Common Confusion in Home Theater: Part 6

3d1This post is part of my series of blog posts and slideshows regarding topics of common confusion in home theater. In this post, I cover the difference between closed back and open back around-ear headphones.

  • Part 1: Volume and zero dB, updating firmware, Blu-ray disadvantage
  • Part 2: Speaker resistance, analog vs. digital amps in AV receivers
  • Part 3: PCM vs. bitstream, Blu-ray player upscaling/upconversion
  • Part 4: THX certification, DLNA network access, and distortion and THD
  • Part 5: HDMI (including cable length and controversial expensive cables)
  • Part 7: Understanding your room and room dynamics
  • Part 8: Room correction, speaker position, and more room dynamics
  • Part 9: Ethernet, component separates, broadband internet router

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Curt Robbins


Two Types of Around-ear Headphones

There are two types of around-ear headphones: Open back and closed back (or simply “open” and “closed”). Each type offers distinct pros and cons, making it a game of matching the correct type to your particular preferences and listening environment(s).

Closed headphones are best for noisy environments, where you can’t afford to bother others, or if you want a more intimate, “in your head” listening experience. Open headphones typically provide the best sound possible. If you’re a home theater owner who is also an armchair audiophile, this is the type toward which you should gravitate. This design offers a much wider soundstage than closed headphones (their biggest advantage) and don’t suffer the heat buildup of some closed models. If you purchase some of your favorite albums in a high-resolution format like SACD or DVD-Audio or as a vinyl LP, open-back headphones are beckoning to you.

There are also open-back and closed-back models of on-ear headphones (with Grado being one of the best examples of a high-quality open-back, on-ear brand). However, on-ear models are obviously inherently less sound isolating than around-ear types. Thus, many closed-back on-ear models do a relatively poor job of separating your ears from the outside world (but sometimes a good job of dissipating heat from your ears).

Open Back

Because open-back headphones leak sound and offer very little (and sometimes zero) sound isolation, they can be bad for two reasons. They’re rude to those around you, but also ruin your experience by tainting it with local conversations and ambient noise. This is why these models are best positioned as a part of your home theater, never leaving your living room or den. Closed-back headphones are much more common than open back (and are often less expensive). In a perfect world, you’d own a nice pair of each type, pulling out a particular model when the situation was most appropriate.

Some of the best models of open-back headphones—many within an affordable range—are produced by Beyerdynamic and Sennheiser. Notable models from Sennheiser range in price from the HD 518 at $130 to the HD 598 at $250 (street price $180) to the universally loved HD 600 at $400. Beyerdynamic offers models ranging in price from under $100 to several hundred, including the DTX 710 ($80), DTX 910 ($100), and DT 440 ($210). If you want to spend a bit more, the company also makes the DT 990 ($400) and T 90 ($680), topping out with the $1,400 T 1.

Other good models of open-back phones include the Shure SRH1440 Pro at $300 and SRH1840 at $700 ($500 street price). If you have deep pockets or want to frustrate your spouse, consider the universally lauded and ultra-pricey Audeze (“Aw-deh-zee”) LCD3 for $2,000. If that’s not quite good enough (or expensive enough) for you, consider the Stax SR-009 at a divorce-summoning $4,500. Yikes. The SR-009 makes Sennheiser’s best open-back model, the $1,500 HD 800, look cheap.

Closed Back

Also called “sealed” headphones, closed-back types are, unlike their open-backed siblings, great for being in public or noisy environments. Closed-back units, along with in-ear models, are among the best at noise isolation. Whether they’re preventing the noise around you from tainting your audio or protecting those around you from your poor taste in music, closed-back headphones typically do the job with practicality, good fidelity, and sometimes great value.

Sennheiser offers closed-back headphones ranging in price from $35 to $300, include the $300 Momentum and $200 ($140 street price) HD 380 Pro. Other recommended models include the $400 B&W P7, the award-winning $300 PSB M4U 1, the AKG K 550 for $240, and the Beyerdynamic DT 660 for $250. Also consider the T 70, Beyerdynamic’s most expensive closed-back model at $600.

Of note is Skullcandy. While not the first name to come to mind when audiophiles think of headphones, this company is on a rampage producing models that perform well at loud volumes and often feature enhanced bass. Many professional headphone reviewers and journalists believe the $150 Aviator and $330 Mix Master are two of the finest closed-back headphones in their respective price categories (if you don’t mind their lack of transparency).

