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What's the best portable sound you have heard?


Phil Bishop
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Although I love my home set up, family life dictates I don't get to listen to it as much as I would like (competing TV, etc). However, the world of computer audio has opened up the world of the ipod!

 

I am on a bit of a mission to discover the best portable sound. I currently have an ipod Nano 4th Generation feeding Grado SR60 headphones via a Graham Slee headphone amp. This sounds pretty darn good. In fact, I hear things I have not heard before and it can project sounds outside the phones in a way I don't experience from my home set up. It also still fits the bill of "portable" although I could not really jog with it - walking is fine, although the phones make me look like Radar out of MASH.

 

.....but can the sound get better still? I have just ordered a Headroom Total Airhead headphone amp from the US - super value. Will it compete with the Graham Slee? It will be interesting. I never was really satisfied with ipod sound without a headphone amp and such an amp allows one to use serious phones.

 

Has anyone else gone down this route. I would be interested to hear from anyone who has found the holy grail of portable sound. Do any ipods, etc, have a digital output allowing one to use an outboard DAC such as the Headroom Total Bithead?

 

Phil

 

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I don't think the Airhead will be as good as the Graham Slee, but if you're talking about "transportable" as opposed to portable, you can do better than the Grados. Well, let me qualify that. The Grados are famous for their forward midrange and are reportedly a great "rock headphone." If tha'ts the sort of thing you like, cool. If you want a more refined, neutral, expansive sound, they're not too hard to beat. For something very efficient, that will run well off of a low current (almost all portables) amp, the Denon D-2000 is a great listen. A little bass-heavy, but otherwise excellent. If "transportable" means something you could carry, with the phones, in a small bag, but would need to plug in at your destination, there are quite a few small headphone amps (some with good integrated DACs) that can very effectively drive a pair of Sennheiser HD-600s.

 

Now we're talking seriously good sound.

 

Even a good portable will drive the 600s plenty loud enough, but you'll lose a bit of bass control.

 

Digital out of an iPod? only in a cradle-style unit. There's just one out that I'm aware of. It's too expensive. You can bi-pass the iPod's amp, however, with a simple cord.

 

Looking for REALLY portable? Get some great ear canal headphones with a low enough impedance to plug right into your iPod. Shures. Etymotics. Klispch. Something like that. You'll be shocked how much better they sound than the best earbuds. Just don't go jogging in traffic with them, as you won't hear that crazy driver headed for you.

 

One last thing, though: The portability thing, IMO, misses the point of headphone listening, which is isolation, emersion, concentrated listening. A small headphone rig in a den or home office, with a computer and hard drive full of lossless files, a good DAC, a good amp and a pair of reference cans is a thing of beauty.

 

Tim

 

I confess. I\'m an audiophool.

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I have a Total Airhead that I use with Ultimate Ears Fi3s and Head Direct RE1s. My Total Airhead sounds very nice after it has warmed up, which sadly takes 20 minutes or so. It's a little hissy with low impedance 'phones, but it's quite musical.

 

Mind you, mine's a couple of years old and Headroom updates its models pretty often.

 

A buddy of mine who travels a lot more than I do, and thus cares a lot more about his iPod, is using a Ray Samuels Tomahawk to drive UE 11s. The Tomahawk is tiny - think the size of one of those little packs of matches they give away at restaurants - and sounds fantastic, easily besting my Total Airhead or my friend's Headroom Mini (which isn't very mini at all), and a lot of other amps I've heard.

 

I can't comment on his UE 11s, as they are ear mold devices. I can't listen to his and I'm not a thousand dollars worth of curious, but between the two of us we've listened to just about every non-ear-mold in-ear monitor on the market. He claims the UE 11s trump every one we've both heard and are definitely worth the bug bucks.

 

At CanJam this year I took a quick listen to most of the non-ear-mold in-ears there. What really struck me was how different they all sound. (To my ears. And then everybody's ears are different, not to mention their tastes) The other surprise was that I did NOT hear an incremental improvement as you climbed the price points in any given line. In Ultimate Ears, for example, I didn't hear anything in the non-ear mold line I liked better than my Fi3s. I was very impressed by the next-to-top-of-line Shures, but the most expensive ones left me cold.

 

This is tough shopping. Amps you can at least try with your own 'phones. And you can listen to advice of the "I like amp A with cans B better than amp C with cans B" kind. And I've heard a bunch that I like. The little cans themselves are real tricky. Each one sounds so different to each person that unless you've tried a bunch of them in common with somebody and really know their tastes and abilties, their experience won't help you much. And then there's the matter of how the heck you try ear mold monitors without actually buying them.

 

Asking around on HeadFi is probably a good idea. Nobody there has your ears, but somebody there has tried every piece of can goods in the universe.

 

Good luck,

 

-Carl

 

 

 

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Very interesting advice chaps, thanks. Just to be clear about my current mission, it is to discover a truly great portable system and what I mean is portable such that you can listen to it on the move, in my case walking. With my current system, I have my ipod and headphone amp in a rear pocket of a lightweight vest and this works really well - in a front pocket you notice it, in a back pocket you don't. Tim - I do have the ipod connected via the line out to the headphone amp, bypassing the ipod volume control.

