Sennheiser HD-600 MSRP $449.95
Etymotic ER-4S - $269.00
HeadRoom Max (Loop Out) Headphone Amp - $1599.00
HeadRoom Total AirHead Headphone Amp - $199.00
HeadRoom Nomad Portable Bag - $49.00
DiMarzio M-Path Interconnects - $150.00
Gear Provided By: HeadRoom
Reviewers: Nels Ferré and Scott Faller - TNT USA
Published: February, 2003
Some time ago (longer than we'd like to admit, sorry Ivy :-), Ivy Scull of HeadRoom (no relation to Jonothan Scull BTW) got a hold of us and asked us if we wanted to do a review of some headphone gear. My first thought was to get a hold of Nels and see if he wanted to do a dual review. It just so happens that Nels got the same email and was thinking the same thing.
For those of you living that have been living under a rock for the past few years, HeadRoom is your one stop shop for all things Headphone. That's all they carry, Headphone gear. In fact, they even bill themselves as Headphone Geeks.
Their home base is located in Big Sky Country, Bozeman, Montana. I tend to equate Headroom to Dynaudio speakers (except you strap these on your head) There is absolutely, nothing else to do during those long cold, isolated winters in Montana except make babies or build headphone gear. God love kids, but there is a limit to a normal persons sanity :-)
If you weren't aware, for the past few years HeadRoom has taken their show on the road. They pack up an Urban Audio Assault Vehicle with loads of Headphone gear and go for a looong road trip. They make stops at 20 or 30 major US cities across this vast country we live in and hold demonstrations of all the gear they carry. Late last summer they cruised threw St Louis. Unfortunately I missed them but Ivy was kind enough to send Nels and I a little taste of what I missed.
Ivy was extremely kind in sending both of us identical rigs. They both consisted of the Max Headphone Amp, the Total AirHead Portable Headphone Amp, the Nomad Portable Bag, the DiMarzio M-Path Interconnects, the Sennheiser HD-600 cans, and finally the Etymotic ER-4S earbuds.
When you look at this thing, you can tell that the Headphone Geeks had to stay up really late at night to come up with this one. For starters, it's built like a brick shit-house. It tips the scales at about 7 pounds. Keep in mind, we're talking about a headphone amp here. Solid, machined aluminum casing, a big machined volume knob, generally really impressive to feel, touch and operate.
When you look inside, premium parts abound. Precision resistors, polyphenolene-sulfide stacked film caps, two OP 627 opamps, Dual mono power supplies, precision Noble pot, and all of the parts are precision matched to 1%.
On the front of the amp you'll find (beside the volume pot) a gain switch which comes in really handy, a pair of two way headphone jacks (1/4" and balanced), a filter switch and a process switch.
The filter switch has three settings, Off, Bright and Brighter. Off is the normal or "flat" setting. Bright and brighter are (essentially) EQ settings for the high frequencies. If you have a recording that is a little dull, a flip of the switch will cure it. The Process switch does something a little different. Now, if I understand this thing correctly, when you flip it On, they sum a segment of the low frequencies and turn it into a mono signal. This creates an interesting image in your frontal lobes. Rather than the stereo image being plastered right between your ears, part of it is now hovering about your sinuses. It almost has the qualities of a bass boost but not quite.
On the back of the amp you'll find six gold plated Cardas RCA jacks, a female IEC connector, the On Off switch, a Ground Lift switch in case you have any ground noise and a Tape Loop switch.
To quote the Headphone Geeks Friggin' Awesome
This one is a totally portable Audiophile quality headphone amp. This little amp can be powered either by three AAA batteries or a 4.5 volt wall wart. With standard Alkaline batteries, you get about 40 hours of listening pleasure out of it.
The electronics are housed in a hard plastic case. The pieces and parts of this little gem are pretty nice too. HeadRoom has chosen thin metal film resistors and OS-Con caps for the power supply.
On the front of the Total AirHead you will find the green power LED, the power switch, the Processor switch and the volume pot.
