So for this entry I’m going to focus on two things — why one should get into high-end audio and the terms that are used to describe what they would hear. To start, I’ll say that for me, my goal in listening to music is to connect — to be immersed in it both in a seemingly physical sense of feeling as if I’m in the recording studio with the artist and a sense of emotional proximity that comes with the intimacy of good audio. I’m sure some of you who are reading this are saying “but I’m immersed with my free apple ear buds, $10 dollar headphones, and/or Beats by Dr. Dre”, but I can assure you that you are not. I thought this at every step of the way in my hi-fi journey. I thought that the Skullcandy ear buds that I used before getting into headphones were such a huge improvement over the apple ones and sounded super realistic. Then I got my first set of headphones – the $60 Sennheiser HD-280 pro and thought the same. The more money you spend, the more intimacy you get, and the more you begin to crave. At this stage in my journey, standard ear buds (technically called IEMs or in-ear monitors) give me a headache after minimal listening.
As for how better gear creates the aforementioned intimacy, I’ll use the analogy of tools. Need to open up an average electronics case and a screwdriver will be fine because it suits basic needs for a simple job which in hi-fi land would simply be making playable music. Want to change the oil on that brand new Ferrari that you have? Well you’re going to need better, more expensive tools for the job, but it’s important to note that it’s not only the quality of the tools that needs improvement, it’s their need to complete a very specific task in a very specific application. The same applies to audio — to be good at certain things, a headphone must sacrifice others and that improvement costs money. Want something that can do it all? That’s going to cost more money. Here’s an example. Say you’re into classical music. Although your cheap headphones/IEMs may sound good to you now, if you’ve ever heard a live violin you’d know that the IEM reproduction of the sound and the real sound don’t sound alike at all. The IEM version is far more compressed, low notes lack body, high notes are shrill instead of full, and you lose detail. Go to a live performance and sit next to the violinist and you will hear their breaths, their subtle readjustments of position, and their fingers moving across the fingerboard. You can’t hear that on a cheap IEM and that loss of detail and accurate reproduction means a loss of intimacy. Want a reproduction that gives you the space that’s in a concert hall, the brightness of the upper register and harmonics with the fullness of the lower end that a violin has, and the ability to hear every detail? Well you can have it in a headphones called the AKG K702. For $300. Problem is I’m not done yet. To provide that detail, the drivers need more electricity to force them to move, and at a relatively low impedance (resistance to current measured in ohms), they need more current and your Ipod or phone can’t provide that. You need an amplifier. There’s another issue too – your computer’s sound card that creates the signal for the headphone isn’t very good. You need a DAC (digital to analog converter) that does a better job. To get a basic amp and DAC that’s another $200. The other complication is that you’re $500 setup, while I will admit will sound good, is not near the best out there — there is always room for improvement in audio and that’s where the desire to upgrade comes in.
While that may have scared some of you away, there’s one thing I have to say. It’s worth it. The reason that one spends money on hi-fi is that everything sounds different – no two manufacturers make a piece of gear the same way and the audiophiles journey is about finding which combinations of gear suit ones ears best. Here’s where the terminology comes in. Some people like a mid forward headphone (mids being the range where most of the music occurs – think vocals and guitars) which is ideal for rock. Others like bright treble (sparkly and vivid in areas like cymbals, the upper register of violins etc.) like the AKG K702s. Others still like a V shaped sound signature (emphasis on treble and bass). Some people prefer a neutral headphone (nothing is emphasized – on a frequency chart response is close to flat). All of the above types exist and which one prefers may vary depending on the song that they’re listening to. Headphones can also sound distant (as if one sits in the middle to back of an audience in a concert hall) or up front (as if one is very close to the live musician) as well as warm (having a thicker, lush quality) or cold (more analytic and detailed). Amplifiers and DACs have sound signatures as well although there are differing philosophies on how that should be used. Some (like me) like pairing a cold headphone with a warm sounding tube amp while others believe that that sort of pairing diminishes the good qualities of the cold headphone. That sort of disagreement highlights the beauty of audio — it’s all subjective (although some would disagree with me on this) and all that matters is what the equipment sounds like to one’s ears and brain.
To conclude, I’m interested in knowing why you listen to music? What kind of sound do you prefer? What is your current setup and are you satisfied with it?
- Happy listening and thanks for reading!