Testing six eight headphones from £ 80 to £ 1,200
When you listen from the loudspeakers, your right ear not only hears the sound from the right loudspeaker, it hears the sound from your left loudspeaker too and the same for left. When using headphones, you right ear ONLY hears the sound from the right headphone, nothing from the left headphone and the same reverse. That’s why the music is always inside your head when listening through headphones. But with loudspeakers, you hear sound coming from the front and around you just like inside a concert hall.
Many Headphone reviews you will read come from people who LIKE headphones and readily accept this presentation. They are easily convinced that some ‘can or other is nice. As a result many headphone reviews have not been very useful to me. Because, you see, I do not like headphones. To make me even say “nice” about ANY Cans, now that takes exceptional performance.
Nowadays at home I by far prefer my setup speaker based and high end. I have SD Acoustic SD1 Speakers driven by Audio Innovations Preamp Monoblock Poweramp and a Naim CDS CD-Player. I have never been a great fan of headphone listening. I did have some headphones in my misspend youth, even the Sony Boodo Khan walkman with those full size Headphones, but I got rid of the lot quickly when I got my first decent pair of speakers. I hate the “in head” feeling a lot of music has with Cans and let’s face it, most headphones have crap bass, either so much the rest of music is lost or too little to almost none at all. So maybe this makes an old fogie to most here, but I like it.
About the only Headphones I tolerate are Stax Electrostatic ones, but their cost and impracticality has always ruled them out for me. Yet being based in Maidenhead and commuting every day to the City using public transport and travelling a lot to conferences, courses and trade shows dictate concessions to reality if I want music on the move (and I do).
And a few years ago the powers that be at work decided that having music playing in offices was unprofessional and promptly issued a ban, lest it was via headphones. I don’t think they were thinking of full size over the ear types, but what the heck, that’s what I have.
Hence it was headphones for me, or change jobs if I wanted any music (in this economy - yeah right). So I am using headphones mostly in office and travelling, a nice pair of Audio Technica noise cancelling ones which also do a decent job on music, plus a pair of JVC “clip on” Headphones I picked up in Tokyo (did not really see them anywhere else, seems a Japan only product). Still, I didn’t listen that much to music anymore at work since they banned speakers.
Not being a great writer and not being very good in describing sound, I mostly lurk on forums and stick to reading. This set of reviews is the result of a chance encounter with Headphone/Computer related audio gear that fits my Office and Travel needs rather well and has somewhat changed my view on Headphones and their utility as a means of listening.
At the recent National Audio Show in September I came across a refreshing new feature, the “Headzones”, even though the mostly shockingly young people hanging out there made me feel a right old fogie. I rather enjoyed having a butchers at the latest top of the line Stax Headphones, but they are still no more practical, portable or less dear than ever. The so-so sounding entry level model is already 750 squid.
I also rather fancied a dishy looking Headphone Amplifier called the SPL Phonitor. It’s got lots of twiddley knobs and switches and those groovy meters. The guy on the Decent Audio stand was great, allowing to twiddle the knobs to my heart’s content. With all them knobs and switches set somehow right, the Phonitor was able to pull the music right out of my head, which is where it belongs. I never heard anything like it! But the price is a wee bit rich even for my salary…
Later I saw something else though, the iFi Components (iUSB, iDAC & iCAN) on Demo with a small Laptop and Sennheiser Headphones. I pulled out my own JVC’s and listened. The one good thing of Cans that I will begrudgingly admit is that you can take your Cans and have a personal demo there and then. You don’t need to take it home and set things up to see if you have a chance of liking it!
These little boxes did the same “out of my head” trick as the SPL Phonitor, added some bass processing that the Phonitor lacks (did good on my JVC’s) and sounded generally the bees knees and the whole little set of components included not only a DAC and an extra upgrade power supply for the DAC (like my Naim CD-Player! ). Best is they came in for a bit over halve the cost of the Phonitor and included a DAC in the bargain. I was there when I overheard a guy from an e-zine and he seemed to really like the ifi sonics.
I was ready to splash out for a set and was a bit gutted when told I would have to wait for stock to come in. Worse, they said no haggling on the price either. Come on, this is England; we got to have a bit of a bargain! Anyway, I asked to be put on the list… I eventually took delivery of my set in late November, TWO MONTH WAITING TIME, BLOODY HELL! What a way to flog something. Well, I guess I ought to be chuffed to be one of the first in the UK to have a set…
The little iFi stack provided a jolly decent upgrade of the audio from my Laptop. Especially the iCAN headphone amplifier with its “3D Sound” and “X-Bass” helps me to enjoy music from my headphones EVER so much more. I again listen to music throughout much of the day. The little stack of iFi gear on my desk has quickly become a bit of talking point in the office and I occasionally get to demonstrate what they do to a colleague.
Knowing I had them, Gary from accounts, who is a bit of headphone fiend (he told me he has like four or five headphone Amplifiers, never mind counting the headphones!) asked me if he could do an audition of the iFi Gear at my office one lunchtime. He was rather dismissive about my JVC and Audio Technica ‘phones though. So one rainy Tuesday lunch time he came over with a load of his favourite headphones. Portability, you’ve got to luvre it.
After he had his time playing with the iFi stack (and taking a rather long lunch) he was seemingly quite taken. He was also kind enough to leave the Headphones with me for a while so I could listen myself. I suspect he wanted to convince me to get rid of these “cheesy jap phones”, we’ll see how that went later. Anyway I spend a fair few days of listening in the office and even at home (at home - headphones!?!).
In the chat I had with Gazza when I gave him back his treasures he felt I had it pretty much straight and told me to write it up. So blame Gazza, if you don’t like it…
Fanfares, Lightshow, Pyrotechnics, enter the Headphones
We have six contenders, all well luvred examples, to review (in order of street price):
Note: AKG K701 & Shure SRH1440 are on page 4
The test system I used for all was:
Lenovo Thinkpad T410 with Win7, J-River, Fidelizer Audio Optimiser in “Extremist” setting
iFi iDac powered by iUSBPower
generic RCA cables (the ones that come in the box)
Headphones with 6.3mm plugs connected direct, those with 3.5mm plugs via the adapter packed with the iCAN.
I made quick crosschecks against the audio from my HTC HD7 Smartphone and the direct headphone out of the Thinkpad for anything with 3.5mm plugs.
The music was in Flac format, mostly CD rips plus some HD Tracks. Here a list of the tracks I used for “formal” reviewing:
Friend & Fellow – Light my Fire
Tori Amos – Way Down
O-Zone - Jazz Variations
St Säens – Finale of the #3 (Organ) Symphony
Tchaikovsky – Hopak (176Khz/24 bit download from Reference Recordings)
WOW. What an understated credit sequence!
Edited by bedlam inside - 4/15/13 at 10:41am