headphones

AIAIAI TMA-2

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I had thrown my money away by recycling most of my headphones, because the PU leather on the headbands were disintegrating and I couldn’t get them replaced. The rubber cable sheath on my ATH-AD900 also broke, which meant that I was effectively down to just my Grado, which isn’t really comfortable for long periods of listening.

I didn’t want to switch fully to IEMs either, because wearing them for long can be uncomfortable sometimes. So, having been previously intrigued by the modular nature of the AIAIAI TMA-2, I decided to go for them.

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Audio Technica ATH-MSR7

Audio Technica ATH-MSR7I have got to stop being seduced by gorgeous headphones with great sound and a relatively cheap price.

The Audio Technica ATH-MSR7 went on sale at Stereo for the month, and a hard case was offered along with it. I had already drooled over the beautiful gunmetal version, but the supposedly bright sound turned me off. But since I had time after my exams (and I needed to get my MacBook Pro fixed), I decided to pop by to have a listen.

Needless to say, I was sold.

My terrible photo-taking skills and phone camera don’t do the headphone any justice. It has a great build and aesthetics that seem very similar to the Sony MDR-1R, but is more metal than plastic which lends confidence. The extending arms feel very secure with each click, unlike my NAD VISO HP50s. But the clamping force is quite high however, and some stretching is required for comfort. The earpads are also a little stiffer than most, and less breathable. So comfort isn’t great, but it’s quite good nevertheless.

The accessories aren’t spectacular, but sufficient. Three(!) cables are provided, with two portable cables (one with a mic/remote) and a 3m home use cable. The source side plug is a little chunky, but that’s not entirely bad. The 3.5mm jack in the earcup is a little recessed, which can be problematic. A protein leather pouch is also included for storage, but that’s not going to provide much protection. The free hard case I got is far better.

The important thing is of course the sound, and boy have Audio Technica nailed this one. The bass is very punchy, with zero bloat into the midrange. There’s only the slightest bass lift to give it greater impact, but otherwise the bass is awfully clean. It definitely took me by surprise, given I had been expecting far less bass due to its supposed bright nature.

The treble is quite extended too, but crucially, I didn’t encounter any of the sibilance that others have heard. But while others have praised its slightly elevated treble levels for being pretty neutral and detailed, I found myself bowled over by the midrange and lower treble instead.

As with all Audio Technicas I’ve heard thus far, female vocals are just insanely seductive. With the MSR7, even male vocals are given a chance to shine with a neutral midrange that renders voices beautifully. The neutrality of the midrange also allows the music to breathe, and details hidden behind the warmth of other headphones pop out with the MSR7. Coupled with the punchy bass and well rendered treble that gives the MSR7 quite a bit of air, it made me rediscover my music in a big way. So much for liking warm, relaxed signatures.

It’s headphones like the MSR7 that make me question why high end audio is so costly. Law of diminishing returns, indeed.

Pendulumic Stance S1+

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I’ve never actually considered getting Bluetooth headphones until recently, when the idea of using Bluetooth on the move suddenly got really appealing. Given that my phone was pretty hefty in the battery department (at least, on my usage), running out of power was not really an issue. So I got searching, and my eyes kept landing on the Pendulumic Stance S1+.

It seemed that the general consensus on these headphones was that they were great, particularly for the price. At CES 2015, Sennheiser released wireless versions of their lovely Momentum line, and while they looked like a brilliant idea, the price was pegged at…US$500. Given that the Stance S1+ were cheaper by $300, and most other competitors were priced higher, it was a no brainer.

I didn’t actually expect to buy it so soon though. It was only because Jaben was running a small offer that I jumped on it. A quick audition didn’t just confirm the reviews of the headphones so far. They pretty much blew me away. Well, it’s a bit of an exaggeration, but keeping in mind the price tag, the sound was ridiculously good. And the freedom of having no wires convinced me to pay up right then and there.

The build quality of the headphones were pretty good, and they felt nice and solid in the hands. The sliders to select the power modes and the audio modes could be more robust, but I can’t complain. The accessories were adequate, and I do like their presentation. It has a bit of a retro look about it, but that’s up my alley. With the simple, intuitive, volume/selection knob, I felt right at home putting them on my head.

