Sennheiser HD 380 – great office headphones

Sennheiser HD 380 image (c) by Sennheiser

Sturdy companions

The short

The Sennheiser HD 380 are sturdy, versatile headphones with good sound quality for the price. Apart from their intended studio use, they are also well suited for office environments.
 

The long

The Sennheiser HD 380 cost around 110 € at the time of writing.
 
They are closed studio headphones. As such, sound isolation and durability are central aspects of their construction.
 
Sound isolation from outside noise could be better, but they still go a long way to enabling you to work through other people’s phone conversations and other distractions in the office. On the upside: you are still reachable to the world, i.e. you get enough feedback from outside to be able to for example distinguish your name if it is spoken (quite) loudly. As for sound leakage: You need to turn these up really loud before others around you get the least inkling of what you are listening to, and ridiculously loud before anybody complains.
 
The HD 380 are really durable. I have not consciously tortured them, but they have survived 7 years in an office with me. This includes at least multiple dozens of drops to a hard floor as well as me running over the cable with the wheels of my office chair more times than I can count. The only fix necessary during that time was the replacement of the ear pads, where the fake leather surface was flaking off. Spare parts here are easy to get and priced pretty reasonably.
 
The headphones are generally comfortable. Sennheiser intended these to sit tight, and that they do, but it is only after hours of wearing them non-stop that I start noticing the pressure.
 
For my purpose looks are relevant only in as far a the headphones should not make me look utterly ridiculous to my co-workers. With their simple lines and being fully black, the HD 380 easily fulfill this. Since these will likely be used for years to come, it’s also nice to know that there is nothing about them that will badly date them. For use outside or in any fashion-conscious context there are more stylish looking choices our there.
 
With the coiled, long and somewhat heavy cable, they are clearly restricted to home/office listening. Alternative cables are available, but I’ve never found any at a price that would make getting them attractive. Anyway, for me these stay at the office, and I use in-ears when I’m on the go.
 
Sound-wise they are mostly well-balanced. They work equally well with any kind of music that I’ve thrown at them. There’s really nothing there that sticks out. Bass extension is actually quite good, but they are neutral to bass-shy. If you want bass and can use an EQ on your playback equipment, then they should be able to satisfy your inner basshead as well (2.5 dB @ 50 Hz and 1.5 dB @ 100 Hz do wonders on my work desktop). Being a light construction, they do have a somewhat boxy sound, i.e. I have the feeling that resonance from the cups is blurring things a bit. They are easy to drive, and I’ve not heard huge benefits when driving them from my headphone amp over using the headphone out of my desktop PC.
 
For me the main purpose of my HD 380 is to play background music for sound isolation from the office – which they do admirably. Their overall simple, no-nonsense presentation allows the music to stay in the background when I’m actively working, but they provide enough detail and are coherent enough to reward the occassional bit of more intensive listening. Turn them up a bit more and you can easily get into foot-tapping (and sometimes fist-pumping) territory.

Summary

I like the HD 380. I especially like them for the price and for what I’m using them for.
 
For anybody not interested in looks and portability, they are a good entry-level universal headphone. They are cheap enough that they don’t burn much of a hole into your pockets, good enough that you can keep them as you main headphones if you find you don’t have an interest in delving further into the world of hi-fi audio, and sturdy enough that this will then be your only purchase for a long time.
 

What do you gain if you spend more?

A couple of points of comparison, though both of these are in-ears and thus do not fit the same use case as the HD 380 (my headphone collection is small):
 
Sennheise IE-80: Around double the price. More musical, better rhythmic flow, much more bass. They paint a pretty picture, and if the music fits with this, they’re gorgeous. For digging out details and analytical listening I’d prefer the HD 380 though.
 
Shure SE535: Around four times the price. Completely outclass the HD 380 on every count (at several times the price). With that comes a need to pay attention, though. The SE535 are my choice when I really want to listen – for background music their presentation is much to involving, and the HD 380 fit the bill better.

