Off topic: personal/portable audio

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From left to right: Sony XBA-A2; Astell & Kern AK100 player; UE Triple.Fi 10P with custom cable; Audio-Technica IM50; Audio-Technica IM03; B&W P7; 6G iPod Nano.

I spend a lot of time on the road. Probably quite a lot more than the average person*. This has always been the case because I’ve almost always been in the service industry in a client-facing role, which means plenty of air miles. In a bid to make the commute a bit more pleasant – possibly even enjoyable – I slowly sank into the world of portable audio. This was 2003. I’m sure like horology, cars, cigars and the like there are more than a small number of people here who’ve also made that journey. Today’s post is a sort of meandering of thoughts – there are a number of parallels between photography and personal audio, both in the industry and the hobby, and perhaps some thoughts to take away. Plus, which serious listener isn’t always seeking the ideal setup? 🙂 Read on, or skip forward if you’re not an audiophile.

*According to my frequent flyer statement, 540,000 miles in 2014.

Unfortunately, I’m also tone deaf; karaoke parlours are one of my biggest fears along with finding all your batteries dead or cards full of un-deletable images or that all of your tripod screws are loose. But that doesn’t stop me from enjoying a variety of music from modern trashy pop* to something a bit more baroque 17th century. I suppose that’s the equivalent of Instagram to Daguerre, or something like that. Finding one setup – headphone, player/source and at a push, an amp, I suppose – to cover them all is like expecting one presentation medium to be great for every genre of image and photography. A tintype doesn’t work as a jpeg. And an Instagram image doesn’t work as a large format Ultraprint, either. A similar argument can be applied to lenses, hardware, rendering styles and the like.

*Not everything; it seems that much like modern images, we’ve been slowly deceived into believing that turning everything up to 11 is better; it isn’t. It makes it very fatiguing to listen to, not to mention very difficult to play cleanly without strange artefacts and sibilance. Empty space – air – is noticeably lacking in everything after around the turn of the millennium.

Whilst I’m willing to carry an inordinate amount of equipment to make the perfect image, my tolerance for audio bulk is rather less. In fact, in an ideal world, I’d just like to plug in a really good pair of headphones to my iPhone and be done with it. Fortunately, unlike with images, I honestly lack the ability to discern much above the diminishing return point, which makes life much easier (and cheaper). But I do know what I like, and unfortunately I’ve also found that’s not so easy to achieve for whatever reason.

There is a difference between technical accuracy/ transparency and enjoyability. I’m very much in the latter camp; listening to music is a very passive activity. You are presented with the content and must take it in, absorb yourself – or not; I suppose it’s much like image viewing in that sense. Audio hardware is a consumption device, not a production one – unlike a camera. I realise how much of a challenge this presents, because it’s like perusing a photo book and making a judgement on the images without knowing what the original intention was, or what the ideal presentation of that image could be; a lot of the time, a bad medium can really spoil the photograph. Similarly, I’ve found that there are songs which I’ve simply not enjoyed for whatever reason that just came alive with the right playback.

Another lesson I’ve learned is that more expensive is not necessarily better; this is again linked to the idea of enjoyability. For reasons of portability and isolation, I’ve mainly used IEMs rather than full-size circumaural headphones; the biggest improvement in sound quality you can get from ‘normal’ earbuds is by doing nothing more than improving the seal, thereby isolating yourself from outside noise and at the same time allowing the extreme lower and higher frequencies to be delivered with less attenuation. I started with single driver dynamic drivers, but found those eventually to lack the detail – and thus immersion – I was looking for. I like picking out the details and feeling as though I’m sitting in the front row or at the conductor’s stand. (If this sounds like my approach to presenting images and printing, I suppose we shouldn’t be surprised.) I tried a couple of open circumaural setups at that point; they improved soundstage but weren’t practical at any level for a traveller. And the one I really liked the most was not practical at all for anybody – Stax SR007II Omega Mark IIs, with a tube amp. Ouch.

It’s interesting to see just how fast personal/portable audio at a sort of prosumer level has taken off in the last decade – I remember it being nearly impossible to find replacement Shure tips; now just about mobile accessory store seems to have several varieties of headphone up to the several hundred dollar range. Tips? Cables? Interconnects? Even amps? Take your pick. 2005-6 was the era of quite noticeable improvements with more being better; sort of the D700/D3 analog, I suppose. The IEMs I bought at that point – a first generation set of UE Triple.Fi 10Ps from the numbered, Jerry-Harvey-tuened edition, with a copper/silver hybrid cable – are still my reference for versatile enjoyability. Accurate? Not by a long shot; their resolving power has long been exceeded by the latest designs (12 drivers in the JH Roxannes, anybody?) and the bass extension isn’t that low, nor is the treble that high. But they have a great speed of attack that can keep up with even the fastest drums, and they’re not fatiguing to listen to – but have enough detail and a wide enough soundstage to be very immersive. I’ve yet to find a pair that are more enjoyable across such a wide range of music.

