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It’s been an exciting time for portable audio or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and wear headphones in public.

Back in the day, portable audio was a wild and wooly world of portable cassette players (some with built in analog FM tuners), and later, portable CD players, spent batteries and small, discrete (and sonically mediocre) headphones. And after all that, you had to plan what music you thought you might want to hear that day and schlep the attendant physical media based recordings with you. Still, being able to listen to music on the train or when walking through the park, etc. was enjoyable enough to make it worth while, at least for me.

The status of portable audio stayed pretty much quo until the first Ipod hit the market late in 2001. It may have not been the best sounding thing and it’s storage capacity was initially limited, but really, how many cassettes or CD’s could you carry in your pocket? You could carry an Ipod with a lot of music and a pair of the supplied earphones in that pocket easily. And to me that was a revelation.

The market place in general and young folks in particular thought so too and soon portable audio was a major player in consumer electronics. A proliferation of playback formats, digital players and IEM’s (as they became to be known) followed and the whole thing became a social phenomenon complete with “Beats” headphones becoming a must-have accessory for the hip youth culture and the emergence of the detached teen in his world of Itunes fodder for many first and second rate comedians. Mainstream? It was a torrent…

That audiophiles would join in was just an inevitability. The early Ipod MP3 sound was far from the best and the earphones and headsets available at first tended to be somewhat cheap and cheerful. But a world of more sonically sophisticated players and IEM’s, some of the custom fit style (adapted from live music performance and broadcast requirements), became all the rage in our little segment of the consumer audio world. And as more and more Avant-Garde young bohemians, wannabe gangsters and hipsters started wearing their over-ear Beats in public (I had a ringside seat to this traveling the NYC subway system), it gradually became acceptable to wear over-ears in public even for us old, repressed and self-conscious middle Americans to join in. So I did indeed stop worrying.

Now, people seem to be willing to just let their headphone freak-flag fly. I have seen all kinds of phones in the street and on the train, including upscale Audio-Technics, Sennheisers (including HD-600’s), lots of different Sony’s (including quite a few of the recording studio standby MDR-7506), JBL’s and even more than a few Grado’s. I have done my part in this, wearing at times a pair of HD-800, my FAD Pandora’s and even a pair of retro (and decidedly retro-looking) Beyer DT-48’s that date back to the Woodstock era whose almost identical forbearers first hit the market in the late days of the Great Depression!

And so audiophile digital players have evolved too. Many of us never bought into the ITunes concept and ripped our CD’s on to our computers to transfer to our (audiophile) players in their native format (eg. WAV) or somewhat compressed so-called lossless formats (such as FLAC or ALAC). And, moving forward, with the increased availability of Hi-Rez files originally initially intended for the home music server market, it would be inevitable there would be demand for portable players capable of Hi-Rez playback.

To the audiophile, the availability and the public acceptability of better on-ear phones made the ability to play back the better sounding file formats even more desirable. There are now many Hi-Rez audiophile players, some with more-or-less serious attention paid to the D-A conversion and analog output stages, available. Initially, the availability was in the high priced audiophile market, but in the last few years this has trickled down to more modestly priced units. The concurrent availability of smaller and higher data capacity storage devices (both internal and external), finally made the resulting larger HI-Rez files fully practical.

Of the new wave of Hi-Rez portable playback devices, I am mostly familiar with the Fiio X-3 and the Ibasso DX-50 as I own both. However, I have mostly used the DX-50 because of the OTG (On the Go) connector which allows external storage to be connected to augment the internal memory and internal microSD card. Unfortunately, the OTG port in the Fiio only allows you to input digital streams for playback on the Fiio’s D-A converter. This may be useful to some, but really what’s the point of being able to play back Hi-rez files with their large file sizes without expandable memory to store them? But I digress…

Connecting, say, a thumb drive to the DX-50 requires a somewhat unusual “USB OTG micro USB Male to USB A female” cable, available on-line through the usual sources. But I found that Micro Center had them in stock which allowed the instant gratification of driving to the store and picking one up to expedite the project, decidedly old school! So I bought that and a PNY 128Gb USB thumb drive for around $70. Presto, along with my 64Gb micro SD card I now had 192 Gb total storage. A good start.

I now have the 64Gb microSD card and three external 128 Gb thumb drives filled with music (Hi-Rez and not) set up for my DX-50. So I have around 448 Gb of storage available portably, not too bad, even for Hi-Rez files. And BTW, what’s the point of Hi-rez players without expandable memory? But I digress…

All my music files are now resident on a 1Tb hard drive. When I can find a 2.5 inch hard drive external enclosure with internal battery I will be able to carry around all my Hi-rez files for when I go on vacation and the like. You gotta love it!

