Headphones are another addiction of mine – an addiction that I have (mostly) conquered. I used to buy several sets a year. (Most of them have long since been sold off.) I bought so many that the guys in one of the headphone shops in the top floor of the Wanchai Computer Centre knew me well.
I wouldn’t say I’m an audiophile. Some of my ability to hear high frequencies is gone with age and I have tinnitus (probably a result of doing rock concert security back in my college years).
On the other hand, I have a good idea of what music should sound like, or at least how I want it to sound. I listen to a broad variety of genres. And thanks to the increased storage capacity of the iPhone 7+, I’ve now been filling up that storage capacity with Apple Lossless files rather than MP3’s, more than 3,000 songs so far.
Sony MDR-1000X – Still Loving Them 1 Year Later
A year ago, after upgrading to the iPhone 7+, I wanted to get a set of bluetooth headphones. As I wrote here almost a year ago, I eventually settled on the Sony MDR-1000X.
It wasn’t just the noise reduction quality (which is pretty close to the Bose QC series), it wasn’t just all of the other technology built in (tap the right side to pause, cover the right side to mute and hear someone talking to you, etc.), I liked the way they sounded. Everything sounded the way I wanted it to sound. And 11 months later, I’m still extremely happy with them. (I think Sony must be getting ready to introduce a second generation because there have been some big price drops on these on Amazon recently.)
The earcup controls are a bit finicky to use. I find myself sort of poking around blindly and generally get something other than what I wanted. Then I realized that I could control the headphones from my Apple Watch. Pause, volume, skipping tracks or just reminding myself of what I’m listening to, all made much easier.
As much as I love these, there are times when having full size headphones isn’t convenient. I wanted something smaller for casual , every day use. Still bluetooth, but small enough that I could just shove them in my pocket when I wasn’t using them.
Apple AirPods – Not For Me
What I thought I wanted was Apple’s AirPods. Most of the reviews were really positive. But I wanted to try them out before buying them.
I see a lot of people wearing them now in Hong Kong, obviously not so much in Manila. Unlike some reviewers, I don’t mind how these look.
The problem for me ended up being the one-size-fits-all approach to these. I tried them at the Apple store and couldn’t seem to position them correctly in my ears.
Later, a friend who has a set (and loves them) let me try his and helped me get them correctly positioned in my ears. I didn’t care for the audio quality at all. I probably could have improved upon that by buying a set of silicon sleeves for these. But I’d need to remove those every time I’d want to put the AirPods back in their charging/carrying case. Too much hassle. Let’s see what happens with future versions of these.
So I went back to that shop headphone shop in Wanchai. They’ll let you audition any of the products they sell, including earbuds, so I tried several different brands and models. I’ve seen earbuds for sale in the Wanchai Computer Centre at prices over HK$30,000, but I certainly wasn’t looking to spend that kind of money. I wanted to stay well under HK$1,500.
Actually one set I tried, because they told me it was a best seller, was the B&O Beoplay H5. They sounded terrific, but they were also about double what I wanted to spend. Sennheiser Momentum wireless and Bose QC’s were also over my budget.
Beats X – Better Than I Expected
Eventually I went with the Beats X earbuds. One reason was that they contain the same “miracle” W1 chip that the Apple Earpods have. It’s supposed to make pairing easier and supposed to have far fewer drop-outs when listening. I also liked that they recharge using the same Lightning cable I use for my phone, and that there’s a “quick charge” – 5 minutes of charging will get you around 2 hours of use (total usage fully charged is supposed to be around 8 hours).
The price was right and the sound was reasonable. Beats are famous for their heavy bass. They’re supposedly tuned for hip hop, something that I don’t listen to that often. That may have been the case in the past, but I suppose now that Apple owns the company, the approach has changed. I found the sound on the Beats X is far more balanced and actually I wouldn’t have minded a bit more bass.
The sound improved more once I got them home and changed the sleeves to the largest size provided, giving me a far better seal. They don’t sound as good as my Sony, but we’re talking about comparing 7mm vs. 40mm speakers. They sound more than good enough for casual, “walking around town” listening. And with the tight seal, the passive noise reduction is more than sufficient.
The band that goes around the neck has some sort of memory plastic in it. So far, at least, no matter how much you twist it when you’re packing it away, it comes back again to the same shape when you pull it out. Also nice, the two ear pods themselves are magnetic, so when you’re dangling them around your neck, they stick together instead of bouncing around all over the place. And they’re very light weight, I can almost forget I’ve got them on.
