Listening

In 2017 an engineer turned me on to the Bose QC25 headphones. He had been wearing them on the tour bus and on planes and told me how much they improved traveling. When I saw the headphones on sale a little while later, I grabbed a pair for $175, as did Jon. What a difference they made! When we travel the headphones are always immediately accessible in our backpacks and we often put them on in the airport before boarding. They stay on our heads until we reach baggage claim. It’s like traveling in a bubble, a bubble of decreased noise, a bubble of civility and comfort. I might listen to Dukunmak by Erkan Ogur or my album slow on the plane and then switch to something more upbeat when I am walking through the destination airport. The headphones also help when hotel rooms are too noisy – loud air-conditioning or the unfortunate proximity to an elevator in a sold out hotel…

I loved those headphones, but lamented three things:
1) the microphone wasn’t very good and phone conversation wasn’t easy and comfortable as I often had to hold the mic closer to my mouth with my hand…
2) there was only one setting for the noise cancellation… on and off… walking around in traffic wasn’t the safest thing to do
3) the cord was very long and I had to use the Apple dongle to attach it to the phone. Several times the long cable got hung up around an armrest while walking down a plane aisle. Later I found a shorter replacement cable that had the correct plug for the iPhone…

At the end of Spring, after discovering that I was allergic to the Powerbeats Pro as well, I came across an article about a brand new pair of Bose headphones, the NC700. The specs ticked all of the boxes:
• Bluetooth 5.0 – check
• multiple noise cancellation settings – check
• a total of eight microphones, some of them “beam-forming” like the mics of the Apple AirPods… I have no idea how that works, but it most certainly does work – check
• touch sensitive fields on the ear cups that allow simple gestures for skipping forward or backward, increasing or decreasing the volume, accepting or ending a call… etc.

I decided to pre-order the Bose NC700 and they were delivered in the first days of July. Since then I have worn them for at least one and a half hours every single day. I conducted many phone conversations with them and can report that the mics work indeed very well. I listened to mixes from the Fete album in progress countless times. I felt safe walking in traffic, because I could lower the noise cancellation so I could hear approaching vehicles – there are three presets (I use zero, five and ten) that one can switch sequentially with the press of a button in the back of the left ear cup. Fully charged the battery lasts twenty hours.

Here comes the kicker… as you might remember, if you have read my Diary for a while, I have a pet peeve about mobile phones: landline phones (since the Fifties?) add a little bit of the signal from the mouthpiece into the ear cup. This enables people to hear their own voice and makes them less likely to scream into the phone – except for my dad, of course, who always yelled into the phone as if it was a mechanical device, like two cans strung together… Mobile phones on the other hand, inexplicably, do not do this! I envisioned an app with a simple slider that would allow people to adjust the amount of feedback originating from the microphone into the ear piece. That’s all the app would do. Even easier would be for manufacturers to build this into their operating system… Bose apparently also observed this need and developed their own solution. The Bose phone app that partners the headphones has a setting they call *Self Voice*. It adjusts how much of one’s own voice one can hear while on a call. Brilliant. Finally. :-)

Bluetooth 5.0 is good and, after four weeks with these headphones, I have yet to hear the first dropout! That’s remarkable.

There is a chip on the market that delivers even higher audio quality, but that would certainly have raised the already significant price of $399. That’s the only nitpicking I can do. I love everything else about these cans. They are fantastic and I carry them with me 24/7.

PS: I paid full retail for the Bose NC700 and this is not an advertising, merely the enthusiasm brought on by a device that actually works well… :-)

Headphones-Comment

1. Victor Hornback Says:
I would love to hear what you guys hear during a performance. Is the in-ear-monitor exactly what the person in the mixing booth is hearing? Is it essentially what we would hear on a recording of a live performance?

Do you practice mostly without a microphone and monitors? If so does hearing your instrument this way cause a sense of disconnect the first time or two on stage?

No, what we hear is not what Alan hears, in fact we each hear something different. We use a monitor system that feeds the sound of each instrument via ethernet from Alan’s digital mixing console to little controllers next to each musician on stage. Those controllers have replaced the monitor engineer and allow us to taylor the sound to our liking. (((our monitor engineer Dan left in 2002 – after touring with us for eight years – to do a broadway play and his replacement partied too much and wasn’t there when we needed him, so we tried this new method of doing our own mixes and LOVE it))) For example, Jon might have more of his bass in his monitors that I do, and Steve might have his guitar louder. I have my guitar centered and Stephen’s guitar panned to the right. I also have the kick drum in the middle, but the rest of Mike’s drums half-left. Each of us has control over panning and volume for each instrument. Unfortunately we don’t get to hear stereo from all of the stereo instruments – electric guitars and keyboards – because we are using too many inputs (((meaning that the keyboards and electric guitars are mono for us))), but it sounds quite good. Much better than the old-fashioned wedges (((like this or this))) or other types of monitor speakers.

