Listen like a Rock Star: Upgrade your mobile music experience (1/2)

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Notice those things stuffed into Adam Levine’s earholes? Those are custom molded JHAudio earpieces and you could be rocking out like him…. read on for some background and information on how I upgraded my experience (with a lot learned along the way)

Introduction

I have a side gig where I write software for the Mac, and one of those pieces of software is an app called Dapper. It enables users to sync their Mac iTunes libraries with a Digital Audio Player – or DAP for short. The reason for this is that DAPs usually have better audio circuitry than your phone or a standard “MP3 Player”

I have had a few folks approach me as to what they should do to “improve their listening experience” and so this blog post will attempt to help answer this question and also get real about “Hires”, “Audiophiles” and other snake-oil…

As a starting point I find a large number of people simply use the white Apple headphones they get, plugged into their i-Device or alternately the mirror, standard headphones plugged into an Android device.

You know the difference between these two sounds you see below: This is what I am talking about… just on more of a refined level. What if you could squeeze the black system on the right (or something even better) into a portable system? Lets take a look?

 

Apple AirPods/Earpods

Where to start? Well, a lot of folks are “upgrading” their listening experiences to the latest from apple where they’re promised “It’s performance that’s unheard of in a device this small.” Cough. Cough.

Here is an Arc Technica snippet from their head-to-head reviews of a few wireless buds:

fullsizerender-2

If you have to “notice” the bass on a prominent bass song, or your mids and highs “get muddled” you’re flushing your $150 down the drain… But you can have small and portable, with fantastic sound…

Bad Audio

In the past few years we have started also seeing “cool” headphones like Beats, Urbanite and others adorning people’s heads along with noise cancelling models like the Bose headphones you find on a plane… so there is a movement on where people are clearly looking for a better expereince.

I remember my father connecing a CD player to a set of Bowers and Wilkins speakers a long time back and remember the amazing differencde in sound. I think folks today are re-experiencing this “upgrade”.

The pipeline of your music looks roughly like this in terms of whats involved:

Original Sound/Music->Microphones/Capture hardware->Encoding to Digital Format->Playback Chip (DAC)->Amplifier->Headphone

Your music can be screwed up at any point in this chain, and we’ll get to why you should care about things like Capture and encoding, which along with the guy deciding the levels etc is generally called “Production”. If they recorded your favorite song on a crappy tape deck, you can throw $10,000 speakers at it and its still gonna sound crappy. Such is the pain when you start to upgrade and find that the original recordings of some stuff just stinks.

So, lets snap back into why youre reading this. You can get the best bang for your buck by upgrading the following things, in order, if youre an iphone-with-earbuds person:

  1. Your head/earphones. $500-$1000
  2. Your player. $300-$700
  3. Your music files (From Mp3 to lossless) Buy a freaking CD

Said diferently, youll get 70% of your improvement by upgrading your headphones, 30% from beter files and players.

Yes, I am suggesting you spend $800 to $1,700 over the course of your journey.

Of course its crazy complicated to balance what you upgrade and by how much, but start with a decent pair of headphones. You see diminishing returns as you upgrade, so youre likely to see a huge improvement moving to a better headphone, to a $400 headphone, to a $1,000 headphone and then maybe not so much to move to a $5,000 headphone. 🙂

I have basically maxed out my hearing ability at a JHAudio 13Pro in-ear-monitor. Around $1,300 for a fully custom thing in my ear, molded to my ear canal. For around $500 you can get a “regular” headphone that does a similar job, but isn’t really gym-ready, or comfortable for 5 hour plane rides. Crap, now you want to think about gym too 🙂 This said, I have tried $2000 in-ear-monitors and headphones, the difference is very slight, if any from my $1300 pair.

In my work on this Dapper app I have played with a lot of players, messed with a lot of headphones and a lot of music. On the top end I have spent time, alone, for extended periods of time with the likes of:

  • An Astell and Kern AK380 Digital Audio Player ~$4,000
  • JHAudio Angie II in-ear-monitors – $1,400
  • Sennheiser HD-800S “regular” headphones – $1,700

I can tell you that the reality is youre getting a great deal if you keep in the ranges I have listed above, and you get an idea of the relative importance from the cost I think you should max out at. $4k for a DAP is madness, as is $2k for an IEM (I didnt bother going past the JH Angies to the top-end Laylas).. If you have $10,000 to spend on audio, maybe you do buy big-ass headphones (Stax at $5k) with an external Chord Hugo dac/amp ($2,500) needed to actually drive them, and hook that to your Astell and Kern AK380 at $4k and add a monster storage card to the player, and buy all hi-rez music… and you’re not veryportable and certainly aren’t off to the gym with this lot.