The range for these is decent, at about 6-7 meters with a direct line of sight before it starts to get choppy. With my phone in my pocket, there are occasions when the signal drops a little, but it’s not enough to detract from music enjoyment. And the comfort is great, except for the usual trouble of hot ears in Singapore’s weather. That, and the earpads could stand to be a little deeper and larger; my ears brush the driver, and they aren’t the biggest pair around.

But sound is where the Stance S1+ truly excels. In comparison with my HP50, it has a thinner sound, with less bass (but still north of neutral) and more recessed mids giving an airier presentation to me. The treble stands out more than the HP50, likely because of the less intimate presentation of the midrange that brings out the treble. But the treble is not fatiguing, and the Stance S1+ is far from bright or harsh. It’s V-shaped signature is mild and provides a smooth and enjoyable listen. The HP50 is still better technically. No surprise, given their respective price tags, but the S1+ gave a decent fight.

The only major issue I see with the Stance S1+ is isolation. InnerFidelity touched on this in a review of Bluetooth headphones, but I only really felt the problem when I used it for my commute to school. The isolation is ridiculously poor, with every outside noise just about audible. I had to turn up my music, which doesn’t drown out outside noise until it’s at an unbearable volume. In a way, it’s good because I can actually keep track of my surroundings. But it’s difficult to enjoy the music at times. I would definitely recommend Pendulumic adding noise cancelling to their next model. Or just work on the isolation.

But despite the major issue of being poor for travel, I can’t help but feel that it’s a pretty good purchase. It has a great sound for its price and convenience, and hell, it’s designed by a Singaporean. Anything to feel proud about my own country, eh?

Audio Technica ATH-AD900X

ATH-AD900XI’ve been eyeing one of these for a very long time, so with the Japanese Yen falling to a 7-year low recently, and my birthday having just passed, I decided to give in to my impulses and bought it off Amazon Japan as a belated gift to myself. Amazing Japanese efficiency meant that my headphones hit Tenso’s warehouse within 2 days, and with a single day of processing, Tenso sent them out. Japan EMS took only 2 more days to deliver the package. With such speed and efficiency, coupled with the favourable exchange rate, I fear I might end up spending a lot more money than I planned for…

(Tenso is a forwarding service that comes well-recommended. A lot of Japanese companies sell their goods much cheaper in Japan, or have exclusives there. The only way for me to get my grubby hands on them is via such services.)

Even though shipping was just a smidgen expensive, the total cost didn’t even add up to half of what I would have paid in Singapore. Retail prices for Japanese electronics can get quite scary here, and while I won’t have warranty support, saving more than S$100(!!!) is worth it.

I’ve tried the ATH-A900X before, when auditioning for a pair of closed-back headphones. It was too bass-heavy for my tastes, and it was too heavy and the 3D-wing system couldn’t keep it on my head. Well, when I put its open-back brother on, it was a very different proposition. Being lighter than the A900X, the AD900X stayed on my head easily, the 3D-wing system very comfortable indeed. The earpads had big openings, albeit shallow, and it’s FAR more comfortable than either of my other headphones, the NAD VISO HP50 and the Grado SR80e.

I bought the AD900X having heard all sorts of reviews about how they had a big soundstage, sounding very airy and making female vocals shine. Taking off my SR80e and playing some female vocals, I couldn’t see the big fuss. A momentary flash of disappointment cut through me; I usually don’t like to buy things blind, preferring to audition first. The iDSD Micro was an exception because I was more enthralled by its functions than its quality, which I can barely discern without extensive A/B testing and focus.

I really should do some comparisons with my other headphones/IEMs to get a clearer picture of the AD900X’s strengths and weaknesses, but I couldn’t care less when my ears slowly adjusted to its sound signature. It is indeed quite airy and open, and string instruments like violins sound ridiculously gorgeous. Female highs sing with startling ease, shimmery and breath-taking. The treble sounds even more extended than my SR80e, but without any sibilance that I can detect. The bass is nothing to write home about though; it’s a little one-note, and thumps quite softly. The lower mids don’t stand out either, feeling a little sucked out and recessed. The focus on upper mids and lower treble is what Head-Fi agrees on as the Audio Technica house sound, and I couldn’t be happier to get a taste of it.

Buying these on a whim has certainly made me feel stupid for a short while. But now, as the music sings and my ears cry out in joy at the comfort, I can’t help but think that I’ve made the right choice in the end.

