The Headphones I Use (Updated)

I often get e-mail from readers asking about what audio equipment I use. While I’m not an audiophile, I do listen to music on decent equipment. While I like listening to music with headphones, I do realize that it is, in some ways, artificial to listen with them. Instruments that are off to one side sound much further away from the center of the soundscape than when you listen to a stereo. I like the effect of having the music "in my head," but for some types of music, and some recordings, this isn’t ideal. This is the case with some symphony recordings, and some recordings of string quartets, where the instruments are separated too much. Generally, rock and jazz sound fine with headphones, but with any kind of music, good headphones are unforgiving. It’s much easier to hear any weaknesses in a recording when listening with headphones. Nevertheless, I do use headphones often. Here are the headphones I use.

Note that I’ve updated this article several times since I first posted it in 2012; this latest update was written in October 2021.

Podcasting

Sennheiser px 100 iiiWhen I’m podcasting, I need to hear both my own voice and the voice of my co-hosts and guests, but there is no need for audio quality, so I use a light, simple pair of headphones. I currently use the Sennheiser PX 100-IIi. I used to use these headphones on the go, and they are great, since they have an inline volume control and mic. This means that when I was walking, and listening to music on my iPhone, I could take a call without removing the headphones. For other uses, the volume control and play/pause button made it a bit easier to listen to music. The sound quality of this headphone is surprisingly good, though don’t expect a lot of bass from this headphone. But, again, for podcasting, I just need something light, and these are ideal. However, they are no longer available, and I’ll eventually need to replace them with something similar.

On the go

AirpodsAs mentioned above, I used to use light, wired headphones when I was out walking. Now, I use Apple’s AirPods; not the Pro model, because I don’t like in-canal earbuds, because I can hear my breathing. The AirPods are great for basic listening, the music quality isn’t great, but it’s good enough. The convenience factor is probably the most important. Since there’s no longer a headphone jack on the iPhone, I can’t use wired headphones on the go any more. (To be fair, you can use a Lightning to Headphone Jack adapter, but that’s one more gadget to have.)

Blocking out noise

Airpods maxThere are times when I want to listen outdoors and not hear the sounds around me. My neighbors may be mowing lawns, which, where I live, are quite large. After having had a couple of different noise-cancelling headphones, I recently bought Apple’s AirPods Max, which, while overpriced, are extremely comfortable, and the noise cancellation is very effective. These are Bluetooth headphones, but with a Lightning to 3.5mm Audio Cable, you can plug the AirPods Max into a headphone jack and get the full quality of audio, rather than Bluetooth compression.

Wireless listening

In the previous version of this article, back in 2012, I had only one type of wireless headphones. Now, as you can see above, I have two: AirPods and AirPods Max. So now I use one or the other when I want to listen unencumbered by cables.

Watching movies or TV shows

I had a revelation a few months ago, when I bought Apple’s AirPods Max. While I don’t like listening to music in Apple’s spatial audio, because it’s too artificial, but I enjoy watching movies and TV shows on my iPad, and the AirPods Max, which offer surround sound, are simply perfect. I don’t like the head-tracking feature – if you turn your head, the audio turns, as though you’re actually hearing it from the device you’re watching – but the surround sound is excellent.

Serious listening

Akg k702I have to have one "good" over-ear headphone, though I have to admit that I rarely use this any more. I have AKG K702, which are very large, very comfortable, and airy with excellent sound. The bass isn’t overdone, the treble is clear, and the definition is subtle and balanced. These are open headphones, so you don’t want to use these if you’re listening to music with other people around you. The foam rings are soft and plush, and the headband is comfortable. I can wear these for hours and not get tired, which isn’t always the case with full-sized headphones. But for most serious listening, I use speakers.

What’s next?

It’s interesting that, compared to the previous version of this article, I’ve reduced the number of headphones I use. The headphones I use for podcasting don’t really count; they’re not for music, they’re just for a task. So that leaves me with two headphones I use regularly: Apple’s AirPods and AirPods Max.

