ONLINE - ISSUE 26
The First National Head-Fi Meet
A great buzzing comes across the land. It's happened before; it'll happen again. Each generation defines for itself what mood-changing substances, love-making techniques, and music it prefers. In my time, back when huge dinosaur loudspeakers roamed the earth, and the new technology of Williamson type push-pull triode amplifiers was making inroads into the living rooms of certain music-loving homecaves, there was a buzz about the new Pleistocene gear. We drank jug wine, smoked strange herbs, and tried to get the missionary's wife to show us what was meant by the "missionary's wife's position," while we listened to music on our Stone Age hi-fi systems.
I went to college with some audio enthusiasts, back when audio was a hands-on hobby, something we could do in the summers or in our spare time. One guy in our group, Ted Donelan, built a kind of Bose loudspeaker, only his was made of row upon row of 100 dashboard radio drivers, each four or five inches in diameter, that stood five feet tall in a corner of his cave, and was driven by an amplifier that had an EQ network to compensate for the speakers' characteristic curve. It didn't sound half-bad. That would be a radiating surface of about 1200 sq inches, or about five 18" woofers, if my old math holds up. Another guy, Alan Shapiro, built four Bozak, long-throw, 12" woofers into a closet door, and crossed them over to a Lowther PM6 that he used for everything above 100Hz. That system was mono-awesome. Another guy, Walt Jung, built an unfolded-horn with an exponential flare that started out smaller than the 12" University co-ax that played up to 100 Hz (crossed over to a pair of Magnepans), and wound up (after about 25 ft of horn) with a mouth equal in size to about a pair of double French doors. On a bass drum whomp it could flap your trousers.
Some of the same guys built balsa wood strutted tone arms (Alan), similar to model airplane wings; and another (me) built a special seismographically correct sprung base for my heavy Thorens 124 turntable that hung from a sky hook above in the event of an earthquake. Of course many of us tried our hands at differing plywood speaker enclosures. That's where big money could be saved. Popular enclosures to do yourself were The Carlson cabinet that did well with the Altec Lansing D-4 (at Roland Slatkoff's), not to be confused with the Stromberg Karlson Labyrinth that did well with a Tannoy (at Jon Glazier's), a handful of popular Electro-Voice and Jensen construction drawings were published in magazines like Popular Electronics. Even Klipsch horns, the details of which were a closely held proprietary secret, had a set of plans published in Audio Engineering, the ancestor of Audio, which became an industry standard.
At the First National Head-Fi meet (held in Bayside, Queens, NY) this April, 2006, there was the beginning of such a buzz. There were a lot of guys under 30 who have brought the Do-It- Yourself, hands-on ethos to the headphone way of listening to music. It is convincingly stated by the headphone enthusiasts that such listening affords one the greatest sonic bang for the buck. That is to say, if you want to listen hard to music, to study it as one might study for an exam, then headphones offer the listener the closest thing he can get to being in the recording studio. For detail, nuance, and subtleties of performance you can't beat listening through headphones, and that's why recording engineers (and CD reviewers) use them. And, as headphones don't need a high-powered amplifier to listen with, only the equivalent of a line-stage, they eliminate one of the most expensive parts of the reproduction chain—the amp. Similarly, small fortunes can be saved by eliminating pairs of freestanding loudspeakers. Furthermore, with only a few cubic centimeters of air between the eardrum and the headphone's driver, headphone listening eliminates the vagaries of unique room/speaker interactions (standing waves, modes 'n' nodes, peaks 'n' dips, slap-echo, phase anomalies, etc). This is a good example of the post-Einsteinian principle, that sometimes "Less is more."
Following that assumption, head-fi guys are finding better and less expensive ways to achieve first-rate sound. Some build 'phones amps from scratch using plans that are available (free or cheap) on the net. Others buy kits and assemble them. Still others buy manufactured products and, based on what they have learned from others, perform modifications to them. Some achieve desired results by selected electronic parts replacement (Pooging), while others fabricate wooden earcups from exotic woods to replace various plastic ones, firm in the resolve that they will receive some access to hidden meaning in their music. It is surprising what a deeper, more rigid cup will do for the sound of an otherwise inexpensive set of phones. It can make the sound more accurate, as well as deliver deeper bass and better sound-staging. Anyone with a good wood shop can lathe turn such earcups. They sound cool, and they are way cooler looking. Trust me. I was a non-believer before I went to Bayside, but now I know better.
And there is the never-ending siren song of the better interconnect cable that George Cardas showed could make such a difference. Guys are forever soldering up "custom" interconnects with the best RCA plugs available, and the most exotic cables they have heard of, to connect their CD players to their 'phones amps. Still others are replacing the factory cords that come soldered to their favorite headphones with some that are headphone specific (low impedance and low capacitance). All these tweaks, if brought to bear in one system, can add up to the equivalent of a super hot-rodded (or Pooged) head-fi experience, with considerable improvements over what is "out there" in the stores.
And talk about bang for your buck: A really high performance CD player, like the Marantz CD-5001 ($300 for Redbook only); plus a similar quality amp, say, the HeadRoom Millet Desktop 'phones amp ($600); plus a pair of, say, the Grado 325i 'phones ($300), and for about $1200 (before any discounts you might find out there) you'd be in the sonic class of room-systems costing ten, twenty (or more) times as much. Such an expensive room-system is not within the reach of most guys who are starting up new families, with all those expenses. Until they can put together their ultimate system, they can make do with a low-budget, high-quality head-fi system.
