Monday, October 27, 2014

A New Headphone System and a New Rule

The 2014 Rocky Mountain Audio Fest was a couple of weeks ago, and Colleen and I wound up doing two rooms almost all by ourselves. I say almost because we did enlist the help of Cora, our friend and first CCI employee, as well as Brad Serhan, the designer of the Axis VoiceBox S speaker that we just started to distribute in the US. Unfortunately, we didn't have our usual RMAF partners--Dan Muzquiz of Blackbird Audio and Bob Clarke of Profundo. Bob had a family emergency (all is well), and Dan's son Nathan decided to get married on the same weekend. You can tell Dan's audiophilia hasn't rubbed off on his sons--when Nate's fiancee first suggested October, he should have immediately said "No way, pop's got RMAF in October." (Just kidding. Congrats to Nate.)

Anyway, I'm bringing this up because a) I haven't had time to blog in the last few weeks and b) since the show I've had a lot of changes to the system--or, more accurately, systems. All the wonderful PureAudio gear is gone to the reviewers, and I'm currently breaking in part of the system we'll be using at CES in January which consists of the Unison Triode 25 integrated amplifier/DAC and the new Opera Callas monitors. My other system, which has magically started to form to the left of my desk in my office, is headphone-based. Now I've had some headphone systems in play over the last year or so, but this one is a bit different--more ambitious, more versatile and hopefully more permanent.

This new system consists of a working prototype of the upcoming Unison Research SH headphone amplifier with DAC (the same DAC as in the Triode 25 in my listening room), a pair of the new ADL H128 headphones (backed up by pairs of earbuds from Cardas Audio and ADL), my trusty $66 Samsung Blu-ray player and--get this--my laptop. I'm going to finally get serious about jumping into the 21st century and all this computer audio stuff. I've just hooked up my laptop to the Unison DAC via a Cardas Audio Clear USB cable (all interconnects and power cords are also Cardas Clear) and I can finally listen to all those hi-rez files I downloaded the last time I tried to get into computer audio. Which, by the way, was not the first time.

Why is this time going to be any different? Well, it's sort of my job now since one of my manufacturers decided to start putting a DAC in all their upcoming products--a serious DAC for 2014, with all the bells and whistles--and now I have to answer questions about sampling rates and DSD and even double DSD, whatever that is. Secondly, the sound kicks major butt. I like it a lot. This is a very impressive system, and it makes me want to re-explore the headphone landscape like I did a few years ago when I owned an amazing pair of Grado GS-1000s with the Stefan Audio Arts cable upgrade and a Woo Audio headphone amp.

That said, I have made myself a promise for this blog--that I really need to refocus on vinyl. Over the last few years I've been getting enthusiastic about other formats. Lately, however, I've been noticing a trend: when I blog about vinyl, more people read it. There's another underlying reason for this new commitment to my favorite music format, and it's a bit of a long story. I'll keep it as brief as possible.

A few months ago I was contacted by a relatively new record label that was reissuing a lot of remastered classics--as well as some new "audiophile-quality" albums from contemporary artists--and they asked me if I would like to review some of their titles. I looked at their catalog and said sure--these were relatively fun and exciting releases. I didn't exactly specify that I preferred vinyl or CDs, but they kept referring to the releases as "albums," which to me means something you can hold in your hand. Over the next few months the label contacted me periodically and asked me if I wanted this title or that title, and the answer was always yes.

Then I noticed something--after several months, none of these releases had been delivered to me even though I was still receiving almost weekly e-mails asking if I want to review this one or that one, this one or that one. I finally asked if there was an ETA on any of these titles, and my record label contact said, "Oh, it's just taking a little more time to get the physical formats together--most reviewers just need downloads." I replied that I preferred physical formats because I also review based on sound, and that my computer audio system was nowhere near my big system in terms of ultimate sound quality. A few weeks later, the contact told me that she couldn't secure the licenses to get me these releases on a physical format. I told her that she was in luck, since my new 21st century computer audio system would make it easier for me to review downloads. I gave her one caveat: only hi-rez, no MP3.

"We only have MP3 downloads to send you," she replied.

Ugh. Sorry, folks, but I blog for fun. I don't get paid. So if you're sending me something to review, I want something for permission to keep the LP or CD I've just reviewed! Hopefully my review will be worth the $20 to you. I know, that makes me sound a little whorish, but I really look at it this way--getting a CD or an LP in my mailbox from a record label or a publicist or even the actual artist and then reviewing it, well, that's a lot of fun. It's fun enough, in fact, to do it for free. But if you set up an account for me on your website so I can listen to files and write reviews from that--well, that's not as fun to me. I might change my mind once I get this computer audio system rolling, but for right now I only review LPs, CDs and other physical formats. (No LaserDisc though. Or Betamax.)

Anyway, I will be blogging about yet another personal journey into the world of computer audio...maybe this time it will stick. I'm crossing my fingers.


  1. Hi Marc,
    How are you liking the ADL H128? I am very curious about these headphones as I really like the H118 that I own. Looking forward to your findings!

    1. The combination of the H128 and the Unison SH is excellent, a very quiet and relaxed sound that offers plenty of detail without being fatiguing.