Hi. My name’s Ken, and I’ve become an audiophile through no fault of my own.
One of the things you discover when you blog, and you review stuff, is that once you’ve reviewed a certain type of thing – let’s say audio gear – you start getting more pitches for similar gear; especially if you write positive reviews and your site has a halfway decent following.
Over the last decade, I’ve reviewed all sorts of headphones, earbuds, and Bluetooth speakers, and the pitches keep rolling in. A little over a week ago, PR for a site called Massdrop pitched me a pair of Sennheiser HD6XX headphones. Massdrop is one of those limited-deal sites where they make deals on limited set of products and offer them for short periods of time to their readers. They’ve built up a strong community of customers for some very specific categories, and audiophile gear happens to be one of them.
So, the headphones they sent me are actually just a visually-refreshed run of the Sennheisher HD650 headphones, that have been around for a few years. I’d never listened to them before, and when I tried them for the first time, I got a bit of a wow experience. My first impression was “warm” – they have what you can only describe as a warm sound; like walking from a room with florescent bulbs into a room with incandescents. Then there’s the clarity and balance. It’s pretty amazing listening to a good classical recording and being able to pick out not just individual instruments, but the sounds of fingers moving on strings, the click of valves, and the whoosh of the musicians turning the pages on their stands.
Okay, you just read that paragraph. That’s the way audiophiles talk. I’m a goner.
I now have three sets of what I would call good headphones: Audio-Technica ATH-M50X, Bowers & Wilkens P5 (1st gen – recertified), and now the Sennheisers. These headphones run from about $140 up to nearly $300 – they’re not cheap, but they also aren’t on the higher end. Indeed, when I call myself an audiophile, I’m just a junior-grade, entry-level audiophile. There are people who will spend big bucks for gear that just makes one more little big of a difference, and they may well scoff at what I call good. Thank goodness I’m not there… yet.
What I can tell you is that the Audio-Technicas are a nice closed-back over-the-ear set of cans; clean, clear, and well balanced. They do an excellent job of closing out the rest of the world (without having active noise cancellation), and are really easy to wear for an extended period of time. The B&W P5s are my portable set, really easy to fold up flat and get in my bag. They’re on-the-ear; they also do a good job of shutting out the outside, but they’re harder to wear for a long time. Their sound is a bit colder, sharper on the higher ends, but nice and crisp. And now, the Sennheisers, with all that balance and warmth. They are open-backed, so they don’t block out the outside, which is nice if you’re working, but still need to be aware of your surroundings.
It’s the Sennheiser that pushed me over the edge. They sounded good out of the box, but the interesting thing was that I had to push the volume way up on my laptop to get even a moderate level of volume from them. This is due to impedance.
All earphones and headphones (and speakers in general, actually) have an impedance rating, in ohms. It’s basically a measure of resistance to the current that’s being run through them to generate the waveforms of your music. Most normal headphones have an impedance under 25 ohms. The Sennheisers is at 300 ohms!
Why’s that? It has to do with the wire that’s wound around in coils that transfer the electromagnetic fields to move the speakers and generate the sound waves (you’re all geeks, you get this, right?). Less expensive speakers use fatter wire, requiring fewer loops, resulting in low impedance. These speakers take less power to run, but tend to be heavier and less subtle. Higher quality headphones use speakers with finer wire, wound tighter, creating coils that take more power run, but which are lighter, with broader ranges and subtlety. It also means that typical ways of playing music, like laptops and phones, aren’t providing enough power to run them effectively.
And that’s what caused me to buy a headphone Amp/DAC. That’s basically a portable amplifier with a chipset built-in to process and improve audio files, and introduce additional equalization and other effects. I picked up a Creative Sound Blaster E5, which works with your laptop or phone to provide more power. Paired with the Sennheiser headphones, it’s a whole new experience.
It’s so bad now, I won’t listen to music with earbuds; only podcasts. I did a spot comparison between the very nice $50 set of lightning earbuds I wear while walking and the Sennheisers on the E5, and it was like hearing two different pieces of music. I’ve been spoiled.
And therein lies the rub. All this may sound great; using nice gadgets to listen to good music. But audiophiles, like other kinds of geeks, can get too deep into their subject, and even get a little snotty about it with people who “just don’t understand.” An audiophile would scoff at those Beats headphones on your wish list; they’re considered a terrible listening experience, with muddy, over-saturated bass, and they’re way overpriced (get those Audio-Technicas I listed above – they’re way better, and people in the know will nod and smile when they seen you with them). And and audiophile would have to fight back the urge to tug the earbuds out of your bobbing head and tell you there’s a better way.
I mean, I wouldn’t do that. But I can’t say I haven’t found myself thinking about it.
And being an audiophile is about diminishing returns, pursuing that elusive perfect acoustic setup: just the right set of headphones, amp, dac, player, lossless sound files (mp3s are a heresy!) made of perfect recordings. The more you spend, the slighter the improvements, but the little flaws can take you out of the magic of the listening experience, so you keep pushing on, and pushing on. Beware, brothers and sisters, this fate could be in your future!
The funny thing about all this is that it began with getting a nice pair of headphones to review for Massdrop. Problem was, the deal was so popular to the audiophiles there that it sold out before I could get a review up, so you can’t get them. You can still find the HD650s on Amazon, though. And if you or someone you love may be slipping towards the madness that is being an audiophile, they’re worth the price.
So, that’s it. I’ve crossed the line, and I accept the curse. Of course, I’m not ready yet for $4k pair of Audeze LCD-4 headphones. But if anyone wants to get me a tube amp for Christmas, I’ll swallow my pride and give it a listen.