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Tekfusion Twinwoofers IEM

(Thanks to Tekfusion Technologies for loaning the Twinwoofers for this review.)

Tekfusion is a Bangalore-based IEM maker whose range of ‘phones is available from several e-tailers. Their Twinwoofers are lightweight all-metal in-ear ‘phones that come in two finishes – black chrome and white chrome.

The build quality of the Twinwoofers Black Chrome loaned to me for this review was sturdy but not spectacular. The strain relief at the base of the all-metal housings was adequate and the ‘phones come with a straight 3.5mm gold-plated connector.

The simple black paper packaging, which states the ‘phones are “Designed in India, Made in China”, included a shirt clip, three pairs of ear-tips of different sizes, two pairs of triple flange ear-tips and a smart black pouch. The medium sized ear-tips worked just fine for me, providing a more than adequate seal and isolation even in noisy environments.

On the plus side, these ‘phones have one of the most tangle-resistant cables I’ve ever come across. I’d roll up the cable after my daily commute and stuff the ‘phones into my pocket and they’d emerge hours later with virtually no tangles in the cable and ready to use within seconds. Microphonics, or the annoying rustling and thumping sounds caused by the cable brushing against clothes, was never a problem when the music was playing.

If you’re looking for earphones that you can use to answer calls and control music playback on your smartphones, these aren’t for you (though Tekfusion has the more expensive Twinwoofers M with in-line controls and an echo-cancelling microphone).

When I first began listening to the Twinwoofers on my Samsung Galaxy S3 playing MP3s ripped at 320 kbps through Poweramp, I was underwhelmed by the bass.  

The bass, to my ears, lacked the heft and slam of the Skullcandy 50-50 (which has become my go-to in-ear ‘phones these days.) But the sound changed rather dramatically after just a few days of usage as the bass firmed up quite a bit. It still lacked slam but was fast, tight and articulate.

After they were burned in over several days, the Twinwoofers had a nicely balanced sound and handled with aplomb a wide variety of music thrown at them, from Kayne West and Jay-Z’s “No Church In The Wild” to Queen’s “Love Of My Life” to Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan’s “Shahbaaz Qalandar”.

(BTW, Tekfusion’s website even has a handy guide for burning in ‘phones using your laptop or PC that’s available here.)

I was especially struck by the Twinwoofers’ ability to retrieve detail. Even in noisy environments like Delhi’s streets, these ‘phones constantly surprised with their ability to pull out details even on busy tracks with layered sounds like Crowded House’s “Weather With You” and Peter Gabriel’s “Digging In The Dirt”.

Paired with my larger rig comprising a HP ProBook laptop playing CD-quality and high-res FLAC files through a Micromega MyDAC to a Denon PMA-717 amplifier, things got even better – the soundstage became much wider and the overall sound was more dynamic and punchy.  And they can be driven rather loud without losing their grip on a dynamic track like a high-res version of Daft Punk’s “Contact”.

The suggested retail price for the Twinwoofers is Rs 1,550 (about $25) but it’s available for a few hundred bucks less from several Indian e-tailers. At that price point, I have no hesitation recommending these ‘phones.

Signature Acoustics C-12

(Thanks to Pristine Note for loaning me the C-12 IEM for this review.)

The Signature Acoustics C-12 Elements in-ear monitors are probably the first Indian-made earphones aimed at the discerning buyer. Oh sure, there are lots of other Indian-made ‘phones, but a majority of them are tacky, cheaply made and sound like crap.

The C-12, on the other hand, is a thing of beauty put together with a lot of care. These IEMs have a wooden housing with plenty of visible grain, and the firm’s initials carved into the rear add a nice touch. The braided cable comprises 10 strands of wide copper wire under a protective sheath and splits towards the earphones from a piece of wood also embossed with the firm’s initials. pn2

The strain relief at the base of the housings and on the L-shaped 3.5 mm gold-plated stereo pin are of superior quality and, unlike a lot of ‘phones, these conveyed virtually no sounds when the cable brushed against clothes.

Did I say these ‘phones were an object of beauty? Add to that the accessories that come with it – a heavy carrying case hand-carved from brass blocks with an antique look (a touch impractical as I can’t see anyone lugging this around in their pant pocket but hey, it looks great sitting on a shelf) and a zippered leather pouch (which looks like it’ll stand up to a lot of abuse in the real world).

The C-12 (which retails for between Rs 2,550 and Rs 2,700 with the leather pouch and for between Rs 2,850 and Rs 3,100 with the metal case) comes with the usual three sets of ear-tips, a shirt clip and something I’ve never come across with other ‘phones – two filters of 180 microns and 250 microns that can be used on the nozzles to change the sound signature. I didn’t try to experiment with the filters as I didn’t want to go fiddle with metal pincers and used the default ones for most of my listening.