The carrying case is annoying. It’s small, it’s black, it attracts dust and fingerprints like a magnet, and it’s so fucking difficult to get the earbuds back into this case neatly that I found at least a dozen videos on Youtube of people demonstrating how to do it.
The picture above shows the best I can generally do. At least it’s pocket-sized.
I’ve also found that the W1 chip isn’t giving me that much better of a connection, despite Apple’s claims to the contrary. Sometimes when walking, I still get that bluetooth “stutter.” I have to remember to keep my phone in my left pocket, top of the phone facing up – I think that gives the clearest connection between the iPhone’s bluetooth output and the Beats’ receiver.
But I’m mostly quite happy with my Beats X. I think that for the price (list price is around US$150), the only way to get better sounding earbuds would be to buy traditional wired ones.
I’ve been cleaning up my home office, trying to get all of my cables and knick-knacks and doo-dads properly sorted, in preparation for possibly being away from my home for extended periods of time and trying to figure out what I’ll need to bring with me. And in the midst of doing so, I found my Shure SE530’s, which I thought I’d lost a couple of years ago.
These are about 10 years old, and were one of the first earbuds released with multiple drivers built into each bud. At the time people were complaining they were quite big – now it’s a common-place design and I’ve seen plenty of offerings that are much larger than these. They must be still highly regarded – right now someone is selling (or at least trying to sell) a new set on Amazon for US$750. The original list price was $500. (I had a larger budget for this sort of thing ten years ago.)
So I dug out my Audioquest Dragonfly DAC and plugged them in and cranked them up. No surprise that $500 wired earbuds connected to an external DAC are going to sound noticeably better than $150 bluetooth earbuds. Duh. Though I find them sounding a little harsh on the high end.
Using them also means that I’ve got to use either the Apple Lightning to stereo mini plug adapter or the Apple Lightning to USB adapter plus the Dragonfly, along with the long cord that I’ve got for the Shures.
That’s the Apple adapter.
That’s the Dragonfly.
It’s a lot of pieces to deal with, and a lot of stuff hanging out of my pocket if I use this when I’m walking around.
But it’s not a bad setup at all when I’m sitting at a desk and working.
What I’m Listening To Now
There are finally a few albums that have gotten me out of my classic rock ditch. They include:
Paul Draper – Spooky Action. There’s a great back story on this one. Draper was lead singer and songwriter of Mansun. They had an ugly break-up. Then he got cancer. 15 years later his fans started a petition on Facebook to get him to finally finish his solo album, so he did. It’s an over-the-top pop-rock-prog-electro semi-concept that’s basically about how much he hates his former band. Song titles include Jealousy Is a Powerful Emotion, Friends Make the Worst Enemies, You Don’t Really Know Someone Till You Fall Out With Them. And it’s the best work he’s ever done.
LCD Soundsystem – American Dream. I was late to the party, it was the soundtrack to their farewell MSG show that finally caught my ear. This has some tracks that have gotten really stuck in my head, especially I Used To.
War On Drugs – A Deeper Understanding. In the long run I think I’ll prefer their previous album, Lost in the Dream. This is their “major label debut” and I think some of the rougher edges have been smoothed out.
Steven Wilson – Closer to the Bone. Wilson is the most popular artist working in progressive rock today and equally famous for his 5.1 surround remixes of classic albums from Yes, King Crimson, Gentle Giant, Jethro Tull and others. This is his first straightforward “pop album.”
And skewing older …
David Bowie – A New Career in a New Town. RCA’s been doing these massive boxes, each one covering a 5 year period. This is the third in the series and it covers his Berlin trilogy, Bowie at his most creative. These boxes are padded out quite a bit (2 discs for his live Stages album and another 2 discs of the same album slightly remixed with a few extra tracks?) but there’s so much good stuff.
David Gilmour – Live at Pompeii. Forty five or so years after Pink Floyd at Pompeii, Gilmour returned there and came back with a nicely recorded set combining some classic Floyd tracks with some of his more recent solo stuff.
Leon Russell – On a Distant Shore. A posthumous release from one of the all-time greats, some new stuff and reworkings of some of his best known songs (This Masquerade, Hummingbird, A Song For You).
Black Grape – Pop Voodoo. I’m really surprised. More than 20 years after their miserable 2nd album, they’re back and this sounds fantastic. I’d say it’s as good as anything Shaun Ryder has ever done.
So … if you’ve made it this far, leave me some comments somewhere, what are your favorite headphones and what music are you listening to now?