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.