My wallet disagrees though…

My First 7 Questions About This Apple-Beats Deal (Which, By the Way, I’m Not Assuming Is Happening)

As a budding audiophile who’s trying his best not to spend all his money on new audio goodies, Beats has always been a brand that looks good (though really plasticky and cheap to me), but sounds horrid and costs a bomb.

The only thing from the Beats line-up I would buy is the Pill, and that’s not going to happen now that Creative have released the SR20, which is cheaper, more impressive, more feature-packed, and probably better sounding. Oh, and I should support a company from my own country too.

But anyway, from what I hear, the old Beats headphones were just muddy bass and not much else. So much for ‘reproducing what the musicians want you to hear’. The brand got by not on sound quality, but on marketing, branding, good looks, and celebrity endorsement.

Monster got a bit of an unfair deal having to produce Beats for Dr. Dre, and their reputation wasn’t so good until they came up with their own line of headphones and earphones which were miles better than what Beats could offer. Their split meant that Beats was now on their own, and Monster could shine without having its name dragged through the mud in audiophile circles.

Apparently, the 2013-revised Beats line-up is much better in terms of sound, and bar some design flaws, could actually be recommended by audiophiles. That was surprising news to me, but on further consideration, it wasn’t really that shocking for Beats to actually improve their sound (but not their ridiculous pricing).

With Beats’ arrival on the scene, proper headphone companies had to rush to create consumer-friendly products. The Sennheiser Momentum is one of many beautiful headphones that look AND sound good, and Beats had to up their game or lose out on the lucrative market they created in the first place.

But where does this all go? For me, as a mild fan of Apple products, I would love for them to get Jonny Ive on the scene and redesign Beats to be something classier. A more industrial look is something I crave, and it would be awesome for Apple to produce headphones like that.

Not to mention sound quality. Steve Jobs always harped about sound quality in Apple devices, and from accounts, the iPhone has always been one of the best-sounding smartphones. Ditto the iPod lines and so forth. So a Beats purchase could potentially see even more improvements in the sound and design, which could make Beats an actually desirable product for audiophiles.

Of course, I doubt Apple will fix the ridiculous prices Beats have slapped on their headphones, which will keep me away and push me towards buying other cheaper, better sounding headphones. And if Apple does purchases Beats, more than likely it’ll be for Beats Music.

But one can dream, eh?

TIME

When you hear that Apple may buy a well-known company, it’s dangerous to assume that it’s going to happen. Actually, based on history, the safest assumption is that the idea is sheer fantasy–there have been countless rumors of such acquisitions which, though always fun to speculate about, never amounted to anything.

With that out of the way: Matthew Garrahan and Tim Bradshaw of the Financial Times are reporting that Apple is “closing in” on a $3.2 billion deal to buy Beats, the maker of headphones and speakers (and a new subscription music service) which was co-founded by Jimmy Iovine and Dr. Dre. They say it’s possible it could be announced next week.

I’m not assuming that the acquisition is as real and close to being done as Garrahan and Bradshaw say it is–and even they stress that it could fall apart at the last minute. But even if you…

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Buying Headphones

I wanted some closed headphones for home use, and that desire was cemented by the horrible singing for some event at the temple downstairs. With that kind of noise pollution, and my UM Pro 30s way too hissy on my FiiO E10 to the point that I worry about damaging the drivers, I felt like I could justify that expense to myself. So after I cleared up most of my to-do list, I went down to Jaben for a good audition session. I’ve obviously done my research on Head-Fi.org, and frankly, I spent way too much time doing research when I should have been doing work or studying. Oh well, who gives a crap about grades right? 😛

I was first given the Beyerdynamic T70p to try. Contrary to what I hear about the Beyer house sound, it wasn’t very bass heavy. For my budget of around $400, an Audio Technica ATH-A900X would not be amiss. I was also drawn heavily to the wing system. But in the end, the headphone was too heavy to stay on my head easily, and was less comfortable than the T70p. In terms of sound, it’s heavier on the bass than the T70p despite me hearing all about how the A900X having a greater emphasis on upper mids and lower treble. Shows you the necessity of auditioning to find out if you actually like the sound.