This is a handy little item. It has a zippered compartment on top that is large enough to hold the Total AirHead amp along with a few spare batteries (and the Etymotic's if you so choose). Below that is the main compartment which holds your portable CD player. There are Velcro strips provided to (quasi-) permanently attach your portable player. Then below that is a divider that gives you room for about 6 CD's that can be placed in the nice soft CD protectors so you have a selection on the go. The bag also comes with a shoulder strap for added portability.
These (undoubtedly) are some of the finest headphones on the planet. They come with a faux green marble finish and are made of Carbon Fiber. They are an open backed design with protective Stainless Steel grilles on the back side. The headband has lots of nice squishy foam to make them an extremely comfortable fit. The ear cups are a soft velour with loads more squishy foam.
Next up is the Nirvana of Ear Buds, the Etymotic ER-4S. Etymotic Research is the same company that produces listening devices for the hearing impaired. These really aren't ear buds per se, because they actually insert into your ear canal. These are the ultimate in isolation. HeadRoom states that they have a 23dB isolation factor, personally, I think that's a bit conservative. These seem to be geared for the traveler but are right at home in any headphone system. They don't look like much but once you pop them in your ears, you won't soon forget the fantastic sound quality.
Finally, Ivy sent us a 1m pair of interconnects from DiMarzio. These are a Teflon insulated, 16 gauge OFC with locking RCA's and boasting ultrasonically welded connections.
NF: I have had a love hate relationship with headphones. Well, actually, mostly hate. First, they do that strange "image in the middle of your head" thing. I'm not really fond of that. The second reason I am not a big headphone user? Well, to put it bluntly, in comparison to the Sennheiser HD-600's, my Sony MDR-V6 cans flat out suck. If they were any brighter, I'd need sunglasses for my ears! I've probably used the Sony's over the last 14 years maybe a dozen times, for very short periods of time. My previous phones were a pair of Koss Pro4AA models. They sounded much better than the Sony's as I remember them, but they were extremely heavy and uncomfortable. Wearing them was like placing a vice on my head. I actually think they changed the shape of my skull, and I've sometimes considered the possibility of a class action lawsuit with other 4AA users against Koss for pain and suffering, they were that uncomfortable.
SF: Personally, I'm a headphone kinda guy, I love 'em to death. Me and headphones go waaaaay back into the early 1960's when you could find me splicing two of those hard white plastic mono earbuds together to make a crude pair of (mono) headphones so that I could listen to Top 40 tunes on my Heathkit transistor radio, that or records I recorded my portable GE 3" reel to reel.
My Mom and Dad got me my first "real" pair of cans back in the late sixties. I think they go tired of me playing my music loud while they were home :-) My first pair was a cheap set of GE's. I loved them. They sounded like crap, but I fell in love with what headphones let me do. You can plug in and lose yourself in the music. No distractions, you just become totally absorbed in sound (once you got past that damned click between tracks on the eight track player :-)
After a few years (and a few different upgrades in stereos), I bought better cans. Hey, check this out. I own a real live pair of Koss K/6LCQ QUAD Cans (as opposed to a real dead pair). Yep, that's right. I actually bought a pair back in the seventies to go with a Kenwood integrated CD4 Quad amp and a JVC Quad turntable. They still work too. My oldest daughter uses them on her electronic piano for practice. Believe it or not, they don't sound half bad, considering. Nowadays, I have a pair of Grado SR-60's. At the $70 price point, you can't do much better.
You know what the worst part of this job is? Getting gear in for review and finding out what you originally thought sounded pretty good really sounds, well not-so-good. That's exactly what happened with my Grado's. Even thought they sound pretty good, both the Sennheisers and the Etymotics blew the Grado's away.
NF: First, it doesn't look like much. No, that's not exactly true: it looks like a radar detector. All it really needs is a mounting plate with a couple of suction cups to attach it to the windshield of my BMW, and it looks like it is up to the task of defending me from the wrath of "Florida's Finest" while I'm doing my best "Speed Racer" impersonation.
