One of the first headphone cable upgrades I ever made--around ten years ago--was with a few rough prototypes Cardas Audio (www.cardas.com) sent me to try out with my Sennheiser HD 600. I wasn't sure what to expect, but the improvements I heard had me ordering their first production headphone cable the moment it was released.
Since that first headphone cable upgrade ten years ago, many headphones in addition to the HD 600 have been released with removable cables, like the Sennheiser HD 800 and HD 700, Audeze LCD-2/3, the HiFiMAN HE-series planars, and many others. In addition to Cardas, many other companies have started offering high-end headphone cables, like Moon Audio (www.moon-audio.com), ALO Audio (www.aloaudio.com), and Toxic Cables (www.toxic-cables.co.uk).
In addition to sonic tweaking, custom headphone cables can also solve the connectivity conundrums that have become commonplace in the world of Head-Fi. On the headphone side, there's no single standard for earpiece plugs. Just looking around my desk, I see at least five different types of headphone-side plugs for full-size headphones, three different types for custom in-ear monitors, and there's even more of a variety in the market than that. And then there are the amps' connectors to contend with. For example, in the portable world, there are at least two different connection standards for balanced drive, in addition to the common unbalanced 3.5mm mini plug. For balanced desktop amps, there's dual three-pin XLR, and single four-pin XLR standards for balanced drive, in addition to the common unbalanced 6.3mm (1/4") plug. At Head-Fi HQ, we keep our favorite cable makers on our speed dial, as we constantly deal with the seemingly limitless combinations of all these headphones and amps, and all the different plugs involved.
Moon Audio is often the first company I call for custom headphone cables, especially when I need something of the more unusual, more custom variety. (I was actually Moon Audio's first custom headphone cable customer, many years ago.) So far, Moon Audio's Drew Baird has not turned down any custom cabling challenge I've put in front of him--he'll even tackle the replacement of non-detachable cables, performing whatever surgery necessary to make the new connections. He's also a genuine, dyed-in-the-wool, bona fide headphone geek, so the moment he buys himself a headphone for personal use, it won't be long before he's fabricating the plugs necessary to accommodate that headphone with Moon Audio cabling.
One of the most recent niche cable upgrades I needed from Moon Audio was for the far-from-common FitEar in-ear monitors (an ultra-high-end Japanese crafter of handmade IEMs). I knew Drew was also a FitEar customer, and, much to my amazement, he'd already made a custom over-molded connector specifically for FitEar IEMs; so I ordered a Moon Audio Silver Dragon cable for the FitEar MH334 Custom, and also a custom Silver Dragon cable for the upcoming Shure SE846 while I was at it. (See the photo of both of these IEM cables.)
Something that ALO Audio, Toxic Cables, and Moon Audio are doing that I absolutely love (and that saves me a bunch of money) is making and selling what I call universal headphone cables, which are cables that have detachable adapter ends that allow the headphone to be used with just about any amp made without having to swap out the main cable. Mini plugs, 1/4" plugs, dual 3-pin XLR, single 4-pin XLR, the proprietary plug required for use with the SR-71B / F-35 Lightning / Rx Mk3--I use all of these. More and more of my headphones are being switched over to universal headphone cables by these makers, so that they can share the adapter ends with each other, for plugging into any amp. (See the photo of the two Audeze headphones with universal cables by Moon Audio and ALO Audio, with a variety of detached adapter ends.)
If you've got a custom cabling need, contact any of the above cable makers. I've found all of them will bend over backwards to help me optimize the sound of my systems, as well as to solve any connection issues I've got. Also, all of the ones I mentioned make cables of all types, not just headphone cables.
When Head-Fi'ers are putting together portable rig stacks, having extra-short cables is of paramount importance, to keep things neat and light. Finding short Lightning cables hasn't been terribly easy, but the ADL iD8-L-0.1M is an extra-short Lightning cable with 90-degree plugs at each end; and the V-MODA Tuono, at only 3.75" long, is also a great option. I use both (see photo at left), and am very happy with how they very compactly fit in with my on-the-go rigs.
