Audyssey AMP as a Headphone Evaluation Tool

The burgeoning headphone market  has presented every listener with so many choices as to be unmanageable.  There’s a price range for everyone, but quality overlaps those ranges.  There’s limited audition opportunity.  How on earth do we choose?

The big variable in headphones is sound quality, which gets down to the general frequency response and distortion of a headphone or earphone set.  Other areas of concern are fit and comfort, and electrical compatibility with the intended audio device in terms of efficiency and impedance.  Those last two are fairly easy to evaluate from manufacturer’s data.  Fit and comfort are somewhat personal, but it’s rare that someone finds a set comfortable when most others find it a pain in the head, so buyer reviews will help there.

That gets us back to the audio performance or sound quality.  Sometimes is hard to make the judgement as to whether a headset sounds good or not, and some excuse personal preference as “we all hear differently”.  But Sean Olive, Director of Acoustic Research for Harman International, has research that shows the old concept of “We all hear differently” is probably a fallacy.  He’s found, through extensive research and listening tests, that people generally prefer a neutral, uncolored headphone sound.  Somehow this isn’t too surprising, though, since we all hear the world around us, and are conditioned to the way natural environments sound. Things like the human voice, normal acoustic sounds, even the rush of the wind or passing of a car all present the same stimulus to everyone.  If we are conditioned by our surroundings, then we are all conditioned similarly, and should therefore all prefer neutral and natural sound reproduction.  Makes perfect sense.  If we all heard differently, then we’d probably all see colors differently too, and couldn’t agree on what green is.  The parallel is a little rough, but it works.

Even so, making qualitative judgments can be especially difficult for those without a degree of listening training, at least if you plan to put your finger on the specifics.  But we now have a great tool that can help even the untrained listener to evaluate hundreds of different headphones.  Enter: Audyssey Media Player known colloquially as “amp”.

What is Audyssey, and what is “AMP”?  

Audyssey is a company best known for it’s automatic audio calibration system that bears the company name.  Their breakthrough technology was the ability to make very high resolution measurements on an audio system very quickly, then calculate a correction filters…an inverse equalizer…that corrects for deficiencies of the sound system and the room it’s in.  The system is called Audyssey MultEQ and is the outgrowth of a $6m research project.  MultEQ is now found in several flavors on AVRs: Bronze, Silver, Gold and Platinum, with at additional cost, Audyssey Pro. Audyssey also makes its appearance in automotive sound, computer and pro application as well as in mobile devices.  In that last category, Audyssey also applied their technology to headphones, and the result is Audyssey Media Player.  AMP is a music player that has Audyssey’s equalizing technology built in, and customized for hundreds of specific headphone models.  It’s very easy to use.  You simply launch the app, it prompts you to select your headphones from a lest, and once selected, equalizes the audio provided to them to compensate, with nearly perfect precision, for sound quality deficiencies of your headphones.

How good is it?  I’ve personally tried five of my favorite headphones and earphones, and each time the improvement was instantly noticeable, and the EQ was dead-on.  I’m a very experienced and trained listener, so for me, identifying whats wrong within the sonic characteristics of speakers and headphones comes quite easily.  But that also means I’d be sensitive to errors that Audyssey would make.  I makes none, however.

Back at the Audyssey Lab, samples of hundreds of headphones are profiled using the Audyssey high resolution measurement technology, and then equalized to a specific and proprietary target curve. A “target curve” is a frequency response contour that is determined as “right” for the application.   Now, it would seem to make sense on the surface that any response variations should simply be flattened, but with headphones and earphones, flat isn’t at all “right”.  In fact, different styles of headphones (on ear, full sized/circumnaural, and in-ear) all required somewhat different target curves.  The trick, of course, is to get the target curves correct, or the whole idea falls on its face.  And that’s what the researchers at Audyssey have done.  While they aren’t saying publicly exactly how the target curves were arrived at, we can safely assume that the process included hundreds if not thousands of listeners expressing preferences for different curves, and the massive data collected was then crunched to determine the norm for each headphone design category.  The curves are also a bit of a secret, though wouldn’t be too difficult for an engineer to extrapolate.  Fortunately, we don’t have to.  Their target curves seem to be dead on.

So, how does Audyssey’s AMP app help us pick headphones?  It’s an interesting sort of backwards application of the app, though I started doing this almost immediately upon installing AMP.  Starting with my rather aged Sony Pro headphones, the MDR-7506 that I’ve mixed with for decades, I plugged into my iPad and tapped on Amp.  I was prompted to pick my headphones, selected the Sonys, and then just listened.  The sound I heard was lacking every problem I’ve always disliked in the 7506’s.  The bass was extended (they’d always been a little thin), the upper mid-range edge was gone.  They sounded smooth and uncolored!  Then swiped off the Audyssey switch, and instantly, back to the old love/hate 7506 sound I’ve always known.  Switching Audyssey on and off several times, I was able to hear clearly what the change was.  I’ve always sort of “lived” with the 7506 sound without Audyssey.  Just keep that idea for a second.

