Tuesday, November 1, 2016

Headphone Quest

(aka, Adventures of 2 Channel Guy, Diving Head First Into the Head-Fi Deep End)

I recently started the process to compound my audio craziness with headphones.  I posted the experience on Head-Fi, which is one of the best communities for headphone people on the Internet. Replicating it here so I have an easy place to link to it to, but follow the link below if you want to see the discussion or (better still) participate in it.

October 30, 2016

Folks, as I’ve mentioned in a couple other posts, for the past couple weeks, me and a couple friends have been consumed with an extensive shoot out for ~12 mid to higher end headphones.

I tend to go through major audio upgrade waves every 10-15 years.  I last time I was serious about headphones was~15 years ago.  Back then I got my Etymotics and Sennheiser 580's and Meier Corda amp (as one did back in the day) and was then happy to be an occasional lurker on these forums, while I mainly listened to 2 channel audio on my home setup.

Having just bought a new house with a great listening space, I have just finished a major upgrade cycle on my home system (B&W 802d3's, Classe amp, Oppo HA-1, etc) and I have been spending way too much money (and not enough time) on awesome high def content.  I’m absolutely loving the new set up, and it has made me hungry for having this type of listening experience while I’m at work and (if possible) while traveling/mobile.

After reading way too much about how awesome modern headphones are, me and a bunch of friends decided to jump in and get together a small set of audition targets that we all could check out.  Since anything doing is worth overdoing, that list quickly turned into 10+, which turned into my dining room table being covered in cans and DAC/amps, with geek buddies hanging out 5-6 hours a night for over a week.

Fantastic learning experience and a hell of a lot of fun.  Here is a way too long documentation of our learnings/experiences/impressions (all from high end music lovers that have been 90% focus on 2 channel audio, and definite non-experts on headphones).  I hope it is helpful or at least interesting to others.

Thanks to everyone that contributes so much to these forums.



Headphone setup:
Mac Book Pro and Mac Mini, running latest OS X Sierra, content on local SSD
Audirvana Plus 2.5.4
Schiit Jotunheim DAC/Amp (primary for cans)
Single ended (mostly), native cables (nothing fancy)

My reference 2 channel setup:
Same content chain
Oppo HA-1 (primary DAC for 2 channel reference)
Classe 2300 amp
B&W 802d3’s

Here are my notes from my 2 channel process a year ago (for reference on what I key in on musically and sonically).


Almost 50 something, avid audiophile since high school (yeah I built my own subwoofer when I couldn’t afford anything more than bookshelf speakers), goes through major upgrade waves every 10-15 years or so.  I’m usually a 2 channel guy, but I’m so in love with the magic of the 802d3’s with high res content that I want the same at work and when traveling.  I’m looking for that headphone experience that can get me the “wow!” I get from my 2 channel setup, and my 0ld Skool Sennheiser 580s from 15 years ago just aren’t cutting it any more.

I really gravitate to tight, effortless, fast dynamics, with either balance across the range (I love that “standing behind the recording engineer at the sound board” feeling), or a “so real you can see the musicians” sound stage.

I was joined in this quest by several 40-60 something friends that were excited to spend a week of 5-6 hour evenings auditioning and (endlessly) arguing about headphones, music formats, DACs, and equalization.  I’ll pepper their experiences/impressions in below, but only where I think they were right ;)


My Go To Demo tracks and what I look for in each:

Murakkaz Ah Ya Muddasin, from “The Splendour of Al Andalus” by Calamus (MA Recordings, SACD)
Remarkable recording in what sounds to be a majestic and spiritual centuries old cathedral in Spain. With the right equipment, you are transported to a place you’ve never been to but always want to get back to.  When the full group joins in, it is profoundly challenging to reproduce the mids and highs without sounding shrill and congested.  When the reproduction is effortless, it is magical (to say the least…my jaw drops every time when it’s “right”)  If the sound chain is able to maintain that glorious soundstage, it is off the charts.

Royals, from “Pure Heroine” by Lorde (16/44.1 lossless)I auditioned this track on a lark when I was shopping for my 802d3’s.  When you have full bass extension, the balance in the mix is remarkable.  You feel you are at the mixing board, going “that’s it!” at the moment the engineer gets it perfectly dialed in.  The song is a wonderful test of the balance and extension of cans when pushed to their frequency limits.  If there is distortion or thinness at the low end, it will go from a wonderfully crafted recording to just a boomy pop song.

Beethoven Symphony #9, 4th movement by Suitner (OG Denon, 16/44.1 lossless)
This was the first CD I ever bought in 1984 (first CD ever made?)  I know every second of this movement and every nuance.  My current 2 channel setup was the first time I had ever heard the entire movement without a break (every other system I’d ever had/auditioned had some break at some challenging passage).  Naively, it seems grossly unfair to expect cans to replicate that experience, but it is worth a try.

Organ Prelude, JS Bach Magnificat by Dunedin Consort (Linn, SACD)
Motet, JS Bach Magnificat by Dunedin Consort (Linn, SACD)

These are new pieces to me.  What a breathtakingly lovely recording!  The dynamics and harmonics of the organ can range from “eh” to “holy crap!” depending on the cans.  Standing in the middle of choir is a lovely test of imaging and voice reproduction.  I don’t know these pieces well enough to pass critical judgement based on them, but I was looking for whether the cans made me want to listen to and learn these pieces, rather than just hitting next.

No Love Dying, from “Liquid Spirit” by Gregory Porter (24/96 flac)Another lovely recording and performance, that on a balanced system hits a resonance that is next level for me (just sounds “right” and get the “wow!”)  When things are not in balance or boomy/shrill, I hear it loud and clear.

The Verdict, from “Body and Soul” by Joe Jackson (16/44.1 lossless)Another decades long demo track.  I know it so well, that it is a good test for imaging and dynamics.   There are better demo pieces, but this is one I know cold (and I love the song)

Strange Angels, from “Strange Angels” by Laurie Anderson (16/44.1 lossless)Another test of balance and resonance between the band

Oh, Lady Be Good, from Bassface Swing Trio Tribute To Cole Porter (SACD)
It’s De-Lovely, from Bassface Swing Trio Tribute to Gershwin (SACD)

These direct to disc Stockfisch recordings are extraordinary.  Imaging and dynamics FTW.  Recordings like these are why we obsess over the things we obsess about.  I’m looking to get lost in the music, and the band appearing to be sitting right there.  When tonal balance is just right, these performances just jump off the SACD.

Take Five, from “Time Out” by Dave Brubeck (Analogue Productions SACD)
An excellent test of dynamics at the high end.  As an aside, these Analogue Productions remasters are off the charts!

Tenderly, from “While She Sleeps” by Art Lande (Blue Coast, 24/88.2 flac)
If you’ve ever sat next to a wonderfully tuned piano with an extraordinary player, you know how magical that experience can be.  The best pianos sing with resonances that envelop you.  The best musicians know how to coax beauty and life out of the instrument.  This recording from Art Lande captures that magic.  The stronger the dynamics, soundstage, and precision of the cans, the more lifelike this track becomes for me.  I haven’t experienced this track topping out: the better the reproduction chain, the more lifelike it becomes.

Let Me Touch You For Awhile, from “Live” by Alison Krauss (SACD)
I adore Alison Krauss. Having equipment that can reproduce the wonderful emotion and musicality of these amazing artists is why I spend so much time looking for the right speakers/cans/etc.  Their Live album is special, and you can feel the humanity and emotion in this track.

Mandela, from “Hope” by Hugh Masekela (SACD)
The dynamics of this recording are off the chart.  Crank it up, and see if your equipment can keep up, and how well the cans stay put when you get up and start dancing (because I guarantee you will ;)

Spanish Harlem, from “World’s Greatest Audiophile Vocal Recordings” by Rebecca Pidgeon (SACD)
Classic test track.  Other than the obviousness of the bass reproduction, the sound stage is exquisite: do you feel you’re in the same room?  Are you getting any resonances in the bass from Rebecca’s voice?

Girl from Ipanema, from “World’s Greatest Audiophile Vocal Recordings” by Rosa Passos & Ron Carter (SACD)
As a Chesky recording, the sound stage is vivid and real.  The dynamics of the percussion are also a treat. Can the single headphone driver keep up with the snap of the high hats and the deep resonances of the stand up bass, and not lose the soundstage and imaging of the musicians?

1000 Shades of Blue, from “Thousand Shades of Blue” by Carmen Gomes (Sound Liaison 24/96 WAV)
I’m just getting into the Sound Liaison catalog, but these really make you feel you’re in the room with the musicians.  When you get to the applause at the end, do you feeling like you were listening to awesome music or that you witnessed an incredible performance?

Get Lucky, from “Random Access Memories” by Daft Punk (24/88.2 flac)
Another track that transcends pop when played back through equipment that really reproduces the full range and dynamics of the recording (and another test for whether cans stay put on your head when you’re dancing ;)  The subtlety and layers on Nile Rodgers’ guitar work is incredible, and the recording is outstanding so you should be able hear it all.  I listen for whether it is washed out, and how well I hear all the (considerable) nuances in his playing.

Isn’t She Lovely, from “Ink” by Livingston Taylor (SACD)
This track rewards higher quality reproduction chains with what seems to be a never ending series of layers.  How many layers can you hear?

