I’ve been an audiophile now for several years and it has been a long, bumpy, and frustrating road at times.
It all started off with money.
My first decent job gave me a bit of extra disposable income that was burning a hole in my pocket. I had already gone done the nice computer route, hence being a member of OCForums, so what to invest in now?
I have always loved music – I was a Catherdral Chorister for five years and play the piano and the drums. I did think about going down the route of getting some nice speakers, but due to their size and lack of private listening, I started looking at the headphone route.
In my research I stumbled across head-fi.org. This is a huge forum simply dedicated to headphones and driving them.
After reading and researching constantly for hours on end (using the search button), I finally made my decision on my first tentative steps down the slippery slope that is “audiophilia”. My first purchase was a Asus Xonar STX and a pair of Audio-technica AD700s. The Xonar is a PCIE audiophile sound card which had an inbuilt headphone amp.
This came very highly recommend from head-fi and was a great purchase. The AD700s were my first “real” headphones. They are rather large and anybody who has seen them will instantly recognise the regal purple and gold which is rather nice, in my opinion. They are open headphones, which means that the drivers do not have any solid enclosure on the “out” facing side.
There are two main types of headphones, Open and Closed.
Open headphones have no solid barrier on the ouside of the headphones. This means that they have almost no isolation (you can hear the music just as loudly sitting next to them as with them on your head), which is a downside if you are using them around other people. Open headphones tend to have a wider soundstage and sound more “Airy”. This makes them absolutely stunning for jazz, classical and acoustic music. They tend to lack bass when compared to closed headphones, but the bass is still there and very refined.
Closed headphones have a solid “barrier” on the outside of the drivers. This makes them very good for situations where you need isolation, i.e. there are people around you or the ambient noise where you listen is very high. Because of the fact that the sound waves are not leaving the outer wall of the drivers, instead being reflected back into the ear, they can be louder than Open headphones. This also creates a much more full bass end, which some people prefer.
Back onto the headphones in question, AT AD700s. When I came home from work and excitedly unpacked the headphones, I knew they were different to your “average” headphones. The packaging was well thought out and well made. There were a few nice little touches that you would not expect. For example, the standard connector on the headphones is a 3.5mm jack, but included is a 6.35mm adapter, which screws on top of the standard jack. This gives the illusion that the standard jack is actually 6.35.
When I first put them on, I knew they were a good choice. They are quite simply the most comfortable headphones I have ever worn. They might look quite large and odd, but once they are on your head, wow – they are comfortable.
As a test, I used the on-board sound first with them to see how they sounded through just a crappy on-board sound card. I was pleasantly surprised when the music came out clear and “Airy”. However, when I plugged the Xonar STX into my computer, I was blown away by the “fullness” of the sound. Many people believe that an Amp only makes the sound louder and they are partly right, it does drive headphones louder. However, it also adds body to the music, makes everything sound “more”.
This is when I started getting into different genres of music and my love of jazz began.
I bought a load of jazz CDs from a local music shop and started going through them. The AD700s sound so good for jazz because the soundstage is very detailed. In other words, if you close your eyes you can “see” exactly where each of the instruments is being played from.
The great thing about the AD700’s is that they sound great even without an amp. As I started reading more at head-fi, I started to become more interested in dedicated headphone DACs (Digital to Analogue converters) and Amps.
My attention was drawn towards the Audio-gd compass. This audiophile gem is made by a small Chinese company hand-making amps called Audio-gd. The compass is an integrated DAC/Amp, which means that it takes digital in (Optical, Spdif or USB) and outputs an analogue signal.
This can be then either sent through the dedicated headphone amp or straight out the back to act as a pre-amp for any other speaker amps.
The Compass is very well priced and can be had for $300 USD, excluding shipping from the Audio-gd website (http://www.audio-gd.com/En%20audio-gd.htm). I ordered one and 3 weeks later, a got a large, heavy box delivered to work. The first thing I had to say about it when I unboxed it was the build quality and workmanship that goes into making these things, but enough of that. On to the sound!
The difference against my headphone out on my Xonar STX is worth every penny. I find music now to have a wider soundstage and more detailed.
For example, I have just been listening to John Coltrane’s album Giant Steps.
With the old amp, the sax solos sounded slightly muddy and it was harder to make out any other background instruments during his solo. However, with the Compass the solos became more detailed and clear and you can hear every instrument played behind it.
Another perfect example of this was at the start of “Countdown” on Giant steps during the drum solo.
I have been a drummer now for 10 years and it sounded like I was sitting right in front of a drum kit being played. The separation was perfect. Then when Coltrane comes in with the sax solo, you can hear perfectly on the left his sax and the single ride on the right.
That’s about it for this introduction to the Audiophile world. If you would like to find out more about headphones in detail, please come and register on head-fi.org.