08 June, 2016

Headphone Fiio X-1 AuGlamour R8

Headphone: The Bus Ride
Review: FIIO X-1, Part II
AuGlamour R8 In-Ear Earphones, Part II

Headphone Talk VI

Part I

Yesterday was yumcha day, and I travelled by bus. By the time I got home I had managed to listen to 9 Beethoven sonatas on my FIIO X-1. I used the AuGlamour R8.

Listening on the Bus
Like the UK, HK's buses are mostly double-deckers. Except for the stairwell, the upper deck is sealed and hence quite quiet in terms of isolation from outside noise, which makes it ideal for headphone listening. The MTR (subway) is in comparison less ideal.

I have only used the FIIO X-1 for a few weeks, and I usually only ride the bus on Saturdays, yet I have already listened to 2 cycles of Bach Cello Suites (Jean Max Clement, Jan Vogler) and 1 of his Solo Violin music (Amandine Beyer). Now I have started listening to Annie Fischer's almost complete Beethoven cycle.

What prompts me to write this article is that for at least two of the artists my perception of their playing through headphone is quite different from listening to the CDs on my regular systems:

In the case of Jean Max Clement, whose original L'Oiseau Lyre LP's cost a fortune, with my regular system I find the playing nuanced but too refined, ultimately a little flat and boring. With the upfront sound of the AuGlamour R8, I could relish more in the minutiae, subtle inflections and coloristic efforts. Indeed it seemed more lively and dynamic.

As for Annie Fischer's Beethoven, this is a rather idiosyncratic cycle, made late in her career with many out-takes and much editing. With my regular system, everything seem rather piecemeal, one moment (a few bars to a whole movement) of brilliance followed by something prosaic and unnatural. With the earphones, that feeling certainly does not completely go away, but one can revel more in her brilliance than her waywardness, making it a more enjoyable experience.

For the other musicians cited (Beyer's Bach, Vogler's Bach), the headphone experience is commensurate with listening to the regular systems.

I mulled on my experience and had a discussion with my friend whlee, who also once used earphones. We came up with some observations.

Thoughts on (Headphone) Listening
  • The On-The-Go Factor The average audiophile thinks sitting down in the so-called "sweet-spot", perhaps drawing the curtains and dimming the lights, makes for the best listening. While that is indeed a simulation of the "live experience", I ask what are we focusing on? There is no real performer to hold our breath for...we can concentrate on listening to the music, but it still is a far cry from the real venue. On-The-Go is different - we feel alive, partaker of our own fate. It is well known people, even seasoned listeners, enjoy car music. In what is basically a bubble, one can listen to NYC's WQXR happily while travelling to upstate NY. This is because while riding, we get a lot of stimulation from the scenery. In a way, not so different from watching a movie - think Terrence Malick's Tree of Life, where the music and scenery reinforce each other. That we enjoy it so much on the go does not at all mean it is better than our home setup - it is just different. E.g., overall, the Annie Fischer and Jean Max Clement are lacking in overall flow and coherence, but with the earphones one gets distracted by the heightened microdynamics, minute details and not mind so much the lack of flow.   
  • Near-Field vs Perspective While the headphone listening experience is for certain "near-field" ("near-head" is more accurate; how can it not be when we are wearing the cans on our heads?), it is not completely devoid of perspective, but no matter how good the phones are, they are still "near". Indeed, the sound is directly pumped into the ears, devoid of any reflections - absolutely no simulation of the live venue. Near-Field This is closer to the headphone experience, but not the same. Even a near-field setup in a room has plenty of reflected sound, though one may not be aware. Near-Field vs Mid or Back Row Perspective One can setup an audio system based on near-field listening (as studios do) or from a perspective farther away. Most home and hi-end systems gravitate more towards the latter. This would favor orchestral music and less so chamber and solo music. The headphone is exactly the opposite: The big music, Mahler, Bruckner, don't do so well on the earphones, but the smaller ensembles, jazz and chamber music, can do better. which is why I do not even load complex music onto my FIIO X-1.
  • Judging a performance Listening to earphones yields a different perspective, but it is not one ideally suited to evaluating the merit of a component or a performance - being akin to the kind of "Heightened Awareness" under the influence of drugs or alcoholThe musical examples cited above illustrate my view. As a corollary, "reviews" by head-fi sites are to be taken with a grain of salt, if not worthless.
  • Listen to More Music The whole point of using the media player and earphones is to listen to (catch up with) more music. A basic level of competency is enough. To make extravagant claims is ridiculous.
I enjoy my humble setup very much but have no desire to spend a lot more money for this kind of listening.

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