Sunday, April 28, 2013

Sennheiser HD 598

I've been eyeing this pair of headphones for the longest time. It's luscious creme-colored leather skinning and brown earpads were the first thing to catch my eye (yes yes shallow like that), and when I picked it up to listen to it, I was astounded by the clarity of what I heard.

That was, however, in a Sennheiser store, with properly-amped, high-quality music, and just plugging it to my phone and playing music from the in-built audio circuit does this pair of headphones no justice at all. I was very pleased to be linked up by SG Story to the Sennheiser Asia folks, who very readily sent a pair my way for review.

The Set Up
If I were to actually buy this for myself, it would be sitting in office, where I have placed my trusty little tube amp and 30-pin iPhone dock, which in turn holds my iPhone 4 and pipes its music out via Line Out to my amp when connected.

The Music
Pretty much everything I have. I've been taking a more orchestral slant so I've been listening to alot of operas, musicals, concertos and symphonies. But I've also tried out rock, hard rock, metal, jazz, blues, funk, post-rock, vocals and some pop, wherever my fancy takes me. I try to have my music source in as high a sample rate as possible, so most of them are in 320kbps, but some of my more complex music like concertos and jazz are in lossless WAV, running at 1411kbps.

The Verdict
The defining factor about the HD 598 is that it is open-canned, meaning that air is free to pass through the earcups, allowing for wider sound reproduction as opposed to closed cans, where the air available to transmit sound is limited from what's within the earcup, up to your ear drum. That is, unfortunately, also it's only pain point. Air moves so freely that people around you can pretty much hear whatever you are listening to, and you can still hear everything that goes around you, even a suppressed cough. Some argue that if people can hear what you are listening to, you're listening to it too loud. And with proper amping, the HD 598 can produce all frequencies evenly at low volumes. But for lack of a better phrase, it's quite simply tak shiok when the music isn't completely washing over you. Even feels like a bit of a waste at times, listening to music so softly when you have such powerful hardware. But to each his own. In fact, even with air flowing so freely, your ears start to feel tired, not from the prolonged cupping of the cushions, but if the volume is too loud.

The thing about the HD 598 is that its transducers deliver music so smoothly that it quite often feels flat. That is not to say the music feels lifeless - rather, it's helped me pay more attention to the details of my music, and rewarded that attention by faithfully reproducing every last bit of audio information that the little bits you never knew were there - a cough, a musician shifting in his chair, a slide on the fret, the sigh of a piano's sustain pedal - presents itself to you and delights the heck out of you.

Along with the open-cans, Sennheiser's Eargonomic Acoustic Refinement technology claims to give you the experience of sitting in front of a hi-fi system. Not sure how effective that has been for me. For sure the soundstage can be matched by few within its class, and stereo separation is well-defined, but it can feel very lateral, instead of the more forward placement you would expect from a hi-fi system.

Bass instruments that are often glossed over by lesser audio products - softly rumbling kettle drums, double basses, the lower harmonics of trombones, even some frequencies of bass guitars, are clearly heard with these headphones without getting too overwhelming.

The same can be said for the high frequencies. I have yet to hear something that could push the headphones' high frequency output into "ear-piercing" territory. Cymbal clashes, crashes and bashes, high notes of female singers, piccolos, trumpets and usually painful guitar squeals are all pumped out clearly yet tolerably, allowing you to enjoy musical climaxes without destroying your eardrums.

Mids have an unfortunate chance of getting overshadowed by the higher frequencies, but I've only heard that happen when everything is playing together, for example when chorus and orchestra are both going at full volume. If there is a tenor or baritone singing however, you can be damn sure that they'll cut through and be the centre of your attention. Even if they've been mixed to be in the background.

The recommended price of S$399 is a hefty one to pay if it's your first or second time making the jump to higher quality audio. And it's seldom worth it unless you already have an amping system in place that can provide proper output support. Music forced at loud volume from inferior audio circuits merely sound like wind through a tunnel. Try plugging any high quality headphone to your iPhone and maxing out the volume to see what I mean. Not a pleasant experience, and certainly not an experience worth draining your player's battery for. But if you want to jump into the world of audio goodness, and are willing to pay for an amp, the HD 598 offers amazing value for what you are paying, and should last you a very long time in your journey towards better music.

Saturday, April 27, 2013

Sony 2nd-generation XBA Balanced Armature Earphones

When Sony first launched the XBA series in late 2011 (and in Singapore early 2012), its suggested retail prices took many by surprise. Single driver in-ear monitors (IEMs) from well-known high grade audio brands such as Ultimate Ears, Westone and Shure were priced at approximately S$199, often breaking the $200 point. Sony's XBA-1 was priced at S$109. Did they spoil the market? Absolutely. Did they minimize the risks associated with entering the market?

I doubt. Being a corporation of their size they could definitely lower production costs by mass manufacturing, but that would have made for a major loss if it didn't sell. In fact, the 2011 Japanese tsunamis nearly wrecked the manufacturing process, and threw Sony into a delay.