Unfortunately, these little things are pretty delicate in general. And sadly, my pair began a long, slow fritz about a year and a half ago, which can be especially frustrating when you’re nicely zoning out on a long haul flight and suddenly the snores of your seat mate start intruding into Einaudi’s Islands. Thus began the long journey to Find Something Better: much like the eternal upgrade cycle photographers seems to be locked into. More drivers was not better: I didn’t find the quads and fives to be any more enjoyable or transparent; in fact, they tended to be either too bass-heavy and lacking definition, or treble-sparkly and fatiguingly bright at the high end. It seems my ears don’t have much tolerance between too bright/sibilant and not detailed enough. There has been an explosion of custom headphone makers recently; it probably has something to do with the enormous margins (drivers typically cost $10-20 bought singly; a complete headphone, $1,500 and up) more than anything.

It seems that headphones are one area in which reviews are actually quite useless because the listening impressions are about the most subjective thing I can think of – not only do people listen to different music, but our ears all respond slightly differently, too. So, IEMs that were highly rated – FitEar 334s, JH Roxannes etc. just didn’t work for me. I see that as a good thing, given their price points. The only way to really figure out if something works for you is to go listen to it. Many times, with many sources. Unlike previously, even the custom makers are sending out universal demos to stores for people to try. Better yet, there are more and more stores – at least in Asia – that let you audition to your heart’s content. Even Sony’s flagship store in KLCC has a very large section dedicated to personal audio, with even their top end models out for demo – commendable.

I landed up having another dalliance with full sized closed headphones – B&W P7s – but found that my portable source really didn’t have the juice to drive them properly, which is a shame as they sound fantastic when properly amped. In the end they stayed home most of the time for the simple reason that the case was so large it was either that or a spare body. And I know where my priorities lie. Going lower down the price scale lead me to two recent discoveries: the Audio-Technica IM50, which has a dual dynamic driver in each enclosure, and some of the richest vocals and lowest bass extension I’ve ever heard in an IEM. They’re unfortunately quite large, and not that comfortable to wear, but for velvety jazz with that throaty texture – wow; for $60, a bargain. The second headphone was my first experience with a balanced armature/dynamic driver hybrid – the Sony XBA-A2, which has two of the former and one of the latter. (The newer XBA-Z5 sounds even better.) It seems you can have the low end smooth punch of dynamic drivers with the definition and soundstage of balanced armatures. Granted, it’s a little bass heavy and feels like the mids are a bit recessed, but somehow it finds a great sonic synergy with the 6th generation iPod Nano (the little square one), transforming it into one of the most all-round enjoyable listening experiences I’ve had. Competition or replacement for the Triples, finally? Yes and no; they’re not great for everything, and the soundstage is too narrow and lacks air to really work well with classical tracks.

And this is where we need to consider the whole workflow again: looking at just the headphones is akin to getting fixated on a lens or printer without thinking of the rest of the chain. Obviously the quality of source matters; iTunes has gotten a  lot better in recent times, and is actually unlikely to be the weakest point. It’s probably going to be your player and amplification. The player contains the digital to analog converter, which drives the output signal; the amplifier turns this into enough current/voltage to move the diaphragms or armatures to displace air and create sound. A bad DAC will result in harsh sound or poor resolution and separation with lots of base noise; a bad amplifier will be nonlinear and lack punch across the entire range, making one section of the spectrum too prominent (or not prominent enough). And then we must remember that response of the headphone components (and thus headphones) themselves are never linear, so the DAC and amplifier circuit must pair well for the final music to sound good. Let’s not even talk about how our ears respond, and assume that when auditioning there’s self-consistency and a good seal can always be achieved.