I’ve had both closed-back and open-back models that I’ve really loved—but only within their respective intended environments. There are many great closed-back headphones available, some of which are almost amazingly reasonably priced. Two of my favorites are the previously mentioned Sennheiser HD 380 Pro and the Audio-Technica ATH-M50 (and M50x). Both sound great, are relatively transparent (providing natural, unbiased sound reproduction), and are excellent values. Many models costing much more don’t sound as good.

[Also check out Understanding Headphone Amps.]


Curt Robbins is author of the following books from Amazon Kindle:

You can follow him on Twitter at @CurtRobbins, read his AV-related blog posts at rAVe Publications, and view his photos on Flickr.

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Home Theater Basics

3d1The following is an excerpt from Chapter 2: Home Theater Basics from my new book Home Theater for the Internet Age. This book isn’t for audiophiles or videophiles. If you’re an average middle class person who doesn’t know much about this topic, you outnumber the “experts” and home theater nerds by about 10,000 to 1.

I’ve always enjoyed helping people understand and embrace modern technology. In the case of home theater, this tech can bring together families in front of a big display panel for a new movie release on a shiny little disc—or, increasingly, streamed from the internet. You can enjoy family photos, MP3 songs, or home videos stored on a computer that resides nearly anywhere on your wi-fi network. All using nothing more than a decent Blu-ray player (playing discs covers only one-third the functionality of modern Blu-ray players, as you can learn here).

If nothing else, please understand that you can enjoy full surround sound, high-definition video, and all the glory of modern home theater on any budget. The most common misperception of home theater is that it’s too expensive and you can’t afford it.

But you can. Trust me.

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Curt Robbins


As consumers, we’re in the middle of multiple transition periods within the home electronics and entertainment industries. These changes are in the form of rapid advances in both hardware and services. It’s no longer uncommon for one to have a 60-inch display panel hanging in their living room, to be one of the 50 million people who watch movies and TV shows on Netflix, or to be among the 76 million consumers who listen to music on Pandora each month. These don’t constitute early adopter status in today’s world of home entertainment.

Since Apple introduced its iconic iPod line of portable music players in 2001, the human race has been slowly transitioning from entertaining itself by purchasing physical media, like optical discs, to instead downloading songs from iTunes or streaming movies or TV from services like Hulu or Vudu. Today the average consumer has more home entertainment options than ever—along with a more detailed and potentially confusing array of technologies and media sources.

What Defines Home Theater?

Let’s define a few things. First, a home theater isn’t mobile. It’s not a laptop with a set of headphones (even if the laptop features a Blu-ray player). Home theater is four basic components:

  • Display panel
  • Audio/video receiver
  • Blu-ray player
  • Five+ specialized speakers

These are the elements necessary for full-on home theater and how it’s defined in this book. Anything short of these elements doesn’t cut it in terms of home “theater.” While it could be argued that a set top box for bringing audio and video content into your home theater is a necessity, some cord cutters are perfectly happy with physical discs from Redbox, the Neflix disc-by-mail service, or a local video store.

One of the most common configurations for consuming TV programming and movies is a display panel TV with two input devices: A Blu-ray player and a cable/satellite set-top box (using only the speakers on the TV). Maybe there’s a game console or DVR thrown in the mix. But this also isn’t home theater (where’s the audio/video receiver and rear surround speakers?).

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Connecting Components

In the past, the task of connecting home theater components was confusing. Different components connected with different standards and there were separate connections for audio and video. For the layperson, connecting components was a headache and typically resulted in either a frustratingly botched job, professional installation (planned or unplanned), or scouring web-based forums desperately seeking help from others. Today it’s different. Now it’s all a single standard that transports both audio and video, and does it in Blu-ray-quality high definition: HDMI. Say it with me: H-D-M-I. It’s all you need to know.

Surround Sound

In terms of audio, the difference between a “stereo system” and a “home theater” is surround sound, which has been relatively common for well over a decade. Without a collection of surround sound speakers, home theater can’t exist. Today, a significant portion of broadcast and cable TV programming—and nearly all movies produced in the past decade—are delivered with a six-channel or greater audio mix that requires a surround speaker configuration and compatible audio/video receiver to be fully appreciated.

Discrete Channels

Surround sound isn’t just about adding more speakers in your living room. It’s about discrete channels of audio information coming from specific locations within your listening environment. In other words, the producers of a TV show or movie can purposefully make, say, the voices of the characters come from the speaker directly below your TV, where they’ll be the most realistic.

