At work, I operate in an open cube farm, and while it is generally a reasonably quiet environment, sometimes the developers I’m around can be a bit loud. For years, I’ve worn B&W C5 earphones, which fit my ear-geometry, and produce a reasonable sound isolation for mobile environments. Unfortunately, they’re not always the most comfortable thing over extended periods, and I generally dislike in-ear devices anyway.
I considered noise-canceling headphones, but I’ve always found the effect on music to be a bit noticeable for me. It’s not that I have amazing hearing, but that I have a weird issue with one ear that gives me audible sensitivity up to 25kHz, which makes some of the tricks the headphones use noticeable. In addition, my Bose headphones just don’t have a pleasing sound to me. Then again, I generally abhor the “Bose sound”, which … the less said the better.
That left my main headphones, a well-worn pair of Grado SR-325i, which are monumentally good. Baring a pair of Stax Lambdas, I can’t think of a more revealing and beautiful sound. Unfortunately, they are “open”, which means that my coworkers would have to endure my own musical taste, so those were out.
After some research, I decided to go with a pair of PSB M4U 1 headphones, which are the non-noise-cancelling model of one of the current best-in-class headphones. PSB, a Canadian company, has always made high-value audio gear, with their PSB Alphas being one of the go-to low-end recommendations. These headphones continue that streak of punching above their price-class. After listening to a few of my favorite albums, they remind me of the Grados in revelatory power, but without quite the transparency. Where the Grado headphones present a soundstage outside your head, the PSBs, because of their closed design, present one that is inside your head. Different strokes for different folks.
As for comfort, I wore them for about 4 hours today so far, and I find they are very comfortable without too much pressure against the head, and they fit over my hears comfortably. Noise isolation, while not active, is still quite good in an office environment. Enough that combined with music at almost any volume level, the entire background disappears.
To pair with a new pair of headphones, I decided to pick up an external DAC and amp for my notebook at work. I did some searching, and the FiiO Andes E07K received a lot of positive mentions for the price, and it provides for a portable solution. I’ve used a Cambridge Audio DAC Magic XS for a while, and love it, but it’s not battery powered, and is a good bit more expensive.
So far, my main observation of the FiiO product is that it feels “punchier”. I know that’s a vague statement, but right now I am limited to audio sources that are compressed until I can connect it to my main iTunes library that is composed of primarily ALAC lossless recordings, many of which are from 24bit sources. I expect it will improve even further then. Where-as the Cambridge audio uses the ESS9023 from ESS Technology, which are widely considered the best DACs on the market., I don’t know what the FiiO uses. I’m going to guess it’s a TI part, which is more than good enough for this situation.
That’s my first day’s thoughts.