D I O... P A P E R
2004 by Steve Deckert
I write this
article for two purposes. Firstly because of recent personal
experiences and second because I can duplicate the experiences with
a new product that would well represent my work and help further
our companies good name.
for the majority of my years as an audio enthusiast I have never
owned what I would call a serious audiophile headphone setup. So
it goes without saying that I also have never really experienced
one. That is not to say I havenít spent plenty of time
listening to headphones. In my studio we record live every
Thursday and have for close to 10 years. I listen to headphones
on a regular basis in the studio.
one day I called Sowter to chat about the transformers they make
for our signature phono stage and before getting off the phone I
caught myself asking if they had any decent headphone transformers.
A few days later I had a pair on my bench. The timing
was perfect as I was really in the mood to do something different
that day. I had just completed building 6 of our Sony SACD
players and just couldnít do another one.
I wonít get
into the specifics on the design in this article, but I will say
that Iíve been researching headphone amps for the past 4 years because
so many customers have asked for one. By now I had a very
clear idea of how I wanted to proceed so when the transformers showed
up the layout and chassis considerations had already been resolved.
I had my first working unit by the end of the day.
day was spent voicing it. I didnít get very far before I realized
I was going to have to get some better headphones. Compared
to my studio I was getting some real special results that I guess
I wasnít expecting. After returning an hour later with a pair
of BeyerDynamic 250 ohm headphones I was again surprised at how
much easier the voicing process went. Within 2 days I had
explored every possibility and settled on the best circuit.
Okay now that
we have that out of the way, this is where it gets fascinating.
All the epiphanies that hit you in rapid succession Ė things
I feel compelled to share because I canít help but think perhaps
most of our customers and audiophiles in general have overlooked
headphones as a serious alternative to setting up a listening room.
Personally I never much cared for them because I like the illusion
of a 3D image in front of me with the added fascination of watching
two large speakers disappear in my room.
As a designer
of loudspeakers and amplifiers you could say my life revolves around
the success of that illusion. I have always looked at the
empty space between a pair of loudspeakers as a three dimensional
canvas where I work feverishly to create deep lucid images of sound.
Iíve just never seriously considered working without that
canvas or in any other medium until the last few years. As a result
of gaining a deeper understanding of good sound Iíve become increasingly
aware of the other elements of good sound that have nothing to do
with conventional imaging.
It used to
really bug me in my younger years when I would hear someoneís stereo
and it didnít image. Sometimes it would still sound good but
without the illusion I just wasnít sucked into the music. The
biggest explanation for this turns out to be not the lack of imaging
but overall fidelity in general. Since listening to Zen Triode
amplifiers for the past 10 years on so many different speakers I
canít count them anymore, Iíve had many opportunities to hear them
set up in situations where there was no real sound stage, yet the
playback was so good it just didnít matter anymore.
how hard it is to get perfect sound out of your stereo. The
journey starts with lots of money spent on gear and room treatments
and usually a variety of loudspeakers until you finally find something
that starts happening for you. Then you discover really good
gear that may or may not cost a lot of money but makes you realize
that your previous system actually sucked. For some this process
is an endless cycle. Each time you replace something in your
system that makes your previous component suddenly sound like crap
is a form of ascension to a higher awareness of what good sound
is. You wonder with each step where the ladder actually stops.
With each successful step you canít imagine how it could get any
better and thatís the thrill of this hobby because it usually can!
is a delicate balance that when knocked out of balance creates an
underlying chaos that hides itís true beauty. Most people
including audiophiles have statistically never heard itís true beauty
because of one or more weak links in the component chain. The
power from the wall outlet. The power cord. The connection
at either end of the cord. The source, the cables, the preamp,
the cables, the amps, the cables, the speakers and all the associated
connections. Then there is the room, speaker quality, speaker
placement, reflections, type and application of room treatments,
the listening chair, itís location. Etc. etc. etc. All of
these variables without exception make up the complete chain of
components in your stereo. The fidelity of your stereo can
never exceed the single weakest link in this audio chain. The delicate
balance is exactly that. Ask me which single item is the most
important and you arenít understanding the concept of delicate balance.
I will point
out that you could divide the chain into two parts, gear and room.