Moving on, I recently tried something more radical, the oft-touted Shure SE215 IEMs, their Sound Isolating Earphones, a pair of which I purchased from Amazon.  I was, frankly, searching for such an earphone to use on the occasion I needed something small in profile, light, and portable for my iPod and iPhone.  Listening to them right out of the box I was fairly horrified.  The sound was thin, edgy, and quite uncomfortable to listen to.  I had no trouble evaluating them in seconds.  Then I thought to try them with Amp.  I plugged them into my iPhone, dialed up their profile, and bingo!  Suddenly, they were a beautiful thing!  Smooth, extended bass, rich warm highs, detailed midrange, all the problems I heard initially were gone!

Then, the real test: turn Audyssey on and off several times, and see how much it was doing.  Wow, quite a bit!  The change between non-equalized and Audyssey was huge and impossible to miss.  What does this mean?

Simply put, in our quest for neutral and natural sound, if a headphone sounds radically different with and without Audyssey, it’s native sound is not neutral, but rather is severely colored.  If the difference is slight, but noticeable, the raw response of the headphone is decent.  If ever it were unnoticeable, we’d probably have the perfect headphone and wouldn’t need Audyssey’s correction at all.

Since then, I’ve tried Amp with the Shure SE315, Grado SR-80, Sennheiser MM-50ip and CX-300 II to name a few.  Each time I noted the degree of change that Audyssey was making and “scored” the headphones accordingly: less change means better, more change means worse.

The obvious question is, why bother?  Why not just use that wonderful AMP correction all the time and pick whatever headphones you have?  Well, I’d LOVE to use Audyssey’s AMP profiles all the time!  And would, if I could, but I can’t.  AMP runs only on IOS devices, so my 7th gen iPod Classic 160gig is out, as is my computer and my mildly exotic USB sound card.  So is my AVR, my little Sansa Clip+, my Zoom H2, or any IOS audio app other than AMP…need I continue?  AMP is a great, but hardly universal solution.  But it does help me pick out headphones that need less correction, and therefore will sound good on more devices without Amp.

So if you will be using your headphones on devices that run AMP, fantastic, enjoy! But if you can’t run Amp, you’re using an IOS app other than AMP (Pandora comes to mind, as does iTunes Radio) then the test procedure below will help you select a set that are more neutral, and thus more universal.  If you can use Amp all the time, your choices are many, but there are a few things Audyssey can’t fix, like a lot of distortion in the drivers for example, and there’s no Audyssey for comfort, sadly.

Testing your headphones with Amp

1. Connect your headphones to an IOS devices with your favorite demo music loaded in iTunes (AMP uses the iTunes library).

2. Launch AMP Look up your headphones in the data base and select them.

3. Listen to your music with Audyssey turned on.  Give it some time.  If all you’ve ever heard is the raw sound of your Beats, Skull Candy, or (gasp!) Apple Ear Buds, you’ll need to acclimate to what music really should sound like.

4. Turn off Audyssey, and notice the difference.  If what you hear is really markedly awful, that’s actually how your headphones sound in real life without Audyssey.  Markedly awful.  If, on the other hand, what you hear is only a little different, and perhaps even still quite acceptable, you’ve got a set of keepers.  There’s a whole world in-between, of course, and that’s the fun of it.  Finding what you can and cannot live with, once you’ve heard what things really should sound like.

It can’t be over-emphasized that judgement by listening should be allowed sufficient time, especially for the less expert listener.  At the same time, most of the opinions you’ll develop about sonic differences between Amp on and Amp off will be formed in the first few seconds.  Direct A/B comparisons are highly revealing, and completely valid.

While we all wait for a universal AMP plug-in that can be applied to every portable and non-portable device with a set of headphones connected to it, we can use AMP to both equalize the headphones we have, and help us to select new ones.

 

Footnote: Audyssey’s headphone EQ shows up in the Songza app as well.

Home Theater ca 1968

I’ve been into home theater a very long time. I built my first one before there even was such a term as Home Theater. We had a “theater in our home”, actually in my parents basement. I had a 70″ wide screen, retractable and hung from the ceiling at the end of the room. I had wiring for two speakers (yes, I made stereo soundtracks!), and projected anamorphic movies that I shot myself. The screen could be adjusted in height for my 2:1 aspect ratio, and was actually a pretty impressive image given my source medium: 8mm film! All of that was in the late 1960s and early 1970s.

