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What Every Headset Purchaser Needs To Know

Closed Back Headphones vs. Open-back Headphones

Open-back headphones have pads which rest on the outer ear. They’re designed such that the outer shell of the ear cup has perforations usually with horizontal cutouts. The Open back headphones design of the ear cup enhances better natural sound because of less coloration as compared to the Closed back headphones.

Closed back headphones have much larger earpads which encircle the ears. They are designed such that there’s a big pad which cups the ears, and it features an insulated outer shell of plastic which covers the ears. The Closed back headphones actually have a very solid outer shell which doesn’t have any sort of perforations such that the outer shell effectively cups/encircles the entire ear. The Closed back headphones are excellent at isolating noise. They block most of the ambient noise, but they’ve a smaller sound stage, which gives the user the perception that the audio/sound is originating from within their head. Closed back headphones also tend to produce much stronger low frequencies as compared to Open back headphones.

Low Impedance vs High Impedance

Headphones normally come in various different impedance levels, such as 8 ohms, 16 ohms and 32 ohms. The power that’s supplied by an audio source may be at varying levels because of a variety of factors including being limited because of being battery powered. Generally, as the impedance of the headphones increases, much more voltage will be required in order to drive it, and the audio loudness of headphones for a particular voltage decreases.

The determination of impedance is usually disregarded by many headphone buyers, however, the truth is it’s one of the most important factors to consider when choosing the best headphones for your particular needs. Impedance is basically just how much power the headphones can put out so that it can overcome resistance to move the headphones’ diaphragm.

Low impedance headphones (that is, less than 25 ohm), usually require little power in order to deliver high audio levels. Low Impedance headphones play well with devices which have weak amplification. These can include; mobile phones, portable music players and various other portable devices. This type of headphones can be used at home and also while jogging with your mobile phone; this is one of the reasons why most of the on-, in-, and over the ear headphones, are low impedance. Low impedance headphones are normally designed to get plugged directly in to a single (one) source, and generates sound more efficiently from a lower level input signal. This headphones tend to be much louder and much more efficient, however, they will also require a much more capable amplifier.

High impedance headphones (25 ohms and above), generally require more power in order to deliver high audio levels. As a result, they’re protected from damages caused by overloading. High impedance headphones are typically designed for studio like applications where there might be multiple phones/devices wired in parallel and receiving input signals from a single source. High impedance headphones are more tolerant of the amplifier limitations, however, they will produce less volume for a particular output level. They are also a little more durable (that is, electronically), however, they require much higher signal levels in order to produce the same level of output level of the low impedance headphones. This type of headphones can be used with a wider range of audio equipment.

Passive Headphones vs. Active Headphones

Passive (noise cancelling) headphones are made of materials which help in blocking out sound waves from the surrounding environment. The same way ear muffs soften the outside noise, so does this type of headphones employ passive noise canceling. This type of headphones are typically used for both professional mixing and monitoring, like in broadcast and recording studios, and such other applications. Passive headphones are basically designed to playback music/audio true to the actual original recording, with minimal, compression, EQ, and such other sound enhancements.

On the other hand, Active headphones use batteries in order to power the built in Digital Signal Processing (also abbreviated as DSP) technology which processes play back for a particular reason, for example, to enhance the bass and the high end. Due to the enhancement of playbacks with sharper high ends and more bass, active headphones are more popular for general listening and listening to music for pleasure. Active noise cancelling headphones are also made of materials which help in blocking out outside noise, however, they take things a step further by making their very own sound waves; the sound waves created mimic the outside noises, but are a mirror image of each other, thus cancels each other out.

Wired Headphones Vs Wireless Headphones

When choosing a pair of headphones, deciding between wireless vs. wired is among one of the most overlooked factors. Wireless headphones might be a more popular choice, however, the wired headphones also have their own set of benefits. Well, that being said, as a general rule of thumb, between wireless headphones and wired headphones, assuming a similar price between the models; the wired headphones usually offer a much better quality. Also, the audio quality may get compromised over Bluetooth.

