Beach Dreaming: Headphone Road Trip

Hatteras Lighthouse, Outer Banks of North Carolina

I suppose I ought to be in Newport right now, taking in T.H.E. Show. But … well. I’m not. Instead, I just got back from a very relaxing week-long stay in the Outer Banks of North Carolina with the family. It was a long time coming, totally overdue, and extremely necessary. But … well. I am still California dreamin’.

So, while we wait for our intrepid reporters to file their field reports, I thought I’d chat a bit about what I stuffed into the bag, you know, for my trip.

So, what did I bring with me?

Five pairs of headphones. Heh heh. Yeah, I have problems. In order of cost:

Okay, so I don’t really need five pairs of headphones, at least, not all at once. But the kids … you know, they need headphones. Right? Well, actually, they kinda do. Kinda. Those long car rides are hell on kids’ attention span. You could sing and game your way through 8 hours of driving (yeah, that’s not happening). You could bribe them with DVDs … but that’s a bit of a cheat. But books-on-tape, now that’s pretty cool. The library will let you take out kids books pre-recorded to these iPod-wannabe gadgets. Add headphones and voila, you have peace. And quiet. And after several hours in the car, that’s not nothing. In fact, that might be all the difference. To that end, I donated the old AKGs and the Grados.

The $100 Grados suffered … catastrophically … after a whopping 3.5 minutes. I still have no idea exactly what my daughter did to them to cause the the earpiece to separate from the post, but that was that. A dot of superglue fixed them right up, but that had to wait for the (eventual) arrival. She was placated by a quick swap in of the Momentums — “much better, daddy!” Yeah? No kiddin’.

So, I suppose you could say that I really only brought two headphones. Yeah, it’s a reach.

I had a couple of toys to play with to drive them — I brought along an iFi iDAC, an Audioquest Dragonfly, and for fun, an Astell&Kern AK100 portable high-res player. The AK100 is a nifty little doodad — unlike my much cooler, much easier to use, and much more useful iPhone (I’m an Apple Fan, get over it), the AK100 plays hi-res files, so I don’t have to sort through my playlists to cull out the hi-res material.

Some notes follow ….

The AK100 was a champ — very compact and very nice sound. Not on par with the Dragonfly or the iFi iDAC played back through my Macbook Pro, but still quite nice and easily better-sounding than my iPhone. I’m thinking of pairing this guy with an external head-amp, like the ALO International (en route!), but I was flying solo here ….

The interface is a bit of a challenge, which is my biggest hangup. Finding particular tracks usually means scrolling through the list of loaded tunes. I loaded most of my music from the MacBook Pro, which means I wasn’t able to use the Windows-only iRiver app to load files along with their cover art. This made playback disappointingly boring looking, especially given that I knew all the “Windows kids” had the nifty art flowing across the little touch-screen. Jealous? Of a PC? Ha! Never! But being able to make and playlists is a feature that seems to be unavailable to me, unless there’s some way to do it on-box. If so, it’s not intuitive. And that blows.

A couple of other bits that had to be addressed: the backlight timer was too short by default. Easy to tweak, but whenever it goes off the screen turns completely off; getting it back on means holding the on button on for several seconds in a repeat of the turn-on procedure, complete with the OS load screen. Disconcerting, and an unnecessary delay when you want to get at the controls. It’s a nit, true, and no, it’s not fair to compare the iRiver interface with the IOS interface — but everyone will do just that.

Speaking of challenges and “user error”, I inflicted some serious brain-damage getting the nifty little Audioquest Dragonfly DAC up and running. Could not for the life of me get audio out it when using it with my default player, Pure Music. Worked fine with iTunes. In fact, it worked quite well with iTunes, but without PM, I was stuck with manually changing Audio MIDI settings every time a sample rate change was required. And no, a change to Audirvana didn’t sort me out any better. I’m sure I’m doing something stupid, but that’ll have to wait for a more opportune time — and a chat with Rob Robinson of Channel D.

As a USB stick, the Dragonfly is a bit loose in the jack, so use with big clunky headphone cords generally means “zero movement” once you’ve managed a comfortable arrangement. The volume control piggybacks on the system itself (which is separate from the attenuator in iTunes), and happy-happy playback levels were very easy to hit on all my headphones.

Given the challenges my sun-soaked and wine-addled self was having with the Dragonfly, I opted for the iFi iDAC for most of my listening. With 24bit/192kHz support (over the 24bit/96k limit on the Dragonfly) and a pair of analog outs (courtesy of a pair of RCA jacks), the iDAC got me to my happy-place fastest and most directly of the entire bunch. My Audeze LCD-2, with some ALO cables and a Cardas mini-adapter, made for fine post-dinner chill outs.

That rig is really not suitable for the beach, though. Nah, for that, it was the AK100 and that pair of Momentums — not that I needed or wanted it much. There really isn’t much better, at least for me, than the music of the surf pounding on the sand and the gleeful laughter of kids running amok. Good times.

I’ll have more to say about all these bits at various points, to be sure. Here’s a quick set of links for those of you unable to wait:

The dunes at Jockey’s Ridge, looking out over the Pamlico Sound


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