So how does the DX-50 sound? Well, it sounds OK. It can sound a bit threadbare and artificial at times and to be sure even one of the small external amplifiers (in this case a Ray Samuels Audio Emmeline P-51 Mustang) helps things out a bit. But the DX-50 is reasonable for portable applications driving even decent headphones directly, good enough to enliven dull daily stuff like my commute for work with enjoyable music and that’s nothing to sneeze at. The Operating System is good enough for me (I don’t engage in stuff like complicated search features, playlists or other fripperies, I just pick an album or song a play it) and it has been reliable. I found a case that I could easily modify to carry and protect it at a “Five Below” store and the supposed-to-be belt clip holds two of my thumb drives. But how I wish the PONO had the ability to handle external storage…

To me, it’s a far cry from yesterdays cassettes and walkman…

Final Audio Design Pandora VI headphones

Final Audio Design (hereafter called “FAD”) is an interesting and in some ways, bizarre, company. They have had their hands in many aspects of audio over the years, but are probably best known today for their headphone/IEM products. FAD seems often to make little concession to practicality, marketability or even many folks concept of what “proper” sound should be in many of their products. Calling some of their gear an acquired taste is probably an understatement. They have described some of their kit as a intention to replicate the sounds characteristic of low power tube amp/horn systems, which it must be said is a unique niche for a portable audio company to cater to.

It was with some trepidation that a few years ago I bought their 1601SS IEM. Somehow, the talk about it made me want to check it out for myself. It turned out to be a heavy chunk of chromium-shiny metal that had to be shoved tightly in the ear and that what it did wrong sonically was immediately and blatantly obvious. I suspect that most folks would have given this a quick listen and bowed out and I this I can understand. But…

There are certain things the FAD did that were unusual in my experience for IEM’s. There were plenty of problems, no deep bass, an upper midrange hole, a rolled off treble with a bit of low treble peak sting. But, an articulate midrange, great dynamics (for IEM’s) and a spacious soundstage, uniquely so in my experience at the time (again, for IEM’s) were some compensation. To get what tonal accuracy they were capable of required a particular set of tips (the white ones with the slots, in my case) and careful insertion but when everything swung their way, it could be a really compelling listen, in my view.

So the 1601SS was a guilty pleasure, perhaps. But it turns out they could also make more “conventional” sounding IEM’s that also brought something interesting to the table, such as the FI-BA-SS. They made products at the costly side of things but made others that were relatively cheap, it seems like nothing is off the table or too avant-garde for them.

So, out of curiosity, I bought a pair of their Pandora VI headphones, their first over-ears since the ill-fated Muramasa XIII (which they seem to like to make believe never happened). I have been listening to them for a while now and the odd thing is there isn’t all that much odd about them! Not to say they have no colorations or peculiarities, just to say that they generally sound like a somewhat “normal” headphone, just a tad further out than the Sennheiser HD-650, for example. The Pandora’s sell in the $700/$800 range, pricey but not ridiculous.

Compared to the HD-650’s, the Pandora’s are a bit brighter and sound a bit more out of the head. The mids on the Senns may be a bit more tonally accurate, but the FAD’s sound more present and kind of “creamier” (funny, FAD products tend to produce more emotional response and more, ahem, colorful descriptions when reviewing). I liked the bass better on the FAD, the Senns tend to a slightly “fuzzier” presentation. All in all, I think the Pandora is a better and more beautiful sounding headphone (at around half again the cost, it should be said) than the admittedly fine HD-650’s. To me, it’s a bit telling that I handed the Pandora’s to a reviewer friend (no agenda, just because they were handy at the time) to do some stuff on his computer and he mentioned, unsolicited, how good they sounded.

Off topic but BTW, it’s interesting how I acquired my HD-650’s. I went on a vacation trip to a favorite place, Nice in the south of France, a couple of years ago and when I arrived I realized that I had my HD portable music player and a pair of decent IEM’s, but forgot to bring a conventional over-ear headphone. As I was walking through Le Vieux Nice (the old section of town where small shops, narrow sidewalks and restaurants proliferate), I came across what was basically a thrift store/pawn shop. I can never resist these kind of places, so in I went and in the used audio area, besides the usual junque, I found both a pair of Grado SR-325 and the HD-650’s! Some classy folks pawning stuff there in Nice. So I bought the 650’s (at a quite reasonable price) and was reacquainted with their classic sound while giving my ears a rest from the IEMs.