This is also not what you would hear on a recording of a live performance. Nobody else can hear our little personal mixes. It’s interesting to note that I have never listened to the monitor mixes the others are listening to. It’s a private monitor world, I guess.

No, I don’t set up a microphone and monitor to play guitar at home. I don’t use the system when I play solo, either, but it really takes no time to get used to it. We started using in-ear-monitors in 1994, just before we recorded ¡Viva! – so that’s fifteen years of familiarity.

I may have told this story already, but when we opened for Santana in 1996, Carlos made fun of us and said that we were having phone-sex instead of the real thing because we didn’t use big and loud, loud, loud monitor speakers like his band. One of the times Carlos stood on stage, listening to our soundcheck, my monitor engineer handed him a set of headphones and told him that’s what I am hearing. After a few seconds he started to nod and smile and his eyes got big: “It’s in Stereo! he exclaimed.

Headphones

Actually they are properly called In-Ear-Monitors. Everyone in the band wears them for our performances and most of us use them to listen to music on our iPods or computers as well. Good isolation is the key. Isolation is very important on stage and very useful on the bus or in an airport or airplane – whenever your surroundings are noisy. The better the isolation, the less you have to turn up the volume to hear the music.

Link to the page for SCL5s on the Shure website.

And apropos ears and yesterday’s Van Gogh news, check out this item from the BBC:

Vincent van Gogh did not cut off his own ear but lost it in a fight with fellow artist Paul Gauguin in a row outside a brothel, it has been claimed.

About Sound

Let’s assume we want a stereo setup. Let’s also assume you have found speakers you love, a pre-amp and a power amp. Let’s say we won’t use a CD player – so last century. Here is what you want (((I know I want it))):

Weiss DAC2 D/A Converter – made in Switzerland. Look at it, it recalls Helvetica, speaks of handmade precision… and looks expensive in that small edition audiophile way. Yes, but you won’t need a CD-player!! The Weiss DAC2 is a Digital-to-Analog converter that connects to your computer via FireWire and turns zeros-and-ones into delicious analog sound, parsing anything from 16/44.1 to 24/192. Your audiophile super system will only consist of a computer with FireWire output, the Weiss DAC2, and whatever amplification you choose, that is, a nice headphone amp and cans (((studio slang for headphones))) or pre-amp, power-amp (((or one that combines the two))) and a pair of loudspeakers.

What I find most attractive about this setup is that one can have a very high-end sound system using only three or four relatively portable components: a laptop, the Weiss DAC2 and a headphone amp + headphones. Nice!

About headphones:
There is the STAX SRS-4040II Signature System II for $1,775, which includes Ear-speakers and a wonderful vacuum-tube-low-noise-Class-A-DC-amplifier. I listened to STAX for the first time in Köln in the early Eighties, while visiting my parents. I bought my first STAX system around 1997, I think, and have used it on every mix since.

I must say I am really liking the Ultrasone PRO 900 I found on Amazon for $130 off – $469 is still a lot of money, but…

By the way I am going to modify my Pro 900s, because they come with two cables – both unfortunately with 1/4″ plugs – and a 1/4 to 3.5 mini plug converter that is HUGE. I am very careful about inserting the giant converter into my iPhone, but it seems like trouble waiting to happen. That’s why I ordered a gold-plated Neutrik NTP3RC-B Plug 3.5mm Right Angle for $6 and will soder it to one of the two cables that come with the headphones. Then I can use one cable for 1/4″ plugs and the other one for mini plugs, which are on all portable players and computers.

Then there are these Sony Headphones ($70), a true workhorse. And, for something more discreet, for walking around for example or or for the stage – this is what we wear during our concerts – there are the Shure SCL5CL earphones ($350).

What do you get from the Stax or Ultrasones that won’t get from the Sonys? Clarity, space, more definition, better imaging, maybe one could say it’s like watching HDTV instead of a VHS tape.

One last thing about headphones and loudspeakers. Our ears are all different and since the shape of the ears is so instrumental in creating what we hear, headphones are not for everyone, and not every set of headphones works with every set of ears. If you had, say, large ears that stand out quite a bit, you might find that some headphones force your ears back and that might not sound good to you or could be uncomfortable. Your ears are meant for loudspeakers, maybe, or a different headphone design.

I have always enjoyed headphones. Headphones are as introverted as a boombox on one’s shoulder in the Eighties was extroverted…

Thanks for the tip about the Ultrasone headphones, James!