In this brave new world of ours, where headphones have supplanted loudspeakers and non-physical media is -- inexorably -- replacing the physical, it's worth reminding young whippersnappers of an old saying from the Torah that remains obstinately true. As King Solomon, in his extraordinary wisdom observed, "What has been will be again, what has been done will be done again; there is nothing new under the sun."
While technology may evolve -- digital attempting to supplant analog being the main newbie in our sphere -- you can prove this in an audio context by looking at the birth of "music in the home" during the first decades of the 20th century.
Although cylinders and 78s preceded radio by decades, for many the wireless receiver was the method for getting music into the home beyond playing one's own instruments, owning a music box or player piano, or enjoying family singalongs. Then as now, radio broadcasts precluded any choice of material, while Darwinians will point out that streaming enables the modern listener to play what he or she wants, anywhere, anytime without owning any physical media.
None can deny that radio was the first "non-physical format." It was a hit because it was free. Discs were hugely expensive -- not like today when you can buy major label / major artist CDs for under five circa-2013 dollars.
To put it into context, without going back to the 1920s, an LP that cost $3.98 in 1970 equals $18.90 to $60.10 in 2013 money, depending on the calculation used (e.g., earnings, inflation, GDP, etc.). An average based solely on purchasing power would show the relative value as $23.50. Which, coincidentally, is roughly today's price for a killer audiophile LP.
It's not hard, then, to see why "free" radio was the dominant medium through the 1950s. Today, as the global economy continues to tank, streaming is undeniably an attractive alternative to no music at all, certainly less of a strain on a student's funds than even a $5 CD, so it is the "radio of today" in fiscal terms. Hardware changes, though, follow a similar path, if for different reasons: headphones are dominant once more, as they were 90 years ago.
Early loudspeakers were not universally accessible due to price and the need for amplifiers. Headphones proved to be a more practical, albeit selfish, alternative in the period before adequate and cost-effective amplifiers were made available to drive loudspeakers.
(If you're in a truly retro mood, and want to understand how important earpieces once were, go to amazon.com and search for "Crystal Radio Kit." Memories will flood back for some of you, but your Wii/Xbox/PlayStation-loving nine-year-old probably won't be too grateful if you buy one for him to assemble.)
Headphones arrived between 1910 and 1925 as a necessity, though families quite naturally wanted to enjoy music communally. Once tabletop radios and consoles with full-range speakers became affordable acquisitions, headphones were relegated to professional use in studios, for airline and chopper pilots and flight controllers, and other roles where sound isolation was necessary.
As far as I recall, as one who "came of age" in audio terms in the mid-1960s, nobody used headphones by choice, for listening pleasure in a hi-fi context. There was only one use for headphones in the home: to avoid disturbing others.
As soon as my father got home from work, out came the Superexes if I wanted to listen to music. When I reached university, headphones were the rule if one's roommate was actually studying. Only a masochist could possibly prefer clamping something to one's head (let alone shoving 'buds into one's ears), in preference to the sound made by a loudspeaker -- with spatial presentation that closer approximates reality if one truly wanted to savor a musical event.
We all know that the Walkman changed the entire paradigm by making decent sound a portable, if solo, experience, thus guaranteeing that headphones were a mandatory part of the experience. But please understand that the Walkman has been around for more than 30 years, and the iPod and every music-playing mobile phone is a direct descendant. Thus, there's nothing new under the sun: only the means of storage and playback have altered -- digital rather than analog, memory cards rather than cassettes.
As a grown-up with an empty nest who works from his own detached home, I never use headphones unless forced to do so. Which means that I only ever employ them when traveling, either by train or plane. The former is simple courtesy, the latter both courtesy and a reason to take advantage of noise-canceling properties.
Although I am a reviewer of hardware, I adamantly refuse to review cables or headphones, even though I must use wires for my system to work, and cans for situations where a component's peccadilloes are so subtle that a room might mask them. Still, I own a half-dozen pairs, and I'm not completely unfamiliar with the current revolution.
A visit to the Rocky Mountain Audio Fest a couple of years back, with a hall dedicated solely to headphones and headphone amps, however, revealed a weird disconnect that still needs to be addressed.
In a nutshell, today's new-wave headphone users, those under-30s willing to spend many hundreds on headphones and many thousands on dedicated headphone amps, employ completely different criteria than those over-30s who merely happen to love headphones. To them, speakers simply don't matter.
Without pretending to have Hercule Poirot's powers of deduction, it's clear that anyone spending $5000 on a headphone amplifier is using headphones at home in preference to loudspeakers, because AC-powered tube headphone amps the size and weight of a Krell or Classé preamp are not even remotely portable. What this means is that people use headphones in the home, even when they don't have to.