(Make sure to click on the photo at left to see these rigs in greater detail. Actually, most of the images in the guide are clickable to larger sizes.)
iFi micro iUSB Power with iFi Gemini USB cable and iFi iPurifier
With a dedicated power line and dual balanced power transformers, I've taken quite a lot of care and expense to make sure the power feeding my main home headphone rig is as clean as reasonably possible. Unfortunately, computers can inject noise and interference into your rig via USB, so how do I deal with power problems generated fromwithinmy rig? I use the iFi Micro iUSBPower, which is essentially a better power supply--a power conditioner and more--for your USB audio rig.
The iUSBPower uses multi-stage, multi-order power purifying and filtering. iFi claims the iUSBPower has voltage accuracy of 0.5%, which is even quieter than a 9V dry cell battery. It also breaks the noisy DC ground connection between the computer and your USB audio device, which iFi claims reduces the ground noise by a factor of 10.
With iFi's Gemini USB cable--which is of an unusual dual-path design (it looks like two USB cables in one)--you can take full advantage of something iFi calls IsoPower, which allows you to run separate power and data lines from the iUSBPower. The idea behind separating power and data lines is to prevent pollution between them--keeping USB audio data free from contamination, and keeping USB signal noise from the power supply lines. The iFi Gemini USB cable also has extensive RF shielding, including metal oxide ceramic RF silencers along the length of the cable.
Finally, iFi also makes the iPurifier, which is designed to clean and filter the USB audio signal and power at the end of the digital chain, immediately before they enter the DAC. The iFi iPurifier is designed to reduce EMI noise, and restore the USB signal waveform.
I will regularly useverysensitive high-end in-ear monitors in my systems, and their high sensitivities--in combination with up to 30dB of passive isolation from ambient noise--can lay bare even low levels of noise in a system. In my reference rig, the iFi Micro iUSBPower, Gemini USB cable, and iPurifier have together become an extension of my power conditioning system. If you're running a high-end computer audio rig (which many Head-Fi'ers are nowadays), you should audition these iFi pieces in your setup. I'm ordering a second set of them to use in my main office setup now, too.
Finding a short optical cable for portable rig use is another big challenge. So far, I know of only one company that does it the way Head-Fi'ers need it done, and that's Sys. Concept Inc. in Canada. I had a custom optical cable cut to digitally connect the Astell & Kern AK120 to the CEntrance HiFi-M8, and it's absolutely brilliant (see photo).
Every single Head-Fi'er should be carrying tuned earplugs on their person everywhere they go. I do. At the very least, consider picking up a set for those times you know you'll be going to concerts, motor sports events, the movie theater (yes, movies are often played way loud), on airplanes, dance clubs...and the list goes on.
Both the V-MODA Faders and Etymotic ETYPlugs have a Noise Reduction Rating (NRR) of 12 dB (decibels), and both may provide up to 20 decibels of noise reduction when used properly. If you're wondering why one would spend the scratch on these instead of just using those giveaway foam earplugs or wadded-up tissue paper, it's because these are tuned earplugs. Normal earplugs block noise indiscriminately, resulting in muffled sound and smothered details. Tuned earplugs, on the other hand, sound like turning the world's volume knob to the left, with things getting quieter, but details being maintained.
When attending loud concerts, I've found that tuned earplugs actually help to hear the music more clearly. At loud movies, they can take the too-loud edge off explosions and other ear-piercing special effects, yet still allow me to hear the dialog clearly.
For example, a 12 dB reduction can mean the difference between a 106 dB concert, only four minutes of which can result in permanent hearing damage; or a reduction to 94 dB, which is rated for one hour of listening before permanent hearing damage sets in. And, again, if used correctly, you may achieve even more than 12 dB reduction with these earplugs.
I own both the Faders and the ETYPlugs, and strongly recommend either. Personally, I prefer the Faders, for not just the style (the Faders look like IEMs, and the ETYPlugs look like plastic tubes sticking out of your ears), but also the sound (I feel the Faders let more treble detail through).
Seriously, fellow Head-Fi'ers, regardless of which of these earplugs you choose, take your hearing protection very seriously.
