Thursday, March 29, 2007

More on headphones, or, how I learned to stop worrying and love graphs

I think I've covered my major listening source before, but it's probably high time to do it again. I like headphones. To my mind, if you can live with the reduced sound-stage, they provide better quality-per-dollar than speaker setups, especially with high-end headphones. There is also the portability and convenience thing. I live in a dorm room, though it's nice and comfy for one person, cramming in a high-quality speaker system would be difficult. Also, the overture to Don Giovanni - in high quality and at high volume - would not sit well with my colleagues.

Travel, for what it's worth, merits headphones. I rather like the idea of having Wagner, Mahler, Mozart, Bach, and the rest in my pocket as I soldier through the drudgery of extended travel. It probably isn't what any of them intended, but that's the shakes. Also, when working in the library, study-areas, or even my own room - it's nice to have headphones and the sense of isolation that they provide.

Now, I am probably just going to go through the headphones I use in order and make my comments there. I am also going to include some graphs and tables explaining the specific nature of the 'phones.

1. Grado SR225
These are my primary headphones. First, a word of caution about Grados: they are wildly divisive within the headphone aficionado community. Either you love the sound or you don't. John Grado, who took over the business from his uncle, Joseph Grado, makes headphones that he wants to make. Let's look at the frequency response table for the SR225s (compared to the new flagship Grado GS1000),

As you can see, the deep bass is slightly recessed, the mid-bass has a hump, back to recession for the midrange, and trebles are forward and bright. This is the Grado sound. However, what this graph can't show you is the naturalness and clarity in the reproduction of strings and woodwinds. Brass is bright and a little forward, too. The sound-stage is aggressive. You feel like you're on stage, or very close to it.

However, compared to the GS1000, they are a bit more laid-back. All Grados tend to be a little dry and (perhaps) cold. These don't sound like syrup. They are phones with a fast attack and quick fade. They are, for the lack of a better word, barnstormers.

These 'phones are often called the perfect rock 'phones. I would agree. For classical, or Kunstmusik, as it would seem more apropos to say, they work splendidly. They are airy, detailed, and bright (to the point of fatigue, if you aren't used to them). I like them for classical, going against prevailing Sennheiser-logic, because they are bright, forward, and fast. These are muscular 'phones, and they make their use known. John Grado has made it clear that he designs 'phones fun to listen to. If I wanted a bland, line-level reproduction, I'd skip reproduction and read an orchestral score.

Ergonomics-wise, they are not that great. They have foam bowl ear-pads, which can be a bit much, and a metal headband that compresses a little bit. I love these 'phones, but they are open-design (sound on both sides of the driver leaks in both directions), and they are best-suited to home listening.

2. Sennheiser PX 100
These might be the best portable open headphones on the market. They are light, comfortable, and fun to listen to - even over long periods of time. Let's begin by looking at the FR curve,

I've put the Sennheiser flagship HD 650 up there, too, so you can see some market comparison. They both have recessed bass (with a mid-bass hump), pretty flat mids, and treble all over the place. The Sennheiser house sound is a veiled, detailed one that most folks prefer for classical. I like Grado, but that's for my reasons above. The PX 100s are nice for portable listening, but they are open-design. That - in general - lends to airy sound, but it also allows for a lot bleed. These are not travel, noisy-place, or even really quiet place 'phones.

As far as classical, I confess that the Sennheiser sound doesn't do it for me. I like the PX 100s, and they are splendid cans. However, the veiled, laid-back sound just isn't impressive. I like my music to have a little impact, and I just don't get it from Sennheiser. However, that's my problem. For all I know, I could be way off and violating the vision of the composer.

Ultimately, these are detailed, precise, and portable headphones. They really can't compete with $300-500 headphones from Sennheiser or Grado, but they do their job beautifully.

3. Shure E2c
These are nice portable, in-ear monitors. They are not particularly popular with the headphone community, but I like them. I'll compare them to the flagship Shure E500,

They are bassy. That is obvious, as is the fact that the mids and trebles are a bit recessed. You can see that the drivers are pretty close, especially in the bass and mid-range. The E500 is a little smoother and less bright in the high trebles, but that's not the problem. For most listeners, the E2c is like listening to music through a tube. One look at their design, and you'll see why. I've never noticed it, but I don't spend a lot of time worrying about such things. Frankly, for my tastes, most 'phones fall flat compared to the Grados.

Honestly, and this is just personal commentary, there is a tendency in the community to find faults with 'phones that don't match up the prevailing attitudes and tastes of the majority. Etymotics, for the moment, seem to the du jour (FOTM, anyone?) preference at a couple of websites. That's no slur, just a fact.

They are, also, maybe a little bland. For the bass and mid-range, they are pretty flat and fairly close to 0 dB. Their treble, recessed of the peak of 5 dB, isn't terribly forward. Shure talks about studio-quality sound, and I believe it (though I would never use these to master a record). However, a "kinda-sorta" boring sound just isn't for me. The 'phones provide good isolation, good sound (detailed but not clinical); however, I like the airy sound of the Grados and Sennheisers. These are my portable (all trades) 'phones, and I like them, but I doubt I'd listen to them if I could listen to the Sennheisers or Grados. Also, if you like to listen to music while you sleep (I do), these do a nice job for that.

Here are some links:

Grado SR 225. HeadRoom (a retailer I very much like), Grado Labs
Sennheiser PX 100. HeadRoom, Sennheiser
Shure E2c. HeadRoom, Shure