So What, from “Kind of Blue” by Miles Davis (Japanese single layer SACD version)
One of the finest recordings and performances of the 20th century.  Always the last track I play during any audition.  Until there is a time machine to take me back to March 2 and April 22 1959, I will buy every new remaster of this album, and play it on every piece of high end audio kit I can find.


Oppo PM-1 (refurb unit direct from Oppo)
Fit/finish and aesthetics are off the charts, although the  wooden box it came in was embarrassing for everyone involved (what the heck do I do with a coffin for my cans?).  Very attractive and wonderful materials.  Unlike most of the cans scattered all over my dining room table for this shoot out, I would have no embarrassment wearing these in public.

I found them mostly “invisible” when listening (combination of comfort and spaciousness).  SQ, end to end is very good, but doesn’t have the wow of other TOTL cans.  Bass is solid but has a bit of slop (and truncates a little too soon for my taste).  Cellos are heard but not felt, and resonances of piano are lost.  Mids are solid but indistinct.  Highs are effortless and very comfortable, but the dynamics on high hats fall just a bit short of “holy crap!”.  Imaging and space is present, but low res compared to several of the other miracles we listened to.  There is essentially no isolation, so best to have no friends if you have these cans.

This are the kick back by the fire with a brandy and a blanket cans: very casual and relaxed, extremely comfortable and satisfying, but falls just a bit short if you pay too close attention.  In another 15-20 years, retired me and my future dog (who won’t complain about sound leakage) would love a pair of cans like these.

Net net, these PM-1’s are handsome and  charming (in a Hugh Grant kind of way), but they’ll be going back.  For now, I’m hoping Alex (@FFRESPONSE) can work miracles with his Audio Zenith PMx2’s (heavily modded PM-2’s)

B&O H6 (purchased new)
This is the outlier on the low end.  I wanted to see what a portable set of cans could do.  Could I get to good enough when I was out and about and in the office and save a couple grand?  If not, one of my daughters would be over the moon to get these.

I was surprised at the price/performance of these cans.  Weaving all over the place, but for walk around cans plugged right into your phone, they’re awesome.  I wouldn’t use for critical listening, but these might be worth saving as a mobile pair, leaving the big dogs (whatever they turn out to be) tethered in my office.

B&W P9 (new from B&W…no demo units to be found locally)
The P7’s at Magnolia (wired) didn’t impress me, but I didn’t have my DAC/Amps with me either.  The 802d3’s are so off the chart spectacular, that I couldn’t wait for the P9’s (designed by same team for B&W 50th anniversary) to arrive.

Out of the box, these look and feel like a next level luxury object.  The design details, fit, and finish are top tier.  These are gorgeous artifacts that would not be out of place as a tasteful accent in a finely decorated home.  The build quality is outstanding.

I first listened to them directly off my laptop (I was at work and didn’t have my DAC/Amp there).  Very very impressive how well they are driven by laptops and phones.  I’m not sure I would be comfortable walking around the city with these (begging for the wrong kind of attention), but it would be an option.

Clamp strength was a bit too much for me.  The seal was very tight, but not uncomfortable (very stable)  They are fairly closed, but for some reason it didn’t feel as claustrophobic to me as the Audeze EL-8’s.

The real surprise for me was the sound quality (and variability of same).  These cans seem to be phenomenally sensitive to how they are placed over your ears, the type of seal, and the shape of your head.  Some times the low end was nice tight and mellow, other times it was a boomy mess that overwhelmed everything else.  For others in our group, all they heard was the boomy.  After fiddling around, we discovered that if they lifted the cups just a bit (enough to relieve the pressure a little bit but not lose contact with their head), the boominess came under control.  For me, if I pressed down on the cups, I could consistently get the boomy.

Now these have had minimal break in time (10+ cans on your dining room table sort of puts a dent into burn in procedures).  Another poster mentioned that after burn in, the boominess gets tamed. Given our experience messing with the pressure of the cups against our heads, it could also be the pads and headband breaking in and getting some give.  I will update this post if I see a change over time, but for now I’m calling it as them being extremely sensitive to positioning on the head.

So after tweaking and adjusting positioning to get the bass to be reasonable, is it worth it?  These are very frustrating cans.  At times, I get flashes of that classic B&W voicing that I adore in the speaker line (I’m a 30+ year B&W slut), and a very 2 channel like experience.  At others, the hump in the mid range just washes things out.  For tracks with heavy bass, the subsonics literally were shaking my head (the experience rapidly went from WOAH! to distracting to disorientating and to not at all pleasant).

I have no idea what the designers were shooting for in the voicing of these headphones.  It seems like the platypus of voicing profiles, packaged in a brilliant and tasteful suit.  These are too well made for these choices not to be purposeful.  Will things change when they ship their lightning cable DAC next year?

I will give these a chance to break in before making a final call, but for now, color me very disappointed at confusing execution, and wishing things were different without being able to say what that is.  Likely going back, but hoping against hope that they break in to that B&W ideal I’m looking for.

Audeze LCD3 (rented)
Interesting retro look, but at least for my head, the weight distribution was all wonky and unstable.  Very difficult to listen to for me, since any movement would shift cans around.  Clamping force was also a bit strong for my taste.  Even after a brief time of wearing them, they were quite uncomfortable.

From a SQ and voicing perspective, also not a good match for me.  Bass control and extension was SOLID, but much to thin at the high end and too flat a soundstage for me (at least with the type of music I like to listen to).  We did play a bit with equalization and bump up the high end, making it much more approachable, but with 10+ other cans at the party, didn’t spend much time with these (not a good literal or voicing fit).

Good cans, but there are outstanding options available now for a lot less than what these are going for.  Looking forward to seeing/hearing how Audeze reinvents their headphone line in the future.

Audeze EL-8 closed back (rented)
Much more comfortable (for me) than the LCD3, but I’m not sure if closed headphones are for me.  Even after a short while wearing, feels congested and isolating.  I may need to focus on more open cans, just out of personal preference.

I thought the high mids were a bit more balanced than the LCD3, but not as quick and sharp as some of the other higher end cans.  Low end was a bit more sloppy than the LCD3s, but still good (just not great like the LCD3s).

Again, didn’t spend as much time on these.  At this mid tier price point, I thought there were better options for dynamics, range, and voicing.

Sennheiser HD 800 (rented, SN 41xxx)
I’ve had Sennheiser HD 580’s for many years, so I’m very familiar with the sound and feel of Sennheiser headphone.  Aside from our shock at the garishness of the design, they were extremely comfortable and well proportioned.

First listen with the 800’s was stunning: the expansive soundstage, the sense of being in the musical space, the lightning fast dynamics, all awesome.  The low end was a lot thinner than I would have hoped, but I had found equalization curves where people had worked to address that (more later).

As a newbie to the 800’s, the “wow” moments were frequent and awesome, but there were also many “what the hell was that?” moments.  After some quick googling, I learned of the infamous 6k spike.  Ouch.

I LOVE these cans though.  If only the low end could get extended out without getting all sloppy, if only the random sonic farts at 6k could get tamed, if only yada yada yada.

Thus started a multi-day effort pull down equalization software (Sonarworks, DMG), learning how to use the damn things, and fiddling fiddling fiddling fiddling, trying to keep the magic but address all the “if only”’s.  The bass was easy to tune to acceptable but not great levels (except for when it wasn’t), but the 6k fart machine was harder to tame.

Even after this minimal tuning effort, I started tuning different EQ curves to different types of music, and wishing I could have dynamic EQ profiles so I could tune differently within particular songs.  At that point, I knew I had a problem: the goal is to listen to amazing music, not become an engineer at the sound board tweaking the tonal balance of a performance.

The “wows” are so awesome though!  Is it worth dealing with the crazy (and crazy making) tweaking and finickiness to get those moments?  Would the 800s be any better, or the super resonant mod that all these other frustrated people keep talking about?  How would the cans sound with the paper bag I’d have to wear over my head if I wore them in public?  This is starting to feel like a dysfunctional relationship that you just can’t leave.

Time to move on to the other cans before the 800’s and I start yelling at each other again.

(Another surprise: the amount of leakage from these headphones is almost criminal. Not a socially acceptable set of cans…be prepared to only listen to them when you’re alone, or you will quickly become alone after you start listening to them)

Focal Elear (purchased used)
Out of the box, the cans just scream quality and taste.  Sound leakage was minimal, styling was top tier. 10 on the social acceptability scale.  For me at least, they feel like the are part of my heard when I’m wearing them, although a friend with a wider head complained about the excessive clamping.

Plug them in and fire them up, and all I can say is WOW!!!  The lows and mids are almost full range speaker like: controlled, balanced, confident, and full extension.  Starting at high mids and going into the treble,  things start to thin out.  Soundstage and imaging wasn’t to 800’s level, but OK.

