wrote about Stax's electrostatic headphone technology, and when I borrowed a pair of latter-day Sennheisers to test a DAC's built-in headphone amp. Yet in October of 2015 I changed course, after attending a multi-brand event at the Manhattan dealer Stereo Exchange. It was there I ran into Master & Dynamic's Mary Martin, whom I'd met at the 2014 Brooklyn Audio Show, and who had impressed me as the rare marketing specialist who understands her customers and her products. When she asked if I'd like to try a pair of the company's MH40 headphones ($399), I surprised myself by saying Yes.

Footnote 1: A case in point being my wife's feelings about Ravel's L'enfant et les sortilèges and my daughter's surprising disdain for XTC's English Settlement.

maelob's picture

Thanks for the review, but I think you can do better with the description of the headphone's soundstage. I understand you are not a big headphone fan and Off course we know they are not speakers and we know the sound is in your head but common all you have to do is close your eyes and pretend that you are at the venue. All it takes is a little of visualization and imagination. Just close your eyes, Are you in first row or are you in the middle of the orchestra? those are the things that a headphone enthusiast would understand. just my two cents.

dalethorn's picture

Are you talking about the original HD414? I don't think it had a soundstage to speak of, unless telephones have a soundstage - the freq. response was not good.

maelob's picture

lol no i was refering to the MH40

dalethorn's picture

I was very interested in the MH40, but things started going downhill. First it was the circuit board in the earcup. Then certain people here were less than enthusiastic about the sound. Then, their marketing settled in at Apple along with Beats, Bose, etc. I just don't have a good feeling about them. Others I have bought had/have sonic problems, but c'est la vie.

deckeda's picture

I recall the earlier stories of the 124 and 301 restorations. They, like the hardware, still compel. So yeah I'd be interested in reading about the veneer job.

Speaking of iconic headphones, the best upgrade my SR60's ever got were replacement HD414 pads. They're an ever-so-slightly tight fit, essentially perfect if you ask me, and increase the comfort very noticeably despite being a stiffer (and more hardy) foam. What happens is that because they're slightly undersized, the pads bow a little, making more contact with the ear.

sommovigo's picture

Congrats on the finished plinth - looks great!

Osgood Crinkly III's picture

Those Sennheiser earphones look like the ones I had in the Stone Age, except the foam was grey. They were an "open" design and affordable, but only sounded decent when pressed against the ears with cupped hands, in other words, when made to work like regular, closed phones. So much junk, so much hype.

DougM's picture

The original 414s were white with blue foam which soon changed to the more familiar black and yellow. I still have my 424s (deluxe 414s) 'cause I haven't found anything currently made that I like as much (in my limited auditioning). The Sennheisers and Koss pro series seemed to be the first 'phones used by the masses, with the Koss preferred by classical lovers (the AR speaker crowd) and the Sennheisers by rockers (the JBL and Cerwin-Vega crowd). The 414s were used extensively for monitoring in recording studios by rock bands in the seventies, which was a great selling point at the time.