I originally posted this in the head-fi TV episode thread about SPL Phonitor, and a member suggested I should make a standalone post for it instead, so I'm posting it here.
Below is the original post:
I've auditioned the Phonitor before a couple of times and it's a beautiful piece of gear. If I wasn't computer-based, I'd buy one just for the crossfeed feature (I'll get to why that is later, when I talk about Isone).
First, I want to comment on the whole "pro audio gear sounds too analytical" thing (this isn't directed at you, Jude, but for the benefit of the head-fi community, since we have members that aren't as educated about audio).
I personally think there's only one standard for fidelity, and that is total neutrality and accuracy. If anything sounds analytical or musical, then there's coloration, and IMO, audio gear shouldn't have coloration. Ideally, audio gear is completely transparent and you hear the music as the audio engineers who made them intended them to sound, without adding coloration of your own. The only problem is, it's extremely difficult to achieve perfect neutrality, unless you are in an anechoic chamber, using very high-end speakers that measures ruler flat from 20Hz to 20KHz. Some monitors get extremely close to this, such as the venerable Klein + Hummel series (now owned by Nermann). With headphones it's just as hard because our ear canals are all different, even if you take the room out of the equation, and also headphone drivers have not proven to be able to reach that kind of ruler flat response over the entire audible range, due to having to design drivers so close to our ears and taking into consideration the resonance peak of our ears and other issues.
And because of the above, even though many companies try their best to design perfectly neutral audio gear, they end up sounding slightly different from one another due to the designs and materials and manufacturing process being all different. Even audio mastering engineers have different gears they work with, such as reference loudspeakers and monitors they personally prefer. One mastering engineer's work when played in another mastering engineer's studio might sound a tiny bit different, but because they all strive for neutrality and accuracy, they come very close to be within the same small range of what could be considered neutral and accurate.
On the consumer end is where it becomes very problematic. Most consumers wouldn't know what neutral and accurate is even if they heard it. Many have this false impression that neutral and accurate means cold, sterile, overly analytical, lacking bass, fatiguing, too bright, or whatever. That is a misconception and is regurgitated and propagated due to ignorance. Neutral and accurate does not sound like ANYTHING--it basically means you cannot detect a coloration of its own--it has no sonic signature at all and simply reproduces the music exactly as is. If a song was engineered to sound warm and musical, then that's how neutral gear will reproduce the song. If it was engineered to be cold and analytical, then that's how it would be reproduced. Again, neutral and accurate has no sonic signature of its own (ideally speaking).
An analogy would be that you don't hear people talk about TV's by saying things like "I like TV's that have more of a green cast to the color reproduction, because it looks more soothing" or "I prefer TV's that have a lower dynamic range so it's not as fatiguing on my eyes." If we heard such comments we would think they are ridiculous and completely misses the point. There is only one ideal standard for what a great TV should be, and that is the widest dynamic range, the highest contrast ratio, the most accurate color reproduction, and fastest refresh rate, and the highest level of detail. Audio should be the same. There is no "musicality," "warmth," "analytical," and so on. Those are subjective coloration--unique sonic signatures that deviate away from perfectly neutral and accurate. If you don't want the movies your watch to have a noticeable green cast to all the colors, then why would you want all the music you listen to to have similar coloration in audio form? If you want to watch movies the way the engineers who mastered the the movie intended you to see the film, then shouldn't you want to hear music the way audio mastering engineers intended you to listen to them too, without adding coloration of your own?
What could be debated though, is how close manufacturers of audio gear can get to that perfect ideal of being totally transparent. While all pro audio companies try, not all of them get close enough, and that's essentially what pro audio guys talk about in pro audio forums. They don't talk about arbitrary ideas of warmth or coldness or whatever--they simply strive for total transparency in their gear, and it has nothing to do with how they intend to use the gear, such as mastering a warm sounding record.
The common wisdom for audiophiles (one that unfortunately does not get passed around nearly as frequently as the misguided and uninformed myths), should simply be this:
If you choose your gears by aligning yourself with the professional audio ideals of total transparency without subjective coloration, then you are at the very least, going to be somewhere within that very small accepted range of what all pro audio guys are aiming for. Sure, your signal chain will not sound exactly like the signal chain of the mastering engineer who engineered the music you're listening to, but because you chose to try to get as close as possible to that ideal transparency, you will always be much closer than further away from what the mastering engineer intended you to hear.
