It’s All In Your Head…
Wherein the author seems to ramble aimlessly, like a bumblebee accidentally bouncing into thoughts and memories, in a haphazard attempt to get to an abstruse point about amazing wonderfulness.
In my life I’ve had various and sundry “job-titles” – there in quotes because I’ve just been pursuing various aspects of my passion for music over the last 20 years, and I’ve been fortunate enough to earn enough to keep the boat afloat (with occasional forays into panic and despair, of course). Apart from those that might fall under the “designer” or “distributor” category, I’ve also been a barely-working musician and, for awhile, a recordist. I’ve made a distinction here between “recordist” and “recording engineer” with reason, mostly out of respect for those actual recording-engineers who perform these duties with far more sophisticated gear and with a far deeper level of knowledge and experience than I will ever have. Nevertheless, I’ve managed to place microphones and record quite a bit of live-performance Classical music on small and even very large scales.
All of this to define what my relationship to headphones has been, historically: namely, as a tool for monitoring. As such I’ve had three headphones in my career that have served that purpose for me, as reasonably accurate transducers helping me to understand what is reaching the tape (or hard-drive, in later cases):
- Etymotic ER4s
- Stax SR Lambda Pro
- AKG 702
Very different headphones for very different purposes, but none of which were ever purchased with long-term listening in mind…
The Etymotic ER4S would allow me to listen to the mic feed when I was standing directly in front of a rehearsing orchestra, because it would block out most of the acoustic output of the orchestra from my ears. This was pretty useful when it came to setting microphones and understanding the sonic “picture” that was being painted by microphone placement – as it was happening.
The Stax SR Lambda Pro was for post-production monitoring, helping me to listen for all the nuances and minute details in the recording. One aspect that the Stax was especially adept at was the reproduction of harmonics … glorious stuff! However, due to a bit of a clusterf*ck, these were left behind in Moscow in the offices of the Moscow Symphony Orchestra … never to be seen again.
(Cue Yakov Smirnoff: “In Soviet Russia, Headphones listen to YOU!”)
The AKGs were a more recent acquisition, which I was using as a sort-of pro-standard monitoring headphone for doing high-resolution needle-drops from my analog rig to a Sound Devices 702 recorder. It was just a simple setup, running the analog-outs of the phono stage into the preamp, from the tape-out of the preamp to the 702, and then running the headphone out of the 702 to a HeadAmp Pico (love that wee beastie!) to my AKGs. As it turns out, this was my first inkling that listening to really good analog via headphones could be kind of amazing (apparently I had taken-for-granted all the times, as a teen, I made mixtapes while monitoring through headphones …).
DISCLAIMERMy company, The Signal Collection, is the North American distributor for Continuum Audio Labs and Klimo, and the manufacturer for Black Cat Cable and Stereolab cables.
I’ve had this plan for several years to digitize some of my vinyl catalog using the best possible gear at very high resolution. I have got the entire Blue Note Reissue collection (45 rpm) from both Acoustic Sounds and Music Matters Jazz – unopened. In the case of the Analog Productions reissues, I’ve got two complete unopened sets. I’ve also got other unopened recent-reissues from Analog Productions (Impulse, Verve) – all of these waiting for the convergence of the right gear.
Right now it’s very, very close: I’ve got the Continuum Caliburn with the Cobra tonearm and the Soundsmith Hyperion stereo cartridge. I’ve heard a lot of Caliburn installations over the years since I helped introduce Continuum to the world at the 2004 CES, and I’ve heard lot of very highly-regarded and exotic cartridges mated to the Cobra – including some nearly-unobtanium types – and, to my ears and for my proclivities, none have so-far equaled the really extraordinary performance of the Soundsmith Hyperion.
So I’ve got this system waiting in the wings, as it were, to be joined by a phono-stage (as yet I’m undecided, but the Soundsmith MCP-2 that I’m using right now is a stunning performer for the price – nearly world-class in some respects – and it makes for some superb listening sessions).
More on this particular setup later …
Meanwhile, a little closer to earth, I’ve got a more modest but quite wonderful phono-only setup in my main system: A Klimo Beorde with 13″ Bliant Arm, Soundsmith Boheme cartridge (best kept secret in audio!), Soundsmith MMP4 phono stage feeding a Klimo Merlino Gold Plus preamplifier. This drives a pair of Klimo TINE amplifiers (EL34 in PP … what’s not to love?) which, in turn, drive a pair of Sonus Faber Extrema monitors (old loves that I once sold off, deeply regretted selling, and found once again more than a decade after selling them thanks to a local friend and customer who wasn’t using his old pair and offered them in trade toward some gear I had).