I’ve seen all the talk about how great the budget Fischer Audio FA-003 is, and I had to have a go. I was not very pleased to hear the treble being way more upfront than the bass. Is that supposed to be neutral? Because if so, I really don’t like the sound. I guess I can never be really called an audiophile by definition then, being a person who likes a mid-centric sound with big, punchy bass. The FA-003 just didn’t do it for me, and I had so much hope for it too.

I went for the Shure SRH840 next, and it was the good ol’ Shure sound that I loved with my SE215. The treble was a little rolled-off, the mids were beautiful and the bass punchy. At that point, given my sonic preferences, it was a toss-up between the SRH840 and the A900X. But I’m so used to highs that take a back seat to mids/bass (with my SE215 and UM Pro 30) that the A900X just didn’t appeal that much. I want that punch especially for movies, and despite having a bass boost on my E10, I would rather not muddy up the sound with that.

But while the Shures had good earcups that were wide, they were pretty shallow. It was a bit tight, but I prefer that to looser headphones that threaten to slip off my head. So I asked for something with a similar signature to the Shure, and I was offered the NAD VISO HP50. That was on my list of portable, circumaural headphones to audition if I wanted to buy one in the future; not to mention the rave reviews that put it probably as the best portable headphones at this price range and even beyond.

As described by reviews, it’s pretty damn resolving, with fantastic separation. I didn’t really feel like the soundstage was anything special despite the RoomFeel tech, but coming from mostly IEMs, all soundstages sound way larger than before. It had some warmth down below, with extremely punchy bass and sweet, sweet mids that threaten to drown me in syrupy goodness. The treble was far more tangible than on my UM Pro 30s, and that just about sealed it for me.

The only problem now was that the earcups were deeper than the SRH840, but smaller and so my ears touched the actual cup. But given that it’s a portable headphone, easy to drive, with great aesthetics and arguably better sound, it was a no brainer. What happened then was me losing my wits, as I eschewed the bundle with a brand new SE215 and Pelican 1010 case for just the headphones. If I paid S$48 more dollars, I would have gotten extras worth way more than $100. Oh well, I already have both those things, so I guess that money can be put into some other purchase.

When I got home, I was quite pleased with the accessories. Airplane adaptor, 3.5mm-6.3mm adaptor, two cables (one with mic), and a nice soft case. It did collect fingerprints on the glossy plastic parts, but that’s a small issue. Unfortunately, I didn’t anticipate there to be hiss when I used the HP50 with my E10. While it’s far less than my UM Pro 30s, and won’t damage the 40mm drivers, it’s an annoyance that tells me it’s a limiter in my audio chain. But given I only bought the E10 a few months ago, I’m waiting for the end of the year to buy a new DAC/Amp.

Of course, there’s also the problem of my headphones and earphones now too being too good for my music. The quality is 320kbps, which is perfectly fine because I barely hear the difference between 320kbps and 128kbps. But they reveal the crap out of poor masterings, and I’ve been noticing a heck of a lot of niggly things on my tracks that never stood out before. It’s a big pain, but I’ll have to live with it. I did want to get into the audio game, and that’s the consequence.

(As an aside, older tracks from artists like Elton John? Oh boy, those are BEAUTIFULLY mastered. It made me truly understand the effects of the loudness war, and wish I never knew all of this stuff.)

I’ve considered buying a headphone made for home use, and a thinksound On1 for portable use. That thing is a beauty, with wooden cups and a sound that seems to be up my alley. But I can’t try it, it’s expensive, and on-ear too. Now that I have the HP50, it covers both needs/wants perfectly well (even if I still have an unhealthy craving for woodies). I didn’t expect such a conclusion to my headphone hunt, but I’m glad I could save that money for my open headphone purchase at the end of the year.

Oh, and probably two more IEMs to my collection, just to have different kinds of sounds on hand. I fear that I may actually be transforming into an audiophile who can’t stop buying audio stuff. Thank goodness for my ability to save, or I’ll be in debt by now. For once, I actually understand women’s obsession with clothes, shoes and bags. Hopefully I’ll be satisfied when I finally treat myself to a >$1000 IEM and call it a day.

Edit: Somehow, I just figured out readjusting the position of my E10 affects the amount of hissing. Must poor shielding or something, causing it to pick up interference. But I don’t regret the purchase one bit (either the E10 or the HP50), since I can’t seem to get rid of the noise despite a myriad positions.