I'm a bit of a curmudgeon when it comes to the word "voicing." I want neutrality; I want absolute transparency; I want to hear exactly what's on the disk, nothing more nothing less. Problem is, it rarely happens ... if ever. Pretty much every headphone I've ever heard has its own character. I'm pretty sure most headphone makers shoot for neutral and miss; the resulting "voice" is a bit more random than by design in most cases, I suspect.
The folks at Spider Cable say they were shooting for a "voicing" with an "emphasis on strong vocals or smooth sounding classical music."
Evolution is not like a car wash; it's not some process with a beginning, a middle, and an end. It's messy; it makes mistakes; sometimes it moves in a particular direction; sometimes it just goes in circles refining things. Evolution doesn't really know where it's going until it gets there.
Since 1997 Shure has been evolving its line of in-ear headphones. It seems to me they've both run in circles on the ergonomics, and made a bee-line for good sound. Let me explain.
Whenever I can, I spend time on the back of this beast: a 2005 Yamaha FJR 1300 super sport touring bike. This baby eats continents. I once left Bozeman, Montana in the morning and slept in a cornfield in Iowa that night. I really dig long-distance travel --- the gradual and ever-changing scenery, weather, and geology punctuated with little towns and churches is mesmerizing. Nonetheless, I need my tunes to complete the experience, and it took me a good long while to find just the right headphones to accompany me on my journeys.
Kelli’s Etymotic ER-6i earphones ($99) offered a well-balanced sound, with satisfying bass and natural highs, but I found them extremely uncomfortable and I had a difficult time getting them to fit properly in my ear canals. I liked Shure’s SE210 ($149.99) and SE115 ($139.99), but they felt large and heavy in my ears, and friends often balked at their prices. Don’t get me started about the V-MODA Remix Metal in-ears ($99.99); their highs were so pronounced and glaring and bass so completely absent, I wanted to run away from my musicnever a good sign. (But I’ll take the blame here: I should’ve known what to expect from an earphone with the word “Metal” in its name. I have since steered clear of models designed to look like bullets, arrows, and jet engines or whose product literature uses the words “crisp,” “sharp,” or “edgy.”)
Headphone listening is hot these days, due not only to the ubiquity of the iPod as a music source but also because it is possible to get state-of-the-art headphone playback without having to have stupidly bottomless pockets. A plethora of affordable high-quality headphone amplifiers are available, and high-performance 'phones can be had for a few hundred dollars. Used with a computer or iPod to play uncompressed WAV or AIF files or losslessly compressed FLAC or Apple Lossless (ALAC) files, a headphone-based system can offer the audiophile on a budget seriously good sound.
Ah, how the times change. When I reviewed Etymotic Research's ER-4S in-ear headphones in the July 1995 Stereophile, they seemed expensive to me at $330, but well worth that seemingly high price: at the time, they were the best headphones I'd heard. Nowadays, with reference headphones costing well north of a kilobuck, the price of the ER-4S seems relatively reasonable.
Designed to be used onstage by musicians monitoring their sound and mix, in-ear monitors (IEMs) such as the new Westone 3 are great in situations where you want to hear nothing but the music. They're small and portable, and their high efficiency and easy impedance load mean they work well with portable players. IEMs are better than electronic-feedback, noise-reducing, closed circumaural phones at blocking out airplane engine noise and annoying neighbors who want to chat. They're also more compact, sound better, and don't require batteries.
I got early into personal stereos. I lost my driving license for a while in the mid-1970ssomething about a stop sign and "failure to observe"so I used to take the train to a regular bass-playing gig I had in Brighton, on England's south coast. Not only did I conclude that any audio magazine worth its cover price had to have enough meat in it to last the two-hour journey and back again, I also built myself an op-ampbased, battery-powered amplifier to drive a pair of RadioShack headphones. Desperate times called for desperate measures, and my only source was a mono cassette recorder. Inside-the-head mono is as mono desperately does, so once I got my license back, it was back to the car and stereo FM radio. It wasn't until a) I moved to New York City to become a strap-hanging commuter and b) bought a 2003-vintage 30GB iPod (which I still use) that music on the move again began to play a major role in my listening.
Phiaton is the brand name used by the South Korean Cresyn Company. Wes Phillips reviewed Phiaton's conventional closed-back Moderna MS 400 headphones in January 2009 and was as impressed by the sound quality as he was by their appearance. The PS 200 ($249), the only in-ear headphone sold by Phiaton, also has a striking appearance: the black rear face, which is all someone sitting next to you in the subway will see, resembles the turbine blades of a fan-jet engine. There are two balanced-armature drive-units, with a passive crossover network.
Meeting strangers at social events, I've learned not to say that I write about hi-fi for a living. It's generally a conversation killer—unless your idea of scintillating repartee is "People make a living doing that?" (Short answer: Not many, and not really.)
I first saw the Shure SE530 at the 2006 Consumer Electronics Show, when it was dubbed the E500. The '500 shared the current product's three-armature driver technology and in-ear, sound-isolating, sleeve fitting scheme, but that early prototype seemed almost crude in comparison with the SE530.
In New York and other major cities, I understand, bus accidents are a real problem. Buses turn right and failing to yield to pedestrians. Clueless pedestrians walk in front of buses. I haven't seen any statistics, but I'm guessing that in this era of cell phones and iPods, the problem has gotten worse: not only do such devices distract you, they make it harder to hear warning signs—such as the sound of a municipal bus bearing down on your ass.
All of a sudden, it seems there's a renaissance in in-ear monitors. Used to be there was just Etymotic, but now Etymotic, Shure, and Ultimate Ears are all producing high-performance in-ear headphones. It's almost enough to make me suspect we audiophiles have become a marketing juggernaut.