Additionally, you can’t just buy stuff without thiking… what if your DAP cant connect to your Mac? What is the headphone you buy is too big to be driven by the DAP? What if the user interface sucks and you cant find the songs you like? Ugh… this could be an expensive series of unfortunate experiments…

Picking from the various types of Headphones

Let’s dig a little deeper into my journey and talk about some of the things you will want to keep an eye our for when putting together a system.

You have two options when choosing the first, and most important part of your experience – the headphones or earphones. There are a variety of types to choose from, roughly in order of size from biggest to smallest: (Visit innerfidelity’s wall of fame to get great recommendations in a variety of price ranges)

  • Circum-aural open-back headphones. These sit around your ears and are usually pretty large. Great examples here are the Sennheiser HD800S Really good, really big, and open, allowing ambient sounds from around you in. Have a look at a picture here of the size of these things. Not exactly good for travel, and usually require a lot of power to move those huge diaphragms.. which usually means a separate amp. If your listening experience is set at home, in a quite space you ca not beat the sound quality from these types of headphones, however.
  • Circum-aural closed-back/sealed headphones. These also sit around your ears and are sealed, so you won’t get as much external noise coming in as you listen. They’re slightly better for travel, but super from the same huge size and requirements to drive them.
  • On-ear open back headphones. These are smaller than their bigger counterparts as they sit with the ear pads on your ears. There are a few good headphones in this range as well, but open back is not great for travel, so I skipped this.
  • On-ear sealed headphones. These are what you see around the airport, on the street and have become hip with the help of Beats and others. There are, of course, good and bad headphones here. If you are looking to get the best sound and comfort right-out-of-the-box these are a great place to look. A great option here is the Audeze SINE (with Cipher cable) $450 – These come with a cable to connect directly to lightning ports in iDevices. This means you get a DAC/AMP in the device itself and these are my first choice if you’re going to stick with your iPhone and not get an external DAP. This is also the category where you see the most popular Beats headphones.
  • Earphones (in ear) off the shelf. These are generally the types of things you can use at the Gym, on a plane or even inside your motorcycle helmet… They range from the crappy stuff Apple gives you all the way up to the top end of in-ears, the Jerry Harvey Audio Laylas which run $2,299. A set of Laylas reportedly reach way up into the levels of some of the highest quality circum-aural phones. In addtion, these off-the-shelf or universal earphones come with a variety of tips that you replace in order to fit your ear better. To be honest I have ordered a few various types of these to test and see whether the sound was what I wanted to get in a custom version… My issue with off the shelf is that they are not very comfortable and usually the higher end ones stick out pretty far from your ears. So my preference is a custom set with the same electronics, put into a custom shell – see below:
  • Custom In-Ear Monitors are where I landed because these can reach the quality and fidelity of a closed circus-aural headphone, but can be worn anywhere, have great noise cancelling since they’re custom molded and sit to alarge degree in your ear, and have a variety of options available to suit your taste….

Now, you could buy a pair of regular headphones and then a set of in-ears for the gym, and maybe a bluetooth set… but Id rather pool my cash and buy a good you-can-use-anywhere set – and that calls for Custom In Ear Monitors (CIEMs)

Picking an In Ear Monitor

Lets dive into detail about what it takes to pick a good universal or Custom In Ear Monitor and also the effects of selecting one of these in terms of the requirements of your player, cable etc.

In order to get the great sound you want from an IEM, these device pack one or several drivers into the shell. In some cases these can use a single dynamic driver, similar to whats in the original iPhone Earbuds. This is a single membrane that vibrates back and forth to produce the sound waves.

Unfortunately a single membrane isn’t perfect to reproduce all the ranges of frequencies at the same volume or without any distortion, and so in “better” earphones you will see multiple balanced armeture drivers, each of which is designed specifically to cover a specific frequency range.

Multiple Drivers: How many?