As much as I really really enjoyed listening to these headphone, I always had a nagging feeling that something was missing or that I had forgotten something.  When going back to 800’s, I actually felt some relief (at least until I had to tweak the 800’s again, and the nagging problems came back again, and we started screaming at each other again…ugh)

These are spectacular headphones (esp. at the price), IF you can live with the thin top end or prefer darker/warmer cans.  So relaxed and natural, almost effortless with what they do.  Unfortunately for me, I really key off imaging and transients in the high end: any thinness or distortion really stands out for me.  I wish it were otherwise, because then these would be the perfect headphones for me.  Would their (really) big brother Utopia’s address these gaps?  Stay tuned…

Grado HP-2 (I told you we are 0ld Skool))
Impressive how these vintage headphones perform.  Comfort and fit is extremely good, but stability can be shaken (even the best headbands loosen up after 20 years of use).

Highs are modestly fast and clear, with no hint of distortion/sibilance (very enjoyable). Probably the most-speaker like that we heard.  Mids are robust and neutral, but do get muddy at times.  Bass extension was better than I expected when I saw the drivers but still limited. They were a little sloppy at the very low end, but otherwise clean.  Soundstage and imaging are not competitive with more modern cans though (surprising…given their vintage I was naively expecting that to be a strength)

Using our redneck frequency response setup (don’t ask), it seems like they voiced headphones to a flat curve back in the day (interesting).

Overall a very impressive set of vintage headphones, esp. for casual listening.  I can see why these are going for such a premium in the used market.

Ether Flows (MIA)
Absent from our party and very much missed…hope to drop by the MrSpeakers factory soon and audition these.  I’d love to see what Dan and company have been able to do with their innovation engine.

**** UPDATE!! ****

Ether Flows / Ether C Flows (auditioned at the factory!)
Many thanks to Peter and Dan at MrSpeakers for allowing me to visit their offices and audition Ether Flows and Ether C Flows.  I had an extremely enjoyable couple hours, enjoying their cans connected balanced to my Jotunheim. Please note that I auditioned these headphones in an office setting (fairly quiet, but different than my living room), and separated in time from the other auditions.  Please take comparative impressions with the appropriate grains of salt.

Ether Flows
Extremely nice feel. Weight all around drivers, so very well balanced (not top heavy, sat extremely comfortably and naturally on my head).  I loved the strap/wire band design (clever).  Build quality felt quite good. A modest amount of sound leakage, but doesn’t seem as bad as HD800’s (from memory…I did not have them side by side to A/B).  I really liked the cable (and all the other nice pragmatic design touches…well done guys).

Tight highs, *very* slight congestion in denser passages of Calamus, but mostly clean.  Good dynamics at highs, but not as much detail and space as some others. Overall, highs better than Elears, but can’t touch HD800’s.  Mids neutral and transparent, as they should be.  Bass extension is thin (between the Elears and HD800 but closer to HD800), but extremely well controlled.  Lows mostly there but not getting the full range resonances in Royals or orchestral strings overtones or that sense of being next to the piano.   Not as bass thin as HD800’s, but doesn’t have that ridiculous soundstage and imaging to make up for it, and doesn’t have the musicality (for me) that the HD800’s had.

Imaging OK, but not as precise as others (slightly more fuzzy placement of players).  Soundstage was middle of the pack for me.  In general, the sound reminded me of listening to speakers where the cross overs aren’t quite dialed in or the sound field hasn’t quite converged: the sound just doesn’t seem to flow (tonally) across the spectrum.  Very hard to describe, but missing that “woah” that I heard with the Elears, HD800’s, and PMx2’s.

Very airy and light feeling.  Very comfortable and non fatiguing.  Music is just there, like a friend that is neither pushy nor demanding, but I had the odd feeling that the music wasn’t always “geling” into a larger whole.  While very relaxed, I wasn’t getting any “wow!” moments, or the big dynamics and transients that make me sit up and take notice; experience was sort of neutral and flat in comparison to my other favorites.  If I were to be wearing headphones all day while working, these would be near ideal.  For critical listening or getting lost in the music, may not be the best not most interesting choice, but would be an incredibly comfortable one.

Ether C Flows
Good isolation, but not as comfortable as the open Ether Flows.  A bit more pressure, but not uncomfortable.  Could feel the weight difference. I found them a little more fatiguing for extended listening (but I already commented on my reaction to closed headphones above…no where as near as claustrophobic as the Audeze EL-8’s, these have a very open headphone feel to me)

With the caveat that I auditioned the ether flows in an office environment (quiet, but not a listening room…closed cans have more dynamic range to play with), I’m hearing more of the music and the space around it with the ether flow c’s.  To my ear, there was more extension at low end, and some more space at highs.  Imaging precision is roughly the same, but richer presence. All around, more resonances and overtones in the music, but still not at the level of some of the other cans.  The punch and dynamics seemed better as well.

Ether Ruminations
One of the great joys of music for me the resonances (figurative and literal) and unexpected overtones and dynamic transients.  Those are not where the Ether Flows excel.  If the Audio Zenith PMx2’s offer incredibly opinionated and musical neutrality, the Ether Flows offer unobstrusive and passive neutrality.  With Ether Flows I’m listening to amazing music, not being part of it and having it be part of me.

I would pick the Ether Flows for comfort and long term listenability, and the Ether C Flows for more critical listening.  Unlike the Ether Flows, if I want to really critically listen to something, I can go there with the Flow C’s, but I wasn’t quite hearing all the things I know were there from other headphones I listened to (but still damn good).

If want headphones that are part of the rest of your (non-music) life without being the only part of your life, the Ether Flows are fantastic (best of the bunch that I’ve auditioned, but I haven’t auditioned the Sennheiser HD600, for example).  For me, I’m finding I want something that evokes and engages and demands my attention and response.  For a first pair of (critical listening focused) high end headphones, I will want something like the PMx2’s/Utopia’s/HD800’s.  However, I could see adding something like the Ether Flows as a second pair of (integrate with the rest of your life) cans in the relatively near future.

**** END UPDATE ****


@darinf came over this week to profile my 2 channel system for his Out of Your Head product (as an aside, the effect with custom measurements is incredible…wow!).  He was kind enough to bring part of his headphone menagerie over and chat while I did a quick audition.  Thank you Darin for your generosity and contributing to our crazy shootout!

Audio Zenith PMx2 (Darin’s)
For those unfamiliar with these, they are a heavily modded/rebuilt version of the Oppo PM-2’s.  Completely different experience than PM-1 (hard to believe they’re cousins).  Alex (@FFRESPONSE) does an absolutely incredible job transforming the PM-2’s.

Compared to the PM-1’s, the PMx2’s are much more controlled and richer highs (amazing how tight the lows are actually).  Bass and mid lovely and controlled: the wispy lazy slop of the PM-1’s is gone.  Feels like much deeper bass extension than PM-1’s as well (which is an amazing thing to accomplish), without giving away control or dynamics at the low end (ditto).  To my ear, bass extension seemed a tad lower than the Elear.

MUCH better balance across the range, with no loss in dynamics.  It is actually remarkable to hear what tonal balance really sounds like with a headphone; it makes you realize how far everything else is from this ideal (alas, once you hear it, you can hear the lack of it in other headphones…beware!)  Great sound stage and imaging, but still a bit short of the 800’s.  Punch and dynamics are excellent, but fall just a hair short of the Elears and Utopias I think.

This is a world class set of headphones.  Hard for me to find any sonic faults with them without being “that guy” (“Gee Alex, this is a miraculous transformation of an already TOTL set of cans to ‘best I’ve ever heard’ level, but could you just squeeze a couple more Hertz bass extension, and just a bit better imaging and soundstage?”).  Sonically, the tonal balance is so near to ideal that you’re foolish if you focus on the “near” part instead of the “ideal” part. Coupled with Oppo build quality and aesthetics/comfort, and Alex has a winner.

If the PM-1’s are the cans your retire by a fire with your dog with, the PMx2’s are the cans you take off and explore the world with.  Bravo Alex for showing what can be done with a pair of cans when a gifted engineer that deeply cares about tonal balance hand tunes them to their limits (I just listened to Bassface Swing Trio again, my jaw dropped *again* at the tonal balance…wow!).  These are WAY more that 2x the PM-2’s, and an exquisite gem of an offering.

HiFiMan 400S (Darin’s)
Quick demo.  Impressively balanced mids and highs, but lacking some punch on dynamics (esp. in the highs).  The cans were overwhelmed with the complexity of the Calamus. Good control at low end, but extension not quite as far as others.  Imaging less precise than some of the higher end cans, with more narrow and washed out soundstage.  Extremely listenable for the price point.  No issues driving it with the Jotunheim.

My mid tier choice, but I’d shy away if you have more demanding musical tastes (orchestral, etc.)  Based on this quick listen (first time I’ve heard HiFiman headphones), I’ll be looking to listen to some of their higher end offerings when I get a chance.

Focal Utopias (Darin’s)
Quick demo.  Fit/finish is fantastic (clear step up from Elears, which are already fantastic)  Clearer and more effortless at high end, but falls just a bit short of the PMx2.  I found myself still wanting a *tad* bit more precision and umph at the high end, but we’re getting to the most trivial of nits.  Amazingly graceful and effortless across the range.  Tight.  There are 4,000 reasons I shouldn’t have listened to these cans, but I’m very glad that I did.  Bass extension not as robust as PMx2s, but very controlled.

For off the shelf out of a box cans, these have the potential to be the best headphones I have ever heard (by a wide margin)*, but if someone were to offer me these or the PMx2’s and I couldn’t resell them, I would be very tempted to take the PMx2’s.  With a more serious DAC (and maybe amp), TBD which has the most additional juice to offer, but I suspect both have at lot more to offer than I was able to hear with my kit.