Thinking holistically about the approach has made me take a step backwards and look at good pairings for the sources and players I have; there’s no point in having a really great headphone that requires a large amp and pure DSD files to drive because it simply has too narrow a range of deployment and doesn’t fit my needs. On the other hand, a headphone with perhaps less detail resolution but more pleasing tonal response paired with the right player might well prove to be a much more enjoyable experience; fortunately, I think this is actually easier to achieve with a mid-to-low end headphone than a really good one. My surprise has been that the little square 6G iPod Nano (with screen, which people are prone to wear as watches and that probably proved the demand for the iWatch to Apple) appears to be one of the most pleasing players I’ve listened to – without resorting to any equaliser tweaking. It does well with the IM50s; transforms the XBA-A2s into something fantastic; the Triples pair well with anything anyway and certainly don’t gain as much as the others but don’t sound any worse. It won’t drive the P7s at all though, but that’s no surprise given their higher impedance and 40mm drivers. And the 6G Nano – to my ears at least – sounds much better than the iPhone 6+ as a source.

I’ve also got an Astell & Kern AK100 player which is able to drive the P7s to a ‘good enough’ level, but again nowhere near what they’re capable of; the bottom end still sounds thin. On the other hand, if paired with their own MM1 USB speaker/DAC line out, they open up again and start to acquire the kind of richness and texture you’d expect from a pair of cans that large.

In a moment of weakness, I hit the buy button on Amazon for what I hope will be the final pair of headphones for a while; they’re Audio-Technica IM03s; they’re triple driver balanced armature IEMs. So far, so good. They don’t have quite the bass punch of the Sony XBA-A2s, the vocal texture of the IM50s, or the physical inconvenience of the P7s, but they seem to pair pretty well with just about everything and really come alive on the AK100 player; vocals are at a level the Triples can’t quite reach, but we lose none of the soundstage. Transparent but involving is perhaps the best description I can think of. I tried to shoot with them in a couple of days ago and just landed up getting distracted and listening to the music: I see that as a very good sign. I suspect a better cable will open them up a little more and find that air I’ve been looking for, much like how the Triples improved. 7N Copper is on the way…in the meantime, I’m just enjoying the journey. MT

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Comments

  1. Christopher Chong says:

    Hi Ming Thein,

    Has been a while since I wrote…nonetheless your blog has always been great – full of non-sugar coated & to the point reads 👍 Also, they are great contributions from the community at large.

    Back to your this “off-topic” blog, I do share the same sentiments that big cans are for home and IEMs for travelling… Now even shifting more to IEMs for home! They are just too convenient and portable.

    I have a ibasso DX90 pumping music thru’ Sony XBA-Z5 and I really like the Z5. Coming over from the XBA-H3. The Z5 are much better sounding IEMs than H3. I find the bass / sub bass better in the Z5 and it does not muddle the mids in some genre of songs / music. Details are subtle but clear, some that I do not pick up while using the H3. I also bought the Audio Technica ATH-IM03 after auditioning the IM03 and IM04 in a stereo store. Unfortunately, I did not have my DX90 with me as it was a short trip back to Singapore as I am based overseas now, so it was auditioned thru’ an iPhone. The IM03 won my ears… Yeah, I admit, it was an impulsive buy too 😉 just wanted it – they do look nicely made.

    My quick two cents comparison with Z5 and IM03… I still prefer the sound signature of the Z5 – the warmth, less fatigue to ears for long listening. I oso like the forward mids and bass of the IM03, but the treble can be a bit on the high on certain genre to the point of artificial or very sibilant sounding mid / treble mix. However, the IM03 does have better insulation compared to the Z5. Z5 better for overall music and IM03 is better for classical and some audiophile voices music in my opinion.

  2. Thanks for this article. Besides photography, I have been in audio (both personal and speakers) for close to 10 years. I have a plethora of headphones (Sennheiser HD650, Beyer DT880 & DT770, AKG K701, Shures, Ultimate Ears) all powered through a Peachtree DAC (with ESS Sabre DAC chip) and a Burson Audio Headphone Amp. That said, if you are travelling and want some isolation on the road and still want the quality of full size, have you ever tried any of the Professional level headphones? I really do like the Sennheiser HD380pro and the Sony MDR7509HD a lot. It seems that the Professional headphones is a well kept secret. Price is extremely competitive while sound quality is great! Much better bang for the buck when compared to the consumer headphones (where a lot of the price goes into aesthetics).

  3. Given your frequent flier mileage, and the sound levels in aircraft, you might want to try the Bose QC-20 in-ear headphones. Bose may not be the best sound available, but the QC-20 noise reduction is incredible, and they take up virtually no space. Makes for much less tiring flights!

