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Thread: Audio Equipment...

  1. #1
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    Audio Equipment...

    Once again, I'm turning to my trusted, highly informed friends here on the TB forums to ask a few questions I have about some audio equipment. Ever since I lost my Klipsch S4 earbuds in the airport last year, I've been having to make do with not the greatest sound quality when I'm using my other devices. Which lead me to the following questions.

    1st - I am looking to purchase a nice pair of headphones for home audio listening. My research lead me to take a look at some Sennheiser 280 for around $86, 380's for around $170 and some Shure products, such as the 840 model. I am wondering if anyone else here uses or has information about some of the higher end headsets out there (granted the ones I just listed are probably mid-grade for their respective companies)

    2nd - While researching into these headphones, I noticed that people said they ran their headphones through amplifiers. I have an old Onkyo receiver (2003) that I thought could do the job--however it across the room from me and would require some maneuvering around to have it near where I spend most of my time at home (computer office area and bed.) However, I believe I was mistaken--as I read on, I believe most people were talking about mobile amplifiers to further power and enhance the sound of their headphones, especially those headphones who have a higher impedance. So my second question is: has anyone had experience using these with their devices?

    3rd - So after running into the two things above--I ran into another snag that I haven't really thought about. Lossless music formats. I have a decent amount of music (~35 gigs total) that I have acquired throughout the years. Some of the music I have is from 10+ years ago in some old rusty low-bitrate mp3 format. So now, I have music formats to think about, on top of the fact that I also have streaming music to think about (currently signed up with Spotify, trying that service out,) along with the soon to be released iTunes Match, which for 30 bucks a year will put all of my music out there at 256 bitrate aac files.

    So, all and all, a lot to think about and while the internet has a plethora of information out there--I'm feel death by overload currently. So if any of you have any useful insights, tips, etc what not, I'd be very grateful for whatever you have to offer. I think some of you might actually be in the audio business (I'm looking at you AVService,) so I'm hoping for some good information.

    Thank you very much in advance!

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  2. #2
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    I don't have too much helpful information for your questions here, but have you looked at Grado Labs headphones? They are a small company that still manufactures the majority of their products here in the USA, if that is a consideration. As far as I know, their low-end "iGrado" headphones are made in China, but everything else they make is still produced at their factory in Brooklyn. Their sr60i headphones are supposed to have a fantastic sound quality for the price; loads of positive reviews, and they run about $80-$100.

  3. #3
    Registered User Flinx's Avatar
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    Check this place out:

    HeadRoom: Stereo Headphones, Amps & DACs, Wireless, Noise Canceling, Ear Canal, Earbud, Audio Cables & Accessories

    It's a great site for research, and they cater to the higher end of the spectrum, headphones-wise.
    They also have a "B-Stock Outlet" where they sell returns and scratch-and-dent stuff.

    Have fun!
    Ted

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  4. #4
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    Interesting question.

    Headphones drive me crazy in general.

    I just can not get comfortable wearing any version I have ever tried. Wearing them feels unnatural to me and they always seem either too loud and/or have no real bass at all.
    I still use them for DJ and recording work and I also use them for Ham Radio monitoring where I need to be able to listen and copy radio traffic among other noise and distractions.

    It seems most of the higher end manufacturers are in both sound capture and playback markets too.
    Shure,Sennheiser,AKG,Beyer,Audio Technica etc. all make quality Microphone systems as well as headphones ? They seem to know what they are doing.
    Joe Grado makes Phono Cartridges along with headphones.

    I use AKG's mostly but I also own Grado and Sony noise cancelling sets too. My high End set is Stax Electrostatic which are powered as a pair of speakers as they are not a high sensitivity load like other cans.

    Everyone seems to love the Grado for the price.

    Headphones like speakers are entirely a subjective thing. No one will hear exactly what you will and if you don't like them then they are a bad choice for you. There are not too many places anymore where you can really check them out for yourself so we are sort of reduced to reading reviews and trying them from places with a flexible return policy. Luckily there are places that cater to that problem and will let you listen to find some you like.