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The Seven Cardinal sins of DJing

The first cardinal sin of DJing is bad sequencing, and it is by far the worst. If you don’t play the right tracks in the right sequence then nothing can save your set.

The second is playing a prepared set. Really, why are you there in person if you can’t react to the situation?

The third is not being true to yourself. There are occasions where playing music you don’t like may be required. They’re called weddings. Do so anywhere else – and it’s high time to change what you are doing.

The fourth is not having any self to be true to. If there is no music you love then how can you expect your audience to love the music you’re playing?

The fifth cardinal sin is doing stuff you can’t do with absolute certainty. If for example you can’t properly beat match then do quick cuts (or use software that does the matching for you for God’s sake).

The sixth is doing too much. The chances that you know how to materially improve ever single track in your set through your scratching, filtering and other antics are slim. Trust your material – if it needs that many modifications then you should really play something else.

The seventh is not exploring new music. Not necessarily music that is newly released, but music that you haven’t heard before. New music forces you to shake things up, try new sequences of tracks, and keeps your sets fresh.

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Review: Fiio A1

The A1 is a simple product with a clearly defined but limited purpose: It takes the too low (but ideally clean) audio output from a mobile device and adds a bit of oomph and control to it.

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In the case of my current phone, a Sony Z3 Compact, this is much needed for most headphones. I’m talking real life IEMs and on-ears here, not even exotic hard to drive ones. While this is an especially bad example, headphone outputs overall have gotten worse in regard to what they can put out in recent years generally.

With the A1, something not wildly efficient like the Sound magic E10 becomes usable. Somewhat to my surprise they’re even enjoyable. I can turn them up to a level where the resolution becomes decent, and they benefit from better control over the bass.

Apart from the oomph, the output also stays clean better under load. The Z3 can drive my Shure SE535, which are exceptionally sensitive, to more than decent volumes, but with the A1 a bit of coarseness in the treble is gone, and the bass control and extension improves. I generally find it more enjoyable to listen to music and get lost in a track much easier when I use the A1.

So: If your mobile headphone output is somewhat lacking in volume with your headphones, the A1 is well worth a try. If you’re content with the volume, but wonder what you can do to improve the playback quality on some good, but not really hard to drive heaphones then the A1 makes so much more sense than getting into other areas such as the ridiculousness of cable upgrades.

Disclaimer: I bought any products mentioned here myself.

 

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Review: SoundMAGIC E10

Good speakers and headphones cost money. Over the years I’ve moved on from the ~80 € class of in-ears to a pair of 200 € ones and, recently, to the ~400 € Shure SE535, and each of these has been a step up in sound quality and (this is the important part) significantly increased my enjoyment of music. I also felt that the price/quality ratio remained reasonable up to my latest purchase, even though there were diminishing returns.

With IEMs not something that you can easily try out in a shop, and over-400€ devices being a niche market anyway, there is no way for me to find out what spending even more would give me bar spending even more – and I’m both happy enough with the Shures and so financially constrained that this presently has zero appeal to me.

On to the low end

Why the introduction about the high end for a pair of decidely cheap IEMs? With what I’ve spent on IEMs I’m already in the freak enthusiast zone (though in less deep than many), and any explorations there have limited appeal for others. Very few people will ever spend 400 € on some itty bitty pieces of technology they cram in their ears for listening to music. Many more may be enticed to spend 37 € (current price on Amazon Germany) for something like the E10 – if there is a respective payoff. So exploring the low end is both more financially viable and beneficial to a wider range of people (though less enjoyable for my ears).

soundmagic_e10

The first question

The first question to answer for low end IEMs then is: Are these a step up from what most people will be replacing with these, i.e. the in-ears that come with smartphones?

They are. I compared them to what came with my Sony phone, and the difference is vast. At this level of difference it’s not even worth talking about specifics: There is a whole lot more music in the E10.

