February 3rd, 2009 by Will Entrekin

In which I challenge my new headphones

When I got my loan disbursement this time around, I took care of all my education-related bills and such, and had a bit left over. Which was a nice relief after having been waiting to receive on so many accounts, and I decided to celebrate. To indulge, in fact, in two things I’d been wanting for a while.

The first was a new pair of headphones. Several years ago, after hearing very positive things about them, I invested in a pair of Grado SR80s. Grado is known among audiophiles as having totally premium cans of the sort that can often run into the thousands of dollars for a single pair of their most high-end product. The SR80s are not; they’re just a step above entry level, but I loved them. They sounded so good. Listening to my music really was different when I used them, as opposed the the earbuds I had been using.

And then they broke. They served well for several years, but the wire frayed and the right-side can sputtered, and I could have fixed them, probably, but it might have cost nearly as much as new cans, anyway. Besides the fact that I had bought a pair of Sennheiser earbuds to use with my iPod, and they were sufficient even if they weren’t quite as spectacular.

I’ve been wanting a pair of headphones since then, though, and so I bought a pair last week. I did some quite extensive shopping around, and noticed some spectacular deals around Christmas, including one particular pair of earbuds that normally retail for $500 but had been discounted by 50%. I admit I almost took that plunge, but I had already decided I wanted real cans again. Big, open, circumnaural cans to go over my head. I mean, mind you, I’m no more an audiophile than I might be an oenophile, but I like my music nearly as much as I like my wine (I prefer the term “lush”), and after having owned those Grados . . . I missed them. They had sounded so good. One thing about them, though, is that Grados are kind of retro in terms of design and really aren’t the most comfortable headphones in the world.

Given that I like my Sennheiser earbuds, I thought I’d give their headphones a shot. They have several series, but I stumbled upon their HD595 model. Nice design. Velvet ear cushions. Good, dynamic driving for all types of music. I consistently read people remark on their versatility. And their price was just about at the most I was willing to spend.

They came today. And ZOMG. Seriously.

Usually, higher-end cans need what audiophiles call “burn-in time.” Apparently, whatever in the cans works needs a while to equalize, or something. Most times, you hear that you want to play some music through them for, like, 24 hours straight before you really listen to them, as they reach some balance in their sound. I’ve heard some people open the package, hook them up, and then put them in a drawer for a week.

Readers of this blog, however, are probably well aware of my admittedly limited patience. Knowing me, does putting them in a drawer sound like something I’d be able to do?

Of course not. Come on, a brief tour of my music collection.

I plugged them straightaway into my laptop and fired up iTunes (audiophiles would cringe, here, at my “source,” because there should be tube amps and vinyl and lossless encoding). The first song I played was Adam Richman’s “Everything That You Need,” which is just one dude with a deep-ish voice and a guitar. But I noticed, listening to it on these cans, there might just be two, because it seemed like there were more notes than I’d heard before. My next stop was to the Magnetic Fields’ i, and “I Don’t Believe You” and “I Don’t Really Love You Anymore,” both of which I’m going to call layered pop songs. Stephin Merritt knows how to produce a song every bit as much as he knows how to write one, and these cans . . . okay, so basically, there’s better detail, so you can hear individual instruments more clearly, but they also seem to give space and depth to the soundstage, and basically, what it all comes down to is that I feel like I’m in the frickin’ studio or on stage with these guys. And it’s not like each instrument sounds too clear and it gets jumbled one on the other; they come together like it’s organic. It’s really surprising.

I don’t quite remember those Grados sounding like this, although they did sound very good. Then again, it’s been a few years.

After hearing those few songs, I kind of took the challenge. I wanted to see if there was anything they couldn’t handle. Anything that sounded weak, or at least not so spectacular.

So I went to Luka Bloom’s “An Irishman in Chinatown” from Riverside, because Bloom can play the shit out of his acoustic guitar. Seriously. And damned if they didn’t keep up with every note. And plus, they made it sound, like, warmer, or something. Nearly tactile, which sounds weird to say, but it’s the only way I can describe it, and I totally forgot about the fiddle that plays while Bloom does his scat, and yeah. Nicely done.

Next stop: Lo Fidelity Allstar’s “Battle Flag” from How to Operate with a Blown Mind. Full-on electronica, quick basslines . . . yeah, they’re fine with this stuff. The opening percussion even sounds more clear. Tappy, like.

(this is why I’m not an audiophile. Because I used words like ‘tappy.’ But trust me, if you heard it, you’d be all, like, why, yes, that is tappy)

Next up: Linkin Park’s “Nobody’s Listening,” from Meteora, which might seem weird as a challenge goes, but first, it’s got a lot of bass, and second, it’s nu-metal with a flute. At least I think it’s a flute. It sure sounds like a flute. And I’ve got to say, I’m impressed. If there was a song that was going to highlight any weakness, I would have thought it’d be this one–bass is really clear without being overpowering. Which is actually even better than usual. And no it doesn’t just sound like a flute but also like I’m sitting next to the flautist.

Lili Haydn’s “Daddy” from Lili. Lili is one of my favorite musicians. Somebody called her the “Jimi Hendrix of the violin,” but I think she’s better than that, mainly because she seems way more dedicated to her craft and also survived her twenties. And the song? Starts with soft violin playing and Lili singing quietly, but before long it gets sort of violent, and it’s always reminded me of running frantically through a forest, perhaps trying to escape evil gypsies (Yeah, no idea). It’s a pretty dynamic song, but it sounds great.

You’ll notice I’m working backward alphabetically because I’m scrolling up from the Magnetic Fields, but it’s because I’m heading up toward Belinda Carlisle and “Heaven is a Place on Earth.” Because I like the song, but also because it’s so 80s-tastic and might even be a prime example of over-production. And here’s the first stumble; it crowds itself, and that organic feeling is not there. Of course, maybe it’s not actually there, because I probably like it more for nostalgia than because it’s a good song.

Still, that was the only song that didn’t sound spectacular on it. I threw everything at them I could. I thought “Here and Now” by Letters to Cleo might sound a little jumbled in a more 90s sort of way, but it was terrific. Beethoven? Kreutzer, which is both dynamic and intense, with lots of notes between a piano and a violin, sounded probably better than Beethoven himself ever managed to hear it, and the jazz? I went with Miles Davis’ “My Funny Valentine,” and it totally brought that “tactile” thing back; sounded like fucking velvet and smoke and gin. Awesome.

I have a feeling that particular exception is a result of their newness, because their sound does seem to be changing as they go. It’s already a little more warm and mellow than when I first stuck them on my head.

And they’re velvet. Or faux velvet which is a near enough approximation of actual velvet that the sides of my head can’t tell the difference, anyway? Which is great, because I have a feeling I’m going to be wearing them a lot. Which is cool.

Comments

2 Responses to “In which I challenge my new headphones”
  1. SIMONE RUSSELL says

    A brief tour of your music collection… I like your playlist! ;-)

    I hope your new gadget brings you much joy!

  2. “Got nothing left but it ain’t bringin’ me down
    I’m just gonna follow the sound”

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