    The amplifiers normally used with phones are just an afterthought or a feature designed because it has to be there and often will not really let you get the most from a set of phones and so there is also a choice of dedicated amplifiers designed for low power output but high quality for those who want it.

    This brings us to the issue of sample rates and lossless file quality I guess.
    Everything in audio comes back to your own point of view really. If you can hear it and want to appreciate it there is always a price to pay. Once you start down that road it can be expensive and elusive and we often end up spending big dollars on little improvements that other people can not imagine or understand.

    Most people find it tough to discern the difference in sample rates of music unless or until they learn what to listen for or really how to listen. Most look at me like I am crazy when I suggest I can hear a difference but I have worked for 35 years in an industry where we are trained to listen for the difference and I have a tough time listening to anything Digital much less low sample rate digital. I have a system at home that is considered a "Reference" at resolving subtle detail and you can tell right away when something is missing or wrong through it.
    Each component has been carefully selected to create a synergy that recreates both dynamic realism along with nuance and a sense of the space the recording was mastered in. It can be expensive and endless and I warn you some people get sucked into it without warning and then just start spending money.

    Ignorance really can be bliss and cheaper for sure!

    Spend some time listening yourself and see if you really care or not and let that guide you to what you like and find acceptable.

    I always suggest you find a set of phones (or speakers)you like first and then you can always start down the path of improvement once you made some basic choices.

    The interesting and main difference between Speakers and Headphones is the acoustics of the space they are in.
    Speakers have to be considered part of a system with your room. Nothing you get from a speaker happens in isolation from the environment,the speaker/room interaction make it impossible to predict and maddening to quantify how a speaker will sound when set up and moved around. There are several rules of thumb and common tricks to try but the speaker and room always work together and offer and endless set of possibilities for improvement and frustration.

    Headphones on the other hand sound pretty much the same all the time as the only real variable is your head. They can sound more detailed and articulate and there is much less distracting outside noise to detract from the performance.

    There is both the upside and downside though to headphones in my experience.
    Live music is created in a room and the interaction of the musicians,instruments and environment combine to deliver what is recorded. In much the same way a playback system sounds "Alive" when played in a Room.

    This is to me the biggest drawback with headphones.

    So my advice is research,listen and learn then decide.

    Ed
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  5. #5
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    OK...initial disclaimer. I sell Pro Audio equipment including Sennheiser as a part of my day gig so everything you get from me must be taken with a grain of digital salt.

    1. Headphones: The units you have mentioned are good headphones. The HD380s have better low frequency output, have slightly lower distortion and are a bit more sensitive so they will get louder. They are also a good deal more comfortable than the HD280 because they have more of an oval shape on the earcups so to me they put less pressure on the ears for me. The Shure are good headphones from a reputable American company but they are their first real entrance into the market place.

    Interestingly, all of the headphones you have picked are "studio" type headphones. This means they are closed headphones designed to reject a lot of outside noise by sealing tightly to your head. This makes it easier to get bass response, means other people around you don't hear them as much, but it can also make them more uncomfortable wearing them for long periods of time.

    If background noise or bothering your neighbor are not an issue, a lot of people find that the sound from an open air pair of headphones is more natural and they are more comfortable to wear for extended periods of time. These type tend to be favored by people that listen to a lot of jazz or classical music. The classic example of these are the Sennheiser HD600 and HD650.

    2. Headphone amps- Completely agree with AV service. You can put a decent pair of headphones on and listen to the same song on the output of different headphone jacks and here differences. When you are spending less than a buck for the whole circuit, quality is not the goal.

    You can pay silly money for a headphone amp like the Benchmark DAC1 or the Grace m903 or you can pay a little bit more for something like the Presonus HP4 or Aphex HeadPod. In any case, you will hear an improvement as the preamp is better isolated from noise and interference than and onboard preamp and can deliver more current and recover more quickly. You can definitely hear a difference but there is a law of diminishing returns.

    Also, the definition of an audiophile is "someone who is never happy with their sound" so they are constantly improving the weak link in their chain. Be prepared for this and try to shop in similar categories. By this I mean that buying $99 headphones and a $750 headphone preamp is not going to get you as good a results as a $250 pair of headphones and a $250 preamp. Something will be a limiting factor in your chain and price is not always the best indicator of quality. As AV says, (paraphrased) "try before you buy" or at least buy from somebody trustworthy that will let you send it back.

