Monday, 17 October 2011

Musical Tastes

Some popular comments on Youtube:

1. Bieber is horrible, let's go dislike his videos !!1 <3
2. Why can't artistes these days be more original? This guy should be way more famous than Jonas Brothers!!!1
3. If this song was a carrot, it'd be a good carrot.

The general consensus is that modern pop artistes lack originality. And to a certain extent, I agree.

Compare these two videos:


Both videos feature artistes who were megahits in their 'era'. Some artistes like Justin Bieber, Miley Cyrus, Lil Wayne, T-Pain, aren't exactly liked by many. Pretty much all their songs revolve around money, drugs, women, etc but their individual talents made the song a little more unique than it was back in MJ's time. 

Compare these two videos:


Lots of modern songs re-use the same "chord progressions" in older songs. Nicki Minaj's Check it Out's tune is quite similar to the song Video Killed The Radio Star. End of Fashion's O Yeah is a straight up rip-off of The Pixies' Where Is My Mind (Fight Club 1999). For those who didn't know, Video Killed The Radio Star's music video was the first music video aired on MTV. 

This is just my personal opinion, but I think most mainstream hip-hop, RnB, rap singers are pretty unimaginative. While most songs (no matter the genre) focus on the same themes, I can't imagine a whole library of songs of the afore mentioned genre. Beats like ATCQ's Can I Kick It are hard to come by...
I suppose the main reason why artistes like Justin Bieber, Pitbull, T-Pain, etc are so popular is because of their "jam" factor. Me, I prefer songs that flow. But whatever others' musical tastes are, we should respect their opinions and stop all the copypasta nonsense on Youtube. 


Tuesday, 4 October 2011



I can think of many everyday items that need burn-in. In most cases, burn-in is just the process of getting used to the item. In some cases, the evidence of burn-in is quite obvious. Shoes getting more comfortable over time, leather wallets shaping up over time are just two very obvious examples. 

Back when I was younger I used to play with these Tamiya toy cars. One of my classmates told me of a trick that would "increase my car's top speed". What I had to do was keep the car running till the rechargeable batteries went flat. He called this "seasoning the engine".

Did the top speed of the toy car actually improve? At that time I thought it did, ever so slightly. 

How is any of this related to audio?

As of late, many lower end headphone reviews go like this: "these headphones sound like junk but run some music through them for 100-1000 hours and they'll change into terrific headphones worth twice as their selling price". How much truth is there in that statement?

First let me just say I'm not a huge believer of burning-in headphones. I think headphones sound the best the first few hours they're out of the box. The first thing I do after unboxing headphones is put them on my head and run some tracks through them. Some take this burn-in period so seriously that they immediately put their headphones through 100 hours of continuous pink noise. 

Testing burn-in

It is very difficult, if not impossible, to find out if burn-in significantly alters the sound of the headphones. This is due to the fact that to conduct a fair experiment, identical headphones are needed. Two headphone drivers are never identical.

Tyll Hertsens of Innerfidelity conducted an experiment. He put one pair of AKG K701 through roughly 1000 hours of burn-in and a new out of the box AKG Q701. He could tell apart the AKG K701 from the AKG Q701 in an improvised blind test but commented that the differences were very subtleMany burn-in skeptics argued that the experiment only showed that he could tell the two headphones apart and they are absolutely right. Unless they can make two absolutely identical headphones, then it's impossible to test burn-in. 

The point I'm trying to drive home here is that even if burn-in did alter the headphone's performance, the differences between new and headphones that have been burn-in'd are not night and day.

3 crazy stories about burn-in

1. USB cables sound better after hundreds of hours of transferring data.
2. Speaker cables' sonic characteristics change significantly over time.
3. Rechargeable batteries makes the amplifiers sound better after a few charging cycles.

Orly. Apparently some cables also need a settle down time after you move it. I have to admit I have not had much experience with speaker cables, but most audiophile claims are based on pseudoscience. 

Giant Killer headphones

Many reviewers look around for "giant killer" headphones. $30 headphones that can trump $150 headphones, $50 headphones that sound a little like flagship headphones, you get the idea. These reviewers then put a disclaimer note in their review: these need 100 hours of burn-in.

