Big Sound 2015: Jonathan Pays a Visit

Visitor number two today was Jonathan, a super nice guy who specializes in fine watch repair. I can tell you I had a fun time chatting him up about those gizmos during our lunch on my back porch.

Jonathan is a relative n00b in the world of headphones and is mostly a lurker on Head-Fi and Changstar, but he's done well with the purchase of an HD 800, self-built O2, Objective DAC, and then a move to the Schiit Vali to step up his amp. Sound's like very cost effective purchases to me!

He, like Alek yesterday, had his first experience with blind testing today...and it wasn't easy....never is. I've decided not to go into the scoring much as I write my daily reports of visitors. I don't want to make people feel embarassed when it's difficult, and I also don't want to tip off the result in the long run either, so you'll not hear me talking of these scores anymore, other than maybe a reiteration of how difficult it is, or, hopefully, a remark on how extraordinarily well someone did.

In any case, both participants so far have remarked on how this process really opened their eyes and ears to the technicalities of critical listening, and how they felt it made them better listeners for having had the experience.

After the blind testing was over, Jonathan was free to roam around the room sampling from all these great headphones. He worked at it for about an hour, then we broke for a little light lunch, and then he was back at it for another couple of hours. In the end, his favorite four headphones in order were:

  1. Stax-009
  2. Sennheiser HD 800
  3. HiFiMAN HE-1000
  4. Stax SR-007

He also made a couple of notes about pairings with amplifiers, calling out the Ragnarok (fed by the Yggdrasil DAC) as particularly good with the HD 800 and HE-1000; with a mention of the Violectric 281 as also pairing well with the HD800; and the HE-1000 pairing well with the Simaudio Moon NEO 430HA. His other amp pairing of note was the Audeze LCD-3F with the Burson, which he felt managed to do something nice with the otherwise slightly uneven treble of the LCD-3.

You know, after seeing a guy work so hard on the blind testing and not getting too far, and then hearing all his detailed impressions of the headphones so neatly resonating with the things I hear, I've got to say that this blind testing stuff is not a particularly good pathway for most folks to get their listening impressions. I think it was great to have the experience and rock his boat a bit and keep him humble, but when it came down to listening to the headphone his impressions were very detailed and, in my view, aptly descriptive.

Personally, I think the whole blind testing and ear training thing is most valuable in putting the world of audio into context. Anyone going off on a hype train, or on and on about how cables and break-in totally changed their headphones is just so obviously full of crap after you've heard just how small these differences really are and how hard it is to tell the differences between stuff.

And then further, once you get good at it and can tell the subtle differences between things, you can begin to more closely identify those subtle characteristics with your own sense of musical pleasure, and possibly do a better job of honing in on the gear you like as you put together a system within your budget.

But in the end, it matters very little with regard to the exquisite experience of listening to music you love. Except that maybe you'll have a sense of confidence in the gear you've acquired and feel more comfortable knowing there's no need to keep looking anymore, rather than being unsure and worried that there may be something better out there.

Anyway, have a listen to Jonathan and check out how much he managed to glean from three hours of perfect listening conditions with the world's best headphones.

Thanks Jonathan, that was a fine day of headphone listening we had!

Equipment List

Front End
NAS - Synology DS414 ($479)
Renderer - Aurender W20 (~$17,600);
Digital Distribution Amps - Four ATI DMM100 Digital Matchmakers
and one DDA212-XLR digital audio distribution amp ($1450).

Power Conditioning
PS Audio, two P10 power regeneration station ($4999) and four DecTet conditioned plug strips ($499).

AURALiC Vega DAC ($3499) and Taurus MkII headphone amp ($1899)
Simaudio MOON Neo 430 HA ($4300 w/DAC).
HeadAmp GS-X Mk2 ($2800)
Schiit Ragnarok ($1699) and Yggdrasil ($2299)
Burson Audio Conductor Virtuoso ($1495 w/PCM1793; $1995 w/ESS1908)
Woo Audio WA-234 ($15,900)
Antelope Audio Zodiac Platinum DSD DAC, Voltikus Power Supply, and 10M Rubidium Atomic Clock. ($13,045)
Apex High Fi Audio (TTVJ) Teton ($5000)
Eddie Current Black Widow ($1248)
Violectric V281 ($2299)
Bakoon HPA-21 ($2995) current output headphone amplifier.
KGSSSRE (Kevin Gilmore Solid State Special Reviewer's Edition E-Stat Amp ($Unobtanium)