The most simple example of why you should this is:
Let's say a mastering engineer made a warm sounding record, because that's the sound the musical artist prefers and asked for. Now, you buy the album and take it home to listen on your subjectively colored audio gear, which has a subjectively warm sound. What do you think is going to happen when you play a record that was mastered to sound warm to begin with? That's right--now that record will sound too warm on your gear. But if your gear was neutral and accurate instead of subjectively colored, then that record will sound much closer to what the mastering engineer intended, which was the right amount of warmth he put into the record--no more, no less.
So essentially, the closer to neutral/accurate your starting point is with your audio gear, the more you're able to hear what the audio engineers actually intended their records to sound like. Even though there's minor variations within that acceptable range of neutrality/accuracy, if you are at least in that range, it'll still be far better of a starting point than further away from that range.
This is very logical, but for whatever reason, this very simple to understand wisdom just doesn't get passed around, and instead, people who are ignorant of this will regurgitate misguided and misinformed crap and end up misleading yet another whole generation of impressionable young audiophiles. We need to STOP this. It's been going on for far too long.
On a related note, I made this little graph for fun, showing where different people fall on the range of neutrality/accuracy:
(This graph is a generalization. And it also makes an assumption that extremely rich audiophiles actually give a damn about educating themselves on the matters of accuracy/neutrality, as well as other critical factors like listening space, acoustic design/treatment, and so on. There will always be exceptions to any rule.
Ideally, you want to get as close to the center of the range of neutrality/accuracy as possible as your starting point. Even if you aren't at the center but somewhere in the acceptable range, then you are still closer to the center than further away from it. That means, even if your signal chain is just a tiny bit warmer than neutral, or a bit brighter, or slightly lacking sub-bass extension, or have bass that's a tiny bit bloated, or have just a hint of rolled-off treble...etc, you are at least not going to completely veer off the map and wander into the range of drastic deviation, where you are completely missing some very critical frequency ranges, transients, and imaging accuracy.
Now, you might wonder how I arrived at such a graph. Basically, it's like this:
Low-End Consumer - The group that don't care enough about audio to even think about it. This is where we find the cheap earbuds and headsets that come free with products, and sometimes, even those are too good for this group, because a portion of this group would be perfectly happy listening to music from the tinny speakers of laptops, handheld devices, small handheld radios, really old factory installed car stereos from the 70's and early 80's...etc.
Typical Consumer - People who while are ignorant about audio fidelity, gear and acoustics, actually care a bit and decided to spend money on products that will raise their enjoyment level when it comes to audio. They don't want to spend much though, and will settle for the cheaper priced consumer electronics. This is where we find the typical bookshelf stereos, boomboxes, and headphones slightly better than the free earbuds and headsets. There's a portion of this group that are willing to spend a little more, either out of vanity for social status or genuine concern for audio fidelity, and we would find slightly better range of consumer electronics in this range; but, they are not audiophiles because they are ignorant of the how and the why of audio, and they have not developed the ability of critical listening.
Low-End Audiophiles - This is the entry level for people who want to get serious about audio fidelity. This is when someone decides to invest some time to educate themselves about audio. They might read some articles in magazines, do online searches, and ask questions about audio and recommendations for better products. This is where we start to find the higher-end consumer electronics, or products that ride that line between consumer and entry level audiophile, as well as lower-end audiophile products. This range is where people are most susceptible to misinformation and misguided mentalities, because they don't have enough knowledge and experience, and tend to regurgitate whatever myth they hear and read about.
Typical Audiophiles - This is when someone has learned enough about audio and gear and decided that they want to invest even more into better gear, and they have gained some experience in critical listening from their entry level days. This is a wide range because it is at this point the dreaded diminishing returns kick in (anywhere from three-figure to four-figure total spending). Many products marketed to this group don't necessarily sound as good as their price tags suggest, and often products in the lower end of this range can sound almost as good as the higher end of this range (the Audio-Technical ATH-M50 and Sennheiser HD555 are classic examples of this--products that are very modestly priced but sound very similar to much more expensive products). This range also has the most frustrated members because the more they read and learn, the more they get the upgrade fever, but due to budget, spouse approval, living spaces, they cannot go further.
