Tuesday, November 28, 2006

Theodicy, Space & Time, God & the lack of, Headphones

Teaching a curious poem about the immensity of space and how by thinking about the universe we can encompass it within the confines of our little mind/brain, by Emily Dickinson last week, I mused to my students my own recent reading on cosmology. I told them that I had always wondered about how large the universe was, as we know how old it is: 13.7 billion years. Turns out it is between 45 and 70 billion light-years across, which either exhilarates or depresses me. And, it is expanding and will apparently continue to do so, until nothing remains but dead stars and then even space and time will collapse into nothing. The universe and therefore time and space itself began in the Big Bang all at once, everywhere: another concept that is beyond comprehension.
Niall and I talked the other night about the book I am reading that looks superficial, but is actually once you get past the conceit (in the literary meaning) an intelligent meditation by a classmate of Bono and the U2 boys. (I just reviewed it today for Amazon along with Gerard Donovan's new novel Julius Winsor; more of him and the book anon) Their school had only been founded a year before they attended, and was the first secondary one in Dublin to be non-sectarian. So, it tended to attract the nominally Protestant and non-Irish born students; many do not know that 3/4 (at least!) of U2 is from non-Catholic backgrounds and that 3/4 were born outside of Ireland, as was the author.
The author, Neil McCormick, himself had dreams of rock stardom, and he ponders how from the age of fifteen on his classmates somehow had what it took to become successful, the spark that some artists have and most do not-- as he despite years of struggle in the music business could not achieve. He wound up being a rock journalist, on coke, and talking every so often to Bono as the latter became world-famous about their divergent paths. The fact that all these folks are the same age within a year as me (the third book in a row that I have read with an author so near my own birth year) only makes the happenings more intriguing. McCormick, as an atheist, also ponders often how Bono, who Neil knows to be intelligent, can believe in God and Jesus so confidently. He was the first reporter to "out" to the wider music journal readership back around 1980 that 3/4 of U2 are charismatic Christians. The conversations Neil & Bono have (so far at least) fail to convince each other of the other's position, but they do make for a more thoughtful little book than I would have supposed.
This fits into my own musings of late. I wonder how anyone can claim theodicy-- "god + telling" or claiming to know what any force greater than us wants us or requires us or threatens us or impels us to do. If a distant, inexorable, ancient force creates tsunamis and deformed babies and smallpox and comets that annihilate planets, if we manage to escape such calamities, is this merely the luck of our cosmic draw? Not that my questions are new. I suppose all of us must muddle through our small role and never get these queries solved.
Where our little concerns fit in seems pretty inconsequential: a picture in today's paper showed one politician in Ecuador praying with hands clasped for the demise of his opponent.
Warning: why I wrote for an hour the following I do not know. It just seemed like a new learning adventure that taught me, at my advanced age, that there is still much to discover.
You do not have to read it, as it is all about headphones.
Speaking of space and time on a diminished scale, I did take the plunge and at last order headphones: IEM's (in-ear monitors) to be specific. The level of investigation may seem ludicrous, but many others among those reviewers pro and amateur that I read had done exhaustive research themselves. and much trial and error. Although I had thought I would not want to put anything in my ears, the advantages of noise isolation (which differ from noise cancellation: the Bose-types generate white noise within the phones to counter outside noise). They do not stop outside noise, but filter out low-- thus the airplane origins and applications-- frequencies while only dulling medium and high ones. Thus, the human voices--especially female ones as many users have noted in my explorations of hundreds of reviews on Amazon, CNet (n.b.: a very good place for electronic ratings by experts as well as real people), and specialty headphone sites-- tend to naggingly persist. The noise-cancellers must also create a suction on your ears so as to generate a space in which the good music and bad external noises can battle it out that most people get used to but some hate. Apparently the majority assert that compared to other phones, the Bose are about 60-70% overpriced and lack sonic fidelity when it comes to the music for the price charged. They also are flimsier than I would have expected, I guess to save in weight. The Bose firm apparently is quite nice to deal with, but their products enjoy more of a snob than audiophile appeal (did you know they hand out Bose for in-flight comfort to the favored few?). I read about their lower-priced but nearly equal in quality competitors and nearly went for the best one, but that brand-- once made in Ireland but now in China, see?-- had persistent reports of breakage and lack of durability. So, I then went to expert 'phone sites to find out about others.
