Head to Head in San Jose

With buds and 'phones in hand, headphone enthusiasts from around the US and beyond are about to plug in in San Jose, California. Their destination is the Radisson Hotel, where the Second Annual International Head-Fi Meet takes place on April 21 and 22. Organized by Head-Fi, an online discussion board boasting 53,907 members and a whopping 2,810,005 posts annually, the meet promises two very full days of interactive panels, DIY demos, and vendor exhibits.

Head-Fi's first Meet, held last year in Bayside, Queens, hosted 250 members and guests and 15 vendors. This year's reasonably priced event, spread over two days, already has 27 vendors lined up, and expects to draw 200–300 enthusiasts per day, with a cozy cap of 400 registrants.

This year's far more ambitious Meet has also expanded beyond the original single large room filled with vendor tables and member setups. That room remains, complete with 8'-long tables in the center where members can meet the faces and figures lurking behind online handles, share ideas, and invite each other to listen to their DIY projects. The room will also serve as home for a host of headphone manufacturers, designers of headphone amps, and related vendors, who will be placed around the perimeter.

In addition, Head-Fi has arranged for a second high-end listening room featuring reference-level member setups (eg, electrostatic headphones). Also new are a series of vendor-sponsored demo rooms, including several that cross the line to full-range, distinctly nonportable speakers. In one of these rooms, Slim Devices will pair up with HeadRoom to demo both the Squeezebox and the Transporter digital transport; in another, Todd the Vinyl Junkie will show the Sehring speaker line. Also expect a separate space for vendor presentations, a dedicated lounge area, BBQ lunches, and a Saturday-evening dinner buffet, followed by a panel discussion with headphone-amp makers moderated by Stereophile's inimitable Wes Phillips.

But those are only the facts. It's the energy around this particular group of enthusiasts, and the passion with which they share their love for all things 'phone, that set the Head-Fi Meet apart. That it's called a meet rather than a convention or show begins to tell the tale. This is not your regular hi-fi show, with attendees ambling from room to room, variously ogling, auditioning, and coveting stacks of equipment displayed in carefully controlled environments. Rather, it's a place where people are as eager to share ideas, dreams, and joys as to listen, and to do so in a spirit of egalitarian camaraderie.

One of the organizers of the event, Albert P. Bedecarre (aka Voltron), attributes some of the closeness of the headphone community to the fact that all talk of double-blind testing (DBT) and illegal copying is banned from the www.head-fi.org forum. Thus liberated from those who frequent forums with the express intent of debating, deriding, and debunking people who freely describe and enthuse about what they hear, the forum is known as one of the most amicable around.

The members, too, vary considerably from the usual audiophile demographic. Most Head-Fiers are either of college age or 30–40-somethings. "I'm 44, and one of the oldest guys in the room," says Bedecarre, who devotes his spare time to working as a litigation lawyer specializing in intellectual property. "A lot of college- and high-school-aged kids listen to headphones all the time because of their iPods. They initially find Head-Fi because they're looking for an alternative to the white earbuds that come with their iPods, and discover a community that's very vocal, active, and welcoming. They may start out with Shure or Ultimate Ears, but once they get their first headphone amp . . . "

Also unique to the community are people's musical favorites. By far the genre most discussed in Head-Fi's music forum is rock in all its permutations and combinations, with hip-hop a special favorite on the portable forum. Jazz and classical are the runners-up, in that order.

One unique aspect of the Head-Fi community is that members frequently organize local and regional meets. Amp manufacturers such as HeadRoom, Single Power Audio, and Ray Samuels Audio often bring equipment to the meets, letting people listen, use, and occasionally even borrow. Between participating in the forum and attending local and national meets, many Head-Fiers have formed lasting friendships around the country.

Why headphones? Al Bedecarre went from a several-year immersion in home theater to realizing that he hadn't listened to music for a while. Starting on a music tear (concerts, system acquisition, dedicated listening), he discovered that headphones were a necessity for a family man with kids.

"First, I found some headphones on Audiogon," he explains. "Then I found Head-Fi. I read all these reviews, spent $50 on closed-ear headphones, and finally enjoyed listening at reasonable levels without bugging the kids and the neighbors and taking up all their space with music. From there, I became obsessed. Headphones provide an amazing sound as well as an intimate listening experience. I still think speakers create a more natural sound, but I like headphone listening so much that I often do it instead of listening with my speakers."