Two weeks with my headphones

13th June 2008 – 7.02 am

It has been a couple of weeks since I got my new Denon AH-C551 headphones, and I have had a good opportunity to test them in a variety of conditions. Not everything is good, but there are far more positive aspects to them than negative. First, the negative points.

The headphones sit inside the ear quite snuggly, and this leads to any sounds made by the head being amplified and noticed quite readily as low-frequency noise. Eating is a main source of noise in this regard, but grinding of teeth and heavy breathing can also have an effect. Whilst this can interfere with the sound quality it doesn't really swamp out the music too much, and the overall sound is still superior to my old iPod headphones.

Another source of this low-frequency noise is bumping of the cable, which occurs when walking whilst listening with the headphones. This noise may not be present were it not for the peculiar arrangement of the headphones' cable. The cable connecting the headphones is only half-a-metre long, which is surprisingly short and, unless I wear my iPod in a shirt pocket, is clearly not long enough for any practical use. The headphones also came with an extender cable, which is 0.75 m long, which certainly increases the length of the cable sufficiently, but by too much, leaving a short length dangling. The lengths of cable could perhaps be swapped around to better effect. The extra cable can be tucked away, so isn't a problem, but because the connection between the headphone cable and extender cable is rather heavier than the cable itself it moves and sways induced by walking movements and because a cause of the low-frequency noices picked up in the ears, which is why the design decision seems a bit odd.

I can only imagine that the reason behind the decision is that the extender cable is far cheaper to replace than the headphones and with the main connection to the player being set-up to be used by the extender cable any strain-relief damage to the cable won't result in the headphones needing to be replaced. In general, the length of cable isn't an issue, and the noise induced when walking, as for eating, doesn't affect the overall quality of the music too much.

The headphones offer a level of noise isolation too, reducing the level of ambient sound reaching the ear and thus providing a better environment for listening to music. My open-plan office can get quite noisy for a good portion of the working day and I was often turning up the volume on my iPod just so that I could hear my music to distract me from the noise of conversations, telephones, and photocopiers. With my old headphones I had occasion to turn the volume up so much that the loudness of the music ended up distracting me from the work, and any quieter and the office noise would do the same, which was awfully frustrating. These new headphones and their isolation don't have this problem.

The isolation is effective, offering a miniature listening room just for myself, with just muffled noises occasionally interfering with my aural experience. I can listen to my music again on the minimum volume level and enjoy wonderful clarity and fidelity. The isolation isn't so complete as to prevent me from hearing the 'phone ring or when people are talking to me, so I am still functional within the office. The only problem is that I cannot as easily talk to people with the headphones in, and certainly not with music playing. Whereas before I could answer a quick question without pausing I now definitely have to pause my music and nearly always have to take the headphones out in order to hear accurately. This is a minor quibble again and one I am happy to deal with for now.

The noise isolation is also effective in noisier environments, as I found out when I had occasion to use the headphones on a couple of trains. Previously, I would have to crank the volume up quite significantly in order to continue to listen to my music, often to the point where it was clearly too loud for me and I would have to compromise and end up only hearing my music during the quieter parts of train journeys, like at stations. The Denon headphones don't have this problem, and I although I to turned the volume up a little it was still relatively quiet compared to my surroundings, and coming through clearly. I was even able to watch to a DVD rip comfortably enough without the volume cranked up or missing every second word, which was encouraging.

Most importantly, the headphones stay in my ears. I have been frustrated so often by having to adjust and readjust headphones so that they didn't feel like they were falling out, or even to put one or other back in after they had indeed fallen out, that having headphones that stay in my ears is far more reassuring than it should be. I could, of course, have got some headphones that sat over my ears instead, negating the problem entirely, but I like the portability that the smaller headphones offer, as it allows me to tuck them in to a pocket once I reach my destination, whether it be shopping, a gig, or a friend's house. The Denon headphones sit in my ears quite snuggly, only hinting at being shifted when I take a rather big yawn but remaining steadfastly in place. They aren't stuffed inside my ear canal though, as they are removed with almost no effort when necessary, making them comfortable to insert and remove and to wear for extended periods, like sitting at the computer at work.

I mentioned the sound quality in the previous entry, but I'll mention it again. The quality of the sound that the headphones produce is amazing, offering a full range of frequencies that reproduce music with extraordinary fidelity for speakers so small. With the sound isolation they offer the headphones don't suffer from being in a noisy environment, either full of people talking or when riding a train, and music can be enjoyed anywhere with almost no compromising on quality. Whilst I can listen to the music on the lowest volume setting I have found myself turning the volume up on occasion, not because I can't hear the music but because I can. I can hear the music not tinny, with certain frequencies unnaturally attenuated, but as it is meant to be heard and I can get carried away and lose myself by my favourite songs.

Needless to say, I am certainly happy with my purchase.

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