Friday, March 23, 2007

Putting my head into a speaker

This has been my quest: to hear as I always thought I should the thousands of songs I love. As faithful readers (e.g. Layne and ???) know, I posted about my search for IEM's (inner-ear monitors, not earbuds, darn it) which did not break the bank. Ultimate Ears, as their website shows, has Gwen Stefani, Sinéad O'Connor, and Chili Peppers among their satisfied rock star clients; UE used to make only custom-fitted earpieces that require a visit to whatever an ear specialist is called in Latin and not "eye, ear, nose & throat" doctor. They also require this for their top-of-the-line set for us plebes sold for a thousand bucks. Wetware is the next frontier: tapping into your tissue, your neural network, and running outside electronics along our inner electric network. Can't hardly wait.

UE's recently out with a triple speaker set-up in a wee boxy container that sticks-- way out even for me of big pop-out Irish ears tormented childhood ("Murphy Mouse" my heretofore unrevealed nickname not by choice circa junior high)-- in your ear and hooks in the back of the ears with little twisty bits at the top of the cable for the phones. I could only afford the double set-up, that with a significant discount (which Leo demanded back in other ways from that AmEx bar mitzvah card that had to be used by, hey, this month of March; AmEx charges you when you apply the "gift" card to pay a fee for the privilege of about 4%. G-d d-mned bankers.) and then a "B-stock" reduced pair from the experts (there are legion as Head-Fi list online will reveal; some happy hobbyists keep tallies of their earphoned, amped, cabled, IEM'd, MP3 player, car player, and less commonly IPodded) obsession in $$$, in the thousands if not the tens of yet) pursuit of the lost accurately produced chord.

IEMs from UE aren't pretty. On stage, said stars can have one on and tuck it so their hair or scarf or wig or hoodie covers it up somewhat. But take it as I do into the subway station or on the bus and those Bose-deluded sound-suppressing yuppies and hipsters look at me askance, not to mention the white-corded Apple hordes. Little do they know as do I with tremendous, placebo-like, self-justifying research that I hear better than they do my sound files, and keep my hearing safe at lower volumes. Further in the ear means you isolate more sounds you do not want and substitute them with those desired.

With the Bose-type set-up, made for aircraft (you apparently, sigh, get them on Lufthansa in first class) pilots originally, white noise is generated, suction created inside the "cans," but the outside noise is not really cut off, only that the inside noise via the cord is sent in to battle it out inside the 'phones and presumably triumph! We like our Bose radio- CD player (but white shows stains and smudges almost as bad as the mud from five years ago in my backseats from the kids coming back from Tom Sawyer camp and now, as of last week, the corned beef juice/ grease --sorry, L.-- seeping out from the pans I had to carry to L's work for the St. Pat's traditional lunch) but those in the know, snobs and those with disposable income, rate its products consistently low compared to many others far cheaper. The Corgi ate the remote to the Bose, and why the player did not have a little slot to keep the remote control safe on the player is beyond me. An obvious oversight.

Back to UE IEM 5s: as with all their products, it looks like Spock-wear, some audiophiles say, but it manages to shove a rubber-tipped (cf. Can's song; Damo Suzuki or is it Malcolm Mooney singing for all of a vinyl side it seems "Then I saw Mushroom Head") toadstoolish capped speaker with a tweeter and woofer (I guess) into my ears as a musical earplug of sorts. I can report that the debated "burn-in" does happen after a couple of hundred hours of use. Cables arguably need a break-in period to adapt their capacity to the frequencies and levels carried through all those braided tiny wires, and I felt, after having bought them around Thanksgiving, that in mid-February there was a significant improvement in spaciousness. This separation effect, the soundstage, is enhanced by my little headphone amp made by a diligent and kind engineer, Gary Ali, in Toronto. I run the iPod signal not directly to the headphone but via the amp, about the size of a pack of mints, so the sound gets boosted better than it could from the reduced circuitry crammed inside the Pod.

