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Headphones are great, but will never be speakers...

Discussion in 'Currawong' started by currawong, Apr 25, 2010.
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  1. Currawong Contributor
    I found this epic post while searching for something else on the forums. I have to say it is one of the best posts I've ever read on Head-fi, if not the best. It's in one of my favourite threads, "Leave portable hifi - it's too silly". As I have been thinking lately of investing more in a near-field speaker set-up, since I found enjoyment from a basic pair of Paradigm Titans in that way, this post reminds me about the compromises I've had to accept with headphones.

    Interesting too is that quite a few Head-fiers have gone back to speaker rigs, leaving headphone listening for the office or abandoning headphones altogether. Though headphones can extract more detail for the money and you can listen anywhere you want if you have a suitable portable rig, there's simply something special about having the music out there in front of you rather than just either side of your head. I understand why a lot of regular hi-fi companies and audiophiles don't take headphones seriously. I'm also not surprised that people comment positively about the more "speaker-like" presentation of the HD-800s and K1000s or desire a wide soundstage when searching for a pair of headphones. But still, they can't do everything a good speaker rig can do.


    Originally Posted by Golden Ears /img/forum/go_quote.gif
    I thought I would give my impressions about the pursuit of portable high Fidelity, even though I am not a long-term member of this website.

    First off, let’s be realistic, let’s pretend we were trying to make portable miniature formula 1 cars. You cannot expect the same kind of performance in a compact package. But seeing that we’re limiting this to a headphone experience – it’s more like pursuing the best slot car toy car racing has to offer.

    So given the fact that because of our size constraints we will not be able to reach the best in sound than our hobby has to offer – you’ll have to accept a few trade-offs.

    First off, perhaps the worst of all trade-offs is to forgo portability. Because, that is the raison d’être of this particular hobby. What I do find laughable, is that people slowly- bit by bit- give up the portability of this hobby. And in the end, often in terms of weight and size it seems like the only advantage is that the “portable rig” is battery powered.

    I remember going to the first headphone meet in Denver in 2008, and Larry “headphone addict” showed me his ultimate “portable” setup. Which realistically, I looked at as a transportable setup for taking to and from a cubicle at work.

    So probably a line should be drawn between “portable” and “transportable” setups.

    There is no doubt that the current state of portable high Fidelity has been moving forward. Being born in the 1960s, I can remember when radio headphones were the best portable sound you could have. When the Sony Walkman came out, that was a huge leap forward – but the headphones, high-efficiency ones, were incredibly colored in sound. Even the Sony top-of-the-line Walkman at its issues, and the best Aiwa HSJ-500 had its flaws. But it was quite listenable when using Koss Porta-Pro headphones. Realistically – the bass frequencies were hyped, there was rolloff in the upper frequencies, and the midrange was overly forward. But, it was a rocking set up suitable for sports use.

    Even back then, I realized that the pursuit of true high fidelity using portable equipment was not realistic.

    Just as it was not realistic in the 1960s and 1970s using radio headphones.

    Now keep in mind, that same Aiwa HSJ-500 set up – if heard in the 1940s, would have been considered the ultimate in high Fidelity. But to expect portable gear to catch up to gear which does not have those size constraints is not entirely realistic even given surface mounted components and micro-transistors and even nu-vistors. About 8 years ago I asked people on Headroom to make a portable tube amp- as I felt the tradeoffs would be favorable for tubes in a portable application because the solid state had low frequency advantages which likely would be of no benefit for most headphones. Only the Millet Hybrid portable has met this challenge successfully.

    For the most part, I had given up on portable sound. The original Apple iPods sounded dreadful, and it wasn’t until I heard the first-generation iPod nano that I considered the iPod as a source at all. It pained me to see if the "cost no object" portable tape (HSJ-500 & Sony "Buddakhan" tape players and digital compact disc players fade into oblivion as the sound was massmarketed- in particular tape units quality disappeared as CDPs came around.. I owned several of the Denon DCP-100 and DCP-150 compact disc players – and they represented the best portable audio ever had to offer. Those metal case players had great bass response and reasonably good amplification as well as excellent signal-to-noise ratio. When listening with one of these players on the beach in southampton – about 60 yards in from the water, the water added “dither” and let me hear further into the music. I was completely satisfied- and at that point- considered it “near Hi-Fidelity” in terms of detail, and tonality, and even…shudder Signal to noise ratio which with the added “dither” of the ocean- gave me a reasonable listening experience that had me feeling like I was not missing my home rig. BUT The OCEAN is not portable...and without this "Dither" it lost its magic. It was my first realization that "Dither" really makes a difference, and is not merely noise.

