The price of escape?
I’ve 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 one of the few remaining hobbies I have outside photography.) I made what could be seen as a rather reductionist change (single output, single source) from the spread I was juggling before. Personal audio is one of those things that I think people either land up using quite heavily by virtue of personal needs (e.g. long public transport commutes, time on airplanes etc.) or never really venture into – the situation for use has to be right. It also seems to be one of those things that more photographers than not have some level of interest in; I have no idea why. Perhaps it’s the gadget factor. There’s a whole discussion around sufficiency and enjoyment and practicality that almost mirrors that of photography; the critical difference for personal audio is that user skill has no influence over the output result, unlike photography. Personal audio listening is an entirely consumptive pursuit, not a creative one. But of late, I can’t help wondering if there are some things we can take away as photographers, too.
In the early days of my career, I spent an hour on the train and tube to work each way – more, if there were the inevitable delays. I bought one of the early solid state MP3 players that had enough room for one CD worth of songs – so every few days I’d change out the music so as not to get bored. An accident involving sitting on the included headphones resulted in me doing a little hunting for a better pair, which started the trip down the rabbit hole. I soon discovered that isolation made far more of a difference to enjoyment and sound quality than absolute cost or spec, and hunted down in-ear monitors; this was back in the days when you had to get them from musicians’ speciality stores. The iPhone was many years out, and consumer electronics places only had horrible earbuds or high end full size cans. (It still amazes me that today you can find replacement ear tips in a bewildering variety of materials and sizes at most places, and the average store selling cellphones has a wider selection with much better average quality than we had back then.)
I needed more storage, eventually. And I broke another pair of headphones. I didn’t make the mistake of MiniDisc, but I did with the ‘Network Walkman’ that required proprietary software to load and convert tracks. I didn’t see the point of the iPod at the time (and couldn’t have afforded one, anyway, on a trainee accounting salary). Things took a step up when I changed jobs and landed up flying twice a week, almost every week. That 1h commute became 6-hour beginning at 4am on Monday, and ending at midnight on Friday – or worse. Being able to take a few hours out here and there – both in transit and sometime during the week – became even more important.
Cue the gear path: better source, better output. A larger setup wasn’t an option as things had to stay portable to be able to take on the road. I think personal portable audio didn’t really take off until the iPhone became an embedded part of modern culture, but at least in 2006, it wasn’t quite so difficult to find better (and more exotic) headphones. I discovered the joys of multiple drivers and learned why one might prefer balanced armatures over dynamic drives and vice versa. The 2006 pair – a launch edition set of UE Triple.Fi 10 Pros – lasted over ten years and wasn’t bettered until very recently (though as with all gear obsessions, it didn’t stop me from trying).
‘Garbage in, garbage out’ became soon apparent. If you had poor mastering and poor recording, then even an uncompressed source file would be no better sounding than an MP3. And if you had a good source file, you still needed a good player that paired well with the headphones you were using – both in sound signature and more technical qualities like output impedance and sensitivity. Cables started to matter, and I experimented with various copper and silver options – I’ve come to like the warmth of copper, but sometimes having a silver mix is also nice to preserve clarity. Too much copper can be muddy, and too much silver fatiguingly sibilant. And not all headphones paired with all cables.
After several diversions through cable changes, source changes, headphone changes, Sugru-based custom fit experiments etc. – I came to the conclusion that I was still missing something in the fit department (and not really able to use any IEMs for more than a few hours, insufficient for a long haul flight) – either because of comfort or simply not staying in. Turns out custom mouldings or modifications to the housing were the way to go. It also turned out that sound is highly subjective; one man’s meat is another man’s poison and all that. I didn’t like most of the modern offerings because they were either far too bass-heavy, or too shrill. Balance was lacking, with most companies electing to turn things up to 11 on either end to cater to either bias.
Last year, a certain notorious Mr. Wong, printmaster and audio bad influence, dragged me to a local audio show – knowing my interest and that I probably needed a break. I spent four hours at one booth, listened to about a dozen options, and walked away considerably poorer: I finally pulled the trigger and went for a set of custom IEMs, made from a set of silicone impressions taken directly from one’s ear. (For the curious, Ultimate Ears UE18Pros.)
Firstly, let me say this: the universal demos are delivering perhaps 70-80% of what you get from the finished customs, assuming there’s a good fit. And even then, they’re usually better than the mainstream universal fit IEMs. Secondly, be prepared to wait a long time. Thirdly, be prepared to make some very unpleasant discoveries.
Here comes the photography parallel: I equate these headphones with medium format. The relative cost is there, the specificity is there, and the same ‘at-this-level-everything-is-really-good-and-you-are-splitting-hairs-based-on-personal-biases’ feeling is there, too. And moreover, you land up fully aware that the width of the envelope in which full performance is delivered – and enjoyed – is really, really narrow. And contingent on the rest of your ‘workflow’ or components in the chain. The stock cables sounded terrible, so I landed up with Linum BaX; these opened up soundstage and added a bit more clarity, whilst being easier to wear and microphonic-free thanks to being very thin. Unfortunately, they are easy to tangle – specifically because they are very thin. My iPhone sounded okay, but not great. I put that down to iTunes AAC as a source, and in came Tidal Hifi (which I still think is great for the access it gives you to such a variety of music to experiment with, and the ability to cache FLAC offline). Then I ran out of space on the iPhone, and made the mistake of trying alternative DAPs, so a new one of those was in order – a Pioneer 100R, something that ran Android and thus had Tidal support – and really good sound; expansive, immersive, transporting. It pairs well with the UE18s. But it’s another lump to carry, so I’ve now also got a tiny Audioquest Dragonfly Red DAC-amp that plugs into the bottom of my iPhone; fortunately this pairs very well with the UE18s too, and gives me almost all of what the 100R does.
Actually, the more I listen to it – the more I prefer the output from the Dragonfly; it’s a bit smoother, more liquid, and somewhat redolent of tube amplification, but retaining the pace and attack that modern equipment gives (and suits modern music). The only downside is that it seems to chew through the iPhone’s battery rather quickly, meaning either a charger or battery pack is necessary for extended sessions (not a problem if you’re on a plane or at your desk, of course). The Dragonfly also has the advantage of being a plug and play USB DAC-amp that will play nice with a computer, which in turn you can use with your favourite streaming service. I think the universality and cloud access of Tidal was the other switching point for me – pick the most convenient device (some with offline music support, such as the 100R and iPhone based app) and just plug in – they all sound much the same, which is good.
But taking a step back: new headphones > new cables > new source > new DAP > new amp – if that sounds a lot like camera > lenses > cards > computer > storage > printer > monitor, that’s probably because it’s not far off. And like chasing the last little percentage of performance from your photographic gear, most of the time – it’s not worth it, or you won’t get an appreciable difference to where you started off. But when conditions are right, and the stars line up (or you’ve spent enough and been force fed enough Kool-aid) – then again, like both making and viewing of an image – it can give you an experience that transports you to another mental space. And that (or the illusion of it, for after all: what’s really real?) is what makes it worthwhile. MT
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