You forget-- my early ambition of a ham radio license was never realized due to my poverty, but shortwave radio delighted me and I would read stacks of books in electronics in junior high! So, my interest in sound returns, and teaching where I do keeps me vaguely aware of the necessities of design and implementation of devices to plug-in or charge off of. Today, from Hans Oosterwaal in Holland, his "Qables" home-made connector arrived. A step up again. I will explain. This bypasses the headphone jack of the iPod as-- predictably-- audiophiles realized that the sound is compromised again with the small space and the comparatively large space taken up by the jack. That's about all I can figure out. Why not go in and pimp the jack? One fellow does this for $200 and calls it iModding. It, combined with a line-out dock connector cable, is apparently the bees' knees. Someday when L. makes me rich.

My rig (as they are called) is bargain basement and almost embarrassing to tell of if I could have posted, as I tried, on Head-Fi for cable advice. But I can only read posts, and my signing on is there but I cannot post; e-mails to the head Head-Fi'er never received any reply, puzzlingly. Neither did one to an orthographically challenged fellow named "K" (I don't want to grace his full name so to deny him a Google hit) and his on-line business of making fancy dock connectors and cables for headphones and mini-to-mini and for motorcyclists and their Pods (a whole sub-category). He lists at his site a Head-Fi thread singing his praises, and it was him or Hans. Qables also received acclaim, much from Europe as would make sense> Still, when I noticed that H. charged a bit less for international shipping than K. did domestically, I figured H. was a fair man. Both of them had been dissatisfied with what was out there, and like Cardos or I suppose Harmon or Bang, built better soundtraps. I sent them both the invitation to help me out and offer them my hoarded cash. One did, the other didn't.

Did you know cable for linking your ears to speakers, small ones you wear and not some Bang & Olufsen or Harmon-Kardon (as in Jane Harmon's tycoon husband, JH quondam rival to Pelosi in Congress once before her capitulation to Madame Speaker, herself too funded by her zillionaire husband in turn) stack from the 80s, can run near a thousand dollars? Cardos is one such line, and obviously Mr. C. has a great love for his craft. The intriguing aspect is that in my own efforts to improve my commute, beginning with the kind inheritance of L's unused iPod (but she will get a far better one, stocked with personally selected tunes, from gracious Bob and genial Chris soon as a jubilee gift) , I block out the homeless mutterers if not their fragrance, the cellphone chatterers, the laughing ninnies, the jabbering schoolkids, and the annoying bilingual blare of each stop and all of the noise of the stops and starts, well, nearly. Estimate 70% or more depending on proximity, duh, of said sonic disruption? The worst is the female voice speaking the Spanish no fumar etc spiel. Braying, mush-mouthed, pushy, clipped oddly on last letters.

Whew. Tangent. If "K" did not even bother to respond to my well-organized, carefully detailed explanation of my specific needs for a dock cable, how can he run his on-line business? I guess some Harley owners keep him solvent. Thanks for nothing, and proofread your poorly composed page while you're at it.

Hans, contrarily, was a true Dutch gentleman. We exchanged half-a-dozen e-mails as he gave me advice and suggested the best cable for my purposes within a limited budget. Yes, L., I am at the bottom rung, be assured, if above an Apple earbud. Ten days after he sent it, here I sit and listen. It'll be a while to burn-in, but I did find after ninety minutes so far in its maiden journey joining 4th generation iPod 30 GB to Pocket Amp PA2V2 via Ultimate Ears IEM SF5's that it makes a difference. No, I am not imagining it. My far from favorite song but one I use as a test is "Paperback Writer" by the Beatles. It has near the end the sounds faintly heard of the inhaling of breath by John or is it the Walrus. I have tried this out with each successive set-up, and trying it on the Qables custom cable (not the top-of-the-line Silvercab he makes as it is too fragile for portability-- one day, Hans, when I get my home stereo, ok?) I did hear a bit of an earlier (about thirty seconds from the conclusion) intake of one Liverpudilian's probably chemically enhanced in-spiration.

