Things to consider when receiving advice for buying headphones.

alphacolor-13-182248editedIf you dedicate enough time to this hobby you’ll sooner or later ask for advice about a headphone you never had the chance to hear.
Inexperienced hobbyists will try to help because everyone likes to help and you’ll probably buy a product only to find out it doesn’t really have the sound signature, comfort or practical utility you needed from it, thus the cycle starts again.
Some sites and forums I shall not name here actually make a living from this kind of advice and they prosper.

Sadly more often than not people giving advice never actually heard the product but use the reviews of others to help you the best way they can.
This is not wrong per say but can make you lose time, money and sadly even make you give up on you newly found headphone hobby.

I admit sometimes a headphone or brand is so bad that everyone in a group agrees you should stay away from it. You just need to be careful to know if it’s not a biased opinion. So you should search review sites, online shops reviews and get your hand on everything related to what you want to buy, this includes measurements made by reputable sources and fans alike.

You should always try to hear a headphone before buying it, specially if it’s your first foray in to the hobby! This rule is THE rule!
Your first serious headphone is the base for everything else you’ll buy later, and believe me this hobby can be dangerously addictive if you go in to the rabbit hole.
Your first headphone is also very important because it gives a reference point to experienced users who want to help you. There are people out there who dedicate a lot of listening time to this hobby and their opinion should be respected specially if they take time from it to help you find a great pair of cans.

If someone really wants to help you, he or she will say if they intimately know the product, whats their favorite headphones or sound signature and their favorite music genres.
One thing is someone who heard the product, the other completely different is someone who gives an opinion based on specs, frequency response and opinions from their favorite reviewers who might have a different taste in the sound signature of a headphone and might also be in to different music genres.
People who only listen to bass heavy music are not the best ones to give you advice about good cans for the classical genre. Then again some musicphiles might actually surprise you.

To end this now long opinion of mine, keep the following in mind before buying gear or requesting help from other hobbyists.

– You should always try to hear a headphone before buying it, specially if it’s your first foray in to the hobby!

– Your first headphone is very important because it gives a reference point to experienced users who truly know their gear.

– If someone really wants to help you, he or she will say if they intimately know the product, whats their favorite headphones or sound signature and their favorite music genres.

It’s up to you to decide if you should follow my advice, because after all it’s all from my perspective of things.

Above all else enjoy your music and have fun.

Audiophile hype is necessary.

treesinlisbonIf you are a stressed commuter, the tree in the photo will make you curse specially in rainy days. Not only it hides the time of arrival panel but also the incoming bus.
Now let’s say there’s an car accident and the same tree saves the lives of the commuters, will they still hate the placement of the tree after such event? Perspective is a curious thing and it can be applied to everything.

The audiophile hobby these days is flooded by hype products but some of them can actually bring more music enthusiasts to the hobby, and that is a great thing at least for me.

Don’t get me wrong, I hate hype specially when it brings bullshit to the table (Yes, Sony! I’m looking at your SD audiophile cards), but hype also makes big players in the Hi-Fi industry move their asses and actually make good use of their engineering teams. Sadly it also makes some products more expensive, for instance you now pay more for entry price turntables because of the vinyl hype.

I wrote about hype before the Pono player was released. Pono the High-Resolution player gain massive traction from artists that really noticed the difference of High-Rez audio inside a car. On the good side because of it, companies from all around the world jumped on the bandwagon and now everybody can purchase better audio players.

The Beats headphone hype also gave a breath of fresh air to the on-the-go music market, companies like Sony, Sennheiser, AKG and other big players had to up their design, quality and advertising to face the competition of star athletes turned audiophiles. Yes, because everyone knows soccer players know how good headphones should sound.
Hype, gonna love it! Jokes aside, finally headphones started to be viewed as an amazing way to hear music even by high-end magazines.

The hype behind the portable digital to analogue converters (DACs) and headphone amplifiers also made companies like Creative Labs release solid gear for a decent price.
As the owner of the Creative Labs Sound blaster E1 and soon the E5 I can only be grateful of the hype behind this kind of gear. When the big players come to the market everyone wins! Niche audiophile companies might suffer but the consumer wins.

Hype for all that matters is a necessary evil if the hobby wants new blood in the ranks.