I’m no longer that interested in headphones. Over the years, I’ve had a couple dozen different models, and I don’t feel that I need to try to get better and better headphones. These days, I’m mostly interested in flexibility. Yes, that means that I listen to Bluetooth headphones most of the time, which uses lossy compression, but things sound good enough. Though I don’t often listen to music on headphones and home, and prefer listening to music on speakers.

If you have any favorite headphones, feel free to mention them in the comments.

Kirk’s Picks No. 12 – Sonos Roam [speaker]

The Sonos Roam is a small, portable speaker that works with both Bluetooth and wi-fi.

Theme music: Honest Labor, composed and performed by Timo Andres.

If you enjoyed the podcast, follow it on Apple Podcasts or in your favorite podcast app. For show notes and links to my pick, go to kirkville.com/picks. You can support this podcast by purchasing items via my affiliate links, or you can sign up for my Patreon and donate a few bucks a month.

The Next Track, Episode #171 – Vintage Audio Gear

While there are lots of reasons to opt for minimal audio equipment, for some people there is an enduring allure for vintage stereo amps and receivers from the hi-fi heydays of the 1970s. The time when audio gear had knobs and dials and VU meters, like the fins and grilles on 1950s cars. We discuss our lust for those baroque audio devices of yore.

Find out more at The Next Track website, or follow The Next Track on Twitter at @NextTrackCast.

Sonos Really Sucks at Communication

Sonos has again gone back on a controversial decision they made, but this time it’s too late for a lot of people.

Late last year, Sonos announced a “Trade Up program,” whereby people with certain older devices could trade them in for a 30% discount. They wouldn’t physically send them to Sonos, who didn’t want to be bothered recycling them; they would be responsible for recycling them themselves. And they couldn’t keep them, because they would be bricked after 21 days.

The company was roundly criticized for creating e-waste. The goal, which we didn’t know at the time, was to get customers to upgrade from devices that would later be classified as “obsolete,” and that wouldn’t receive software updates.

Well, the company has changed their tune on both of these controversial moves. First, they walked back the original claim about obsolete devices, saying now that they will find a way for them to still be used, and that they are changing the policy of bricking older devices, according to The Verge.

In this case, you’ll get the 30% discount, and your older device will still work. So you can recycle it if you wish, or, I’m sure many people will keep the older devices, or give them away. Some may also sell them, and if you think that you can buy an older Sonos device cheaply, then use it to get the 30% discount on a newer device, be careful. I’m sure the company is keeping track of the serial numbers of devices used for the discount. It’s worth noting that Sonos’ support document about recycle mode does not yet specify this change.

I feel bad for Sonos. They had a great reputation in audio and tech circles, and they’ve blown it by not thinking carefully about what they should have known were two controversial decisions. They should hire some PR people to help them not make similar mistakes again.

How Hi-Fi Magazines Write about Cables, Part 24: Ethernet

So here we are again, with yet another magical hardware device to make music sound better. This one is an Ethernet switch; it’s what you use to, for example, connect to a router then connect a bunch of Ethernet cables, with then connect to other devices. They could be computers, wi-fi access points, other switches, or even audio equipment. Some receivers and amplifiers have Ethernet jacks to received digital audio.

First, a brief primer about Ethernet. It’s a technology used to send data over cables, and most networking uses TCP/IP, very robust protocol that has been around for decades, and has been standardized. It is what runs the internet and most networking. A Wikipedia article explains the main element of Ethernet that makes it so robust:

Systems communicating over Ethernet divide a stream of data into shorter pieces called frames. Each frame contains source and destination addresses, and error-checking data so that damaged frames can be detected and discarded; most often, higher-layer protocols trigger retransmission of lost frames.

The bit about error-checking data and retransmission of frames is what’s important. You see, unlike analog data – think of an old TV where you get your signal over the air, and there can be static – each frame, or unit of data, which can be from 64 bytes to 1518 bytes, is checksummed before it is sent, then after it is received. If the checksums don’t match, the frames are resent.

