Written by 5:00 am Audiophile

Motorcycles and Headphones

Roger Skoff writes about the economics of enjoyment

In addition to being a Hi-Fi Crazy, I’ve been a Motorcycle Crazy since my college days. I first got started when, after wrecking my Jeep out in the desert, I couldn’t afford another car, and bought a 50cc Honda as affordable transportation. This, incidentally, had the greatly appreciated side benefit that I could park it right next to each of my classes at UCLA, and save quite literally miles of running between buildings every day to get to where I needed to be in the just 10 minutes between classes.

bike.jpgThe “50” didn’t last long, though; within just a couple of months, the fire-breather that had scared me silly the first time I rode it was exposed as the (45-mile-an-hour top speed) putt-putt that it really was, and I was ready for something else. That turned out to be a Honda 305cc Super Hawk which, with vigorous acceleration, good handling, and a top speed of better than 100 mph, remains — even today – one of my all-time favorite bikes.

That still wasn’t enough, though, and, within just a little more than a year, after passing through a Norton 500cc ES2 in the interim, I found myself astride a 750cc Norton Atlas, at the time (1962), the hottest thing on the road (other than the legendary — and scarce enough to be nearly mythical — Vincent HRD).

Motorcycles met my college-age needs just perfectly: They provided the transportation and the operating economy that I needed at the time, plus a great deal of “hip” or “in-group” or what I’m guessing the current generation might call “street cred”. And — wonder and glory of all wonders and glories — they gave me my first (except for my oh-so-exotic, briefly owned 1953 Siata Spyder) real taste of balls-out, world-class performance.

The fact of it was that virtually any of the even ordinarily performing motorcycles available at the time would easily outrun virtually any of the cars of the day at the dragstrip or a red light, and would do it at a cost, even for a brand-new one of vasrly less than virtually any car. (The MSRP of a 1962 Honda CB77 Super Hawk was, as I recall, $735, and even that of a 1962 Norton Atlas was just $1,137. By comparison, a “basic” Chevrolet or Ford of the same year had an MSRP of between $2,200 and $2,700.  Even now, there are motorcycles that, for MSRPs starting at less than $10,000, will break 150 mph and either offer serious competition to, or up to the bike’s top speed, outright blow-off even the latest Italian supercars (Ferrari, Lamborghini, etc.) costing as much as 25 times more ($250,000)!

So what does all this mean? And why am I talking about it in an article about hi-fi? Simple: Headphones are the motorcycles of the hi-fi world!

Like a “50,” one can get into them very cheaply (for just a couple of bucks, actually) and with even the most affordable other gear, they’ll provide adequate “transportation” — meaning something to listen to that will let you hear and enjoy your favorite songs or artists.

You can also, once you’ve gotten your feet [ears?] wet, improve your headphone system incrementally and affordably (the Super Hawk or ES2 stage) to whatever degree, and by spending just about whatever amount pleases you. Once you’ve started, it’s all up to you: Even the very best headphone systems, including the source, the amplification, and the ‘phones, themselves, cost just a small fraction of what a speaker-based system would for similar performance. And to get sound that’s merely excellent, only a very few hundred dollars may suffice. That means that even a kid can — with a little saving and some smart shopping — afford a system that will give him sound good enough that it may “hook” him forever, and bring him into what had, until this new surge of interest in high (or at least higher) performance headphones, been our stagnant or actually even declining hobby.

Not only do motorcycles and headphones have similar entry-level buyers, coming-in for similar economic and performance reasons, but both seem to have similar drawbacks, that can prompt their aficionados to progress in similar directions:

One of the major drawbacks, for me is comfort: Just as a motorcycle — even a full-dress Harley or a Honda Gold Wing (I’ve owned one of those, too) — can never be as comfortable as a car, so headphones can never, just by their very nature, be as comfortable as listening with speakers.

Just to put what I’m about to say in perspective, let me say that I still own three pairs of Stax electrostatic headphones — Lambda Pros, Sigmas and SR-80s — and in the past I’ve also owned Brush crystal ‘phones (surprisingly good for what they were) and AKG and Sennheiser dynamics. All were bought for specific purposes, and all, for those purposes, were just great. Even so, there were none of those or of any other model or brand that I have owned or tried that I would seek-out for at-home leisure listening. NONE. I don’t like the feel of them on my ears, in my ears or on my head. And it’s not a matter of weight, either, although between earbuds and some of the larger phones, they do run the full gamut. It’s just that I don’t like having them there at all!

Another problem that, granted, wireless ‘phones would solve, is that with conventional wired ‘phones, I don’t like the feeling of being “on a leash,” either confined to do what I do within the length of the headphones’ attached or extended cable or having to take them off to move somewhere else. That’s, IMHO, a comfort issue, too.

Finally, and not having to do with comfort at all, is the fact that headphones have, at least for me, a major disruptive effect on imaging and soundstaging — my two most important considerations in judging the performance and desirability of any hi-fi system. When I listen to speakers, if both the system and the recording are up to it, I’ll get a solid three-dimensional image of the performers and their venue, and, in the best of all possible circumstances, I’ll feel like I’m right there in the room with them. If I then move my head or change my position the image will, just as in real life, remain stable, and it will only be me who has moved. With headphones, though, any movement on my part will move the entire performance, room and all, and will remind me irrefutably that what I’m listening to is a recording and not the real thing. No fun at all!

Fortunately for the continuation of our hobby, there’s one more important similarity between motorcycles and headphones: As we, the people who buy them, get older, most us become both more comfort-oriented and more able to afford the things that will give us what we want. Except for the occasional romp, luxury cars replace our motorcycles and fine speakers in a good room of a nice house replace our headphones. Our tastes and our wallets both mature and our hobby gains another generation of devotees.

Good for us!

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