Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Last Week's Most Interesting

This week we have quite an intriguing new headphone design from a Japanese company called Sanwa. The company latest offering, the 400-HS011, has a half clip-on, half in-ear and fully opened design. There isn't many detail on this in-ear-clip-on: 18mm driver unit, maximum output of 10mW, frequency range of 16Hz to 20kHz, and expected weight around 30g. Its most interest feature is of course how the headphone is meant to be wore. The actual earpiece sits just outside of ear canal but slightly above, than its nozzle extends down into the opening of the ear canal but it doesn't fully cover it (thus an opened design). This is no doubt one of those headphones that are designed for people who don't want isolation. Whether it'll sound as good as its design is at this point everybody's guess. The MSRP in Japan is about US$32.50, but I am not sure it will be able to make its way out of the country though.

Those of you who want a closer look can visit Sanwa's website here.

Thursday, February 12, 2009

Which Way Up? [Part 2]

Chapter 2: The Source
As the backbone of the portable rig, the least you can do is make sure your source is up to common standard. If you already have a portable source at hand, you might want to take this part as your future buying guideline. If you are in market for a new source, here are a few advise.

First, read reviews from multiple sources. You might want to know that some big website prefer a certain brand while some reviewers bias against a certain brand - you want to read as much as you could when it comes to review (any kind of review!).

Second, do note that there are more than just sound quality to consider. You will want to know about the size, general build quality, customer support, firmware upgrade, capacity upgrade (like SD card support) and one of the most important: format support. I think it is needless for me to tell you that switching from iPod to a WMP11 (Windows Media Player 11) supported audio player means you will loss support for the iPod's music library you already built up. Vise verse, the songs you purchased online for your Creative or Sandisk player will have DRM that stop them from playing on iPod. This goes back to the previous chapter - you want to make sure the format of your music is compatible not just to your current player, but to your future player as well. It is still a very painful process to rebuild your music collection even if your next player sounds ten times better than you current one.

Chapter 3: The Headphone
Once you have yourself a good quality source and some high quality music, you can start to look into headphone upgrade.

First, set a budget. As audiophiles' headphones go, they can be very expensive. You want to make sure you are getting a headphone that well matches your source. You don't want something too expensive but you won't want to cut your budget too low either. For the current earphones' (earbud and IEM) market, $50 to $100 will give you a good start, $100 to $200 will give you a very good selection. Anything beyond $200 is targeted at audiophiles (= mad people that will do anything for sound quality). If you are in a tight budget, there are still some good option at the sub$50 market, but you will have to be extra hardworking to find them. Most of them are hidden pearl that you can only find in forum discussion, not big review site.

Second, make sure you know where/how the headphone will be used. As portable rig goes, you don't want earbud when you are in library, nor will you want IEM when you need to be in constant communication. Find out whether you can stand earbud or IEM before you purchased. There is no point to buy a headphone when you can't even used it more than 5 minutes.

Third, look for the best sound quality headphone that fit your taste. Reviews often only tell what the reviewer believes to have good sound quality. What most don't tell is that each reviewer has a unique taste of music, and most will not match yours. You want to be sure that you are getting something that match your taste, even when it is not the best sounding you can afford (as you might not enjoy it).

Chapter 4: The Headphone Amp
I have written an article ('To amp, or not to amp') a while back to put some points into the craziness in chasing amp, do read it. People often read too much into how a little amping can put them in the quick path to audio heaven, well that is simply not true. Amp is really for more advanced user who know what they are looking for to complete their setup. If you can barely understand the reason for amping, the meaning of LOD, line-level signal, or whether your current setup needs amping or not, you should NOT even consider buying an amp. The point is, there are easier way to get better SQ then getting an amp. Amping is for user who understand the limitation of their setup and willing to go the extra miles to squeeze out the last few % in their system.

Headphone amp is just an element for fine tuning a portable rig, not a magic cure for sound quality.

Chapter 5: The Other Factors
I guess the first 'other' factors that comes into mind is cable. If amping is a relatively small element for fine tuning, cable will be the one you should ignore most of the time. I am not saying cable has no effect on sound, but at the level of portable rig,  a few inches of cable, may it be silver or gold, really is nothing compare to the amount of copper in the wire and PCB circuit. It will be like placing racing-quality spark plug into a 30yrs-old car and hope it can compete in WRC racing, that is just too much of a wishful thinking.

One of another factor will be the eartips, or perhaps how to achieve an optimum seal. Different eartips (with different materials) can change the sound just enough to make a difference. So the basic idea is, don't stick to just the stock eartips, try as many aftermarket eartips as you can find.