This is very important. Let’s say you’re reading this article on a computer connected via Ethernet to your router. Upstream from there, the router gets data from a series of network devices, from your local exchange, from other switches, finally from the original server sending you data. If data correction is not used, it’s possible that some data gets corrupted during transmission, and you might lose some of it, or some might be garbled. In which case, you would be reading some random sequence of characters instead of what I’ve written; or some of the words and sentences would be missing.

So think about how that works with music. When you send music from a server – be it Apple Music, Spotify, or your own computer – it is sent the same way. Your hardware devices don’t know that it’s music; they only know that it’s frames of data that has to perfectly match what was sent. If not, it is resent. This happens very quickly, and data is buffered to allow for resent frames to catch up and be correctly reassembled. I’m simplifying a bit, but you can be certain that, with working hardware, the data sent is exactly the same as the data received.

Anyway, back to our hardware hawker. According to the venerable What-HiFi:

The Chord Company has relaunched a Great British brand to front its audio electronics business, English Electric, and has demoed its first product – a hi-fi grade network switch.

Beyond the question of whether this product serves any purpose, this company is capitalizing on a recent trend in the UK, among a certain demographic, of wanting “great British brands,” and “blue passports.” (Search the term “gammon” on Google.)

So, what is this device?

English Electric announced the device at the Bristol Hi-Fi Show with claims that the English Electric 8switch can act as a filter for streamed audio to remove unwanted noise which regular computer industry-made switches and routers never consider.

Let’s highlight the magical thinking above:

unwanted noise which regular computer industry-made switches and routers never consider

They are saying that there is “unwanted noise” on network hardware, and that “regular computer industry-made switches and routers never consider.” Let’s think about this. When Netflix streams 4K video, do you think they “never consider” “unwanted noise?” Or that banks, for example, don’t care about noise that could cause data loss or corruption?

Actually, they don’t, because it doesn’t exist. Ethernet, and the protocols it uses, don’t have “noise.” They have 1s and 0s, and error checking, and retransmission, to ensure that the data sent matches the data received. It’s true that you can have cables that malfunction; when that happens, they simply don’t work, because there are too many errors to correct. (You can see this if you ever have a bad HDMI cable; it’s a mess, with lots of artifacts and pixelation.)

But, says the magazine:

The 8switch will come with its own unique power supply and feature better separation with the idea of “making nastier sounding tracks better”.

Now this is something different. Not the bit about “making nastier sounding tracks better,” which is just marketing copy written by someone who didn’t attend much school, but having it’s own “unique power supply” could make a difference to noise; at least the noise that you hear if you put your ear really close to the device. Because while a bad power supply could create a hum, or ground loop, in an amplifier, it will not do anything to an Ethernet switch. If the power works, the data is sent and received. It doesn’t matter if there’s a hum, or if the power is “dirty” as people in the audio fantasyland like to say. If the cables aren’t broken, the data is sent correctly. If the cables are broken, then there’s too many frames that aren’t received correctly, and data won’t flow. It’s not like data comes through looking like this:

Gur 8fjvgpu jvyy pbzr jvgu vgf bja havdhr cbjre fhccyl naq srngher orggre frcnengvba jvgu gur vqrn bs “znxvat anfgvre fbhaqvat genpxf orggre”.

Oh, and it costs £400. You can get an 8-port Ethernet switch for about £21 on Amazon.

But back to the brand. This is, apparently, a truly great British brand:

English Electric was originally founded in 1918 in the armistice of the First World War by amalgamating five companies which had been used in the war effort to manufacture munitions, armaments and aeroplanes. It became defunct in 1968 after some notable successes including the English Electric trains and the supersonic English Electric Lightning jet.

And as the article ends:

Expect to hear from English Electric later in the year.

I shall hold my breath.

How Hi-Fi Magazines Write about Cables, Part 23: Playing CDs

It’s been more than a year since I published the last article in this series. I reached the point where so much of what I was seeing was just repeats of topics I had already covered that it didn’t seem worthwhile to post anything new.

Until today.

