My commute to and from work is an hour-long bus ride each way, and I’ve long been convinced that a core requirement of sanity maintenance under such conditions is being able to shut out TV Mobile at all times (except of course if it’s showing any of my reality shows, in which case I have to be right in front of it). When I first got my iPod I was very dissatisfied with the standard earbuds it came with because I needed to really turn the volume up in order to hear anything, and even then all subtlety would be drowned out by external sounds. After a while I decided there was only so much Knifehandchop and hardcore punk I could listen to, so I ventured into the world of Internet audiophile forums to research canalphones.
It was an alien galaxy. People spoke of transducers and woofers and tweeters and analysed their preferences in terms of bass, mid-range and treble tones, which could be thick or bright or transient or any of a dozen other adjectives which I had never thought of applying to music. And they routinely plonked down hundreds of dollars on brands I’d never heard of or seen in the local megastores. After a lot of research, during which I spent more time unglazing my eyes than understanding audio analysis, I settled on the Sony MDR-EX71s for around S$90, one of the more affordable choices I could find at the time. They impressed few experts but were very popular with plebs, and if there was one thing I’d learnt from my research it was that I was definitely an audiopleb.
I was pretty happy with them. They sealed out enough noise that I could listen appreciatively to a lot more music, though they still weren’t much good for stuff like Philip Glass, Nico Muhly or the quiet bits of quiet-loud-quiet type post-rock. Anyway, by allowing me to listen to my iPod at half the maximum volume and thus assuaging my fears that I wasn’t further exacerbating the hearing damage that years of very loud gigs and clubs had inflicted on my ears, they served their purpose perfectly well. Until last week, when after nearly three years of use, the right phone stopped working and defied all my attempts at resuscitation.
Full of trepidation, I ventured once more into woofer world and learnt from this rather epic hardwarezone forum thread that a shop called Jaben Network was a good place to go locally for affordable earphones and great service. I visited on Sunday and was served by a very nice guy called Gabriel. He urged me not to worry about online reviews, to choose based on personal taste, and to feel free to test all their canalphones before deciding.
Sitting down to start testing, I made a quick grab-bag playlist of a few songs I figured were kinda different. I didn’t know what I should be looking for or what I liked, but I hoped some preferences would magically materialize. And they did! In MIA’s Pull Up The People, I found I wasn’t looking for heavy bass, but rather a nice balance between the bass and the higher, spitting beats. In Low’s Belarus, I started to notice the distribution of sounds between my left and right ear, and the flat weightiness of the song’s only beats. In Brian Wilson’s Surf’s Up, I tried to evaluate how well the sounds seemed to occupy the inside of my head; in Ellen Allien & Apparat’s Turbo Dreams, how well the sounds made the inside of my head a massive warehouse full of people raving till dawn. And in Sonic Youth’s New Hampshire, how sensitive the phones were to the tiny high notes that accompany the opening drums.
To my surprise, after listening to three options (I didn’t want to listen to too many because I was worried that too many options would just confuse me) I found I had a clear favourite. I asked how much it was, was told it cost $45 (half the price of my old Sonys) and nearly fainted. Gabriel seemed genuinely pleased at my amazement and told me enthusiastically that my choice was a good one. I think they’re the Crossroads Mylarone Classics reviewed here. From my online research I was vaguely aware that this brand had a new model, the X3s, which everyone was clamouring after but which was in very short supply as a result. The geekdeal-seeker in me briefly considered whether to put myself on the waiting list for those, but I decided that I honestly didn’t think I was discerning enough to enjoy them like an audiophile would, and in the meantime I would rather not succumb to incandescent rage on public transport.
So I got the Crossroads Mylarone Classics, and as soon as I plugged them in on the bus back home I realized my world had been transformed. With the Sonys, listening at half volume would still yield fairly frequent intrusions of My Sassy Neighbour, but with the Crossroads I can now listen at a third of the volume instead and enjoy an existence mercifully free of Patricia Mok.
Just for fun, I added more songs to my initial “testing” playlist (mostly songs I already knew well which seemed like “headphones tracks”) and listened to them on my commutes this week. Espers’ Dead Queen is chillier, its vocals more ethereal. Andrew Bird’s A Nervous Tic Motion Of The Head sounds more intimate, like I’m sitting right next to him as he sings just for me. The crazy Japanese drum sounds in Asa Chang & Junray’s Hana now come from distinctly different places and I can imagine the drummer’s flying hands. Outkast’s B.O.B. used to feel dense; now it feels like there’s plenty of space for the ten million things it has going on. I’ve always loved that incredibly euphoric introduction to The Knife’s Silent Shout but now it’s like a catherine wheel in my head and there’s a serious risk of me bursting out on the bus with that frenetic pointy finger thing which really mashed people do to trance.
You get the picture. I could go on for ages, but some audiophile might come and point out that most of the improved sound I’m describing here is entirely psychological and that would be embarrassing. Anyway, this is just to say that if you see a girl on the bus listening to music with the most beatific smile on her face, don’t worry if I suddenly bust out some moves, I’m totally harmless.