    • I find noise reduction just makes me feel nauseous – no idea why. Perhaps it’s the lack of subtle sensory stimuli you need to help orient yourself in a space? It’s like being in an anechoic recording chamber, which also makes me nauseous…

  4. Gastronauta says:

    I swear by Fiio X3 + AKG 550, all FLAC, mainly Baroque and Jazz. I write regularly on/about wine and with my tastes… subjectivity is like my underwear: I’ve long learned to take it for granted and spend only with my senses. That said, I do “want to need” IEMs and I’m finding this thread really exciting. After all, (much) audiophile stuff can last a lifetime and the prices almost make sense vs those of lenses…

    • “subjectivity is like my underwear: I’ve long learned to take it for granted and spend only with my senses.” Hahaha!

      As for prices ‘making sense’, don’t worry. IEMs seem to be going up and up in price – there are now JH Audio Layla universals – universals! at $2,499…

  5. Gregorio Donikian says:

    oh no, not audio again ! just hear the music ! Greg

  6. Peter Boender says:

    I’m left clueless as to how you did manage to try so many IEM models. Did you have to buy them all? Small fortune… In all my world travels I’ve never ever anywhere found a shop where you can try out IEMs. It was always a matter of buy them and only then try… Even going by reviews, web reports and tech descriptions that resulted in some good and some miss hits… My travel IEMs don’t seem to last long either… Maybe I should be more careful? Another endless search, just like the perfect camera bag…

    • No, I bought some of the cheaper ones, but there are quite a number of stores in Asia (Jaben in Subang, and Singapore, for instance) where you can try out most of them. It used to be the only way to try them was to buy them, but no longer. I guess this is something else we will have to disuse next time we meet… 🙂

  7. Gibran Hashim says:

    Ming,

    Have you ever auditioned Shures? I use their 535 IEMs. Unlike the UEs, the cables are user replaceable and they’re built like tanks! Reviews have commended their neutrality (which I like). You could go the whole hog with their flagship 846s! See http://166.78.80.61/americas/products/earphones-headphones/se-earphones/se846-sound-isolating-earphones.

    • Yes, I started with E2Cs and E4s; the 535 lost out to the Triples for me (the cables on the Triples are user replaceable; I’ve been using a custom cable for some time) – just sounding a bit too muddy and less enjoyable. I liked the 846s, but it was just too much money. And I’m kinda glad I didn’t buy them because I honestly prefer the sound from the A-T IM03s and a 7N OCC cable…

      • Gibran Hashim says:

        I guess it’s a matter of preference in the end – i thought the UEs were “hollow” (?) sounding, they didn’t have the slam of the Shures IMO. One man’s meat is another’s poison!

  8. Ming, nice setup for traveling. At home, i couldn´t resist a Stax so i bought a used SR-404 with the 212 amp (has more power than the new entry-amps from Stax). Happy with them at home.
    For traveling, i use my Apple EarPods. They are not the worst for voices, and i can´t use IEMs in my ears.
    As far as i know, the Astell & Kern AK100 ist not the best choice for Multi-BAs. The impedance is too high, so you might prefer a FIIO Player like the X3/X5 for your IEMs. Fiio ist not as high-class as Astell&Kern of course, but they have a very low impedance so the people i talked with prefer them to the Astell&Kern for using them with Multi-BAs IEMs. Should reduce the distortion of your Multi-BAs and improve the clarity of the sound.

    • The Staxes are fantastic. There’s something just really transparent (like the Otus) about a properly driven electrostat – sadly, they’re also Otus-sized and priced…

      You may well be right about the player. I was given the AK100 as a gift.

      • You lucky guy. Yes, for everything else the AK100 seems to be just great.
        Interesting, how many people that are interested in Photography are also interested in Hifi, especially headphones. Never tried an Otus, but yes, i can imagine the similarity between Stax and Zeiss (Otus). Both have great resolution and are just special.

    • Oops just read the comment on the ak100 after posting mine. Thanks for the info, I may give the x3/x5 a try.

      • I’d say the x3 and x5 are both pretty much bang for buck. If you’re using a Samsung S4 (or something similar) as your portable player you might not hear that much of a difference between it and the x3 initially if you A/B them though (possibly because of the warm signature), but once you get accustomed to the x3 sound you might realise that the S4’s bass is quite muddy and the vocals not as detailed. I found this out after finally daring to take a leap of courage and properly testing them side by side one year into my x3 ownership and came away satisfied.

        • I mostly use my z2 for podcasts and the 6G iPod for music. But I listen a lot on my hifi which is pretty good, so used to knowing how my music should sound! Anyhow having thought about it I think I’m going to go get the IM50 for the phone (they are definitely better than the Shure 530s I’m currently using) and also get the Sony xba z5, they really are fantastic. I’ll also get a fiio x3 or x5 and give FLAC another chance. It should be a damn good pairing with the Sony headphones. Shuddering at the thought/time of ripping all my CDs into FLAC….

