Personal Audio: A New Sonic Frontier

It is a thrilling time to be an audio enthusiast.  In my opinion, the greatest level of outward excitement and enthusiasm in the hi-fi community exists in the world of personal audio.  We use the term “personal audio” to describe the products that are portable or for the desktop listener.  They may be computer audio or headphone based (such as; USB DACs, headphone amplifiers, software, and small-scale systems).  This new classification also includes portable sources such as iDevices, Android-based phones, laptops and tablets.  A new Audible Spring is upon us, much like the Arab Spring (though we will be keeping religion and politics out of this discourse).

This audio revolution is happening as you read this article.  This is exactly what excites me most about the developing world of personal audio, the “newness” of it all- having found fresh sonic territory to explore after all these years.  If you told me five years ago that I would be sitting here, getting as much pleasure listening to my portable rig (iPod Classic, ALO RxMK3-B battery-powered head-amp, and the Audeze LCD3 headphones) as I experience listening to my main two-channel reference system- I wouldn’t believe it.

I cut my teeth in the audiophile community working for HP and The Absolute Sound of ol’.  I love music, great sound, and the emotional release it provides me.  I admit to enjoy listening at SPL levels that may not be the healthiest at all times.  And I love the feelings and imagery that music sparks in my imagination.  Sometimes music is the only thing that can bring a heartfelt smile to my face or a tear to my eye.  Especially when I find myself caught up in these hectic, instant media-delivery driven times of ours.

Sitting down in front of the stereo is a great release for sensory overload.  I still look forward to listening all the time- in the car or in my wonderful little bungalow home in Pasadena.  I buy or receive new music for review almost every day.  I’m a music addict and I am proud.  As a DJ, I used to consider headphones strictly as a tool for beat-matching and blending vinyl.  I also thought of them as a tool for travel- for use on a plane or on my mountain bike when I’m flying down a curvy single-track trail, trying to find that Zen feeling that takes over.  All of the sudden its just you and the bike.  You become one big living, breathing beast, and the music is your meditative guide.  Fear melts away and I’m doing things far beyond my skill level.  That’s the power of music.  It can be a transformative experience.

Consider the fact that there’s a whole generation that grew up listening to headphones with CD and cassette Walkmans. Back then, much of the engineering focus was on portability.  When it came to CD playback, the focus was on how to deal with movement and keep your disc from skipping.  Remember those huge, water-tight, yellow Panasonic and Sony Discmans?  I do (I even had one that worked until a few years ago).  Then came the iPod (and iTunes) and it sparked a cultural revolution.  Suddenly we had millions of people interested in music again- discovering, listening, and sharing music at an unbelievable pace.  The main point that many of us stereo devotees took for granted was the fact that Steve Jobs and the iPod phenomenon re-introduced the magic of two-channel listening.  It’s like my friend Bob Levi (President of the Los Angeles and Orange County Audio Society) says, “If Jobs had made the iPod a 5.1 product we’d all be in big trouble!”  The greatest thing is that the iPod revolution was only the beginning.

Nowadays, online headphone-orientated community websites like Head-fi.org (the most popular audio-gear related website on the planet, with over 200,000 active users and 1.5 million unique visitors a month) are pushing the envelope of what is sonically possible in personal audio.  The level of engagement between the users, reviewers, and the manufacturers is unparalleled.  Anyone can join in the discussion- and we all contribute equally to the community.  Many personal audio manufacturers (ALO Audio, Audeze, CEntrance, Headroom and V-Moda, to name a few) take direct feedback from their users seriously.  Imagine that, high-performance audio companies that do not put themselves above the listener, and collecting important user feedback prior to a products completion.  I feel this is where many high-end stereo manufacturers stray from what should be a primary goal- connecting the listener with their music.

Consider the fact that there’s a whole generation that grew up listening to headphones with CD and cassette Walkmans.

The user experience is at the heart of the personal audio movement.  This experience has multiple facets: the physical (you are constantly touching and interacting with a portable rig), the spiritual (you are literally placed “inside” the soundstage), and accessibility (the bottom line is that these products are actually affordable).  Most personal audio gear sells for a fraction of high-end stereo equipment.  We can include the youth in audio culture because they can afford to try it.  We can build a future and educate would-be-users more easily, because the price of entry has been cut to shreds comparatively.

A lower cost of entry is a grand thing, but there is another advantage that makes personal audio so enticing- the easy and crucial interaction with your would-be customer.  To be able to show the consumer why better sound quality is actually worth the money.  Given that we all interpret audible stimuli differently, and accounting for variations in taste- it is difficult to connect with a casual listener unless he (or she) is familiar with something in your demonstration.  Offering a pair of headphones, the customer can use their own iPod/iPhone/iPad, tablet or laptop, for the source material- something they can instantly relate to.  Odds are they listen to their ear-buds all the time: At work, on the phone, during their commute, jogging- examples abound.  They know what their laptop and iPod “supposedly” sounds like.  Whether they have MP3’s or high resolution files does not matter- they have references.  You simply change one variable at a time, like a decent reviewer does when analyzing a component.  If they have a frame of reference, they can hear the difference.  We can now directly connect with millions of potential high-fidelity devotees and spread the gospel of great sound anywhere we find ourselves.  That is a real breakthrough.

Personal audio can be an entry point into the world of high-end audio, or simply another way to enjoy the listening experience.  The point is that we have new and exciting territory to explore and report upon.  A new sonic frontier.

These are exciting times.

 

Michael Mercer is a veteran reviewer of music and audio components. He got his start working for The Absolute Sound as a teenager and then made his way over to Atlantic Records, working with the legendary producer Arif Mardin. Considered one of the leading "crusaders for personal audio", Mercer can be found writing for many audio publications on the Internet.

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