portable digital audio(phile)
April 8, 2006 7:57 AM   Subscribe

best solution for portable quality audio?

my priorities are:
  • few things/low weight
  • excellent sound quality
  • low price
and this will usually be used while travelling with an ibm x31 laptop.

i'm thinking of a pair of grado sr60 headphones (not that expensive, fold flat, reasonably efficient), and i assume i'd use lossless encoding (probably flac), but i'm not sure what to do about a source. given that i'd rather avoid a separate headphone amp with the mp3 player, am i unlikely to hear any difference between different players and the laptop? if i go with the laptop is there any way to have the thing play music while closed in a bag and consuming as little power as possible (i can install xp, solaris, or linux)? without a player i guess i wouldn't mind carrying around a small headphone amp to use when near a mains suply - but what about power (this will be used in 220V and 120V environments)?

capacity is not a big issue - half a dozen cds is fine - and i'm aiming for (but don't expect to reach) the quality of low-end audiopphile stuff (for example, currently have an arcam solo with b&w speakers and nice (but big) sennheiser 'phones at home).

this as much for use in hotels and distant offices as for actual travelling; i don't listen at high volumes and haven't had complaints about using open-backed phones in the past.

posted by andrew cooke to Technology (22 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
Response by poster: anyone own a total bit head?
posted by andrew cooke at 8:14 AM on April 8, 2006

The problem with the Grados is that they're not at all comfortable for longer periods of listening (even with the replacement ear pads) and that they are all but useless on flights --- open headphone let in too much cabin noise.
posted by nathan_teske at 8:37 AM on April 8, 2006

Response by poster: i don't really expect to listen much *on* the plane; i have to visit the usa for work and stay in hotels/b+bs for weeks at a time, so it's more for listening there and in whatever office i'm given (and at a long connection on my usual route). however, the comfort thing worries me. i've heard that if you physically bend the headphone band you can get them more comfortable. unfortunately, living in chile, it's difficult to find things to try - i have to buy over the 'net and pick things up in the states when i arrive. what other cheapish headphone packs flat and sounds decent?
posted by andrew cooke at 8:49 AM on April 8, 2006

The standard pads on the Grados are a rigid, itchy foam. Not that comfortable for longer periods. You can get softer replacement pads but they degrade the sound quality and aren't a huge leap in comfort.

Are you definitely looking for headphones or would you consider isolators as well? I use Etymotic ER6i's when traveling. Great sound quality and they take-up negligible space in my bag. (Not recommended for biking, running, etc. They block out almost all ambient noise.)
posted by nathan_teske at 9:11 AM on April 8, 2006

If you care at all about the sound quality get a portable headphone amp, such as one of the Headroom ones. If you are going to listen from the computer it would be nice to get one that takes USB input (like the Total BitHead) so that the D to A conversion occurs away from the electrically noisy internal environment of the computer. I think the SR-60 cans would be tough to beat for the money. The Grado RA-1 is also a nice little portable headphone amp.
posted by caddis at 9:15 AM on April 8, 2006

Response by poster: i'd prefer headphones, but, to be honest, haven't tried in-ear things. i've had problems in the past with in-ear attenuators (for shooting), and they're more expensive than the grados, and i'm not that keen on blocking out noise completely (if i'm listening in the office i need to be able to recognise when someone wants to talk to me). but maybe i should give them a try. hmm. thanks for the info, i'll worry it over... :o)
posted by andrew cooke at 9:21 AM on April 8, 2006

Response by poster: yeah, i found the bithead after posting the question and it seems like it answers a lot of my needs.
posted by andrew cooke at 9:22 AM on April 8, 2006

I own the isolator 6i's, the Grado SR60's, an airhead, and much of the rest of the stuff mentioned so far.

isolator 6is: I just got mine about a month ago. They take a lot of getting used to. A real lot. You may end up hating them. And as nathan_teske said, you are all but deaf when you're wearing them. I think you would be perfectly safe using them for hearing protection while shooting a gun.

SR60s: I've always loved these headphones. I did bend the headband a little bit, and I could wear them for hours and hours with no comfort issues. The pads kinda softened up after a while, too. The sound leaking out did not bother my neighbors at all, and these are neighbors that would have said something right off.

Headphone amp: I bought an airhead amplifier, and I feel pretty stupid for having done so. In light of the breathless hype of the ad copy on HeadRoom, I'm convinced that this was an absolute waste of money. I can't tell the fucking difference. I'm not a sound engineer or anything, but I DO like nice-sounding gear (I've spent way over $1000 at HeadRoom, and continue to recommend them), and I cannot tell the difference between listening with the amp or not listening with it. I think that anyone who says they can tell the difference, and is not a golden-eared audio professional, is deluding themselves. I'd love to see a double-blind test.

Compared to the difference I get with my HD580s vs. stock iPod headphones, the amp might as well be a block of wood.
posted by popechunk at 10:04 AM on April 8, 2006

Response by poster: wow. thanks, interesting. that's with the ipod, right? don't suppose you've heard the bithead with a digital source? i'm wondering how my laptop compares to an ipod, for example.
posted by andrew cooke at 10:11 AM on April 8, 2006

Response by poster: about to go out, but just had a thought - might be that the sr 60s are high enough impedance that you hear no difference; the amp might make more sense with low impedance phones.
posted by andrew cooke at 10:14 AM on April 8, 2006

Response by poster: err. i think i have impedance and efficiency swapped; am in a rush, but you get the idea.
posted by andrew cooke at 10:14 AM on April 8, 2006

It was with my 40gb 4G iPod and my Sennheiser HD580s. I bought the amp because there were certain songs that just sounded crappy, and I assumed that the iPod could not drive the 580s, so I bought the amp. This didn't correct the (admittedly minor) issue.