Meanwhile, background noises—such as barking dogs, slamming doors, and guns firing—can be directed to the rear speakers. The ability of content producers to utilize between five and twelve speakers in your living room, in a predictable arrangement, is why affordable home theater systems now rival the experience of going to a movie theater (and why commercial theater chains have to install football field-size screens with vibrating chairs just to get our attention).

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Content Services

Content services that deliver streaming audio, video, and even games to your living room home theater have proliferated like crazy during the past few years. What’s interesting is that most people have labeled this the evolution of the internet, not home theater.

It’s all convoluted today, part computer and part stereo system. We’re in the middle of the convergence of computing/internet technologies and the hardware, software, and standards on which video and audio are affordably reproduced in the home. Home theater simply does not live up to its potential without the internet and broadband connectivity. Netflix, YouTube, HBO Now, Pandora, Hulu Plus, Spotify, iTunes, and other internet-based services offer more content than you can ever consume. While your local liquor store might not sell you bourbon on Sunday, online streaming services are available on-demand, 24 hours a day, seven days a week.


Curt Robbins is author of the following books from Amazon Kindle:

You can follow him on Twitter at @CurtARobbins, read his AV-related blog posts at rAVe Publications, and view his photos on Flickr.

Understanding Headphone Amps

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[Updated September 9, 2015]

It’s challenging to discuss a home theater category like headphone amps and remain within the practical—and financial—bounds of middle class consumers. Many home theater owners have never even heard of this gear category, let alone own such a component.

However, the value of headphone amps, for people who truly love great sound, can’t be disputed. The good news is that many companies, like Schiit Audio and others, produce affordable hardware that can dramatically improve the quality of your sound when you’re wearing your cans and enjoying your favorite album (or movie).

The following is an excerpt from my book Home Theater for the Internet Age, from Chapter 9: Headphones.

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Curt Robbins


Headphone Amps

Headphone amplifiers are probably the single most misunderstood area of audio entertainment (if you’ve even heard of this tech). Infamous for being expensive toys owned by audiophiles, they are a relatively uncommon device within a home theater. What does a headphone amp do? Simply put, it’s an output from your receiver that re-amplifies the signal to improve the sound produced by your headphones.

In most receivers, even high-end models, the built-in headphone amp is a super-cheap afterthought. Audiophiles and music enthusiasts claim that, if you have a good pair of headphones, you’re cheating yourself by not getting at least an entry-level headphone amp to bring out their potential. “Using a dedicated headphone amplifier will step up the performance of any home theater to an entirely new level,” Frank Iacone, a 35-year industry veteran known for his heartfelt Twitter feed and reviews on headfi.org, told me in an interview. Because most middle class consumers have never used a headphone amp—and very possibly never listened to high-end headphones—it’s one of those situations where people simply don’t know what they’re missing.

OPPO HA-1 headphone amp for twitter - 2

Prices for headphone amps range from $60 to $16,000. That’s right, if you have a large pile of money and are wondering what to do with it, you can purchase 3,200 copies of this book or a headphone amp that costs more than an entry-level Toyota. The kids can walk, get the amp!

Tube, Solid State, & Hybrid

There are two primary technologies employed in building headphone amps: Analog vacuum tubes and digital solid-state circuitry. Vacuum tubes are way old school; some audiophiles collect antique tubes that are more than 50 years old. Solid-state amps, which involve digital processing and circuitry, are typically less expensive than their tube-based brethren and feature a more accurate, less “warm” sound. The third type of headphone amp, called a hybrid, merges these two technologies, theoretically offering the best of both worlds. Good applications of this approach achieve this, while poor executions fail to sufficiently exploit each type’s advantages.

Audiophiles Divided

The audiophile community is divided regarding which approach, tube or solid state, provides nicer sound. In reality, each type offers distinct pros and cons and is implemented in a wide variety of quality levels by different manufacturers. In the end, the model best for you is determined more by your wallet than your feelings regarding the warmth, intimacy, or accuracy of a particular model’s amplification technology.

However, one typically doesn’t spend the kind of money we’re talking about on headphones and headphone amplifiers and not appreciate the nuances of high-end audio. For many, the differences in sound quality between comparable quality tube and solid-state amps is significant (another religious war among audiophiles). My own opinion, quite frankly, is that I appreciate the lower cost of solid-state amps while also somewhat desiring the more accurate sound reproduction and efficiency that they deliver (which I also prefer in my AV receivers). But this certainly doesn’t mean that solid state is better. It’s simply my personal take on the matter (and my wallet’s influence).

