Guide for Beginners:
I thought after spending the past three years buying, trading and selling prodigious gobs of headphones and gear that I’d offer some simple advice and suggestions to those who are starting out in this hobby and are new to head-fi based on my personal experience. Please understand that I do not offer this information for any more than what it is; my personal opinion. So please take it for what it is and I hope that some will find it helpful.
What is headfi and what can it do for me?
Head-fi in simple terms is a community of headphone enthusiast who enjoy discussing headphones and related gear. One of the most impressive aspects of head-fi for me is that the members here are incredibly friendly and eager to share a wealth of information at a moment’s notice. As I was starting out here, another member offered to help me with some simple advice. So started a series of pm’s that was to become my educational process. I still consult with Marty on occasion and try to make a point to mentor other members in an effort to pay forward the kindness that was shown to me here. Please always remember to treat other members with respect and courtesy. It’s okay to disagree, but not cool to argue or become hostile. Just because a member is new or only has a few posts, don’t assume that they are not knowledgeable. So let’s get started.
What headphones should I buy?
Of course this will be the most frequently asked question on Headfi. Ironically, no one can truly answer this question for you. What sounds like perfect bass response for me may actually sound “bass light” to you. We all have our own idea of a perfect sound signature and finding yours is simply part of the process.
It may help if you owned a certain pair of headphones and can ask how does x-headphone sound compared to the one that you currently own. But for many of us, getting to the Promised Land will involve going through a few failures first. Possibly the most exhaustive comparison of headphones ever written is this one:
http://www.head-fi.org/t/634201/battle-of-the-flagships-58-headphones-compared-update-audeze-lcd-2-revision-2-6-4-13. I would suggest that you use this wonderful guide as a resource anytime you're considering a new headphone purchase. I know that I do and refer to it often.
Here are a few important considerations before you are ready to start shopping for those pair of headphones:
- What is your budget? Please remember that you also will likely need to factor in an amp, dac and accessories into this price.
2. Open or closed? Another fundamental question. An open headphone will essentially have more “air” and offer a larger sound stage. A closed hp will offer isolation from the outside world and in some circumstances improved bass response ( not always ).
3. Where is the best place to buy the headphone I’ve picked out? This will be somewhat determined buy where you live, but it’s important that you know the return policy of your retailer. Do they require a restocking fee?
*On a side note, I have enjoyed taking advantage of the used forums here on head-fi for many purchases. You often get great deals on gently used gear. There are a few caveats to make note of. Know your seller. Do they have good feedback from other sells and buys? Do they respond in a timely manner when you ask questions? Paypal is your friend in that it gives you a level of protection should something go wrong with the purchase. Avoid gifted payments or else you may have no recourse should a sale go sour. And ALWAYS check the rules for the used section as outlined in the beginning of the buy/sell/trade section.
4. I have a pair of headphones that I really like, now what amp should I buy?
The first matter to understand is whether your headphones are high or low impedance. Are they very easy to drive or rather difficult? How much money are you willing to spend on the amp. There are headphones that are amped successfully from an ipod and others that will require substantially poweful amps to reach their true potential. And even when you have matched the headphone to the proper amp, they still may not have the proper “synergy” that makes them a good match.
5. How important is comfort? Some of the most technically impressive headphones are some of the least comfortable. Weight and the distribution of it can often be the deciding factor as to whether or not a headphone is comfortable or not. Also, whether the headphone will be used for hours at a time or just short sessions will play into this equation.
My personal preferences:
So exactly what have I learned in the past three years about what I like and prefer? I have two headphones currently in my possession after a few dozen others have come and gone.