    3. Bitrates, sample rates and psychoacoustic voodoo- I think that "lossless" is great marketing but in reality it is a misnomer. All compression formats are shrinking the file size so you are giving away something. They are all based on throwing away something that you supposedly do not hear.

    Having said that the high bit rate AAC codec is pretty darn good and is generally worth the tradeoff in size. The original MP3 codecs were almost all based on a free piece of "example" code that the Fraunhofer institute posted on their website and they almost universally stink. I cringe when I hear old MP3 files played through a decent sound system. They sound flat, distorted and they fatigue my ears very quickly.


    When you listen on speakers both ears hear what comes off of both speakers but you also hear the reflections of the sound off of the floor, ceiling and walls and this creates a wash of early reflections that build up a (usually) pleasing wash of sound that fills in much of the starkness that can be in a recording. Think about the difference in singing in a open field or a shower and how it sounds to you...

    Headphones radically isolate the sound going to your left ear and right ear and completely eliminate the reflections in the room. While we will add some of the character of a room back to a recording when it is done in a studio with processing equipment, as audio engineers we try not to over do it. Typically those kinds of processing are MORE obvious in headphones so a recording may sound "wetter" in headphones or because of tricks in acoustics the room may "go away" in the recording depending on correlation between the signals in the left and right sides of a recording.

    Clear as mud? Ed is spot on. It is INCREDIBLY subjective, and the best thing you can do is try some things see what you like. Start in the shallow end and gradually wade into the deep end.

  6. #6
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    Oh yeah....misterN if you will teach me to take pictures like you do I will HAPPILY teach you to talk audio!

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    First off, thank you for the information everyone, especially Jeff and AV, you have given me a lot to think about.

    I've been wearing a headset pretty constantly for quite some time now--discomfort isn't really something I've found myself dealing with using my super cheap headsets.

    I guess why I sort of gravitated to the closed headphones is due to the fact that a lot of the reviews said that it had slightly better bass handling. Also there's the price issue--it seems to be that a lot of closed headphones are cheaper in price. I definitely cannot go jump into the deep end.

    I was a bit surprised by the Shure headphones. I knew they made in-ear headphones, but not over the ear headphones.

    Going back to the Amp/DAC's -- they get really expensive really quickly. Part of me is wondering if it just wouldn't be better to pick up a receiver at the prices of some of these DACs. (Or I suppose I could use the optical out to the optical in of my current receiver to drive my headphones?)

    I see that some of these dacs have multiple options for things (for example the Headroom Micro Amp has some gain adjustments, but also at the price tag of 350 bucks.)

    Gah >.< Think I'm just going to go to sleep for now and think it over some more at work tomorrow.

    Black/Steel/Wasabi Super Ego, Cardinal/Steel 15"/13" Cadet, Cardinal/Steel Aeronaut, Olive/Cayenne 13" Ristretto, Camera Insert/Outsert, Horizontal Freudian Slip, 13" MBA Cache, Brain Cell for 13" Macbook, Steel Snake Charmer, FoT/FoJ pouch, Organizer Wallet, and more organizer pouches than I can shake a stick at.

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    Great info all around for the OP. I will definitely second the recommendation for HeadRoom. I've bought several things from them, and their information was spot on. I'm currently using a pair of Grado SR-60s at the office, and I really like them. They're generally pretty comfortable and the sound is very good for the price. I also have a pair of Sennheiser open-air phones that I used to use for a ton of computer gaming and listening to music while doing schoolwork. Unfortunately, I can't remember the model number right now. They look something like the 650, but I know I wasn't that spendy back then. And finally, for all my train and plane riding, I have a pair of eytimotics that are amazing for the quiet they provide and the quality of the sound they produce.

