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Are balanced headphones a true representation of sound?

Discussion in 'Sound Science' started by el tri head, Mar 28, 2018.
  1. el tri head
    SO, I've taken gradual steps to upgrade from an ipod with a Wadia and Sony MD50 cans to Mr Speaker's Ether C Flows, a Questyle 400i and soon to be an Auerender N100H.

    The biggest switch has been the balanced out on the Questyle, with which I'm hearing things I've never heard before on discs and vinyl I've listened to all my life. It's often plain amazing and I haven't listened this intently since I was a kid. And badly recorded discs sound even worse on this stellar platform.

    But the question I have is whether the sound I'm hearing with this broad soundstage is the way the music was meant to be heard? For example, things that were in the deep background on a regular headphone out come to the foreground with the balanced phones. The vocals or lead things on a recording are mixed in with background, where before they were more powerful in the front. I think of John Fogerty in the early days going out to his car and plugging tunes into his radio to hear the Creedence recordings so he could hear it the way most people would listen.

    Am I just used to hearing things on bad equipment and this is how it should sound, or is the balanced system making its own architecture?

    You all know more than me. I'm just wondering if you notice and think about the same thing.
  2. bigshot
    Unless you're running your cables a block long, balanced output shouldn't make any difference at all. This sentence I quoted is revealing because it pinpoints why you are hearing things differently. The key phrase is "I haven't listened this intently since I was a kid". You are forcing yourself to perceive differences. Of course badly recorded discs sound worse... you're focusing on the flaws.

    The truth is, the output of an iPod through line out is audibly perfect. It can't get any better. It can only get worse. So if you're hearing differences, it probably isn't a good thing. However, I would bet that you haven't done a careful level matched blind A/B comparison. If you do, I would bet that you won't hear any difference at all. In that case, you can chalk it up to expectation bias.

    The part of an audio system that *does* sound different is the transducers. Headphones and speakers are all over the place. But the reason for that is the mechanics and acoustics, not what kind of wires you use to hook them up. As long as a wire works, it should work perfectly. If your system sounds better because of new cans, it's because you got nice new cans.
    Last edited: Mar 28, 2018
    PaganDL and colonelkernel8 like this.
  3. el tri head
    Thanks for the feedback...but honestly, I have compared the ipod and the balanced 400i and the ipod sounds flat and grey compared to the shimmering of the new system. And the reason I'm listening so intently is because I'm hearing level and level of new information, even on discs I've heard thousands of times (Jimi Hendrix Electric Ladyland for one). The soundstage is remarkable, with instruments spread out across my head, instead of just in my ears. I also did a comparison with a Chord Mojo with no balanced out and it's also a lot more compressed. I know it's all personal preferences and that's what makes this hobby fun. The people on these threads know much more than me, so I'm enjoying learning.

    For wires I'm using a standard usb to the DAC and wywires for the headphones. I also have a set of wires from Mr Speaker's.
  4. bigshot
    You are in sound science. I get to ask you if you compared 1) blind, 2) level matched, and 3) direct A/B switched with no time gap between samples. I know from what you claim to hear that the answer to one or more of these questions is no.

    If you have new headphones, that is the most likely reason it sounds different.

    If you're interested in info on the sound quality of your old iPod, I'd be happy to provide you with a link that shows measurements. You can't hope to get better sound than an iPod or an iPhone.
    Last edited: Mar 28, 2018
  5. colonelkernel8
    While it may be audibly perfect into a load that it can drive effectively, impedance mismatches and not having sufficient current throughout in the output stage of the iPod (reasonably easy) will cause audible problems including a drastically modified frequency response.

    This of course doesn’t jive with the description of his varying output between the Mojo and the Questyle. I’m pretty sure it’s “shiny new purchase” bias.
    Last edited: Mar 28, 2018
  6. bigshot
    Yeah. Impedance is the thing to check after you do a controlled test and prove there is a difference. By the way el tri head, controlled tests aren't hard to do. It just takes some simple equipment and patience. I test every piece of equipment I buy.
    PaganDL likes this.
  7. gregorio
    1. Are you sure you haven't got this backwards? Are you sure you're not hearing a new level of information because you're listening more intently? When we buy some new bit of kit the first thing we rush to do is listen to it "intently", more intently than we usually do with our old kit, which we're used to. It would be surprising if when listening more "intently" we didn't hear more/new information! However there is also an additional possibility, which is ...

    2. Although your statement is true, it's just the last part of the equation. The first part of the equation is: "Is there really a difference?", because if the answer to this first part of the equation is "no", then the last part, personal preference, is obviously irrelevant. How can we have a preference for one thing over another, if both things are identical? This is where it gets slightly more complicated though, going back to point 1, there typically is a difference between balanced and unbalance architectures. All else being equal, the way a balanced architecture works will result in a higher output level from your HPs. Obviously, if your output level is somewhat louder, then you're going to hear more information/detail. However, if you increase the output level on your amp (with your unbalanced architecture), to counteract and match the naturally higher output level of the balanced architecture, then all differences will disappear.

    In other words, there are at least two major variables at play here; HP output level and your perception (listening more intently), either or both of which account for all the differences you are hearing. We can conclude this with confidence because the science/facts tell us that there is no difference (apart from output level) between balanced and unbalanced architectures, except in extraordinary circumstances (such as something broken/faulty with your unbalanced setup or as bigshot stated, a ridiculously long cable length).

    skwoodwiva likes this.
  8. tansand
    Curious if everyone here has listened to balanced headphones. (I haven't, but still I'm curious)
  9. Roseval
    I’m afraid within the context of a “balanced” headphone this makes no sense.
    Normally a balanced connection is a hot, a cold (the inverted hot) and a ground.
    At the receiver there is a differential amp removes all the differences between hot and cold.
    Combine this with a higher voltage and you can drive long lines in a noisy environment without distortions.

    In case of a “balanced” headphone, instead of the normal 3 wire configuration (L,R and a common ground), we have 4 wires L,R and separate grounds for each.
    Exactly like we connect speakers to and amp.
    Nothing “balanced” about this connection.

    The big difference is probably the power. The Qstyle has
    980mW @32Ω (normal headphone jack)
    3920mW @32Ω (balanced headphone jack)

    Louder is better, isn't it.
    gregorio and colonelkernel8 like this.
  10. ev13wt
    OP: You need two headphones. Of the same model.

    Left earcup on left ear, headphone 1 - right earcup on right ear, headphone 2.
    Its gonna look really pro, trust me.

    Turn the source to mono. Or don't.

    Headphone 1 is powered by onoard / direct out
    Headphone 2 is powered via Qstyle

    Set volumes so that both ears are exactly equal.

    Listen. Switch stuff around. You will get to a point where you won't remember what is playing on what ear. Which one sounds better then? Left or right ear?
    Report back.
  11. colonelkernel8
    This is true. I think @bigshot was confusing this with differential signalling, which internal to the DAC and amp as well as the connection between those two devices is fine, but not from the amp to the headphones. At that point you're dealing with an amplified signal anyway. It's just a power boost at the expense of a doubled output impedance.
  12. ev13wt
    A lot of speaker amps connect the "separate" GND speaker wires inside the case.
    colonelkernel8 likes this.
  13. el tri head
    Here's my mistake. I wrote that while listening through my Onkyo at a wide setting. That's why it sounded unnatural. It sounded good and different, but now that I'm listening through my Aurender and 400i...it's normal now.
    colonelkernel8 likes this.

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