  9. Loreno C. says:

    Always fun to read someone else’s audio impressions. I agree that reviews are difficult to rely on, even if you find someone who seems to hear like yourself. Long ago, I too found audio nirvana in musical enjoyment rather than ultimate transparency or soundstaging. I happily stopped caring about gear and spent time listening to music. Then headphones took off, and with it our wealth of choices nowadays. Well, it’s a fun hobby so I’ve explored a few over-the-ear cans and amps/DACs by purchasing direct. Now, I realize I need to audition live and in comparison to what I know and like, lest I get lured into something that doesn’t deliver the musical engagement we all seek.

    And then when I really want get lost in the music, it’s back to my speakers in a room, with Naim gear upstream.

    Camera suitability, by comparison, is much easier to infer from reviews (although not perfectly either).

    Thanks,
    Lorenzo

  10. Funny that. I just started “getting” into hifi stuff in December and here you are with an article on it. For hybrid IEMs you might like to try the DUNU DN-2000 which i felt had much better clarity than the sony’s although they needed wide bore eartips like the JVC spiral dot tips to bring out their best. I have to admit that they are a bit heavy though and might not work for everybody.

  11. You said the right word: “vocals”. I wonder if the Audio Technics IM50 would do a good job with opera. It certainly might make the neighbors happier.

  12. Great post.

    For you and others interested in good portable sound, I recommend taking a look at the Fiio X5. I have it loaded with 2 x 128GB cards full of FLACs and it sounds good and is easy to use. For travel I pair it with HiFiMan RE-400 earbuds. A great value combination. At home or the office I use AKG K550 and Sennheiser Momentums.

    I started in decent head-fi about the same time as you with Sennheiser HD-650s driven by a Musical Fidelity X-Can V3. Fantastic sound, but now hardly ever used as my CD player has become an artsy historical relic.

    For hotel rooms I have a Sony SRS-X3 and a TDK A33 for outdoors/beach (love the mellow TDK presentation, but hate having to carry yet another proprietary adaptor, Micro USB – or USB Type C in the near future – is now a must). Having read the Denon reviews, I see a DSB100 in my very near future!

  13. Carl Choong says:

    You may want to audition the RHA T10i IEM with Wesley if you haven’t done that yet – fantastic bass yet great clarity in the mids 🙂

  14. I’m glad you mentioned the seals Ming. So many people dismiss IEMs without trying to get a good seal, which makes all the difference in the world to getting good bass response as well as sealing out ambient noise, effectively increasing the resolution of the driver. Sometimes, you may need third party foam tips to do a good job, like Comply’s.

    I had a full rig (Headroom portable amp, Ety ER4s, the “right” iPod), but don’t carry any of it anymore for travel, and drive the ancient Apple dual-driver IEMs directly from my iPhone or iPad. With good foam tips, like the Comply’s or repurposed Ety flange tips, those IEMs are very good, especially for the price.

    At my desk, I use a Centrance HiFi-M8 driving Sennheiser HD650s through a balanced connection (I don’t think that makes a difference), and use my Mac as the source driving the Centrance through USB with iTunes. It was easier to just carry a portable drive with all my uncompressed music as opposed to figuring out how to stuff it all into an iPod.

  15. Eric Geers says:

    Ming try Beyerdynamic’s t51i’s when you get the chance after you’ve grown tired of plugging your ears. My ears like the t51i very much. Actually i think they sound very good straight from my iPhone and really-really fabulous when amped properly. Your mileage may vary of-course..

  16. Normansyah Duliar says:

    Hi Ming, didn’t know that you’re a head-fi guy 🙂 Recently just bought myself a shure se846, and very very satisfied with the sound! I’m only pairing it with my iPhone 6 and iPad Air (am contemplating on trying out AK100 II), but the sound is already amazing….deep bass, forward mids and airy treble…perhaps you should give it a try 🙂 who knows it suits your musical taste 😉

    • I did, and nearly bought a pair – but they’re 3x the price of the AT IM03s I landed up with, and to my untrained ears, I prefer the IM03 signature because it has a bit more detail.

  17. I keep hearing good things about those IM50’s and now your positive review! Seems like I got to try them out. I’ve been looking for a modern day replacement still for my beloved Shure E4c which is starting to fall apart. I do enjoy the ATH-M50’s so the IM50’s might be right up my alley. Any reason why you didn’t go for the IM70? How is the sound isolation on the IM50, considering they are dynamic drivers and not balanced armature?