Rich Audiophiles - This is when audiophiles have quite a bit of disposable income and spend in the five-figure range on audio gear. This doesn't mean they will automatically end up with the better sounding rig though, due to various factors. For example, if they are not educated about audio and just blindly buy expensive stuff and throw them into a living room and don't even have the necessary acoustic treatment or even a proper acoustic space. So being a rich audiophile is no guarantee you'll have a good sounding rig--you must also be educated about audio and acoustics.
As for headphones, the chances of getting good sound is higher due to lack of acoustic concerns, but the same diminishing returns problem is still there, and even more severe at this level. This is where headphone rigs that cost thousands of dollars might not sound all that much better than ones that only cost hundreds of dollars. It is also at this range that headphones stop getting any better, regardless of cost. I'll elaborate this later below.
If a rich audiophile is educated about audio and has the freedom to create a good acoustic space with proper treatment and room correction, then buy gear that's chosen only based on how neutral and accurate they sound, as opposed to vanity or hype, then it's very possible for people in this range to have a listening rig that's pretty **** good.
Extremely Rich Audiophiles - This can also be a wide range, depending on who the person is. If it's someone who doesn't have to worry about spouse approval, then he could in fact spend the money and hire professional acoustic experts and design a listening room that's as high-end as any mastering facility, and then get the same extreme high-end gear and calibrate them to optimal settings.
The problem is, some people may be very filthy rich, but they are not educated about audio and acoustics, so they could be making the same mistakes that Rich Audiophiles make, which is to just buy expensive stuff but not know how to get the most out of them, or how to modify their listening environment for better acoustics.
In terms of headphones, the diminishing returns already reached the point of no return in the previous range of Rich Audiophiles, so being extremely rich in the case of headphones offers no additional benefit at all. Even the most extreme headphone rigs are still within the Rich Audiophile range (The Extremely Rich Audiophile range is more in the six to seven figure range). I would say that even the most amazing headphone rig on planet earth cannot go beyond the acceptable range of neutrality and accuracy, and only higher-end speakers used in conjunction with ideal acoustic spaces are capable of entering the perfect neutrality range.
Note that although Extremely Rich Audiophiles, Rich Audiophiles, and Typical Audiophiles are plotted inside the acceptable range, they represent the best case scenarios, and due to the previous reasons stated above, they may not get much further than the Low-End Audiophile range if they aren't educated about audio and acoustics.
No amount of gear can make you more educated and experienced--you must work hard at it and spend the countless hours doing critical listening, learning about audio and acoustics, experiment with measurements and acoustic treatment, and comparing lots of audio gear that range from low-end to high-end.
Musicians - I did not plot the musicians on the graph because they are too diverse of a bunch. They can range from extremely talented and respected classical musicians who still listen to cheap earbuds because they just don't care beyond live music, or they could be Extremely Rich Audiophiles that can only play simple three chords on a guitar.
Many musicians place far more priority on their music-making gear such as instruments, DAW, plugins, virtual instruments...etc, and they aren't as picky about their signal chain. That's why some audiophiles are surprised by how many very accomplished musicians use gear that they deem to be not good enough (such as many professional composers using Mackie HR824 studio monitors and are perfectly happy with them). But, there are also musicians who do care and do spend the money on higher-end audio gear, and that's when we enter the next range below.
Typical Professional Audio - Average professional studios around the world--the ones that are recording and mixing the music you listen to. These have a very wide range and can be at the same level as mastering facilities such as Hollywood sound production studios, or as low as home project studios that sound no better than low-end audiophiles' rigs. While most pro audio folks are nowhere near as rich as the Extremely Rich Audiophiles, because they are much better educated about audio in general, they are much more likely to be able to put together a pro audio studio that sounds much better than what an Extremely Rich Audiophile could (unless the Extremely Rich Audiophile hires acoustics experts or studied hard to become an expert himself).
Although I plotted the Typical Professional Audio guys right at the cusp of the center range for perfect neutrality, what that point represents is the best case scenarios, such as the commercial audio production studios that are turning out the hits on the radio or producing audio for big budget movies.
Typical Mastering Facilities - Designed and built from the ground up by acoustic experts, or with extremely good acoustic treatment in acoustically ideal spaces that weren't designed/built for audio work, but can function as one once properly treated/corrected. The combination of choice of gear, the acoustics design, and the experience of the mastering engineer is what creates the magic, and you can't be missing any of three main ingredients.