Above are all drive-by impressions.  I wish I had more than a brief tantalizing taste of these cans (is anyone willing to let me borrow a pair for a couple days?), but my bank account is VERY grateful that I didn’t.

* I need more than 30 minutes with them to make that claim

Sennheiser HD 800 (Super Resonant mod + EQ to boost the bass) (Darin’s)
Precision of soundstage and imaging are still amazing.  None of that was lost vs the stock 800’s.  SR Mod really tamed some of the weirdness in the mids/highs.  Base extension very natural, but still not as robust as the PMx2’s.  Attack and precision in the highs is outstanding…really brings it alive.  Definitely less frustrating than stock 800’s, but still have the frequent “Wow” moments.  Nile Rodgers is an uber boss with these cans. I found it was still lacking some of the low end resonances, but still very nice.  For price/performance, these might be the place to be while this golden age of headphone innovation continues to blossom, and buy me time until I invest in the 10-15 year cans 2-3 years from now.


Darin was kind enough to also bring over his Schiit Mobi Multi-bit DAC, so we could A/B against the Jotunheim delta-sigma DAC.  The detail and reveal was definitely a step up with the MB DAC. The more dynamic can’s (Utopia, Elears, HD800’s, PMx2’s) definitely benefitted from the MB. Evaluating and unwinding the nuanced differences between these cans really required the Mobi MB. Thank you Darin!

Is it worth $250 to get a separate DAC for my Jotunheim?  For these top end cans, absolutely.  Is it worth stepping up to the Bifrost MB or Gimby?  I think I’ll want to spend time with the Gimby first, to see if there is enough marginal value to go up the MB chain, but I definitely see a MB upgrade in the future.  One of my co-conspirators has already ordered a Bifrost MB (and Lyr 2 for some tube madness), so I’m looking forward to seeing the impact with both headphones and my 2 channel setup.


The pace of innovation and the spike in quality in headphones is astonishing.  In reading through older posts, what was top of the heap even a couple years ago is being supplanted by better/cheaper options, with fewer structural and sonic compromises.

Precision manufacturing at relatively small scales is having a huge impact on the state of the art, and access to rabid audiences like us on forums like this is knocking down a lot of barriers on the go to market side.  My gut is we’re just starting up the price/performance S-curve driven by precision small scale manufacturing, materials innovation, and computer modeling (what I call the 3 M’s).  What we will be able to buy 5 years from now will be way ahead of what we have now.

That being said, my steadily degrading hearing can’t wait for the ultimate headphones.  The price/performance of the current state of the art is already off the charts.  There is much happiness to be had today listening to amazing music.

What is clear is that a 10-15 year upgrade cycle isn’t going to work for me this time around.  That means, no splurge for an “end game” headphone, for similar reasons as I don’t splurge for “end game” DACs right now.  My gut is I would make a 2-3 year investment, and be able to hand down some awesome cans to my kids or friends that are looking to step up to higher end audio.

With that context, my sweet spot is some combination of used Sennheiser HD800’s (modded and equalized), Focal Elears, or Audio Zenith PMx2’s.

Is it better to have awesome styling and build, world class sound, but lack that excitement and presence of what you really wanted?  For me, the Elears are the equivalent of getting a 3 series BMW because you fell in love with the 7 series BMW (Utopia’s) but can’t justify throwing around that kind of money on a car.

Or is it better to have the finicky tweaking and more than occasional frustrations, but be reward with the frequent moments of “wow”?  To extend the analogy, the 800’s are the Ferrari that is always in the shop or just getting out of the shop, but thrilling to drive in between.

Or is it better to spend the money and support a gifted visionary that hand crafts world class headphones?  That would make the PMx2’s the Tesla that is pointing the way to how cars will be designed and built in the future, but is hamstrung by other people’s production realities until he can get to a scale to justify his own designs/manufacturing at scale.

I’m at point in my life where surprises and moments of joy are ever more special.  Preserving that is worth the frustration of the constant tweaking and fiddling (and looking like an idiot when I’m wearing them)  Tweaking is also an opportunity to really learn what types of acoustics I respond to and why.  A solid set of used HD800’s, equalized up at the low end and with the super resonator mod, will keep me very happy and engaged for the next several years as the precision manufacturing wave sweeps through the industry.

I also appreciate devotion to craft and doing things right, and appreciate opportunities to support the same with my patronage.  It would be a privilege to spend the $1400 for a pair of hand tuned PMx2’s from Alex.

Next year there will be the equivalent of an Elear with fewer compromises (and better materials and manufacturing precision) and the year after that, again.  My bold prediction is that Utopia-level performance will be the norm in $1000 cans within the next 3-4 years.

I’m going to spend some extended listening time with the HD800’s and Elears (alas, I need to return the PMx2’s…glorious headphones), and experiment with @darinf ’s amazing Out Of Your Head software.  For mobile and office use, a synthetic 2 channel soundstage may be good enough, especially if the digital processing is not fatiguing.

Decisions decisions… (and as they say, may we all have first world problems like this, am I right?)

tl; dr:

If you’re a audio geek like me that values even full-range tonal balance and the sense of “being there” musical ambiance that comes with fast dynamics, low distortion, and good phase coherence in the high mids and trebles, here is my advice after a stoopid crazy week of excessive headphone evaluations:

  • If you focus on tonal balance and appreciate and want to support bespoke craft that borders on alchemy, get the Audio Zenith PMx2
  • If you find presence in music thrilling, feel a sense of reward when you get that unexpected “WOW!” after messing/tweaking with something, and don’t mind wearing really ugly (sorry ;) headphones as you listen to music alone, get the Sennheiser HD-800’s and start tweaking
  • If you want world class next generation cans that sing out of the box, sell a kidney and get the Focal Utopia’s (and sell part of your liver to upgrade your DAC/Amps to be worthy of this engineering marvel).
  • If you want to experience that next level next generation cans without giving away organs (or parts there of), the Focal Elears are phenomenal $1000 cans, that evoke the best of their breathtaking sibling, but are a little too thin in the high end for me.
  • If you want lovely headphones that integrate well into the rest of your life and don't cause the music to distract you from work etc, the Ether Flows are top tier.
  • Shy away from any TOTL/premium models from companies that haven’t adopted significant material and manufacturing innovations in the past 3 years…they are the pinnacle of a previous age, and the miracle of the 3M’s (manufacturing/materials/modeling) S curve are available for roughly the same price
  • These are all FANTASTIC products, and honestly, is there any among us that if stranded on a dessert island, wouldn’t be delighted with any of them? Be happy, enjoy what you have, and enjoy the gift of music in your life.

MANY thanks to the incredible community here, and all the experiences and insights that everyone shares day in and day out.  I’m a definite newbie in the headphone space, and appreciate being able to stand on the shoulders of so many more experienced and savvy people.  Thank you.

Monday, October 31, 2016

Speaker Quest

About a year ago, with my new place in escrow, I started on the Priority 1 task of getting my home audio system good to go for when I moved in (hey, life is short, and hearing good enough to enjoy audiophile recordings is even shorter)

As part of the process, I did a great deal of research on line.  I was also amazingly fortunate to be shopping for new speakers at the exact time that my long time favorite speaker maker was just starting to ship their latest generation speakers (basically a complete redesign...pretty rare event).

Fortunately, some of the very first units in Southern California were in San Diego, and had been delivered literally a week or so before I started my audition process.  I spent a great deal of time with the new kit, and captured my notes for others that were waiting with bated breath for these new speakers:

This started what has become an extraordinary year of music and rediscovering what I love in music. To set the stage for sharing some of that journey (which is WELL beyond my usual ”Album(s) of the Year" post), here are the process notes from my speaker quest.

More from my (re/new)found audiophile obsession to come...

November 15, 2015

As background, I'm a very long time B&W fan (owned exclusively B&W speakers for 30+ years), but I have not had a critical listen to new gear since my last upgrade cycle in 2008. Back then, space and family constraints limited me to the 805S with a sub (which are awesome), but I now have a much larger space (20x25' with equipment on short wall, vaulted ceiling great room) so time to step it up.

Based on my research, my starting options were a used pair of 802D2's, or a new pair of 804D3's (trying to keep to a ~$10k budget). Our local Magnolia had 803D3s, 804D3s, 805D3s, and 802D2s on the floor fed by a full Mac stack (MC601s, etc), so I took a hookie afternoon and spent 4+ glorious hours immersed in the new kit.

We started with the 802D2s. I had never heard these speakers before, but my expectations were sky high (my bias was towards the 802D2 going in). I was shocked at the poor performance of this set up, to the point where my conclusion was that something was wrong with the speakers. It was the muddiest and flattest presentation I had ever heard in B&W gear. Best description might be "loose and sloppy", which is the exact opposite of the B&W sound that I love. Given the reputation of the 802D2s, something was clearly wrong, so we moved to the 803D3s.

