Someone from a company that sells mass-market audio/video gear called me the other day to ask if I knew anyone who could replace their audio product manager, who’d recently resigned. Right off the bat, I couldn’t think of anyone -- and not because I don’t know enough people in audio. It’s because the job of developing audio products has radically changed in the past decade -- and, in my opinion, has gotten much more difficult.
Most of the audio gear we used in, say, 2000 was straightforward stuff: loudspeakers, amplifiers, receivers. The rules for making all those products were defined decades ago. There’s no big mystery to making a good conventional speaker or amp, and in most cases, the design engineer has the budget to do something halfway decent. Even a $200/pair bookshelf speaker will probably have a reasonable crossover network, a fairly stiff enclosure of MDF, and acceptable drivers.
This isn’t the case with the hot audio products of today, such as soundbars, and AirPlay and Bluetooth speakers. Even models costing as little as $200 or $300 must include built-in amplification, some sort of wireless receiver, maybe a remote control, maybe some sort of iOS or Android app, and, probably, a really slick industrial design -- all in addition to the actual speaker elements.
The new $1099 USD Oppo PM-1 planar-magnetic headphones have headphone enthusiasts more excited than they’ve been in months. My test sample just arrived, and from what I gather we’ll be reading a lot of reviews of the PM-1 in the coming weeks. We’ll also be seeing lab measurements of the PM-1, and reading debates about what those measurements mean.
I thought this would be a great time to discuss how and why interpreting headphone measurements isn’t like interpreting speaker measurements.
Thanks mainly to work started at the Canadian National Research Council (where the SoundStage! Network does its speaker measurements) and continued at Harman International, we know a lot about what speaker measurements mean. Even most casual audio enthusiasts understand that a relatively flat on-axis response in a loudspeaker is a good thing. The equipment and techniques for speaker measurement are well standardized, so any two competent engineers are likely to get similar results, even if one’s working in an anechoic chamber and the other’s working in a basement.
You’ve probably heard by now about the big splash Neil Young made with his new Pono high-resolution music player at last month’s SXSW show in Austin, Texas. I’ve read a lot of commentary about Pono. Some pundits insist you can’t hear a difference between high-resolution files and CD. Some are convinced you can hear a difference and are thus cautiously -- very cautiously -- optimistic about Pono.
But I think people are missing a larger point here, and it’s a point that many have missed since the rise of high-end audio back in the 1980s or so.
I’m at least happy that a musician with some cred is pushing the idea of sound quality, and is doing it in a way that is actually likely to achieve good sound quality. Of course, Young isn’t the first celeb to tout the importance of good sound. Dr. Dre talked about sound quality when he launched Beats. Then he went and sold colossally bass-heavy headphones that seemed to audio experts to achieve exactly the opposite. Other manufacturers copied that sound, missing the fact that people were buying Beats mostly for fashion, and we ended up with a couple of years’ worth of mostly bad-sounding mass-market headphones. (Fortunately, Beats is now getting more serious about sound.)
I got an earful -- well, an eyeful anyway -- when I used Facebook to promote my recent review of the new Beats Pill XL Bluetooth speaker. Given that it was a Bluetooth speaker and a Beats product, I expected that someone who’s never heard the product (which at the time had been out for only about two weeks) would attack me for giving the Pill XL an overall positive review.
It took only about 30 minutes. One of my Facebook friends who runs an audio store commented, “Tell the truth. All these modern ‘ghetto blasters’ are a piss-poor replacement for a real stereo.”
If any one product category dominated the recent CES, it was definitely Bluetooth speakers. I reported on 57 of them, and those were just the ones I thought were newsworthy. And I bet that not one of the companies offering a new Bluetooth speaker had “must replace a real stereo” in its list of product development goals. They don’t think in those terms, any more than Toyota worries about whether the Camry can beat a Porsche 911 in a quarter-mile.
Much as the high-end audio community might wish that your average person would spend an hour or two every day sitting in front of a traditional stereo listening intently to music, almost no one uses a stereo that way anymore. Most people like to play music while they work, while they clean the house, while they hang out in the backyard, and when they travel. Bluetooth speakers do all of that easily. Sure, you can blast most traditional stereos loud enough to cover your whole house, but not without annoying everyone you live with -- and probably your neighbors.