Those who don't have access to an audio shop to compare the cheaper headphones and the more expensive ones side by side get excited and sucked into the hype surrounding these headphones. They pull the trigger, buy the $30 headphones, find out that the headphones sound about as good as any other $30 headphone, question the reviewer and the reviewer tells them they need to put them through hundreds of hours of burn-in, or he tells them that they're an acquired taste, etc. 

I'm not saying that all giant-killer flavour of the month headphones blow, some like the Superlux line-up are pretty decent for their price. The Fostex T50RP and Grado SR60 are sub-100 headphones that have a lot of potential but the idea that headphones sound WAY more different after 100 hours of pink noise than when they were first unboxed is just the plain bull- that reviewers use to cover their butts when the angry mob starts gathering around. 

It would certainly be very interesting to conduct an experiment with two pairs of headphones that supposedly need 100 hours of burn-in to sound right. Run a pair through some pink noise and leave the other as it is. Afterwards, get someone to do a sighted listening test, have them identify which is the pair that is burned-in and then conduct a blind test, to see if they can identify which headphone is stock and which has been burned-in. If the difference is night and day, surely they can tell the two headphones apart easily.

File:Bathtub curve.svg

Protect your hearing, protect your headphones. Although I'm not a hardcore believer of headphone burn-in, it is always good to start off with a low volume level and then slowly increase it up to whatever you're comfortable with. Suddenly playing very loud music on a very old or unused pair of headphones might overwhelm the diaphragm. 

This form of safety burn-in is exercised in the industry.
Image on the right is the bathtub curve used in reliability engineering.

Monday, 3 October 2011

Now Playing

a short playlist of hip-hop songs.

  1. A Tribe Called Quest - Can I Kick It
  2. Timbaland - The Way I Are
  3. Madcon - Beggin
  4. Keri Hilson - Knock You Down
  5. David Guetta - Memories
  6. Kid Cudi - Day 'N' Nite 
  7. Kid Cudi - Erase Me
  8. Flo Rida - Club Can't Handle Me
220px-Step_Up_3D_Soundtrack.jpg (220×220)

Movie Soundtracks

The Step Up 3D soundtrack is pretty good. It sucks that most hip-hop/pop songs sound muffled though, including the tracks on Step Up 3D. The movie's pretty cool even though it's been drifting away from it's roots (Step Up 1, Step Up 2) and becoming more "mainstream".

Generation Kill is a very interesting movie series. The story is based on a reporter's account of his time with the Marines in the 2003 Iraq invasion. The acting is great. The soundtrack is pretty unique. The Marines are singing and rapping songs while they roll in their Humvees. It's definitely not the usual Hollywood action movie. 

Some good movie soundtracks...


Saturday, 1 October 2011

Playing music on your PC Part 2 (Amplifiers)

Amplifiers and external DAC

Amplifier: The primary function of an amplifier is to provide that extra voltage or current needed to drive your headphones. You should think about getting an amplifier when you need to turn up the volume on your music player more than 70% or if you have headphones that have really low impedance (<32ohms) or really high impedance (>100 ohms). 

DAC: Short for Digital to Analog Converter. What is does it change the bits of data in your PC to analog data (voltage, current, electric charge). Most PCs do not have dedicated sound cards. They use codecs. For more info on codecs check out this wiki

Output Impedance

Some amplifiers in the market measure very poorly. One very important specification you should look out for when looking for amps, is the amp's output impedance. The amplifier's output impedance should roughly be 1/8 of the impedance of your headphones. Some headphone amplifiers or headphone outs on amplifiers have very high output impedance. This may cause damping issues. 

The impedance value of headphones changes with frequency. The image on the right shows the impedance versus frequency graph of two headphones. 

If the output impedance of the amplifier is not close to zero, the voltage supplied to the headphone will also vary with different frequencies. This will in turn affect the frequency response of the headphone. It may smooth out the highs, etc. Under-damping might also cause the bass to sound boomy. If you want to keep the sound faithful to the frequency response graph, then you need an amplifier that has almost 0 output impedance. 

