|Fringe with Greg Smith
Back Issue Article
Headphone Amplifiers, Earplugs, Clements 107di Speakers, JPS Labs Ultra Conductor Interconnects
I've spent a lot more time listening to a portable headphone system built around the HeadRoom AirHead since my original column back in July. In that column, I was critical of several aspects of the product's performance, the noise level in particular. Obsession over small defects and putting a lot of effort into chasing down the boundaries of a sonic flaw are regular parts of audio reviewing. Well, in this case, I think I came down a bit too hard on the unit. Ever since the review was submitted and I exited hypercritical mode, I've found the AirHead a lot more satisfying. Not a week goes by where I don't take at least one jaunt outside with the Panasonic SL-SX300 CD player, AirHead, and Etymotic Research ER-4S headphones in tow, and the occasional bit of noise during what should be quiet recordings is rarely noticed. Having a great-sounding, very portable system really opens up the occasions when I listen to music, and before the AirHead, I was never quite satisfied with the options I had for listening on the go.
A portable CD-spinning setup makes for a fun social toy, too. Last week, I attended an Alan Parsons concert in New York City, in support of his new release The Time Machine. Since I'd already bought the Japanese CD [HoriPro XYCA-00041] of the album, with its exclusive bonus track, I listened to the whole thing during my walk to the show, HeadRoom AirBag wrapped around my waist. One fan I was talking to while waiting for the band to start expressed dismay that he wasn't sure whether it was worth getting the import disc; was the bonus track worth the extra cash? I pulled off the AirBag, cued up the song, and told him to listen for himself.
One of the dangers of seeing live shows is damage to your ears. If you sit through a typical concert without some sort of protection, you unquestionably just lost some of your hearing acuity. Unfortunately, it's tough to find a set of earplugs that's satisfying for concert listening. Ear plugs aimed at industrial applications, with typical attenuation of 30 to 40dB, cut out so much of the music that you end up wanting to pull them out all the time just so you can hear the band clearly. And their overall comfort level isn't that great either. Before last week's show, I finally stumbled on a nearly perfect set of concert earplugs at my local CVS. Flents Quiet! Down, their model #195, gets my highest recommendation. With an attenuation of 22dB, music comes through clearly while being reduced enough in volume to be safe for the duration of a typical show. The plugs themselves are soft, non-abrasive, and I found them quite comfy all night (something I almost never say about products that go in my ears). The biggest bonus: I could still make out people talking to me well enough to converse without pulling the plugs out all the time. These aren't the earplugs you want for using power tools, but to Quiet! Down loud music, they're quite nice.
Boostaroo headphone amplifier
Now, on to the reverse problem. I've gotten e-mail from readers who like the concept of the AirHead, but find $179 way out of their budget. While the stereo enhancements and other such headphone-specific improvements are nice, some people would like for their portable players to play a bit louder without so much distortion. One product that addresses this need at a very affordable price is the Boostaroo. Featuring a mini-jack input and three headphone outputs, the amplifier is claimed to deliver "bigger, brighter, dynamic sound" when placed between your portable music source and your headphones. Unlike the AirHead, the Boostaroo is aimed at driving mass-market headphones, with its output optimized for an 8-ohm load. Accordingly, users are warned to not expect as much of a volume-level increase with "audiophile" headphones. Regular headphones should receive a 4dB boost in gain.
Spinning up "Airbag" from Radiohead's OK Computer [Capitol 7243 8 55229 2 5] on my Panasonic SL-SX300, I plugged in a set of cheap Sony Fontopid Twin Turbo MDR-E505 earbuds. Even with these little units, the Panasonic's headphone amplifier distorted quite easily, as it was overloaded by the drums in particular. Adding the Boostaroo, there was quite an improvement in overall dynamics. Percussion had a crisper, cleaner snap. And the background vocals about a minute into the song were considerably easier to discern out of the complicated mix. Not bad at all for $17.95. Switching to the HeadRoom AirHead, which retails for ten times as much, and there was, unsurprisingly, even better deep bass slam.
Since most of my portable listening is with the Etymotic ER-4S headphones, I tried those next. The Panasonic does a good job of driving those by itself, but the Boostaroo did an impressive job of keeping the bass clean at higher volumes than the built-in headphone jack could. The product definitely has its limits, though. The amount of RF noise I got out of the amplifier section was substantial, with a constant hiss in the background that's a bit louder than what I hear from the AirHead.
The Boostaroo has a few more tricks as well. Normally when you use a splitter to drive multiple headphones at once, this makes for a load that a headphone amplifier can't deal with very well at all, making all listeners suffer with lower sound quality. The circuitry in the Boostaroo is designed to be equally good whether one or three headphones are connected, which is a considerable boon for people sharing a portable source. The amp lowers the amount of power the CD player needs, since the headphone-driving duty is outsourced; this results in longer battery life for your portable. Of course, you need extra power to feed the Boostaroo, but it's quite the battery scavenger. As recommended by the manufacturer, I used batteries that would no longer operate my CD player, digital camera, and other such finicky digital components in the Boostaroo. The average voltage from these AA units was 1.36V, down from a nominal 1.5V, but the amp played quite happily. This bit of battery recycling means the Boostaroo isn't as expensive to operate as you might think.
If the main problem with your portable system is that it doesn't play loudly enough without distortion, the Boostaroo is an effective and inexpensive product you should consider. It's a quite capable little box for the money. More information and online ordering is available at www.boostaroo.com. As always, be careful when you're listening to headphones. It's very easy to turn the volume up loud enough to hurt your hearing, especially if you're trying to drown out an external noise source.