There probably aren’t quite as many reasons why people choose to listen to music through headphones as there are people who do so, but there are a great many. Some don’t wish to disturb others with their music -- or are fearful of the repercussions that may result if they do. Since the introduction of the Sony Walkman, headphones have been the primary means of listening to your music when you’re out and about, thankfully replacing the boom box carried on the shoulder. The Apple iPod and other products like it, in combination with the storage and distribution of music transitioning to computer files, has made music on the go ubiquitous. There is also a group of consumers who genuinely prefer listening to their music through headphones, even when high-quality speakers are at hand.
I grew up in a house with a moderately sized stereo of mass-market quality and a few tabletop radios. There was often music playing, both at home and in the car, but sitting down and paying attention to it was rare. For that, we went to concerts. I had a mini system in my college dorm room, which was fine for background music while studying, or for listening more attentively to pop, rock, and jazz. It didn’t really serve for classical. I wasn’t a music student, but I took very seriously my playing of trombone in the college orchestra, and I wanted to understand how my part fit into the overall fabric of whatever pieces we were playing. In the music library, I could hear recordings of whatever I wanted through headphones, and I discovered on those recordings a wealth of musical information of which I’d previously been unaware. Needless to say, I bought a decent pair of headphones and used them to listen to all genres of music. It would be many more years -- and many thousands of dollars -- before I found a speaker-based system that could deliver half the musical information I could hear through a pair of good headphones.
As part of SoundStage! Xperience’s expanding coverage of headphones and earphones, we’d like to draw readers’ attention to some recent binaural releases.
Binaural recordings are intended to be played back through headphones. They’re usually made by positioning two microphones the same distance apart as the distance between the average listener’s ears, with a baffle between them. Some are made with more sophisticated setups that include a detailed facsimile of a human head, with a microphone inserted in each of the head’s ear canals -- a device usually called a kunstkopf or dummy head. There are many resources on the Web that give detailed information about the history and methods of binaural recording, so I won’t go into them here.
Properly done, a binaural recording can produce an even more immersive listening experience than the best surround-sound loudspeaker array. Even when the recordings are compressed to MP3 files and played through inferior equipment, much of the sense of space remains. With the number of people now listening through headphones -- both at their computers and with portable players -- I’ve been awaiting a resurgence in binaural recordings. I’m still waiting.
There are two reasons why more artists and recording engineers haven’t embraced binaural techniques. First, a convincing binaural recording requires musicians to be playing together in a real space, which is not how most modern recordings are made. Second, binaural recordings can sound odd when played through loudspeakers. The solution to the second problem is to make two versions of the recording available: one intended for headphone playback, the other for use with speakers.
The great thing about today’s A/V receivers is that they can do just about everything except scratch your back and make a cheese sandwich. The not-so-great thing about today’s receivers is trying to figure out how to make everything work before you scratch your head, throw your hands in the air, and go make that cheese sandwich yourself. I found, however, that the multiple options and outcomes possible with the Onkyo TX-NR808 were initially daunting but not painful to navigate; that, once up and running, it pretty much ran itself; and that, in the end, all its features, instructions, and stickers made sense.
The TX-NR808 ($1099 USD), the latest mid-level fire-breather from Onkyo, is a behemoth by any standard, but it’s actually fourth in Onkyo’s pecking order. Ahead of it are three 9.2-channel monsters, the TX-NR1008, TX-NR3008, and TX-NR5008, each loaded with successively more amazing and sophisticated audio and video options. In Onkyo’s parlance, “NR” means “network receiver,” which in turn means that these things all have Ethernet ports with which to connect your amp to the Internet. The advantage of this, as we’ll see, is that it theoretically gives you direct access to vast oceans of content. No longer are you restricted to hard media -- your CDs, DVDs, BDs, and LPs (bless them, Onkyo still offers a phono preamp on each of these models) -- the TX-NR808 and its brethren are designed to access soft media via the Internet. Another advantage to Networthiness is something that’s become commonplace in computing: software upgrades. When Onkyo upgrades or changes something, a GUI interface accessible through the receiver’s menu makes the connection and initiates the upgrade for you. You don’t even have to log in. Pretty cool.
Just over a year ago, when I moved into a brand-new house, my first priority after settling in was to set up a basement home theater so I could start reviewing home-theater equipment as soon as possible. It took about a month to get the gear in the big rig up and running, and several more months to have all the room's trim work completed. A year later, I'm about 95% finished. Only my equipment rack is yet to be done.
During a year that exhausted my finances and my time, I neglected my living-room system. Still, I'd had the builder rough-in the living room for a 5.1-channel system. A 50" plasma TV has been on the mantle over the fireplace for over a year, with no accompanying speakers or sound system. The left, center, and right locations have wall plates covering the speaker wires, and two holes in the ceiling show me where the ceiling surround speakers should go. Over a year of staring daily at these reminders of my unfinished work has been depressing -- not to mention having to endure the TV's tinny sound.