    • The IM50s have a very different sound signature to the E4cs; I’d say you probably want something with a bit less bass if you’re looking for something similar. Isolation isn’t too bad – though a small vent is necessary it’s on the side that faces your ear.

  18. Ming. Not sure if this has been mentioned in the comments. Or if you like more abstract/ ambient music at all.

    But. Since you travel a lot. I think it would be fitting to check out Brian Eno’s “music for airport s”.

  19. I’m still totally attached to my ATH M50s. With the ipod Classic I can fully drive them and have 160GB of music and 10 hours of battery life at my finger tips. Although the whole lot can be a bit heavy for air travel, I don’t mind.
    The only thing in earbuds I’ve found that I’ve liked and can survive The Nice 5 Bridges album and most of E,L&P without blowing apart are the B&O earset 3i. They are kind of expensive but I’ve had mine for over 15 years and they sound as good as new.

  20. Ming, with the number of airmiles you clock, you may want to consider over-ear noise cancelling headphones. It’s more comfortable though not as compact as IEMs. The Plantronics Backbeat Pro that I use is a great balance of sound quality and noise cancelling feature and is wireless bluetooth as well. Reasonably priced, it has gotten rave reviews for good reason.

  21. Hi Ming,

    Being a headphone audiophile can get pretty expensive… real quick.. That being said, I recommend that you try out the
    Westone in ear monitors. I tried out the UM Pro 30’s at CES and loved them…! I bought a pair. The only bummer is
    they’re quite pricey at USD 400.00. I was afraid to try out the four driver model, for fear that I’d have to buy them.
    They may not be the most accurate IEM’s; however, they are extremely musical with good dynamics. If you want to take it to the next level, many people recommend that you get a custom ear mold for your IEMs.

    If you are looking for larger cans, the Audio Technica M50’s are really bargains.

    In regards to MP3 players, if you buy a Sansa Clip+ (USD 40.00), a 64gb microsd card, and modify it with Rockbox firmware, it sounds surprisingly good with FLAC files. Happy listening!

    • Tried the Westones but never really liked the sound signature; personal taste again 🙂 heard lots of good things about the Sansa, but never able to find one locally.

  22. Sergey Landesman says:

    Interesting reading,Ming! My choice is Klipsch X10 earbuds for 5 years. Highly recommend! Used to be $350.00 and now I found one on Amazon for $129.00.

    Cheers!

  23. Haha, tread carefully there, portable audio can become quite an expensive hobby also (though admittedly not as much as camera gear).
    I’m also surprised at how fast this industry is growing. Years ago no one who wasn’t a headfi enthusiast would have heard about high end IEMs and dedicated headphone amps, but now even Sony is sporting its own portable headphone amp.
    However, one thing I find disappointing about the portable market is the shrinking in storage capacity. It used to be that we could get players with 160GB and higher, to store all those CD quality FLACs, but nowadays you’d be hard-pressed to find anything reasonable over 64GB. Since Apple killed the iPod Classic, the only remaining contender is the Sony NWZ-ZX1.

  24. Agree with your 6G nano assessment – I have one and given its size its pretty damn good. I also prefer IEMs, with the Shure 530s with the foam tips being my weapon of choice – the isolation plus sound quality (also works well with the nano) is a good enough balance. I also have the sennheiser momentum on ears which are not bad, but derive more enjoyment with Shures. Incidentally I’m listening to more and more podcasts on my Sony Z2 and this has pretty much become my portable go to.

    I’ve given up on high fidelity – I do enjoy my music massively but at the same time I rarely get annoyed with ‘lower fidelity’. I can tell the difference, but FLAC vs a good 320 MP3 is for me not that great a difference, especially with portable as you will no doubt have some outside interference if you are on the go. At home I only use the hi-fi and again, a good MP3 gives me enough enjoyment…..

    • I think you and I are in the same place. IEMs are easy to drive to a reasonable level, fortunately. That said I found the 530s to be a bit muddy for me and landed up with the UE Triples at the time instead.

      • Damn you Ming, after a bit of research I need to try these xba z5s…..

        • Update after a session at yodabashi camera! I agree with you assessment on the IM50 really fun listen with vocals and also lifts house music too. But not a headphone you can listen to for long. Bargain really at 50 odd dollars.

          Moving up in compared the xba z5, IM03 and IM04. All quite different. I enjoyed the IM04, a nice listen and though not as transparent as the IM04 it’s still got a decent enough soundstage for classic/instrumental music. The IM03 are in my opinion a bit too high on the treble and I found them a little too neutral for my taste. The Sony is very good, maybe a bit too bassy but soundstage wise it’s better than the IM04, good separation. Decisions to make as tomorrow is my last day in Japan.

