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Heaven In Your Head

April 24: On Saturday, April 22, the audio forum Head-Fi staged its first national meet at the Adria Ramada Inn and Conference Center in Bayside, NY. The meet, organized by Aaron Kovics (Head-Fi tag: immtbiker), occupied over 3300 square feet of floor space, most of which was divided into manufacturers' display tables and forum members' demonstration areas. Yep, you read that right—unlike ordinary hi-fi shows, the Head-Fi meets are opportunities for the attendees to show off their systems, sample and compare professionally manufactured components, and demonstrate their DIY projects. In fact, one of the biggest surprises I experienced when I attended a regional meet at the same venue last November was that some of the DIY projects not only sounded as good as the commercially available gear, they were built to standards of fit'n'finish that rival "real" products as well.

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Event organizer Aaron Kovics.

My neighbor and friend, caricaturist Jeff Wong is an active member of the Head-Fi community, and he helped me drag John Atkinson to Queens on a rainy April afternoon, where we discovered the meet in full swing. Other than the buzz of several hundred conversations, however, the room was eerily quiet—all of the music was happening inside people's heads. Jeff, John, and I started a quick circuit of the room, only to be stopped immediately by machead's three—or was it four?—high-end headphone stations. (Since Head-Fi is a virtual community, most members know each other by their tags, and at meets people prominently display their tags on their name badges, only occasionally adding their "real" identities. At the late-afternoon raffle, when winners would approach the microphone, people in the back of the room would shout, "Who is that?" If Aaron Kovics identified the winners by name, the same folks would shout, "Who?" The only answer that satisfied them was the winners' Head-Fi identities. But I digress.)

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JA plays machead a preview of Robert Silverman's Diabelli Variations from his iPod.

What stopped us at machead's table wasn't merely his drool-worthy listening stations, which were worth stopping for, but rather his choice of demonstration material: several Cantus recordings and one of JA's Santa Fe Chamber Music Festival discs . The way Stereophile's editor's eyes lit up, you would have thought it was Christmas. A few minutes later, machead's lit up too, when JA offered a sneak peek at the new Robert Silverman Beethoven disc—he just happened to have the final edit in an uncompressed file on his iPod.

In fact, as we made the rounds of manufacturers' and members' demonstrations, the most regularly asked question was: "Did you bring your own source?" The ability to carry uncompressed high-fidelity source material around in a shirt pocket is one of the true marvels of our age—no more need we hear the lament, "But I don't know how that record sounds."

A few minutes later, we stopped by Ray Samuels Audio's table, where Samuels was showing the pre-production prototype of his forthcoming Emmeline B-52 balanced tube headphone amplifier and preamp. Like everything Samuels makes, it has an outboard power supply that rivals its audio circuitry in size, which, in the case of the B-52, is colossal. When I introduced Ray to John, the preposterously animated Samuels dropped to his knees and chanted—à la Wayne and Garth—"I'm not worthy!" Man, I thought, we are never going to be able to get John to leave this room.

Using a VPI Scoutmaster to drive the B-52, Samuels delivered some of the best sound of the show. I began to wonder if John was going to be able to get me out of the room.

As we walked the perimeter of the room scanning the manufacturer's tables, we spied a gent with bright green goo packed into his ears. Ultimate Ears had brought an audiologist with them to produce custom molds for their $900 UE-10 in-ear monitors (which JA will be reviewing shortly). "Here," said Mike Dias, "try these with the temporary foam inserts and tell me what you think." Minutes later, I was grooving to Gorillaz, experiencing intensely physical bass and phenomenal clarity. When I resurfaced, dazed and confused, Dias sat me down in the chair, and the next thing I knew, the audiologist was stuffing foam into my ear canal so he could take a custom mold of my ear.

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I'm not screaming—the audiologist told me to keep my mouth open while the goo set.

From Ultimate Ears, Jeff, John, and I made our way over to Single Power Audio's behemoth SDS-XLR, a $15,000 balanced headphone amplifier that would have set any audiophile's heart a-flutter. I might still be sitting there listening to Brian Eno's Before and After Science, but the boss wanted to hear the Sony Qualias driven by the SDS-XLR. He emerged stunned.

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JA in headphone heaven.

I spoke to Single Power's Mikhail Rotenberg about his components. "Is there really a market for $15,000 headphone amplifiers?"

"It's not immense," he confessed. "But the customer who demands the level of quality we deliver seems to be able to find us. Essentially, everything we make is custom to an individual customer's needs. We recently had someone say that his entire collection is on his iPod and that he wanted to listen to it through a balanced component, so we devised a tube phase splitter to balance the iPod's output. Even for us, that's extreme, but we're going to satisfy our customers even when they ask for products that never existed before."