Some simple headphones have a single driver:


Above is a cutaway diagram of a Balanced Armature driver. (The balanced here has nothing to do with “balanced” cables mentioned below.) The majority of IEMs have several which each handle a specific range:

In the case of the ones I selected, the JHAudio 13Pro has six drivers in each ear, two for each of 3 frequency ranges. 

So, why am I blabbing about this multi-driver scenario? Its important because your sound can be mangled if your source player’s output impedance is too large or the hedaphone driver crossover isn’t good, or if the audio delivery to your ear isn’t good either.

Crossovers (And JHAudio FreqPhase):

Electricity flows from your player through the IEM in order to make each of the drivers vibrate. The electricity first hits a “crossover” circuit that filters each of the frequencies out and sends the split frequencies only to the driver that is supposed to play them.

So, if your crossover isn’t matched perfectly to your drivers the drivers could each be making sounds at the same frequency. Maybe the drives isn’t any good at producing those frequencies… or if those are slightly off, they may constructively or destructively interfere with each other. The result is that you get some frequencies dampened or amplified or just plain crappy.

In addition, different frequency sounds travel at different speeds through air, so if you split the sound elecrtrically and then shoot those actual waves out of three different nozzles, chances are they will arrive at the ear at different times. JHAudio has a patent for a tech they call FreqPhase which basically involves different length air tubes to compensate. They also have a set of In-Ears that have 4th order crossovers (shown in blue), essentially providing better defined cutoff between frequencies:


Its getting pretty complex to make all these little things shoved into your ears to play well, isn’t it?

So, yes there is a reason an in-ear at $1,000+ is so expensive (though let’s be clear that I’m sure theres fantastic margin in there. I expect ~50% is profit)

Now, these crossovers and the number of drivers in each ear as well as quality and tuning of the two certainly drives quality. In my experience a 3-way IEM is best, and usually 2 drivers per is great. 3-way with 4 total drivers is good. Anything less isn’t so great.

You CAN get standard single-dynamic-driver IEMs, which mean you don’t have to monkey with worrying about some the impedance stuff below. Your ears will tell or not tell the difference when you try some out.

Matching to your source impedance:

Here is the most important piece about multiple driver IEMs though. As electrivity flows through these drivers, they each have diffeerent resistence properties. This means that if your source equipment’s output impedance is too high for your headphones, you could be (quite severely) under-powering one driver set and over-powering another… which in my case can badly stunt the bass.

The general rule is <1 Ohm is needed for IEMs optimally, and you may get away with <2 Ohms. A lot of iDevices dont pass the test:

  • iPhone 4S Output Impedance is 1’8 Ohm
  • iPhone 5 Output Impedance is 3’3 Ohm
  • IPhone 5s Output Impedance >2 Ohm
  • IPhone 6 Plus Outout Impedance 3.18 Ohm
  • IPhone 7 dongle output impedance <1Ohm
  • iPod Classic Output Impedance is 5 Ohm
  • iPod Touch 5 Output Impedance is 0’75 Ohm

…and neither do a lot of other players. Take care or youll feel like the bass is missing if you pair a ‘bad’ audio source. Of course if you use the HD800s or Audeze LCD which suck power like beasts or use a single driver, the output impedance mismatch isnt there – so this is far less of an issue, or no issue at all.

So now you want to choose an IEM and you need also to be able to listen to a good source. This becomes the epic catch-22. Youd need to test each headphone with each source device to figure out where you personally run out of runway. Where you can’t tell the difference anymore. Plugging your $3000 IEM into your grandfather’s AM radio won’t help you figure out if the $3000 is worth it.

Trying/Auditioning:

So you need to find a dealer who stocks this kind of stuff and plan to spend some time. You’ll also need at least a lossless (CD) copy of a few songs of different styles that you listen to often and know really well. Dont even bother wth what they have available at the testing spots – bring your own CD or ALAC or FLAC music for sure.

Have them hook you up to the top of the line first. The baddest-ass headphones with the baddest-ass source. This is the sound youre going for, and you probably can’t hear it all anyway – I certainly can’t – but youll know the best possible sound when you hear it now. Take your time and fiddle with the bass/treble a little.

Now you know what it “should sound like”, have them start low with cheaper IEMs conected to the same source if possible, and move up till you hear the same quality on universal IEMs. You may find you can achieve the same level your ears can pick up for a hell of a lot less.

