Audiophilia – Mad for Sound

I am writing this blog entry listening to music on Headphones. A pair of Audio Technica ATH-AD900 as it happens. Do you care about the make and model of headphones I use? Probably not. You would only care if, like me, you are a particular type of Audiophile. I love speakers, don’t get me wrong, but headphones are my passion. I like nearly everything about them.

For starters, high end sound is available at a fraction of the price with headphones. They are more personal, naturally. They allow music to be portable. They are collectible – multiple sets of speakers is overkill for most living areas, but having half a dozen (or more) sets of cans is almost standard for the average audiophile.

As a music producer I am a particular kind of audiophile. An audiophile with a cause. Headphones for me are both a pleasure and a tool. Flat response, reference headphones are of great use to check mixes alongside the speaker equivalent at the studio. For those that don’t know, “Flat response” refers to audio sources that do not change the sound of the audio. They don’t boost the bass, cut the treble, etc, instead offering a “true” representation of the sound. Of course, completely flat is both near impossible and very expensive, but there are degrees of such things in all price brackets!

Headphones expose stereo in a different way to speakers. One should not be used above the other, but both should be employed when mixing and mastering, especially considering that a huge market segment now listens on headphones more than speakers. Condensed living in cities, commuting, iCulture… all of these have contributed to the rise and rise of headphone culture.

Audiophilia is an obsession. Obsession for the right sound. The correct sound. The pleasant sound. Flat response is ideal for the studio. Flat response that covers the lowest lows to the shrillest highs, not colouring either nor point anything in between.

A while ago I picked up the Audio Technica headphones I mentioned. These are rated for 5 to 30,000 hz. Far beyond the human range of hearing, with a rather flat curve for their type and price bracket. They are open backed and rather large, so are clearly an “at home” headphone. I liked them instantly. They are comfortable and light weight – not unimportant factors, as ergonomics are of great importance for listening for extended periods. The are clear, open and uncoloured. They did, however, lack a bass punch when plugged straight into the iPhone/Stereo, a common consensus reading the audio forums and reviews. Cue an evening searching the forums and review channels for my next purchase: A headphone amp. That’s right, a further device between the music and the output. We are truly in audiophile territory now.

So I know have an amp to push and EQ my headphones (a Fiio E17, should you care). With the right gain setting and manipulation, the headphones now sound blissful.

So very good is the sound, I am now hearing production wonders, and of course flaws, that I had missed in recordings I thought I knew inside out.

Hearing music this way is both bizarre and wonderful. Hearing every lip smack from the vocalist. The fingers coming to rest on the fret board of an acoustic guitarist. The final shimmer of a cymbal fade on a mix. Such intimacy can exist only with decent headphones, or high end speakers in an acoustically treated room. The latter is clearly a luxury few ever afford.

But it isn’t all sunshine and chocolates. Bad recordings are shown up for the criminals they are. Low end speakers or headphones are “smoothers”, often hiding production flaws such as peaking, over compression, dodgy EQ choices and so forth. Decent headphones and speakers reveal all, and some recordings have left me shaking my head gently side to side, wondering how the engineer let such slips through.

As I say. Obsession over minutiae. When I buy new headphones I will spend hours cross referencing with my existing cans to listen to the differences in the sound. Deciding whether they are better or worse than my current arsenal.

But you may be thinking: what do I need multiple headphones for? Well obviously, I don’t “need” them, exactly. But they do serve different purposes. Firstly, multiple sources are a necessity for anyone mixing music for market. With so many different headphones and speakers out there, producers need to aim for the best sound possible which covers as many sources as possible.

But this work requirement aside, different cans are used in different places. The Audio Technica cans are my “at desk” set, that is, they don’t go on the road with me. I have two sets of Shure in-ear-canal phones for portable listening – a low end pair for the gym and a high end (high cost!) pair for low strain, high pleasure usage. These are stunning headphones for blocking out the outside world and delivering brilliant hi-fi on the go, without the need for extra amping.

I also have mid range Bose and Technics cans, for casual, throw around usage and checking mixes from “Sub-optimal” ┬ásources. Naff sound, I suppose (I will now quickly dodge the tomatoes thrown from the Bose fans reading!)

I recently craved a third pillar, to go alongside my two reference sets. A “candy” headphone. One which is not dry and subjective. One which is for pleasure only, to be thrown on and enjoyed, not picked apart, not dissected.

To this end, I purchased a pair of Bowers and Wilkins “P5″ headphones. Rave reviews these had received and the demo listens where promising. Easy to put on. Easy to drive. And a warm, lush sound. Clearly coloured, but perhaps in the candy-coated way I was potentially craving – a gentle boost to the low end and a playful yet rolled of set of highs for a clear but non-fatiguing edge.

I spent a few evenings enjoying breaking these in. My usual A/B comparisons were loaded up to reveal their true character. At first I was happy. Laura Marling sounded warm, her acoustic guitars woody and bright. Missy Elliot was sparkling of vocal and broad of bassline. Muse was bombastic and dynamic, Mr. Bellamy clear above the joyous racket of his rhythm section.

But this soon wore off. Whenever I returned to my stalwart Shures or Audio Technicas, I felt more at home. The colouration for the P5s, however pleasant, was not for me. I grew to dislike them, finding the crispness “fake” and the bass “boomy”. They were back at the store within the fortnight return period, my only pining being for what they should have been, not what they were.

If all this sounds a little mad, I am not surprised. Any obsession is a little bonkers, but at least mine has reasoning. Or so I hope!

Audiophilia is no different to a guitarist chopping and changing their instruments over the years, or an car fanatic changing his vehicle annually. (By the by, I wanted to use the term “autophilia”; however Google informs me that this is a “love of oneself”. Which is obvious when breaking the stem words down, thinking about it!)

But let’s continue the defence of the madness. Collecting numerous acoustic guitars because of the tonal differences of each allows for different uses. Speakers and headphones are to an audiophile what instruments are to a musician.

As both, I am more than a little insane. Let’s be frank here.

But I am something else as well. Something apart yet connected. I am a writer of music and song.

Song is key, and always will be. A great song recorded badly will tower over a naff tune polished to the nth degree. But, following such logic, a great song with a great recording, played through a great sound system… surely this is perfection?

My concern as writer, musician and audio producer has always been, “can I serve multiple masters”. I believe I can, as they are so intertwined for me and have been from the earliest of years.

To end, a quote:

“Try to learn something about everything and everything about something.” Thomas Henry Huxley (1825-1895)

My “something” is music. Let’s not break that category down any further – I haven’t the figure for a straight jacket!

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