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Hi-fidelity headphones are to speaker systems as sportbikes are to sports cars. For A LOT less money, you can get something (headphones/sportbike) that absolutely blows away the alternative (speakers/sports car). Even a mid-level headphone system has tremendous advantages (and a few limitations) over a very good, much more expensive speaker system.

A little while back I ordered Sennheiser HD 497 headphones to replace my Sony MDR-7504s and MDR-V6s which are falling apart. At first listen the Senns sounded kind of awful, especially in comparison to the 7504s – extremely timid and recessed highs, and a blanket over all the sound caused by a muddy layer of midbass. However, they’ve gotten a lot better after a few hundred hours including merciless break-in, using the receiver output instead of the CD player, applying a little bit of EQ, and adjusting my own receptors. The highs have emerged, although not as cleanly and sparkly as the 7504s, and the bass has tightened up A LOT. Overall balance is still somewhat dark and dull compared to really good headphones, but they’re listenable now at least. For $40 shipped I guess I can’t complain. The 7504s aren’t made any more.

But I started to want more. There had to be more.

I ordered MDR-SA5000 headphones – these are supposed to be about the most accurate non-electrostatic headphones for under $1000: the flattest apparent response at moderate sound levels, the sharpest/quickest transient response, the least harmonic distortion. They’re made with magnesium for the frame, a “hat” headband, angled drivers, a brilliant open design, real leather earpads, a thick fabric cord, nanotechnology for the drivers, and the rarest, largest magnets. A lot of people love them and a few dislike them – complaints from the negative side are that they’re somewhat fatiguing to some due to the extreme detail and quickness, there’s not a huge soundstage (they don’t have the warm, slow, syrupy, mellow wide tone of the Sennheiser 580/600/650), and they show every recording (and format) deficiency. They require at least 200 hours of initial break-in. $700, on sale for $380.

They’re almost too good for CDs – 96Khz/24bit audio is more appropriate, some say (and 128kbps MP3s are out of the question). But CDs are what I have, and redbook audio (44.1Khz/16bit) is by and large what today’s new music is dithered down to. Now, I have several CD players – my Sony single tray at the desk, my Sony 200 disc changer in the living room (both of those are hooked to Infinity Sterling speakers, three ways in the living room and two ways at the desk), my Tascam by the bed. Fine for speakers. But none of these does the SA5Ks any justice. The cheap Sony players I have exemplify the consumer-grade 2nd generation DAC sound – tinny, harsh, grainy, cold.

I ordered the Onix XCD-88, pretty much a state of the art machine. It’s based on the highly acclaimed Music Hall 25, but at about half the price ($400, on sale for $300). It uses an extremely stable transport, a low error correction coefficient (purer sound, but CDs have to be in better shape than with the Sonys), and superior jitter control (jitter is a fuzziness/lack of clarity of sound caused by distortion in the analog output caused by timing/clock errors in the 44.1Khz data stream caused by budget components). It upsamples 2.177 times to 96Khz and into 24 bits, then oversamples 8.0 times to 768Khz before applying high quality filters and processing and converting the signal to analog. By keeping jitter under control, upsampling to a non-multiple of 44.1Khz, and doing all digital processing in 24 bits at a high interpolated sample rate, and sending the analog output to one of the best opamp combos available in non-esoteric audiophile equipment, this source creates a warm, round, detailed and smooth analog waveform. The musicality is much better than what any ordinary CD player can produce. The only drawback is that it doesn’t decode DVD-A or SACD (or MP3 for that matter). It does decode HDCD though, which is found on normal CDs but includes an extra FOUR bits (44.1Khz/20bit). The only HDCD recordings I know I have thus far are The Flaming Lips -- Soft Bulletin and Brian Wilson -- Smile. There may be more.

The XCD-88 doesn’t have a headphone jack. And that’s fine. Because most (pretty much all) CD player, receiver, iPod, soundcard, etc. outputs are simply POOR at providing power to headphones. The SA5K can technically be driven by a lowly iPod nano, but it benefits tremendously from high quality power. So I ordered the Xenos 3HA headphone amp ($170, on sale for $140), which has gotten very good reviews and is excellent for the price. It produces about 36 times the power that a portable can muster, and a dozen times what my receiver can do, and that power is used for dynamics, clarity, headroom, and control. It’s extremely low noise, and the distortion is nearly immeasurable.

