They say you always remember your first love. It is that very first magical moment where your heart races, your palms sweat, and your soul fills with emotions of elation. As a world traveler, my life is filled with countless hours of airplane travel as i go from place to place to report on audiophile shows and the rare vacation. Years ago it became apparent that a portable music system was desperately needed. Before we get to my current system, let us have a look at how i got here.
My love for music via headphones began at a family friend's home when i was but a mere 6 years young. It was this fateful day in Atlanta, Georgia (ATL) where at the Seiden's they had a pair of headphones hooked to their stereo. One of the other kids asked me to put them on and listen... The rest, as they say, is history as my first experience with headphones was a revelation! Many longtime readers are aware back then my dad's stereo was tube amplification and used the Tannoy 12-inch dual-concentric Gold monitors in custom engineered cabinets. So the usual musical pleasures via loudspeakers was truly top shelf at the time, yet being directly 'plugged in' to the music via headphones was one of those experiences that forever leaves a joyous memory of musical delights.
Over the years came a parade of headphones from Koss, various versions by Sennheiser in different recording studios, selling Grados during my day gig at a high-end store in my early 20s, and today have a pair of HD600 with Stephan AudioArt Equinox cable by my drumset for monitoring. As personal stereos came and went, so did the migration from headphones to various small earbuds as is standard with iPods. Today my preference is for true in-ear monitor (IEM) via Etymotic Research's ER-4P.
To back up a bit, about 20 years ago, my G-d has it been that long, was the first dual driver earbud offered by Panasonic. It was a large affair where the smaller parts was the same as we know and love today, yet the larger driver behind it was approximately 1 inch round and naturally was outside the ear to a good degree. This black case with gold-tone highlights unit was a revelation of its time, with amazing sound quality for an earbud. Sadly, they got stolen when my then car got towed and were never seen again.
During this same period we had evolutions in portable CD players. Out with the original Sony D-5 and in with the D-25, which eventually gave way to the D-555 (pictured here). Each new generation of earbud and portable audio device brought a promise of enhanced sound quality via better resolution, improved stereo separation, lower distortion, and all the usual additional features including equalization and what-have-you.
Today it appears the opposite is true as portable CD players have become a lackluster affair and, in general, portable music players tout the ability to store thousands of lossy compressed songs. Sure the iPod and a few other devices support lossless music files, yet Jane and John Q. Public probably use compression and buy their music from online stores such as iTunes, where lossy compression is King. It is de-evolution in sound quality with an evolution in features and convenience. Unlike from the 1950's onward where sound quality increased, today we find mainstream audio quality is on the decline! Of course we audiophiles know the score and adhere to the highest of standards.
New Products & New Reviews
If we fast-forward to the past few years, Enjoy the Music.com has published many reviews concerning headphones, IEM, headphones amplifiers, and portable audio devices. In no particular order we have:
Best Of The Portables For The Music Lover On The Go!
Bose QuietComfort headphones vs. the Etymotic Research ER-4P & Headroom Total AirHead Combo
A Small Headphone Survey, or Banging on Three Sets of Cans: Beyerdynamic DT831, Etymotic ER4S, and Sennheiser HD600
Dubiel Accoustics (Skorpion) HV-1 Stereo Headphone OTL Triode Amplifier
Emmeline By Ray Samuels Audio SR-71 Headphone Amplifier
A Duo of Headphone Amplifiers: Antique Sound Lab MG-Head OTL 32 DT and Ray Samuels Audio Emmeline Stealth
HeadRoom Cosmic and Maxed Home Headphone Amplifiers
Singlepower Audio MPX-3 Headphone Amplifier
Shure E4c Versus Ultimate Ears Super.fi 5pro
Sennheiser HD600 And Stefan AudioArt Equinox Cable
Ultimate Ears UE-10 Pro Custom Fit Canal In Ear Monitors (IEM)
Berning microZOTL Personal Amplifier
Am sure i forgot a few others Enjoy the Music.com has reviewed, though it quickly becomes apparent that personal music systems and musical pleasures via headphones/earbuds/IEM is growing strong. While reporting on the Head-Fi.org Boston 2005 headphone discussion board gathering you could tell these guys were very serious about their portable music systems. The hobby has grown over the past few decades from bulky devices to slim and sexy! In the past few years, companies like Red Wine Audio have made a business out of tweaking various new devices, while others offer audiophile-grade headphone cables and custom enclosures for headphones.