Clements 107di speakers
Speaking of capable boxes, I got a second shipment of speakers from Clements recently. While I'm not one to churn out rave reviews too often, their 106di speakers was the first product in quite a while I thought deserved our Reviewer's Choice award. The larger 107di, featuring the same woofer in a bigger box and an improved tweeter, was the latest Clements system to hit my place. After break-in courtesy of a friend who borrowed the speakers while I was out of room to store them, I inserted them into my office system in place of the 106dis that had been happy there the last few months. Associated components include Parasound C/DC-1500, AMC 3020 integrated amp, Belden 89259 and JPS Ultra Conductor interconnects, and AudioQuest Type 4 speaker cable.
The combination of Roger Waters and Paul Carrack on vocals make "The Powers That Be" my favorite track from Radio K.A.O.S. [Columbia CK-40795] On the 107di speakers, I was impressed by the particularly clean presentation of the percussion. On the flip side, the bass notes seemed a bit overbearing; something was a bit muddy. Going back to the 106di, the bass didn't go quite as deep, but was a bit more firm. I was disappointed to find the smaller Clements model didn't deliver the same fast crack on the drumsticks.
Moving on to "Fallen Angel" from Robbie Robertson [Mobile Fidelity UDCD 618], the 106di gave a general sense that there was deep bass in the recording, while not delivering the full impact. The center image of Robertson's vocals were quite clear and liquid. The bigger 107di gave some real bass, shaking the entire room. The improved tweeter definitely produced a better sense of recording space, sounding like a bigger studio. But the somewhat loose bass detracted a bit from my overall enjoyment.
Curious as to what I could do to make the 107di sound a bit better, I switched to the considerably more powerful Proton D1200 amplifier instead of the AMC integrated. This gave much better authority on bass material. The 106di remains a bit tighter, but with the big amp the gap was closed considerably. And the 107di certainly gave a much more satisfying wallop at the bottom end, with its rated frequency extension down to - 3dB at 40Hz. One of the things I liked about the 106di was its broad compatibility, working with almost any amplifier and in a wide variety of rooms. The 107di isn't quite as cordial in that regard; based on my listening, I'd suggest it needs a much beefier amplifier to control the woofer excursion that goes along with the deeper bass it delivers. It seems more suited to a larger room as well. Given those caveats, the larger Clements speaker could prove to be a better choice for some listeners, and its better tweeter is definitely a big improvement in all situations. I personally would like to see, say, a 106.5di from Clements that keeps the 106di enclosure while using the 107di tweeter, presumably at a price a bit cheaper than the $430/pair the 107di retails for. In any case, either Clements model makes for an outstanding products in its price range, and I definitely recommend checking them out at www.clements-prc.com.
Wearing my sunglasses during the day
Last summer, I started a JPS Labs cable review with a story about sunglasses. Almost exactly a year after buying my $50 Bollé shades, I somehow managed to lose them. I hadn't realized how utterly dependant I was until the next day when I was driving to work. I had gotten so used to being able to see even with the sun right in my face that being confronted again with glare made me absolutely miserable. Since each previous increase in the quality of the sunglasses had been so rewarding, I decided to double my budget again and hit my local dealer at lunch time. Stepping up to $99.99 allowed me to get the Bollé model 401, including lenses with Bollé's "PC Polarized" process applied. While a little disconcerting at first, I again find myself refusing to settle for anything less. Unlike regular sunglasses, the polarization serves not so much to darken but to sharpen, while simultaneously cutting out the nastier parts of sunlight. This is so effective that I find myself driving with the lenses in place even during storms, as the increased sharpness works equally well when trying to focus on gray objects during a hard rain. These aren't just sunglasses, they're driving glasses. While I can't use them at night, I now keep them on at all times during the day. I haven't been disappointed with a Bollé product yet, and I recommend their polarized lenses without hesitation. www.bolle.com will get you more information and help track down a nearby dealer; I bought my pair from the local Sports Authority store.
Interestingly enough, I had a new JPS cable cross my door lately as well. I had returned the review sample of the Superconductor interconnect I'd been using in my reference system. While this cable was a fantastic performer, my recent focus on less-upscale electronics wasn't compatible with the big, locking connectors and stiff cabling of that JPS Labs product. No sooner have those gone back than I received two pair of the Ultra Conductor interconnects to try instead. These retail for around $100 in normal lengths, and JPS Labs has aimed this product at a price point that's has always been dominated by the DH Labs BL-1 for me. In the last two years, I've loaned half a dozen people a sample pack of $50-$100 interconnects from my collection, and every single person has picked the DH Labs cable as their favorite, matching my own impression.
How does the new JPS cable stand up in comparison? The overall sound quality is very close, with JPS matching the DH Labs cable in most areas. The main difference is that the BL-1 tends toward a somewhat forward, highly detailed presentation. The Ultra Conductor gives a more laid-back balance that I find better suited to most of the systems I listen to. For example, I'll be ordering a JPS Labs five-pack of Ultra Conductor cable for my surround room, where I'm generally looking for a neutral tonal balance, but any excess brightness is unpleasant when combined with often harsh movie sound. Meanwhile, I'm thinking of moving the BL-1 to the office, where a bit more top-end sparkle wouldn't hurt. Unlike their earlier cable, this latest JPS Labs offering features RCA connectors that fit nicely with any equipment, and the cable itself is very pliable.
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