Two weeks ago, I experienced an aural epiphany.
I used to shake my head at my many "audiophile" friends who would spend obscene amounts of money on getting the right sound for their "high-class" eardrums. I was convinced that most mortals would not be able to tell the difference between listening to standard MP3 tracks on a smartphone through a pair of cans that cost $100 to $200, and through high-end equipment that cost thousands of dollars.
I was wrong.
A fortnight ago, a local distributor urged me to try out the new $479 Oppo HA-2 headphone amplifier. I was sceptical. Smartphones, as the theory goes, have sub-par components that do a poor job of converting digital audio signals to analogue sound so that our ears can hear the music. Connecting a headphone amp to handle the conversion from digital to analogue (DAC in audiophile-speak) using specialised components does a much better job.
Sean, the boss of Oppo's local distributor for audio-visual products, also lent me two high-end cans - the new closed-back PM-3 ($589) and last year's open-back PM-2 ($999) - to test with the HA-2 amp.
Closed-back headphones are great for listening while commuting or at the office. The sound stays within your own listening space and does not leak.
Open-back cans, on the other hand, tend to deliver a more natural listening experience because the different sounds are better spread out around your head instead of being closed up in the centre (at least in my opinion, but I am no sound expert). But they leak music, so using them in a public space is rather anti-social.
I signed up for the one-month free trial of Tidal's lossless music-streaming service (usually $19.99 a month) for the complete experience of having lossless music streamed through a headphone amp into a pair of expensive cans.
I was blown away.
John Legend sounded crystal clear as he belted out the lines from his hit song, All Of Me. I was never a fan of Kit Chan until I heard her Cantonese ballads last weekend - and fell in love with her voice. Now, I just can't stop listening to her and to other Cantopop stars.
Finally, I understand what audiophiles mean when they moan that the sound is "muffled". With all the right parts in play, I experienced audio clarity as I discovered the true meaning of "clean" music.
It was more than just clarity. I could now hear sounds I had never heard before in old favourites I had listened to for years.
For Michael Jackson's I Just Can't Stop Loving You, I could hear his legendary cry in the centre of my head while two back-up singers added their vocals to the left and right at the same time. I heard all three distinctly, as well as the drums and all the other instruments.
An indifferent sound system will not be able to separate the different instruments and vocals. Everything sounds combined, as if it originates from a single source.
As I shared my epiphany with my friends over Facebook, audiophiles welcomed me to their club and cautioned that this discovery would be an expensive "curse" in years to come. The quest for getting "even better" sound comes at a price, they warned, and once you get started, it is difficult to stop.
Many friends have advised me to consider other options instead of the Oppo amp and headphones which I tested, insisting that I can get sound that is just as good, without breaking the bank. And, really, can a regular dude tell the difference between Tidal's lossless music and high bit-rate MP3 tracks from Spotify or Deezer?
Sadly, I have now tasted the "drug".
I can no longer bear listening to my favourite tracks using my entry-level $70 Urbanears headphones (bought for comfort and portability). I am still a newbie at music appreciation and have much to figure out, but I can now fully appreciate why audiophiles pay so much more for their fix.
There really is a difference. Just try it. You have been warned.
This article was first published on Apr 22, 2015.
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