Written by Jude Mansilla
(So why am I including a Bluetooth mobile phone headset in the Head-Fi Buying Guide? Because it's made by one of our favorite headphone makers; and because it's the best Bluetooth headset I've yet used.)
I received the press release for the Sennheiser Presence from Sennheiser's PR team, and just happened to be in the market for a new Bluetooth earpiece to replace the one I had that wasn't working well with my new iPhone 5S. I immediately went to the Sennheiser online store and bought one, and the Presence has so far been the best Bluetooth earpiece I've yet used.
My iPhone 5S is equipped with Bluetooth 4.0, and the Sennheiser Presence is too. I'm not sure if it's at all to do with Bluetooth 4.0, but call quality with the Presence is fantastic. The only other Bluetooth headset I have that people on the other end say sounds like I'm not on a headset is the Sony MDR-1RBT, but that's a full-size over-ear, circumaural stereo headphone.
Also, a few models I've purchased in the past claimed resistance to wind, yet all would make it sound like I was in the middle of a blizzard if even a light breeze was blowing directly on it. The Sennheiser Presence uses something Sennheiser calls WindSafe technology, and it actually works! During one hilarious test, Joe held up a box fan, set it on high, and pointed it at my head while talking to another colleague on the phone. On the highest fan setting, the other party could hear the fan, but the sound of air buffeting the microphones wasn't enough to keep us from talking. Apparently the Presence uses three digital microphones to help separate the user's voice from the wind.
Those three digital microphones are also used to provide tremendous general noise reduction--most of the time, the other party can't hear much of what's going on in the background, even when I'm in loud places.
As far as talk time goes, I've not had a Bluetooth earpiece provide longer talk time in actual use. The Sennheiser Presence is rated for up to ten hours of talk time, and based on my experience so far I find that rated battery life a fair expectation.
The Presence also looks very cool, which is nice--some of the other ones I've worn in the past were awkward looking. With the Presence, I get both the best Bluetooth earpiece I've yet used, as well as the one of the most stylish ones I've seen to date.
My complaints about the Sennheiser Presence are limited to its buttons. To keep the Presence's appearance sleek, all three of its buttons are very shallow in their actions, and don't provide positive enough clicks for me. I'd have gladly sacrificed a wee bit of sleekness for slightly prouder buttons.
If you spend a lot of time talking on your mobile phone--and especially if you have a Bluetooth 4.0 capable phone--definitely give the Sennheiser Presence a try. Again, it is, by a significant margin, the best Bluetooth headset I’ve used so far.
I have a tendency to get my headphone cables tangled up in chair arms, door handles and doorknobs, under chair casters, with other headphone cables... Think of anything you could reasonably tangle your headphone cable up in, and I've probably done it, as I'm wearing headphones for many of my waking hours, day in, day out.
Enter the Klingg. The Klingg is a headphone cable clip that attaches to your shirt with very strong magnets. A small magnetic plate goes behind your shirt, and the front clip section magnetically sticks to the back plate through your shirt--simple as that.
Keep in mind that the Klingg only works now with small-diameter headphone cables, but I hope they make a spring clip version some day that accommodates a wide variety of cable diameters.
NOTE: the Klingg's neodymium magnets are strong. Make sure to read Klingg's FAQ before using the Klingg.
Westone Monitor Vault
Written by Jude Mansilla
When you buy a high-end in-ear monitor, you usually get some sort of protective case with it. Sometimes, though, the included case isn't the ideal size--more often than not, in my experience, the included protective case is larger than I'd like (sometimes far larger).
For all my pricey IEMs, I use the Westone Monitor Vault. It's weather resistant (but not dunk proof, so don't submerge it), its polymer shell rugged, and has a protective foam interior. The fit is snug with most of my IEMs, but that keeps my in-ears from rattling around loose inside. It's just big enough to surround your IEMs with its armor, and that's all I need.
None of my IEMs have ever been damaged or destroyed while in the Westone Monitor Vault, and it takes up minimal space in my bags. The Westone Monitor Vault is very inexpensive, very compact peace of mind.