The sound? Well, when used with portable players or smartphones, the C-12 will be loved by people who like their bass. The makers of the C-12 describe its sound as “warm, bassy and fun when used with a neutral source player” and that’s more than accurate.

This isn’t flabby or loose bass and 320kbps MP3s of tracks like Moby’s “Lift Me Up” or Chicane and Bryan Adam’s “Don’t Give Up” sounded terrific with these ‘phones – there’s plenty to like about the slam and authority of the bass. pn3

Vocals come across nicely though the mids are a tad recessed. There’s a steep roll off of the highs from about 2 kHz and if, like me, you want a little more treble, you’ll have to play around with the equaliser on your player to coax the highs out of the C-12.

Isolation is good and the C-12’s sound isn’t fatiguing even with prolonged use.

Paired with my Denon PMA-717 amp playing CD-quality and high-res FLACs from my laptop via the Micromega MyDAC, the C-12 offered up a warm, robust and more balanced sound. These babies love power and handle it very well. The rolloff of the highs was still there but somehow, it was less noticeable.

I have a few minor quibbles about the C-12 though – the “L” and “R” markings on the housing aren’t easy to spot and the ear-tips weren’t the best I’ve come across. But as I said, these are minor quibbles. pn4

Signature Acoustics have got a lot of things right with the C-12 and I can’t wait to hear more products from this firm. They have shown they are capable of delivering and maybe their next ‘phones will hit the ball out of the park.

Ultimate Ears is a firm that traces its origins to Van Halen drummer Alex Van Halen’s difficulty in hearing the band’s other members during their high-decibel live performances. The band’s touring monitor engineer Jerry Harvey built custom moulded earphones for the drummer using a high frequency driver and a balanced armature transducer used in pacemakers.

Soon Harvey’s in-ear monitors were being used by musicians ranging from Engelbert Humperdinck to the Red Hot Chili Peppers. Ultimate Ears initially focussed on in-ear monitors for professional musicians and high end custom-made earphones that require an appointment with an audiologist to create an impression of both ears.

After being acquired by Logitech in 2008, UE has targeted consumers using smartphones and portable music players, making headphones using its proprietary technology, but its products continue to be priced higher than those of other firms.

I picked up the Logitech UE 350 in-ear phones (which usually go for about $60) after finding them on sale at a Delhi store for Rs 1,500 (about $24). ue2

These are very plain looking phones – except for the silver rings around the earpieces, they are very low key and the strain relief, cable and overall construction seems to be very run of the mill.

The UE 350 comes in two versions – the “vi” meant for use with Apple products like iPhones and iPads and the “vm” for use with Android and other smartphones. You get five pairs of silicone ear-tips in different sizes and a protective hard case (which doesn’t look very hard and has a plastic hinge that I doubt will last very long).

Straight out of the box, these in-ears were among the lightest and most comfortable earphones I’ve ever used. The fit was snug and even in extended usage, I never experienced any discomfort. The isolation and seal was very good too, ensuring that the music came through loud and clear even in noisy environments.

They also required more burn-in than most other earphones – the sound settled down only after several weeks of regular use.

The one word that repeatedly came to mind during my listening sessions with the UE 350 was laidback – these ‘phones do not have the down and dirty charms of the Skullcandy 50/50 but then that isn’t necessarily a bad thing.

The highs were nice and airy, displaying no sizzle even when playing MP3s with Poweramp on my Galaxy S3. UE claims the 350 has “big bad bass” but that’s just marketing hype – the lows I heard were nice and punchy and there was no flabbiness.

It is the mids that are the Achilles heel of the UE 350 – a result of the largely v-shaped sound signature of the ‘phones. Fortunately, Poweramp has a great equaliser and after some fiddling about, I was able to compensate for this weakness. With the right equalisation, the mids and the overall sound improved, giving the UE 350 much more dynamism. ue1

Strangely, the weak mids were less noticeable when I used the UE 350 with my Denon PMA-717 amplifier fed with high-res FLACs from my laptop via the Micromega MyDAC. Without any form of equalisation, the sound was much more punchy and balanced.

Given the price I paid for the UE 350, I’m pretty happy with these earphones. But would I pay $60 for them? Hardly likely as I don’t think they’re worth that much.

phonesHow often have you looked at online reviews of headphones and earphones packed with fancy measurement graphs and colourful descriptions about their ability to handle highs, lows and mids and wondered whether there are simple tests to gauge the quality of your new set of earbuds or in-ears?