          One more thing, how do you find the ak100? I think I’m gonna have to give this high fidelity player malarkey another go….

  25. Great post and don’t worry I am tone deaf too but I sing along to my music in very awkward situations the whole time!

  26. johannes zotti says:

    Hi Ming
    check out the new sony A15 “flagship” walkman.
    small, relatively cheap, not a smartphone interface but old school simple music player style, good battery life, reads also flacs, bluetooth for car, decent sounding, and beside the 16/32 gb you finally get a microsd card slot – it means you’ve got a nice 80gb small player for 230 euros.
    ah, i almost forgot, and no itunes, a big plus in my book !!!

    • Are they still forcing you to use their own proprietary software though? For a time I had a couple of Sony players and they were harder to load than iTunes…

      • johannes zotti says:

        they provide it but you don’t need to use it. just drag and drop, on win & mac. then you can navigate the songs either through folders to the usual artist/album/… tags.

  27. Nice read, Ming. I’m still enyoing my trusty iRiver 140; replaced the 40Gb hard drive with a 128Gb flash drive, no need whatsoever to pimp the audio section. As to headphones, I’ve been through an awful lot and keep looking for my dream pair, without much hope 🙂 Back home in the studio my AKG K702 do a fantastic job, but more for mixing and mastering; they don’t really shine with any portable headphone amp I’ve tried so far. So the search goes on, but that’s part of the fun, isn’t it ?
    Keep it up !

    • Yes it is – oddly though the best part is realising you’re not really improving much for a lot more $$, so you can just enjoy the music as it is for a bit longer! 🙂

  28. Hello Ming!
    When you say that ” the listening impressions are about the most subjective thing I can think of ” you are spot on.
    We are all being influenced by a certain number of audio systems that we have used to hear, which have all some flaws, so we cannot all agreed on which audio system is the best. It’s like being used for years to an uncalibrated monitor and wondering why the pictures looks bad on others monitor.
    In fact portable audio exclude the different rooms factors from the balance, so it’s less subjective than en Hi-Fi system.

    I disagree a very small bit about: ” they have a great speed of attack “; headphone is bad for judging of the audio transient (or dynamics), studio engineers they never use headphones for fine tuned the transient. I think what you have maybe heard is a bump (or not a hole) in some particular frequencies in the high-medium or high that tricks our minds on dynamics. 😉

    P.S.: I use a Cowon S9 with a Sony MDR-7505. I’m highly satisfied with the Cowon, not as much as my semi-pro external sound-card, card, but a world apart my laptop sound-card. And the Sony has a highly colored sound, but it reveals a lot of details.
    An another headphone that I like is the Beyer Dynamics DT770 (much more accurate).

    • You might be right on ‘attack’ – it feels as though some headphones can keep up with rapid-fire drums (for instance) and others can’t – as though before the previous notes decay fully, a new set is played, and there’s some odd interference that just makes a mess of clarity and definition. I’m not quite sure how to phrase that and there’s probably something much more complicated going on in the background.

      The DT770s are very good but only with the right amp! They’re rather difficult to drive, it seems…

      • For the DT770s it depends on the version, they are the 32, 80 and 250 Ohms. The more Ohms the better the sound is, but more power is required.

        The interference in the bass region, especially is the due to the distortion of the speakers, the lack of “damping factor” of the power amp, the phase delay induced by the bass reflex, and a lot of other factors of course.

        One of my reference songs for evaluating an audio system due to the complexity of the mix (warning: not for sensitive hears): http://grooveshark.com/s/Gateways/4H5Sfr?src=5

  29. But can we ask what you listen to? 🙂

  30. Fred Saunders says:

    Interesting read, as always. I recently looked for a new pair of closed back headphones and narrowed it down to the B&W P7 and B&O H6, which are both around the same price (where I live) – went for the H6 as I liked the crisp and transparent sound – particularly suited to classical and jazz. Agree with the praise for the little nano 6G; not sure why but my favourite iPhone for audio is still the 3GS.

    • Neither the Nano 6G or 3GS will be able to properly drive the big-driver cans though; the P7s just ‘expand’ much more with the right amp. It’s as though the diaphragm is holding back otherwise. Sure, they’ll drive, but not anywhere near what they’re capable of. Agree with your assessment of the relative differences between P7s and H6s too – the P7s are dark and warm, the H6s light and airy. Personal preference. I guess I like the darker/warmer signature; personally sensitive ears so I find it to be less fatiguing for long sessions.