The 803D3s were an absolute revelation. The extent and precision of the soundstage was extraordinary. Even in a modestly large space (15x25'), it was absolutely effortless. During the audition, there were several glorious moments, but one that stands out was during "So What" (Mile Davis - Kind of Blue) when Miles joins in. The soundstage was so broad and precise that you could tell exactly where Miles was standing, and hear the horn sway and move during the piece. It honestly felt like Miles was in the room with us, and it was one of the most musically real experiences I've ever had in front a piece of kit. (As an aside, in my notes I wrote "Miles is about 5'8" tall"...a Google search when I got home showed me he was 5'7" ;)

Mids and highs were tight, effortless, and glorious. Lows were tight, but bass extension was not what I was hearing/feeling with the 802D2s. I agree with other folks that there is no way these guys are getting down to 17Hz. Has anyone found independent measurement of frequency response of these puppies?

After about an hour and half with the 803D3s, I had fallen in love, and rediscovered music that I thought I had long ago become overly familiar with. The extent and character of the sweet spot was stunning. "Glorious", "lovely", "effortless" are scattered everywhere in my notes. Aesthetically, side by side the 803D3s blow away the 802D2s (which are damn attractive). My only nit is the deep lows perhaps being a bit thin, but we did not spend any time tuning room placement to optimize.

Next was the 804D3s (basically same placement, same kit and content). After the glory of the 803D3s, I was braced for disappointment. I was (happily) very wrong. The 804D3s are an extraordinary speaker, with very few compromises vs the 803D3s. It was definitely of the same family/voice as the 803D3s, and had much of the same wonderful character, but just slightly less across the board.

Mids and highs were an absolute delight and the low end was surprisingly full, although thinner than the 803D3s. Overall, I would say they were an absolute joy, but had to try harder to get there. As we switched back and forth between the 803D3s and 804D3s, I would characterize the sound as less effortless, and the soundstage as less precise and less expansive.

The 804D3s had more difficulty filling the room. Where as for much of my demo content the 803D3s had "beyond the walls" sound imaging (the sound stage extended beyond the side walls and the ceiling), the 804D3s had a sound stage that filled ~2/3rds of the room. Whereas Miles was just standing there in the 803D3s, he was generally on the left-center side of the stage of 804D3s.

The 804D3s had flashes of jaw dropping glory and reveal, the 803D3s had sustained stretches of face dropping glory and reveal. The 804D3s just seemed to be working much harder to accomplish the same thing (like watching a tier 1 college basketball player vs a tier 1 NBA player). If I hadn't experienced the 803D3s, I would have been over the moon about the 804D3s. Coming from 805S's, it was everything I love about the B&W sound taken up to the Nth degree. If you're of limited budget, don't give in to the temptation and listen to the 803D3s, unless you're OK opening up the even bigger wallet.

Unfortunately, my local Magnolia did not have a 802D3 on the floor. After the revelation that was the 803D3, the 802D3's are on my must listen list. If it is able to fill out that last little bit of the low end, it may be time to get out the fork lift to carry in the still bigger wallet.

I am also keen to give the 802D2s a proper listen in a different setting. They weren't even a 1/10th of the speaker I was expecting. There was something clearly wrong with the floor models. My next step is to compare the 802D2s to the 803D3s and the 802D3s. My Magnolia rep was also steering me towards the REL S5 subs. I'd really like to get away from subs for 2 channel audio (they definitely have a place for HT), but I'll give them a go if there is an opportunity.

With 802D3s potentially on the table, it is fiscally prudent for me to consider speakers outside the B&W world. Any thoughts/suggestions for $20k+ speakers that could tempt me away from 802D3s?


November 19, 2015

Today I was able to spend several blissful hours auditioning the 802D3 vs the 803D3. Different room and kit (Classe amp this time) but a truly magical experience.

We started with the 802D3. I have never heard such a balanced speaker in my life. Normally my notes are packed full as I go through my audition selections, but today it was very sparse, with a scattering of "very clean", "rich", "present", "balanced". There wasn't much to say: it was just right. End to end, I don't think I've ever heard such a balanced and effortless speaker.

Although I've been listening to some of my audtion material for decades, every one was fresh. For the first time, it felt like I was over the shoulder of the sound engineer at the mixing board, really hearing what they were hearing when they were mixing the album. I had an intellectual understanding of reference, but this was the first time I really experienced it first hand.

I spent a full 25 minutes with the 4th movement of Beethoven's 9th. I've had this CD for 30+ years, and know it as well as any piece of music I've ever listened to. This was the first time I had ever listened to it where there was no passage that I could find fault or want in the speakers. I had heard all the passages done well before, but this was the first time I had heard the piece done well as a whole. Afterwards, I thanked the person helping me with the audition for a once in a lifetime experience, but then I realized it didn't have to be (quite humbling).

As amazing as the 803D3s were with Mile Davis' "So What", these just took it farther and richer and in a more effortless way. The imaging was even more precise and the soundstage even more rich and expansive. As we pushed the volume, it stayed in control and effortless. Very very addictive.

I had been planning on stepping through the 804D3s and perhaps the 805s as well, but I was lost in the 802D3s and didn't want to listen to anything else. After 3 hours of bliss, finally bit the bullet and went back to the 803D3s so I could get a sense apples to apples.

In this space with this kit, the 803's were strikingly similar to the 802s. The differences were subtle and fleeting. They were the same, but just had to work a little harder to get there. Some key overtones and undertones were muted, and the sensitivity of the speaker seems a bit less (I didn't have a SPL meter...qualitative sense). Just had to push the amp a bit hard to get the same detail and volume, and even then, just a hair more strained to get there.

Through particularly dense and demanding sequences, you could hear the soundstage briefly compress and get muddled (esp. at higher volumes) as the speaker approached it limits, but these moments were very fleeting. Same moments on the 802D3 were striking for how it could deliver it without breaking a sweat.

From high's to low's, no matter the density and layers, the 802D3s took it all in stride, with a balance that truly and honestly felt like you were sitting in the sound mixers chair. Disc after disc, it just sounded right, without fault or strain. A stunning tour de force of music reproduction. I did not think this possible across this many music genres and this many dynamics.

In a small or midsize room, I would be delighted with the 803D3s. For all intents and purposes, they are very nearly the same speaker as the 802D3s. These are world class speakers at a price point that is awesome.

I'm going to be moving into a home with a larger listening space (20x25' with high vaulted ceiling), so I've decided to go with the 802D3 to make certain I can fill the space. That being said, I wouldn't be surprised if the 803D3s could (in practice) gobble up the space 99% of the time. With either model, I don't think you can go wrong.

I'm looking forward to the 802D3s, and am grateful for saving ~$25k by not having a chance to audition the 800D3s. Kidding aside, I'm not sure how the 800D3 could raise the bar that much farther than the heights the 802D3 and 803D3 are flying. Find a great room with great equipment, and give these guys a listen. A wonderful time to be a music lover.

Originally Posted by SMC23
Great review Ray. It's one of the first thorough user reviews of the 802d3 I read. Congrats on your new speakers. Can't wait to get mine! 
Thanks, but now I feel guilty for not putting more thought into it ;)

Having (literally) slept on it over night, so additional thoughts:

It is astonishing how similar the 802D3 and 803D3 are 
This was by far my biggest surprise yesterday. My audition of the 802 was glorious. I could have gone on to listen to it for several more hours without switching to any other speaker. When we switched to the 803s, I expected a notable step down. I was shocked how similar they were. 

If I were to do a blind audition separated by any amount of time, I'm not sure I could distinguish which speaker I'm listening to. The only "tell" I could pick up was in particularly challenging passages where the 803 seemed to cap out sooner (there may also be a hair less depth at the low end). To tell them apart, I would have to cheat and use source material I'm intimately familiar with, and critically listen to particularly sequences. 

The differences are very very small (far far smaller than I'm accustomed to in speakers that are part of the same family). Unless you have a larger room or prefer to push your speakers to very high levels (or both), the 803D3 is an astonishing speaker and tremendous value (game changer I think) 

It is unclear to me why B&W chose to deliver both the 802 and 803 in the new series. The price delta is relatively small (no fundamental difference except for size of cabinet and size of drivers), and so is performance. I am very curious to see how sales play out, and what they're able to do to clearly distinguish the 801s (802 may end being the odd guy out in this line, with stoopid money going 801, and value money going 803) 

802D3s were the first speaker I've auditioned where I stopped listening to the speaker 
I was pretty focused for a critical audition, notebook in hand and ready to do a comprehensive critique. When the 802 fired up, I had nothing to say: it was just right. The balance was better than anything I could have critiqued or tweaked. Effortless and seamless across the full range. We could not push them (with content or volume) into a stressed zone (effortless). 

In my earlier write up on 803 vs 804, I compared the 803 to a tier 1 NBA player to the 804 being a tier college player. The 802 was like watching Stephen Curry: doing miraculous things, but being so smooth and effortless and matter of fact that you barely notice he's doing them. 

After 45-60 minutes of what was starting to become frustration at not being able to find anything to pick at, I switched gears and started to really listen to the music and (more tellingly) the mixing choices made by the producer and sound engineer. I learned so much about blending music to create a stage, even in this limited session. Particularly on older analog material, the art of balance and tone really came through. 

The choices the pros had made when recording the music were obvious. I felt like I was an apprentice in the studio, sitting at the soundboard as they tuned and crafted the final mix. There was nothing lacking and nothing hidden or overbearing. I can't wait to revisit my library with these new set of "eyes". 