My recent procurement for a portable device leads me to the Microsoft Zune because, quite frankly, i got it at a good price and liked the larger screen and very quiet built-in amplifier. Ok, you can now all say at once, "Steven you fool! The new XYZ is so much better because..." While the sound quality and very quiet, nearly hiss-free background is excellent; the lack of real features pertaining to uncompressed audio is disheartening. Add to that, within a few weeks the button hold feature broke and don't get me started about the software's user interface and lack of analog line output, the lack of... There is always my beloved D-25 and D-555 as fallback devices.
Revelation In Music
With a few thousand digital discs here it took me three weeks of 6+ hours per day of work to rip my fave titles. My guesstimate is that it'll take another solid month, perhaps two to get through my entire collection. Like most others who have gone down this road, after countless hours of hard work came the revelation of "Wow, forgot i had this disc and how great the songs are!" As a fast side note, it appears due to all the ripping i burned out the laser on my laptop's DVD/CD-R drive! Thank goodness it was covered under warranty and from henceforth am using my Plextor external DVD+-R FireWire external drive.
On a related note, due to the extensive collection of 80's compilation discs, there are some song duplicates (or triplicates, or quadruplicates... you get the idea). Looking at the extensive music library now on my hard drive and weeding out these duplicates caused me to get out my trusty and raved about Etymotic Research ER-4P in ear monitors. It is easy to hear why the units have sold well as the sound quality is stunning! They are very comfortable to wear and have the added benefit of isolating the sound of the crying baby on the airplane two rows in front of you. Now if Etymotic could devise a way to reduce the offending smell, but i digress.
Upon listening to the duplicates, it became apparent that not all songs are created equal. Some of the duplicate songs, as compared to the best version within my library, sounded as though they were fourth-generation copies! Worst still, some songs suffered from ear-scorching
Suggestions For Music On The Go
There are so many source units, amplifiers, and earphones, earbuds, plus in ear monitors (IEM) that, like anything else audiophile, your best bet is to listen. Everyone has his or her preferences after all. So now you may ask yourself, "How you can listen to a wide variety of devices, as my local hi-fi shop only offers a few items?" The good news is that many online retailers will gladly sell you hard to find top model items and provide a money back guarantee. Another option is to seek out the great folks at Head-Fi.
From April 21st though the 22nd they will have a huge get together in California at the Radisson Hotel San Jose Airport. This will be the best spring event to attend within the Unites States for headphone music lovers. Plans are to have the main ballroom setup with an array of 18 member equipment display tables in the middle of the room that will be ringed by 15 vendor tables along three walls. Another feature of the show will be a members-only high-end section and 12 'quiet rooms' with ultra-fi gear for very serious listening. Various special events during this event include door prizes, conferences, and seminars plus meal tickets available for the Head-Fi Bar-B-Q lunch. An after-hours fifth floor lounge will be a meeting and relaxing spot. For additional information and questions please contact Jude Mansilla at Jude@head-fi.org.
Today there is no excuse for listening to lossy compressed audio on the go! We need to educate as many people as possible concerning lossy compression that reduces sound quality and musical enjoyment. Add to that, the staggering array of very high quality ear monitors makes it possible to easily surpass some high-end home rigs for a fraction of the cost. Benefits of portable audio include, well, it is a very portable system and will not disturb your neighbors... even if your neighbors while on vacation include dolphins, sea turtles and the occasional mermaid.
While my choice for portable music source devices has not quite settled, the Etymotic Research ER-4P is my mainstay due to their excellent sound quality, amazing resolution, and comfort. This weary world traveler needs to escape from the crying babies on airplanes, street noises in big cities, and perhaps a rare moment of casual relaxation on an exotic beach. Imagine yourself sitting on the beach as warm tropical breezes wash over you... with your favorite song playing in your ears.
From Atlanta to Las Vegas, Barcelona to Vienna... and soon various road course racetracks as i travel to earn an SCCA and/or COMSCC trophy or two with my new (to me) 99/00 Van Diemen Formula Continental open wheel racecar. Music travels with me wherever i go! Of course my trusty Etymotic Research ER-4P will be there and perhaps an interesting stereo system wired in the custom enclosed aluminum trailer. Please check out my sister site, Enjoy the Track, for the race schedule and feel free to meet me at various events. Would love to see you there as we can discuss music, high-end audio, cars... or whatever. In the end what really matters is that we all....