Headphones, Computers, and the Web

Jim ShimabukuroBy Jim Shimabukuro

Note: The primary reason for selecting this subject for the second article in ETC’s “Extracurricular” series (see John Adsit’s “The Great Technology Controversy Follows Me into the Caves“) isn’t so much to share information about what I consider an enjoyable hobby but to underscore the fact that the entire pastime is built on computers and the web. All of the equipment was researched and purchased on the web – out of necessity because, for the vast majority of enthusiasts, it’s not available in stores within driving distance. I think I can fairly say that this hobby wouldn’t be possible without the internet and that it owes its survival and growth to a community that’s defined virtually rather than geographically. -js

Extra-Curricular In this series, the editors and writers share their recreationa pursuitsI stumbled into this hobby when I realized that the only way I’d be able to listen to music while working on the computer is through headphones (HPs). I live in a condo, and speakers are out of the question.

About five years ago, after listening to the anemic sounds of cheap earbuds plugged into the HP jack in the back of my desktop computer, I decided to get a decent pair of “real” cans – the kind that covers both ears and are joined by a flexible band that stretches over the head. After browsing the selections in various department store audio departments, I chose the Sony MDR-XD300, which cost about $40. Expensive, I thought, but worth it if they enhanced my listening pleasure.

They had an immediate impact! The music was more dynamic, alive. I could hear qualities that weren’t there with the earbuds. Still, the sound tended toward tinny and bright, and after a half hour or so, it became fatiguing. I went online to search for remedies or answers and accidentally found Head-Fi, a web-based discussion forum dedicated to HPs and supporting equipment.

The vast majority of posters were audiophiles, or headphiles, to be more exact, and the talk was about equipment that ran into the hundreds and even thousands of dollars. Still, there were a number of threads that catered to under-$100 tastes. After carefully following the discussions for a few days, I decided I needed an amplifier, or amp, to fill out the sound. I decided on the Xenos OHA-REP, a small amp that fits in the palm of my hand. It has a knob that turns the amp on and off and also serves as a volume control. There are two 1/8” jacks for input and output, one for a cable that runs from the computer’s HP output and another for the HPs. It runs on  batteries or AC off a wallwart.

commands of a tuner, with buttons and dials

Since none of the stores that I visited carried anything remotely resembling an HP amp, I was forced to shop online. I ordered the OHA-REP from the “manufacturer” in Canada. I quickly learned that many of the retailers in this hobby are individuals who work out of their homes on a part-time basis.

Needless to say, the insertion of the little amp in the equipment chain made a significant difference. And needless to say, I was hooked into a hobby that led me, over the years, to increasingly refined equipment.

Gradually, as I learned more about the different “upstream” components that make up the chain that ends with the HPs, I moved on to better and more costly equipment. All digital sound systems follow a basic construct: First is the recorded music. Second, a transport or player that transforms the recording into a signal. Third, a source or converter that translates the signal from digital to analog (DAC or digital to analog converter). Fourth, an amp that boosts the signal. And fifth, speakers or HPs to translate the signal to sound.

Most who listen to music through computers aren’t aware of this chain simply because it’s not visible. On a typical computer, we see the transport, the CD/DVD player, and an audio output jack that leads to desktop speakers or HPs. We rip the tracks into music files with a software player and stream them to the speakers or ‘phones – unaware of the processing that’s occurring.

For headphiles, each component in the chain (or rig) represents an opportunity to improve the sound. Because the tracks are already in digital form, the transport is no longer an issue. Everything else “downstream,” though, especially the DAC and amp, is. The general rule is, the higher the quality of the DAC and the amp, the better the signal that arrives at the HPs, and the higher the quality of the HPs, the better the sound.

sophisticated headphones

Of course, “better” is a qualitative, subjective judgment; thus there’s a wide range of quality equipment that’s designed for different tastes. In general, preferences can be divided into two large categories: accurate, neutral, analytical on the one hand, and musical, colored, warm on the other. The range is more of a continuum than discrete categories, and each values some of the qualities of the other.

Those in the neutral group tend to favor a system that presents the recording as accurately as possible, drawing out all the nuances in high resolution sound images. They frown on equipment that’s designed to enhance certain sound frequencies, especially those that boost the bass and low-mids, often at the expense of clarity in the upper-mids and high frequencies. Those in the musical group lean toward systems that produce a warm, rich, dynamic sound, and they often use the word “fun” to describe these. For them, the measure of a quality system is its ability to reproduce bass that’s described with words such as “impact,” “punchy,” “slam.”

But most tend to inhabit the middle ground where accuracy and musicality are equally prized. I’m in the analytical group, favoring equipment that’s good at presenting the recording as is with as close to zero coloring as possible. Thus, an excellent recording would produce beautiful sound and a poor one would hurt my ears. This brutal honesty is a goal rather than a shortcoming.


A headphiler’s choice of equipment will usually reveal his/her preference. My choices are all aimed at attaining the greatest degree of neutrality possible. Currently, the rig that sits next to my desktop computer comprises the following equipment:

  • Monitor 02 US, an external sound card that works off a USB port. It sends the digital signal to the DAC via arguably the best medium, coaxial.
  • Digital Link III (DLIII), a DAC that automatically upsamples incoming signals to 96 or 192 kHz.
  • SPL Phonitor, an amp that allows for studio quality monitoring.
  • Sennheiser HD800, HPs that are noted for accuracy, soundstage, and dynamics.

I learned about these components in Head-Fi forums and in reviews from electronic publications such as Stereophile and 6moons. I also purchased them online. The Monitor 02 is from China; the DLIII, from the U.S.; the Phonitor and HD800, from Germany.

Furthermore, recordings are increasingly being discussed, reviewed, bought, and downloaded from online retail sites. High resolution 24-bit, 96 kHz (24/96) digital recordings are now available at sites such as  HDtracks. The standard CD is 16-bit, 44.1 kHz (Redbook) so the qualitative difference in resolution is significant. The upshot is that these improved recordings require more sophisticated equipment.

Headphilia is still a rather obscure and esoteric hobby, and the entire population of enthusiasts is relatively small. The concentration of individuals in a single physical location is probably insufficient to justify specialty shops. Thus, it’s only in the virtual world where space is not a factor that this pastime could exist. Together, the individuals around the world form a viable customer base for the headphile virtual mall.

2 storage devices? maybe loudspeakers

This model of a thriving virtual community has counterparts in electronic journals such as ETC. In our publication, writers and editors from far corners of the U.S. and the world routinely collaborate to write, edit, and publish articles. Readers from around the world visit our pages. ETC and similar journals exist because of the internet and wouldn’t be possible without it.

Inhabitants of planet earth are, at an exponential pace, moving toward the kinds of esoteric communities that headphilers and ETC writers and readers represent — communities that are viable only virtually. And these geographically dispersed but virtually united groups have the unprecedented, radical power to create whole new industries and resources such as periodicals.

This model is gradually moving into the periphery of education. Its potential is barely being tapped, but it will be as we, students and educators, discover and participate in virtual hobbies and special interests that are only possible online. It’s only a matter of time before learning communities are defined by interest rather than physical proximity in a classroom, and the implications for schools and colleges are exciting.

One Response

  1. Hi,
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