I also heard the dreaded "floor" of the soundscape revealed. One more reason for flash drives to takeover the hard spinning turntables in the Pod. Why can't we all get 30 or 40 gigs on a flash? Then all would be the size not of even a Nano but perhaps a Shuffle. Want a postage-stamp sized screen? Like stylii and Treo keyboards, tech gets smaller but our eyes (and fingers) need larger. At least until we evolve in a half-million years into small digited droids. The iPod's hard disk's chugging between songs is now very audible! Click, click, click. Thus is rendered the closest I have stumbled on my beer budget aspiring to champagne. I wonder: what would a thousand dollar IEM, same priced cable, amp half that truly reveal? {Update 3/30: since the maiden voyage, next to my computer, this click-click has not returned. I tried with both my Radio Shack cans, which do sound great with Qable Kustomized dock connector too, and the IEMs, and no clicks with the iPod on batteries.}

Even the lowest circle that I am at in the sonic stratosphere beats the red transistor radio I found in the garage purge: when I was almost twelve, in Boy Scouts near Palm Springs, listening on it with the one rubber plug in my ear to "Little Willy" by the Sweet. Be careful what you wish for? I have now entered the sanctum sanctorum, and have paid attention to the man behind the curtain, I have now heard the mechanism under the music. Talk about accurate reproduction! A sobering price to pay for an investment in and a pledge made to fidelity-- isn't that the consequence of a serious commitment?

But, as with matrimony, I will adjust to my new partner. With what my spouse dubs my "wife- cancellers," (wait until she gets her rig) on I went to songs from The Loud Family's last 2 CD's "Days for Days" and "Attractive Nuisance." These intricately arranged pop-gone-bent creations grow on me more and more. They are produced not by former producer Mitch Easter (who seems to have wooed away the band leader's wife) but Scott Miller himself, and he learned well at the foot of the master over LF and its predecessor Game Theory's total of seven albums from about 1986-1994. I could hear him and his backing vocalist Alison Faith Levy with more "roundness" in their quirky voices, and the soundstage proved not so much more precise as it did defined by volume in the geometrical sense. The insistence of the drums, jangle guitar, rootedness of the bass: these all gain groundedness. Plectrums on strings, shimmers of snares, the bass drum pedal, the feedback rustle, overlapping collisions of sounds finally placed beside and not atop one another, volume shifts, and again the buzz of the beat. Such are what's in a similar song playing now: The Moles, "Breathe Me In." I wish leader Richard Davies had not wimped out with the overrated Cardinal alongside Eric Matthews; he could have worked perfectly with Scott Miller (better than Anton Barbeau who's not untalented but on their recent collaboration AB's too much imitating his master's voice IMHO.)

A couple more trials from the ultimate record, my own Sgt. Pepper (which is incredibly hyped and is not represented even on my iPod; "Murmur" too is missing there two or three of its wussier forays, but I still prefer the first LP to "Reckoning" against critical assertions of my professional fourth estate and, curses, at least one grad student peer widely published and now tenured rock-as-cultural-movement and not just music, maaaan, professoriate) for me: "Pilgrimage," R.E.M. This shows the connection of the dock indeed-- at quieter moments, as on the train when songs end, the background, so to speak, revives. I hear the tambourine much more. Mike Mills' supporting vocals ease their shrillness. "Moral Kiosk" followed, so it too. More of a sluggish, hefty song than the vast emptiness of its predecessor. Thumps a lot, but now you pick out the bits of guitar strum in the half-seconds that otherwise get drowned out by the vocal and main thrust of the song. That bass-drum rhythm section is often underappreciated in R.E.M., but the deep bass that PiL tried on its early records as well as Easter & Don Dixon on "Murmur" gets depth without getting doomy or too thick. Bill Berry in a Rolling Stone review I somehow remember from when "Life's Rich Pageant" came out and I read it in the parking lot of the 7-11 in Alhambra across from Sears on Fremont was dissed for his poor drumming, but the nuances, if they could have been heard by that critic in 1985, might have resulted in a fairer evaluation. Even that jumbled album, by the way, has improved with time.