SF: It may look like a radar detector, but it sure doesn't sound like one! It's kinda funny (I'm gonna show my arse here), When I first got this thing, I tried plugging it into the headphone output jack of my portable CD player. Needless to say it worked
.. sort of..... but (basically) all I was doing was still listening to the portable CD players internal amp. I couldn't tell any difference other than a couple dB of gain. Then after a quick call to Amy at Headroom (and some serious embarrassment) she told me to plug it in to the LINE OUT of the portable.
Well .. duuuhhhhh!!!!!
Yep, you can call me dip-shit, but only this once :-)
NF: You said it, not me! :-)
SF: Anyway after I plugged it into the CORRECT output, I did some quick comparisons. You want to talk about one hell of an improvement in the sound quality. After that, I started going through and trying all of the portables we have laying around the house. I'd bet we have four or five (I have three kids and, of course, each one HAD to have their own player). With every one I tried, the little Air Head just flat smoked the internal headphone amp of the portable. After listening to the portable CD players internal amps compared to the Air Head, you realize just how bad the internal amps sound.
Hey Nels, did you play around with the bag made especially for the Air Head?
NF: Actually, no. In fact, I used the Airhead along with my computer. I hooked the Airhead up to the soundcard on my Compaq Workstation. The Airhead may not look impressive but it sounds quite nice indeed. I thoroughly enjoyed using the Airhead along with both the Etymotic and Sennheiser cans. I never realized how good streaming audio via the internet can be. Of course, it's nowhere near as good as my system, but I can't get KPIG out of Freedom, California on my McIntosh tuner.
I did see another plus to the Airhead. Being battery powered, it isn't susceptible to power line issues like an AC powered unit is. Also, it can be used with a long interconnect to enjoy music from one's favorite chair, using the volume control to adjust the volume remotely.
SF: Cool, I never thought about using it that way. I've heard tell that the type of batteries really make a difference too. If memory serves me, the rechargeable batteries are supposed to sound the best (or maybe it's the other way around). I can't say that I've tried it, but I will someday.
SF: On my last trip to my Corporate Headquarters in Chicago, I took my portable, the Total AirHead, the AirBag bag and both pairs of headphones. This particular trip we flew. Normally I drive. Chicago is only about a four hour drive from St Louis, maybe just a little more. Anyway, I really wanted to try out the Etymotics on the plane. They claim a 23dB reduction in background noise. That's almost like total isolation with your favorite music being piped into you brain. Sure enough, those little ear buds did one helluva job. Not only do they give you total isolation, they reproduce sound like very few cans I've strapped on before. Smooth, articulate, detailed and the best part, they aren't fatiguing in the least.
These are exactly what I've been looking for. See, here in Gods Country, I tend four acres of ground. I spend the best part of a full day, once a week, just cutting grass and weed eating. I've been using a pair of cheap Koss, closed back headphones but when I turn them up to overcome the sound of my lawn mower or weed eater, the damned things hurt my ears. After a few hours, my ears are ringing like you wouldn't believe. I've tried probably five or six different pairs of headphones and countless ear buds and they all did the same thing. Now, with the Air Head, Etymotics and the AirBag bag, I've got GREAT tunes I can take with me everywhere.
NF: That's cool. While I enjoyed the sound of the Etymotics, I preferred the comfort of the Sennheisers. I really don't like "earbud" type headphones.
Do you remember me telling you about that research paper I read, the one that claimed that wearing headphones caused a 700% increase in bacteria inside the ear? I wish I had saved that report. Maybe that's where my "earbud phobia" originates.
SF: Yep, I remember you telling me that. Since I'm in the engineering/construction industry, I'm used to wearing all kinds of protective gear, from safety glasses to hard hats to earplugs. So I'm used to the feel of inserting something in your ear canal so it doesn't bother me at all.