 

I have heard a lot of mention of the "in ear" phones and particularly UE's, shures, etc. A while ago Sennheiser CX300's were mentioned to me as a great entry level. I tried them - HORRIBLE! Everything that I always envisaged as the worst with regard to portable sound - harsh, tinny, aggressive - YUK! And the damn things would not stay in. This may have clouded my view of the in ear types.

 

The Ray Sammuels sounds interesting as do the Denon cans - must investigate!

 

Phil

 

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- harsh, tinny, aggressive - YUK! And the damn things would not stay in.

 

A bit more vivid than my description, but I think we're hearing more or less the same thing. As one rep rather candidly put it, "the 'smiley face' response curve". Sound so agressive you'd be afraid that if you lost them, they'd go off and invade a third world country or something. But then sometimes the next model in the same line sounds great. There's no telling.

 

And there's the matter of if you don't get a good seal you don't get good bass. That makes tips and flanges a challenge in their own right.

 

I should have mentioned that I use Comply tips on the Head Directs, althought the Head Direct multi-flange works pretty well in my ears, too. I've not quite ever arrived at a non-annoying tip set up for the Ulimate Ears. YECMV (Your ear canals may vary)

 

-Carl

 

 

 

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Dear Phil,

 

The reason your CX300's sound tinny and keep falling out is that you have the incorrect rubber flange size for your ear! Get it right, the buds will stay put and the sound will be right!

 

CX 300's do NOT sound tinny. If any thing they err on the warm side.

 

Don't throw them away!

 

baxtus

 

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Thanks chaps, perhaps I am being a bit harsh (excuse the pun) on the Senns - everyone else seems to like them! Anyway, I do not need to throw them away - my daughter lost them.....and I won't be buying any more.

 

To be honest, I don't think the earbuds that come with ipods are that bad.

 

Interested to hear your ideas about computer output to headphones Tim. My Macbook output direct to Grados or via Graham Slee to headphones sounds worse to me than using an ipod as a source - not sure why this is? There are a few headphone amps with built in DAC (Ray Sammuels) - any views/experience with these?

 

Update...the Headroom Total Airhead arrived this morning - incredible service! The Graham Slee took a month (owing to parts shortage) within UK, the Airhead took 36 hours from the US! I will be posting my thoughts on a comparison in due course - the Airhead is less than half the price of the Graham Slee.

 

Phil

 

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Folks,

 

Over the weekend I looked in a bit more detail at sites like headfi, etc. I was amazed at the amount of portable headphone amps out there, designed for ipod/MP3/computer use, some very expensive and professional (Ray Sammuels, for example), some cottage industry made in sweet tins and sold via ebay (CMOY design, or something like that! There is only one that is made and marketed in the UK as far as I am aware - the Graham Slee.

 

Has anyone any experience of the really good ones or any recommendations - has anyone found the cheapo home made ones are just as good?

 

Phil

 

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If ultimate sound is what you want, you should look into a portable unit here:

 

http://flac.sourceforge.net/links.html#hardware

 

I would say the 225 cans are the biggest I would use in public.

 

I don't know much about these portables since audio quality is not important to me when I am on the run.

I picked my fave eq on my mp3 player and have been happy with earbuds.

 

--[br]tom[br]dell - mediamonkey - grado

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>Has anyone any experience of the really good ones or any recommendations -

>has anyone found the cheapo home made ones are just as good?

 

I'd love to hear an answer to this, too. I've been thinking (somewhat idly) of building a CMOY. It's not like it's a major undertaking, but it's not like I've got too much free time on my hands, either. If they really sound good, at thirty bucks worth of parts and an Altoids tin, how can you go wrong? Even if you already have a nice amp, it would be fun......

 

-Carl

 

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Carl,

 

There are plenty of folk who make CMOYs on ebay and sell them for probably not much more than the parts cost. I am tempted, but also wary of ending up with a lot of cheap stuff, when I could put it all towards just one quality amp, such as a Ray Samuels.

 

Phil

 

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"If ultimate sound is what you want, you should look into a portable unit here:"

 

I'm not sure I'd take that as an ultimate sound resource. It looks like a simple listing of all things FLAC, and while there is some really good gear there, there are also a few items that barely qualify as hi-fi, much less high end. Caveat emptor and all that.

 

Tim

 

I confess. I\'m an audiophool.

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Tim, agreed. I was more looking for what set ups people use that they can thoroughly recommend and I have picked up some useful info from this site and others. Basically, playing lossless via the ipod line out socket is the most common source and the Sennheiser HD series seem to feature prominently as headphones. Then it is down to the portable amps and I have been amazed at what an industry this appears to be in the States with a huge amount of choice, whereas there is only one manufacturer (Graham Slee) that makes such a product in the UK.

 

I was trialing a Headroom Airhead and thought it sounded pretty good, but then I tried to charge it and it fried it! The instructions said chargers should be >200 mA so I tried the 500 mA charger that came with my Graham Slee. I am talking to Headroom at the moment about this and hopefully they will replace - they appear to be a good company.

 

Phil

 

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