Well, back to the Pandora’s. Of course, being FAD, there has to be some idiosyncrasies here. When you reach in the box to take them out, you encounter…FUR! I best leave this alone at this point. They phones are a bit heavy (but float in space compared to the massive aforementioned Muramasa XIII, apparently) and the headband interface is kind of free-floating rather than stiff or click-stopped (though they somehow seem to stay in place on the head). To me, they are fairly comfortable, but YMMV. The construction is kind of chrome and black plastic chic, but not unattractive. One interesting technical feature is that these are, in a sense, “two way” headphones. In addition to the dynamic driver, a balanced armature driver such as used in many IEM designs is employed as a tweeter (!!!). Okay, so maybe they are more than a bit idiosyncratic…

The ten step program to headphone hype

With the ascendance of personal audio, headphones have become a bit of a hot commodity in the audio world and with that has come the proliferation of sites devoted to the subject. These sites are populated by everyone from industry professionals to serious students of the art to rank newcomers. And with this comes people of all levels of expertise sharing their experiences, often vociferously. And sometimes with intemperate hype. So let’s look at the birth, death and resurrection of a headphone as may be found on an audio site near you. Any resemblance to an actual headphone is strictly coincidental…

1) Headco announces their new headphone, the somewhat expensive HP-6SJ7GT, with 4 paragraphs, a handful of specs and one picture. One week later, first HP-6SJ7GT information thread is posted along with the first conjecture-reviews. Two weeks later online retailers post availability information. The new phone will be available in 1 month, preorders taken.

2) (3 months later) Online retailers post a few new pictures and that the first shipment will be in in one month, more preorders taken. Natives on information thread getting restless.

3) (2 months later) Online retailers post that first shipment has been received, but rather than the amount ordered, 5 arrive at each of the five on-line retailers. Much angst on information thread.

4) (1 week later) First phones delivered to lucky few. First reviews appear proclaiming the HP-6SJ7GT as the best phone ever made in the most immoderate terms. Others on preorder list eat their heart out.

5) (2 weeks later) Rumors that the manufacturer will make a few “improvements” before full production starts. The early owners either have units a) soon to be superseded or b) that are the “good ones before Headco screwed ’em up”. One month later, the phones ship in earnest.

6) (2 weeks later) Three new threads appear, “HP-6SJ7GT appreciation” thread, the “HP-6SJ7GT; why do they suck so bad” thread and the “HP-6SJ7GT. Overpriced?” thread. Everyone on the “HP-6SJ7GT appreciation” thread loves them (except a few posts by the most Alpha personality members of the “HP-6SJ7GT; why do they suck so bad” thread), everyone on the “HP-6SJ7GT; why do they suck so bad” thread hates them (except a few posts by the most Alpha personality members of the “HP-6SJ7GT appreciation” thread). The “HP-6SJ7GT. Overpriced?” thread basically could have been cut and pasted from every other “overpriced” thread. 90% of the posts on all three threads are by people who haven’t heard them or heard them for 5 minutes at a meet/store/friend’s house/in their imagination/in a dream.

7) (6 months later) Backorders satisfied, you can call the dealer and order out of stock, but few are interested anymore. People are awaiting the release of Phonemagic’s new “Excelsior 7” (see step 1). Headco threads drift down the boards.

8. (1 year later) Headco announces the discontinuance of the HP-6SJ7GT, Amazon blows out the last remaining units.

9) (5 years later) Famous reviewer makes a comparison to the HP-6SJ7GT in a review of a new mega-expensive state-of-the-art phone and mentions how great and overlooked the HP-6SJ7GT was. People put wanted-to-buy ads on head-fi, prices go up, new threads start including the HP-6SJ7GT owners thread complete with owners serial numbers. Arguments start about which S/N were the best and which ones were bass light and which ones were bass heavy. The first run of 25 is rumored to be the absolute best.

10) (1 year later) HP-6SJ7GT’s now go for three times the original price and are gobbled up in hours when they appear for sale. Much angst from those who can’t find a pair, more from people who had a pair and sold them. The word “legendary” always appears before HP-6SJ7GT when they are written of. They are venerated when someone shows up at a meet with a pair. In fact, advertising that they will be there ensures your events success. Threads appear wishing Headco would bring the HP-6SJ7GT back into production. The naysayers say why bother, they sucked anyway and warn everyone of the lack of parts availability. Which is caused by DIY guys who bought up all the repair parts to build various “frankenphones”.

