14 November, 2012

Headphone Talk: A Classic Crop, Creme de la Creme

pic: Treasure trove on loan. Found your favorite?

Headphone Talk I: A Classic Crop, Creme de la Creme

Me, the Reluctant Headphone Man
I bought my first pair of headphone, an old Sennheiser HD-424 with foam pads, in the mid-seventies, when I was still living with my parents and commuting to college. Not much later I moved out and listened only on my regular stereo, and those buds were promptly forgotten. I still have them and they still work, though the foam had long deteriorated. More recently, I bought a pair of Audio Technica ATH-AD700 on impulse, but seldom used it.

You see, I am not much of a headphone man. Who would be if the sound coming through the loudspeakers is enticingly good? So, as recently as a year ago, if you tell me I'd be listening to headphones I'd just laugh at the suggestion. But things have changed and I am a pragmatic man - I'd do what has to be done with the enthusiasm I had previously reserved for other audio matters. What's of prime importance is to listen to as much music as possible. I shudder to think what would be life without Bach and Bruckner

As you may recall, I have a pair of Sennheiser HD-600, which I use in SZ with my Pro-ject Headbox II (more links later). I didn't bring them back to HK, and have been thinking of buying another pair for my everyday needs. My friend BenYC recommended the AKG-K701 and I was looking around for a good price (a lot more expensive in HK than the USA).

Serendipity! A Treasure Trove My shidi, that man of inexhaustible energy, once again surprised me and came to my rescue. when he told me of the wonderful collection of headphones he has in his closet. Why, he never listened to them! He being man of action (as opposed to my procrastination), a boatload of headphones and the tank-like DarkVoice headamps (see pic above) were deposited at my doorsteps before I knew it, his lovely wife Jane being the driver! Thank you, dynamic duo! Now, I have a great deal to write about! I assure you, the crop is creme de la creme!

No Head-Fi Nut Here, Please!
But, I should state that I come to headphones from a different angle, one more relaxed, more musically oriented, more utilitarian if you will. No, I shall never be like the many Head-Fi people who populate the various on-line forums. Although I shall detail my impressions of the many classic cans I have on hand now, the approach shall be a broad-stroked focus on musical values. That means, no endless (and unfortunate) pursuit of the elusive (to be polite) digital Holy-Grail; no hi-res files; no latest and so-called "best" DAC du jour; no million-dollar headphones, no million-dollar headphone amps here. Just a running log on some justifiably famous cans that can be had for a reasonable sum.

My Stand, and Pitfalls You Should Avoid:
Lest you think I am not qualified to write about headphones, and before you decide to read my takes on the classic cans, please note the following:
  • To understand where I am coming from, please read my experience on the various headphones and headphone amps I own (click here). Although I'd be the first one to say the experience is limited, it is by no means trivial. Many more "comprehensive" talks out there focus on just that, trivia. Let me make my two cents clear: I believe no headphone experience gets close to listening to a really great audio system. There is just way too much hyperbole out there in so-called Head-Fi land. Any forum which, as stated above, proclaims a better DAC every day, a better headphone amp every other day, and a better headphone every week is precisely the kind of website you should AVOID at all cost.
  • Lest you think I don't have so-called dedicated headphone amps of high caliber, don't forget I have used the Nagra PL-P's dedicated headphone outputs (link above), as well as the Meier Korda Swing (report here).Oh, I almost forget my Manley Neo-Classic 300B preamp(link here)!
  •  No matter how humble, something that delivers pleasure is worth writing about. That includes my iPod Classic. If you think that is too low, or not good enough to judge serious cans (I use the AKG's), look elsewhere.
  • My standard is my accumulated experience, and that is very much conventional hifi and analog/vinyl based. Yes, digital can be eminently listenable (I listen to it every day), but sonic nirvana it is not. More importantly, judging things by digital replay can only lead you astray.
  • When using CAS, I listen to lossless AIFF files ripped by iTunes. Basic, no frills.
  • I listen to mostly classical music at sane level. No loud pumping here. Not much rock. Mind you, not the ultimate test for headphone amp prowess; ymmv. But I assure you a lossless classical file, with its dynamic range, represents the greatest challenge for Head-Fi.
Part II shall be the official start of my headphone journey, which I hope some of you will share with me.

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