December 2, 2011

Random Rant of the day: The (audio) Journey so far.....

Disclaimer: This is a very self centered, self pitying long rant. Read at your own peril. I'd be surprised if anybody even completes it.

A Realization

It's been a while since I have written anything on audio. The reason for this long break is I am currently in the middle of a self imposed rehab from IEM addiction. It's a little more than 2 years since I started taking this hobby seriously. Especially starting from July of last year, my wallet has shrunk at a faster rate than it can fatten as my search for audio nirvana continued unabated. 12 months later, I stopped the train wreck to take stock of what I've done. I had 9 players, 46 IEMs, 4-5 headphones, 4 ear buds and so on. It was not shocking if that's what you expected me to say here. It was all, well, logical. Clip+ was my primary player, but I needed my old Creative Zen V Plus and Nanite N2 for burning in IEMs. Cowon S9 and iPod Touch 3G did the same thing, but instead of day long burn-in followed by nightly charging, they did weekends since they could do 18 hrs+, especially the Cowon. It may seem a little too much, but it was not unusual for me to have 4-5 new IEMs at the same time. There was a point when I had heard a new IEM  (bought or loaned) for every week of the last several months (9, if I remember correctly).

The Salvation

Facts always hit hard. When I figured out that I had spent a little more than the cost of an entry level custom on buying earphone cases, tips, cables and other accessories, I knew the time had come to step back and do something about it.

I started selling everything I hated at first, followed by what I relatively liked less, then except the ones I liked. Review samples were easy as I gifted them away with my age old Creative Zen V Plus for peanuts ($18 shipped total for Zen V+, XCited, BeB and few others I forgot). Some were very hard to sell, some sold too easy when I thought otherwise. When it was all said and done, there were plenty of surprises hiding even for me. For instance, it was unthinkable that I would retain something like a lowly Xears XB120 almost till the end. Even after the number has plunged to 13 (including Atrio MG7 which is listed for sale), I have retained Eterna over many other technically superior IEMs. For all my love of lesser known brands, the end result is a little curious mix of 'consumer' and 'head-fi' brands. JVC is the only brand with two IEMs. Sony, Earsonics, Audio-Technica, Etymotic, Ultimate Ears, Phonak, Panasonic, Sunrise Audio, Fischer Audio round up the rest. I am not sure whether to call Brookstone a "brand"; also considering it's retained mostly for the mic, it may not even count. What's missing? Hifiman as also Xears - two brands with most representation in my inventory once. For sometime now, I've found it hard to shift between my top tier IEMs and the IEMs at Tier-III and below in my ranking list and it shows in their representation in the dirty dozen.

In the beginning...

It's difficult for most people to justify 46 IEMs (and 15+ loaner IEMs do not count). I am sure many in head-fi have owned at least that much or more. But, I doubt if they had everything at the same time. Probably clieOS and Joker were the only ones to exceed my 'collection' (Don't think dfkt owns everything in his list).

Being in India has it's special curse. There's no wide variety of shops to go out and try headphones or IEMs. You do not even have access to most. If you want a well-known brand IEM like Shure, Sennheiser, UE with warranty, you need to pay exorbitant MSRP. Import duties are high at 27%. Shipping is sometimes more than the cost of the item. This is not just true of India, but several countries. To top it, Chinese eBay sellers routinely put India on the exception list making me lose the best deals in cheap earphone cases. The odds did bother me in the beginning. But, I knew my way around soon. Like many regular online shoppers, I've bought audio related things from most parts of the globe - used or new.

There was a time I had a hard time understanding "mids". Then by the time I had a vague understanding of something, several more questions were ready - what is this fucking sub-bass these guys are talking about? what the hell is sound stage? and so on. This was interesting, something to learn afresh. And unlike predicting the stock market prices, the result of an over-glowing review can be verified with your own ears - more hands on. Just as I set targets for everything, I aimed for writing at least one review, however bad within the next couple of years. I probably ended up writing much more. It must be said that I am not the bright type. I needed to hear things myself to learn the terms. It took a long time to get to a stage where I knew enough to attempt a review or something like that. The enthusiasm marched on once I got some feedback for my "reviews". I just wanted to do more and more.

Reviews - The long and short of it

Most people would think reviews are glorified pamphlets for the product, which in most cases is unfortunately true. On the other side, writing reviews is not easy. It's easy for anybody to claim that it's "THA BEST UNDER $200" - watch the capitals, that's a shout, bad Internet etiquette. Claiming is always easy, proving? very difficult. You see, for someone to say that it is "THA BEST", it is necessary to have heard and compared what is considered the best under $200. Over enthusiasm is always misleading, but it's also bloody infectious and will catch on fast. Look at every head-fi FOTM - same story! Coming to the point, the comparison part is the most royal pain in the ass if you want to remain objective. Remaining unbiased is difficult and also boring. There needs to be a method to the madness without which you are lost. That's why you need benchmarks - a champion for every category, a price range - something that the IEM under evaluation needs to beat to become the best.

