Headphones, spectacles, headsets and music

A couple of weeks ago, I realized that my trusty full-size headphones were incompatible with my glasses. It wasn’t the fact that they pushed my ears up against the arms of the glasses and made them sore that clued me in, though you might have thought it would have. No, it was when they pushed my glasses sideways enough to push a sore spot onto the side of my nose. I suppose I could wear different glasses, but I really like these.

Anyway, a few weeks before my nose issues, I had bought a new headset for the PlayStation 3. There’s a bit of a story behind that.

The PS3 is weird, in that it has two sound output channels. The game sound is sent out via standard RCA jacks on the rear, as well as via HDMI. The voice chat is almost an entirely seperate system, and its sound is routed either via Bluetooth or USB. The two never mix–unless you have no headset at all, in which case the voice chat audio is mixed into the game audio, but of course you can’t reply.

I’d started off with the Logitech PlayStation 3 Vantage USB Headset. It worked fine for a few months, but when I eventually knocked it from the coffee table one evening it broke. Also, it only handled voice, so the game sound still came through speakers–and was picked up by its mic. That was tolerable with games like Team Fortress 2 where you need to push a button to talk, but didn’t work out so well with games like Burnout where the mic is always active.

For a while, I tried a Bluetooth headset–a cheap old Motorola that takes replaceable AAA cells. The problem was that, like the Logitech, it picked up game sound from the speakers. Not much, because it was also really crap at picking up sound, but it did succeed in convincing me that I didn’t want to try the official PS3 Bluetooth headset. That product may have better sound, but still has the game crosstalk issue. It also has the additional issue of a non-replaceable battery, which means that you have to worry about charging, and eventually end up with a nice piece of e-waste once the battery gains a memory.

I don’t know what Sony were thinking here. The official solution basically doesn’t work, and you can’t use a regular gaming headset or a regular USB headset.

Finally, though, I discovered the Turtle Beach P21, a headset specially designed for the PS3. They’re now replacing it with the Turtle Beach Ear Force PX21 (sic), which adds Xbox 360 compatibility. Since I don’t have an Xbox and never will, that wasn’t an issue for me, so I bought the P21 at clearance price.

The P21 actually solves the PS3 audio problem. You plug in both the RCA jacks and the USB, and an inline amp mixes the two audio streams together. You have separate sliders for the mix levels, too, and there are passthrus on the RCA jacks in case you need to pass the signal on to your TV or amp. Turn the speakers down and rely on the headphones, and you can hear everything–and people can hear your voice too, and only your voice. The only downside is white noise from the crappy badly-shielded inline amplifier, but as soon as you start the actual game you stop noticing it.

But that was a massive digression. The point is, the Turtle Beach headset is circumaural–that is, it has old fashioned full size earcups which go all the way around the outside of your ears.

I hadn’t had a set of headphones like that since the 1970s, and had forgotten what it was like. What it was like: comfortable. Or at least, more comfortable than full size earpads, with my current glasses.

So I decided it was time to swap the trusty 10 year old Sennheiser HD445s for a pair of circumaural headphones. I read a bunch of reviews, and now I’m in another situation I haven’t been in since the 1970s: I have non-Sennheiser headphones. Specifically, a pair of Shure SRH 440 headphones. They’re a slightly cut-down version of the Shure SRH840s favored by studio engineers; fully enclosed, DJ style, designed not to leak sound in or out.

So far I’ve been checking them out using the Mac, with audio routed through an external M-Audio 24 bit D/A. The main thing I notice is the incredibly clarity; they resolve details the Sennheisers didn’t, like the individual guitars on the final track of Grace Jones’ Slave to the Rhythm, a good test for that kind of thing because of Trevor Horn’s exacting production at Sarm West.

Another good test track is “A Mile Long Lump of Lard” from The Orb’s Cydonia album. The Orb are tough for audio systems at the best of times, but this track in particular seems to be a real challenge for audio systems, sounding like a vague formless mush on the car stereo or through cheap earbuds.

Then there’s “Two Days Off” by KiloWatts (MP3 for download here), from the rather awesome album Problem/Solving. Reminds me most of Speedy J; some awesome production work, and I’m surprised he hasn’t received more attention. Apparently he’ll be in Austin at the end of the month, I should probably do the live music thing… Anyhow, it’s a good test of headphones’ ability to resolve a wall of sounds without turning them to pulp. Try it.

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