When our fearless editor assigned me the task of covering last weekend's Head-Fi show as photographer, it suddenly occurred to me that I hadn't clapped a pair of headphones on my ears for what seemed like decades. I had been listening to two-channel, vinyl-sourced, loudspeaker generated audio for so long the idea of head-fi seemed unnatural. I wasn't even clear about how I would go about photographing the show, let alone commenting on it, if asked, which he did. As it turned out, my fears about the former were groundless — and as for the latter, I was in for a surprise or two.
It wasn't until a couple of hours into the first day that I ventured into the nether aural world of headphonery — and because at that moment I happened to have my iPod with me and noticed that someone was sourcing their music from theirs. Must admit that, even though I occasionally rip a CD or two into iTunes, and thence into my iPod, have never used it as a serious music source. Even so, I had taken extra care to import my music with as little loss as possible given the medium, so I had a handy, if compromised resource for my first experiment with head—fi. My original idea, by the way, was to have a back up for long-distance air travel, and though that has not yet materialized, here was a practical realization right before me.
The particular exhibit at hand showcased the efforts of Ken Ball of Portland, Oregon's ALO Audio. Ken's thing was modifying headphones to make use of his own interconnecting wires. That struck a positive audiophile chord, since I had had occasion to wonder about the extent to which earphone fidelity was compromised by the rubber bands that manufacturers tried to pass off as conductors. Probably a great deal, I speculated. Still, I figured I wasn't going to learn much from an iPod source, let alone the various CDs transferred onto it.
Ken limits his modifications to only a handful of phones, mostly Grado and a few AKG models (alas, not the K-1000, as it turned out). His demo made specific use of iPod source material, his interconnect, and a variety of head amps, portable and not, from other suppliers. Even thus limited, I was surprised at how easily — and, I thought, critically — I was able to assess the values and liabilities of this set-up and that. One could easily get into this, I figured. I even rather enjoyed my iPod music. Portability and convenience being the idea, and Ken Ball seemed to have a good thing going here. In fact, while taking for granted the ability of headphones to seduce and abandon, a number of set-ups impressed the hell out of me in terms of their ability to recreate a sense of bass and dynamics. . . which is not to say that they actually produced the kind of bass and dynamic scale that a good open speaker could produce, given the proper amplification and room, but the illusion was sometimes stunning.
I was able to confirm the value of proper interconnects for use with headphones at home simply by trying an assortment of good interconnects between DAC and headphone amplifier using a borrowed Stax Lamda Pro and SRM-T1. Tried Audio Note AN-A copper and AN-V and ZX silver interconnects with corresponding improvements being enhanced resolution, weight, dynamic contrast and reduction in distortion. I could only imagine how much improvement there might be if Stax's long rubbery wires were replaced by serious conductors.
Still, there were unexpected surprises to come: As I tried on this headgear and that, was frustrated by how often I found the result enervating. Was it the choice of music, the connecting wires, the CD players and/or converters, or perhaps the various amplifiers, some of which were single-ended 300B? My impression — my personal consensus, if you will — was that, while this headphone made for a more or less dynamic or more open experience compared to that one, there was most often a constricting compression and distortion that I couldn't entirely escape. There were more than a few set-ups that were on the verge of giving me a headache — and not from the physical contact with the speakers themselves. Most interesting was that some exotic headphone/amplifier combinations were more disagreeable than ALO's far cheaper set-ups. It was as if I was being inundated by decades of feedback, the sort that controls for distortion in many audio circuits, and always results in compression of dynamic response. Later, I speculated that the proximity to a digital source might have been too much for me. I don't mean that a CD or its iterations downstream are the antichrist, but that a good headphone system might not be as forgiving as a living room space.
Using my own program sources (including vinyl) at home after the show, together with the Stax, It became increasingly clear to me how important the specific program material is for such experiments. Without a room to provide an otherwise useful smokescreen, a good headphone system reveals perhaps more than you want to know about everything further up the playback chain — this includes the program source itself. I was frankly surprised at how much musical material at Head—Fi was problematic in this respect: exaggerated trebles or bass and plunkity-plunk sounds in preference to continuous music. Clearly, transient response is not one of a good head-fi system's liabilities. The challenge is the ability to produce sustained music at impressive levels without strain. To demonstrate this ability, the program source must be appropriate and possess credentials beyond reproach.
With such sources, alas, I ended up with more questions than answers — and began to wonder if this whole earphones thing wasn't a little over my head. More listening will have to follow long after this commentary is published, but for now my feeling (and "feeling" is probably just the right word here) is that the compression I experienced so often was a function of the proximity of the speakers and the ageing process, which I'm guessing makes me more susceptible to what seems like changes in altitude — as if the threshold for ear clogging is now lowered to 100 feet.
This brings me to the most important observation I had about the show. At the Radisson Hotel in San Jose, Head-Fi employed one sizable room where a few dozen amateurs showed their wares without fear of acoustically interfering with each another's aural experience, plus several hotel living rooms where the more expensive "audiophile" set-ups found expression. Much less ambitious than a CES or a other high-end shows.
As you may have gathered, I am no engineer, but do have some practical experience and what I'd like to believe is a dedicated critical faculty. When I would share some of my questioning observations at one of the bigger status venues, I usually encountered defensive, parrying maneuvers, at times downright hostile. Not so, at Head-Fi. On the contrary, at least one person, Brian of Slim Devices in Mountain View, seemed more interested in following the thread of my critique than I was. I couldn't help but observe that throughout the show, including the most expensive rooms such as his, source material was stored and extracted from computers in the unquestioning belief that this method was a 1:1 transfer of information throughout the "recording" and playback chain. I commented to Brian that in my experience CDs sounded different depending on the transport, so how were we to trust that some software and a computer drive and its minions up and down the chain would accomplish the ripping of musical ones and zeroes absolutely faithfully — to say nothing of the various transfer media, such as Slim Devices' own Transporter "network music player." Perhaps it does, but it didn't strike me as intuitive.
The folks at Head-Fi are true amateurs — lovers of the art. And very interested in learning from whatever source presents itself. Brian is now going to have to wrestle with the idea that a digital stream is affected by moving it from one medium to another — something he never really embraced before that day. Perhaps it may have explained why one set-up in his room gave me a headache and another didn't. Perhaps not. But the idea will worry him, and he may come up with a better solution because of it. When was the last time you could say that about an interchange you had with someone touting his or her wares at a high-end Show!