Last night my wife and I had a sudden urge for the retro experience, and decided to watch a movie the old way: on film. To provide at least some justification for such a foolhardy enterprise, let me say that we both deal in antiques, and that means we also collect things. I currently own four movie projectors, two 8mm and two 16mm machines, and before there was such a thing as a DVD we collected old TV shows on 16mm film, and have several features as well. I still have a small tripod screen, but the home theater in the basement is a thing of the past. So, last night we went retro and watched a feature on 16mm film.

The experience was a reminder of sorts, that we live in a marvelous age where everything is easy. A big, bright HD picture is actually easy to get. Loading a disc in a player is simple, streaming on Apple TV simpler yet, and the typical home theater 5.1 surround system rivals those found in many theaters. But tonight, we ignored all of that and went retro.

I hauled out my prize projector, a Bell and Howell Filmosound 202 that I picked up on an antique pick in Michigan a number of years ago. It was actually my second 16mm projector, but it’s a work of industrial design and engineering from 1955. And it weighs a ton. I had to find a place to put it so I could project to the screen and we could still sit at watch. That turned out to be a challenge. Our room isn’t’ arranged for a machine that large. But I found a place for it, set it up, threaded up a test film, turn on the amp and waited for the tubes to warm up, then flipped the motor switch and followed with the lamp, and the beast began to move film. I had picture, but no sound. It seems the exciter lamp wasn’t working. The exciter lamp is a small dim bulb that supplies the light with which to read the optical soundtrack. No exciter lamp, no sound. The bulb itself appeared to be good, it just wouldn’t light, so I moved on to my other projector, a Singer Graphlex model from the 1960s.

Filmosound 202 like mine, the picture is of an optical sound only model, mine does optical and magnetic with recording:

filmosound 202

 

The Graphlex is a simpler machine to operate, but a but not nearly so elegant when it comes to the design. But it worked, there was picture and sound both, and at the same time. Our feature was on three 1200ft reels, which meant the first task was to determine which reels to lace up in what order, as the reels weren’t marked. My first guess was a good one, and we were almost ready, but for a bit of jostling of the projection angle, image size on screen, focus etc.  Ok, more than a bit.  The alignment of any home theater video projector to a screen today is actually easier.

graphlexSinger Graphlex, a more modern machine with solid-state amplifier and really wimpy speaker built into the front.

Within a minute of starting the film, I recognized a severe problem. The speaker built into the Graphlex projector did produce sound, but with the noisy clattering of the projector, we had a hard time hearing dialog, and that speaker was of course behind us. I hunted down a speaker and some speaker wire, and quickly rigged it all up so we had a speaker a few feet from our faces in front of us, but the audio quality was really not good. It had all sorts of problems: poor fidelity, flutter and wow (speed variations), and noise. Of course, all optical soundtracks on 16mm film are mono with a maximum frequency response of an optimistic 8KHz, and the brief flirtation the medium had with stereo ended before any capable projectors were produced.  The sound was as good as it could get.

So, how was the image in the home theater of 1968? Big, it filled our 50″ screen, and bright, but even when focused well enough to see film grain, the image was soft, and disappointing to our HD-trained eyes. The film itself was an older print, sadly faded to pink, with scratches, dirt and splices, typical of a well shown older print. And as to presentation, our viewing was interrupted every 30 minutes or so with a reel change. I didn’t bother rewinding each reel, that would have been so great an interruption as to ruin any hope of continuity. Instead I simply placed the empty supply reel into the take-up position and loaded the next reel. In under a minute, we were on to the next 30 minute segment.

Handling the film was a very physical experience. The reels are large and heavy, the film had to be threaded into the projector, and the projector’s controls adjusted for forward operation, and refocussed each time a reel was changed. And the projector noise was an incredible din. Such is the case without having a dedicated projection booth to contain projector clatter.

We are very spoiled viewers in 2014. We nit-pick about contrast ratios, color gamut, 1080p vs 4K, plasma vs LED/LCD, DLP vs LCD vs Laser, 5.1 sound vs 7.1, 9.1, 11.2, and more. But in the end, we get an amazing picture from equipment with almost no acoustic noise. The media, if any, is light and easy to handle. It’s all a very easy to manage experience, especially in light of the home theater of 1968. It turns out, “retro” isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. We enjoyed our movie and re-living the old technology, but it was a chore to accomplish, and outside of the novelty, a bit disappointing in the end. We will probably do it again, but somehow the experience helped us to appreciate even more the home theater of 2014.

 

Using Forums to find information

Ever find yourself watching too much TV? You know how it started: innocently watching a good show, then staying tuned for the next show…then the next…and the next…then channel surfing, to find something better only to settle for something slightly less abhorrent. And, before you know it, you’ve watched TV for hours, during which only perhaps the first 30 minutes or so (less when you subtract commercials) was your choice. Perhaps slightly more was worth watching, but you ended up expending time doing something that in the end had little entertainment benefit.