Oh well, to quote Talking Heads, “same as it ever was”. People are so suggestible. It is to laugh! BTW, anyone know where I can find a pair of Excelsior 7’s? I hear a rumor that Tyll Hertsens mentioned them in a review on Inner Fidelity recently…

The one that got away or how I learned to live without the Sony R-10’s

This is a story about the “one that got away”. Do you have an audio related product that has always just managed to elude your grasp? Here’s my story. It’s about the Bo Derek, the perfect 10 of headphones, the Sony R-10.

Back around 1994, the availability of good portable CD players stoked my interest in portable hi-fi. I had a Denon walkman-type CD player and a pair of Beyer DT-990’s and that system worked pretty well. But as always, audiophiles want to see what’s better around the corner.

As it happened, I was doing some part-time audio tech work at that time and one of my clients was an early importer of the Sony R-10 and CD-XXXX phones into the country. There were models at about $300 and $600 and, of course, the $4000 R-10.

On one of my visits I decided to audition the non-R-10 Sony’s as an improvement over the DT-990. The $300 seemed to be a lateral move but the $600 CD-3000 had potential. But the R-10 beckoned like Bo running on the beach from their perch on the shelf. I had to listen and the rest was history. I was smitten!

I left with no new headphones. The others seemed irrelevant after the R-10, but they were $4000! What kind of idiot would spend 4000 (1994) bucks on a headphone!

I told my audio buddy John about my discovery and rather than calling me crazy, he opined that if I sold this and this and this, devoted all my part-time job money and put it all in a shoe-box, eventually I would have the money. Idiocy turned into scheming.

The DT-990’s sold along with a few other items and my efforts filled the box up to $2000 pretty quickly, so I called the importer to let him know my intentions. He had two pairs in stock, so I was covered!

Finally the day came and the shoe-box was full so I called to pick up my treasure. Only he had just sold the last of his remaining stock. But don’t worry, he said, more are on order. Arrrggghhh! Months went by. The importer said they are on back order, be patient! I have a better idea, sell me your demo pair! He declined…

Of course, no R-10’s would be forthcoming. A year or so went by and I gave up, though they remained in my mind.

One evening during a trip to John’s place, headphones came up and I told my sad story. Oh, I have a pair said John. He had bought a pair based on my enthusiasm (I didn’t know). From my friend, the importer. One of his last two. MY PAIR!!!! Arrrggghhh again!

The Sennheiser Orpheus seemed a good alternative, but would have required two more shoe-boxes and was hardly portable. I bought a pair of Grado HP-1000, good, but not the same. Eventually, I called the importer on the off-chance that he would sell his demo R-10’s since they were by then officially discontinued. Oops, he had already sold them.

We fast forward to about two years ago. Thoughts of my old flame were far from my mind, but looking around on Audiogon one morning, my heart skipped a beat. There it was; SONY R-10 FS! Gulp! I quickly clicked off the ‘Gon, shut off the computer and went to work. Would Bo have aged gracefully in the ensuing years? Should I spend the money?

Upon returning home from work I knew what I had to do. I went to Audiogon and found the ad only to be greeted by an ominous red SOLD! No, it can’t be! Not again! My eye then caught the zip code. Could it be? Yep, John had finally decided to sell his Sony’s. I swung and missed again.

Sometimes the fates have their own agenda and we have to learn to accept that. We all have our R-10s, our old girlfriends, the car we should have bought and so forth. The R-10 is my audio product that got away. And like old girlfriends and cars, the art is in knowing when to give up and get over it…

Sennheiser HD-800

The Sennheiser HD-800 was probably one of the most anticipated headphones in recent years. The subject of intemperate hype and casual put-down even before it was “finally” released, it seems to be an attempt at a “statement” product, but does it make it?

Upon taking delivery of the HD-800, the box (nice, but not really sumptuous) was unpacked and the phones inspected. I found them to be reasonably well built and attractive, with a good quality cable and ¼ inch phone plug termination. They struck me as quite nice but not over-the-top. Those who expect Sony Qualia-like overbuild may be disappointed here (though they probably will not be disappointed by their considerably lower price). One slight complaint. Sennheiser could have provided a carrying bag. I know they are not really intended for portable use, but having something other than the gargantuan box to carry them around in would have been nice.

I find them comfortable to wear, about as good as anything I have owned. Glasses seem to be accommodated OK and isolation is also fine.

So down to some listening (after the phones were run-in for about 50 hours). The associated equipment for home listening was a Pioneer PD-D9 Elite SACD/CD player, Yamaha GT-2000 turntable with Koetsu black cartridge, a CAT SL-1 preamp and a Schiit Asgard Amp. Also employed was a homebrew “Gain clone” amp similar to the 47 labs units.