    My home rig was a Wadia 860 feeding Bryston 4b Amplifiers (a bit bright) and (Also bright) Infinity Reference Standard RS-1a’s (bi-amp’ed) flanked by (2) Entec SW-1 subwoofers (with (3) servo controlled 10 inch woofers with long throw- and 250 watts of amplification each). My phono rig was a Mitsubishi LT-30 linear tracking turntable (College dorm ready) with a Dynavector Ruby cartridge, feeding an Apt Holman Pre-amp. Now- that home rig- could have used a Wadia 860x upgrade, Infinity RS1b’s (improved EMIM midranges), and an Audio Research VT Mark II amplifier on top, and a Krell or Marklevinson on the bottom. The Turntable should have been a Goldmund w/ T3-f arm and a Conrad Johnson phono stage, and the Preamp should have been a Hovland, or Audio research… but..hey.. the buck has to stop somewhere- and I had my system dialed so well, that it was "hard to justify spending any more money because I had already hit audio nirvana."

    “Hard to justify spending any more money because I had already hit audio nirvana.” repeat...

    There it is….

    In the words of a famous person from Maine, “you can't get there from here”. It is possible to hit audio nirvana in high Fidelity – and for some people they can get there sooner but less expenditure and less equipment and less amplification and fewer speakers than others. Some take more ..., and some realize they don't need more at a point.

    But for me, and not necessarily for everyone else, I realized from the start when it comes to "portable high Fidelity" “you can’t get there from here”. So I wanted to find out just how close I could get to “there” from here.

    So when I went to the headphone meet in Denver, I wanted to see if I could get detail, sound staging, or a live sound from headphones and their portable amplification choices.

    So my first reference, was to listen to the best home stereo rigs. I heard a bunch of them, and for the most part I always realized I was listening to headphones. And the fidelity from the headphones paled in comparison to the fidelity from my home stereo rig. Leaving me with the feeling that I was getting a crappy facsimile of my home sound without any bass response, and without any true sense of imaging air and space as compared to my home stereo. ALSO ...There was no "tactile immersion".

    So I listened to a few Sennheiser’s, as well as all the other usual suspects. And the disappointment continued down the line. Then I came across the combination of an iPod (sixth generation) with an audio line out 22 gauge dock feeding a TTVJ Millet Hybrid Tube Amplifier which fed Ultrasone Edition 9 headphones. The headphones were too bright (early listner fatigue)… with their titanium diaphrams- but with the APS V3 cable upgrade on another set of Edition 9’s… it was 90% tamed, albeit still a bit too bright over 12kHz-20kHz and perhaps a little tad too dull from 12khz and down… but much much better.

    With the Millet at one particular volume level (it was loud) - the tubes kicked in just right and I got the impression of listening to speakers… not quite high fidelity speakers…but very close.. perhaps akin to a nice Tandberg 3012 integrated amplifier with a decent Music Hall turntable, running Magneplanar Tympani 1’D’s with a REL subwoofer. And "I was immersed" with very little sense of wearing "ear speakers" but instead to listening in a real space.

    It sounded slightly underpowered amplifier wise except in the bass region, but all in all, not bad. And given the trade offs available in portable sound… the feeling of not listening to headphones and having a sense of tactile immersion was well worth the trade off in microdetail IMHO.

    If you ditched the Millet- the magic was gone, lose the V3 cable- and it was too harsh.

    Also I found upgrading to the Imod made things worse as the midrange of the imod in combination with the newly slightly recessed midrange of the V3 recable was too much and too much bass was created with the ALO Cyro Jumbo dock (Copper). The more forward 6th gen ipod midrange was more forward- and the bass lighter than the Imod so the presentation was more realistic.

    So- to me- this was still "portable"- barely, the Millet + Ed 9’s + iPod + 22 guage cyro dock. Not so much for critical listening- which for headphones I feel is just "ridiculous" compared to a good home rig. But it truly Rocked out. I own a high performance carbon fiber racing snowboard company- and rode with this combo every day this season… and it really got your blood pumping. I rode better/faster than I ever had before- and every run with this system gave me chills- even if for a day or two ran the same song over and over again(Bittersweet’s remixed “Dirty Laundry”). So while not the ultimate in high fidelity- it brought me much closer to the emotional potential of the music.

