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Improve Your Hearing St. John's NL

Headphones cannot deliver the dynamic wallop of tower speakers or the rolling thunder of even a modest subwoofer. When you listen to headphones, the sound is all in your head. It’s a more cerebral, less visceral experience.

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Improve Your Hearing

Provided By:

December 1, 2006 By Steve Guttenberg

If you really want to hear every last bit of music on your favorite recordings, headphones have it all over loudspeakers. The reasons for headphones’ sonic superiority are easy to fathom. First and foremost, the vagaries of room acoustics that play havoc with speakers’ sound matter not a nit to headphones. With a headphone squirting sound directly into your ears, there is nothing between you and your music. That sort of intimacy is impossible to achieve with speakers.

Next, where speakers rely on a maze of networks to route their sound through woofers and tweeters, headphones keep the sound whole, delivering everything from the deepest bass to the highest highs over a single driver. That may explain why headphones make even the most familiar music sound fresh.

 The AKG K 701 may look like something from the 1950s, but its sound is thorougly modern. Each one is individually numbered and tested for sonic performance.

So are they perfect? Not quite. Headphones cannot deliver the dynamic wallop of tower speakers or the rolling thunder of even a modest subwoofer. When you listen to headphones, the sound is all in your head. It’s a more cerebral, less visceral experience.

OK, there is one other thing: High-end components and surround processors with headphone jacks are exceedingly rare. The headphone amplifiers built into A/V receivers are, for the most part, merely serviceable. To really strut its stuff, a great headphone needs to be partnered with a great headphone amplifier. That’s why a good number of specialist manufacturers are jumping into the fray. One, Montana’s HeadRoom, has been perfecting the art of headphone amplifier design for 13 years. Its product range runs from teensy, battery-powered portable amplifiers (for use with iPods and laptops) to homebound, über-audiophile units. If there is a more passionate advocate for headphonia than HeadRoom’s chief honcho Tyll Hertsens, I have not met him.

 The drivers in Sennheiser’s HD 650 are selected by hand in matched pairs so the difference between the sound of the right and left channels is practically nonexistent. The company claims +/-1 decibel precision.

HEAR NO EVIL

Hertsens sent three amplifiers for this review. The first is the cute little Desktop model that can be hooked up to a computer’s sound card or a DVD player. The second is another Desktop amp that looks identical to the first, but sports a souped-up "Max Module" internal amplifier circuit board. The third is HeadRoom’s ne plus ultra standard-bearer, the Max Balanced, which tops this field of headphone amplifiers. It is about the size of a high-end surround-sound processor.

The basic Desktop amplifier is no bigger than a thick paperback novel. It scores a massive improvement, however, over the sound available from the headphone jacks found on even the most upscale A/V receivers, which sound harsh and crude by comparison. Stepping up to the Max Module-equipped Desktop produces more nuanced gains in bass power and overall purity of sound. The Max Balanced reveals new riches of palpable details and resolution—you feel the sound as much as hear it. If you want to imagine what it would be like to get really close to Diana Krall or Madonna, the Max Balanced will take you there.

Hertsens and his HeadRoom cronies are continuo...

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