When I got into high-end audio, around 1990, I was attracted to its focus on achieving more realistic reproduction of the music that has been my passion since I was eight or nine years old. But I’m starting to feel that high-end audio now often aims at a different goal.
I’d thought that the measuring of headphones was improving, but some recent developments have made me not so sure. Last year, the introduction of some excellent new lab gear made it possible for experienced engineers and technicians to make more useful measurements than ever before. But the introduction of some very cheap, nonstandard measurement gear has made it possible for almost anyone to make headphone measurements that are less useful than ever before.
My recent review of the Monoprice Monolith M300 earphones, and my friend Steve Guttenberg’s review of the M300s on CNet, have raised a timely question. The M300s seem to be a knockoff of one of Audeze’s iSine planar-magnetic earphone models, but they arrived so soon after the iSines’ introduction that it makes me wonder if some third party isn’t dealing to both sides. The provenance of the tech products we buy is increasingly unclear, a situation that prompts me to ponder: Today, what does a brand mean?
A few subwoofer reviews aside, I haven’t been all that active in home theater the last few years. So when I was invited to be on the AV Rant podcast, hosted by Tom Andry and Rob H., I was thrilled to catch up with what’s going on in the field. The AV Rant is a roughly two-hour weekly podcast in which Tom and Rob discuss home-theater news and answer reader questions. From 1995 to 1999, when I was editor-in-chief of Home Theater magazine, I became acutely aware of the differences between the home-theater and two-channel-audio industries. Talking with Tom and Rob reminded me how different the fields are -- and how much more different they’ve become over the years.
As I write this, I’ve just returned from the Rocky Mountain Audio Fest, where I moderated a panel titled “Best Headphone Rigs vs. State-of-the-Art Audio Systems.” One comment, from PSB Speakers founder and chief engineer Paul Barton, especially stuck with me. As best I can recall, he said, “Once you go to blind testing, where the listeners can’t see the identity of the products, everything changes,” and he punctuated it with a wave of both arms.
Asked the question I pose in the title of this article, most of the people I deal with in the audio industry with would say, “Of course.” But a few -- including most high-end audio publications and some high-end audio manufacturers -- might say, “No.” “Trust your ears,” they tell us over and over, implying that whatever you hear, or think you hear, is just as real and valid -- and perhaps even more so -- than conclusions derived from blind testing, laboratory measurements, or scientific research.
High-end audio thrives on controversy, and recently, when the Wall Street Journal published an article titled “Why Vinyl’s Boom Is Over,” it got plenty. The high-end audio press attacked the author’s article, WSJ staff reporter Neil Shah. It’s an infuriating piece that presents as fact statements that are little more than opinion. But while it’s depressing that the editorial staff of the WSJ (who are not the same people responsible for the paper’s notoriously provocative editorial page) let this one through, the article does raise a couple of issues that vinyl-loving audiophiles should ponder.
There’s only one headphone model whose sudden disappearance would literally change the world of audio: Sony’s MDR-7506. Introduced in 1991, the MDR-7506es have become something of a standard for audio and video production. I’ve worked in and visited innumerable recording studios across the country, as well as quite a few radio and TV stations, and I can’t remember ever not seeing a set of ’7506es -- more likely, several pairs -- either in use or easily within the engineers’ reach.
In the last six weeks, I’ve been to two audio shows -- High End, in Munich, and the Los Angeles Audio Show -- while fielding my usual volume of new-product announcements and visits to manufacturers. In that time I’ve witnessed the debuts of hundreds of audio components. What strikes me, though, is not the large number of products I’ve seen, but the extremely small number that I remember.
I’ve just reached a milestone: the first time in my life I can recall passing an independent record store without going in. I did give the shop -- in downtown Ljubljana, Slovenia -- a good once-over. But faced with the prospect of missing one of Ljubljana’s other attractions because of the 30 to 60 minutes I’d spend browsing the store’s racks, all to acquire more records that I wouldn’t be able to play except in my listening room, I kept moving.