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.
The merit of aftermarket headphone cables has long been a source of lively debate over the years with supporters citing a combination of perceived sonic gains, different tonal flavorings, and possible improved feel and ergonomics. We’ve also seen a large increase in the number of aftermarket headphone cables available in the market, ranging from DIY and smaller outfits, to larger and more established Hi-Fi cable manufacturers such as Kimber Kable, Nordost, and Wireworld.
At CES 2017, I had the opportunity to chat with David Salz, the founder of Wireworld about his headphone cable products and came away with the impression that his design goal is not to create a distinct sonic flavor but rather the more simple and direct goal of designing a headphone cable that are the closest to having no cable at all. To demonstrate this, Wireworld uses what they call the “Headphone Cable Polygraph”. The Polygraph is a direct connection between a headphone (in this case, an Oppo PM-3) connected directly to a music player without a cable in between. This is achieved by using a male-to-male connector that has complete metal-to-metal contact. The actual demo, or “Polygraph”, began with listening to the headphones using the the original manufacturer cable, followed by the series of Wireworld headphone cables, and finally the direct connection. This type of demo was revelatory with the difference between the direct connection and the stock manufacturer cable being the starkest and each subsequent level of Wireworld headphone cable getting closer and closer to the direct connection.
Wireworld offers four series of headphone cables, all using a patented DNA Helix geometry. Going up the range, the Pulse ($416/2m) uses Oxygen-Free Copper, Nano-Eclipse ($500/2m) uses OCC Copper, Nano-Silver Eclipse ($600/2m) uses OCC Silver-clad Copper, with the range-topping Nano-Platinum Eclipse ($900/2m) using OCC Solid Silver.
Over the several months I’ve had the opportunity to evaluate the Nano-Platinum Eclipse with two reference headphones, the Focal Utopia and Hifiman Susvara. In both cases, and to my ears, the Wireworld headphone cables gave me a more transparent window into my music with an increased sense of air and space over the respective stock cables. The ergonomic benefit was also significant as the Wireworld headphone cable is beautifully constructed, extremely light, and flexible.
Ultimately, it will up to the individual end-user to evaluate the potential sonic and ergonomic improvements of headphone cables for themselves. For me, the Wireworld Nano-Platinum Eclipse headphone cable represents a marked improved over the existing stock cables that I evaluated and would highly recommend your own demo if you are in the market for a premium headphone cable manufactured by one of the most respected names in the Hi-Fi world.
USB has been both the biggest blessing and the worst curse of audio that I've ever had to deal with. It's bad enough getting the right headphones, amps and digital sources without having to worry about how to hook it all up. The primary issue that plagues USB is not jitter, but noise. Computers can readily dump noise down the USB power lines, and the USB sending and receiving chips generate noise, all of which can get into a DAC and come out the other end as distortion.
This has lead to numerous solutions -- everything from cables to boxes such as iFi's iUSB 3.0 which do everything from supply better USB bus power to re-clocking the signal, reducing excess processing and noise. I've been using a Schiit Wyrd with a Hugo for some time, with fantastic results that I feel almost match that of vastly more expensive USB to S/PIDF converters. However while that is great as a simple solution, the iUSB 3.0 provides more ports, and more options. It is primarily intended to be used with iFi's special USB cables which have completely split power and audio lines. The box itself has two sets of ports for this purpose. Each pair has one power and one data port respectively.
However, since the box uses USB 3.0 spec, one of the ports can be used for a hard drive, isolating its noise from the USB lines as well. I found this dual-port system good for both feeding and charging a Chord Mojo simultaneously, it having more than enough power throughput for the purpose.
I've also been using it with a Singxer F-1 USB to S/PDIF board to feed my Schiit Audio Yggdrasil, which has nicely brought the DAC up a level over the stock Gen 3 USB included.
As the first iFi product that I've owned, the iUSB 3.0 has been a great and versatile addition to my system.
The world’s most expensive 1-port USB hub, Schiit Audio's Jason Stoddard joked about the Wyrd. The story was as its namesake (it's pronounced "weird"): Jason and Mike put together a USB filter expecting it to have no effect on their already carefully considered DAC USB inputs and were surprised when the sound quality improved. With similar exclamation from others who tried the prototype, they put it into production promising nothing.