In the past few months, I finally decided to do something about the holes in my living-room walls. I would use the system casually, during the day -- no critical listening -- and it wouldn't have to play really loud. I'd already thought of using on-wall speakers, and so had bought the set of Angstrom Suonos I reviewed a while back. Now I needed an A/V receiver and a Blu-ray player. I also found a bargain-basement plasma TV that I could use in my bedroom.
Yamaha RX-V667 A/V receiver
The missing link in my living-room system was an A/V receiver. After poring online through specifications and any other information I could find, I came across Yamaha's RX-V667 receiver, packaged with Harman/Kardon speakers, for a total price of $699 USD at Amazon.com. A friend had use for the speakers, so we split the system: my portion came to $295, about half the RX-V667's list price.
What’s in a name? A lot, if you judge by Apple’s new iPod Nano. Until now, the Nanos have been rectangular affairs, and just a year ago, the 5th generation added video capabilities, including a camera, and the ability to play music videos. That version also had the familiar click wheel. The new, 6th generation has ditched all the video stuff but added the Multi-Touch screen and 30-pin connector from Apple’s iTouch and iPhone. And Apple has borrowed from the iPod Shuffle a rear-panel clip and a new, smaller size. In short, the sixth Nano is more like an iTouch or a Shuffle than a Nano. So why did Apple call it a Nano? You’ll have to ask them.
Apple can always be depended on for appealing packaging, and this time is no exception: The iPod Nano comes in a neat little plastic box. Remove the seal strip and the Nano and you find a pair of Apple’s justly maligned earbuds, a USB charging cable, a quick-start instruction manual, and an Apple logo sticker. What you’re supposed to do with that last item is beyond me. Maybe you stick it to your car window to identify yourself to other Apple users. I’m not that indiscriminately social.
The first thing you’ll notice about the Nano is its size: just 1.61"W x 1.48"H x 0.035" thick, including clip. It weighs just 0.74 ounce. The screen takes up the entire front, and the clip almost all of the back. The only controls are on the top edge: two buttons for volume up/down, one for on/off. On the bottom edge are a headphone jack and the iTouch 30-pin connector, for charging the Nano’s battery and connecting the Nano to your computer and Apple iTunes. Despite its small size, the Nano feels solidly built; I had no fear of damaging it in normal use. It comes in seven different metallic colors.
The Nano is touted as being Multi-Touch -- you can use two fingers to rotate its 240x240-pixel screen 360 degrees in 90-degree increments. Changing the menu displayed is done by swiping a finger across the screen, to reveal, in turn, four different menus, all but the last having four icons each: Playlists, Now Playing, Albums, Songs; Genres, Composers, Artists, Genius Mixes; Podcasts, Clock, Radio, Photos; and Fitness. You can touch and hold any icon until it wiggles, then move it wherever you want. This feature, familiar from the iTouch, lets you group the functions you use most often on the same screen.
I love my Apple iTouch! Of all the electronic toys I’ve acquired in the past two years, it’s the best, and I imagine that other owners of it (or the iPhone or iPad) are just as enthusiastically in love with theirs. Apple gets some details wrong, but overall, they create communication devices that are cool enough to match one’s wildest imagination. One of the coolest things about them is discovering, through applications (or apps), the diverse and wonderful tasks they can accomplish. Thanks to apps, I have such different things on my iTouch as the complete plays of Shakespeare, access to all of my e-mail, three different weather forecasts complete with Doppler radar, workout moves, bird calls to help identify feathered friends in the backyard, and now, thanks to the young and innovative company ThinkFlood, a powerful universal remote control.
iPeng pointed the way to this several years ago by producing an app that would allow an iTouch (assume from here on that when I say iTouch, I also mean iPhone and iPad) to act as a remote control for the Logitech Squeezebox family of products. When I installed that app, my mind raced forward to a time when the iTouch might control everything in my audio/video system. Sure enough, it wasn’t long before several apps appeared that could do that. RedEye isn’t the only one, but it’s the only one that uses a base-station transmitter.
The basic idea is simple: RedEye allows my iTouch to send signals through my WiFi network to the RedEye base station, which converts them into infrared signals that can control my preamplifier, power amp, television, cable box, three Blu-ray players, one HD DVD player, an SACD/DVD-Audio player, a Squeezebox Touch, and an HDMI switcher. Pretty cool.