As for the bacteria thing, I've never noticed anything or had any problems at all. I've had things stuffed in my ears, on and off, for over 20 years and the worst I've gotten is a heavy buildup of wax. Personally, I think this is one of those Urban Myth's. Look at it this way, if cans do cause the buildup of bacteria, play some Bee Gees music, that will definitely kill it :-)
NF: Scott, as you know, I have been having some "issues" with my Audio Research SP-9. I've packed it up and sent it off to ARC for repair; it's due back in a few weeks. That said, I've been using the Headroom Max as a preamplifier, driving a pair of bridged JoLida JD-502 amps, used as power amps. You know what? As a preamp, it's not bad at all. A bit flat sounding maybe, but a bit of treble boost can be used if necessary, depending on associated equipment or to compensate for a poor recording. The front panel "brightness" control also affects the line out on the back panel. Does it sound as "good" as my SP-9? No. It's a bit drier in the midrange than the SP-9, it doesn't have the fullness in the mids that the SP-9 does. Bass is a bit tighter with the Max, maybe, I'm not sure. Either way, it's close. Treble extension is excellent, and imaging is very good.
SF: Cool, I never thought about using it as a pure pre-amp.
NF: As a headphone amp, well, I love everything about it, save the cost of admission. The Sennheiser's that were sent for review sound fantastic through my Creek headphone amp. My $200 Creek certainly isn't the quality of the Max. The Max has a far better volume pot, and a real power supply (the Creek uses a wall wart.) Yes, the bass has more authority with the Max, the noise floor is non existent with the Max, and although all aspects are of performance are bettered with the Max in the system, it still costs $1600. Does it have value? It certainly does, for the right listener. Headphone aficionados would certainly be ecstatic, and the pass through on the rear panel makes it easy for users of preamps without a tape out to add headphone capability to their systems. A listener starting a new system could be well served buying the Max, a pair of headphones, and a CD player, and adding a power amp and a pair of speakers as their budget allows.
SF: You know, it is kinda pricey at $1600 but when I look around at some of the other offerings on the market; it's not that much more than the other "Premium" products that are offered. As for the sound, I agree, it sounds great. All of the little buttons and adjustments you can make let you tailor the sound to suite your own tastes.
NF: Maybe it's like the difference between a Mazda Miata and a Porsche. The Creek unit, while inexpensive, is pedestrian in comparison. What was the line in the movie? "Porsche, there is no substitute." The Max is certainly a premium product, of that there is no doubt. There is definitely pride of ownership for those who spring for this set up.
SF: I had an absolute blast with the Sennheiser's and the Max amp. There were times that I'd have that little puppy cranked up so loud I thought my head was going to implode. Oh, I've got it !!! You know what's missing? The ButtKicker!!!!
Have you seen these? These things bolt to your chair or sofa, you plug in a line level signal to them and they shake the crap out of your seat in time with the bass notes !!! The three of these things put together would be one heck of an experience :-)
NF: Sounds interesting, I've never seen one of those. There is one thing really odd about the Max: the Process function. You already know that I'm not a big fan of headphone "imaging", so you would think this is right up my alley, right? Well, it's the funniest thing: first, the processed signal only makes, to my ears, only a minor difference. Second, and this is really weird, I actually preferred the Max sans processing. Like you said, it did seem to add a bit of bass boost, which the Sennheisers really didn't need, but at the same time, it didn't add enough of a boost to make the Sonys more balanced. So, I listened mostly with the processing off.
I too had a blast with the Maxed Sennheisers. That says a lot for me, and actually is turning my views around 180 degrees (well almost) where headphones are concerned. Remember when I called you and told you about "Sgt. Pepper's" on this set up? I've heard the album more times than I can come close to calculating, and I know it very well. On Side 2, "A Day In the Life", at the very beginning, you can hear John Lennon say something. Exactly what, I'm not sure, but I never heard the voice at the beginning of the track at all, on any system, regardless of quality or price. That's what I really like about the Max and the Sennheisers: the ability to really hear into the music, but at the same time, it is not analytical at all.