I also ordered a high quality, sturdy (but not ridiculous) Monster cable interlink for the outputs from the CD player to the amp, and a Grado 1/4 to 1/8 adaptor. And that’s it. I’m not going to recable the headphones, or get a new power supply for the amp, or buy a line conditioner, or mod the CD player. It should be an impressive listening environment.

--At my desk I have my Infinity two ways in a near-field monitor/flat EQ setup, with the subwoofer available when I want to go subterranean. In the living room I have my Infinity three ways on either side of the television, with the high and low bands of my 7-band EQ reduced all the way DOWN and my dbx 117 set for 1.2x expansion – a listenable, soft, warm sound for the living room system – and I have the 200 CD changer set there. In the bedroom (which I don’t actually sleep in any more) I have the Tascam CD player (a pretty weak-sounding CD player) and my little Sony SAVA-7 speakers, which are used more when I’m taking a bath than anything else. In the car my stock CD system does fine and at work I use my Bose noise-cancelling headphones (which don’t sound too great, Bose being a rather awful company, but which are a nice way to relax anyway).

--I administered a hearing test on myself and did some research. Although the normal range of human hearing is often given as “20 – 20,000 Hz,” in reality adults don’t hear much past about 16,000 Hz. My results, wholly unscientific (I just used a moderate volume and gradually increased the frequency until I couldn’t hear anything, then brought it back down until I COULD – so no two-dimensional frequency sensitivity chart was created), are that in my left I can hear up through 15,200 Hz at a moderate volume, and up through 14,100 Hz in my right. In reality I could probably hear a bit higher than those at higher volumes, because the response is a gradual roll-off, but this was a decent exercise.

My hearing is affected by about five things. First, when I was young I had ear infections and even had to have tubes inserted in my ears. This undoubtedly affected my sensitivity a bit. Second, I’ve had two events in my life which knocked out my hearing in a major (but temporary) way – I had a full size football thrown directly at my ear, and I had an… altercation with my abusive bitch of a girlfriend. I’m sure these each caused some lasting damage, although now I can’t remember which ear was affected. Third, I’ve made the mistake of going to rock concerts and shows with NO ear protection (sometimes I used small paper towel wads). This is dumb and self-destructive and causes a temporary threshold shift (TTS) which indicates damage. I’ve also used the shower, mowed the lawn, ridden motorcycles, etc. without ear protection. Fourth, I used to “sing into my hand,” so to speak, forming a sort of direct sound from my mouth to my right ear. I did this for dozens of hours during my early years. Loud. Fifth, I have a problem with “defensive hearing,” where I subconsciously close my hearing off to sounds – a result of my noise-riddled work environment. There are actual physical/physiological effects associated with defensive hearing which decrease the ear’s sensitivity and fidelity, while the brain tries its best to filter away those sounds, to put up a mental block against the intrusion. It can hurt the clarity and intelligibility of music. It tends to be worse after work than on a day off.

I’m trying to protect my hearing. I listen to the equipment at a decent volume. The SA5Ks sound good at low and moderate volume, one of the benefits of an ultra-detailed headphone system. The neighbors are the biggest restrictor to my speaker volume. I wear earplugs in the shower, on the motorcycle (always), and at the movie theater (today’s movie theaters are absurdly loud and quite capable of causing TTS). I avoid or limit my time in noisy situations (crowded restaurants are the WORST!).

--A lot of today’s “radio” music comes with horribly compressed production. The goal seems to be to MAX OUT the CD format’s volume capability at all times. This means an avoidance of dynamics or quieter passages (the songs can have “quiet” sections, but they’ll be produced to actually be just as loud as the “loud” sections) and the use of digital compression and limiting. A lot of my music doesn’t suffer from this, but it’s out there. When you compress the signal so much, you destroy things like impact, depth, dimension, space, soundstage, etc. This probably works okay with a stock radio in a cheap automobile, but it absolutely blows for highly accurate and dynamic headphones.

--I registered at Head-fi.org and read some posts, made a couple posts of my own. I’ve been a member at several fanatic sites – music, sportbikes, cars, UT, RPGs, bodybuilding, guns, computers, 3D art, mountain bikes, etc., but I can say without reservation that the Head-fi people are, as a group, the least helpful and most snobbish “community” out there. What do you expect from someone who would spend $375 for a custom headphone cable or $1500 for an AC line conditioner? They look down on anyone who could derive satisfaction from $40 headphones. I think some of them like listening to equipment a lot more than they like listening to music.

