Headphones For Music

Discussion in 'Links' started by WildStyle, Jan 17, 2007.

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  1. WildStyle

    WildStyle Ancient Guru

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    MSI GTX 970
    This post will focus on what are audiophile quality headphones. I've got no intention of covering anything ridiculously priced for very little return, but all these headphones are catered towards music rather than gaming, all corded & they're all two channel.

    If you're into 5.1 "gaming headphones", this post isn't going to be much use to you. What you can do if you need a headset for gaming though is grab something like the ATH-A900 and also buy one of those cheap Zalman clip on mics. Now you've the best of both worlds!

    As I see it, there are two reasons you'd be looking at getting decent headphones. You either can't use speakers because of volume restraints and neighbours around you not wanting to listen to your music. Or you want top quality sound, clarity and detail, but you can't afford to splash out on a high end seperates system.

    Headphones can give you the effect of having expensive speakers (proper speakers, not computer speakers) whilst keeping the noise relatively private. It's also argueably cheaper. They can't however provide the chest pounding bass, but there are phones that will make you feel like you’ve two subs strapped to the sides of your head.

    Overall, remember that sound is a very subjective topic! You need to find the right sound for you. I love Grados/Alessandros myself.

    The Source
    Ok the source. The source is where your music originates from. For entry level headphones it's not so important, but the higher up the ladder you go the more important your source becomes.

    Let's start with the formats. You've got your CD and you want to rip it to your PC. I suppose the three main common formats you've got available to you are WAV, FLAC & MP3.

    WAV files, whilst lossless, will be very large in size. FLAC is compressed lossless (but isn’t that popular or widely supported) and MP3 is a lossy format which strips out anything the human ear can't hear. From there you can choose your compression, or bit rate. Although it's lossy it can still produce very good sound. 192kbps MP3's and upwards will be fine. Anything less and a good setup will highlight the poor quality.

    Personally, I rip my CD's to WAV and then convert to MP3 with Lame. I use the RazorLame frontend because it's much easier to use a graphical interface than type commands. The MP3's are encoded to 192-320KBPS VBR.

    VBR stands for Variable Bit Rate, and what this does is it will vary the bit rate based on the songs needs. For example when there's a quiet part in a song, not a lot's going on, the bit rate will be reduced. This reduces file size. When the song requires a higher bit rate, if it gets to a complex part of the song the bit rate will be increased so the quality of the music isn't compromised.

    I also adjust the gain on the tracks using MP3Gain to avoid clipping, and finally I use the Kernel Streaming plugin for Winamp. This bypasses the Windows Mixer and avoids the associated resampling. This makes a very noticable difference.

    Sound cards then. This is important as well. See, your headphones will be connected to the line out on your sound card. This will be an anologue connection, and an anologue connection means the DAC's in sound card are being utilised. DAC stands for Digital to Analog Converter. This does as the name suggests really, it's a circuit that converts digital information into anologue information which is required to produce sound from your headphones. The DACs are the part of the sound card which have the greatest impact on the sound quality it provides.

    A lot of you will own Audigy, Audigy 2, ZS, Audigy 4 and X-Fi cards. That's fine. However, they're really multi-purpose cards, really tailored for gaming. There are better audiophile class cards out there, and they can be as little as $20. The Chaintech AV710 is a great example. We also have the B-Enspirer from Bluegears, various M-Audio cards and of course the much discussed Auzentech X-Meridian. The thing is though, these sound cards do not support above EAX2 and performance in games is often worse than Creative cards, although it will not be very noticable especially with a decent CPU.

    If you're after something USB based for your laptop, or fancy ditching the PCI sound card in your desktop for something of much better audio quality purely for music playback, then I'd recommend the following, although there are others available:

    Turtle Beach Audio Advantage Micro <-- ideal budget laptop sound upgrade.
    M-Audio Transit
    HeadRoom Total Bithead
    Corda Move
    iBasso D1

    Open & Closed
    Fairly obvious really this one. Closed is where the cups fit over your ears, keeps sound in and blocks any sound from your surroundings. Open allows sound both in and out (though not much in!)

    So for example, closed would be best if you want complete piece and quiet and/or don't want to disturb the people around you. Open would be best if you need to hear the phone ring, front door bell etc, but people will be able to hear your music like mini speakers.

    Two reasons for an amp that both amount to the same thing really.