A mastering studio with high-end gear, but without the experienced mastering engineer, is just a high-end studio; it is not a mastering studio until you put an experienced mastering engineer into it. OTOH, it is possible for a mastering engineer to use a more modest pro audio facility and still create magic, simply because he knows what the hell he's doing and knows how to squeeze the most out of even modest gear. So essentially, at the mastering level, it's more about the person than the rig, and you only reach mastering level after years and years of constant critical listening, measuring, testing, experimenting with gear and learning every little sonic details and tricks on how to manipulate them, and so on. It's hard-won experience that cannot be gotten any other way.
Extreme High-End Mastering Facilities - These are the most neutral and accurate audio production facilities on planet earth. They are designed by highly revered acoustic experts and are only second to anechoic chambers. They also can cost millions of dollars (not even counting the extreme high-end gear, but just the design and construction of the facility itself). Only the most respected mastering engineers work in these facilities, for they are the Jedi masters that other Jedi knights look up to. These guys tend to not only have an incredible wealth of experience and knowledge, but also the so-called "golden ears." They can literally hear nuances that other people cannot hear, simply because they either know what to listen for and can detect very subtle changes--all of this is has more to do with experience than physiology.
Okay, moving on.
For those of you that are lusting after the Phonitor's advanced crossfeed, and you happen to use the computer as your source, you can get an equivalent software product called Redline Monitor. It pretty much has the same controls as the Phonitor, and are based on the same principles. I wouldn't be surprised if someone did an A/B comparison of Redline Monitor and Phonitor's crossfeed, they'd end up sounding very similar.
But there is something else even better than crossfeeds--something far more realistic and natural sounding.
I want to bring to Jude's attention something that I'm using on the computer that I like even better than any advanced crossfeed, and that is Tonebooster's TB Isone (previously called Isone Pro). It is a very reasonably priced audio plugin that utilizes advanced HRTF (Head Related Transfer Function) algorithm and creates the most realistic sounding virtual speakers in a room emulation I have ever heard. There's already a thread about it here:
Crossfeeds is quite primitive in comparison to HRTF algorithm, because it's essentially just bleeding the two channels into each other and at most you get to control the amount of the bleed. HRTF, on the other hand, actually does advanced calculations of your head and ear size in relation to the speakers, and how the sound waves should interact with your head and ears, and the result sounds just like speakers coming from IN FRONT of you. The illusion is so real that if you never tried it before, you might think you left your speakers on and you're listening to the speakers instead of your headphones (assuming you are sitting in front of your speakers at the time).
Isone also allows you to control how far the speakers are from you, the speaker angle, the head and ear sizes, the room size, and there are speaker presets that emulations from perfectly flat ideal speakers, professional monitoring setup, boombox, laptop speakers, to flat panel TV speakers. You can even change the tweeter size! There are also room presets for near, mid, to far-field studio setups, small, medium, to large studios, tiny room, very large room, to anechoic chamber.
Personally, I think no crossfeed on the planet can compete against advanced HRTF algorithm, because it's just too primitive. And since it's so reasonably priced, it's also extremely good in terms of value. There are hardware surround sound units that employ advanced HRTF algorithm, but the really good ones cost thousands of dollars. I have never heard them, but I would assume they sound just as good if not better than Isone. If someone owns such a unit, I'd love to see a comparison between it and Isone.
For those of you that don't know how to use audio plugins, you basically need a host for the plugins. All computer musicians have this readily available in the music production software they use, but they are not practical when you want to listen to your entire music collection with plugins. For me personally, I use J River Media Center, which has native VST plugin hosting built-in, and is very easy to use. It's also an incredible overall media librarian/player--highly recommended. J River Media Center + Isone = headphone nirvana.
Other media players can use VST wrappers, but they tend to be cumbersome and you cannot chain multiple plugins together easily like you could in Media Center.
Anyway, I've been telling everybody about Isone ever since I discovered it, and it's simply because I think it's one of the best purchases I've ever made in the history of my headphone journey (and also because it costs almost nothing but is so incredible in performance vs. value) Maybe Jude can feature Isone in a future episode of Head-Fi TV?
Edited by Lunatique - 1/30/12 at 11:04pm