802D3s are lovely, but they look huge sitting next to the svelte 803D3s 
The aesthetics of the whole 800 series are taking a huge step forward with the D3s. To my eye, the 803D3 is in the sweet spot of audio performance and aesthetics. If you have (spousal) constraints on acceptability in a shared space, make sure you see them both side by side. 

You can't go wrong with either model
I would be delighted and have no regrets with either speaker. There is no settling or compromise here. Bravo to the engineers at B&W for the work they've done. 

For me the decision came down to having a little more headroom with the 802s to tune and adjust in my new space. My situation is unique in that I'm closing on a new home in a couple weeks. An in house audition would be of limited value, since it will take many months to get to know the new space and build it out with other furnishings, etc. 

For a relatively small price delta, the 802s have that little extra to give me flexibility to go several different directions. With the bump in resale value, I'm comfortable paying the extra $$ (and dealing with the extra bulk) so I don't have worry about it. 

If I were settled into a space and knew it well, I would do an in home audition and then decide which speaker is best suited to the room.

Sunday, May 1, 2016

(belated) 2015: Album(s) of the Year

Yes, we're four months into 2016, but after a crazy crazy roller coaster of a 2015, I'm finally able to squeeze time (and emotional energy) for my usual ”Album(s) of the Year" post.

I mentioned in my end of year 2014 post that we would be transitioning to new life chapters in 2015, and boy did that play out. The year began with my wife and I letting our kids and families know that we were separating, and me moving into a new place. The process has been amicable and respectful and (from what I can gather) a relatively easy one compared to what others have gone through. But after 25ish years, the prospect and reality of starting over was a bit other worldly.

The middle of the year marked another major transition, with my eldest graduating from high school last summer. There is no greater blessing than a child who is both the best of you and the better of you, and I am beyond grateful for the multitudes of blessings my older daughter has brought into my life. After an absolutely insane process, she is now a freshman at Swarthmore. For all my pride and hope for the wonderful young woman she has become, I left the best part of my heart behind while I left my baby girl at her dorm and joined the other families on the very long trail of tears back to our cars.

The end of the year found me as a new home owner in North Park (or South Park, depending on your map), laying down what I hope to be deep roots for the next 25 years.

Needless to say, 2015 was a fairly serious year for me. After devoting the first couple months of 2015 to easing the transition for family, I was confronted by a painfully blank canvas, surrounded by a densely entangled tapestry of memories and life experiences. So many choices to be made, both enabled and burdened by history. The same sun that was shining so bright just up ahead was making a 50ish-year-long comets tail very very hard to ignore.

The light burned bright, and at times burned, but I am beyond grateful for the lessons and purpose I found along the way, and for the friends and family and colleagues that were there for me. Thank you.

My albums of the year list for 2015 reflect my journey in the chrysalis, and the foundations for 2016 and beyond.

March - Best Reflection On Truths Newly Visible: I’m Gonna Be (500 miles) (Sleeping at Last)

I got to enjoy the 2015 Super Bowl with a couple beers and a nice steak dinner for myself. Besides being a great game and giving us Left Shark, there was a particularly memorable Budweiser ad featuring a pretty amazing cover of the old sk00l “I’m Gonna Be (500 Miles)” by Scottish twins The Proclaimers (1988!), leaving Scotsman all over the world sort of scratching their heads.

I was a bit distracted at the time, but I finally got around to tracking down the cover a month or so later. What I found was that a fun but completely forgettable party/dance song had been transformed into one of the most romantic and emotionally true songs I had ever heard.

Turns out Sleeping At Last has a history of doing interesting covers of classic songs (for Grey’s Anatomy, among other shows), and had put out an album compiling these efforts. The entire album is fantastic (including a particularly awesome version of Safety Dance...if I ever have a one hit wonder, I want Sleeping at Last to record their version of it), but "I’m Gonna Be" is truly a gift: real emotional truth, delivered with with love and not a shred of irony. A wonderful and timely reminder of what was and what could again be.

An early and strong contender for album of the year, but this was literally just the beginning.

April - Best Song For Dancing in a Hurricane: The Eye (Brandi Carlile)

Through the magic of NPR, I heard good things about Brandi Carlile’s new album The Firewatcher’s Daughter. I took a chance and ordered it sight unseen when it came out, and was blown away.

Many strong pieces here (some very strong). Brandi and her collaborators the Hanseroth twins have a knack of cutting to the core, without being sentimental or evasive. The person in the mirror is stark, but the reflection is true, and worthy of attention.

By far my favorite song on the album (and my then to that point favorite song of the decade) was “The Eye”. Watching the beautiful video (see link above) was like a loving intervention from your closest friends and family: a call to honesty and courage and acceptance, all as a precursor to purpose.

My clear choice for album of the year (and song of the decade). How could anything get better than this?

May - Best Soundtrack For Rebirth: River (Ibeyi)

Getting out of ruts and being open to new people and new ideas can be like spring after a long and cold winter: lots of mud and you can see the messy refuse from the previous fall, but the smell and taste of new life breeds boundless optimism and openness to possibility.

Into this place I was introduced to the remarkable Ibeyi, who a year before had released their debut album. The Diaz twins (Ibeyi is “twins” in Yoruba) brought a spare but powerful fusion of African and Cuban and French sensibilities, from a couple sister who seem too young to realize how breathtakingly original and vital their voices are. Remarkable talents, evoking instead of telling, and tapping into genetic memory and instincts (“goosebump music”).

At about this time, I had started to spend my weekends walking different San Diego neighborhoods for hours at a time, getting to know what they had to offer and trying to get a sense of the spirit and fit of the place (I wasn’t going to stay in that apartment forever). Ibeyi was a constant and welcome companion on those early walks, and an encouragement to be open and reflective. Beginners Minds is precious and fleeting, but this soundtrack helped get me there.

Their song “River” was particularly evocative and meditative. If you are intrigued, I highly recommend watching their KEXP concert, and catching them live when they come to your neighborhood (we caught them in LA and they were wonderful!). These ladies are something special, and Ibeyi (to my great surprise) bumped The Firewatcher’s Daughter off its perch as my album of the year.

(And a bonus for May, my favorite modern poet Shane Koyczan released a reading of his poem For Lois. The measure of any Superman story is does it make you want to put on a red cape and fly. This poem makes me want to soar...)

June - Best Hope From a Green Flash: Take My Love (The Lone Bellow)

For many years, it has been challenging for me to get to concerts and see my favorite musicians live. Until I managed to snag last minute tickets to see Paul Simon and Sting at Madison Square Garden in 2014, I had bought tickets for and missed concerts maybe 5-6 times in a row over a decade? With Ray 2.0, it was time to put that right.

I learned that Birch Aquarium in La Jolla hosts several concerts each summer. For those that haven’t had the pleasure of visiting Birch, it is a fantastic aquarium, and a remarkable venue. From the hillside location, you look out over the Pacific Ocean and La Jolla Shores. It is a small place though. How the heck could you host a concert there?

On their website, they had links to the various acts that were scheduled to perform that summer. They were all wonderful, but I was **BLOWN** away by The Lone Bellow, and their NPR Tiny Desk concert.

After seeing their performance of “Teach me to Know” on their NPR Tiny Desk concert, I grabbed both their albums, and had them on continuous loop as I spent my weekends wandering the neighborhoods around Balboa Park. I simply could not believe how good this band was. Wow!

A week later, I was at the Birch with maybe 150 other people, drinking a Green Flash beer, and hanging by the tidal pools with the band, with the sun setting over the Pacific. They were spectacular!

“Take My Love”, “Green Eyes and a Heart of Gold”, “Diners”, “Teach Me To Know”, the list goes on and on. Out of a riding accident that left his wife paralyzed for some time, Zach Williams found a voice and found ideas that demanded to be shared and heard. The Lone Bellow is a precious jewel, shining bright after enduring terrible hardship. After 14 years of a generation scarred by war and stagnation, voices like The Lone Bellow are leading forward.

My new favorite band, and what I thought for sure would be my 2015 album of the year.

July - (For Realz) 2015 Album (and Artist) of the Year/Decade: Southeastern (Jason Isbell)

I tell you, 2015 was one heck of a year for discovering new music, and finding new resonances in myself and in the world around me. Some time in late June and early July, I started to hear virtual whispers and collective excitement about an impending album release from Jason Isbell. When The Lone Bellow tweeted about the album, I decided to jump in and see who this Jason was. Boy, am I glad I did.

Isbell is a former guitarist/songwriter/singer for The Drive By Truckers, with a legendary reputation for hard drinking and hard living. His music channels the essence of Townes Van Zandt and Bruce Springsteen, with the guitar playing clarity of Marc Knopfler. I had heard some things about Americana several years ago, but hadn’t checked him out, and didn’t know what Americana was as a genre. That all changed.

Isbell’s song writing and playing is remarkably precise and effortless. He speaks and evokes in the perfect stillness between notes and words, building an emotional resonance and connection that is ambrosia for this ronin. I’m not from Alabama, but I always wish I was after hearing a Jason Isbell song.