I’d suggest you consider buying one click up from that because you will become more discerning with some time and find some nuggets in there you didn’t hear in your tests.

You’ll also be a much happier knowing theres nothing else there that you’re missing out on if you had only spent an extra $100. Ahem, $10,000.

What you can audition or test is not custom, so don’t worry about comfort. You’ll have isolated the manufacturer and the electronics or the flavor of In Ear Monitor. As long as you’re listening to IEMs that offer a custom option, you can turn around and order the same thing, but molded perfectly for you…. so watch out that what you test DOES come in a custom version.

Or you could order a crapload of gear on Amazon Prime and return all the stuff you dont like… Just sayin’

Having Custom IEMs Made:

How do custom IEMs work, how do you order them, how do you get fitted? Since each custom IEM is handmade to perfectly fit your ears, you’ll need to schedule an appointment with an audiologist to create an impression of each of your ears. It’s a quick and painless procedure. Depending on where you live, the cost for a pair of ear impressions varies from $50 to $150. Have a look here at an example. You then send this off to the manufacturer along with your order. You can check out a more detailed video from the Ultimate Sound here that shows you the process once your molds arrive.

Pro Tip: Dont go right after a haircut.

Notice the before and after below:

 

Cables and connections:

Connection types matter. Some IEMs are hardware – when you break the cable, you throw the entire thing out. This is normally with IEMs that are universal – they aren’t custom. However, when you go upmarket you’ll see some that have detachable cables. This is good… and bad.

Good in that you can swap cables for longer ones, non-broken ones, different connectors etc. Bad because some types, most notably the “standard 2 pin” connectors can wear out the sockets quickly. You could unplug and replace a cable maybe 4 times before the socket has been worn enough and the cables will slowly work themselves loose. One day “pop” your IEM goes skipping to the floor/road/storm drain. The upside is this is the lowest profile connector, so if you don’t break your cables youse set to go!

200x400px-ll-df3a79d0_jhsxc2

 

Next is the MMCX connector – it may seem more hardy and like it will last longer than the 2 pin – but according to users, its prone to disconnects.

black_dragon_shure425_headphone_cables_1_
JHAudios new IEMS have a screw type 4 pin connector. The crossover is actually n the cable and delivered to each item is Ground, Low, Mid and High. This connector has a nut that secures the cable and I like this format most… except that to each ear you have 4 cables, and where they come together you have an 8-cable monster of a thick cord (You can see these are what Adam Levine is wearing in the opening graphic):

350x222px-ll-79202feb_546579194c5b4black_dragon_iem_v2_jh_audio_cable_2_5_mm_5

 

Also, the other end counts too! Lets say you have a balanced cable (more about this later) and it is terminated into a 2.5mm super small balanced jack. And its straight. And you have to put an adapter on it when you plug in your iPhone… its going to stick WAY out. And one bump later you’ve bent/broken it: (The image below is without an adapter added)

headphone-zone_astell_kern_layla-ii_6_1200x

Balanced or Single-ended

Generally y11143-01ou will start wth a “standard” 3.5mm jack on your headphones – these have a sing
le ground wire, and also a left and right positive wire. In this case you can plug this baby into your iPods, iPhones, Android devices as well as adapters to take the size up for “old school” larger plugs.

 

3-5-mm-audio-jack

Your device may also come with a cable that has four conductors, including an extra one for a microphone/button. In the AudioPhile world, this extra conductor may in fact be used to provide a “balanced” connection to your output device in order to provide better “separation” or “imaging”.

 

Several high end manufacturers like Astell and Kern, Onkyo, FiiO and others all support a balanced 2.5mm plug. Horribly small and flimsy, but there you go. There are so2-5mm-plug-trrs-connector-plastic-1me other plugs including SLR and others but 2.5mm is most common and can take an adapter to go up to 3.5mm.The short version of this is that when music is playing in stereo two things can happen to degrade the sound. Interference can be introduced in the wire itself (the worst case of this is your iPhone transmit chirping that you can hear sometimes in headphones, which can’t necessarily be eliminated – more on this in choosing a player) – and also when there is a common ground wire feeding both sides they don’t have separated access to ground, and this can cause a degraded path to ground for one or other side or bleed-through if grounding is not done properly.