That's especially true if they substitute a top-of-the-line Sony Walkman CD player (for about $85), build a Millet amp from scratch for, say, half the price of factory-made ($300), and if they improve a pair of Grado SR-125s ($150) with home made wooden ear-cups (for, say, $50) to approach the RS-1's, at $695. So, a tweaker, who has access to a wood lathe, who can read a schematic, solder correctly, and knows what is required to build a kit from a set of plans, could conceivably get himself a pretty damn good head-fi rig for $600, complete.
And that's what the buzz is about. Young guys are beginning to do this. If these words move you, go to http://head-fi.com and click on. Read all you can. Somewhere you'll find membership information.
There have been local and regional "Head-Fi Meets" around the country for a few years. What made this one newsworthy is it was the first "National Meet," and if you count the guys who came down from Canada, an "International Meet." There were fifteen or more vendors who set up tables around the perimeter of the room, while the attendees had rows of display tables in the center. There were East Coast, West Coast, European, and Asian headphone companies, such as Grado, AKG, Beyerdynamic, AudioTechnica, Ultimate Ears, Shure, Westone, and maybe a few I've left out by relying on promotional materials. There were electronics manufacturers, such as Grado and HeadRoom (mostly solid-state), and Single Power Audio (mostly tubed). You could "get down" for minimum expenditure, as described above; or you could spend a great deal on electrostatic headphones, and a dedicated amplifier to drive them. I mean big bucks, which of course defeats the purpose. But the option was provided, and it made for interesting comparative listening. It's the law of diminishing returns all over again.
Of the many guys I spoke to who build their own gear from scratch, one guy, Nathan "Nate" Maher seemed pretty much the embodiment of the guys who fit the profile of a Head-Fi member. He was a married, thirty-year-old structural engineer from Portsmouth, New Hampshire, who builds his own gear because he always has since he was a kid. In evidence was a power supply, a Millet designed headphone amp, and a D.A.C., each of which he built from scratch. I listened for a while through his neighbor's Grado 125 'phones, improved with wooden ear cups. The sound was really super. He was a typically dedicated guy, who had a technical background, and for whom designing and building such equipment was a labor of love. Not to mention, he saved hundreds of bucks that way. Good job, Nate Maher.
There were too many personalities to give a thumbnail sketch of each of the guys I met, industry guys and Head-Fi members. I was a little surprised to find how amiable everyone was. It reminded me of a college reunion I went to once. Two guys I have to mention are Tyll Hertsens and John Grado. Tyll, founder and C.E.O. of HeadRoom, (see http://www.headphone.com) is usually considered the one person most responsible for the resurgence of headphone listening in recent years. John, C.E.O. of Grado Labs (see http://www.gradolabs.com), is one of the other mainstays of the industry, who prefers to operate behind the scenes as l'eminence gris. Then there were the large corporations who, ironically, will probably benefit the most.
These two guys are really nice individuals, and as different as could be. Tyll is a kind of cheerleader who seems to delight in developing personal connections, an extrovert who re-charges his batteries by being among others. John, a bit older, a bit more reserved, is an introvert, who stands on his dignity to distance himself from too many appeals to his better nature. Tyll brings vans full of equipment and personnel from Bozeman, Montana and absorbs the costs somehow. Still, he must donate a good week of his time just preparing to come two thousand miles, with an inventory of demo gear and prizes he'll give away, then returning home. That says nothing of the telephone calling (talked me into coming), e-mailing, and such he must do in preparation. John Grado, had only to come from Brooklyn—a half-hour drive—by comparison. He has established a system whereby some percentage of his firm's net profit goes to donating financial support for Head-Fi (Grado Labs manufactures a special limited edition set of headphones for HeadFi, a portion of whose sales goes to support HeadFi), and another chunk ($25K this past year) goes to his favorite charity, a fund for Autism Research. Together Tyll and John make a hell of a dynamic duo. Head-Fi is lucky to have their smarts at their disposal.
So here is a case of my not knowing what to expect and stumbling into a serious sub-culture (the headphones et al. world) which was not within the main culture of audio. No talk of speakers, power amps, speaker cables, etc., was to be heard. CD players (red-book and SACD) were discussed, as were the varieties and models of headphones (in or on the ear), amps (tubes or transistors), and ear cups (wooden or plastic). While I was at the Head-Fi meet, in a somewhat noisy room, I must confess I had trouble hearing all the mystical qualities each of these combinations could bring forth from a little spinning disc full of pits. At my home it was another story. Late at night, in my "lab," I could hear everything. I mean every-damn-thing various pieces of gear combinations could bring forth from my CDs. Listening through quality gear, late at night, is awesome. It is highly recommended.
Head-Fi is to be applauded. Tyll Hertsens is to be given the highest accolades and encomia for his efforts and contributions. John Grado is to be beatified. If you are into headphone listening, and you're not a member, JOIN!! Their e-mails will keep you up to date. If you're a CD reviewer, join, because their information will clue you in to the best reviewing tools. If you are just a guy with a technical background who has built some of his own gear, join, because their Internet hook ups will get you access to schematics you can work from that will save you money.
Obviously, Head-Fi is not for everyone. It's not for guys who throw money at their audio problems, or guys who can't read a schematic and don't know what the flux is going on. But, for nearly everyone else, Head-Fi is awesome. Pretty soon they'll have lapel-pins and a secret handshake. So join now.
And when you do, tell 'em Waxie Maxie sent ya.