I’ve spent a number of years mucking about with DAC inputs, using converters and power supplies ranging up into the four-figure mark, so at $99 the Wyrd was a no-brainer. Jitter, having long been quite thoroughly dealt with in USB lead many to wonder what was causing the differences with various devices and cables, and noise from the computer being sent over the USB lines was revealed to be the culprit. It is now strapped to my Hugo, achieving what previously an Audiophilleo 1 did for it. When up-sampling to 384 kHz, USB transmission quality becomes critical and the Wyrd ensures glitch-free listening to USB DACs in those cases. I’ve also used it when I had trouble transferring music files to DAPs using Android File Transfer on my Mac, which would drop transfers far too readily if the transfer was interrupted in any way.
For devices which already have, say, galvanic isolation on their USB inputs the Wyrd may have no benefit. I’ve heard it may even not work well with some devices. But for $99 it has proven to be a versatile and useful device that has solved even some problems I didn’t know I had.
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.
(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 7 PLus 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.
V-MODA BoomPro Microphone and Master & Dynamic Boom Mic
Boom microphones for use with headphones that have stereo 3.5mm plug input
Two of the companies making some of the most durable, fashion-forward headphones are V-MODA and Master & Dynamic. V-MODA has made sleek Italian design and fashion an inspiration for their headphone design, even moving their design studio to Milan, with an Italian design staff. Master & Dynamic's headphones have what I've seen described as mid-century American industrial design, with their offices in New York City
Both V-MODA and Master & Dynamic have developed outstanding boom microphone add-ons for their headphones, designed to match and compliment their respective headphone lines. The nice thing is that both of these microphones should work with most headphones (whether or not by V-MODA or Master & Dynamic) that have a stereo 3.5mm headphone cable input.
The Master & Dynamic Boom Mic is made of machined anodized aluminum, and available in either black or silver. The mic capsule is unidirectional, intended to minimize ambient noise and focus on your voice. The arm rotates 240 degrees on a hinge. Like Master & Dynamic's headphones, the cable on the Boom Mic is covered in a woven material, and has an in-line answer/end button. The Boom Mic also comes with a very nice canvas storage case with a strong magnetic closure.
I've been using the Boom Mic with the MH40 for a little while, and the voice quality is very good, working well for gaming, video conferencing and phone calls. As promoted, the Boom Mic does a nice job focusing on the voice, keeping surrounding noises buried in the background nicely.
The Boom Mic was obviously designed to perfectly match the distinctive aesthetic of Master & Dynamic's headphones, and, when attached to either the MH30 or MH40, it looks unbelievably cool. At its price of $129.00, the Boom Mic is on the more expensive side--and its super-specific aesthetic may not match a lot of other headphones' styles. Because of the price and style, I recommend the Boom Mic strongly for Master & Dynamic headphone owners, but not as much for owners of other headphones, unless you find that the Boom Mic just happens to match or compliment the design of your current headphone.
The V-MODA BoomPro Microphone is also outstanding, and the easier recommendation to make for both owners of V-MODA headphones, as well as owners of non-V-MODA headphones that have a stereo 3.5mm headphone cable input. It's an easier recommendation especially because of its low $29.99 price, but also because the BoomPro's design is a little more versatile for use with headphones by other brands.
The outgoing voice quality with the BoomPro is similarly excellent. In fact, after all of our professional microphones were stolen recently, we made an emergency decision to use V-MODA BoomPro Microphones for recording a few Head-Fi TV episodes, and the resulting audio was surprisingly good. I've also used the BoomPro for gaming, and it's wonderful for that, too. I also like that the BoomPro's arm is made of something V-MODA calls SteelFlex, which lets you place the capsule closer to your mouth for greater immediacy and clarity.
If you're a Master & Dynamic headphone owner--and the $129.00 price doesn't scare you away--the Master & Dynamic Boom Mic is what I recommend for you. It looks amazing with Master & Dynamic's headphones, and sounds as good as it looks. For V-MODA owners--and owners of any other types of headphones with a stereo 3.5mm headphone cable input--the very affordable $29.00 is an absolute no-brainer recommendation.
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.