    This is not “too silly”.

    But admittedly, it was not true high fidelity either. Not by 21st century standards, but perhaps by 1985 standards.

    But with regards to the OP. 90% or perhaps 95% of portable audio is pretty silly. It’s just louder, perhaps a tad clearer, and allows you to drive higher quality or less efficient headphones so that the impedance doesn’t suck out the body and the bass and you get the benefit of running a better full sized headphone.

    I think it is worth it to run a predator or Mustang with large headphones, but I still don’t expect hi-fi. I get pretty good current mid-fi (Denon, Rotel, Cheaper MArtin Logans) or perhaps outdated hi-fi (which isn’t bad at all).

    The combo I found- NEVER gets listened to except while snowboarding (the Edition 9’s get too hot with exercise) or at times I use it on airplanes. If I were married with kids I might use it to drown out the 24/7 drone of the cartoon network or to do vaccuming. I use it when Dj’ing..on ocassion.

    But it still does not draw me into that "trance like state" of high fidelity sitting down. And in this regard the OP nailed it. BTW I met Luminette at the Denver Meet and we debated over this "portable" choice. He liked it too.

    Luminette hasn’t had enough time at his age with high fidelity to know what truly great sound is. I was one of the youngest audiophile customers Lyric Hi-Fi in NYC ever had 14 yrs old. It takes a long time to understand how one area of the frequency spectrum can affect another- how speaker placement and reflection affect sound, and equipment matching, reverberant times etc. an how to make the best of your trade offs. Your ears become trained as time goes on- and what might have taken days/weeks at (22 years old) first to dial in a system can be shorted to hours after a few decades. He has, though, understood the frustration of the stark realization of understanding “you can’t get there from here” and High end audio has many of these paths. Ever tried playing a full symphony orchestra full blast at 122 db through mini monitors? “You can’t get there from here”. How about trying to tune PA speakers for state of the art high fidelity sound “You can’t get there from here”. Or trying to get great off axis response from true electrostatic speakers…. Etc etc. etc.. Many paths exist to no where, with perhaps an inkling of an initial promise that they MIGHT lead to somewhere.

    However, at some point with some designs in high Fidelity.. YOU GET THERE. (oddly IMHO they are almost always hybrid designs of some type in the system that actually come close to delivering the best of both worlds without the drawbacks of both)

    In regards to the OP’s stance on "reviewers audio experience". I would argue he might be right about that. While some of the headophone reviewers have tons of experience with portable high fidelity and headphone set ups… IMHO likely most of them have never heard a true state of the art system- that was truly optimized for recreating the musical event.

    The problem is.... once you hear a perfectly set up state of the art system- you won't ever want to bother with headphones unless you want to. and in that regard our reviewers might have more HEADPHONE experience than the reviewers of high end home speaker systems have with Headphones, and out head-fi might know the tradeoffs of headphones better- while actually the audio mag reviewers have had more experience in determining high end audio sound. Realistically if a reviewer has had a lot of experience with hi end home systems..he likely would spend as little time as possible listening to headphones. There are few reviewers that do not fall in this category..like Wes Phillips( the reviewer who never says anything negative and at times uses headphones for recording) but a true critical reviewer of merit.... well I would think they wouldn't bother much with headphones except as a curiosity.

    Frankly in most high fidelity stores, even the very best ones… I rarely hear a system that is optimized. I’ve listened over the past 3 decades to the top systems in Sound by Singer, Lyric Hi-Fi, Red Rose Music, Goodwin’s high End, Bang and Olufsen, Audio Studio, The Listening room, Goodwins Music, Harvey’s, Harvey’s Pro, Q Audio, Ocean State Audio, and out of all of them. Here are 3 different types of systems in those stores that “got me there”

    #1 Lyric Hi-Fi. (size and $$ no object- think “invasion of stone henge ”)
    Infinity Reference standard RS-1a’s in their lyric HF ultimate room with wave ceiling + Sota Star Sapphire turntable SME arm or Goldmenud studio with v3-f Arm and Koetsu Rosewood or Dynavector cartridges, Mark Levinson ML-3? Amps. I head Ruby by Donald Fagen played through there- was sold instantly. (everything sounds amazing (except badly recorded vinyl)- even types of music you thought you did not like become fascinating and listenable if recorded with reasonable skill)

    #2 Alan Goodwins Store on Newbury Street (in his home I think). (A “regular size system”)
    Quad ESL -63’s with tube amps, Linn turntable playing Emerson Lake and palmers “take a pebble” (fine so long as there is no heavy bass content)

    #3 Ocean State Audio (mini monitor system- wife appropriate)
    ProAc Response 1sc biwired with Audio Research VT mark 2, Target mf 24 stands (lead shot filled), Wadia 861, Ray Charles “God Bless America” (good only for small ensembles of well recorded music)

    All of these MADE MUSIC. Anyone that came into the room looked shocked.