The use of a low-power iPod means that you need to match what it can drive out in power to the speakers that it can realistically run well, as it lacks the clout of a real stereo obviously. Many good 'phones are better driven with stereos than puny little players, and these latter can reveal the lack of fidelity of iPods since they reproduce the musical sounds so much better! I read more and a cult brand that lots of folks like (in case you at work ever need inexpensive--that is, under $75 but above $40-- but dj-quality sets for monitoring) is AKG.
Still, the lack of sound suppression even from the best over-the-ear sets seemed a problem, as my purpose was to use them to not only listen to music but shut out noise on bus & subway. The AKGs would work well, it seemed, and are ideal for iPods and the like. But I wondered if they would really shut out the city noise. Many on-the-go users of the Bose-type noise-cancelling and/or other IEM isolation sets remarked how their air travel or rattling commute on the ground left them so much more relaxed due to the lack of noise tension that apparently we all resist subconsciously and that wears us out without our realization.
So, trying more to match the capabilities of the iPod's battery power with the drive that it takes to push a decent set of 'phones to create sound worth hearing, the needs for small sets that would not be bulky but could hold up to daily use, and that gave the listener --concept of the day: ohms of impedance-- the best sounding re-creation of sound that the iPod system with all its limitations could reproduce, I figured out another solution.
A couple of IEMers had before suffered poor hearing. It sounds contradictory that they would then stick something in their ears. But, the better the fit, they explained, the less the volume needed to hear the music, for the phones are no longer cranked up to drown out the outside sounds. Therefore, the lower volume saves the ears, reduces battery consumption, and prevents fatigue or damage. The sounds diminish much more when the ear itself is sealed rather than a space around the ear, so more details can be heard at a less distorted level.
So, the IEMs emerged as a better alternative for commuting. Small, light (half an ounce!), and the better ones had a variety of sized pads of foam and rubber to mix and match to get the best fit seal for the ear. This is the standard bud problem: one size hurts many ears. I calculated how much the Bose were, and figured I could cut that by half and get very good, if not audiophile, IEM 'phones that far outperformed bigger over-the-ear sets. The reviews, after I had spent a few hours searching about, consistently favored Ultimate Ears. They make on-stage in-ear monitors for musicians and dj's. Until recently, they only made custom-fitted pieces that you needed an audiologist to fit, and these run a thousand bucks. Apparently these plug in to "wetware," your own nervous system, to transmit the sounds and conduct frequencies, so aligned they are with the technology! I can only imagine what that'd be like.
UE was also praised for customer service (as is Bose), and it is instructive to note, as these companies should figure out if they read the customers' posts on Amazon and the techie sites, how the slightest nice or mean comment or action will reverberate much more on the net than word-of-mouth could have ever done for the reputation of imperious or accomodating firms. UE has a two-year warranty. Once I had narrowed my search to a few IEM brands, I looked more at UE. Leo might like to know they have booths at the Vans Warped tours.
On the site of a great Montana vendor and maker of headphone amps (another arcane category for audiophiles upgrading their little iPods and the like to sound more like Bang & Olafsons, apparently), I learned more. Headphone.com has a very helpful site Head Room all about what you stick in or around your ears. I was surprised when I had looked up Bose prices on the web (as the ads do not say). Similarly, the IEMs ran hundreds of bucks, from cheap $5 ones to $1000; as with Bose, quality headphones are made by firms that catered initially to the high-end studio and dj crowds and only lately to the unwashed masses.