Unfortunately not many manufacturers publish the output impedance of the amplifier. 

Myth: Buying the highest impedance version of a certain headphone will reduce the noise floor and prevent the frequency response from changing. 

Explanation: Truthfully, I'm not too sure about the noise floor. I can't really discern any differences between a 250 ohm DT770 and 80 ohm DT770. Regarding the frequency response, like what I said above, it is best to get an amplifier with an output impedance of close to zero so that the headphones will remain faithful to it's FR curve at all frequencies*. A higher headphone impedance will allow for a higher amplifier output impedance though, so if you have an amp with a high output impedance (older amps) go for the highest they have to offer.

*Some of you readers might find all this a little contradicting. All this talk about remaining faithful to FR curve and equalising... Just to clarify, staying faithful to the FR curve is important because I'm an equaliser believer. If my headphones aren't true to their curves (colouration), then if I remove a component from my set-up that is causing the colouration, my EQ settings will be screwed. 

Onboard Audio

Plugging in an amplifier will not make the music sound any better if your onboard audio sounds like poop. The same goes for music players. Connecting an amplifier to a PSP will not make the music sound more refined. Amplifiers are for driving your headphones if you need to turn the volume up to get decent volume. To improve the quality of music reproduction, you need to get a better DAC. 

Older PCs definitely need an external sound card but newer PCs do not sound too bad. There's really no way to replace the onboard audio that is soldered onto your motherboard (in the case of most laptops) so getting an external DAC that connects via USB is the best way to bypass the onboard audio. 

This is a very subjective matter though. A $300 DAC will not dramatically make your music that much better. If you're the average joe listener who multitasks, you might not be able to hear the difference between laptop audio and an external DAC. But if you close your eyes, you'll definitely notice the differences. One of the biggest differences you'll notice between a good DAC and onboard audio is the noise level.  

In my (very little) experience, my laptop's onboard audio sounds congested and bloated at times. I had to use the equaliser at times to compensate for the bad sound quality. Even if you have very good headphones, a bad DAC and/or amplifier will ruin the set-up. There is a simple way to ensure that you get the best out of your PC. This method is done to achieve bit-perfect playback.

My belief is that try to keep everything lower in the chain as neutral as possible. Start with any headphone of choice, pick a decent DAC and an amplifier that has a neutral sound signature. The only thing to mess with then is the headphone itself and the EQ.

For those on Windows 7

Get foobar2000 if you haven't. 

Just installing foobar doesn't make the music sound any better but you can achieve bit-perfect playback by installing a simple plugin called WASAPI. This plugin prevents Windows from altering the sound and also disables all Windows beeps and alerts. If you've got foobar2000 on, you might not be able to hear music from Youtube music videos though. 

For those on Windows XP

Get ASIO4all here.

Fiio E7

The Fiio E7 is an amplifier and a DAC in one. It is roughly the size of an iPhone. I think Fiio did a great job with this product. It has a plexiglass cover on top, a display much like the one on the Sansa Clip+, a digital volume control, 2 headphone outputs, 1 USB input and 1 line input. 

The battery life on the Fiio E7 is rated at 80 hours and you can charge via USB and use it to replace your onboard audio at the same time. It can also drive my low impedance headphones (HD438 and SR60) to insane levels. It is also a fairly transparent amp which will make your headphone sound faithful to it's FR response curve due to it's very low output impedance. There are also reports from Fiio that 
                                                                             you can use the E7 with the OTG usb feature in some phones.

Fiio E10 

Unlike the Fiio E7, the E10 does not have a battery. It does have a better amplifier section. I like the volume pot and the overall look of the product. It's very sleek and is a nice addition to the Fiio line up. It is priced slightly lower than the E7.

I personally have not tried the E10 but according to the review on headfonia, the E10 has a lush midrange and it makes the bass sounds more full. The E10 also supports line out, coax and usb. It also has two gain options, high or low, depending on the headphones you are using. Very promising product. 

(photo credits to Headfonia)