    Sadly, NO headphone system I have heard including the Stax …ever made music- they just “reproduced sound”. The closest using headphones in a portable set up in terms of feeling any sense of a “live event” has been the ED 9’s and Millet listening to the Eagles- Hotel California live… and it just sounded like a really well eq’d top quality outdoor PA system sitting 8th row center up in a cherry picker. (but for me…. “It got me there’”) it did not make music.. because I still felt like I was missing some nuances which were lost in the mixing board and PA speakers + venue…. But I did feel, for much much more than a moment..that I was “there” at the live amplified concert. Perhaps that is truly “Transportable”. It transported me there.

    Not silly at all, or I would not have bought it,

    but everything else I heard at the Denver Meet , no matter the price, did not sound like High Fidelity and did not convince me I was there (it just sounded a bit better- like spending more $$ on a lower cost hi-fi rig) ..and using THAT as a reference .. over 95% of all of “portable high fidelity” is silly…a pursuit that never leads you to the treasure. Startling so… the Pico and Predator all soundly trounced a RME Fireface 800 sound card… so there is definite value in terms of SQ per $ in portable audio. But in terms of SQ per Dollar. Just buy a Apogee mini Dac and be done with it- get a battery for it and it is transportable (barely).

    I’ve created better sound than all of the stores I have visited, and most of the time after I come and audition gear- they leave the system I dial in – and I can come back 2 weeks later and it is still set up the way I did it. I rarely buy much gear- because there are so few true advances- and at most of the stores I have NEVER bought gear , but they always are excited to see me and let me play around with the gear for as long as I like, and typically buy me lunch, feed my parking meter, and they never try to sell me anything, because in the end I do something for them they can not do well, make MUSIC.

    I now do high end audio in the Aspen Valley where I am not constrained in terms of budget to bring music into peoples homes. Sadly, no one else here can make music.

    But, when I try to explain to these customers what I do with their home system…. I whip out my ED 9’s with the Millet and iPod and explain…”It will sound much better than this” (placing the headphones on their heads) and that is enough to get the account. And in the end I play the exact same song on the headphones as on their speakers, let them compare, …and they realize I fulfilled my promise of getting them much much much further than some of the best Portable hi-fi.

    So that use of portable hi-fi is not “too silly”, but If I were to use an average portable headphone amplifier + iP od and say the px-100’s I truly doubt I would get any new accounts. Still I don’t bother to listen to my Edition 9’s unless I am engaged in another activity. Great Hi-fi MAKES you SIT DOWN, SIT STILL, and PAY ATTENTION. Just like a great singer makes people shut up and listen, while the average bar piano player is just background noise.

    IMHO buy a Hi-Fi home rig first (Unless you have kids- then go for Hi-end headphones), Then spend $$ on UE-11’s- or the Millet ED9 combo, and lastly spend money on Home headphone gear (unless you can’t make MUSIC at live levels in your home/dorm/condo).

    As for the OP wasting money…. It’s part of the learning process. Only once have I ever met a person who did not waste money- and it was recently, a former Washington DC lobbyist- who spent time hunting down experts for a living. He knew enough to know that having me buy and set up an all used gear “mini monitor system” for him was the most efficient expenditure of his money on audio gear, frankly…. Not a single dime wasted- and he “gets there from here” , immediately, not in decades.

    Farelistic likes this.
  2. Crowe09
    I must agree that using Hi-Fi with a good sound quality helps for some reason. For someone like me who travels every week for three hours on a bus with too many noises and murmurs. It is a must to have a portable headphone and an Ipod. I also used them when I was trying to play drums for a better concentration. But I must admit, when I want to relax I prefer speakers.
  3. Crowe09
    I must agree that using Hi-Fi with a good sound quality helps for some reason. For someone like me who travels every week for three hours on a bus with too many noises and murmurs. It is a must to have a portable headphone and an Ipod. I also used them when I was trying to play drums for a better concentration. But I must admit, when I want to relax I prefer speakers.
  4. Pricklely Peete Contributor
    It's amazing just how much I relate to that person's experiences and opinions Curra. It sounds a lot like my journey minus the waste of time and money spent on anything portable. Yes I had some portable gear over the years but I never took it seriously.