Sennheiser HD 800 ($1599)
Audeze LCD-3 ($1945) and LCD-X ($1699)
JPS Labs Abyss AB-1266 ($5495)
Stax SR-009 ($4450) and SR-007 ($2350)
HIFIMAN HE-1000 ($3000)
Mr. Speakers Ether ($1499)
Enigmacoustics Dharma (~$1200)
Audio Zenith PMx2 ($1398)

Digital cables by AudioQuest.
Cable complements for wiring entire systems will be from: Nordost; JPS Labs; WyWires; Cable Pro; AudioQuest, and Cardas.

Headphone stands by Klutz Designs

TMoney's picture

"I've decided not to go into the scoring much as I write my daily reports of visitors. I don't want to make people feel embarassed when it's difficult, and I also don't want to tip off the result in the long run either, so you'll not hear me talking of these scores anymore, other than maybe a reiteration of how difficult it is, or, hopefully, a remark on how extraordinarily well someone did."

Please don't do this.

I find the blind testing results to be one of if not the most interesting aspects of the "Big Sound 2015" project.

thune's picture

The statement doesn't rule out presenting data at the end of Big Sound, with "Listener #" instead of names.

TMoney's picture

I think it is very important that anonymized results not be what happens.

I am interested in beginning to learn whether or not things like experience matters in peoples performances on the blind test.

tony's picture

Phew, Stoddard is owning us!

Like a magnet, people's headphone compass tend to point at Schiit.

Fascinating that this fellow owns the HD800 and the Objective stuff ( plus the baby Tube Schiit piece ). Somehow he got very good advice and accepted it. I'm a bit jealous. His total investment seems only about $2,000. His next step-up will either be the Big Schiit & He1000 @ $7,500 or the full boat Stax 009s @ $10,000.

Stax gets his top rating, I'm not surprised, he's brain and ears are already acclimated to superb gear and he only works with ( and on ) high levels of craftsmanship types of items. He's in the High-End segment of Consumer items.

I'm thinking he's no beginner, rather he's the ringer Pro Caddy that can play under Par. He shows useful analytical abilities.
He seems to exhibit "earned confidence".

I'll bet that he'd already own that Stax 009 if he had the money.

HD800s & Objective stuff shows careful genius. I wish I'd of thought of that system.

Mr.Jonathan is impressive.

Tony in Michigan

moshen's picture

I agree. You make the best observations. Keep it up.

AllanMarcus's picture

"Anyone going off on a hype train, or on and on about how cables and break-in totally changed their headphones is just so obviously full of crap after you've heard just how small these differences really are and how hard it is to tell the differences between stuff."

Jazz Casual's picture

Indeed. I'd like to see this thrown into any number of Head-Fi threads.

lashto's picture

It'll surely help to put that quote on every thread in every single audio forum.
You wont see it on headfi though. The place is beyond hope in that respect and the real problem is that they want it so. Apparently small differences dont sell that well. Such a waste of an otherwise wonderful forum.

Congratulations Tyll for trying to keep hifi real and down to earth. All the luck too!

steaxauce's picture

If people are hearing differences between components, and blind testing doesn't seem to be sensitive to it, you could try doing blind auditions instead. The procedure would be to listen to a passage or two blindly on a component, and describe your impressions by filling out a short, structured form. If you do this multiple times for each component, you ought to be able to see whether there's any relationship between what you're hearing and what you describe. The statistics involved would be a little more complicated, but it's definitely sound.

If you do this right, and people really are hearing genuine differences between components, you ought to be able to prove it without ever doing a blind test. On the other hand, if it turns out that people's subjective impressions are unrelated to what component they're listening to when they don't know in advance what that component is, you would have worked around the common objection that blind tests are a mind%&*#, and this might provide a result that more people will take to heart.

Of course I understand that this stuff is probably hard to implement at this point in the process. Food for thought, though.

As an "objectivist" myself (I don't like that word very much--I think subjective listening is great for exploration and objective methods are necessary for proof. And this hobby is, after all, all about a subjective experience), there are a few things I'd find really helpful if you end up getting non-null results with some of your listeners on the solid state amps, sources or cables.

