Head-Fi Obsessions?

“The journal came to me, as such things do, by happenstance. It was tucked inside a crate of affects my grandfather had left in storage, forgotten in the decade since his death. The handwritten pages in the worn-leather case were only just beginning to yellow, but the scrawling words had the hollow chill of winters long past.”

I was recently hiking on moors well outside London when I was attacked by wild dog, and when I say “wild dog”, I mean man-eating beast that damn near gutted me. I spent weeks in hospital, recovering somewhat miraculously, only to find that I had been afflicted with a terrible curse. And now, some months later, I’ve learned the nature and scope of that burden. Every full moon, I take myself away from my fellows, as far as nature will allow, in order to to keep them safe from the hunger I can no longer contain. I don’t have the strength to do what’s right or noble, and if were being honest, I don’t have the slightest desire to end my own life. Far from it. It feels, for the first time, as if life, true and meaningful, has just begun.

Okay, so an interest in headphones isn’t exactly on par with a brush with a werewolf, but there is a parallel there. Let me explain.

I have to confess: I’ve never been terribly interested in headphones. It’s not that I have any particular level of hate there, but I suppose I’d never been particularly captured by the sound I’ve gotten out of them. The sound out of a full-sized rig, however, has been something that’s been regularly and straightforwardly compelling–which is why the bulk of my investments have tended to fall there.

That said, I do have some specific complaints about headphones. First, they’re uncomfortable. Some of the so-called “best” headphones seem to be accompanied by a fit (around my admittedly large noggin) that feels like an attempt to squeeze the jelly out of my eyeballs. What is up with that? Belay that–I get the idea that “fit” and “isolation” are related, but I can’t get over the notion that most “high-end” headphones were developed by pencil-headed twerps. The typical headphone “effect” always created a soundstage that felt artificial to my ears. Lastly, my wife laughs at me when I’m rocking my Princess Leia hair-buns.

It’s not that I don’t have earphones. I mean, I have tried. I own a pair of AKG K-701 headphones, mainly because they were the least expensive Class A rated cans Stereophile listed that one year I was last interested. I also have a pair of ER-4P universal-fit IEMs from Etymotic Research that I got because I wanted something “better” than that pair of Bose QuietComfort 2 headphones I won as a door prize (pretty sweet door prize). I’m still not sure why I bought a pair phugly brown Stax 4040 Mk II with a 006t tube amp (it seemed like a good idea at the time), though I have to say that those are the most comfortable of the bunch by far.

So, I suppose I’ve had some experience with good cans, but I never really learned that headphones don’t have to suck, at least, not by comparison to a good stereo. If you know anything about those headphones, you might wonder WTF my problem was; I submit that while my ‘phones were reasonably good, my amplification wasn’t. Aside from that Stax-only amp, I used the jacks on some integrateds. That’s it. Nothing special, nothing dedicated, and nothing targeting “difficult headphones”. Whoops.

My first clue that I might be missing something came from an experience the Smyth Research Realizer. Call that the lightning strike. The fire spread, and shortly thereafter, Alex Rosson of Audeze sent me a pair of LCD-2 headphones and Vinnie Rossi sent me a Red Wine Audio Corvina headamp. Everything changed. A Heed Audio Canalot was followed by a Burson Conductor, and I could feel the beast finally turn over, open its eyes and stretch.

I’ve since ordered a pair of Sennheiser HD800 ($1,495) and a pair of Grado SR80i ($99). Wildly different ends of the spectrum, but I figure a spread of price points is better than simply pretending that the highest-end is the only-end. I will probably find something in between, maybe something with a closed-back, just to round out the collection.

At the New York Show, I snagged an Astell&Kern AK100 high-resolution portably player that Michael Mercer thought so highly of, but I’ve also been wondering about the Cypher Labs AlgoRhythm Solo –dB for use with the far more prosaic iPhone I’m tethered to. In either case, I’m currently on the hunt for a suitable portable headamp, though I’ll admit that the current list is a bit short (an ALO Audio RX Mk 3). For the desk, that Burson Conductor was outstanding, but I’m also looking at a Woo Audio WA6SE and an Icon Audio HP8 Mk II for a complementary tube setup. Options are multiplying in front of me like zombies during an outbreak. Where’s my chainsaw?!?!

Anyway, that’s my current thinking.

The upshot is this: I’m going to be exploring head-fi a bit more, and folding it into the overall approach. It seems almost cliche that personal audio is a gateway to the finer side of audio’s high-end, but I think that’s too simplistic. Head-fi is a thing, in and of itself. Some will migrate to hi-fi, some will not. Either way, each brings something interesting to the mix, but the bottom line is I think it’s interesting, so we’ll be exploring it.

