Personal Technology: Out of Our Heads

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An unintended consequence of the recent surge in popularity of portable audio players has been a renewed interest in headphones. When Sony created personal hi-fi with the Walkman almost 25 years ago, it lifted the headphone out of its niche as a useful but hardly essential accessory. Still, it remains a common misconception that headphones are a poor compromise to listening to freestanding speakers.

Inveterate headphone users have long been aware that headphones inject the music directly into your ears, which eliminates the unavoidable adverse effects that a room has on the sound—no reflections, no distortions. The only caveat is that the sound is inside your head, which is a potentially disconcerting sensation.

Inexpensive, in-the-ear headphone buds that are supplied with most personal hi-fis are designed for portability. Sound quality on a par with—or even better than—a grand-scale audio system requires full-size headphones that can deliver bass. The superior headphones, those designed with open backs, even provide a sense of space, the sensation that the sound is emanating from outside rather than inside of your head. Open-back headphones allow some sound to leak in and some to leak out, so if either is a concern, opt for a sealed-back model. These tend to be heavier than the featherweight open-back models, though.

Sennheiser, a German company, invented lightweight, open-back headphones, and it continues to specialize in the format with its 400 series. Purists should select the flagship HD-600; it, too, is open-back, but the larger, ear-encompassing shape produces more bass than its smaller siblings. Grado, which is based in New York, also produces a range of headphones, but its premier model remains the RS-1. Notable for its wooden earpieces, the RS-1 provides the comfort and airiness of an open-back design, but it also features levels of clarity and detail more akin to the sound from closed-back studio cans.

Grado, Sennheiser, and the majority of headphone manufacturers produce dynamic headphones that feature drive units similar to those found in loudspeakers. Conversely, Stax, of Japan, has long specialized in electrostatic headphones, which employ a flat diaphragm carrying an electrical charge. The moving element is much lighter than that of a dynamic drive unit, so it is able to respond more quickly to the speed of a music signal. The SR-007 Omega II, with its own vacuum tube SRM-007t energizer, is the definitive Stax model. It is a large, round-earpiece headphone that produces crystal-clear sound matched by few full-scale speakers. Stax recently introduced a closed-back model, the 4070, for listeners who desire a sense of solitude.

Whether they are electrostatic or dynamic, the one true inconvenience of many headphones is the leash of a cord. It is easy to become lost in musical reverie, walk away from the sound system, and pull a hi-fi component off the shelf. Today’s top cordless headphones include the RS 85 from Sennheiser, Acoustic Research’s Surround Sound Wireless, and the Model 1000 from Amphony. Each of these models offers audiophile-worthy sound up to about 300 feet away from the headphone docking station.

Acoustic Research, 800.732.6866, www.acousticresearch.com;
Amphony, www.amphony.com;
Grado Labs, 718.435.5340, www.gradolabs.com;
Sennheiser, 860.434.9190, www.sennheiserusa.com;
Stax, www.morishita.net

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