To be pedantic, I’ve been living in the head-fi space since last May when I hit the road on a sabbatical (or midlife crisis, depending on which of my friends and family you asked). Since then, my audiophile leanings have been satisfied, and easily satisfied in fact, by an iPod Classic 80Gb and a set of Ultimate Ears Super-Fi 5 Pro in-ear earphones. These ‘phones have been lodged in my ear canals for an unfeasible amount of time over the months, on trains and buses, while strolling the streets of strange cities, passing time in airports and stations and especially on the long haul flights.
Their sound quality never left me feeling like I needed more and they did a great job at tuning out the world when required but now that I’m back in New Zealand and settled into a new house, the “high” part of the high-fidelity equation is calling. You’d think my first move would be to lug my floorstanders, preamplifier, monoblock power amps, SACD player, turntable, phono stage, rack, cables and assorted accessories over and get them all set up, perhaps even before doing any food shopping.
You’d be wrong. The house comes fully furnished and I’m wondering where I’d place a system as obtrusive as mine without some major rearranging. I’m not keen on lugging the speakers up the stairs and in any event, I sense a major speaker upgrade waiting in the wings, which I’d like to avoid for a while. I’m also still contemplating simplifying the whole mess down to a set of speakers, an integrated amp with phono and headphone stages, a turntable and a DAC. While I work through these options, muttering under my breath all the time, I still need a way to get some high(er) quality sound into my life.
So roll out my headphone rig. The full hi-fi system would take at least three trips to transport from the storage locker – my Celica is spacious with the seats folded but it’s no moving van. The bits and bobs required to assemble my headphone system can be carried to the car in one shot, after all, here’s not much to it.
Starting at the front end, with the CD collection in boxes somewhere in the back of the locker, I decided to stick with the iPod as a source, which is where my Pro-Ject Dock Box Fi comes in (reviewed here). This is a simple analogue device (unlike the more modern numbers that access the iPod’s digital stream) but it really does make the most of the iPod’s line out. That’s hooked up to a New Zealand made Perreaux SXH2 headphone amplifier with a half meter set of New Zealand made Slinkylinks silver RCA interconnects, which have been cryogenically treated by David at Slinkylinks. A Nordost Shiva power cord runs into the headamp.
The ‘phones are a bog standard set of Sennheiser HD650s, which were the flagships from this German company until the superb HD800 model was released. I’ve owned the HD650s since 2006 and they’ve given me sterling service all the way, handling thousands of hours of use with disdain and no sign of wear and tear. Thanks to the metal headband, the ‘phones still do a passable impression of a bench vice even after all this time but I’m used to that background skull crushing effect and don’t much notice it.
Sonically, the combination is ultimately limited by the fact that the source files on the iPod are mostly ripped at 320kbps. As I mentioned in the review, my Marantz SA8260 SACD player shows the little Pro-Ject box a clean pair of heels in the sound quality stakes and that’s even with the CD quality files on the iPod but with a grand total of two CDs actually in my physical possession right now, that’s a moot point. That said, I’ve spent hours listening to this set up and I’ve enjoyed every minute of it. The in-ear Ultimate Ears phones offer a beefier lower end with more visceral slam and impact, actually, they’ll fill your head with bass to the point of bursting on tracks such as Stand Inside Your Love by Smashing Pumpkins, which is great when you’re portable, not so nice when critically listening. What’s coming out of the HD650s at the low end however, is far more detailed and frankly, more faithful to the recording without the low bass emphasis from the in-ears.
The rest of the frequencies are as lovely to listen to, there’s an openness, intimate detailing and a sense of space to the sound that sometimes makes me wonder why I’d even bother setting up a full-blown stereo system – I will of course but I’ll definitely keep this headphone rig in place; it’s an amazingly effective way to get to the high-end without the price tag. That treble in particular is a wonder. In fact, good luck getting this close to your music and hearing so much of what’s actually on the recording with a speaker based system at many times the price.
I’ve been thinking about a cable upgrade for the ‘phones for ages and had even had discussions with David at Slinkylinks to get a custom silver cable made up but for reasons I forget, that never eventuated. With the new HD700 model about to become available from Sennheiser, I’ll hold off on any upgrades and tweaks for the moment and just enjoy this little system. There’s even a remote on the iPod dock but I have to reach over to adjust the volume – oh the hardship.