Audiophile power conditioners.

voltsGiving 5oo€ for a audiophile power conditioner sounds crazy but depending on the tech inside it might actually help prolong the lifetime of your Hi-Fi gear. Yes, I actually wrote that and I’m not joking.
Archimago’s blog has a great objective test and review about a power conditioner from a very reputable brand called Belkin.
Belkin unlike some audiophile brands actually has some pretty amazing engineering behind their surge protectors and power conditioners.

Sadly its not always the case with audiophile brands, often selling their so called filters and cheap surge protectors inside glamorized power strips.
Anyone with a little knowledge about electricity will notice the ripoff on the components and so called tech. I had the sad vision of a so called power conditioner selling for 5oo€ that had a very minimalist construction, so minimal that my Lidl brand surge protector power strip might have more engineering inside.

Audiophiles will buy that kind of gear and expect better sound because the power line is being filtered, but the gear in question is so basic any DIY enthusiast can actually build something similar from way less money and do a better job at filtering and surge protection. I won’t point fingers at bad brands because I don’t want any legal problems but I advise anyone who really needs a solid power conditioner to search for reputable brands like Belkin or APC.

I also advise anyone who doesn’t have a surge protector to buy one for their sensitive gear, I might actually save the day, specially during thunderstorms.

Portable audio quality since the 80s.

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Photo By Binarysequence (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Gear centered audiophiles rave about portable audio players all the time, most follow reviews sites in the quest for the audio quality grail. Often young enthusiasts search for audio quality like its some illusive thing that only the newest most expensive players will deliver, but sound quality is not a new thing.
In-fact brands marketed portable audio quality since the start of the 80s.

Sony was the first one with the TPS-L2 Walkman at the beginning of the 80s, the now iconic blue and silver metal cased Walkman was the first of many in the successful line of cassette players the Japanese brand would ship around the world.
I never had the chance to hear the TPS-L2 player but would own a WM-FX421 (1998)  and have access to a WM-EX622 (1995) a friend had.
Both cassette players had good quality if my memory serves me right.
Later I would have a Discman D-171 (1995?) and a MZ-R35 MiniDisc Walkman (1998) in both cases the audio quality was on par with the digital audio players sold at stores these days.
In 2001 I would have access to a friends Creative Labs Nomad Jukebox also known in Europe as the Creative Digital Audio Player an amazing MP3 player at the time and also during that year I would hear a Apple Ipod for the first time.
Many other portable players I had the chance to hear are not listed, mostly because I don’t remember the models or because they are rather new like the Sony Playstation Portable Slim, Philips Opus 16Gb and Creative Zen Stone I own.

Sure I can’t confirm objectively my claims but all of these players had the sound quality you can find almost 15 years later in a typical off the shelf DAP or cellphone.
Quality did improve in the high-end gear that is now capable of driving very high impedance headphones at ease. Also High-resolution music is now the new trend because sound quality sells even if sometimes you might not actually hear it without very good headphones or a little help from an old musician.
The main difference to the gear of the old days is in the size of the tech, my MZ-R35 played a physical medium making it a fairly complex mechanical DAP.
Today’s tech in comparison is cheaper, thinner and physical medium free.
With solid state cards reaching hundreds of GBs in size, audiophiles are now free to take their full collections on the go without the need for carrying CD cases but with all the bits and bytes intact.

More than 3 decades ago Sony gave the masses Hi-Fi sound in a way the world never seen before, later Apple would revolutionize the way people interacted with their players and music collections and now the omnipresent smartphones are the new DAPs of the masses, the standalone DAP is now a niche product made for the ones who are still on the quest for the holly grail of portable audio.
Quality is now the rule not the exception.

Smartphone audio, downgrade to upgrade.

BQ E4 Aquaris running Neutron Music Player, Erutan is pretty amazing so go buy her music!

