Those Altec canalphones
I mentioned a few threads back came in a couple days ago, and after about 24 hours of unattended burn in (Pink noise, track 4 of the Stereophile test disc) and two days of listening, I've formed an impression. A positive one. I should start say a word about the packaging. All of the electronics I've bought recently have either been packed in sturdy wood crates (Genelec studio monitors) or with Apple's signature aplomb, so the packaging for these things was very disappointing. Basically, they come in a block of styrofoam with "InMotion" molded into the sides. The front, back, and rounded top/bottom are wrapped in a sheet of plastic. The headphones and foamie earpieces are in front, the manual, case, and extra filters are in back. So it's not an attractive package, and certainly not worth the unwrapping rituals that any who buys Apple equipment knows well. More to the point, it in no way looks like the packaging for a $200 product, or even an $80 product. Also, a word about the aesthetics. The volume thing is actually bigger than I thought it would be, and it's pretty ungainly. Also, the clip is useless, but then again I'm not going to clip a headphonee cord bulge to my shirt anyway. But enough about that stuff. The point is that they sound great. I listened to a variety of music on them, from the new Pearl Jam CD to Natalie Merchant's "Storytellers" DVD to old standards like Bela Fleck's "Live Art" and PF's "Wish You Were Here" to large orchestral pieces like the Beethoven 9 that Gardiner recorded on period instruments. Honestly, it's really, really hard to tell if there's a difference at all between these and the Ety ER-4S's (with the volume control in the "HD" setting), and with the volume control in the "bass" position they're still not as thuddy on the low end as the Sony EX71's. Amped, using HeadRoom's circuit, these things throw a pretty large soundstage that for my preferences is a little bit too pinpoint to be realistic. Just like the Etys, they lack the expansive, lush, liquid presentation of the Senn HD-600s, but in my experience that kind of sound is rare in $20k speakers, let alone 499DM headphones. They have extreme clarity and highs that, perhaps a notch or two more of hardness in the extreme treble than my (well broken-in) Etys. Just like the Etys they have that weird bass that comes from the transducers reproducing everything that's there but it not getting to the parts (face bones) that actually register the lowest frequencies. All canalphones do that. For example, listening to Pink Floyd's "Welcome to the Machine" on my main stereo (4 15" Paradigm Servo-15 subs, placed according to the Harman white paper) when I'm in the mood is a full-body massage. On these things you definitely hear
all of the effects to a degree you wouldn't on, for example, Shure E2's, but it's still a very different experience from regular listening. From that perspective, open phones such as the Koss KSC-35 or Senn HD-600 do a much more realistic job, though the Altecs seem to peel more layers off the music than the Kosses do. Some people on head-fi.org whined about the output level. Well, I don't know what levels they like to crank their portable systems up to, but my whole idea of going to a well-isolated headphone system is that the isolation it provides allows me to enjoy the music without cranking it up to ear-damaging levels. Even run off the iPod with the resistor switch on "Bass" - a misnomer because basically it just adds some resistance to the wire, like the change between the Ety ER-4S and Ety ER-4P - they can handle Holst or Mahler at their most aggressive with minimal dynamic compression (about the same as the Etys and markedly less than the amp-requiring Senns) at half volume. Amped at the desktop, I could have easily ripped holes in my eardrums had that been the goal. More to the point, like the Etys they are every bit as free of dynamic compression as my main speakers. I've always gravitated towards audio systems that had the potential
to cause structural damage not because I like things super-loud but because I love being free of dynamic compression. However, it's clear to me already that they are the best sub-$100 headphones out there. The only thing that's even close are the cheap-but-great Koss KSC-35 and their other headphones that use the same driver. Except for those occasions when J&R Music World or Amazon run a Senn HD-580 for $199 special, they're probably the best $200 headphones, too. They're so good that I'm wondering if I need both these and the Etys. For this review, sources were as follows: Portable: 60GB IPod Photo Desktop: iTunes (6.0.4) running on an Apple Power Mac G5 or MacBook Pro, with a HeadRoom Cosmic with Reference electronics module connected to the Mac with the Straight Wire mini-to-mini cord that HeadRoom bundled with all their amps at the time where noted. Other headphones: Sennheiser HD-600, Etymotic Research ER-4S, Koss KSC-35.