We now find companies with roots in conventional, two-channel, analogue, high-end hardware manufacture making the transition to elevated headphone use. There are now dozens, if not hundreds, of audiophile-caliber headphone amplifiers on the market, though the target buyer isn't necessarily the guy who still worries about VTA. And each maker has its own take on what is needed to satisfy modern headphone users' criteria.
I recently borrowed as recalcitrantly purist a headphone amp as I could find, just to see if I could imagine a target owner. Nic Poulson is a designer whose standards are never less than uncompromising, but even he surprised me with Trilogy's 933.
Nic and his colleague (and distributor) Nigel Crump bring a number of different disciplines to a field that seems to be dominated by brands who wish only to be the darlings of slackers, hip-hoppers, and others who value fashion over performance. Nic is ex-BBC and a tube maven (though the 933 is solid-state), while Nigel has been a high-end distributor for 30 years, including UK representation for Stax -- which still makes the best headphones on the planet, period.
"From the outset, when Nic and myself discussed a headphone amplifier, we wanted to make the best-sounding amp we could," Nigel said. "It quickly became obvious that most headphone amplifiers were not able to drive a wide range of impedances, favoring low-impedance designs. We decided to manufacture an amplifier that would drive any headphone, from 10-ohm designs right up to professional 600-ohm types.”
They looked at as many headphones on the market that were likely to be connected to the Trilogy. "They fell in two camps: low-impedance earbud types and on-ear types which vary in impedance from 100 ohms up to professional models at either 300 or 600 ohms," he said.
“It was important to understand this because, unlike speakers where the impedance is in a known and relatively narrow range, headphone variance is wide. After much development work, Nic settled upon a pure class-A circuit, but one run in single-ended mode. Not many companies do this due to cost considerations.”
Nic's finished product is hardcore, with two-chassis construction to limit noise issues from the outboard, choke-input power supply. The main chassis is machined from a solid billet of aircraft-grade alloy. The circuit is fully discrete with no op amps in the circuit, and premium parts are used throughout. And as Nigel stressed, "Like all Trilogy products, the 933 is hand-made in London. We use no offshore assembly. This increases our cost considerably."
More intriguing is what the user faces. The 933 is fully remote-controlled because Nic wasn't happy with any mechanical volume control he tried, so the unit has no buttons, knobs, or switches. The remote deals with power on/off, volume, mute, balance, and a choice of two line inputs. As there's no main out, this cannot be used as a lean and mean preamp. And the front accepts only one pair of headphones via a 1/4" socket. A nicety, though, is a circular array of LEDs to show volume setting and other functions, like warm-up.
So I asked myself, my old Grado RS1s never sounding better and ending a sentence in a preposition, who is this for? While one could connect it to a full-blown system to access all of its sources, using a preamp's spare "main out" or "tape out" into one of the 933's two inputs, it's more of standalone unit. I could imagine one having it on a nightstand, for late-night listening into the wee hours. It worked beautifully on my desk, as an alternative to my regular system.
Then the £1899/$3000 price tag provided a reality check. While hardly as expensive as headphone amps I've seen at $5000-$6000, it's clearly aimed at a serious devotee.
As I have heads-on experience with only a dozen high-end headphone amps, I'm loath to say it's the best, but the detail the 933 retrieves is something to behold. (I'm surprised nobody has used the name "CanOpener" for a headphone amp, given what they do for the sound of one's headphones, but I now declare it "©Ken Kessler.")
Why I've singled it out for this month's column is simply to point out that headphone mania knows no bounds, not when a company as single-mindedly high-end as Trilogy wishes to enter the fray, and with a product that makes few concessions to anything other than sound quality. (But I do wish it had a pre-out facility and a volume knob.)
It's a curious field. Benchmark's sublime products are the result of the brand being a pro-gear maker that predates the headphone resurgence, while headphone specialists like Grado and Sennheiser have always offered some form of amp. While that dedicated hall at RMAF was bursting with new makes devoted solely to headphone listening, a few too many had no idea whatsoever about sound quality beyond +20dB lifts at 20-60Hz and SPLs of 120dB at the ear canal. It was as if Beavis and Butt-head had taken over the asylum.
But I suspect that the day will soon arrive, given the number of loudspeaker makers now producing killer headphones for the first time, when no producer of high-end separates will have a catalogue without a headphone amplifier of its own. And if sound quality overrides all other concerns, as it does with the Trilogy 933, I might even dust off my old 414s.
. . . Ken Kessler