Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Lead Ears

Yesterday I talked about my experiences with the sample Monster Turbine in-air speaker (i.e., earbuds) I received. I could most certainly discern a noticeable difference between it and the two sets of headphones I have.

Did you know that there are amplifiers made specifically for headphones? Normally you would plug your headphones into the headphone jack either on your computer or on your audio receiver, and then give a listen. The volume knob on your computer or receiver adjusts the sound level playing through the headphones.

But if you really want to go hi-fi, the thing to do is purchase a headphone amp. It connects to the left and right "line out" jacks either on your computer sound card or your CD player, and has its own amplifier and volume control. Why would you want to do it that way instead of using the headphone jack?

Supposedly for cleaner, clearer and more accurate sound. Actually I've found that some headphone jacks on amplifiers introduce noticeable hiss or noise to the sound and I feel it is better to use a separate amp connected directly to the source.

That said, there's a wide range of prices for one of these headphone amps, all the way up to thousands of dollars. Like audio cables, my question is, can you really hear a difference?

I used to frequent the forums on a website called head-fi.org. There you will find all sorts of discussions about all things headphone related, including ones about which headphone amp sounds best. The result of my foray into the world of headphones was that I purchased three different amplifiers. The thing is, I must not be one of those people blessed with "golden ears" because when I adjust the volume knobs to play at the same sound level, I can't hear a bit of difference between the three (actually I only have two, having resold the vastly more expensive third one).

I read plenty of the forum comments about how x had such a more refined, pure, quality sound than did y, but to me everything sounded exactly the same. Or if there were any differences, by the time I got around to switching between the amps I could no longer discern them. Not so with headphones; those definitely had differences. The two headphones I have are like night and day sound-wise. But the amps? I couldn't tell the difference.

Maybe it is because my hearing was dented from playing in Easy Livin' those several years. Or maybe it's a natural hearing loss as a result of growing old. A few years ago we went to the Exploratorium museum in San Francisco. One of the exhibits was a hearing test. My hearing cut off at a much lower frequency than did Greg's and Katie's - they were amazed. "You can't hear that tone, dad?" I just shook my head. Nope.

But still, with the debates raging on the forum about the differences in headphone amps and how much better one was than another, you'd think I would be able to hear a difference even with my more limited frequency range. But I don't. Maybe that'a a blessing in disguise since that won't lead me to have to spend a lot of money.

Yet, if the differences between speakers or headphones are so great to me, why wouldn't I be able to hear the difference between amps?

The same thing happened to me in my much younger days when presumably my hearing was better - when I was 22 years old. I was all set on purchasing this gigantic amplifier, aptly called the "Ampzilla" and had visited the stereo store several times to listen. The salesperson there took a liking to me and let me take it home to listen to, without even asking for a deposit (pretty crazy, huh?).

What I did was I took it to another stereo store to compare it to what they had. At the time, the Ampzilla was considered one of the premier amps available. The sales rep at the other store showed me a Technics amplifier that he said was way, way better than the Ampzilla. Technics was/is a Panasonic company and was considered a lot more mainstream than the esoteric, audiophile-quality Ampzilla and I was skeptical.

I had brought my own records with me so I asked the rep to play them and we switched the two amps back and forth. One of the test records was a recording of Santana's "Europa" that had a great guitar solo.

As he switched the amps back and forth, the rep remarked how obviously better the Technics amp was. Me, they sounded exactly alike. I couldn't hear any difference at all - they both sounded good.

"Listen to that guitar right here," he said. "It breaks up on the Ampzilla but see how pure it is from the Technics? No contest," he declared.

The Emperor's New Clothes.. I really could not hear any difference but didn't want to appear stupid so I said nothing and pretended I was concentrating on the music. All of the "obvious" differences the rep pointed out, I heard none of them.

In the end, I wound up buying the Technics. Even though I had a preference for the Ampzilla mainly because it had "snob appeal" and also had a lot more power, the Technics was a lot cheaper and since they sounded the same, what did it matter? I used that amp for a long time - over 10 years, and it worked great. I've always wondered about that comparison, though. Was there really a difference that I was unable to hear, or was it all the rep seeing how far he could push me?

Now when it comes to audio connecting cables, speaker wire, electric cords, etc., there are plenty of esoteric products out there and some of these seemingly simple things cost thousands of dollars. I kid you not - thousands. And people pay for them because they insist they can hear a difference between those and the cheaper stuff. My belief is that they are fooling themselves but again, maybe they are blessed (cursed?) with golden ears and can hear a difference.

Anyway, those are just my rambling thoughts on the subject. Tomorrow I'll relate another example, this one about my lead mouth.

One last thing.. there's no mistaking Memorex quality - there is none. They make some of the worst junk imaginable, especially their recording tape. Yecch.

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