I just spent money on a “want” for the first time in over six months(*). Obviously I had a bit of a streak going there, so what caused me to break it? A new pair of headphones that’s what. I just bought a pair of Grado SR60 headphones and compared to the free airline headphones I used to use or the built in speakers in my Mac they sound phenomenal.

Actually before I found my way towards financial independence, I used to be a bit of an audiophile. Audiophiles are crazy who spend fortunes on HiFi-equipment for that perfect sound reproduction usually playing CDs called “Soundstage I” going something like “This is a cymbal 5 feet to the right … CLANG … this is the symbol 5 feet further back …. CLANG” all while marveling at how lifelike the reproduction sounds. The silver RCA cables between my CD player and my pre-amp cost as much as an ipod! Unfortunately, this was all 220V and weighed at least 50 pounds(**), so when I moved out of myCountry, I had to leave it behind. Hence over the past 8 years, I have made do with my computer, a pair of crappy active speakers (dumped 4 years ago) and some freebie earplug headphones.

(*) I’m not counting things that are wants but are only bought to replace things that wear out regularly such as skate wheels.

(**) Interestingly enough while there is some development in the HiFi world, it is very slow. As such my system now costs more than what I paid for it and I could probably recover most of my costs.

People who have never heard a HiFi system rarely know what they are missing. On standard systems, the kind that’s sold in Walmart, most music is kinda muddled. It is like hearing it through a pillow. The visual analogue is to look at a small forest through a fog. You only see the first few trees: the singer, the lead guitar, the drummer, and you get an idea of the bass player. In contrast, on a hifi system reveals several more layers. At modern reproductions you will be able to hear more instruments as well as the type of the instruments. You will hear the plucking of the guitar strings, the singer drawing in breath, the violinist turning over a note sheet. I’m getting carried away here 😀

Hence, if you actually listen to music rather than just use it as a sound carpet, a good system can make you rediscover your entire CD collection.

Now, this is not all good news. Something that will become immediately apparent is that some recordings just plain suck. Rather than the layered sound stage you would expect, the sound can be inherently two-dimensional; like the recording of a radio playing if you get my point. This is particularly a problem of compressed music from the 1980s and early 70s. Recordings that have subsequently been remastered are not as bad. Other recordings will astound you by revealing that what you thought was one voice singing is actually two voices, that there are several instruments adding to what used to sound as ambient “mud”.

In other words, your collection will get separated into good CDs and bad CDs. You will also find that online music is somewhat compressed and that the quality is not that great.

Upgrading your system should generally start as close to your ears as possible. If you’re keeping your speakers under your desk (you infidel!) get them up to ear height to form a somewhat equilateral triangle with your head. The next step is upgrading the speakers. I went for headphones, because small is beautiful. Also in a small space, noise is not always appreciated by all parties. I selected the SR60s because they could be driven directly from the headphone jack and did not require a headphone amplifier. The next step would obviously be to get a headphone amp. Things have evolved considerably in the 8 years I have been out of the field. The audiophilistic danger of upgrade fever is ever present though. For just $50 more it is always possible to get something slightly better, so where does it stop.

I have found that low-end consumer goods have a threshold as do high-end consumer goods. Low-end consumer goods is what practically everybody buys (Ford, Toyota). High-end consumer goods are ones you have probably never heard about (Maybach). The mid-range is where you want to be (Lexus, BMW). The reason is of course explained by the law of diminishing returns (read here, and here). You always want to be in the middle, that is, the linear part of the S-curve where benefit is proportional to cost. A good rule of thumb is that this range generally starts just outside the range of goods offered by mass market retailers, so go see a specialist and ask for their “just after beginner”-level model.

Added: When the original cushions give out, a good replacement is Sennheiser HD414 cushions (cost about $10 on eBay). If you don’t mind the bright yellow colors, they are in my opinion superior to the original.

Originally posted 2008-11-13 07:28:39.