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

October 2003

What the US Navy and "All in Your Head" Have in Common

Many of us have tried the various headphones that are left out for customers to use at places like Good Guys, Radio Shack, Fry’s, or Circuit City, all to varying degrees of failure. Some detest the experience, others are simply turned off to headphones, but the vast majority of people feel that there is something missing from that little taste of headphone listening. Others have tried a pair of headphones under slightly better conditions and still didn’t enjoy the encounter for one reason or another.

For those of you who have had one of these or some similar headphone experience, this column is for you. My hope and goal with "It's All in Your Head" is that you will begin to explore what’s available in the world of headphones and get the most possible enjoyment from your headphone experience.

To get to the roots of this, my headphone mania, I have to begin in my childhood where my father’s love of music rubbed off on me. He always seemed to have a cassette player, reel-to-reel deck, and a turntable in our house along with tons of music, mostly in the form of LPs. I got my very own stereo in 1976, and, man, I was in heaven. My entire childhood was one that seemed to always involve music of some form, be it via the radio, cassettes, or LPs.

Years later I joined the Navy and began a ten-year career in aviation electronics. After almost a full year of electronics training I then knew all about why things worked and how they worked, so I began looking at electronics gear differently. I grew to appreciate the finer pieces of gear that really took advantage of the electronics from which they were made.

So what does the Navy have to do with this column? Well, life in the Navy necessitates -- nay, demands -- the use of headphones. When all you own needs to fit in a duffel bag to carry onto a ship and then fit into a small locker, you understand the absolute necessity for good sound and small size. While those Wilson WATT/Puppy 7s might sound good, packing and powering them is an insurmountable hurdle while deployed. While you are out in the middle of the ocean with nothing to do but work, sleep, and eat, the diversion of music is often necessary to maintain sanity. Music can transport you to a place much less hectic and deadly than a World War II battleship firing 16" shells that weigh 1900 pounds each at the Iraqi’s who invaded Kuwait. Headphones and the Navy are like peanut butter and jelly. During my stint in the Navy, I went through a bunch of different headphones while trying to find those that sounded good and were ultra portable.

Back at home, my loving wife not only learned to put up with my headphone hobby, but both encourage me and has now really begun to enjoy headphone listening herself. It’s amazing to hear her listen to a set of headphones and make some incredibly insightful comments (which that I will freely include here).

After years of dabbling with various sets of 'phones while in the Navy, I asked my mother-in-law for a pair of Sennheiser HD 600s and a Creek OBH-11 headphone amp for my birthday. Listening to this system was like coming out of a black-and-white world into one of full color. The HD 600s were my first pair of headphones that didn’t have some huge trade-off in sound, and their comfort was on a level I had not experienced before. Those soft, velvet pads just hugged my head in a gentle caress compared to the vise-grip hold that I was used to. The HD 600's ability to place instruments all around my head was, at times, quite unnerving. Sounds would come from above, behind, and below, and they made me feel like I was completely immersed in the music.

Finally the inevitable question surfaced. It’s the first sign that you’re about to take your first step on your way to spending way more money than you ever planned to: Can this be improved upon? The mere swap of the stock headphone cable over to something made by Cardas, otherwise known as the "Smurf Cable" due to its color; the Clou Red or Blue; or the Stefan AudioArt Equinox was reported by many as making some rather dramatic changes to the already impressive Sennheiser sound. I figured it was worth a try, so I took the plunge and ordered the Equinox cable. A simple procedure of removing two small connectors from the ear pieces and then plugging in an identical pair and the job was complete. Total time:? One minute to read the directions, and one minute to implement. Results? Nothing short of jaw-dropping.

Since that fateful cable swap I have been on a search to get the best sound possible from my headphone rig. Many very decent-sounding products, along with a good deal of my sanity, litter the trail behind me as I meander along on this quest. This personal quest for the Holy Grail of headphone rigs has resulted in changing my headphone of choice four times, my source four times, and my headphone amp -- well, you guessed it, four times. Each change I made brought incremental improvements in sound quality that, while quite satisfying, always left me wanting more. My latest system is the end of the line. It includes…. That's for the next column.

I have now committed to spending my time and efforts enjoying the music I own and expanding my selection thereof. I guess we all need to arrive at the place where we spend more time enjoying music than relentlessly pursuing the medium for the playback of it. Satiety with what you own is the end of the road, not some unobtainable perfection. This applies to all of us who have tasted of the milk and honey of the Headphone Promised Land and seek to return there at all costs. It is all about the journey we make, not the ideal we seek. If we enjoy what we have, we will enjoy the journey all the more.

The first step takes us the greatest distance; the last step generally takes us the shortest distance and is the most costly. Those small, last-step refinements cost a bundle, and I hope a little of what I learned, and a few tricks I picked up along the way, will be helpful to you. I mean, let's face it: Music is about emotion. It’s about how it affects you, makes you tap your foot to the beat, play air guitar, sends your soul soaring, or just plain sucks you into the performance and makes you feel like you were there. For me, the audio drug of choice is my headphone rig. The hours I spend listening to music while I work, grade papers, and prepare for teaching have been increasingly enjoyable. I listen to music either in the background, providing a slight distraction to allow me to work for hours on end, or when I just sit back and enjoy some of my favorite music, doing nothing but reveling in the experience. This is what I want to share with you -- the experience of listening to music in the way that only a pair of headphones can bring.

So if you are looking for something that sounds good within your budget, or if you just want a more pleasurable listening experience with headphones, this is the place for you. I welcome any feedback or suggestions so that I can address and discuss them in future columns. There are also some incredible products that you'll read about in this space. Welcome aboard.

...Doug Paratore
dougp@soundstage.com  

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