As the time for the NY Audio Show was approaching in April of 2013, and as I was to be showing my Black Cat Cable products in an installation with my old friend Todd Garfinkle (Ma Recordings) and my new friend Jack Wu (Woo Audio) in an exclusively-headphonic situation, I decided to do something like a dry-run for the Needle Drop Project using the Klimo/Soundsmith setup and my 702 recorder. I picked out a dozen LP records from my collection – mostly Jazz, with some rock, electronic, and ambient thrown in – and spent a couple of days transferring the sides to 24/192 digital.
The plan for the show was to set up in a little corner with my Macbook, Jack’s amazing Firefly WA7 USB DAC+Headphone Amp, and the AKG-702. I imagined that anyone who wanted to hear some juicy “analog” while visiting this otherwise entirely digital room could drop by my little corner and relax in the refulgence of sweet high-resolution analogishness, and as such I’d be creating a little oasis in an otherwise very busy room bustling with eager headphonistas.And so I set up to create this little catalog of needle-drops in my listening-room/in-law studio apartment, intent on getting the work done efficiently. I set up the tape-out from the Merlino preamp to the 702 instead of running direct from the phono stage to the recorder because I love the sound of the Merlino, and I just don’t subscribe to the objectivist/vivisectionist’s view of running as direct as possible.
Heresy, you say?
Ham Sandwich, I say.
To the objectivist/vivisectionist a ham sandwich is really just a convenient way of delivering ham to the alimentary canal, and as such it would be preferable to simply put the ham – by itself – directly into one’s mouth.
Meanwhile, I’m far happier and delighted putting some Patak “Gypsy” ham and some gruyere cheese on some fresh 9-grain bread, and then grilling the bits together in a pan of hotly-bubbling butter.
Now, to get this thing back on the rails …
As I sat there “monitoring” the first side of my Ella Fitzgerald, “Fine and Mellow” (Pablo) – I felt my body relax and release in a sorely-needed way, and as my consciousness shifted I sat there limp and hypnotized until the end of the side … and for several minutes afterward … recording into the dead-wax. A totally eargasmic experience overtook me and that “mode” of consciousness stayed with me for quite awhile. I’d like to say it was a struggle to get these sides recorded, but it was hardly struggling with results like that. It just took longer than it otherwise would have if I weren’t so totally distracted by the ecstatic experiences effervescing in my whole body.
The project itself actually worked out pretty well, with those managing to find my little oasis at the show really digging the sounds. Those who truly grokked it were almost permanent fixtures … we might have had to pry a few away from the rig here and there, as I only had one headphone setup available. Stereophile’s Stephen Mejias stopped by for a listen, writing for his show report:
“The sweet, detailed, richly textured and colorful sound made for what might have been my very favorite listening experience of the show.” – Stephen Mejias, reporting on the NY Audio Show 2013 for Stereophile
That’s the ticket, my friend. Sweet, detailed, richly textured …
In all, this was the latest and perhaps most effective experience I had indicating to me that the relatively new Headphonista enthusiasm was really something very special.
And so it came to pass that my brother-from-another-mother, Michael Mercer, had waxed enthusiastically-orgasmic on every possible occasion about his Audeze LCD-3 headphones that I finally broke down and got a pair for myself. Sure – I’ve listened to them at a few of the CanJam-type audio shows and in Jack Wu’s Woo Audio setups, but those were always show conditions and with other people’s material, and in an atmosphere of frenetic audio enthusiasm. They sounded great, of course, but I couldn’t really get down and deeply grok what these ‘phones are all about until recently, when I got a pair for myself.
Coincidentally, I needed a good headphone amp that could drive the suckers – they’ve got a reputation of needing extra gronk, and I knew just who to go to for amazing sound and really reasonable prices: My buddy Jason over at Schiit. Jason hooked me up with their Lyr model, which is a powerhouse (delivering up to 6W max into 32Ω!), and we were soon off to the races. All of this Schiit is fairly recent Schiit, and so I’ve really kind of let the Audezes and the Lyr break-in by playing them without listening much … as it turns out, I had a lot of other Shiit to do, so just letting them break in from the background worked out fine. I could occasionally get a quick listen in here and there, but not really sitting down for a focused session for any length of time.
