[SoundStage!]Fringe with Greg Smith
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April 1998

The Accessorizing AirHead

Part 1: The Sneak Preview

"What's that over your shoulder?" asked my friend J as I walked into the bar. We were meeting up with some other people at Keene's Chophouse, a nice restaurant/bar in Manhattan. "Have you started wearing a purse? I'm scared. When was the last time you went out with a woman, anyway?" If there's one thing I can count on my from my friends, it's politically incorrect humor at my expense. No, the small bag I was wearing was not a fashion statement. Instead, it housed a portable CD player and a prototype of the new HeadRoom AirHead amplifier. All of my train rides into New York City nowadays feature some sort of headphones, because I really prefer to hear music I enjoy, not the metallic screeching and rumbling of the train. Pulling out the innards of my much-maligned shoulder bag revealed the AirHead, about the same size as the pack of cigarettes supplying J with his nicotine fix. While adding almost no additional size or weight to my traveling music collection, the small amplifier nonetheless provided a substantial improvement in the quality of my roving gear.

Having convinced HeadRoom that I'm an Important Reviewer of Note, they've been kind enough to supply my greedy hands with a sizable collection of their portable gear to check out. As I write this, the AirHead is not yet a shipping product. I'm excited about the official release. Based on what the prototype is like, the polished final version should take portable listening to a new height on the performance-per-pound scale. In anticipation of that, I wanted to present some background on HeadRoom's existing products first.

Cosmic? Groovy!

HeadRoom has been selling two portable headphone amplifiers for some time now. The Supreme ($449) was the original HeadRoom product, while the Cosmic ($599) sports better internal electronics. Both are powered on the road by four D-cell batteries and use RCA inputs. A complete system built around either unit, then, consists of portable CD player, interconnect cable, and Supreme or Cosmic powered by a big old power-supply box with the batteries inside. Don't forget the headphones, of course.

It's possible to get all this wedged into a inexpensive portable case like the Case Logic DM2 ($24.95). Trust me on this one: You don't want to do that. Anyone spending over $400 just on the portable amplifier is presumably trying to put together a serious system, and you don't want to mar that experience by dealing with a barely adequate case. HeadRoom sells the Traveler Bag ($129), custom constructed to perfectly hold everything you need for one of their portable systems. There are holes in all the right places and plenty of space inside. "Expensive but worth every penny" claims their catalog, and I have to agree. As a bonus, you can also fit in a four-D-cell power supply for your portable player ($29.95), along with a 12-CD case ($12.95) and a paperback book.

Here's the problem with this setup. The Traveler Bag is pretty big. After stuffing it with portable, amp, two big battery packs, some CDs, and even small headphones, what you end up with is heavy. A fully loaded configuration can reach six full pounds, which doesn't seem too bad until you carry it around for a while. The Supreme and Cosmic amplifiers are a serious assault on the problems of portable listening, and accordingly there's an unavoidable amount of weapons involved if you want to do it right.

The results are pretty stunning. The Cosmic HeadRoom I've been using the last few months achieves a level of effortlessness I've never heard in a portable before. What really sets it apart is its incredible speed on transients. The crucial "snap" you expect on an excellent system is there in spades. In fact, the Cosmic is a bit too good for normal portable use. While the Panasonic SL-S320 CD player I'm using is a decent inexpensive unit, it's far from perfect. The Cosmic is very unforgiving, throwing the normally subdued hint of digital glare from the player right in your face. It's especially bad when the shock reduction data compression is operating; the loss of fidelity in that mode is both obvious and annoying. HeadRoom's Todd Green uses a Krell MD-1 CD player with a SBP-64X Digital Processor to feed his Max HeadRoom (with premium electronics similar to the Cosmic) while at work, and that is not at all an unreasonable match. Using a refined product like the Cosmic with a normal portable system is overkill. I'm told the less expensive Supreme isn't quite as fussy about what it connects to, so its slightly lower sound quality might actually be a boon in a normal portable application.

Let's consider the overall cost of putting together a system based on the Cosmic amplifier. Set aside $599 for the amp, $129 for the bag, and at least $100 for the CD player. Necessary accessories include 12-CD wallet ($13) and 4-D battery holder for the source ($30). If you're considering dropping that much, I also recommend the $19.95 upgrade interconnect cable from StraightWire; it provides slightly improved performance well worth its reasonable cost. You'll probably want a set of Etymotic ER-4S headphones ($330), because nothing else that is so portable and immune to damage sounds as good. Add it all up and we're talking over $1100; that's the minimum setup I'd recommend for a Cosmic-based portable rig. You can shave a bit off using the Supreme instead of the Cosmic, or you could spend a bit more and get the HeadRoom Cosmic Traveler Kit ($1499), which adds Sennheiser 580 headphones and the Base Station One power supply upgrade for home listening. Regardless, when you're done you'll have spent some pretty serious money for a somewhat bulky and heavy setup. This sort of thing is ideal for a system at work or for long plane flights. I rather enjoyed flying to Vegas from my east-coast home while listening to this premium gear. But for my personal mix of listening, which involves more walking around and shorter trips, I prefer something small and lightweight, even if it doesn't quite sound as good.

This leads us to the new HeadRoom AirHead. Supposedly named after the company's president, Tyll Hertsens, the AirHead is inexpensive, small, and light. That's all I can tell you right now; for the full scoop, you'll have to wait until I get one of the early units from the first production run. Look in this space in the next months for the full details on how you can spend that big tax refund putting together a killer portable system that won't weigh you or your wallet down.

.....GS (gsmith@westnet.com)

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