Still, as the Bose ran $300-350 depending on the model with no discounts anywhere, and since the majority after hours of my research warned that better sets could be found for 60% cheaper, I took heart. The UE brand I found had nearly everyone (28: 29 on one site; 39: 40 on another) saying better things than worse about them, and they were arguably (techies insisting that you get what you pay for and if you pay $$$ for CDs and iPods than get a quality set to hear them on) a bit cheaper than the audiophilish competition (but not at that Everest of a thousand bucks, which has tempted some UE users to work towards as the personalized grail of all IEMs). Two drivers in each ear-set rather than one, sounds that most users who knew of such heights claimed rivalled sets of $500. The reviews kept picking these as the best in the price range for fidelity, and that they were much easier to put in and take out since they did not sit so far inside the canal. They do stick out more; one reviewer compared them to Lt Uhuru of Star Trek's piece, but this means they also can be better aligned by one's fingers. Apparently pressure does expand as in an earplug, but not as dramatically as the suction of noise-cancelling and/or over-the-ear "supra-aural" ones. Since your body transmits more of the sound rather than a source more distant from your ear, the volume lowers while the nuances increase, as the ear has to strain less to hear the sounds that are transmitted into it. Therefore these IEMs isolate musical or vocal sounds in the ear rather than cancel competing ones from trains, planes, dogs, babies, females, and automobiles that are filtered through headphones along with the music. Many users, being male, note as a side benefit that they can no longer hear their mates. Had to mention this.
Then, I did the price comparisons. Nobody sold them under $175 or so. Too much it seemed. But the jump in performance above $150 or so in devices kept me from going lower. Then, I noticed that Head Room in small print under their reviews had some UE pairs on a separate part of the website that were discounted due to open boxes, etc. They promised that all of the earpads were new, however, and that the warranty applied.
For test purposes so I had comparisons, I took the inexpensive foam ones with me last Friday. They were lacking, of course. Then, the giant Radio Shack headphones perched on me today via bus and train. They did cover my ears boy did they ever. Geeky. Now I know why they are nicknamed by the cognoscenti as ''cans." But others I noticed on trains also wore the big ones, as well as the buds and the smaller in-between "on-the-ear" ones which rest on the ear rather than the supra-aurals that surround it totally: those on-the-ears are the third type of headphone by the way. I was curious how much sound was dampened in public by my behemoths. None really. The music played simply provided an intervening layer, or overlay, on top of the usual vocal and mechanical sounds. This surprised me, as I had figured if your ears were covered, if not totally sealed, that loud noise would truly diminish. But it was akin to when you talk louder to cover up someone talking near you, or playing your radio louder to drown out another's boom-box. I guess, as with cracks under doors or leaks from windowpanes, if a bit of the space is not totally sealed, then it in one manner of physics and sound is as if there is no window or door at all to block the sound, since you in your phones are placing your ears at the equivalent of the crack under the door, listening!
By the time I logged on today when I returned home, none of the 3 black "UE superfi.5 pros" were left but the white one still survived. It was $150. IPod white not my first choice rather than the subtler black, which was consistently $10-15 more from all vendors except Amazon for the identical model strangely. I called Bozeman MT up. Their voice mail said "if you want to talk to an actual human being press zero." Josh-- of course that was his name--still had the pair, and they will be here Fed-exed Friday from Montana.
I had recalled, nearly too late, that Leo had given me an Amex $100 gift card as part of his post-Bar Mitzvah expenses owed me for a plethora of purchases last winter. I remembered that the plastic benefactor accrued a charge of $2/month when it was not used after 12 months of purchase; additionally Amex charges a fee of $8 or so to use it, which they deduct from the total amount! All of this seemed rather greedy, and annoyed me. I figured I had better use what remained pretty soon. So, the phones that list for $250 (and many places sell them for such; the lowest as I said is around $175 on Amazon and at Head Room) after that card I estimate will wind up costing me about $157 with s/h minus the gift card amount of about $90 to come out around $70 for headphones worth around three times as much.
P.S. Why I spent so long on this who knows. I guess it is a record of my ability to get locked into a task, to find out quickly the entire range of knowledge accessible on an unfamiliar subject. Take it as a memorial, a cautionary tale, an obsession, a curio.