    A good read and 100% accurate and true IMO [​IMG]

  5. CEE TEE Contributor
    Wow.  That just puts things in perspective a bit.  It helps me keep shooting for things that <sound really good> and help me enjoy my music.  It also helps me try and avoid getting 10 pairs of iems to keep around while trying to have the "best."  I just want to find "really darn enjoyable."
    In no way do I need to go the "ultimate" route.  Don't have the dosh, anyway.  My friends are musicians and/or recording engineers/mastering pros.  Though I like sitting in the "sweet spot" in their studios and seeing what is possible, I don't hear the things they do.  Had one friend come into a previous 3-story photo studio/loft I was in and INSTANTLY ask me if I had a TV on somewhere.  I ran upstairs and there it was, turned off the cable box but not the TV!  
    I can be happy with less but I am enjoying getting more than I have.
    Saying that this is an EPIC post is not hyperbole.  Thanks for sharing it. 
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  6. hockeyb213 Contributor
    In my opinion speakers and headphones are equal. They both have their pro's and con's which make them both different and both enjoyable. One does not have to be better considering that you can have both and both are designed for different purposes.
  7. ddrddrddrddr
    Speakers? Can't use them for years to come. I'll be having neighbors in paper thin walls for a very long time. Headphones are personal, and speakers are not. Speakers are probably not going to be ideal until you have your own house and have your basement sectioned off and soundproofed, otherwise you're disturbing your neighbor, your room mate, your parents, your wife, your kids, or any combination thereof.
  8. DefectiveAudioComponent
    You have such great headphones. Are none of them speaker-like enough?

  9. oqvist
    And yet you preordered a LCD-2 Currawong. There is no escape :wink:
    Nothing new that speakers are superior technically. Doesn´t make them musically superior all the time. I just don´t get the intimacy with the music with my speakers as I get with my headphones otherwise my speakers would get much more ear time :).
  10. chadbang
    Headphone rigs can never match the bombast of a great stereo system, but they have their place. I've been through many headphones and headphones amp and I agree that although there are small differences, it become ridiculous to spend tons of money on incremental SQ improvements (like overpriced LODs, the biggest waste of all). But the same thing holds true for home stereos. I just went though comparing 4 cd players and the difference between a $600 and $120 are minimal as well! So these guys should act as if portable audio is the only form of audio purchasing filled with waste in making small improvements. Just find out if you like a warm, euphonic sound or a brighter analytic sound. Those are the only 2 real difference you'll ever come across in audio. Buy accordingly and to your budget! You can get a used $30 headphone amp that will deliver the same satistfaction as a $500 one, if you look and choose wisely.
  11. triode12
    LOL - I've posted that I do not consider headphone audio to be close to high end 'speaker' audio on this forum before and have "crucified" for stating that. It really upset a couple of forumers. It is nice to see that there are some other enlightened souls on here.
    All one has to do is listen to a properly set up speaker based setup and you will realise that headphone rigs (be they desktop or portable) don't even come close to what is possible from the speaker based setup.
    Headphones are great but will never be speakers. And why should they? I find both complementary and fulfill their purposes rather well. I don't quite follow the notion that one has to be bashed at the expense of the other.
  13. warp08
    Headphones, or more specifically IEMs are the reason why I have reentered the world of high(er) end audio after a long absence.  Even if I had the money and more importantly, a dedicated listening room with the proper dimensions and acoustics to be able to listen to a quality speaker system, my current lifestyle would not allow me the time to enjoy it.  With the quality portable systems today, it is an acceptable compromise, although it doesn't allow for the full, "listening with your entire body" acoustic experience.
  14. Edwood
    I would've  agreed before, at least until I got the Smyth Realiser .  [​IMG]
  15. manaox2
    I love my speakers and definitely use them more then my headphones. However, I get a huge thrill out of my headphones as well and love them when I want to actively listen and get really intimate with the music. They are both breathtaking and I would hate to give up either. Of course, headphones are the best for when your outdoors or traveling and the music interacts best when paired with new experiences IMO. On that thread, speakers will never beat live music either. :)
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