For a taste, here is his hat tip to his dad “Outfit” from Drive By Trucker days:
Six months in a St. Florian foundry
They call it Industrial Park
Then hospital maintenance and Tech School
Just to memorize Frigidaire parts

But I got to missing your Mama
And I got to missing you too
And I went back to painting for my old man
And I guess that's what I'll always do

So don't let them take who you are boy
And don't try to be who you ain't
And don't let me catch you in Kendale
With a bucket of wealthy-man's paint

Don't call what your wearing an outfit
Don't ever say your car is broke
Don't sing with a fake British accent
Don't act like your family's a joke

Have fun, but stay clear of the needle
Call home on your sister's birthday
Don't tell them you're bigger than Jesus
Don't give it away, don't give it away

Needless to say, this hit this father of a college freshman (and son of a first generation immigrant) pretty damn hard.

Jason hit bottom pretty hard a couple years ago, and had his girl friend (and now wife) Amanda Shire and producer intervene to get him clean. He sobered up, can came back even better than before with what is my album of the decade (no one even close) Southeastern. Southeastern cleaned up every award in the Americana world, and Jason and Amanda got to perform their hit “Cover Me Up” at the Americana awards.
A heart on the run

Keeps a hand on the gun

You can't trust anyone

I was so sure

What I needed was more

Tried to shoot out the sun

In days when we raged

We flew off the page

Such damage was done

But I made it through

To somebody new

I was meant for someone

So girl leave your boots by the bed we ain't leavin' this room

Til someone needs medical help or the magnolias bloom

It's cold in this house and I ain't going out to chop wood

So cover me up and know you're enough to use me for good

May we all know this sort of love and redemption, and find this this clear a voice coming out of the darkness. Southeastern is a gift, a bright shining beacon casting a path in the dark. Thank you Jason for this.

To close it out and bring it full circle, Jason’s new album Something More Than Free is also fantastic. Here is the man himself explaining my favorite track from his new album . The title track “Something More Than Free” has been my personal anthem for the past year, and will be a cherished source of grounding and inspiration in the years to come:
When I get home from work
I'll call up all my friends
And we'll go bust up something beautiful we'll have to build again

When I get home from work
I'll wrestle off my clothes
And leave them right inside the front door
'cause nobody's home to know

You see, a hammer finds a nail
And a freight train needs the rail
And I'm doin' what I'm on this earth to do

And I don't think on why I'm here or where it hurts
I'm just lucky to have the work
Sunday morning I'm too tired to go to church
But I thank God for the work

When I get my reward, my work will all be done
And I will sit back in my chair beside the Father and the Son
No more holes to fill. And no more rocks to break
And no more loading boxes onto trucks for someone else's sake

And the day will come. When I'll find a reason
And somebody proud to love a man like me
My back is numb, my hands are freezing
What I'm working for is something more than free

Don't give it away...

Friday, May 1, 2015

Decision Friday

Today is the deadline for the college class of 2019 needs to make their final decisions about which college they are going to.  Our older daughter was fortunate to be accepted to her early decision school so we're avoiding this dance, but it is the end of a very long, very stressful, and very intense road for many high school seniors.  If you see one looking shell shock, give them a hug, and let them they did great, and that they're going to do great.  Congratulations to the class of 2015, and best wishes for a happy and successful college journey.

The College Application Process is Insane

I had heard from other parents how challenging the college application process would be, but honestly, I had no idea how crazy challenging (and crazy) the process would be.  Having really dug into it, it is clear that in the past 5 years (and as long ago as 10 years ago for some schools), things significantly changed, and it has created an arms race between schools and students and families.  It took us a while to understand the dynamic and figure out how to work within in.  

If you are about to start in on this journey, I hope those lessons are helpful to you and can take some of the stress and pain out of a completely irrational process.  I am far from an expert, but these lessons were helpful to me as we navigated this crazy process.  Your mileage will definitely vary, as will reality from what I have seen.  Our experience is also for elite colleges (say, top 50 in the US News rankings), where things are most crazy.  That being said, I wish I knew then what I know now.

So Why are Things Different Now?

For those of us of a previous generation, it is important to realize that the college application and selection process has become a data-driven business.  Universities are not just interested in selecting the best or most deserving students or students that best fit their culture.  In addition to the normal factor we all would expect (is this a good kid, can they contribute and take advantage of this opportunity, etc), every microdecision (who to persuade to apply, who to accept, who will graduate, long term income potential for each graduate, etc.) is managed and optimized to one of three factors:

  • Does this student bring supplemental or alumni income the university (football players, etc)
  • Does this student make the university more competitive and selective in the national university rankings
  • Does this student (and their family) bring the potential for current or future donations to the university

Basically, there is this important background focus on non-tuition revenue, and brand equity that can be traded for non-tuition revenue.  When applying to colleges, you need to be sensitive to this business side.

Every university and college has a sophisticated data-driven system to optimize against these parameters.  To be competitive in getting into these schools, you have to align what you do against these needs. 

If you were to chart the US News rankings for the top 100 colleges over the past decade, you’ll see this data arms race in action.  By hacking the ranking algorithm and stacking the deck on their metrics, many C level schools have become B level schools and are knocking on the door of A level. Other schools have fallen off because they neglected the new data-driven arms race.  At this point, everyone knows the game, and the competition is intense.

In chatting to admissions councilors, they have pretty much all reverse engineered the algorithm that is used for the major rankings like US News and World Report.  They actively and aggressively manage to these self-reported metrics to boost their rankings.

At the core of many of their data-driven objectives is “selectivity”: how many students with very high GPA and test scores apply? Of those, what proportion are given offers and what is the GPA/test profile for those students?  Most importantly, of those given offers, how many accept those offers? (yield)  

Every calculation they make during the admissions process is influenced by these major items (and many minor ones, like income level, ethnic background, etc)

For private universities, you need to think of the process as a two phase process: phase one is to have the hard metrics to get to the point where they will consider you (getting a fair read of your application).  Phase two is to have such a compelling story that the admissions dean will go to bat for you and advocate for your application when they get to selection committee.  Both are critical, but without the former, you won’t get the shot at the later.  You have to make sure you have a strategy to get a fair read of your application, then deliver on the subjective part of the application.

For the public universities, they are almost exclusively metric driven.  The read is relatively minor, and usually only impacts edge cases.

The net net of driving selectivity is that everyone wants their admission rate to be as low as possible (in the single digits now for the most selective schools), the quality of students to be as high as possible (test scores, GPA, etc), and their yield to be as high as possible (this drives all the games that happen with Early Decision, etc)  

The vicious cycle we're in means that the hyper low admission rates means that students have to apply to more and more colleges (15-20 is the norm now).  This causes the schools to ramp up their efforts on selectivity and yield and to be more data driven in screening applications because of the volume. Admission rates go down, and the cycle escalates. 

So What Should We Do About It?

From a prospective students perspective, this has some very real consequences that no 16-18 year old should have to deal with, but they unfortunately need to.  Below are some notes on key things to keep in mind.  As you read these, remember that these are the unexpected surprises we learned targeting elite universities.  Your experiences will be similar or different depending on your student and the colleges you're targeting.