As my closing comment, I want to point out that a portable setup is the rig you want to carry around. Thus it must be a solid solution that is practical to use. You will be foolish to assume the best sounding system will be the most practical - it is often not. Getting the best out of what you can and willing to carry is what tuning / upgrade is all about. Identifying the weakest link and finding a way to solve the most important issue should always be your first priority when it comes to determine the path of upgrading.  Don't just buy into the belief that you can get a magic cure that will fix everything, cause there is none of such thing!

Monday, February 9, 2009

Which Way Up? [Part 1]

I'll like to talk about 'upgrade' for portable rig this week. One thing I want to make clear first is, I am merely providing an idea of how an sensible upgrade path should be (or at least I think what I will be talking about is the most logical approach), and you should adapt it to your own situation with flexibility. My theory for finding the upgrade path is simple - it is nothing more than identifying the weakest link in your current setup.

It might seem obvious to you now when I tell you to look for the weakest link in your setup, but it is often not. I have seen many people going the wrong way when it comes to spending money on new gears trying to improve on what they have currently.

The main goal of having a portable setup is to simply enjoy high quality music on-the-go. For many, it means getting a good headphone to replace the stock earbud or IEM that comes with your digital music player - well, that is both right and wrong. Think about this, if your are listening to 128kbps of .mp3 files or 96kbps of .wma music, getting a substantially good headphone will only reveal the flaw in your music (the artifact left by the low bitrate encoding process). After all, a good headphone by definition should be revealing. It supposes to show detail that you previously missed, but sometime it can do too good of a job. So what is the more logical approach of upgrading portable rig ? I rank them in importance:


Chapter 1: Because in the Beginning, There is Music...
First thing first: you want to make sure you have at least 192kbps of .mp3 files in your music collection. At this point of time, low bitrate music like 128kbps .mp3 is simply not acceptable. Of course, the higher the bitrate the better, but you also want to consider:

1) The size of the music files against the capacity of your player. If you rip music in extremely high bitrate or in lossless format, you might not be able to fit as many music in your player when there is limited space.

2) The format your music is in and the format that the player will support. This is mainly about how conviniant it will be for you to store, manage, sync and play the music. If you want to store lossless format in PC (as digital archive), than convert and sync music in low bitrate, that is fine. However, you might want to consider a high lossy format so it will work well for both PC and portable playback. Of course, choosing a good software to mange the music is important too. Remember, you will replace your DAP in the future, but you won't want to rebuild the whole music library every time just becasue you change your player.

3) Whether you can differentiate between format and bitrate. If you can't tell between 256kbps from 320kbps or lossless, or maybe .mp3 and .wma sound the same to you, than you might want to pick a good enough bitrate (not too low or high) that you find good sounding, and a format more widely accepted. In this way, you ensure you can still get good music and you don't need to worry too much into compatibility on future upgrade. In that sense, I can tell you right now those low bitrate music you bought online will not likely to survive to the next decade. You will be better off with high bitrate or lossless in DRM-free format, maybe even some old good compact disc.

To Part Two.

Monday, February 2, 2009

Last Week's Most Interesting

Two semi-interesting news: First, Monster (the cable company) was inviting people to review their soon-to-hit-the-market IEM called Turbine. They do insist of calling their own creation as In-Ear-Speaker instead of In-Ear-Monitor to show that it's sound quality is a totally new level above everything on the market, though some early reviews seems to suggest it is just another entry to mid-fi IEM (despite the name). On second news, JVC finalized the detail on their latest noise isolating + canceling IEM called HA-NCX78. For those who missed the news, it was first announced back at CES2009. Basically it is a hybrid of both technology, probably designed more of cutting out noise rather than introducing good sound. NCX78 will be released on March for around US$80.

Hit the read link for the press releases or save yourself some time by just looking at the pictures. Seriously, there is nothing you'll miss.

Disclaimer: All trademarks and logos in the website belong to their respective owners. Beside getting free review samples, I don't work for or get paid by anyone to write anything on this website, or anywhere else in that matter. Also, free review samples are never sold for any financial gain. I do buy gears and review them, but for simplicity you (the reader) should always assume what I review is free sample in nature (and thus comes with all the bias). The website does have Google Ads and Amazon Associates enabled (which I have no direct control over their content) - though I don't write review for a living, nor does the ads generates enough money to cover my breakfast (in fact, not even one breakfast per week). Listening to music and playing with audio gears are purely hobby for me. In short, I am just an audiophiles who happens to have his own blog. Not a journalist who happens to be an audiophile. Oh, and excuse my writing as I am not a native English speaker and can't afford a proofreader. Also, just because I don't write in a negative tone doesn't mean I don't write down the negative aspect of a gear. Please read them carefully. Last but not least, please note that this site uses cookies to track visitors' number and page view.

Important: All postings are my own personal opinion only and should not be treated as absolute truth. I do get things wrong just like everyone else. Always do your own research!

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