I only have a fleeting impression of the first generation XBAs, since they were mostly tested at the event, save for the XBA-1 that we had each received. This time however, I have been sent all 4 earphones (XBA-10, 20, 30 and 40) to try out, so I can take my time to make my humble judgments on each one.

The Set Up
I decided to test the earphones in 2 different settings - powered by my iPhone (5, if it matters to you) on the go, and powered by my trusty little desktop headphone amp, with my old iPhone 4 as my music source via Line Out. The amp did not make as much of a difference as it usually does because the XBAs have relatively low resistance, but it did help me confirm certain points that I couldn't judge with my iPhone. All models' silicon earbuds were swapped out with the noise isolation earbuds, which includes an extra layer of sponge within the inner flange of the bud to absorb ambient noise. I always start my tests with tracks from Muse's HAARP live concert (hard rock, sharp bass, keyboards, stereo effects, live audience) and slowly branch out after that to jazz, metal, opera, classical and classic rock tracks.

General Good
If I had to describe the series in a single word, it's obvious that clarity is the XBA's main focus. How that clarity manifests itself though... that comes up a little differently. The XBA's extensive range of silicon earbuds, both normal and noise isolating, also ensure that you have the best fit possible. Little things like lapel clips and cord managers also let you customize the way you use your earphones.

General Bad
The wires aren't so much anti-tangle as tangle-resistant. A fair bit of acoustic noise from the cable can be heard, but that can be solved by looping the cable over your ear. The problem with the higher models though, especially the XBA-40, is that the light wires keep popping up when looped around the ear, making you look weird. And slightly loony.

XBA-10 (Full Range, S$98, iPhone version S$118)
The XBA-10's clarity take the number 1 spot out of the four models. Mids were rich and full-bodied, and to my treble-sensitive ears, highs were delivered with sparkling precision, without shredding my ear canals. This actually allows your music to cut through and overpower a fair bit of ambient noise.

However, as brilliantly as Sony's full-range driver handled mids and highs within a single armature, bass, the number one problem with single armature earphones, was still conspicuously missing. This gets slightly better while the earphones are driven by the amp, along with slightly more pronounced mids, but the higher frequencies can get overwhelming before the bass reaches an amplitude of your liking.

Use for: traveling on public transport, plugging in at work or in cafes

XBA-20 (Full Range + Woofer, S$238, iPhone version S$268)
The simple addition of a woofer driver pretty much compensates for what the Full Range driver is missing, and adds bass to your experience, with both drivers operating at full amplitude (if you don't quite get what this means read on to 30 and 40). This can make the earphones too bassy for some ears, but for me and my favourite music, this is an almost ideal output that comes close to matching my triple-driver custom earphones in richness and clarity. For this reason, the XBA-20 wins my vote as the best model of the lot.

Use for: needs specified in XBA-10, your bass-hungry ears, and probably if you listen to hard rock with heavy distortion and overdrive.

XBA-30 (Full Range + Woofer + Tweeter, S$318, iPhone version S$338)
The triple-driver offering adds booster drivers to either end of the audio spectrum, but instead of accentuating the high frequencies, some tuning and volume leveling of the drivers completely flattened the sound signature of the XBA-30. Especially after having listened to the richness of the XBA-20, the XBA-30 seems to withhold the life from my music, pumping it out in a very matter-of-fact way. What it does give you, however, is an incredible soundstage, so wide and distinct that I could clearly map out the placements of sections of a 50-piece orchestra, along with a similarly sized chorus and the main singers. I could tell when singers shifted position on the stage, or when two similarly voiced sections of the chorus were singing different lines side by side (for example, Tenor 1 and Tenor 2). That, to me, is the XBA-30's principal selling point. That said, I hate my music flat (delivered as-is without aural influence of the output device), but if there is some insight that most audiophiles who would consider the XBA-30s like their music flat, then hey, go for gold I say.

Use for: a portable solution to serious music study, listening to how orchestras or bands work and how they place themselves. Or if you are a stickler for flat output.

XBA-40 (Full Range + Woofer + Tweeter + Super Woofer, S$388, iPhone version S$408)
From a manufacturing point of view, the XBA-40 could be said to be Sony's bud-sized trophy. Where similarly-speced earphones cost close to or over S$1000, the XBA-40 retails for just over 40% of that price.

Aurally though, it feels like the XBA-40 falls short of the success it very well should be. Little more can be said about it that hasn't already been articulated for the XBA-30, save for the fact that with the addition of the last driver, the Super Woofer, music with very deep and subtle bass parts, such as that elusive bass drum in classical orchestras, are done justice with a satisfying rumble. That said, it isn't a 100% hit rate, and for bass heavy music like techno and rock, it doesn't really matter as much because the Woofer can more than deliver on the output.

Use for: ultimate music enjoyment if you enjoy your music delivered flat

The packaging. Really love the design and efficient use of space!

Sony's definitely gone in the right direction, and for the brilliant work they have done in commercializing balanced armature drivers for the mass market, I'm willing to shrug off their misses with the 30 and 40. Personally, I think they can make the 30 and 40 even friendlier to a larger crowd of prospective buyers, and I think these buyers wouldn't even mind forking out more than the current price for future iterations, if it can hit their sweet spot.