How do you compare? Same source, same song, SPL matched, quick A:B? That tells you relative strengths and weaknesses. But try A:B:A, it is much better as it will bring out what's better as well as what's lacking in both. But that is just one part of the equation. It's not just bass to bass, mids to mids that determines everything, you need to know the IEM stand alone as well. Some IEMs are under-whelming when listening by themselves, but can surprise you in a good way as soon as you start comparing. Some of them don't do as well if you begin to compare (SM3 is notorious for that), but it's simply the "bestest" when listening stand-alone. Some of them take time to appreciate, some of them wear off sooner or later. Only some of them make you forget about analyzing and start enjoying music (FX700, EX-1000).

Whenever I wrote a review, a proper one at that, it took a very long time. It took me a couple of months to come up with my GR07 review. I would listen to it in isolation, do an IEM medley (listen to one IEM with Clip+ on shuffle until I feel it's time to change, note down how I think where each one ranks at the end of it all). I'd also do quick A:Bs. Then I'd stop listening altogether to purge everything - my bias, auditory memory, my prejudices for and against the IEM and try to start everything fresh again. My worst review probably has to be BeB "Red" because at that time, every one of my reference IEMs was with my friend (you know who you are).

One of the charms of becoming a reviewer is of course, review sample. There was one time when I longed for something to fall on my lap. It did not until I had spent way beyond my imagination to buy everything I wanted to hear. Samples can be very tempting as it comes free of cost. That's the perk. But then, you are committed. It's not just the manufacturer samples I am talking about, but also loaners from friends. Commitments need to be met, but I am the last fellow on earth to meet or even like commitments. My sample donors had to be patient (Lendmeurears and Xcited sample). Some came out quickly, but not positively (MEElectronics who instead of being put off by my M31 review sent me A151 saying that it might be better suited for my tastes). But there was the strain. At one time, I posted 4 reviews in as many days. They had been in preparation at various stages and I had to simultaneously work on them all. It's easy to do it a couple of times, but quickly becomes tiring. At one stage, I knew I did not have the near infinite resources to keep the engine running forever (Joker and clieOS have to do it all the time) and it was my cue to vanish (even though I was not that visible in the first place) totally for my own good. The whole experience was a royal pain in the ass and I don't think I am going back in a hurry. I consciously decided that RE272 sample loaner would be my last review for sometime to come and have stuck to it so far.

At a few points in this timeline, my intent was not to "listen" to an IEM any more, but to "hear" it, compare it, review it, add one more to the conquered list, make the list longer. That comes with a cost - I had to keep most of my IEMs because some of them were benchmarks for one part (SQ) or the other (Value for money) and you never knew which one would end up being the similar signature IEM. There was one sane philosopher who shall remain unnamed that cautioned about falling under the weight of it all (You know who you are). What I knew made me a target of messages from a few who thought I knew something, but then there's always something new to learn from the most unexpected of people, some terms you don't understand at all and then out of the blue you suddenly do - I am a perma-noob and the term "little" would be a bit too much to describe what I know.

Post Script: Sources

Sometimes, you need to turn everything around on it's head to get back to where you were. For me, the culprit was Clip+. Since I used it for all my reviews, I was tuned to 'hear' with it - analyze than be amazed by the music. I consciously shifted to a new source, the bricky QA350 which is direct opposite of Clip+ in terms of power, size, ease of use, features, format support, hell! even display size. The brick saved my life. In the beginning, I found it very difficult to go from the sound of Clip+ to QA350 and found faults with it. With time, my brain adapted and now I find it difficult to go back to Clip+. After I bought the UHA-6S, it's even worse - I've not used Clip+ in a while never mind exercising with a brick stack. I was so fond of bricks that I went ahead and bought the thick, old, scratched screen, dirtiest cable I've used, slowest source I have (pants) iPod Video 5G 80GB. All this makes QA350 "audiophile" and Clip+ "that crappy budget player"? Come on! all I need is lot more travel where the compactness of Clip+ works in it's favor. A few days alone, I'd find QA350 "bright and loud". Stupid thing this brain is!

Post Script: IEMs

The most difficult thing in life is to strike that right balance - too much and you have too many worries, too less and you never have enough. Right now, dozen is the magic number which provides enough variety. Tomorrow, it could be 4 or 24, who knows? After getting down to a dozen IEMs (I always pack the IEM once listed for sale and don't use it at all, so MG7 does not count), there's so less confusion. Stopping the reviews was one of the best things I did - no more timelines, no more A:B, no pressure, no bloody critical listening - nothing. Most of my listening these days centers around iPod Video -> LO -> UHA-6S. Arrow 3G, the poor thing, was largely sidelined for so long. Now that I am using QA350 + UHA-6S for some mandatory "burn in", I am forced to use Arrow as the amplifier with iPod. Not that any IEM needs an amplifier, but the headphone out of iPod Video 5G sounds just plain wrong with some of them (high source output impedance and low impedance IEMs do not match - ask FXT90).

I've used my dirty dozen IEMs one for each of my listening sessions. My listening is mostly in the background and I don't kill the joy by making it a routine to listen every day. It's like watching a movie, assembling a PC, wasting a whole Sunday reading head-fi - each need their specific moods to trigger the action. Right now, it's FX700's turn, yesterday it was SM3's, tomorrow or next weekend, it could be HF2. Someday, I would get back to writing reviews, may be very soon. But for now, it's time to remain sane and run through my NOS habit of listening to just the damn music.

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