Well, there are several online resources that allow you to carry out some basic listening tests with your earphones or headphones and gauge their ability to handle a range of sounds. There are also some great lists of music that you can use to test your ‘phones.

This post provides links to some useful resources that can you can use to test your earphones and headphones.

The AudioCheck website offers some great, and very simple, tests to help you evaluate headphones or earphones online and get an idea about their performance. If you want, you can download the test files and put them in your portable player to test ‘phones when you go shopping.

These tests allow you to check stuff like frequency response, dynamic range, driver matching (whether the drivers on both sides sound the same) and their ability of the ‘phones to handle really deep bass. Follow the simple instructions provided along with the tests and you just can’t go wrong.

Another great resource is the Sensaphonics website, which allows you to check whether your in-ears or earbuds  provide a good, tight seal to ensure an adequate degree of isolation, which is essential for good sound in a real world situation, like a daily commute in the metro or while you’re out and walking about. (In my case, I don’t favour complete isolation as that can cut off all sounds and can be dangerous.)

On this website too, the tests can be conducted online or the files can be downloaded for use with your portable player. The summary of results provided on the page can give you an idea of the seal provided by your ‘phones.

The eminent-tech website contains some audio tests for speakers that folks believe can also be used to test ‘phones. The page has several test tones and pink noise that can be used to check your in-ears or headphones.

A word of caution – remember to turn down the volume before you carry out all these tests. Also, the tests on the eminent-tech website are more advanced and it’d probably be best to carry them out after you’ve done the other tests.

Happy testing!

2013 in review from WordPress

The WordPress.com stats helper monkeys prepared a 2013 annual report for this blog.

Here’s an excerpt:

A New York City subway train holds 1,200 people. This blog was viewed about 4,000 times in 2013. If it were a NYC subway train, it would take about 3 trips to carry that many people.

Click here to see the complete report.

If Skullcandy has got a bad rep, the firm alone is to blame for putting out way too many poorly voiced earbuds with tacky construction. But Skullcandy had also shown it can come up with products like the Roc Nation Aviators that have earned good reviews.

I picked up the Skullcandy 50/50 during my search to replace the stock earbuds that came with my Samsung Galaxy S3, which sounded pretty crappy in real world situations like my daily commute on the Metro.

Even in a noisy shop, the 50/50 sounded the best of all the earbuds available for audition and I quite liked the price too – about Rs 2,700 (about $43) after a discount meant I could pick them up without burning a home in my pocket.

Though the 50/50, like all other Skullcandy earbuds, is available in a wide array of colours ranging from red to gray-and-hot lime (!), I chose the navy-and-gold because it looked the classiest of the lot. The inclusion of a mic meant the earbuds wouldn’t have to be removed to take phone calls. Image

The 50/50 features 11mm drivers, has an impedance of 16 ohms and comes with a nice metal carrying case (which I don’t think will survive very long in the real world as it uses very thin metal). Though they are easier to drive than the S3’s stock earbuds, the 50/50’s bass sounded a tad muddy in the first few days and I almost began to think I’d made a mistake by buying them. However, I decided to stick with them and burn them in over the next few days.

And what a change that made. After being played for several hours for just a few days, the sound settled down and the bass became much more rounded and articulate. Lively and dynamic were two words that repeatedly came to mind whenever I used the 50/50, so named because they are, according to Skullcandy, “half mic, half bud and all boom”. (BTW, Skullcandy, you’re doing these buds a disservice with such a description.)

The 50/50 excels with vocals, presenting them clearly without any colouration. But that it isn’t the only thing these earphones do well. Their balanced sound made it a joy to listen to everything from rock to jazz to world music. One night, after returning home from a long day at work at 11 pm, I sat on my favourite chair and extended my listening session with the 50/50 by almost 30 minutes simply because I was having so much fun.

I have to push the volume control on the Poweramp music player on my Galaxy S3 phone (playing only MP3s ripped at 320 kbps) to about the 2 o’clock position to drive most earbuds but with the 50/50, I had to dial down things a little as they sounded rock solid and clear even at the 12 o’clock position.

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None of the three pairs of ear plugs supplied with the 50/50 were a good fit and I finally decided to stick with the plugs from the S3’s earbuds, which fit me perfectly. Isolation was very good and the 50/50 was terrific in real world situations, shutting off enough of the ambient noise in Metro trains to make sure the music came through loud and clear, with just enough lows and airy highs.