Until recently I had a Sony Playstation Portable as a music player, the PSP Slim has a Wolfson Microelectronics chip inside so it had a decent audio section to read my lossy music files. I was mostly happy with the sound besides the following nags: The proprietary memory card price per Gb is expensive as hell (I can buy a 32Gb SD card for the price of a 4Gb proprietary card). I also wanted less conversions when uploading my music to the player, most of my music is in lossless Flac and converting it to Mp3 was a tedious task.
Changing memory cards weekly is not very good in the long run hardware wise.
With that in mind I started searching for a new music player, a cheap one if possible without the above nags but with all the good things my Sony PSP had.
The audiophile in me craved some high resolution players, Fiio has some really nice ones but after my experience with my now half dead Philips Opus I knew that after some years I’ll would end up with a shinny brick because like most people I enjoy new gear from time to time… a multimedia solution was needed, a player that could still be useful around the house or at least for my kids when the time came.

Thus enters the Android OS smartphone to the brawl, limited to CD quality audio by default unless it uses a modified kernel or an external DAC, the typical Android smartphone was something I always advised against as a music player mostly because its a “all-in-one” solution that doesn’t have audio enthusiasts as target consumers. Android based smartphones struggle to drive impedances above 16Ω, so I knew I probably had to build a portable headphone amplifier to use with my

32Ω Sennheiser HD 449 headphones.
Not all is bad, some smartphones have FM radio, they also can be customized software wise and even a 4″ phone has a better screen than most audiophile players in the market.

With that in mind I went shopping for a cheap Android smartphone.
I choose a 150€ Spanish designed BQ E4 Aquaris, this Spanish brand was the first to release a Ubuntu OS smartphone so you might know it if you follow Canonical’s Ubuntu OS.

The Aquaris is small with only 4″ screen, a rare thing in a world were bigger is better.
It has the correct size for a DAP, the IPS screen is made of Gorilla glass, you can also remove its battery when it dies, something most DAPs don’t let you do easily unless you know your way around tools.
The battery lets you enjoy a lot of music before it kicks the bucket.
Hardware wise the plastic doesn’t feel very solid, on the other hand its fast enough with it’s Quad-Core 1.3GHz CPU and 1Gb of Ram. You also got 8Gb of internal memory for apps, OS and other stuff, I advice against using the main memory for music files but that’s my opinion. You can use a microSD card up to 32Gb, I recommend a class 10 microSD.
It also takes photos and other stuff but you should really see the site for more information.

Sound wise it’s fairly decent and detailed but you might need to access the MediaTek engineer mode if you want more output power, I made a slight change (+5) to the output but I advice caution if you want to mess around the audio section of the BQ, if you kill your headphones or the phone don’t complain to me, it’s your problem not mine. If you have a portable headphone amplifier you won’t need to change anything in the audio, in fact as soon as my headamp is done I’ll return the settings to the default. Like I said the sound is detailed with a my 16Ω Philips in-ears, above that impedance you won’t have enough bass or enough power to drive headphones loud without distortion, my

32Ω Sennheisers felt lifeless and under powered so you can be sure there is a need for a external headphone amplifier and this applies to most Android smartphones.

I often use airplane mode when I play music with this phone, I also don’t have any Sim card inside because I won’t be making calls from it.
The FM radio is sensible enough and has RDS, I always enjoy having FM on my players, I’m sure old Walkman users know this need.

The E4 runs on Android 5.0 almost stock after you update it, I disabled a lot of apps because I’ll use it as a DAP but it doesn’t bring many from factory.
I installed the paid version of the music player Neutron, I went for it because it has a solid way of dealing with music files and folders, plus it doesn’t go fetch cover art to the internet. I enjoy that a lot, its a offline player, no need for internet unless I want it.
Some say it’s one of the best audiophile music players for android, I can’t claim it’s true but it does a pretty solid job, plus it has some details I enjoy like starting and stopping the player with the insertion and removal of the audio jack, every time my headphone jack was accidentally removed using my PSP people would hear music in the street, I didn’t enjoy that at all.

I’m happy with my downgrade, lost the Wolfson chip but gained a solid DAP under 150€ and if I get tired of it I can always use it as a phone.

My portable headphone amp is in the workbench so I‘ll enjoy my Sennheisers very soon. To the curious it will be a based on a JRC4565 IC. The TI BBs are nice to push 600Ω loads but nothing beats a solid JRC4565 on low impedance loads.

Update: I’m now using a Sony Walkman and this as a smartphone. The Walkman is more or less untouchable in terms of size and quality.