    Reason 1 is that a lot of audio gear is tailored towards speakers and the components used in the headphone jack circuitry are cheap and poor quality. Using an amp here can boost the sound quality.

    Reason 2 is because 'phones with a high impedance need a headphone amp to drive them properly. A mp3/cd player/sound card alone cannot do this well enough and the headphones will sound lacklustre with your volume levels suffering.

    Lower impedance headphones don't necessarily need an amp but may benefit from a dedicated headphone amp anyway. How much difference it would make is really down to the headphones themselves and your ability to notice the improvement. The impedance rating of headphones is usually found in the specs.

    Recommended 'phones - There are more out there though!
    Earphones: Shure E4C
    Cheap & portable: Koss KSC75, Sennheiser PX100, AKG K24P
    Bargains: Grado SR60, AKG K81DJ, Sennheiser HD485
    Next level up: Alessandro MS1, Sennheiser HD595, Audio Technica A700
    The sensible limit: Senn HD600, HD650, AKG K701, Audio Technica A900, Alessandro MS2i, Grado SR225.

    Research these phones first to see if they suit your needs!

    Comments on my current headphones (I've owned quite a few, but have now owned these for so long I feel unable to write objectively about previous pairs (plus I love these):

    The Alessandro MS1's are essentially tweaked Grado's (they are manufactured by Grado for Alessandro). They are equivalent to SR125's but the drivers are different and so the sound is a little different to the SR125’s sound.

    Excellent headphones and well worth the $99, particularly for people outside the States due to the way Grado headphones are sold (yeah, we pay a huge premium - these are £50, Grado SR125s are double that).

    Same design as other Grados so still uncomfortable apparently! Some people find them uncomfortable as they simply sit on your ear, have no proper padding on the head band and use the "comfy" pads which can muffle the sound a little because it covers the entire driver, as opposed to the "bowl" pads used on the higher end Grado models.

    You can quarter mod the stock pad though, or you can get Senn HD414 pads which are a direct fit. This is what I've done and I heard an improvement in the detail, clarity & bass. Very cheap yet noticable upgrade.

    Pads are personal preference really, there are a number of options and combinations. Personally, I find Grados more comfortable than Senns but maybe I'm weird. I barely notice I'm wearing them & wear them for extended periods of time every day. The pads can feel a bit abrasive when new, but this sensation will vanish shortly. Your natural oils will soften them up.

    Amp not necessary for these, can be driven by anything, although an amp can improve the sound later down the line if you wish.

    Retro aesthetics might not appeal to all, but I think they look rather fetching myself.

    Bright, in your face, detailed sounding headphones. You'll be nodding your head and tapping your toes playing through your music collection again, noticing sounds you never noticed before.

    Note that with most headphones the sound will improve over time. If you don't like a headphones sound at first then give it a couple of weeks of listening to burn them in and see how they sound after that.

    In some cases this is true with the comfort aspect as well. Perhaps the clamping may become less aggressive, or the pads may become softer.

    More info on various models can be found via Google or at Head-Fi.

    Audiophiles & Pricing
    If you read at head-fi or similar places you'll notice people that say yeah I heard a huge difference from doing this, that or the other to my headphones etc etc. In truth it was probably a few percent improvement. Next to that they probably have very high end kit capable of highlighting these small improvements or simply they have great ears. Maybe they even want there to be a difference in sound to justify their expensive purchase.

    There will also come a point where after a certain budget level you may not really be able to tell the difference between headphones or amps because you're being limited by your source or simply because the difference is so small. My advice would be to stop before it gets stupidly expensive as this is an expensive hobby and if you read at head-fi too much your wallets gonna hate you.

    The good thing though is that it's not nearly as fast a moving world as with computers. Some of the top headphones have been out for many years.

    Links & Further Reading
    http://www.head-fi.org/forums/ - THE place for all things headphone related.
    http://www.headphone.com/ - Shop and reviews.
    http://www.avforums.com/forums/index.php - Massive audio visual forum.
    http://www.hydrogenaudio.org/forums/ - Focuses mainly on digital audio formats.
    http://www.hardforum.com/forumdisplay.php?f=33 - Very active audio sub-section @ [H].

    Disclaimer: I don't claim to be an expert, just an enthusiast.

    My current laptop setup: Winamp (KS plugin) --> Corda Move --> Alessandro MS-1 w/ HD414s.

    Last updated 20th Sept 07, minor edits.
    Last edited: Sep 20, 2007
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