Are they better than competitors at the price? My last pair of in-ears in this price category is long ago, but I have a pretty good memory of the Sennheiser CX 400 (at roughly twice the price), and I always felt that the music didn’t really come together as a whole on these like it does on the E10 – even if they individual frequency reproduction may have been better than on the E10. This at least indicates that they are competetive. (There’s also the fact that What-HiFi have them as their sub-50€ pick – and that Web site seems to have generally reasonable reviews and judgements.)

So we have that out of the way: They are worth the money for the sound, and are a good pick for anybody willing to upgrade from the crap that included headphones (almost) invariably are.

Further reading

Some more specific points:

  • Comfort is OK. I had to experiment a bit with wearing them, and now run the cables along the tops of my ears without having them in the usual twisted-in position that lends itself to this. Microphonics are very good (i.e. there’s little of them) like this, while they were pretty bad when worn with the cable straight down.
  • They’re not for devices with lowish audio output. My Z3 Compact can barely get them to minimum listening level (which is a common problem with this phone).
  • They benefit from a better source. Adding the Fiio A1 in between the Z3 and the E10s changes things drastically. The combined price of this combination would, however, be better spent on other, better in-ears.
  • They benefit from better earpieces. I had some old Complys lying around (tried on my Sennheiser IE80, didn’t work for them). These improve sound isolation and comfort.
  • They definitely require burn-in. I initially had them play for 10 or so hours overnight and have used them occasionally since, and the sound seems to still improve. As usual with burn-in this is not a problem – the improvement is automatic through normal use as well. So go ahead and start using them immediately if you don’t believe in burn-in. From my experience with numerous headphones and speakers it’s just a bad idea to judge their sound when they’re fresh out of the box.

The sound in detail

These are not great headphones. From my experience so far, there a no giant-killers in sound transducers. You get what you pay for (except for with fashion brands and probably high-end snake-oil, where you may get significantly less). With anything in the price bracket of the E10, you’re basically talking about judging faults. Nothing here will have deep, controlled bass, well-defined sparkly treble without harshness or mids that can tell you which microphone a singer was using.

The secret of good cheap headphones is balancing the faults and restrictions. Ideally they combine their faults into something that delivers music without drawing the listener’s attention to what’s missing and wrong.

The E10 have a lot of faults: Bass is not particularly deep and firmly entrenched on the boomy side of things. Treble rolls of very early. They generally lack detail.

They balance this with decent soundstaging and general coherence in the sound. What is there works well together, and the outcome is a musical presentation which is, for the most part, enjoyable. These things can groove and flow, and I have gotten completely lost in the music with these. That is all that you can expect at the price point.

Summary

Recommended at the price. If you’re still listening to music using the crap that came with your device and have 40 € to spare, then order the E10. They will improve your life. (Or research other options – these are just something that I found works, and there are sure to be others that do the same.) If you have even more to spare then consider buying something better instead. At these price points significant improvements can be had for just a bit more.

Full disclosure: I bought these myself and have no affiliation with SoundMAGIC (or Shure, for that matter).

 

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Clausnitz without the black and white

If you haven’t heard about the events at Clausnitz involving a bus of refugees and an angry group of 100 protesters, then first take a look at e.g. this  http://www.theguardian.com/world/2016/feb/19/mob-chanting-bus-refugees-germany-politicians, which should give you an idea. (There are plenty of articles to be found with a simple Web search if you want to dive deeper.)

After this incident, the usual black and white accusations started up in the German press and in the few online comment sections which are not yet closed for any refugee-related articles. There was hate against the police for failing to control the situation, personal accusations against individual policemen for dragging refugees from the bus, massive blame on the refugees for not staying calm throughout, and even the always regrettable accusation against all protesters of being “non-human”.

From what I’ve read about the incident, most of this lacks balance, and a lot of it is just plain wrong.