In an article on the illustrious Wut Hi-Fi? site, we are informed of 9 hi-fi tricks you might not believe affect sound quality (but they do). There is actually one good idea in the article, and that is to listen in the dark. Light, and even color, can affect what you hear. Your hearing is more acute in a dark or low-light environment. And this one even gets some scientific backing, from “chief scientist for Dolby Laboratories, Dr. Poppy Crum.”

But the last idea in the article, for those who have made it past the first eight, which are mostly bogus, is about “Playing CDs from the beginning.”

So, how come a CD sounds better if you stop it and then press play, rather than playing it from pause? Because, dear readers, we can assure you they do.

We haven’t heard a definitive explanation. Nevertheless, in our experience doing things this way just sounds that bit better.

Try it out for yourself with a favourite album on CD. You’ll soon see that we’re not crazy. We just love bicycle inner tubes, little stands for our cables, pitch black rooms and very, very late nights…

And, it bears repeating: what matters is what you hear, so if you can’t hear the difference, save yourself a whole load of trouble and money. But if you do find yourself with some tinkering time, why not give the above a try.

I don’t even know where to begin. How about with that bit where the journalist hasn’t “heard a definitive explanation?” Or, “we assure you they do?”

Thanks, Wut Hi-Fi? Onward and upward.

So long, Sonos: Meet the open-source audio system that will never die – ZDNet

Until the introduction of smart streaming devices made by Sonos (and others, such as the Amazon Echo, the Google Home, and the Apple HomePod) high-fidelity speakers were investments that were expected to last many years and could be transferred from amplifier to amplifier should the technology change.

On the heels of this recent Sonos imbroglio, I believe it is time to reconsider whether we should continue to have these fully-integrated speaker devices, which include all of the logic and high-fidelity components in a single box. The electronic waste generated by this discarded equipment when they reach the end of their support lifetimes is not only environmentally irresponsible but also financially taxing on the consumer who has to replace these devices periodically.

I believe a solution to this problem exists, but it will require a fundamental change in how manufacturers like Sonos, Amazon, and Google approach building their equipment in the future.

The change starts with a new device and an open-source project, which I am tentatively calling “AudioPiLe.”

This is a key element to understanding the anger among Sonos users at the company’s announcement last week about certain products being made obsolete. These are products that last a long time, and it’s only recently that speakers have become computerized, putting these lifespans in danger. I can’t imagine that the open-source idea that the author expresses here would be any more popular than, say, Linux on the desktop, but it makes a lot of sense.

Source: So long, Sonos: Meet the open-source audio system that will never die | ZDNet

Sonos will stop providing software updates for its oldest products in May – The Verge

In May, Sonos will stop providing software updates for its oldest products, and they’ll no longer receive any new features. The decision impacts “legacy” devices that are currently part of the company’s trade-up program, including all Sonos Zone Players, the Connect and Connect:Amp, the first-generation Play:5, the CR200 controller, and the Bridge.

“Without new software updates, access to services and overall functionality of your sound system will eventually be disrupted, particularly as partners evolve their technology,” Sonos warned in a blog post today. The company says customers can choose to either keep using these products after support ends — they should continue functioning in the near-term — or replace them with a modern Sonos product at a discount.

Platform obsolescence. While individual devices would continue to work even without software updates, the fact that they integrate into a platform makes this impossible.

I think Sonos is offering users a fair deal, with 30% discounts for upgrades. But it still feels wrong. You can use a 50-year old stereo receiver but you can no longer use something that’s just over 10 years old. (To be fair, though, the Play:5, which is the first speaker that is end of life, does have an aux in jack, so you can run audio from some other network bridge into it.)

Update: It’s worth noting that there is a lot of ire among Sonos users. I follow a Facebook group, and there are a lot of people who bought devices just a year ago that are affected. I also heard from someone on Twitter who had hard-wired a bunch of Sonos stuff in a house, juts five years ago, and it will all be affected. In that case, I update what I said just above; this isn’t a fair deal, this is a catalyst for a class-action lawsuit.