The first thing one usually notices in a headphone is the general balance. The HD-800 is balanced  with a reasonably deep but somewhat  lean bass and an extended treble. The sound field is wider than that of typical headphones and projects a front-of-head presentation rather than the typical “right between the ears” effect. While this is miles from what a competent loudspeaker system achieves spatially, it’s not bad for a pair of cans. The bass is noteworthy in its lack of excess and reasonable bass reach (the lowest organ pedals do not come through with the strength or impact of a good, truly full range speaker or a good set of subwoofers, in common with just about every other headphone). The mid-bass here is well balanced with no feeling of bloat. 

The treble is commendable for its purity, but it could be a bit more even. Some may find it balanced a bit hot overall. This is an area where controversy reigns. In the concert hall, there is a range of possible balances that correspond to different seating areas in the hall. A closer seat will have a higher percentage of direct sound and more treble, a more distant seat has a higher percentage of reflected sound and lower treble content. Any of these perspectives are fair game as to being considered natural, as they naturally occur in the hall. Personal preference prevails here just as it would if you were picking a seat for a concert, which is why the whole issue of treble balance is so problematical and controversial, both in phones and in loudspeakers. Personally, I am OK with the HD-800 treble, though it’s not quite my ideal.

About the midrange, less arguement should arise. This is the phones glory and why you pay the price of admission. Very low distortion and subjective intermodulation results in a quite low residual noise floor, even when things get busy. You hear more of the attack and delay of notes because of this and low level cues that are sometimes lost in the shuffle are there to be heard. But the detail is not flung at you, it’s just there to hear as part of the presentation or to be focused upon as you so chose.

So what about some musical examples? The Reference Recordings CD of Mozart’s Piano Concerto #21 (Schwartz/Istomin) is a bit of a test. It emphasizes clarity, a large sound field and a front of hall perspective and this is how the HD-800 presented it. The piano is, in a way, a percussion instrument, the HD-800 playback doesn’t round the treble off and it results in a brighter, more percussive sound here.

Mercury Living Presence recordings strived for good dynamic range and did not employ compression, using the technology of the day. This means that if the volume is adjusted to reasonably loud levels, tape hiss can be heard. The “Malaguena” cut off of “Hi Fi a la Espanola” (Fennell/Eastman-Rochester) is a good example. Some of the guitar solo parts are very quiet, close to the tape hiss floor. Again, the treble stops short of emphasizing the hiss unduly. Another aspect of the Merc’s is the upper treble peaks characteristic of the Telefunken U-47 microphones employed. The HD-800 does nothing to scotch this.

In Mercury’s “Composer and his Orchestra” (Hanson/ Eastman-Rochester), Howard Hanson’s commentary was recorded in the hall along with the orchestra and the hall reverberation on his voice comes through well, a testimony to the HD-800’s not masking low level details.

The RCA “Reiner Sound” (Reiner/Chicago) reading of “Isle of the Dead” captures the dark foreboding sound Rachmaninoff’s score calls for. Here the typically sweeter RCA strings are in full evidence.

Basically, the HD-800 does a reasonable job of standing back and letting the musicians/recording engineer call the shots. Fortunately, this does not come at cost to musicality, in most cases. An even-handed reproducer will tend to bring the best out of good recordings and not bring the worst out of mediocre recordings, but bad recordings are just bad recordings. To me, it makes no sense to cripple a systems performance to make bad recordings a little less irritating.

The HD-800 strikes me as having a certain “rightness”. Even though intellectually I know there are problems and flaws, they are good enough to lessen the idea of listening to recordings rather than music more than most, in my experience.

So at the end of the day, these are quite excellent phones. Are they the best phone for everyone? I think that is a product that will never be made. If you like a phone that shaves off the sometimes nasty edges music has and tames poor recordings or acts as impromptu “deesser”, look elsewhere. If you like a big bass to underline the beat of the music, these may not satisfy (though they should respond to reasonable EQ as the drivers seem to have plenty of dynamic range available). Under these conditions, their overall performance might not be enough to overcome your preferences.

And of course, there is the question of price. There are many excellent phones available in the $300 to $700 range that can serve as the centerpiece of a quite nice system. But none that I have heard can match the overall sound quality and beauty of the HD-800. To better them requires an equivalent or even higher financial commitment.

So, overall, the HD-800 lives up to much of the advance hype and represents one of the better options currently available on today’s market.