And that’s exactly how I’ve come to feel about on-line forums. I’ve participated in several over the years, and while each has its own focus and literally, its own personality, very little is of any true benefit or value. Mostly, like average TV, it just occupies time. Lots of time.

It seems forums all start with the premise of sharing ideas and viewpoints, or the quest for information. Questions are asked, opinions given, then controversy creeps in, and soon two or more groups begin to polarize on the same issues over and over. Often, it ends up as a series of arguments between the same two or so people.  Or at least so it goes in the male-dominated AV forums.

In Audio and Video forums, the same topics that seem to come up often, repeatedly, and as if they were fresh each time. Things like power cords making an audible or visible improvement, cables and wire in general having a huge sonic or visual impact to the point of justifying expending hundreds of dollars per foot on the exotics. Tubes vs Transistors vs Integrated Circuits, Digital vs Analog, Vinyl vs anything digital, one codec’s virtues over another, Mac vs PC, iDevices vs anything else. Then there’s the newbies asking for opinions, “What speakers should I buy?”, “Which headphone amplifier should I get for my XYZ headphones?”, all followed by an exhaustive list of their amassed componentry. Or, my favorite phrasing of late, “Which <any type of gadget> “pairs best with <any other gadget>? Pairing. The term floated to the surface a decade or so ago in relation to food and wine, became hip, and how is applied to audio and video gear and the stuff it mates with.

Now, some of this may seem valid, and actually, many newbie questions are. I have no problem helping the newcomer, in fact, outside of forums, it’s sort of a personal mission. But that’s where things get weird. Even the well-intentioned poster is often unknowingly in front of a firing squad with other agenda.  A questions is asked, a contributor offers valid information, then someone living in an alternate reality takes shots at what are really basic scientific principles, usually with a derogatory statement about science as being wrong, evil, inept, or undeveloped. “There are things in this world science cannot explain!” goes the mantra. And sure, there are many things in that class, but that doesn’t mean that the void opened by the lack of scientific explanation must be filled by mythology either. Or a simple question degenerates into a series of lengthy posts replete with references, graphics, photos and links to substantiate the posters position. This is counters with more lengthy references, graphics, photos and links to support the opposing viewpoint. And inside of 15 posts, what started as a simple question and answer has crumbed into endless bickering, posturing, and proofs of masculinity.

Anyway, for those intrepid enough to delve deeply into on-line forums, you have been warned. There is good and accurate information there, which usually…usually, rises to the top. But there is a lot of mythology and hocus-pocus too, some of which is highly attractive. The attraction often is the air of superiority. “I can hear things that cannot be measured!” is where it sometimes starts. Then, “Changing my 6′ power cord lifted the veil from my audio!” is where it goes. AVS Forum founder David Bott once said on a podcast interview that there is a “dark side to the AVS forum” (my quote is from memory, apologies if it’s not verbatim). That dark side is filled with egotists with an ego to stroke, those with deep seated inferiority complexes who must…must win every skirmish, and those with a short fuse, not willing to abide even one slightly naive post. Yes, it’s pretty dark sometimes. Enough said, proceed with caution.

Some forums have high ideals, even proclaiming “Christian Values”, yet they collapse in their application of them. Others barely tolerate the hard-nosed scientist who demands statically valid data as evidence, cordoning these “types” to their own sub-forum. But in the end, forums are the people involved. Forums seem to attract certain times and repel others. A forum devoted to high-end audio will verbally repel anyone who tries to bring a measure of grounded reality to bear. And the nuts-and-bolts technologist forum will crush any mythologist to a fine auto-drip grind. The odd thing is, if you are of like mind with others, there’s very little interesting debate. If you are at odds with others, it gets brutal.

All in all, there is good information in the forum, but to filter through and find it may not be the most expedient way to self educate. Google, unfortunately, will pop up forum posts, many completely un-authoritative. Either way, the good ol’ Info-Super-Highway can often become clogged and mired with sewage. Unfortunately, the more forceful the opinion, the more it’s seen as authoritative, but forcefulness and truth are two mutually exclusive qualities, and one does not go hand in hand with the other.  Those noble enough to try to put the train wreck back on the tracks have a very steep climb.  Those battles can go on for pages, and in then end the only people listening are those in combat.

I, for my part, left all forum activity behind some time ago, and am using that time for more productive ventures. I’ll leave the ideas and concepts, myths and legends, facts and fiction to sort themselves out.

And, I’m sure, for better or worse, richer or poorer, bloodshed and tears, they will.