There seem to have been too few police there on the ground to disperse the mob. So getting the refugees out of the bus and into their assigned housing looks like a sensible idea. This greatly reduced the interface surface and increased the refugees safety. If some force had to be used to get them out of there, then so be it. I was not in the situation, and I will not judge any police personnel in the situation about how specifically they did this if there do not appear to have been any obvious excesses (which there do not seem to have been). Criticism at the police for doing the correct thing, but not doing it as well as they might have are valid, but do not warrant the hate, and should not be the focus in this situation. They certainly don’t warrant personal attacks on any personnel involved. I do not expect our police to be perfect. I do expect them to act reasonably. This seems to have been the case here.

Where criticism towards the police is due are two areas, and in both cases these are towards the police leadership, not people on the ground.

The first is that there was not enough backup sent to bring the situation under control earlier. A large group of protesters blocking the way of a legal and necessary transport of refugees and refusing to follow police orders to desist in their actions is not something that can be accepted. It certainly isn’t in the case of the regular transports of nuclear waste, which was rightfully brought up often in the discussions I read. In those cases matter is transported, and passive resistance is dealt with swiftly and, nowadays, mostly calmly and professionally. The costs are huge, but it is done every time. Here people were transported, and the protest situation obviously was one where the police expected that escalation to violence against these people was possible. This also requires bringing in any amount of personnel necessary to resolve the situation. Not doing so and capitulating to a hundred protesters (one hundred!) shows a deep lack of judgement of the leadership. If it was not possible to bring in the necessary amount of personnel, then this calls for a statement to this effect by the police leadership, and for efforts to remedy the underlying problems. (Calling for more security and downsizing the police at the same time has always been nonsensical. It is time to end this. I am a strong supporter of civil liberties, and firmly convinced that these are better protected by a police force which has the personnel to enforce the laws than by indiscriminate automated surveillance and data collection which has little real effect but a huge potential for abuse!)

Secondly, the official assignation of blame in the situation and the announced criminal proceedings are way off.

The people who assembled to protest did not have a right to block the way of the bus. They did not have a right to stay assembled after the police told them to disperse. To be clear, these are minor infractions, and I generally support the moral rights to a peaceful protest irrespective of such minor infractions. I certainly do not want to see anybody prosecuted for showing up there. Blocking a bus with innocent people in it for hours, constant angry shouting, threatening behavior, on the other hand, are not acceptable. People have a right to their opinion about the German government’s handling of the refugee crisis. They have a right to express this in protest. They do not have a right to threaten individual refugees. Not dispersing after it became clear that this was not a peaceful protest and that there was a risk of escalation is not acceptable morally as well as legally. The ringleaders here should be prosecuted. That may only be a few people, and I do not expect any heavy punishments to come out of it, but there should be an investigation as a signal that these are not acceptable actions.

Unlike the protesters, the refugees on the bus were not there voluntarily. They did not have the possibility to leave and end the situation at any time. They should not have made insulting gestures at the protesters (one never should insult anybody, really), but there is a lot less blame on them. Losing patience in a situation you’ve been trapped in for a long time and that you cannot escape is understandable. Blaming a ten year old child in this situation is plain ridiculous. Announcing on the day after the incident that there will be further investigation who to assign blame to on the side of the refugees, with possible criminal punishment as a consequence, while not stating anything about investigating the other side is absurd and inexcusable.

tl;dr: The blame here lies not with the police on the ground, but with the leadership for its utter failure of action during the situation and ridiculous reaction afterward. Focusing blame on the refugees in this situation is just wrong.

 

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The 1″ Gap

Smartphones are phones – devices for one-handed use on the move. They are also devices for consuming information. The restrictions on size by the former, and the requirements for screen real estate by the latter leave a gap between two ideal sizes – and mean that there is currently no device that spans the entire range of uses.