    Quote Originally Posted by jeffmac View Post
    3. Bitrates, sample rates and psychoacoustic voodoo- I think that "lossless" is great marketing but in reality it is a misnomer. All compression formats are shrinking the file size so you are giving away something. They are all based on throwing away something that you supposedly do not hear.
    I do have to get a bit technical here and disagree with jeffmac on this point. I do not know of any lossless formats that actually remove data that affects sound--and no respectable programmer would call something lossless if it wasn't. It's a pretty clear definition of what lossless compression is: The decoded output data is identical to the uncompressed input data, bit for bit. So in the audio context, a codec can't be called lossless unless the DAC receives the exact same data, bit for bit, from the lossless file (e.g. FLAC, ALAC, etc.) that it would receive if you were playing an uncompressed original.

    The absolutely quintessential example of lossless compression is the ZIP file. The algorithms for lossless audio compression are very different from the ZIP algorithm because they are trying to better deal with the complexity of audio, but the idea is the same. They're looking for patterns in the bit or byte-level data. The FLAC algorithm could theoretically be run on any type of file to compress it without affecting the file in any way. It wouldn't make sense because there are better general-purpose compression algorithms, but it is theoretically possible. Fraunhofer, on the other hand, would permanently alter the input file in a way that was unrecoverable. For more discussion of lossless compression, see this pretty decent Wikipedia article titled "Lossless data compression"

    I'll also note that the FAQ for FLAC says this:
    How can I be sure FLAC is lossless?
    How much testing has been done on FLAC?

    First, FLAC is probably the only lossless compressor that has a published and comprehensive test suite. With the others you rely on the author's personal testing or the longevity of the program. But with FLAC you can download the whole test suite and run it on any version you like, or alter it to test your own data. The test suite checks every function in the API, as well as running many thousands of streams through an encode-decode-verify process, to test every nook and cranny of the system. Even on a fast machine the full test suite takes hours. The full test suite must pass on several platforms before a release is made.

    Second, you can always use the -V option with flac (also supported by most GUI frontends) to verify while encoding. With this option, a decoder is run in parallel to the encoder and its output is compared against the original input. If a difference is found flac will stop with an error.

  9. #9
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    Decided to try out some Grado SR-80i's and see how those work. Holding off on the headphone amp--if all else fails I'll move my old receiver there and run optical out to my receiver and drive from that.

    Black/Steel/Wasabi Super Ego, Cardinal/Steel 15"/13" Cadet, Cardinal/Steel Aeronaut, Olive/Cayenne 13" Ristretto, Camera Insert/Outsert, Horizontal Freudian Slip, 13" MBA Cache, Brain Cell for 13" Macbook, Steel Snake Charmer, FoT/FoJ pouch, Organizer Wallet, and more organizer pouches than I can shake a stick at.

  10. #10
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    I've had good experience with both Shure and Sennheiser, although I can't recommend any particular models for you. I actually don't have full-sized headphones because I listen to the iPod using earbuds... and when I wear "headphones" it's of the mic'ed variety I use when I'm playing World of Warcraft with my friends. For that purpose, I use a cheap behind-the-neck wrap-around type that I can easily crook off one ear so I can hear hubby. If I wore a fancy pair of noise-isolating high-end headphones I would never be able to hear him, and he'd get P.O.'ed for ignoring him!! ^_^
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    I am cringing reading this because there are times when I obsess over this topic. In fact, I'm staring at 4 sets of headphones right now that largely go unused, not to mention the buds I have hidden away.

    In general, it's hard to say what's best due to what everyone has mentioned. I bought the Grado SR60 a while back and I love them. I did test some Beyerdynamic a while ago and loved them too. I also bought a very cheap amp called the pa2v2. I can honestly say that even a cheap amp makes a difference. For a while I had my eye on the Ray Samuels amps but I never pulled the trigger.

    The problem is that as I started to travel more lightly I gave up on the headphones for my ear buds and even gave up on the amp and cords. I have yet to really get into headphones at home because I rarely sit still at home and the better half hates it when I tune her out.

    You might try this site for more info (Head-Fi.org - Headphone forums and reviews for audiophiles ) but the other one mentioned is good too.

    The best advice I can give is try and look for events on these sites and attend them to see if you can try stuff out. Might be cheapest way to figure out what you really want. Sadly there isn't much in the way of a brick and mortar store for these things.
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