I wonder if this decision is simply because Sonos doesn’t want to do the necessary software development to keep older devices working, or if they can’t. I have a feeling we’ll be hearing more about this soon. Sonos users tend to be quite vocal in their appreciation for the company, and that appreciation has quickly changed to anger.

Oh, while I’m at it, I have a bunch of Sonos stuff and I use it only with AirPlay, but the company still doesn’t support music libraries over 60,000 tracks (if you point the Sonos app at a folder containing your music files). Yet in practice, this number is much smaller. When I tried – about five years ago – it only managed to see about 40,000 tracks. This is because a lot of my music library is classical, and has a lot of metadata. The library size is limited by the amount of text that can be stored in a database, and with classical music, you can use fewer tracks because the metadata is often larger. Seriously.

Source: Sonos will stop providing software updates for its oldest products in May – The Verge

HomePod vs. Sonos One Stereo Pair Comparison

I’ve had a HomePod since it was first released in early 2018. It sounds okay, but there are a number of issues with it. As I said in my review, “sometimes this speaker sounds really great, sometimes it really doesn’t.” And the biggest problem for me was this:

What the HomePod needs, of course, is user access to settings like an equalizer, as you have in iTunes or on an iOS device. Not to the broader DSP algorithm, but to the tone sculpting that makes some music sound too bassy, or, at times, too trebly.

A few months later, I got a second HomePod to combine them into a stereo pair to use in my bedroom. Using two standalone speakers in a stereo pair is practical: you save the space you would need for an amplifier, and you don’t need to run speaker wire to them (you do need to plug both into AC power, of course).

In late 2018, I bought a Sonos One, which is similar in size to the HomePod, but is much less expensive. It turned out that the Sonos One sounded better overall than the HomePod.

So the next step was to buy a second Sonos One and set it up in a stereo pair. I did so recently, taking advantage of post-Christmas sales, and I purchased the less expensive Sonos One SL, which does not have a microphone so does not support Alexa or Google Assistant. I don’t use Alexa, nor do I use Siri on my HomePods, and if you have a stereo pair, you don’t need both Sonos Ones to have microphones anyway.

Note that a pair of HomePods costs $598, and a pair of Sonos One SLs costs $329.

So, it was time to set up the Sonos Ones in a stereo pair in my bedroom and compare them. I placed each one on the same shelf as a HomePod, a few inches away. In the Music app, I set the volume for each pair to approximately what was audibly the same level; the Sonos One is a bit louder, so I lowered its volume until it sounded about the same. (“Bedroom” below is the HomePod stereo pair.)

Bedroom

You can switch from one AirPlay device to another by tapping the AirPlay icon at the bottom of the Music window, and I switched back and forth, starting with my Kirk’s Audio Test Tracks playlist on Apple Music. This is a playlist of music that I am very familiar with, which I use when testing new audio equipment. (I listened to more than just what’s in the playlist, but I started with that.)

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Sonos Recycling Program Just Creates Waste

Trashing your old electronics is bad for the planet—a big reason why you might’ve noticed tech companies push sustainability programs in recent years. Sonos recently joined the recycle brigade in October, launching its Trade Up hardware upgrade program that gives users discounts if they “responsibly recycle older products.” It’s a good idea in theory. The problem is that to take part, users have to brick their speakers, rendering them useless for resale or refurbishment.

This is just stupid.

In reality, they’re not offering a discount for people who recycle products; they’re just offering a discount so people can get newer products, and so they can sell more. It’s a loyalty discount.

Earlier this year, I bought a new pair of speakers, and the manufacturer, KEF, had a promotion: you could trade in any old speakers to get a 20% discount. I had an old pair of speakers, worth much less than the 20% I could save. I bought them from a fairly large audio-video chain here in the UK, over the phone, and asked about how I send them my old speakers. The person told me they didn’t care; I could keep them. It was just a discount, nothing more. If I had brought them into one of their stores they would take them and recycle them, but I had the feeling that it was more of a bother to them than anything else.

If manufacturers want to discount their stuff, they should stop this pretend recycling, unless they can do it right. (Such as Apple does, for example.)

Source: Sonos Recycling Program Just Creates Waste