  31. An awesome post, Ming. Personal audio technology is an area that I did a lot of research in prior to leaving Australia on my year-long trip to India and Thailand. I’ve owned AKG’s K-401 headphones for over a decade and they were pretty good. For the trip, however, I wanted something small, good quality, and fully enclosed to reduce outside noise interference. Those headphones turned out to be Sennheiser’s Momentum, in brown (no red highlights) coupled with a small amp that was recommended by users on the mother-of-all-hi-fi-forums: http://www.head-fi.org/.

    I looked for a decent source that would play FLAC but none of them were rated very highly when it came to usability and song/playlist/file management. Bummer. I ended up defaulting to my Nokia Lumia 920.

    None-the-less, I learned a lot in a short amount of time and appreciate the nuances observed by audiophiles. Different heads, different ears, different responses to the same technology. Bias towards bass or treble music, etc.

    I never could wear IEMs very well and would need to go the custom route, which was more than I was prepared to spend ($1000 and up). So, headphones it was.

    When I saw the image of your sound gear I smiled and was not surprised at all that you got to that level of enthusiast personal audio. I also totally agree with the parallel you draw between photography and audio. Nice article, Ming.

    • Thanks Nick! It seems I’m the other way around – I can’t really do headphones (tried, with AT AD700s, B&W P5s, B&W P7s…but nothing really worked or wasn’t convenient for travel) but IEMs are a good compromise. I’m just glad I can’t tell the difference beyond a fairly low threshold; having to find a portable audio Otus is going to be big time wallet-unfriendly.

  32. good to hear. i totally agree about in ear vs over ear.
    being somebody who also works in audio (and listens just for fun) i have found that the Etymotic ER 4s are the highest quality phones i’ve ever used. nothing comes close. when properly seated in the ear to fully seal (and get proper bass response) i hear things in recordings i previously never knew existed. simply incredible. picture going from a cheap zoom on a D700 to an Otus on a D810.
    they are delicate, expensive, and produce annoying microphonics when the cable rubs against jacket etc….but as far as audio quality they are astounding, as though the musicians are inside your head. also fantastic with electronic music. the details just pop. the bass is less compared to most phones because imo most phones have excessive low end and output level at the cost of clarity, balance, and detail.
    the great sealing that the design allows also introduces another positive element. you can listen at lower levels since ambient noise is blocked out, which saves your ears big time (and reduces the negative artifacts introduced by cheaper headphone amps, although as with all phones a high end headphone amp WILL sound better than an iphone). the negative side of the great seal is that noises you may want to hear may also be blocked out, which can be dangerous.

    • I tried the ER4s quite a few times because of their reputation, but find that my ears just can’t take the high end frequencies for long without feeling fatigued – and the bigger problem is they just weren’t comfortable…

      • i could see that, they certainly have more high end than anything else i’ve used. i’ve found that i simply listen quieter than i would with other unsealed phones…and then i get perfect balance and detail. The worst ear fatigue i get is usually from excessive volume (concerts, subway noise, etc)….and i actually sometimes wear the etymotics even with no sound just to block out noise.
        for really insane people there’s those ear molds that custom fit the ear. i do fine with the rubber plugs tho.
        keep up the great work!

  33. Gary Morris says:

    Too many miles! I had the opportunity to commute between LAX and SGN off and on in 2004 and 2005. It didn’t matter one bit what I had on my ears. After 19 hours in the air my ears were toast! A good pair of noise-canceling headphones are good for some hours but I’m certain that my less than stellar hearing today (10 years later) is in some small way attributable to the hush of a 747.

    I’ll look forward to another off-topic post on the subject of horology, cigars and scotch. Thanks in advance for that one!

  34. Thanks for sharing a little bit of your “other” stuff Ming. As a frequent traveler too, plus close to 35 years around jet engines, I’ve been happy for several years wearing the Etymotic brand. Currently their hf3 (http://www.etymotic.com/consumer/headset-earphones/hf3.html). I used to worry about sound quality, having the latest stereo equipment, but it didn’t take long to realize that I was wasting my time and money as my ears could not hear what they did when I was young.

    I’m quite happy with just my hf3 and iPhone 6 with 128gig of memory allowing me to bring my entire music library where ever my travels take me.

    • 🙂

      Tried various Ety models a few times, but always found the high end a bit too much for me. I’ve come to realise that what I want is low end definition and separation, and a bit of roll off in the highs – my ears seem to be overly sensitive to the higher frequencies north of about 8k or so.

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  1. […] previously written about this topic about a year and a bit ago – however, as with everything, we get itchy fingers and hardware evolves. (It’s also […]

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