Ok, one more, the one that sounds like Laacoon and his ("her two"?) sons, "Laughing." Good challenge for the combined light guitar and the heavier bass-drums under the more wistful vocal. Again, the bass pedal, with more air whooshing around it. The pressure of the air around the drums somehow sounds present. Mills sounds more grainy in his back-up, more throaty. Peter Buck's guitar fools about on a bridge near the final chorus and you catch the noodling. "Catapult" shares with "Pilgrimage" a similar setting, but the folkier guitar and harmonized vocals stress a louder-softer balance. Not as much new in this song to my ears but tinier percussion glints and shines off of the sides as its echoes can be discerned. Lots of supporting taps on something sharpish. The strum and what sounds like a piano (those taps: maybe keys?) comes out possibly a first for me. "Sitting Still" is to me more emotional. The guitar hurries more and the song hustles insistently with that wonderful chord shuffle. The drums still keep the change I notice today: they are placed more centrally to support the other musicians and the voices. Stipe sounds more restrained, and the music is not as precise; a more muffled song?

A more middling song, "West of the Fields," expresses similar improvement, but as it does not sparkle as a song, and gets mumbly and rather ho-hum, there's not as much to write blog home about. But the layered vocals stack nicely two-thirds of the song in, and the underlying guitar fills added and the end of the backing vocals that staggers with the main voice emerges.

Back (I had to listen to "We Walk": why do I have that on my iPod? Eek-- "Perfect Circle" remains extant too) to "Radio Free Europe." Same: drums displace air, insistence of melody, click of high-hats sharpens metalically and underneath it can be heard better the steel-strung guitar picking. In vocals, I cannot make out a difference in Stipe's singing. Possibly it's the instruments that convey better now? Ah, but wait until that burn-in, John Michael S.!

And this at the standard Apple 128 kb AAF encoding. What in the world do those songs sound like at 256 or Lossy (jargon necessary)? I tried a few songs at Lossy and on the headphone jack set-up noticed NO difference. But, I will put a few back on the docked iPod and dutifully report again.

P.S. The following day, I tested the Qable with my $50 Koss-Radio Shack cans, and guess what? Sounded great too, but no click heard from the iPod! I guess the cans are sensitive enough to create the enhanced soundscape, but lack the range to transmit the soundfloor's hard drive support. Another reason for flash drive hegemony and capitalist- driven price drops.

Note to myself: I have to scrutinize the LF keyboards more-- my typing as I listened necessarily lessened my total immersion the past two-and-a-half hours! I have to stop now or I will be typing all night. It's getting cold in the basement---so, trail mix snack time.

Overall, how do I justify my time and money investment today explored? I "feel" the rush more, closer to the Platonic childhood dream. Yeah, that one: pushing your ears into a woofer and tweeter past the flimsy fabric screen into the cone. Implosion. To think that the enormous bookcase speakers of the 80s have come to a few ounces, and all of a half-ounce in my ears themselves. Giving a final exam in a physics lab last month, I had my iPod in my backpack, so I weighed it and the IEMs. In the name of acoustic science, I submit my findings and bow out now. {3/30 update: spouse sniffs on her blog: could Himself have gotten any more masturbatory about his wife-cancelers? I sniff back, preferring to regard myself as increasing my audio-critical acumen.}

Lest you call me a heedless hedonist: bowing, may I tip my untonsured, unrazored, head to Philip Groening's documentary, 2'45" on the Carthusian monastery La Grande Chartreuse, "In Great Silence," again. I would have seen-- a second time happily after I saw its premiere on the West Coast a year ago-- it in Pasadena today, but its two-week arthouse run came to a close yesterday. I had set aside time today to see it, and I am disappointed it lasted so brief a time, but I await the DVD although it cannot do justice to its cinematography or the sound it captures which you only realize over time-- and plenty of it here-- is the whoosh of snowflakes falling.

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