The Saga of Headphones- Part II- Inner-Ear Buds

The next mission was to choose two new pairs of cans (headphones in slang); some buds for traveling and an open or semi-open one for indoors. This may well sound greedy, but as I had the amp, I thought I may as well use it to full in each situation. Inner-ear buds work by plugging into your ear with a rubber seal, reducing other sounds to mere murmurs. Despite having a freer sound, opened up headphones are the last thing you need for riding the train. Not only do they emit whatever you are listening to, probably annoying your fellow passengers, but they also let in all the rumbling noise of the train. Some people go so far as to get noise-canceling headphones for this. They analyse low-frequency noises around you and produce an equal and opposite one to them, essentially giving you a silent background- well, as silent as they can manage. The only trouble for now is that most of those models aren’t the best ‘phones, but the price is high, as you have to pay for the noise-canceling unit as well.

After a brief browse and a lucky find, I ended up getting Audio-Technica’s ATH-9, a new model still only in Japan. A quick check of online reviews was enough for me. I liked the fact that they boasted of having balanced drivers, as I wanted something more warm and ‘beautiful’ sounding. My Sharps are simply amazing in their deep levels of bass. But what they lack is everything else, which gets smothered in it, leaving vocals in a muddy swamp. The ATH-9s are a whole different story (note- this is all written after ‘burning them in’, i.e. having them running so they smooth over, for about 48 hours). Without the amp, they are a bit lacking in bass, which makes them hard to hear if there are train sounds around, but still good in quiet places- volume is certainly no problem. Amped, they get a much more lively sound, even more warm and full then they usually are- and I think this fullness comes from the presence of the mid-range.

They really helped me to appreciate my classical collection anew. Whilst listening to Mahler symphonies on the PC whilst writing, I could really feel the emotion of the music as it moves and changes. On my Sharps such pieces often ended up feeling boring and dark, but here they were full of vitality. Vocals really come to life, too. Going for walks with these in Hondoji, temple taking photos of the sakura, gave me the impression that the singer was right nearby, each word earnestly meant. They ‘open up’ the music, filling you with inspiration. One other thing that is remarkable is their soundstage. You don’t get the ‘closed in feeling’ that my Sharps have which sometimes made me a bit claustrophobic… but then again, you don’t get the deep, sub-sonic bass that trance or hip-hop music needs. They also seem to let in outside sounds a lot more, however I put them in my ears.

Overall, I’m very happy with my choice, as I can now enjoy the more delicate music wherever I am. I can feel it around me, not just casually listening to pass the time. Still, it feels a little strange to use these at home, as you are always conscious of them in your ears. Also, like trance, they don’t do much for heavy rock music (pop is a bit better). All this left me with a gap… a pair of over-head cans and the difficulty of choosing amongst them…

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