- The Sennheiser hd650. Just a remarkable headphone. Supremely comfortable. Infinitely listenable. This headphone is well renowned and possibly the most talked about on HF. Why the 650? It all starts with the mid range. Vocals are simply liquid, lush and lifelike. I’ve discovered that I’m a mids/vocals guy. There are few that do it better than the 650. Some will speak/complain about the dreaded Sennheisher veil. I don’t hear it. Not on the latest revision that I own. The treble is effortless if not a touch on the dark side. The 650 will “scale” with better amps/dac appreciably. What gear works well with the 650? The Asgard 2 by Schiit sounds wonderful at its $250 price point. If you want improved dynamics and punch, consider the Schiit lyr at $450 for some serious bass slam and ability to roll tubes (yes I’m a fan of Schiit products). The best setup that I have ever heard on the amp side with the 650 is the legendary Bottlehead Crack with speedball upgrade. You could spend $2k and only match what the BHC offers at $279…$400 with speedball upgrade. For a wildcard offering, I’ll nominate the Schiit Vali. At only $120 there is some serious performance here with a few drawbacks. The primary issue with the Vali is microphonics that is most prominent when the unit is first turned on. Please refer to the Vali thread for additional information.
- Maddog by Mr. Speakers. I would be remiss if I didn’t include a planar magnetic hp in my arsenal. This planar magnetic headphones offer an impressive signature with wonderful speed, decay and dynamics. Typically they are not as efficient as dynamic driver hp’s and need an amp with more power to sound their best. The Maddog sounds incredible at its $300 price point. Highlights for this headphone include textured, linear bass response and an overall neutral frequency response. This is a closed headphone that offers a high level of passive isolation. The Maddog like other planar magnetic headphones loves amps with power. The two Schiit amps mentioned above work well with the Maddog with the lyr being appreciably better. The holy grail of amps for the Maddog for me turns out to be a quality restored vintage receiver. My personal favorite is the Pioneer sx-1280 circa 1976. This “old steel” receiver offers a very tubey sound with serious power that has that “synergy” that we look for when pairing amp and headphones.
Together, these two headphones give me everything that I’m looking for in a complementary pair. One dynamic open headphone and one closed planar magnetic. My journey is unique and my own. Yours surely will be different. If there’s one thing that I’ve learned along the way, it’s that the journey is half the fun and somewhat mandatory for success. As proof, I avoided the hd650 for a couple of years because of its reputation for being veiled and lacking sub bass. I found neither of these to be true and the 650 has become a “daily driver” for me. Of course choices will also be dictated by budget which we must all acknowledge. I chose to settle down with these two headphones because they are affordable for me and offer much of what I’m looking for. They will not be end game for everyone. On a side note, the best headphone that I ever had the pleasure to listen to was the Stax-SR007 mkii (older version) on a blue Hawaii amp with a Marantz SACD player. This setup was exponentially out of my budget unless I hit the lottery. But I’ll never forget the way it reproduced music.
Tips and Tricks: A few simple suggestions to help you along your journey
- Go to a meet. Headfi offers a section here dedicated to upcoming meets. These meets will give you an opportunity to audition lots of gear from mainstream to uber expensive. The bigger meets will offer sponsors who will bring products that they sell for you to demo. Be forewarned though, these events are often noisy and sometimes the environment is not conducive to evaluating headphones. You’ll also get a chance to rub elbows with other hobbyist and vendors. My advice; if there is a meet in your area make a point to get there.
- Temporary Swaps. This can be a great way to try it before you buy it. As you get more comfortable with headfi and get to know some members, you may want to “trade” a pair of headphones that you own with someone who has a pair that you’d like to hear. The only thing that the swap will cost you is shipping. Just be sure that you’re comfortable with the member you’re trading with. I’ve swapped headphones many times in the past without a single issue, but please exercise caution.
- Be patient. Sometimes the signature of a headphone may not wow you at first listen. If you’re going from a very bassy headphone to a more neutral one, the new hp may sound boring at first. But after a few days you may find that the bass response much better than you did initially. Some headphones, especially dynamic driver models, may change somewhat dramatically after several days of continuous play. This is referred to as “burn in.” So give those new headphones a thorough workout before passing final judgment.
- Don’t forget the music. When it’s all said and done, headphones are simply a medium that allow us to enjoy the music that we love. It’s easy to fall into the trap of listening to the way headphones sound instead listening to and enjoying the music itself. At the end of the day, if you plug in your headphones and the music moves you, then that’s a good day in my book. While it’s tempting to chase that last 5% of improvement in gear, you’ll often spend exponential amounts of money to get there often times and still find yourself wondering if something else could be better.
Best of luck on your journey!!