Well now that situation has changed, and I’m here to report:
Mercer, that indefatigably enthusiastic headphone advocate who has cajoled everyone within earshot (or with internet service) to get hip to the Audeze LCD-3 headphones, was – once again – totally right in his assessment of the LCD-3. It’s easy to dismiss his unbridled enthusiasm for mere hyperbole, especially when it’s set on repeat (wink!), but now I get it. This was an extraordinary experience, totally unusual and unexpected, and very un-headphone-like.
I had put the LCD-3 and Schiit Lyr setup in the Caliburn system, feeding the Lyr directly from the Soundsmith MCP-2 phono stage (as I don’t have TWO Merlino Gold Plus preamps to press into duty), and last night a cued-up the MFSL reissue of Dead Can Dance “Into The Labyrinth” – as a lifelong DCD fan since the days I first got my hands on the import of their first LP, I find time for DCD fairly often. As the stylus eased into Side 1 Track 1 (Yulunga) and I sat down, the ominous opening took on a dimension I’d never before imagined and a whole sonic world started to unfold, little by little, as my body really relaxed and I slipped into an immersion.
This is my target outcome, typically, for any listening session I might be dropping into – but this is usually in my main system while listening to my loudspeakers. My body relaxes, my mind slips into reverie, and the music washes over my ecstatic carcass. But this time something was really different about this “altered state” – it not only seemed more vivid and present, but my heart was beating faster! Yes, my body was as limber as a slice of lox … but there was some intense limbic shit going on at the same time!
The whole encounter with the music was far more vivid and involving than I ever remember feeling when listening to my main system, or any system I’ve ever owned in the past. There’s something very different and very special about this set of ‘phones, with their ability to switch on circuits in my mind that I didn’t even know were there.
This little setup here is nothing less than an Ecstasy Machine, my friends. Pure and simple.
Un Chien Analogique
The thing is this, and maybe it’s just me or folks like me, but I don’t get much of that immersion thing happening when I listen to digital. Measure how perfect it is all you want, demonstrate with every analyzer you can get your mitts on – with ordinary (commercial) digital I just cannot reach Eargasm (although – as it turns out – my high resolution needle drops retain whatever that element is missing from commercial release digital). It has less to do with the gear, which has evolved to an intensely high level of accomplishment over the last few years, and more to do with the fact that I’ve found very little of the music that I personally love offered in commercially-available digital formats that are worth my time.
This is what led to my desire to make a high-resolution digital needle-drop library of my record collection in the first place! And with the advent of high-resolution portable players, the constant flow of highly-accomplished portable amplifiers and DACs, and the wide world of amazing headphones out there … I might just get my wish and basically be able to have a portable version of my record collection, as played back by my Caliburn system, in resolution high enough to push all my buttons.
For me, the potential of digital has been realized on the hardware end but hasn’t quite reached it on the software end. I’ve proven it to my own satisfaction by doing my own needle-drop recordings. There’s something about analog that is intrinsically and obviously more … delicious? … than digital, but since the hardware lets that information through on the needle-drops, we have got to blame the retail software. I don’t know why I’m an analog dog, but – at least for now – that’s where I’m burying my bone.
The World In A Grain Of Sand
And I think about how lucky I am to do what I do and have been doing for the past 20 years, and how this superlative set of headphones and this inexpensive and amazing little headphone amp have equaled if not surpassed my impressions of some of the most expensive, exotic, and astounding systems that I’ve heard throughout my career. Compact and infinite.
For the executive, especially, I would think this kind of setup would be more important than any prescription medication for high blood-pressure, anxiety, stress, etc. A headphone system such as this would fit easily on any workspace desktop, an amazing high-resolution USB DAC could be fed from the computer that’s undoubtedly spotlit right there, and a lunch-break could turn into serious and lasting therapy. How immensely valuable is that? Especially considering that, in those homes where the Hi Fi Rig isn’t exactly welcome by significant others, you can get your fix where you work. Let’s face it … how often do you get to sit down and really get down?
Thanks to my man Mercer turning me on to these LCD-3 headphones, and for Jason and Mike at Schiit for building and selling a stupendously high-performance (and stupid-cheap) headphone amp, I’ve gotten a serious dose of headphonia and I’m going to be gunning for more of it. No – it won’t be replacing my “Big Rig” as I still love the presentation of music over speakers, and I’ve recently had a paradigm shifting experience of another sort that I’ll be letting you all in on soon enough – but I’m also now totally hip as to why the headphone experience is a legit and even critical one for the music lover who is just seeking some soul-seducing sound to lose themselves in for awhile.
To see a world in a grain of sand, And a heaven in a wild flower, Hold infinity in the palm of your hand, And eternity in an hour.
~ William Blake, excerpted from “Auguries of Innocence”