You can opt for the wireless headphones if you are not much of an audiophile, and you tend to travel a lot. If you really don’t like getting the cables of your headphones getting tangled, or caught while listening to music/audio, then the choice should be rather simple; go for wireless headphones.

You can opt for the wired headphones if you are an audiophile, and you do not necessarily bother with the wireless options unless absolutely essential like using them when traveling, or keeping the headphones as a backup. As aforementioned, the wired headphones are way ahead in terms of output quality as compared to the wireless headphones. You will never have to worry about running out of batteries, unless you happen to opt for wired headphones which cancel noise. In addition, you will never suffer from interference from the other commonly used wireless electronic devices. However, you will need to take good care of the wired headphone cables, or they will eventually break.

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In Ear Monitor Buyer’s Guide: Custom vs. Generic Fit

It is understood that ear moulded plugs are far more comfortable and effective than the mushroom plugs, but which ones are the best? The Custom fit or generic fit. This article runs over the positives and negatives of that question and comes to a conclusion, if your debating to get some moulded ear plugs or some from the shelf, you will want to read this first.

Over the past 20 years, In Ear Monitors (or IEMs) have become a near-necessity for live performance.

In years prior, engineers would inevitably have to crank up a venue’s stage monitors loud enough for the musicians to hear themselves over the audience, over the sound coming from the stage, and over the main mix.

This would often lead to an arms race of ever-increasing stage volume, potentially causing feedback issues and compromises in clarity and quality for the live mix.

Custom in-ear monitors from JH Audio, one of the first commercial brands to make a name for itself in the IEM market.

With the advent of in-ear monitors, all this began to change. In the mid-1980s, Etymotic developed the first-ever insert-style earphones, and soon after, a designer named Marty Garcia began making one-off custom in-ears for rock stars like Todd Rundgren.

By 1995, Jerry Harvey, founder of Ultimate Earsand JH Audio, brought some of the first commercially-available dual-driver IEMs to market. All of a sudden, everyday musicians had an option that allowed us to save our hearing, get better monitor mixes, and dramatically reduce the chances of feedback onstage.

Today, IEMs are increasingly being considered useful tools for the studio as well. Their ability to prevent sound leakage can be of tremendous value in helping to control click and instrument bleed, and in saving musicians’ hearing by allowing them to monitor at lower levels.

Some musicians and engineers, such as drummer Rich Pagano of The Fab Faux, will use IEMs to quickly check for phase when mic’ing up a drum kit, while others turn to IEMs as a kind of audio microscope, using them to help check for and remove extraneous low-level noise.

Any modern musician would be wise to consider adding in-ear monitors to their toolkit. But is it worth it to dish out the extra money on custom fit IEMs, instead of saving some money with the generic fit ones?

In testing a variety of in-ear monitors from brands like Westone, Ultimate Ears, Future Sonics, and even Skullcandy (that last of which is not recommended for professional use), I have found that there are cases in which generic fit earphones may work better than their custom counterparts. Making the right decision for your needs comes down to considering the following four factors:

1) Cost

Ultimate Ears custom fit in-ear monitors.

Custom fit IEMs tend to cost more than generic fit ones, as it takes more time and effort for the manufacturer to craft a product designed specifically for the unique anatomy of your ear.

Getting custom IEMs made also requires that you go to an audiologist to make a mold of your ear canal that the IEM company can then use to make your monitors fit as well as possible.

Take note of both of these costs, which can range from $100-$200 or more for a fitting from an audiologist, and $299-$1499 or more for the custom monitors to be made.

2) Comfort & Seal

Custom fit IEMs are custom, so they should feel really comfortable, right?  Well, yes and no.

In my experience, custom fit IEMs can feel a little tight in the ear canal compared to generics, especially at first. Hearing so little acoustic feedback from your performance can also take some getting used to, and the tight seal of custom fit in-ears can feel particularly awkward when signing.

Because of this, my looser-fitting Westone 3 generic IEMs actually feel more comfortable to me on vocal duties, so I often find myself using them over my custom fit Future Sonics when I step up to the mic.