--As for my other headphones, the 7504s are still in usable condition (but still disintegrating), but the SA5000s do everything they do in the upper frequencies and with much more breadth and detail and authority, while also restoring the 3 octaves of bass the 7504s lack and being much more comfortable. The V6s have about had it, can’t see myself using them much, and their sound has definitely changed with the years. The 497s I will continue to use when I want a more mellow, mild sound than the 5000s.

--I’ve thought for a long time that CD packaging, art, colors, care, etc. can actually affect my perception of the music. The major color scheme is often what I see in my mind’s eye when listening. Did they use hot colors like reds and oranges, or blues and greens? Is the art an intricate 3D image, a messy collage, or a simple object? Are the liner notes well done, with lyrics, quality colored paper, and a nice font, or just a one or two page black and white insert?

-- For years this has happened to me: I'm listening to headphones on the couch or bed. I fall asleep. I wake up and it feels like it's been an hour, but in reality it's been 5 or 10 minutes... and the music has MUCH MORE CLARITY. It's uncanny. It's to the point that I like to get comfortable and let myself take a short catnap, knowing that I'll probably wake up in just a few minutes and the music will sound better. Before falling asleep it can sound flat and dull by comparison. I seem to hear more high frequency detail, a more dynamic sound, more texture, and more energy in my music after waking. And as a bonus the little micro-nap alleviates the drowsiness that caused me to fall into light sleep in the first place so I can concentrate on the music for an hour.

--Recent CD purchases: Animal Collective, Decemberists, Universal Hall Pass, Opeth, My Morning Jacket, new Elbow, Clientele, another Andrew Bird, new Franz Ferdinand, another Minus the Bear, another Porcupine Tree, another Okkervil River, Wrens, Kino, Ours, Sufjan Stevens, and the new Depeche Mode disc (still waiting).

--There are some neat things about the headphone listening ethic. For one thing, the SA5000s are such a revelation, they make everything you own “new” again. They’re just so highly listenable and detailed that you’ve never heard your music like this, and you want to hear it all again. It feels like finally being able to hear what’s really there, like the veil is lifted. Another thing is that it becomes more about the enjoyment of the sound and experience than about a specific genre of music. If the recording sounds fantastic, who cares if it’s not what you usually listen to? There is a difference between good headphone music and good driving music or good live music or good speaker music. I love how personal headphone listening is. I can do it at 3am at whatever volume I choose, and it's in MY head, my personal space.

--I’m still breaking in the SA5000s and waiting for the amp and source. But I did sample them with no break-in hours, on my inferior equipment, and here’s what I think: They're the first headphones I've tried recently that made me say WOW right away. They have just what I was looking for: the brilliant highs of the Sony 7504s, but WITHOUT the harshness and WITH the two and a half octaves of bass the 7504s are missing. They really are incredible. The reviews said the soundstage wasn't huge (the only drawback compared to some other high-end phones), but it's the most broad, 3-dimensional, musical sound I've ever heard. It feels like things are happening in a much wider space, like a sound in the left is WAY out there on the left instead of a few inches or feet to the left as with other headphones. And the detail and energy is amazing! These things make the sound effortless. Things seem to have much more texture and color. The bass is tight, very tight -- things that just go "-dun-" on the 7504s and "BOOM!" on the HD 497s and "vvvooooooooooommm...." on the Boses have actual density and detail on the SA5Ks. Recordings with real reverb or a real space actually sound like they're right there. Ear candy. Danny Elfman's Music For a Darkened Theatre sounded JAW-DROPPINGLY good. And all this with absolutely no break-in and with my crap outputs, when people say they need 200 hours and a good headphone amp and source to really sing and really show detail. I can’t wait.

--Future purchases? I need a new CD rack. It’s hard to find somewhere to put 1000 CDs where they’re accessible. My current racks look nice but they’re terrible for organization because each CD has its own slot. This means if I want to maintain alphabetical order, when I receive a CD from a band whose name begins with an “A” I’m having to move every CD down to make room! I’m considering getting two smaller subwoofers for each side of my living room system. I’m thinking of a portable MP3 player – 1 Gig flash – and Etymotic canalphones. I want the Xbox 360, and I will have it. And at some point I might buy a set of good phones that are the complete opposite of the SA5000s, maybe the Sennheiser HD 600.