7 days living with... some decent headphones
It has to be said that in general I use rubbish headphones. It's been, well, forever, since I used a decent pair.
As a rule I've rarely strayed from the bundled earphones dished out in MP3 players and mobile phones. Yes, I know I work for a top consumer technology publication; yes, I know free earphones are more or less only put in the box to check that your new device actually works but that's just the way it's been. Sue me.
So, with enough of the constant ribbing from my colleagues and in the interest of science, of course, it's been down to me to test out whether it's actually worth forking out on a decent set of cans or if, indeed, that money's better spent elsewhere. This is how it went.
As it turns out, my 7 Days is going to have to start a little earlier than planned. I've chosen the Grado SR80i on-ear headphones as my companion for this experience. The reason is because they're actually affordable to normal people at around £100 and well known for delivering the kind of sound quality of something two or three times the price. It also happens that my brother has a pair and has not shut up about them since he picked them up. If nothing else, my 7 Days will bring a silence, which is rather ironic really.
The reason I've had to start early is because the Grados require what's known as "running in" - getting used one hour on and one hour off 24 hours before to get them performing properly. I take them out of the box and am immediately taken by the basic look - two spongy pads with a plastic casing around the back which are attached to the vinyl headband via a metal strut, the only visible piece of metal on the whole outer body. They are also very light; perhaps the reason why they only cost £100. The money has not been put into the build.
The audio cable, however, is a different matter and oozes quality. It's sturdy with a gold-plated 3.5mm jack on the end and a 6.3mm attachment.
I'm up early to try and file some news from the weekend and, as I often use headphones to listen to music and the radio in the early hours so not to wake other members of the household, I grab the SR80is and stick them into my PC.
I've got plenty of decent quality 320kbps audio on my PC, so decide to give them a run out. Owing to my slightly fatigued state, I'm not sure that I'm in the best position to assess the quality, although first impressions are that they work just fine. Their lightweight body certainly makes them very comfy; more comfy than the in-the-box freebies - an advantage already.
It's only when other members of the household arise that I realise there may be an issue with the Grado SR80i; nothing to do with the audio quality but rather they tend to leak sound quite considerably; so much so, in fact, that my tunes can be deciphered even at relatively low volumes.
This is down to the open-backed design which gives them the power to sound far better than the closed back varieties by stopping also sorts of vibrations interfering with the audio. The downside, as I've just discovered, is that it can make listening to the murkier corners of my music collection a little more location sensitive.
My Grado headphones and I intend to leave the house today. There are a few errands to run in town and, besides, I'm not sure I was concentrating on the sound enough yesterday while I was trying to work - a bit like staring at a work of fine art through the fog.
Now usually my 10-minute walk would be accompanied by tunes through my in-ear headphones. Thanks to the wide variety of earbuds, they're also a decent fit and so are far more discreet. But, as I've relinquished my in-ear phones for one week they're not an option and I can't quite face taking the Grados out.
The problem is two-fold: a) I'll feel self-conscious wandering around with them stuck to my head and I don't want to look like a plonker and b) any music I play on them will likely be shared to those in the vicinity which, as we all know, can be rather annoying for those on the receiving end. I bottle it and leave them at home. Sorry.
These headphones, for me anyway, are not designed for the outside world and are to be enjoyed within the privacy of your home. Note to self, and reader, if you are going to step up, don't take the open back/closed back decision lightly.
The Grados finally get a proper testing today, and my suspicions that these are in fact a pair of very reasonably priced, very high quality headphones are confirmed.
During their initial outing, I have to admit that a large part of their usage was down to duty. Work required it and I might not have listened to quite as much music otherwise. However, by the third day, this has now turned into a real joy.
The sound is coming through in all manner of subtitles that I hadn't appreciated before and (here comes the pretentious one liner) I'm actually hearing the music rather than just listening to it.
What's also excellent is that my brother and I spend a good hour listening through The Beatles White Album, chosen because it delivers a wide variety of music to test out the cans. It's rather fun and rarely do I usually sit there just listening to albums that I know by heart with my normal bundled headphones. What you get is hi-fidelity experience which is best described as honest. There's a genuine atmosphere of the recording - warts and all.
For the majority of the day the Grado headphones lie on my desk neglected, possibly due the marathon session the previous night.
However, after work I decide to take in an episode of Howard Goodall's Big Bangs. I plug in the cans instead of using my laptop's tinny speakers - again, something I wouldn't normally do with my in-ear freebies. The result is a real treat. It's not just the music within the programme which is enhanced but the whole atmosphere of the show.
Two parts stand out - one where Goodall is filming from within a large hall, the sound of his voice reverberating really gives you an atmosphere of the place; while the second is a scene outside somewhere in Spain resounding with the sound of cicadas. It's possibly not the best in terms of balance but the ability to pick up a wide variety of sounds is just fantastic.
I have a day off today, so I decide to put the Grado headphones to a very specific task, that is playing through the music video game feast that is Gitaroo Man.
To be fair I haven't played through the game for a good few years but, despite the novelty, the headphones definitely enhance the experience and I find myself close to tears come the penultimate U1/Kirah Guitar-off.
Having been out most of the day, there's no real call for me to don the Grados today, and it does act as a reminder that if you're looking for something to break up the bus/train journey or to whistle to while you walk, these don't really fit the bill. My small earphones would have definitely had a look in today.
The Grados get a fair bit of use in the evening when I tune into 6 Music on the TV by way of the set-top box. The headphones shame my television's speakers (I don't own a surround sound system) to the point that my regular Sunday radio listening will no longer be the same.
Needless to say the music was enhanced no end and I even find the time to appreciate the more niche music emanating from the 6 Music archives - something that would normally have got short shrift.
As you can probably tell I really enjoyed my time with the Grado SR80i headphones and I have to say they've highlighted the importance that sound has in enjoying anything with an AV element. Sounds obvious, but I expect many of us still just make do with whatever audio is fed us.
This is not to say that the sound created by the headphones was anything new, I have heard excellent audio equipment before and been suitably impressed, however being able to have that kind of sound on a laptop, television or radio for under £100 is a pretty good deal and well worth splashing out on rather than just use whatever comes free, which is really the point here.
More than just the pure quality of it though, is that having this kind of high level sound means that you actually start listening to more of it. You'll make the time to sit there and listen to the radio or a few albums in your collection when perhaps you might have just flicked on the TV and tuned into whatever eye-blurb was playing at the time, and that change of life is really refreshing especially when we spend so much of our time these days staring at screens.
Specifically, of course, the Grado SR80i headphones will not suit everyone. The open-backed design will cause problems if you travel around a lot. You may not care that others have to suffer your music, but for me this crosses them off as something you can use on-the-go, despite them being very light and portable. They're definitely a case of home entertainment only.
- 7 days with...film photography