I can say unequivocally that every single admission dean I met and spoke to had a true passion about their students and their institution, and brought immense heart and caring to what they do.  To a person, they wanted to help everyone and give everyone the best chance they could have to get one of very few seats at their colleges.  That being said, they were all overwhelmed and being managed to hard metrics that were critical to their institutions success.  I have huge admiration and gratitude for the work these folks do, and the way they do it.  The list of lessons below reflect the non-obvious reality we faced, and not the character, mission, or aspirations of the universities we dealt with (across the board, awesome people that were dedicated to all the right things).
  • You will need to cultivate relationships with ~15-20 universities, and have targeted and relevant applications for each
    • You need to demonstrate enough interest that they categorize you as a high potential to accept if they give you an offer (yield)
    • You need the large number because admission rates for any given college are low (and how they will read your application is arbitrary)
  • You need to have a mix of A, B, and C schools, and attack each with the same passion (with 5-10% acceptance rates, you have to play the numbers)
    • It can actually be difficult for high level students to get accepted to C schools…they don’t want to give offers that they know are going to get turned down
    • You can apply to the same school 5 times with the exact same application, and you may only be accepted 2 times (depends on who is reading your application)
  • You need to spend time on the campuses, and better still, connect with faculty and be able to speak directly to why it is your life dream to go there and what you bring to the school (very hard to do for this many schools)
    • The schools will track every email you send, every campus visit and tour you go on, and every note they get from faculty and alumni that you have talked to them and expressed interest
    • When you visit schools for tours, do the research and find a faculty member in an area of interest…reach out to them to set up time while you are there.  Besides learning what they do, they will let the admissions office know if they were impressed with you (that carries a huge amount of weight)
  • You need to be hyper competitive on standardized test scores
    • Full time SAT prep over a period of months may seem crazy, but it can get you 200-300 SAT points (in San Diego, Summa is awesome)
    • Maximizing your test scores is the cost of even being at the table for top schools…strong test scores may not help you, but weak ones will hurt you (all competitive students will be do the same intense test prep…test scores are a big metric in selectivity rankings)
  • You need to aggressively manage your GPA and honors course work
    • Even a handful of Bs will push your metrics into a range that the most selective schools won’t want to touch…it will drive their rankings down
    • You will be measured against what your high school offers and historical grades for other students have have applied (if your school has 15 AP courses, you better be taking a lot of them)
  • For the University of California system, you need to plan your high school course work well in advance
    • For UCs the only grades that matter are sophomore and junior year - make damn sure you have the right ones and that you nail the grades
    • You need advanced courses to get the GPA boost, and avoid Bs! (note that the average GPA for UC schools are all north of 4.0) 
    • UCs negotiate with each individual high school to designate which courses get the "honors" GPA bump.  If you want to attend a UC, review this list before your freshman year and set up your course work so you can get to the right courses your sophomore and junior years, or your UC-GPA will suffer
  • The recommendation that really matters is your high school college councilor
    • For the selective schools, this is the most important relationship you can cultivate
    • They will be the one that calls the admissions dean for your high school and give them the list of students they really need to pay attention to, and they will lobby and pitch their favorite students for each school
    • Get your councilor to believe in your child, and be willing to do whatever it takes to get him in the right school…they are the “agent” in this process that is packaging and presenting your child to the premiere schools
    • If the college councilor has office hours, be in there every week building out your strategy school by school…get the face time, get them fighting for you (it makes a difference for private schools)
    • Other recommendations are important to reflect your character and paint a picture of you, but you won’t get to that stage in the process unless your councilor has gone to bat for you
  • Start visiting colleges now, tomorrow, and the day after
    • It is so important for the student to get a sense of what is important to them, but it is even more important for the college to see you’re making the effort (yield)
    • Build a profile for each school as you visit and do research; you will need this when you go to write up your application to make it relevant to the values of the school (believe me, they all blur into each other after you've visited your 5th school)
  • If you or your spouse attended a private university, consider what it takes to leverage that alumni relationship (legacy really matters at some of these private schools)
    • They all have local alumni that do college interviews…find out who those people are and form a relationship 
  • Start early with testing and the application process
    • Your child should be taking all the standardized tests your sophomore year to get a baseline and get experience
    • Leverage the summer before your junior year for intense test prep and take the test in the fall your junior year before your course work gets too crazy (your junior year courses will be your toughest, and you'll need to get the best grades that year...those are the last grades and courses the admissions folks will see when they make their decisions)
    • If you think you can get a boost, study again the summer before your senior year and take it again in the fall (even 100 extra points can make a huge difference in making the cut for a good read)
    • Start with your common app essay and key public school essays starting in junior year, then hit them hard summer before your senior year (these take hours and hours and hours) Try to have rough drafts of all your essays before your senior year starts (these are very very very hard to write and for the first few, will require 10+ drafts to get right)
  • Keep detailed check lists and calendars for deadlines
    • Between supplements, apps, recommendations, tests, subject tests, etc, the logistics are crazy (there are no second chances for being late)
  • When the time comes, spend time to really understand the game theory behind the Early Decision process (this is crazy making, but hyper important)
    • For some schools, early decision acceptance rates can be 3x regular decision
    • Top schools love early decision to juice their numbers and avoid competing for the best students: You can only apply to a single early decision school (interest), and if accepted, you have to attend (yield)…huge statistics games around this that you can use to your advantage (for example, my daughter's school admits 48% of their freshman class through early decision)
  • You are competing with everyone else at your high school for the same schools
    • Only so many from your high school will get accepted to the more selective schools
    • This creates huge competition among the top students at your high school…something to be sensitive to
  • Colleges have deep statistical profiles on your high school and pretty much every other high school that they draw students from
    • They know the history of offers and acceptances for students from your school, GPAs, test scores, how they do at that college, etc
    • They will discount or boost your child's application based on these metrics
    • If you’re really interested in a particular college, find out who got accepted and went there from your high school and reach out to them for guidance (get copy of application, what the school is really like, etc)
  • Paradoxically, the better your high school, the higher the standard you will be held to
    • It is actually tougher to get in from better high schools, not easier
    • You will be measured against the opportunities you had and how you (vs your peers) took advantage of them
    • At the best schools, this makes the internal competition among fellow students even more intense
  • College is crazy expensive, so talk about realities early and often
    • Public universities are basically $30k/year for instate and $45k/year for out state
    • Private universities are basically $65k/year 
    • Most scholarships are needs based (most selective schools are actually the most generous…it may be cheaper to attend Brown than a 2nd or 3rd tier private school)
    • 2nd and 3rd tier private schools can be aggressive with academic scholarships for students that will help them raise their selectivity ranking (this is basically a discount off retail)
    • Every public university system is in deep financial distress…don't expect any handouts there, and they are swamped with applications because they are so much cheaper
    • 4 year graduation rates really matter…having to spend an additional $65k for a 5th year is crazy making so pay attention now and factor that into your decision
    • If you or your child is taking on debt for college, urge them to pay close attention to what kind of job they'll get with their degree (burdening a student with $250k in debt for a degree that makes $40k/year should be criminal, but it is shockingly common)

Early Decision Really Matters

As a reminder, most of the private schools have a program where you can apply early decision. The deadline for these applications is usually early November, and you hear back in December. The wrinkle is that you are only allowed to apply to a single school as your Early Decision school, and if you're accepted, you are obliged to attend that school.

This creates a fairly complex game scenario for schools and students. Schools are incented to admit a very high proportion of their class Early Decision (100% yield, 100% of applicants are demonstrating significant interest). It also allows them to lock up students they want before they have to compete with other schools. This means that acceptance rates for these schools are much higher for early decision than regular decision, with a non-trivial percent of the open slots being allocated during early decision.

By way of example, here are 2014 admission stats for a couple Ivy League schools and a premiere liberal arts school:

Admit Rate
(Regular Decision)
Admit Rate
(Early Decision)
% of class admitted
(Early Decision)

For students, ideally the strategy is to apply to your dream school, which you would attend no matter what.  Because of the huge differences in acceptance rates, students start to worry about where they would have the most advantage by applying early, rather than where do they most want to go. Do you apply to a second choice school early decision to have a better chance of getting in?  But that means that you won't have a chance to even apply to your other schools. 

Also, they worry about the message it sends to schools for regular decision if they don't apply early decision. If I don't apply to school X early decision, how can I tell them in my essay that they are the perfect school for me?

Complicating this decision is that public universities don't have early decision options (generally).  If you apply early decision and get accepted, you won't have a chance to see if any of the UC schools accept you (better to wait for Berkeley at $30k per year or lock in Brown at $65k per year?)

Balancing these factors makes the choice of early decision school surprisingly stressful and strategic.

My advice is that if there is a dream school that offers early decision, make sure to apply.  Even if chances are low that you get accepted, it is still better than regular decisions. It will also force your student to get their Common Application polished for their dream school early, which will leave more time for regular decision schools if they weren't accepted.

Lastly, your Christmas break senior year will be infinitely nicer if your student is accepted to their early decision school (submitting 10+ applications by the January 1 deadline would be very unpleasant).  

Any Other Advice?

Gone are the days that you apply to two schools over a weekend like I did.  You will be applying to 15-20 schools (because of the numbers game), and each will require 5-20 hours of intense work, with a heck of a lot of investment before hand for campus visits, research, etc.  You can have a perfect GPA and perfect test scores and you will not get accepted to premiere schools unless you put in the time and it shows.  This is a very unnatural act for any teenager, mainly because you need to start a year before things are due.  

I highly recommend that you consider getting an experienced college application coach to help organize the process and get you as a parent out of the process.  The strain of being both a parent and a coach during this process can be pretty intense (they need you to be supportive and loving during a very stressful time, not cracking the whip to get application 13 done and doing prep for the SAT math subject test).

Get to know the SAT stats for your schools of interest, and figure out where you child ranks.  Unless you’re a recruited athlete, a legacy student, or from an underprivileged background or school, you better be in the upper half of the SAT range and have a competitive GPA.  If not, still go after your dream schools, but don't bet everything on getting in.

Speaking of dream schools, don't get too passionate about schools too early (this is really really hard).  The first goal is to get acceptances.  Once you have acceptances, you then decide which is the best school for you.  Until you have acceptances, the standard should be "if this were the only school I was accepted to, would I be happy attending here?" Focusing too early on a single dream school will make all the work for the other 14-19 schools much harder to do.

This is an insane process, and will only getting more so as the numbers game ratchets up.  I have been universally impressed with the people and mission of all the universities we visited: they really care and are deeply connected to their responsibilities to their students and their communities. The business realities are influencing what they do, but they are not defining what they do. Be sensitive to them, work with them because you have to, but don't be defined by them yourself.  These are noble people at noble institutions doing a great service for civilization. The metrics distort, but they haven’t destroyed.  Make it easy for them to do the right thing and they will do so every time.

Closing Thoughts

College is a gift, an opportunity. It will provide the foundation of skills, knowledge, and character that will define the rest of your life. Don't confuse what you need to do to get that opportunity with why you are doing it.  Remember (and help your child to remember) that any one of these schools is a remarkable opportunity, and that they will do great no matter where they go.  Choice can create stress and challenges, but having an opportunity to go to college and better yourself is a gift that was unavailable to most through out human history.  Do your best, make the best choice from the options you have, then do your best to take advantage of every opportunity given to you to better yourself and make a difference in the world.

Good hunting to the class of 2019.  We're all very proud of you, and can't wait to see how you'll change the world.