[SoundStage!]All In Your Head
Back-Issue Article

February 2004

The Next Step

In my last column I wrote about the importance of finding the "one thing" that is so important in your musical enjoyment that everything else pales in comparison. In this column I will give a short list of terms to help get you started putting a name to the elusive "one thing" that you are looking for, with special emphasis on their relevance to headphone listening. As with every new field of study, in order to have a proper understanding of what is being discussed, you need a good grasp of the vocabulary utilized. The audio field is no different. Every review you read will contain many of these terms, and if you don’t fully understand the author’s intended meaning you could come to some seriously incorrect conclusions and perhaps make a bad decision.

I’ll get started by considering the three most general terms that describe the basics of sound, then move on to the more complicated terms.

Bass/lows: These are the pounding low-frequency notes that fall from 20-160Hz and the region in which drums and double bass are reproduced. Bass is what gives you that thumping in your chest when listening to loudspeakers or a subwoofer. A similar effect occurs with headphones -- without the physical sensation, of course.

Midrange/mids: The midrange is where the majority of the music is contained, and due to the intimate nature of headphones, when vocals are done right, they are simply amazing. The midrange is so named because it resides between the bass and highs. These sounds fall from 160-1300Hz, most of the range of human vocals and tenor sax.

Treble/highs: Cymbals, triangle, and the upper reaches of many stringed and wind instruments reside here. These are the upper limits of the audible frequency range, 1.3-20kHz.

Detail (my personal "one thing"): This is where you are presented with more of what is on the recording you are listening to, including the subtle reflection of sounds, background or very soft vocals, backing instruments and the like. Again, headphones are often said to offer great detail, perhaps due to there being much less ambient noise to compete with their output.

Dynamic: A more dynamic presentation means that you will be presented with a wider overall range of volumes. This gives you quieter soft passages and louder loud passages. A more dynamic presentation will portray more of the nuances of a live performance. With loudspeakers, the partnering amplifier can add to a sense of greater dynamic range, and the same is true with a well-matched headphone amp.

Soundstage (no, not this website): Describes how well a system accurately portrays the physical size, shape, and acoustic characteristics of the actual recording location, as well as instrument location. With headphones, you don’t want all the sound coming from inside your head, despite this column’s title, so having sounds come from behind, in front, below, above, and off to the left or right contributes to a sense of greater realism.

Forward: This is used to describe a musical presentation that appears to bring you closer to the music, as though you moved a number of rows toward the stage.

Laid-back: The opposite of forward. A more relaxed presentation.

Neutral: This is for those who want their music to sound as untainted, realistic, and as close as possible to the original recording.

After this rather abbreviated list, the terms can get rather ambiguous and become increasingly difficult to define precisely, as they can be more subjective in their application.

Now we finally get to the good stuff -- choosing the components that will become your system. Is there a "best" place in the audio chain to start buying? Is there a wrong place to start? Out of the four items needed for a headphone-based system -- headphones, amp, source, and cables -- where would I recommend that you begin? As a general rule, I would submit the following order as a guideline for your use.

Start with the headphones. Why? It is much easier to carry a set of headphones with you for purposes of auditioning than any other piece gear. Plus, if you start your purchases with a pair of headphones, you will begin early on defining the "one thing" you are seeking, and everything else will fall into place more easily.

The next item to be added should be a headphone amp that works in a synergistic way with the headphones you have. Finding an amp will take some time and may include a few inevitable failures along the way. For this reason many manufacturers now offer a 30-day trial of their equipment to ensure that it works well when integrated into your system. This is a good idea -- it helps you make sure you find an amp that works well with your headphones. Another route to take is to buy and try used amps, so as to minimize any losses if you decide you don’t like what you buy.

With the headphones and amp out of the way, your next stop should be a source of music -- a CD or universal A/V player. Be patient and take the time to do a lot of research and read as much as you can about sources that are in your price range. Then find a local retailer where you can listen to a few source components for yourself -- so that you can verify what you just read about and see if you like it.

Cabling should be the last item added to an already completed system and is meant to do a few things: help balance the system, diminish/eliminate flaws, emphasize a desired sonic element or some combination thereof. Reaching this stage it will take a lot of research, along with a healthy dose of patience. Why? Your system will most likely never reflect the exact system that was used to review the cables you read about, so trial and error are the name of the game. Ultimately, only you can tell how something performs in your system, so take everything you read about cables with a healthy grain of salt. It took me six pairs of interconnects before I found the right ones for my system, so don’t lose heart.

The business of buying a headphone rig is not particularly complicated, but it can be somewhat time-consuming if you want to do it right and not waste a lot of money in the process. In the end, the reward for all this work and research will be a supremely enjoyable headphone-listening experiences. More on this to come.

...Doug Paratore

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