And Now For Something Completely Different

One of my other hobbies is high-end audio. I love to listen to music of all sorts on really decent headphones.

Why headphones? Well a decent set of headphones can easily compete with stereo system speakers costing way way more and aren’t affected by less than ideal room settings.

So what’s a decent set of headphones cost?

Well it depends 🙂

If we’re talking about IPhones, IPads and IPod type units then a really decent set of in-ear headphones will cost around $200. I’ve got a set of Monster in-ears which I’ve repaired rather than replace because (a) they’re very comfortable; and (b) because they make a decent seal inside the ear they develop a decent level of bass without being way too boomy. A lot of the popular headphones aimed at teens are geared toward bass and are not musical and balanced at all. Sennheiser HD590

A really good set of over-the-ear headphones like my Senniheiser HD-590s will run you couple of hundred and anything under $1,000 will make most folks very happy.

All nice stuff but not up to true audiophile requirements…you can guess where this is going.

So I went to my favour headphone shop in Toronto Headphoneshop to buy a $75 to maybe $300 tops digital/audio convertor. The DACs in MacBooks are okay but an external DAC that bypasses the Mac audio card can really make online music sing.87e49046b8e688c588b2fba83832b2ae

My new best friend Charles, the owner, who has ably directed me into buying a really nice headphone amp and DAC from Fiio for my upstairs music room and an IPad Fiio external amp that makes watching movies on the IPad a theatre-like experience with decent headphones and now he dragged out the DACs.51T9W65jR0L._SY355_

(See above and for really good cheap headphones I recommend the Grado SR60s at $90 for IPads as they can be driven by just about any device…the amp just makes them better. They’re so good I bought a set for my teenage niece.)

There’s a bunch of DACs at $300 or so that are superb but Charles wanted to show me a Fostex which at $500 had lots more inputs and outputs and was really nice to listen to. I said I’d take it and he said he was sold out but he did have the Fostex HPA8 DAC/headphone amp in stock at $1400 all in. I just about coughed up a fur ball.

There’s no way I was going to by a $1400 DAC despite the dual optical in plugs and the RCA in and out plus and the USB from the computer input. So feeling pretty safe I said I’d give it a try.HPA8_Top-main

Charles brought out a set of Grado 60s which I was used to hearing at home and fired up the Fostex.

Let’s make a long story short. I bought it and took it home. Using my Sennheiser 590s and my Grado 60s all of my CDs and online music sounded more wonderful than I’d ever heard it.

I was in audiophile heaven so with headphones affixed firmly to my head I started to read the online reviews which suggest my listening experience could be so much more if I bought a really good set of headphones.

Let’s define really good. We’re talking reference type headphones that start around $1500 and soar upwards into the stratosphere. I made the trip back to Toronto and tried on everything in the shop.

Charle’s place, BTW is a little hard to find as he rents a wall from a tiny post office on Yonge Street south of York Mills on top of the hill. By as they say about a clothing store in Acton, Ontario, it’s worth the trip.LCD-X-3Q-Left

And to make a long story short I came home with a set of Audeze LCD-X headphones which come in just under $2K.

I know what all my Ham Radio friends are saying right now: I’m well into the kind of money that buys a high-end FlexRadio or an Elecraft K3. True, too true but my Flex 1500 and my Flex 3000 plus a box of QRP dedicated rigs are really doing the job for me right now and a Ham Radio upgrade isn’t in the cards for a couple of years.

Anyway I’m back home and I’m listening to my new DAC and Audeze’s and I’m in heaven. I’m downloading music from Spotify and it all sounds wonderful. So as I’m listening I go back to reading the reviews on this equipment and everybody, almost without exception, is saying this is one of the finest listening experiences short of $30,000.

How wonderful but one guy says he added a Fiio music player to replace his IPhone which doesn’t play back all the various lossless audio file types so I thought, well why not. I’m in so deep now what could go wrong?AK100-II

So I drive to Toronto again to see my buddy Charles who is just opening up on Saturday morning. He’s got the Fiios in stock and they’re lovely little units but as I about to buy one for a couple of hundred bucks, Marion says to Charles how much is the one you’re using.

Charles says the Askell and Kern (this is the old Korean company IRiver and I still have one of their excellent flash-drive FM portable players from 10 years ago) he’s using is $900. Marion says we’ll take it.

I figure by now that Marion has got to be having an affair and this is her way of making me feel better before she drops the news. (I’ve asked. There’s no affair and Marion says she’s stuck with me.)

The Askell and Kern AK100 II follows us home and despite being an Android device I’ve figured out how to upload my ripped CD library of albums into it and I’m listening to it now as it’s optically coupled through the Fostex HPA8 and outputting into the Audeze LCD-X headphones.

So you’d think I’d be done? Well you would be wrong.

You see with this really excellent hardware I need some decent music to listen to. I ripped all my CDs in lossless format to ITunes and I got a free subscription to Spotify and started to download tons of music.

And then I started to read the online reviews which said while Spotiy is okay the dowloads aren’t in lossless format. And besides that the free subscription keeps bothering you with ads about every third tune.

I was going to buy a subscription to get rid of the ads for $10/month when I read a reviewer who said that if you’ve got a high-end audio system another streaming service called TIDAL at lossless download format (and twice the money at $20/month) is the only way to go.

So I downloaded the same song from Spotify and Tidal and the reviewer was absolutely correct. If you’re going to listen to the music on an IPhone or IPad with the supplied earbuds it doesn’t matter which one you listen to as you won’t be able to tell the difference.

However hook up a Fostex HPA8 with Audeze LCD-X headphones and load up your Askell and Kern player and…well…$20/month isn’t too much. It’s one big dinner with wine at one of Oakville’e finer restaurants.

Oh yes it’s also my allowance being cut by 3/5 for the rest of 2015 and I am now charged with cleaning the house from top to bottom every third week.

The good news is I’ll be able to listen to lossless, never-ending, flawless music.




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About Peter West

I am retired. I'm invested into bike riding, guitar playing, yoga and Ham Radio. I am a former photojournalist, newspaper and magazine editor and public relations practitioner with national, regional and local experience. A long-time member of Toastmasters International and an active Amateur Radio (Ham) operator here in Canada I am taking on new challenges.

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