I don’t usually use earbuds for listening on my main rig at home comprising a laptop running foobar and jRiver hooked up via a Micromega MyDAC to a Denon PMA-717 amplifier, but even here the 50/50 sounded rather decent.

If I have quibbles about the 50/50, one would be the slightly recessed and rolled off highs, which comes across especially when listening to jazz. But then these are just moderately priced earbuds and maybe I’m expecting too much. The plating used on the metal parts of the earbuds isn’t very good and began peeling off after a few days while the flat cables get tangled easily if you have a habit of stuffing your earphones into a pocket. And the control on the mic for changing and pausing tracks works just fine but the control for adjusting volume produced no response on my Android phone.

But all minor cons – given the sound of these earbuds, I can easily live with these problems.

When you crack open the package holding the Smile Jamaica in-ear headphones from the House of Marley, it’s hard not to like the earbuds. I mean at this price point (Rs 1999 or about $30), I have seen few earphones that look as good as these ones. Image

A nice earpiece made of beech wood (with 8mm moving coil drivers), colourful ear-tips and a fabric-covered cable in the Rasta colours of red, gold and green – if nothing else, these earphones are gorgeous.

The sound, however, is another matter. More on that later in this review.

The earphones were burnt in over a period of about three weeks by playing a wide range of music before I got down to some serious listening.

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The earphones were mainly tested with my Samsung Galaxy S3 with a bunch of MP3s, all ripped at 320 kbps and playing through the Poweramp music player, and with my main music system that has FLACs and high-res files played by a HP ProBook 4530s laptop through a Micromega MyDAC to a Denon PMA 717 amplifier.

And this is where everything seemed to go south. Every musician, from Tony Bennett to Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, seemed to be afflicted by a chest cold on these earphones. The music seemed to be behind a veil, overpowered by too much muddy bass, gasping for air and life.

During critical listening late at night on my main rig, I struggled hard to find something redeeming about the Smile Jamaica and usually gave up in frustration.

Even a hi-res FLAC of Bob Marley’s “Buffalo Soldier” at 24 bit/192 kHz, played back on the laptop through Foobar with WASAPI came across as dull and lifeless.

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Just about the only time the Smile Jamaica sounded good was during my daily commute on Delhi’s Metro, when its strange sound signature helped overcome all ambient noises and the earbuds managed to sound decent. But even then, the highs sounded recessed.

On the plus side, the sound isolation with the ear plugs supplied with the earphones was rather good.

I truly wanted to like the Smile Jamaica – it has its heart in the right place, what with its use of recyclable aluminium and plastic and it has one of the most tangle-free cords I’ve ever come across – but it’s let down by its sound. For about Rs 2,000, there are far too many other better options.

Look ma – my foobar has VU meters!

Much as I love the music flowing from my laptop into my amplifier, I found it hard to bring myself to like the cold, sterile interface of my computer’s audio player. That is until I found a way to add analog VU meters to my foobar2000 music player.

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The meters do not in any way enhance the sonic qualities of the music files being played on the laptop but they certainly look cool and add a nice sort-of-analog touch.

As with everything related to tweaking foobar, adding the VU meters to the player isn’t very straightforward but this page on head-fi.org explains how you can do it. Above all, have patience. The greatest strength of foobar – the capability to tweak it so it looks and sounds exactly the way you want it – is also one of its most frustrating aspects for those like me who are noobs when it comes to tech.

This page on head-fi has additional ways to customise the look of your foobar player. Happy skinning.

Upgrade blues

Having just acquired the deluxe remastered editions of all the albums by Queen, my favourite band of all time, at considerable expense and ripped them to the hard disc of my laptop, I was one happy camper. Little did I know that my happiness wouldn’t last very long. The reason for this has nothing to do with Queen or its music.

You see, just a few days after I had all the Queen albums on my laptop, I read about Jimmy Page’s plans to put out special editions of all the albums by Led Zeppelin (another all-time favourite band) sometime next year. Enough for me to feel like pulling my hair out as I had only recently begun acquiring Led Zeppelin’s albums after waiting for years for Mr Page to remaster and upgrade them.

Obviously, the new Led Zeppelin remasters will sound much better than the CDs currently available. And given the current trends, there could possibly be 24/96 or 24/192 downloads, which means we may have to buy the albums not one more time, but twice.

Putting out new versions of albums isn’t exactly a new trend – it happened even in the days of vinyl. But in that era, it usually happened because an album went OOP (out of print).

It’s only in the CD era and the decline of the album format in the age of downloads that record companies figured they could maximise their returns very easily by putting out remastered and remixed versions of fan favourites.