Matt Bellamy from Muse (recently featured in Get THAT Guitar Tone) has been seen using both customUltimate Ears UE-11s and generic-fit Westone UM2s when on tour, and my guess is that he has similar reasons.

Though the tight fit of custom IEMs and lack of acoustic feedback from your performance can be a challenge, it’s worth noting that generic foam-tip IEMs also provide their own tradeoffs: The looser fit of generics can sometimes create a bit of a tingling or “tickling” feeling in your ear when playing at higher volumes, so it may be useful to have a pair of each and go with what feels best depending on the date and venue.

Silicone-based Encore Studio custom IEMs from ACS.

Another option here is the custom fit brandACS, which makes its IEMs out of soft silicone shells.

This softer silicone-based design is meant to offer both better comfort and a tighter fit than the hard acrylic shells used by brands like Westone and Ultimate Ears.

Though these silicone monitors sell for a premium price of $400-$1,200 and up, they may help bridge the gap between the tight seal of custom acrylics and the looser and easier fit of foam-tipped generic IEMs.

3) Hearing Protection

In addition to cutting down on sound leakage to help improve sound quality and reduce feedback, another primary benefit of IEMs is that they can offer considerable hearing protection by helping to block out exterior noise, allowing you to monitor at lower levels.

Some of the best custom fit brands like JH Audio and Ultimate Ears offer NRR ratings of 26dB in reduction, and some of the better generic brands advertise comparable results as well. (Though your results with generics may vary depending on the fit and seal in your ear.)

In the long term, reducing the levels you’re regularly exposed to—even by a few extra decibels—could mean the difference between a long and illustrious career as a “golden-eared” audio engineer and potentialtinnitus and irreversible hearing loss.

Also worth checking out is the REV33 system, which can be added on to your your in-ear-monitoring system to help reduce distortion and ear strain. Many live musicians, including Phil X and Steve Salas swear by the system. According to the company:

All in-ear monitors and headphones generate damaging, unwanted noise and distortion that forces the ear to shut down and compress for protection. The REV33 reduces the symptoms of tinnitus, ear-ringing, ear-fatigue, buzzing and dampened hearing by preventing in-ear monitors and headphones from producing this unwanted noise and distortion.

4) Waiting and Time Considerations

After getting my first pair of IEM’s made, I found that the right ear monitor turned out well, but I was not getting a proper seal in the left ear at first. This made the monitors essentially useless for my live sound needs at the time, and so I had to send them back for some tweaking.

When I got them back a couple of weeks later, the seal still wasn’t great, so I had to send them back once again for further modification, and visit my audiologist a second time to take another impression of my ear canal to send in.

Getting the perfect fit turned out to be quite a time-consuming process (as well as an expensive one) so unless you’re on the hunt for a long-term solution with as much acoustic isolation as humanly possible, you might satisfice with generic IEMs, or keep some around as an alternate option.

In that case, I would recommend the generic in-ears from Ultimate Ears, Shure, or Westone.

Ultimate Ears’ generic fit UE900 model sports 4 drivers for $400.

The Ultimate Ears UE900’s are a great sounding 4-driver IEM that only costs $399, while the $99 Shure SE215 single-driver IEMs advertise an astonishing 37dB of noise reduction (more than most custom IEMs) at a great price.

My own triple-driver Westone 3’s (since replaced by the W30 model) are the most comfortable in ear monitors I own right now, and they isolate a lot more noise than most thanks to their foam-tip construction.

Compared to custom in-ears, any of these model can potentially save you time and money, or work as a welcome supplement for those times when the tight fit of custom in-ears feels irksome.

I hope my experiences here help you make the right decision when you go to buy your own IEMs. In short, I found that less-expensive generic foam-tipped IEMs worked better for me in many situations, and the savings enabled me to spend my money on better drivers with a fuller sound.

If you’ve used IEM’s in the past, let us know in the comments below whether you prefer custom fits or generic fit ones, and why.