When looking at today’s super-sized touchscreen slabs, one-handed use doesn’t seem to have been a consideration in their design.
This is puzzling in a way. Be it taking a call, hammering out a quick answer to a text, changing a track or checking a map – I want none of these core activities to be restricted to situations where I have both hands free. A mobile should be that – able to integrate seamlessly into mobile use, without the need to pause and put down things before operating it. This, of course, puts restrictions on the size of the handset – which, after all, is mainly determined by the screen size. Anything up to 3.7″ is comfortable for me personally, up to 4″ doable, while something like the 4.3″ of the SGS II is already a stretch. With screen sizes beyond that it’s no longer possible to reach every part of the screen with the thumb. They require two-handed operation. The modern superphone, at 4.7″, is already firmly in that territory of two-handed operation.

But then there are good reasons why screen sizes have grown so much. Browsing the web, watching video, reading books, playing games – most modern uses of our smartphones benefit immensely from more screen real estate.
Small screens limit the amount of information that can be displayed. Even with high resolution displays, they are only a small window on the information space, a frame into which things have to be crammed. It’s not possible to read desktop websites without problems, video remains an at-a-distance experience, and they can’t really replace an eBook reader.
Large screens fix this problem – but not really at the 4.7″ of the modern superphone. Sure, things get better at this size, but the crampedness doesn’t really disappear. They are just a halfway solution. To make the crampedness disappear, we need to add another bit of screen size. My guess would be another .3″ at least. At another .6″, i.e. a 5.3″ diagonal, at the latest, the frame no longer dominates the content. EBooks are a joy, movies acceptable, and the vast majority of desktop websites work without a problem. And while one-handed operation is no longer possible, every adult should be able to comfortably and securely hold  a phone with some screen size between 5″ and 5.6″ in one hand.

So, for the time being, there is a 1″ split between mobile phones that really fit the name by allowing one-handed operation, and mobile handheld devices that allow fully mobile, unrestricted information consumption. The current form factor of 4.7″ superphones trades in the former without really achieving the latter.
I say for the time being since I still hope for the flexible screens and other new display technologies that have been promised to us for seemingly ever. Given these, there is a chance for a device that adjusts for either use without compromise. I’m waiting for a future compact mobile that has a screen that unfolds or unrolls to a larger size when needed. Until then, I guess I’ll be using and carrying two devices.

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A few lost folders

Amongst all the folders with ripped CDs, the podcasts, the netlabels and other downloaded music, there is one single folder which contains all of my digital purchases. It is relatively small, since my new music purchases are still just about evenly split between CDs and digital downloads. One reason for this is that, if it weren’t for the fact that it’s clearly labelled “purchased tracks”, all the purchased albums would be indistinguishable from the rest of my collection. This is clearly not particularly satisfying, and not a great incentive to buy more digital purchases.

It’s as if digital purchases are intentionally ugly, barren and limited, in a ploy to drive people back to a time when the only distribution was via physical artifacts carrying that information. That, as everybody but some top recording industry execs knows, is not going to happen.

So use the opportunities that digital offers. There are some simple ways in which the industry should think differently about digital purchases to change the abysmal experience that buying digital presently is:

  1. It’s not just about. Sure, MP3 and AAC are the current standards, but it really isn’t a standard for purchasing music. While e.g. 320kbit/s MP3s are good enough for the majority of my listening situations, they’re by no means perfect quality. All you need to do is to compare some more or less random sounds like the clapping and other audience noise on live recordings with the uncompressed original – it’s not even close there. For other situations, I might actually be willing to sacrifice some audio fidelity for file size – but I’m unwilling to take the extra loss of audio quality that transcoding brings with it.
    So give me FLAC or some other losless format – and then also allow me to download another compressed format of my choosing so that I don’t have to do the encoding myself for immediate use.
  2. It’s not just a single download. Let me re-download my purchased music. It’s a license, after all, and the individual files shouldn’t matter. Being afraid of the miniscule misuse that people might engage in by sharing access codes doesn’t make sense compared with the immense increase in comfort and value that purchasers would receive. Offer me these downloads in whatever format I choose – and don’t limit this to those at the time of purchase. Future-proof my purchase.
  3. It’s not just local storage. Let me stream my purchases whenever I want. Turn it into from a purchase into a service. Being able to listen to my music from wherever there is an internet connection, without me having to set up anything,  is a huge differentiator from all the other files on my hard-drive.
  4. It’s not just the music. There’s album art (not at 64×64 pixels or some such ridiculous size), liner notes, lyrics, credits, artist photos. Vinyl albums and, to a lesser degree, CDs were about visual beauty as well. This has gotten completely lost with digital downloads – even though the visual designs are still produced for the physical release. So pack these in with my purchase. Large, high-quality JPEGS within a zip file are all right – no need to go out and invent special formats that end up being incompatible with most of my playback devices. I can view JPEGs on pretty much any device I consume music on. Simple does it here. But make it so that I like to browse my purchases, that there are things there for me to discover. Put an end to the barren waste of faceless MP3s that is my music folder.
  5. It’s not just data. Sure, it’s an electronic purchase, and there’s really neither need nor use for CDs or other physical media anymore. This doesn’t mean that I wouldn’t like something physical to connect with my music. I’d still like to be able to do physical browsing of at least my most important albums – and I’d love for visitors to be able to do so as well. I want things to touch, things outside of my computers to remind me of music I love.
    So upsell me to something physical: little booklets with the cover art that I can have in rows on my shelves, a poster, a T-Shirt, a die-cast figure, bedsheets, coffee mugs – there are countless possibilities, and with print-on-demand and modern manufacturing techniques for small series of objects, a wide variety of items is not that difficult to have on offer without great initial outlay. If I really like the artist, the piece of music, and want to spend to show this, then give me the possibility to do so.
  6. It’s not just the present piece of music.This release is a part of a net: other releases by the artist, by the label, within the genre, live performances, merchandise, of the past, present and future.
    So sign me up for a notification for future events:  when the artist has a concert near where I live, a new release by the artist or on the label comes out,  the  new video that I can watch on youtube.
    This one sale may be the only point of contact with me – so exploit it. If the offers aren’t shoved in my face, I’ll gladly give up my data in return for something I like. This can be the beginning of a wonderful friendship. Just make it something about the purchase I made. Make me want to come back by offering me the next release at a slight discount.
    And should a continuous relationship be established, do things to reward me here, to wow me. Offer me a bonus track after I’ve bought three releases. Or how about a subscription to the output of your label? The entire back catalog for a fantastic price? Backstage access at a concert? The chance to name a track on the next release? Turn me from a buyer into a fan.
  7. It’s not just me. Music is a highly social thing. You can offer me to tweet my purchase, announce it on facebook, or via other social channels. This is all well and good – but it would be killer if anybody who received my recommendation got the possibility to listen to the recommended music once. Full tracks, with full control, at full quality, without having to jump through any hoops. Can this be abused? Sure, but then guess what: anybody who really wants your music for free can already do so. Creating goodwill, spreading the word, and making people fall in love with your music is so much more important than preventing a few unauthorized listenings. Scrap that, the term “unauthorized listening” itself should be abandoned. People listening to your music is always good. You want to extract value from these people, not prevent them from listening in the first place. Offer them lots of incentives to enter into a relationship with you – and there will be opportunities to do so.

Now some of these points are already being addressed. I can buy FLACs – but at a premium, and by far not of everything. Some shops allow re-downloads, but it’s still very much the exception. Streaming of purchases is being pioneered against, as usual, the fierce resistance of the recording industry. There are attempts at digital albums – but as a premium offering with the mentioned proprietary formats, which is just doomed to fail. I had a look, and one of the stores I download from offers me artist and label alerts – at least my user page says so. Despite having purchased a dozen albums there, I never noticed during the purchase process.

So it’s all more than a bit bit at the moment. So come on, music industry, make an effort. Go all in with digital, and use the possibilities it offers. It’s the second decade of the 21st century. Spending money on music should be fun again,  a journey of discovery, something that surprises and delights me. Not just some MP3s in a folder on my hard drive, as boring and indistinctive as all their unpaid brethren.

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