NF: The Sennheisers, on the other hand (head?) are a complete joy to wear and listen to, even for hours at a stretch.
One thing I did appreciate about the Sennheisers are their "open air" design. I liked the fact that the back wave of the transducers is designed to escape the earpiece. A couple of advantages here: first it is easy to hear "outside" sounds, like a ringing telephone. Second, I feel these reduce the possibility of hearing damage.
SF: I couldn't agree more. When it comes to headphone listening, these things are great. Absolutely non-fatiguing sound and one of the most completely comfortable pairs of cans I've had on.
Eliminating the back wave (no doubt) adds to the quality of sound they reproduce. I wish more 2 channel rigs sounded as good as these headphones sound. Loads of detail yet extremely inviting. You could listen to music for days on this rig and never get tired of the sound.
You know, as I listened to them, I'm not convinced these things have a completely "flat" frequency response. They seem to have a bit of enhanced lower end. Don't get me wrong, I like it, actually. It makes a lot of music so much more involving, especially on Rock and Roll.
NF: I have a theory on that Scott. Despite what specs may say, I think they are definitely boosted at the low end and rolled off a bit on top. Think about a normal listening environment, whether it be a concert hall or a living room. There are hard surfaces to reflect the sound, and carpets and fabrics that absorb them. Not so with headphones: everything goes straight into your ears. After comparing the three sets of cans, I have come to the conclusion that a perfectly flat response is definitely not desirable. That said, I think the Sennheisers, as boosted and rolled off as I found them, were by far my favorites.
SF: Good point. Tell you what, these are something I could live with for a long, long time and never want to upgrade.
SF: Hey, what did you think about those DiMarzio interconnects Ivy sent to us?
NF: They were OK. I'm sure I could find other interconnects at the $150 price point that I like better. They seemed a bit etched and grainy, like taking a photograph and blowing it up until you can see the pixels. What is it with the locking connectors on all these interconnects all of a sudden? I absolutely hate the connectors. I get them locked down, and then later on I need to switch cables or components and I can't remember which way to turn the sleeve to unlock the cable. For "non reviewers" I can see the appeal, but I cannot imagine having a locking RCA connector makes that great a difference in the sound of the cables, if they make any at all.
SF: Like my Dad used to say, righty tighty, lefty loosey, except
. You have to remember these are backwards (depending on your viewing perspective :-) When we are standing on heads and balancing with our fingertips (as we do so often), you have to remember to twist the locking clamps the "wrong" direction
....... sort of.
I'll just shut up now :-)
As for the sound of the interconnect, they were fine. The graininess goes away after some serious break in time. I found them to be fairly competitive with the other cables in this price range. They weren't bright or dull, overall pretty neutral. All in all, not bad considering the cost.
NF: As an aside, I believe the cables are from the same company famous for guitar pickups.
SF: Well, I've had loads of fun over the past few months playing almost daily with the different gear that the nice folks at HeadRoom sent us. In the end, I feel that the Etyomotic's were more accurate and true to life than the Sennheiser's. The Etymotics are not for everyone though. If you have that phobia about putting things in your ears, these most definitely aren't for you. But, if you are a business traveler or you partake in some really noisy activities like cutting the grass, something to do with your workplace where you want total isolation, or even if you are into biking (Hey Lucio :-), jogging or power walking and want literally the best tunes possible, the combination of the Etymotic's and the Total AirHead portable amp make one heck of a combination. Best part is, it won't break the bank.
NF: Scott, I agree, this has been really fun. As you know, this has been an expensive 6 months for me, with the rental house, and some expensive repairs on my wife's car. But you know what? I'm a "done deal" on the Sennheisers. Maybe you can call my wife and give her a hint for my birthday. And if I'm really good this year, maybe I'll rate the Max amp too!
Well, there you have it folks. Nels and I would like to thank Ivy and the fine people in Bozeman, Montana for lending us the use of the gear. It's been great fun.
© Copyright 2003 Scott Faller and Nels Ferré- http://www.tnt-audio.com