Wednesday, January 09, 2008

Sound Experience.

When I was 5, I remember jumping around on my parent's bed dancing to ABBA and Beatles. Later on, I got my first music player, an old Sony Walkman. The sound wasnt great, but it did allow me to record from the radio, and it was fascinating. Then came the age of CDs and MP3s. 128kbps MP3s plucked from the internet sounded ok. By that time i was listening to music on my cheap computer 2.1 (subwoofered) speakers. I still didnt have a CD player though. Eventually, I got my hands on a MZ-R909 Mini Disc player. It was made from magnesium/aluminium and had really good build quality, fit and finish. Sound quality was way ahead of the old tape walkman. By the time I was in college, I had got my first iPod. It was a third generation (clickwheel) model. The earbuds provided for pretty decent, not surprising as the iPod itself had cost RM1600.

That was the start of my pursuit of better sound quality. The white 3rd generation iPod earphones had significantly better than those provided with the following generations of iPods. There were much more natural sounding than that of my brother's 4th gen iPod Photo earbuds. Saved up for awhile and finally upgraded my listening experience. My next pair of earbuds would be my first in-ear buds (canalphones). The venerable Sony MX71s (RM150). The in ear buds had much better bass response/separation and for the first time i could discern low pitch instruments clearly.

Fast forward a few years. I am now a student in Australia. Canalphone technology has progressed steadily and the MX71s were starting to showing their age. Physically, they were starting to break up as well after much use and abuse. So I decided to get a popular RM200 pair of headphones. I settled for the Sennheiser CX300. They were Senn's first attempt at canalphone technology. They were much better across the range. A little boomy/muddy on the low end, but had far superior separation on the rest of the range. As a result, high pitched cymbals dont get muddled when playing rock songs.

My music listening experience has improved by leaps and bounds from my first tape walkman, but I was still pretty much stuck to listening to 128kbps mp3s. Even on the Senn CX300s, i couldnt hear any advantage to using higher bitrate mp3s.

All that changed when i came back to malaysia for summer break. I finally found a local distributor for Grado. Grado is a family brand that makes headphones at their small factory in Brooklyn. Yes, New York. Not china or taiwan. They are well renowned for the audio quality of their products and affordable prices.

I decided to get the Grado SR80 after looking around online. Many people claim that this offers the best sound quality for the USD100 (RM400) price range. At RM400, it is by far the most expensive pair of headphones I've ever owned. To be honest, it feels cheaper than the RM60 Phillips headphones that I used to play the electric keyboard. It's lighter and just feels flimsy. Bass is tight and well controlled. Response across the range is quite flat, and thus listening even to "full sounding" pieces of music is not tiring as well separated and defined bass and treble dont compete for your ears. You could hear maracas clearly playing behind the cymbals and other instruments. It's just awesome. The sound melts into your ear. When you take it and put it on, you get immersed. Tight bass, and well separated instruments gives you the feeling that the band is playing for you.

The headphones are great, but another problem arose. Mp3 flaws now are very noticeable. Muddled high ends and bloated bass are all very obvious on the SR80. So where does that leave me? For the first time I actually feel compelled to buy albums. Woot. And I subsequently found that listening to albums instead of individual songs on my computer is more enjoyable on the long run. You dont get bored of one song or another too quickly.

I look forward to reviewing some of my favourite albums

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