The first wave of remastered CDs were entirely justified – simply because the CD versions of albums issued in the 1980s were total crap – dull, lifeless and boring, especially when compared to their vinyl versions.

As digital remixing and remastering techniques improved, we got some special and deluxe editions in the 1990s and early 2000s that truly delivered. And then things became unstuck when the same old albums were put out again and again (think Marvin Gaye’s “What’s Going On” – available on MFSL, SACD and several deluxe editions) to mark all sorts of anniversaries. Each new version included some unreleased tracks in the hope that fans would double or triple dip (even though some of the tracks were unreleased for a simple reason – they were really bad).

Pink Floyd box set

Pink Floyd immersion edition complete with marbles and scarf!

Some bands obviously do a better job than others in putting out special editions – U2, The Who and Queen are some that come to mind. With others I’m not so sure – I’d love to get the immersion editions of Pink Floyd’s albums but why on earth would I want to pay a fortune for marbles and a scarf (yup, those are part of the box sets though what they have to do with music, I have no clue).

Maybe it’s about time bands begin thinking of compensating fans who already have their albums when they put out the umpteenth remixed and remastered edition – for example, a discount for anyone who walks into the store with an older version of an album.

If someone had told me a computer would be part of my music set-up just two years ago, I’d probably have laughed out loud, told the person he was nuts and politely showed him the door.

For far too long, using a computer for music has meant putting up with the god-awful and lifeless sound of MP3s, a lossy compression format that just sucks the life out of music. Here’s the thing – I have a whole bunch of MP3s on my smartphone to listen to when I’m on the move, and they sound just fine through my headphones.

But play those MP3s through an amplifier and bigger speakers, and they sound like total and unadulterated crap. The treble sizzles, the midrange has no life and the sound just tires my ears after a while.

The change occurred when I got my new laptop (a HP ProBook 4530s), which has an HDMI output, loaded some FLAC files on the hard disc (a mixture of 16-bit/44.1KHz tracks ripped from CDs and high-resolution 24-bit/96KHz tracks) and then hooked up the computer to my Denon A/V receiver. All of a sudden, the laptop has become my favourite platform for playing back music.

The next few weeks were spent trawling through various forums and websites to acquaint myself with the best way of getting the music from my computer to the speakers – or as the technically minded would put it, bit perfect playback.

I finally settled on Foobar as my music player for several reasons. Foobar isn’t exactly user-friendly but it’s eminently suitable for tweaking and it’s available for free. (There are other highly recommended music players out there but I’m really not keen on spending a whole bunch of money on them till I’ve figured out how I intend to integrate a computer into my music set-up.)

The sound? I’m not going to get into a lot of gobbledygook about soundstages and rhapsodise about dynamics but I do know when I hear a good set-up. For some unfathomable reason, some albums ripped to FLACs sound better played back through the computer than the original CDs (though my main CD player is a rather long-in-the-tooth Pioneer DV-S757A universal player) while the 24/96 high-resolution tracks are as good or better than the best vinyl albums in my collection.

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And I can use my smartphone as a remote control with the “foobar2000 controller” app (available for free with pesky advertisements or you could buy the pro version for less than $2 on Google Play). Keep in mind that the app uses your home wireless network to interface with your computer but it’s darned cool to be able to browse through all the music on your computer by categories such as album, artists or genre while bringing up the artwork of the album or track that’s currently playing on your smartphone.

As with using a computer for other tasks, some fundamental rules apply. If you couldn’t be bothered about sound quality and just like the convenience of using your computer to play music, go ahead and fill your hard disc with MP3s and don’t bother to read any further. If you want the finest possible sound, remember the basic rule: Garbage in, garbage out.

Foobar controller on my phone

Foobar controller on my phone

Start by ripping your CDs or vinyl LPs to FLAC files, which take up more space but offer better sound as they’re lossless files. Then download software like MP3Tag (it’s free) so that you can properly tag your files and add album art work – this is important if you want speedy and accurate access to your music library.

If you want the best possible sound, think about investing in a DAC (digital-to-analog converter) to squeeze the most out of those 1s and 0s. There’s a wide range of DACs out there, with prices ranging from less than $100 to several thousand dollars. Read the reviews available on the internet and choose according to your budget. However, it’s would help to get a DAC that accepts at least 24/96 through its USB input (even better if it can accept 24-bit/192KHz files – there are several websites that now offer 24/192 downloads).

Most important of all – backup, backup, backup. Computer files can get corrupted and believe me it’s no fun when that happens. I’m currently backing up all my music files on to blank DVDs and an external hard drive.

That’s brings us to the end of this first blog on integrating a computer into your music system but there will be more in the days to come.

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