I have been following Alex Rowe reviews for a while now, he’s one of the most accessible reviewers that I know of on our hobby, and has true technical know-how on both critical writing and audio production.
If you are into headphones I really recommend a visit to his site worldbolding.com. Also, he’s a fellow Beyerdynamic/SoundBlaster user, so I might have some bias towards him. 🙂
1. Would you like to tell us a bit about yourself?
I’m 35. I’m a part-Chinese, part-English American living outside of Portland, Oregon, USA. In 2006, I earned a degree in Film/Video Production with minors in English Literature and Spanish from the only local school that had a four year film studies program. Although I do some freelance video production work from time to time, my “regular” job is on-air voice talent, audio production, and technical support for a local radio station that my dad runs. In the past I’ve written game and tech reviews professionally for both print and online publications, though these days reviewing is more of a hobby. It’s so much more fun to choose the products and deadlines myself. Studying film theory, literary criticism, and then writing reviews means I have a weird critical brain I can’t ever switch off, so when I started buying headphones in earnest, I thought I might as well review them since my brain was going through the process anyway. It snowballed from there, and now I have over 100 reviews available online at Medium and worldbolding.com.
2. What music do you enjoy and why?
For the longest time all I listened to was game and movie soundtracks, 80’s pop music, and oldies/classic rock. But now I also enjoy jazz, acoustic pop, and classical music. Though really…the vast majority of my listening time these days is girl pop.
I can just imagine the audiophiles running away.
I prefer female vocals over male vocals, both as a personal preference thing, and because they tend to be better at revealing flaws in gear as far as timbre/”natural tone” goes. If female vocals don’t sound thin, weird, or shouty, you know you’ve got something good.
3. Why are you enthusiastic about audio?
I wasn’t really given a choice, though I came to it later than I could have. My dad has worked around the radio industry most of his life and is also a musician. Growing up, we had his elaborate PA system and record collection lying around, and a really nice bookshelf system in the living room that I mostly used for listening to kid song tapes. In high school I bought myself a cheap pair of studio headphones to use with my Discman, and my brain exploded. Oh! This is all the sound I’ve been missing! To my dad’s credit he let me go on the journey on my own without shoving it down my throat. I work with audio every day now and music, gaming, and movies are my main hobbies so having good audio is important there too.
Audio is a fun and diverse hobby when you’re not dealing with the online haters, because the gear can be small enough to fit in a pants pocket or big enough to fill an entire room. It has something for every taste and budget.
4. What audio gear do you use?
Living near Portland, there’s a coffee shop about every 800 feet. Since I do my regular job in a home-based studio setup, I like to go out when I write, and that’s when I do a lot of my listening. As such, I tend to prefer headphones that are closed-back and somewhat portable.
Right now, I’m totally enamored with the E-Mu Walnut, a wooden-cupped version of the Creative Aurvana Live/Foster 443701. Foster’s bio-cellulose driver platform is incredible, from the budget range all the way up to their $500+ dollar flagships. They have a low-distortion response and a satisfying bass-driven accurate sound.
It’s cumbersome to carry amplifiers around so I honestly spend a lot of time just plugged into the headphone jack on either my Dell G5 or my Macbook. I can imagine the audiophiles running away once more. 15 years ago I wouldn’t have touched anything outside dedicated audio interfaces, mixing consoles, or discrete sound cards. But now, decent DACs and amps are crammed into almost every device that still has a headphone jack, and that’s awesome. There’s still a dud here or there, but I’m perfectly satisfied with the power levels of my onboard gear.
For the harder to drive stuff I have a SoundblasterX G5, which was billed as a gaming device but is actually made from high quality, respected off-the-shelf audio components. It has a low output impedance and a ton of power.
When I’m not reviewing something new and not using the Walnuts, I love Audio-Technica’s M-series, and of course, Beyerdynamic’s classic 770/880/990 family. That driver platform nails the diffuse-field audio curve and has treble that’s excellent for detail retrieval and critical listening work, in spite of what some people might tell you. I have no doubt that Beyerdynamic wishes they could erase those headphones from existence, if only so that customers would move on to their newer products in greater numbers.
5. What would be your perfect audio gear setup?
If forced to pick something on the spot that’s not a DT770, I’d love to one day own a DT1770 and the elusive THX 789 amplifier that everyone is currently raving about. I know the 1770 is a divisive headphone, but I’ve always wanted to own a Tesla-based product for myself and I think the 1770 fits my personal tastes well from build to sound signature. I have plans to finally buy one later this year.
The 789 is by all accounts an incredible amp and it’s so ridiculous that Massdrop isn’t producing them at a regular clip. A product needs to be on the market to sell, no matter how good it is. Massdrop is slowly learning this with some of their audio stuff, but I wish they’d learn it faster.
In all honesty though, I’m perfectly happy with any of the Beyer models listed above plugged into something with a little juice behind it. On certain days, I’m also a huge fan of the M50X. Diminishing returns are very real in audio, and I’m more excited by a good blend of build, sound, comfort, isolation, and value than by the more luxurious aspects of the hobby. That’s the fault of my production background and not necessarily a comment on other listeners.
6. What is your favorite format for audio and why?
FLAC is quite good. I think the guys over at Xiph.org who created it (and the Ogg format), are very smart and know their stuff when it comes to digital compression.
In an ideal world where the market went a different way and I have a larger home, I’d love to have a room full of CDs, but that’s not really practical. I’m fully content with Redbook CD audio as far as quality standards go, and I’ve yet to be convinced of the benefits of Hi-Res audio outside of effects-heavy production work. I worry that companies are over-selling its differences to consumers just to get them to upgrade.
I do a lot of listening through Spotify on high quality also.
7. Would you like to share some photos of your audio gear?
Interview conducted 27/02/2019