Category Archives: tech usage

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: 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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Locked into a feature

As I’ve previously said here, it’s often the smaller features that make or break a device for me. The lock mechanism is of these. Since the unlock/action brackets every other interaction with my phone, it’s something that needs to be done right.

The slider on the N8 is exactly the kind of control I want there. It enables me to lock/unlock my phone with a single action. It’s located almost directly under a finger when I hold the phone – so it doesn’t require much movement or effort. Because it is a mechanical slider with some resistance, it doesn’t get triggered accidentally. Operating it gives the kind of nice, haptic feedback that modern phones (especially touch slates) usually lack.

Both the Android and the iOS mechanisms of a button press followed by a slide across an on-screen element are clunky by comparison. Two different actions, two different fingers, two different locations on the phone. They require twice the effort and have twice the complexity. For now, the simplicity of unlocking my N8 is one of the reasons that I’m still locked into Symbian.

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AMOLED for the time

In a lot of ways it’s a toss-up between AMOLED screens and LCDs. The deep blacks on AMOLED screens are wonderful, but the oversaturated colors are not everybody’s cup of tea, as is the fact that less protective layers are needed, and the interface appears as printed on the surface of the device. The sunlight legibility beats most regular LCD screens, but is in turn eclipsed by transflective LCDs. Energy consumption is lower than for LCDs when lots of black and dark colors are used, but when browsing the web with mostly white web pages this advantage is lost. In these respects, AMOLED is a question of usage scenarios, and, more importantly, taste.

The reason I’m firmly in the AMOLED camp is a single feature that Nokia have implemented on their phones with AMOLED screens, and which can’t possibly be replicated on a LCD screen: the lock-screen clock. It takes very few dots to make our pattern recognition kick in and see shapes – in this case a display of the current time. With AMOLED pixels are lit individually, so these  very few dots consume very little energy. With a LCD, where the screen is backlit as a whole, this display of the time would necessitate the screen being permanently on – and kill the battery in no time.

Not having to press a button on the phone to see the time might seem like a small thing, and it is, when taken as a single action. Summed up across a day, a week, a device lifetime of use, it adds up to a substantial advantage. But it’s not just saving a few thousand taps on a button – it changes the nature of the time telling. Not requiring any interaction is a fundamental difference from requiring even the simplest one. It is no longer just a device that can tell you time when you request this information. The fact that all you need to look,  that the time is right there for you to see makes the phone into a real replacement for a watch and a clock.

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Extending the electronic dictionary

They are wonderful things – electronic dictionaries. No bulky lumps of paper to carry and much quicker look-up are a given in any implementation. Beyond that, features vary. Some implement more of the features of a paper version, e.g. underlining and highlighting within entries. Others expand over the paper version using on the fact that storage is cheap, e.g. the integration of a big corpus of examples of usage in the Collins Cobuild Advanced Learner’s Dictionary (a godsend to all of us non-native speakers who want to be really sure of actual usage). Then there’s, of course, the feature of playing back a recording of a word – which already goes beyond anything that’s possible with paper. What is unused in any dictionary that I’ve used so far is the ability to record user interaction with the program and transform this into extra value.

A simple yet very effective application here would be to support the user in actually learning the words he looks up. The program could easily keep track of the words the user searches for, and transforms these into flashcards for the user. More frequently looked up words could be presented with greater frequency as part of the review, and a user looking up a word again would mean that it’s back in the current deck for review. Since some dictionaries contain information about word frequency or word importance, these factors could be included in the weighing of which cards to present, and at which frequency.

Sure, I’ve seen an implementation that allows the user-initiated transformation of an entry into a flash card, but that’s not something you really do every time you quickly look up a word, just as you didn’t write a paper flash card of every word you looked up. It’s exactly the kind of easy-to-automate task that computers are there for – and a missed opportunity for the makers of electronic dictionaries.

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The new iPhone? – Just one wish…

It’s iPhone day today. While that’s always an important date for the industry, I’m not all that interested personally. Apple products are not for me. This time round I only have one definite wish concerning the new iPhone: it shouldn’t bring a screen larger than 3.7″.

Large screens are certainly great for some important activities such as browsing the web, and for less important ones such as watching video. For all those much more numerous times throughout the day when I quickly need change the track that I’m listening to, or check the time, or actually call somebody, I want a device that I can easily use one-handed. Anything with a screen above 3.7″ falls outside of that category.

With the entire Android world already deep into the collective madness of only 4″ and above screens for any flagship model, the iPhone is the main bastion that still prevents the entire industry from equating a high-end handset with one that has a huge screen. If it goes, my chances of buying something with current, great specs at a size that I’m comfortable with sometime within the next 12 to 18 months decrease a lot. So while I certainly won’t be buying an iPhone 4S/5, here’s to it having the right size for me, to help the chances of me finding another phone that also does.

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