Summer Slack-Off 1: Headphone Audio

Summer Slack-Off 1: Headphone Audio

Time for this year’s audio post.

August 24, 2008: Five Audio Systems

July 15, 2007: Give Yourself the Gift of Music


The big-rig horn system is gone. The Ubangi basshorns were bought by an enthusiast in Hong Kong (the shipping on those sofa-sized monsters was no joke), and the Western Electric horns and drivers went into storage. It was fun … but we moved to a smaller location. Plus, the care and feeding and incessant tweaking of a hyper-complex system like that gets to be a bit of a pain-in-the-AAAASSSSSS if you know what I mean. I figured I should spend my time searching for and listening to good music. Time for radical simplification.

So, this year we’ve gone to a headphone system. Actually, I just dug my old headphone system out again — I built the amp and bought the headphones in 2002. The amp has been through a couple rounds of tweaking and rebuilds since then.

This is a good strategy that can work for a lot of people. You don’t have to worry about the neighbors. You can listen late at night. It doesn’t mess with your home decor. You don’t have to worry about silly stuff like room resonance. There is a big minus: headphone listening loses the visceral quality of in-the-room sound. I find that, with a good system like my previous mega-horn-rig, it’s like you are listening with your skin. There is a tingle that covers your whole body. With headphones, you only get the in-your-ears part.

Also, headphones just don’t satisfy the gizmo-freak aspect of this hobby. It’s like taking a potted plant to a custom motorcycle show.

Well, everything’s a tradeoff. To the headphones’ advantage, we can add the radical simplicity of a single point-source driver, compared to the multi-way-plus-crossovers necessary for speakers. And, they are hyper-efficient at 97db/mW. Given the 117db peaks of the loudest real performance volumes, we can get there with a lackadaisical 100 milliwatts of output, or 0.1 watt, which makes it easy to design the associated electronics. With speaker amplifiers, you’re constantly working the tradeoff between power and refinement.

The last thing in headphones’ advantage is price. For under $2000, you can get a tippy-top class headphone rig (headphones and amplifier). You could easily spend 10x or 100x that on speakers and amplification. I suggest sticking with the best in headphones — not only does it solve upgrade-itis from the start, but remember these things are clamped to your head. There’s nowhere to hide from the electronic irritants of mediocre equipment. One reason that there aren’t more headphone fans, beyond the iPod white earbud level, is because these electronic irritants start to bother people after a while.

My headphone amp is major silly. Because the actual technical needs of headphones are so modest — 100mW of output — it is relatively easy to be over-the-top about it. I made a two-stage amplifier using the 01A tube and the 71A tube. The 01A dates from the earliest days of consumer audio. My tubes were probably manufactured in the late 1920s. The 71A is from the Golden Age of Radio, the mid-1930s. Does this sound better than using a much simpler 6SN7 or 6N1P? I dunno. Maybe.

Since we’re working the 1930s theme here, I went with all battery power. Radio was amazing stuff in the 1930s, and everyone wanted one. However, not everybody had electricity in those days. So, they had battery powered radios. Unlike today’s transistor jobbies, vacuum tubes take a lot of juice. They used rechargeable lead-acid batteries, like small car batteries. Once a week or so, the battery guy would come by and replace their batteries with freshly charged ones.

The funny thing is, all this caveman-era electronics actually sounds quite wonderful. The tubes from the 1930s are still today considered some of the best-sounding ever. This is in part because, in those days, they built them the way they should be built, rather than the cheapest way. And, batteries are a near-ideal power source, as they are independent of all the grunge and hash on your electric utility connection.

Best of all, you can’t buy this kind of thing in a store. Manufacturers don’t want to commit to a product using hard-to-source antique tubes. And, all the crazy battery stuff would drive the price way, way up. If you were to release something like this commercially, it would probably cost around $5,000. Or maybe $15,000? Radios in the 1930s cost major coin. The top-of-the-line Zenith Stratosphere radio cost $750 in 1934 — even after the devaluation of 1933, that was 21 ounces of gold, or almost $21,000 today.

