Recently, in a box of CD's Audiophile Review editor Steven Stone sent me for a pending music review, I was pleasantly surprised to find an Astell & Kerns portable player as well as several different in ear headphones made by a variety of different manufacturers.
That Steven would do this was a very kind gesture and naturally, I called to thank him for his generosity. It was an interesting thing to receive something like this for one simple reason - I'm just not a headphone / ear bud, / portable device kind of guy. Historically, my association with headphones began over forty years ago with the round jack on so many stereo components of the day. Of course, this jack was absolutely useless to me because I never had the slightest interest in listening to music through headphones.
I suppose they would have made sense back when I lived with my parents and my Dad was yelling at me daily to turn down my music. I suppose it would have also made sense later on in college when I was most likely the cause of numerous disturbances in the dorm. Most certainly, with the advent and huge popularity of portable devices it makes more sense than ever because of that one factor a home audio system can never become - portable. I think at how many plane trips would have been less onerous had I the pleasing opportunity to sit back, close my eyes and listen to music, just as I have for years seen other passengers doing. Then again, not only have I historically been somewhat hardheaded when it came to headphones, I couldn't really have been bothered with portable devices because I was never impressed with the sonics.
Beyond trying out a few sets of cans at a couple of audio shows, an exercise that probably only took about ten seconds, my experience of how music can and does sound with an over / in ear device has been, well, zilch. I'm neither embarrassed nor ashamed to admit this because it has just never been my thing.
In playing around with the unit Steven sent me, I certainly have a much better understanding what all the fuss has been about. Perhaps that was Steven's whole point because I'm sure he knew I historically had little interest in things over or in my ears. I also feel this is a unique opportunity for me because I have been given the chance to discover what so many millions of listeners already know, that headphones and portable players can sound pretty remarkable.
In trying the different sets of ear buds, I discovered varying sonic presentations, some better than others, some less so. Some had incredible imaging. In fact, I initially found it mildly disconcerting when on one pair of ear buds I heard the center image sound like it was on top of my head. Soon enough, however, I discovered it made the music much more interesting. Most of the music that was on the player had very adequate bass, and highs, and I resigned myself to the decision that I enjoyed the music it rendered far more than I reasonably expected.
Needless to say there are things this little portable player is not. Most obviously, it is not a sonic equivalent to my main system. Of course not, never was it intended to be a replacement for a home based system, let alone one the caliber of mine. Then again, my home system is hardly portable. I can see me going through the TSA line at the airport with an audio rack, twelve different components and two five and one half foot tall speakers. While neither of these music systems will never, ever be a replacement for the other, what they do, and do very well, is to be a remarkable compliment to each other.
Has this exercise created a headphone monster? No, probably not so much. I still find things in my ears pretty uncomfortable in a vanishingly short amount of time, and trying the six or so different ear buds didn't change that. I also can't see a legitimate reason to assemble a headphone only playback system. I have the freedom so sit in a large room filled with music at any volume I choose and not bother anyone. That said, is silence for those around the listener the only reason to like and subscribe to the use of headphones? On the whole, I'd say no. I have every confidence that there are scores of audiophiles who willingly choose to listen to headphones and ear buds on everything from a portable player like the Astell & Kerns Steven so generously sent me, to purpose built, headphone only home based audio systems. And I'm also sure they employ the same amount of pleasure and musical excellence as do I on my home based system.
Once again, thanks to Steven for sending me this little player. I have every intent to further its use and who knows, maybe sometime soon I'll be waxing poetically (as much as I am able to do so) about the wonderful attributes of headphones and ear buds. At the very least, air travel probably got a little easier.