Rotenberg also showed us an amplifier he'd built to drive Sennheiser's out-of-production HE-90 electrostatic headphones. "They're still popular with headphone enthusiasts—besides, we can configure the connector to drive any electrostats. That's the beauty of custom designs."

In some ways, the best sound of the show came from an unidentified member's one-off. Clad in very professional-looking gold-glitter aluminum, it was a two-chassis, tube-rectified, choke-power–supply, 300B-driven headphone amplifier. I heard it playing a Verve reissue of Lester Young and completely melted. "Check this out," I said to JA. He listened with his eyes closed and a small smile on his face.

Correction: Turns out it is available commercially here and that the chassis is solid copper, not annodized aluminum.

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There's nothing like home cooking—especially with 300Bs.

"You know," JA mused when he came out from under the Sennheiser HD650s, "it's really rather odd to demonstrate an stereo amplifier with a mono source." Yeah, but didn't Prez sound luscious through those 300Bs? "Well, there is that," he conceded.

We weren't the only visiting firemen. As we passed by Shure's table, we spotted Home Theater's Steve Guttenberg listening raptly to Shure's soon-to-be-released E-500cs ($500). He was there for a while, lucky dog. I know because I was waiting impatiently to hear 'em myself. The '500c is a three-driver in-ear design and when I finally got to audition it, it was impressive. I'll be getting a pair to review for Stereophile, so I'll report back on my extended listening conclusions. The short-term verdict? Wow.

New to me were Dr. Florian König's Ultrasone headphone designs. König believes that conventional headphone can damage your hearing both through excessive volume levels beaming directly into your ear canal from a source scant millimeters away from your ears and through unshielded radiation emissions, including EMI from the motor mechanism. To prevent such harm, he shields the motor assembly and aims the drivers into the pinna (the outer ear). He also believes that one reason people listen to their headphones so loud is the absence of a directional component in stereo headphones, so he advocates a kind of 4.0 quasi-surround taken from MPEG4 surround. He's a thoughtful guy, and I found his headphones interesting in a short-term demo, although I'd have to spend more time with them before accepting or dismissing his theories.

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Ultrasone: Steffenee Copley shows us an Ultrasone driver.

After a day of listening, talking, schmoozing, and good old catching up, we all retired to the banquet room for a dinner, only to return to the main room for a headphone designers seminar, moderated by yours truly. Included on the panel were Eric Palonen, associate production manager at Sennheiser USA; Matt Engstrom, product manager (designer) of Shure; Dr. König from Ultrasone; Dan Bostick, sales and training specialist from AKG; Mead C. Killian, president and designer at Etymotic Research; and Jerry Harvey, president and designer at Ultimate Ears.

The design panel seminar was emblematic of the Head-Fi ethos, in that it was collaborative: Members had submitted some 44 pages of possible questions, which I had edited down to a manageable handful. The Head-Fi panel may be the best I've ever worked with—the questions were good and the participants rose to the occasion. It was a classy group of guys and the panel dynamic was collegial, although the panelists weren't above slipping the needle in every now and then.

Some of my personal favorite moments:
Responding to my question, What was your most memorable headphone moment?, Ultimate Ear's Jerry Harvey responded that it was seeing all the girls lined up to go backstage at a Little Feat concert he attended at age 17. "I figured if I had to wear a pair of headphones and tote equipment to get back there, that was what I was going to do!"
When I asked the panelists what it took to design a new product, Dr. König deadpanned. "Pain! You have to hear a lot of bad designs to recognize a good one."
I asked the panel a classic When did you stop beating your wife? question: "Since speaker measurements are so similar these days, how do you account for the seemingly wide variations in headphone measurements?" Sennheiser's Eric Palonen pointed out that each company used different measurement criteria, but Etymotic's Mead Killion cracked the room up, saying, "We've measured Sennheiser's HE-90s, so we know they can build headphones that measure flat."

All too soon, the seminar was over—and so was the public day of the Head-Fi meet. Sunday, April 23 was members only and we did not attend.

I had a ball, as I believe JA and Jeff did. The Head-Fi meet was personal and informal, but it had an energy that was overwhelmingly positive. Manufacturers who compete head-to-head (as it were) complimented one another on great designs and stood in line to audition each other's products. Perhaps they're just a reflection of the greater headphone community as personified by the guys at Head-Fi. There was enthusiasm and mutual support in the Adria's ballroom that reminded me of my earliest days in hi-fi. It felt good—and it felt like home.

Note: For more Head-Fi Meet pictures, visit our Galleries: Show Photos and Reports.

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