Suggestions are encouraged and welcome.


  1. I can recommend Ultrasone Edition 8 cans with ALO cabling and anything ALO makes for an amp. I love my Singlepower MPX3 SLAM amp with the ability to rolll 6SN7s to my heart’s content.

  2. Scot: Great read as always my friend and editor here at PTA! As a portable iDevice DAC/head-amp for your iPhone I highly recommend the Sony PHA-1! I’ll be reporting on it soon, and I owe Jude Mansilla (a good friend and founder of Head-Fi) for recommending it! Also – be on the look out for the HiFi-M8 from CEntrance!!

  3. I hope you still have your AKG K-701’s because there is now an amp that will give them a huge sound stage and great bass. It’s the iFi Audio iCAN. This device has transformed my Beyerdynamic T1’s. I recommend a listen. Don’t let the modest price fool you. This is a cracking piece of kit.

      • Starts off well. Got me in the mood for some gothic horror. I was convinced you were going to recommend headphones for listening to audiobooks (especially of the horror persuasion). Perhaps Vincent Price sounds better on head-fi?

      • The closer the voice of Vincent Price is to your reptile brain, the more likely the Horror will seize you like a puppet. This is known.

  4. Good luck with your revitalized venture into headphone-dom. It’s an interesting and rewarding place. Headphone systems share many of the same nuances, synergies and mysteries as conventional speaker based systems. It’s easy to see from your writings that you are on it. I find that my headphone and speaker based systems compliment and peacefully coexist with each other. There’s nothing like the soundstaging and visceral impact of a good speaker-based system. Yet the headphone system can be listened to at anytime of the day or night without bothering anyone and it excels at revealing musical nuances. I love them both and can’t imagine having to pick only one of them… I consider the ability to not have to do so a true blessing. The headphone system goes like this: Triode Power Lab Cables / Mac Mini / Amarra / Locus Design USB Cable / Wyrd4Snd Dac 2 / MG Audio Design RCA / Violectric V200 / Q-Cable / Hifiman HE500 = Pure Bliss. Everything matters.

  5. As always:” I got something to say… it’s better to burn out than fade away”. (I guess that shows my age).

    Cans can be a lot of fun, even extreme low-end ear buds (’cause they can be so cheap!). I reviewed a couple of pairs of the Superex (681 and 668 models) full sized cans a few years ago. They were quite good (and at full retail are an incredible value and cheap), though they were two distinctly different flavours. I have a set of the old Sony MDR-V7s and they are better than the 681s but not as enjoyable as the 668s. I have and use the Nuforce Icon (original) as a headphone amp, else the Icon mini (I reviewed and purchased the pair of items a long while ago). I’d even sought out some Sony IEMs based on Sigfreid Linkwitz’s(http://www.linkwitzlab.com/reference_earphones.htm) comments on an older pair, and he was absolutely correct suggesting the model he used was/is fundamentally “correct”.

    Since then there has been an absolute explosion of headphones (and accessories) and some are coming from all sorts of manufacturers, most surprisingly from loudspeaker makers. The nice thing about those from the speaker manufacturers is that they tend to (based on numerous online reviews and personal experiences from folks I know and trust). I think this must be due to the “iX” phenomena and the relative affordability of good sounding “ear-speakers”, making good sounding headphones easily attainable even for cash-strapped folks. Some have suggested that a $300 rig (hps with appropriate amp if needed or just hps) can compete with a $3000 pair of loudspeakers, and when looking further up the food chain (or at least much higher-end stuff in terms of quality and cost) $2k-$3k can get you something approaching state-of-the-art.

    So can cans or IEMs or whatever headphone/earphone compete with something like big Klipschs (or the Voltis that you reviewed)? Not as far as impact and palpable experiences go, but in perhaps 90% of situations it is a non-contest. Apartment dwellers and most folks who share their living spaces with families (and /or significant others, or pets) simply cannot exploit a large (and I’m assuming great sounding) loudspeaker based system. But all can benefit from a better set of headphones and/or a headphone amp.


  6. The headphone segment of the audio market sure seems to be exploding. I love my HiFiMan HE-5LEs, though they do require some power (some folks recommend driving these and their HE-6 off a speaker amp!). Very nice stuff. Great detail and soundstage. Well worth putting the HiFiMan othros on the audition list. They and the Audeze have a different flavor, with the LCD-2s being a touch darker.

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