The result of using a balanced cable is higher volume (greater voltage delta between the two sides) and also, more importantly, better separation and sound stage. For example if you’re listening to an orchestra on a great recording you can hear where the instruments are in front of you much better.

You may not care about this at all, but keep it in mind for the future. If you have an Onkyo DP-X1 or an Astell and Kern player or a FiiO X7 as examples, these come with both, and you may want to switch – so make sure you could, if you wanted to, upgrade your cable to a balanced one.

I, in particular, like the new JHAudio cable connectors since they don’t seem to “wear out” like the 2 pins do and stay put. The stock cables are thick, but you can order all this stuff custom from a place like Moon Audio and get thinner cables out the gate.

You may be thinking of trying to get a cable set that has a Mic and button on it for your phone use. This is okay only if you have an easy disconnect/reconnect, and I would at this point only recommend it for the JHAudio 4 pole “new” connector. I speak from experience. Usually the cables hurt sound quality (sometimes a lot) and are also usually ugly as heck. I dont bother anymore.

p1050059One more thing on the Jerry Harvey Audio Inears: JHAudio has a new feature on these cables with he locking screw and nut – that is an in-line bass bod that allows you adjust the bass drivers, and the bass drivers only. We’ll touch on equalization in the DAP section, but this implementation affecting only the Bass Drivers is by far the best way to so equalization as opposed to using a software equalizer which may again not allow you to tweak a specific range that relates to one of the drivers in your headphone.

 

I want as little cable as possible I hear you screaming.

t2_cable_450_padded.
Now, if all this sounds too thick for you, Linum makes a scary thin cable called the Bax, which is so thin it seems like it shoudl break at every turn… but doesnt. Its really quite amazing, and its basically like having fishing line on your earphones, so you don’t have to worry about dropping them.

IMG_4419_filtered5B15D

 

 

So, ultimately these are my In-Ear Monitors in all their glory:

ALl.png

Upgrading your “Sound producing hardware”:

Now that we have covered chosing a set of in-ear monitors for the best mobile fidelity, as well as cables to connect it, lets not look one step back – what to plug the cable into.

As I mentioned above, you will want to make sure that the device you are plugging into has a low enough impedance rating on the output. For In-Ears this should be less than 1 Ohm, or at most 2 Ohms. If you dont keep it under this value, youre likely to lose some bass response.

You can certainly compensate for some of this if your player has a good equalizer, but the downsides are a few: Equalizer software usually eats battery faster, and it also is very difficult to stop it from messing with other frequencies unless you have a particularly good one.

Next, if youre also going to listen to diferent types of headphones (maybe you have a portable setup and also want to plug in a set of big headphomnes at home) you need to also make sure the output can drive your headphones. Usually the devices you connect to are rated for output power in mW at a specific impedance rating for connected devices. If you have too little, you won’t be able to turn up the volume far enough before it distorts. If you have too much you may actually hear a hiss from the source on your sensitive in ear monitors.

In some cases (such as the FiiO X7) the players/devices actually have interchangable amp modules to handle this exact issue.
So lets say you splurged on a Sennheiser HD800. Its rated at 300Ohms impedance. Its sensitivity is rated at 102dB per Volt. 110dB is considered full-volume. (This WebMD article)

So lets say you want to be able to go to 90dB for some head-banging. Your device powering your headphones needs to hit 90/102 volts = .88v or 880mV.

With a set of Audeze LCD 4 headphones, you have 97dB/1mW with 200Ohm impedance. To get to full blast you need 1.03v or 1030mV. An iPhone 6 at 200 Ohms outputs less than 1000mVrms. Most amps dont operate well at full power, and so an iPhone 6 would not drive an LCD easily. (Rms is root mean squared and is notation of how the measurement is taken when the voltage is actually varying all the time)
The various amp modules for the FiiO X7 player are listed below to give you an idea of the ranges of power per impedance of the attached headphones – you can see that some combos may not work well for some amps:


You’ll see how some of these modules are really topping out at 150 or 100Ohms…so if youre looking to hook up HD800s or LCD-4s as well as your smaller In-Ear Monitors you’d have issues.

The FiiO X7 Digital Audio Player is nice because you can actually buy a specific amp module for your needs. This is not the case with 99% of other output hardware.

Next, lets talk about how to drive those new head/earphones….

Click for part 2…

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