It could very well be that the real problem was with the encoded (192 kbps AAC) tracks themselves. Still, I was looking forward to the amp having a drastic affect on my sound quality, and it just didn't. No more difference than moving the volume up and down might.
posted by popechunk at 10:29 AM on April 8, 2006

Come to think of it, I don't think it was from the tracks themselves, as I never notice these problems playing the same library through my home stereo via my Roku
posted by popechunk at 10:31 AM on April 8, 2006

The classic Sony MDR-V6es (avoid the similarly-named MDR-V600) sound great, are bulletproof, fold up, and come with a little travel bag. They are closed and offer quite a bit of isolation. You can crank the volume and nobody around you can hear a thing. I love mine. Search on HeadWize and HeadFi for reviews; most people love them. Most people love the Grados too, but I think the closed nature of the V6es lend themselves more to travel listening.

I know someone with a Bithead and he loves it.
posted by zsazsa at 11:23 AM on April 8, 2006

Response by poster: back home. thanks folks - given me something to think about.
posted by andrew cooke at 3:54 PM on April 8, 2006

Response by poster: fyi: some of the posts here made me a bit more sceptical about the bithead. searching around more i found a comment suggesting it is currently being redesigned to fix problems with the noise level and another review claiming no improvement over headphone out (but an improvement with line out - perhaps it doesn't present a good load to headphone sockets?). to be fair, i also found various positive comments too.
posted by andrew cooke at 6:34 PM on April 8, 2006

Headphones like the SR-60s and V6es are very easily driven by normal headphone sockets, so if you get an MP3 player I really wouldn't bother with getting the Bithead. If you went with playing files from the laptop, the Bithead would give you a clean output. Most laptops have incredibly noisy headphone jacks even if you mute all the inputs, and good sensitive headphones make the noise even more apparent. Some laptops are blessed with good outputs, though; I had a Thinkpad from 10 years ago with an incredibly clean headphone jack.
posted by zsazsa at 6:52 PM on April 8, 2006

Response by poster: yes, that's more or less the conclusion i've come to - seems like the best approach is to buy the headphones (or in-ear thingies) this trip, then see how the laptop sounds with them, and consider buying the bithead (possibly revised by then) or an mp3 player next trip if i'm not happy with the result.
posted by andrew cooke at 7:20 PM on April 8, 2006

Hi, Andrew. I have a bithead. It can draw power from the USB when you have power available, or can be powered with 4 AA batteries. I got it mainly because my built in sound card at work was really noisy and whenever I would drag windows around in my OS I would hear them scraping the inside of the video card (EMI from the video card).

I use it for a pair of Etymotic ER4 headphones. I haven't used it in portable situations because I'm not snooty enough to want to carry around an extra device just to clean up the headphone amplification a little on my GameBoy or discman or whatever. I do quite like the crossfeed feature - it mixes a little left with the right and vice versa - which makes stuff mixed for speakers (lots of separation) less tiring on headphones.

Basically I would say the bithead is a good product, but in general I don't think carrying a separate headphone amp around is worth it. But then I also feel the same way about FLAC vs high bitrate mp3.
posted by aubilenon at 12:18 AM on April 9, 2006

This is really late. I'm a musician and something of an audio freak. Per a recommendation on askme, I bought the MDR-V6 headphones- they are amazing. I think the newer model number for them is MDR-7506. Be careful buying them from Amazon, because though they list the right number, and even show the right picture, the sellers will ship you the MDR-V600 (which, frankly, are shite).

These headphones are amazing. Really beautiful, full sound. You can hear lows you'd never heard before, as well. For me, they are quite comfortable, though the folded package is a little large. I often wear them for 6 hours at a time. Also, they are easily driven from an ordinary headphone out. Hearing-damage loud... I think half these audiophile types are just completely deaf and need headphones driven at ridiculously high volumes.

As far as a player goes, I use Minidisc. Nothing has come close to the quality of MD. But unfortunately for most people's music needs they suck ass. I've only continued to use MD because of their amazing recording abilities. A new model is due soon that will fix most of the problems with the format.

Anyway, that's just rambling. An outboard DAC like the one you mention will solve almost all your problems. I'd recommend something like it. Lots of other companies make USB DACs, and lots of them have incredibly low noise. On the software side, use a device with an ASIO driver (so your OS doesn't do any resampling), and you will be very happy.
posted by fake at 10:26 AM on April 9, 2006

I love my SR-60s, and don't find them uncomfortable at all, at least not relative to other headphones I've used. The sound leakage can be an issue, though - certainly not for your neighbors, but someone sitting next to you in a car can hear every word of whatever song you're listening to.
posted by ludwig_van at 11:20 AM on April 9, 2006

Are you still out there Andrew Cooke? I was just browsing through the HeadRoom website when I came across these cans (Sennheiser PX 100) which look like they might be perfect for your application. I of course have not heard them personally, but they look like they could be quite good and may be worth a try if you can find someone who sells them near you.
posted by caddis at 11:35 AM on April 12, 2006

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