From a sound perspective, I’d rather have a $1,200 Woo Audio WA2 tube amp (pictured below) than a $120 Vali solid-state model from Schiit Audio. However, this reflects a desire for a high-end amp, not a disdain for digital amps, preference for tube amps, or any leaning toward Woo Audio over Schiit (both of which are great companies offering models you should seriously consider). My budget—and the quality of my headphones—dictates that my purchase will probably involve a cold aluminum solid-state Schiit Audio Asgard 2 for $250 (the “practical” model for which I continue to lust).

Woo Audio WA2 for blog

Pros & Cons

One disadvantage of tube amps is that they can require up to 10 minutes to heat up in preparation for use. This is an old school characteristic indeed, and about the most retro electronic wait period of our modern drive-thru, microwaving, Twitter filled world. Fans of tube tech, however, swear it’s worth the patience and dollars (and boast of the romantic glow provided by their vacuum tubes—probably especially nice during the holidays).

An advantage of solid-state amps is a reduction in background noise. Some audiophiles actually prefer an elevated background noise level, especially for live performances or fully analog productions. One advantage of solid-state amps that doesn’t really touch home theater applications is mobility. Some models are designed to accompany a mobile device, offering small size, battery power, and significant improvements in audio quality compared to the anemic default output of mobile gadgets (especially when paired with good headphones).

Upgradable Tubes

A neat feature of vacuum tube amps for hobbyists is the fact that you can swap out—and thus, upgrade, within certain technical limits—the tubes. Some hyper-hobbyists even keep two or three sets of tubes, reserving each for a particular type of music. Many replacement tubes are relatively inexpensive (Schiit Audio sells a set of four tubes for its $350 Valhalla model that runs $40). While the cost of the initial amp itself might be somewhat hefty, the expense of playing hobbyist with different tubes—or replacing units that have burned out—can be manageable and fun.

Reputable Brands & Models

What is more important than whether a headphone amp employs vacuum tubes or solid-state circuitry is its sound quality, period. Companies such as Woo Audio (USA), HiFiMAN (USA), Bryston (Canada), OPPO (China), and Schiit Audio (USA) offer a wide range of both tube and digital amps.

Woo Audio manufactures expensive tube-based models featuring exquisite hand-crafted build quality and leading edge design that are made in New York City. Ranging in price from $550 to $16,000, Woo offers some of the best (and most attractively designed) tube amps money can buy. If you’re sweet on their products but on a budget, consider the $600 WA3 or $700 WA6.

Schiit Audio, headquartered in California, produces beautifully sculpted aluminum amps. Most of their models are solid state, but they also offer a couple hybrid and tube models. Schiit amps perform like Canadian and American models costing several times more. It’s relatively small product line, priced between $100 and $750, are all American made from American parts (Schiit even has face-to-face relationships with its local vendors). The company provides what reviewers cite as excellent and personalized customer service.

Shiit Audio Valhalla for blog

Premium Blu-ray player manufacturer OPPO in 2014 released a $1,200 solid-state headphone amp that has received rave reviews. The audiophile-quality OPPO HA-1 features an attractive display that compliments the unit’s leading edge features (it can even simulate those sexy analog VU meters from way back when). Like other OPPO products, the HA-1 is controllable via the OPPO Remote Control App for mobile devices.

“The hardware inside the HA-1 are some of the beefiest I’ve seen in a headphone amp. It looks like a barely scaled down loudspeaker amp,” said Geoffrey Morrison when reviewing the model for Forbes. Reviewer John E. Johnson, Jr., writing for hometheaterhifi.com, added, “And, wow! What a sound. Built like a tank, and gets as hot as a tank in the Sahara due to its Class A output.”

If you want to check out entry-level tube-based headphone amplification on a budget, look into the Bravo Audio V2, a $70 ($55 street price) single-tube amp. “It’s a nice little tube amplifier in its own right for those of us who want to experiment with that highly desired ‘tube sound’ without paying the exorbitant rates many tube amps cost,” said an amateur reviewer on Head-Fi.org.


Curt Robbins is author of the following books from Amazon Kindle:

You can follow him on Twitter at @CurtARobbins, read his AV-related blog posts at rAVe Publications, and view his photos on Flickr.