They would be chains of equal length and merit. Most
people focus all their resources on the first half of the chain
while remaining in denial that the second half of the chain even
exists. For this reason alone I can claim with all the confidence
in the world that headphones even without the natural depth of image
you get with loudspeakers are going to sound better. But thatís
just the largest of many reasons why they do.
are high in several forms of distortion compared to every other
component in your stereo system. A problem that increases
with volume and aggravated by standing waves in the room that further
alter the frequency balance by as much as 20 dB. Headphones
do not have either one of these problems.
have limited frequency response. Low bass is often determined
by the longest distance between two opposing corners in your room
because of the standing waves in the room. The average listening
room starts having serious problems with bass peaks and or holes
starting around 80 Hz. Itís not uncommon for a room to kill
the bass below 35Hz. Headphones do not have these problems.
Response is typically down well below 20Hz.
The bulk of
all dynamics in music as well as the majority of the magic itself
lives in the first watt. The second watt adds only 3 dB with
exponentially diminishing results from there. To achieve bliss,
a Zen amp for example, driving an efficient speaker will captivate
a listener with no more than 2 very serious watts. But no
matter it seems how efficient your speakers are the sound is always
better at night. The reason for this is because the ambient
noise floor in your listening room drops significantly at night.
It may drop as much as 20dB. That means that music played
back at night adjusted to the same level it was played during the
day will have 20 dB of added dynamics, detail, with silence between
the notes being perfectly black. Headphones, the closed back
designs, offer typically around 18 dB of ambient noise isolation.
Thatís enough to turn day into night, and turn night into
we're on the subject of dynamics and efficiency - 2 watts on a Zen
amp is plenty loud on the right speakers but A) how many people
use the right speakers with one and B) can you ever have enough
power for those moments when you just want to crank it Ė even with
the right speakers? At some point itís bound to get
ugly as the gear begins to distort aggravated by the room. Headphones
do not have this problem. No distortion, and no apparent limit
to volume. For example the BeyerDynamics I am using
are around 96 dB Ė same as our top of the line High Definition Tower
speakers using the Fostex drivers. My new headphone amp has
a max clean output into these phones of about 300 miliwatts. Thatís
three times what the phones will handle. You might think that
with only 100 miliwatts that a 96dB system wouldnít get any louder
then a Zen amp on our reference speakers but donít forget in the
case of the headphones the speaker diaphragm is located about ľ
inch away from your ear and is automatically 18 dB louder from the
ambient noise rejection.
I have never
been able to get the volume control past ľ on my headphone amp and
can safely say it sounds about a 100 times louder than Iíd ever
want to listen to it. So in short there are no limitations to how
loud you listen and BIG BIG BONUS Ė noone else will hear it Ė even
in the same room.
Ė for this I use my Acoustats with custom servo charged tube amps
driving the panels directly with no crossovers, 20Hz Ė 20kHz response
with no phase shift. Arguably in the top 1% of the best loudspeakers
in the world. This system is a benchmark for resolution but
even as good as it is the headphones are still better. To
illustrate the kind of detail extraction that is possible to hear
with good headphones compared to good loudspeakers do the following
experiment: If you have a watch that ticks on your wrist or a clock
in your house wait until night time and listen to it from a distance
of 1 meter away. What you hear is the max resolution you can
hear at that distance. Now put the watch or clock up against
your ear. The 10 fold increase in information you hear is
similar to the difference between good headphones and good loudspeakers.
to the weakest link concept, it stands to reason that a VERY good
headphone amplifier is imperative to make good headphones sound
good. Now, maybe I got lucky and invented the worlds best
sounding headphone amp but I am sure there would be many that would
be good enough to get you as wound up as I am about it. One of the
biggest surprises is that Iím just using one of our modified CD
players with this headphone amp and comparing the results against
my reference vinyl rig and enjoying it with similar enthusiasm!
I canít help
but think that especially for someone just starting out in the hobby
that this headphone amp and a pair of decent headphones the total
of which is less than $1000.00 would be an intelligent alternative
to trying to set up a listening room. And I suppose that if
a person was to start out this way, and later wanted to set up a
listening room with similar sounding gear he or she would have a
reference which could never be topped throughout the process. That
would undoubtedly effect their buying decisions because by comparison
most everything they try would sound inferior. That would really
help a person choose the right stuff the first time.
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