The headphones are Sennheiser 600, with a Cardas cable.


OK, here’s my buying guide:

Headphones: Headphones are a personal thing. Some people like Grados … some people don’t. The Sennheiser HD600 is a wonderful item. Look on eBay for good prices on new Sennheisers. The Grado 325i is another classic. You can spend more money for the higher-end Grados, but they are refinements on this basic design. Sony, Denon, AKG, Audio-Technica, Koss, and many others also make good-to-great headphones.

If you go with the Sennheisers, get the Cardas upgrade cable as well.

If you want The Best in dynamic headphones, I’d give this guy a try. He does custom modifications on the Denon AH-D2000. According to him, the result is better even than the legendary Sony R10 (which he owned for seven years).

LA2000 at Lawton Audio

They are expensive, but no more expensive than other top-of-the-line dynamic headphones like Grado GS1000 or Sennheiser HD800. And a lot cheaper than an R10, if you can even find one.

If you have a taste for exotica, and deep pockets, you can try the Stax electrostatic headphones. These work on a little different principle, using a membrane electrostatically suspended between charged wire mesh screens. For a long time, in the 1970s and 1980s, the Stax stuff was a good level higher than anything else you could buy. However, the “dynamic” headphones had some big improvements in the 1990s, and now they are competitive with the Stax models at considerably lower prices. The Stax SR-007 Omega Mark II is the top of the Stax line, and will cost you about $2400 new. Plus, you’ll need a special Stax amplifier, for another $1000 or more. After all that, it might not sound much better, but then does a Patek Philippe tell time better than a Seiko? Personally, if I was going to get serious about the Omegas, I would put together a custom all-tube direct-coupled amplifier to drive them.

Amplifier: Good headphones need a dedicated amplifier. Ray Samuels makes some vacuum tube items, but they are expensive. Bottlehead’s Single Ended eXperimenters’ amp ( can be used with headphones. They also make a nice Sennheiser replacement cable. Visit their forum for the details. For a solid-state solution, I’d try the Solo from Gram Slee in the U.K. ( Get the one with the PSU-1 powersupply, not the cheaper “green” version.

If you want a super-duper amp for your Stax Omegas, try Kevin Gilmore’s Blue Hawaii.

Blue Hawaii electrostatic headphone amplifier

If you want some custom tube amplifier work done, talk to Jim “the DowdyLama” Dowdy. He’s at Tell him you want a “71A output transformer amplifier for Sennheiser 650 headphones.” Or, if you want high extrema, a “direct-coupled no-negative-feedback 6SN7 amplifier for Stax Omega.” It’ll cost you, but he won’t rip you off.

Source: DIY Paradise Monica 3 USB DAC. This is what I use, although I have a tweaked DIY version rather than this plug-and-play model. This has a USB input to connect to your computer and iTunes. It’s about $320. Don’t bother with your iPod. They suck bigtime.

Another nifty item is the DIY HifiSupply Satch DAC.

Major Headphone Geekfest: is the destination for endless blah-blah about headphones. The “signal to noise” ratio is rather low, but if you poke around you can learn something useful.


All in all, it’s a cheaper, more fun, and less dangerous hobby than riding a motorcycle. Heck, some people spend more money each year to mow their lawn. Have a good time with it.


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A-maize-ing factoid: Michael Pollan’s book The Omnivore’s Dilemma has a wonderful section on the centrality of corn (aka maize) in the Western diet. It doesn’t look like corn-on-the-cob. It’s in stuff like high-fructose corn syrup, things fried in corn oil, corn-fed beef, corn-fed chicken, corn-fed pork, corn-fed farmed salmon, corn-based fillers in all sorts of processed foods, and snack foods in a myriad of forms made from corn. Tests done on human hair have shown that 69% of the North American diet originates from corn. Probably genetically-modified corn.