One thing would be to measure the components to verify that they don't have any unusual behaviors that would definitely make differences between them audible. For instance, make sure the DACs have flat frequency responses and no other anomalies, and that Nordost and Cardas don't "sound" their cables with any unusual configurations.

The other thing is to, if anyone does particularly well, keep testing them. If you test enough people you're bound to get some non-null results by chance, so if someone seems to be able to spot differences, make sure it's not due to chance. To prove there are audible differences between components you only need to be able to find one person who can spot them, so make sure it's real.

Thanks Tyll, I'm really excited that you're taking a methodical approach to this.

wink's picture

I have found from personal experience that comparing one headphone right after another is fraught with problems, which seem to favour the brighter headphone.
Example 1. Stax SR-007 Mk1 vs Sennheiser HE-60.
Listening to the Stax right after the Senn leaves the Stax sounding flat due to the Senn's brighter frequency response.
How to fix this problem? My solution is to use a track I know intimately and use it with the first headphone after listening to about 3 other tracks first. Then I change to the second headphone and listen to 3 more tracks before turning to the reference track.
Doing this, the Stax invariably sounds very detailed, mellifluous and engaging to the point of audio nirvana.
I believe this effect is due to the fact that it lets your ears acclimatise to the new headphones.
Doing the comparisons one straight after the other prejudices your perspective too much.
How many people have auditioned different speakers and bought the ones with the WOW factor, only to go back after a few weeks to exchange them for something less strident and "in-your-face"...?

tony's picture

Reports are now flooding in ( from North Eastern Russia ) about the Bears circling civilization areas, wandering the streets and attacking residents.

Large number of Bears, not the lone starving Old geezer bears, Bears in Packs, worse than Wolves. Phew

We are only beginning to understand the collateral effects of Global Warming and Climate Change.

Way up there in Montana, folks should be cautious, the Bears up there are getting the message. Yellowstone already is having Bear attacks ( some fatal ).

Maybe the Elephants are on to something when they say they'd build a Trump Wall all along the Canadian Border ( and make the Canadians pay for it ) : Trump for President, Walker for VP 2016 , "The Great Wall Candidates" .

Well, we gotta keep those darn Bears from attacking our little Babes, we'll have to do it for the children.

I'll buy Billboard Space on that Wall !

Tony in Michigan

OldRoadToad's picture

It was Ben Franklin, noted American Statesman and enthusiastic lover of mature women who once said, "All cats are gray in the dark."

What then does this teach us about "blind testing"? We have at our disposal other senses. Sight and touch come to mind. In love we see with the heart, even in the dark. Now, open you eyes

Do not listen to the equipment but instead, the music it is reproducing. Look at what is before you. Is it pleasing to the eye as well as the ear and what of touch? Does it have a feeling of quality to it's build or one of random assembly?

So many people fall back on the old saying that looks mean nothing and yet the very first thing one notices (unless you are truly blind) is how someone or something looks. Never discount that fact. Never.

If the cover of a book screams "CHEAP!" I am not even going to open it much less buy it but in like fashion if a beautiful woman opens her mouth and in doing so shatters the mirror of my thoughts then I shall pass. Meretriciousness comes in many forms my friends.

Play something familiar. Familiarity in music does not breed contempt but rather comfort. Now, open your ears and the mind that lives between them. Use your sight, your hearing and that wondrous mind to hear the differences that speak directly to your soul. Music can do that. And once you've listened with your ears, your eyes, your mind and your heart and soul there is but one thing left to open.

Your wallet. Or not. Do not make more out of something, anything until it has proven worthy of doing so. Then you will be able to make up your mind instead of buying hastily. And in do so, having to making excuses for having just made do.

The Toad

tony's picture

You better get one of these gizmo's, quick.

JA just reported on the darn thing, it has him bamboozled nicely.

Of course you'd be showing-up the Big Boss ( kinda a Taboo in my Business World ), better to simply say something supportive but do the poo-pooing between the lines.

Buuuuuuuttt…then again, it's an Audioquest Gizmo and they did "give" you all that Carbon or is it Diamond Cabling.

Better just take a Pass and claim yur darn schedule is too dam tight to take it on.

By the way, Tyll, you never did write about that Isolation Base that pose'd to improve all things Audio. If that guy was me ther'd be a nice envelope ( marked confidential ) in the box for you-all. ( hint-wink) When are these guys gonna learn?, maybe I should run a Seminar on how to get good reviews. ( on Saint Croix )

Tony in Michigan