Headphone Geek Out

It has been a while. I need to get back into the habit of writing. Right now, I am writing grant proposals and there is nothing as soul killing as those. I hate it. Maybe this will be therapeutic.

So I threw away a headphone or two lately. They were dying. So it was time, once again, for that semi-regular activity when I contact Juraj Medzihorsky, who, in addition to knowing everything there is to know about music in Budapest, he also knows everything there is to know about sound in general.  From a fun scraping exercise, once he scraped some headphone review site and came up with the following scatter plot. (Y Axis is sound quality, X axis is log price).

It does not take a stats genius to figure out which headphone one should buy. (So I did, and since, I consult Juraj on headphone purchases.) I don’t have this headphone anymore. It had no mic, no button so I actually did not like it for day-to-day use.  It did sound amazing. (OK, Szása called me out on Facebook for this. It was the Monoprice 108320. And yes, I totally wish I would have kept it so I could do a comparison now.)

I had a horrible time with headphones around then. Klipsch S2/S4 were dying every 2-4 months. Etymotic lasted 6 months. There were others as well (maybe a very specific cheap Samsung which was OK), but the first true love ended up being the Xiaomi Piston 2. Those things were cheap, durable and they sounded great. There was only one thing about them that bothered me. They got discontinued.

Piston 3 sounded like shit IMHO. The 4th generation Xiaomi Piston Dual Drivers sounded fine but they did not have the durability of the Piston 2. In fact, the one I threw out recently was the last one of these I had.

So it was time for new headphones. There was buzz around a Sony and they were cheap outgoing models. Meh. I guess they work but there was nothing about them I really liked. Sound was OK, nothing special. Feel was weird. Flat cable didn’t tangle so I kept them as the back up in the bag, in case I forget my daily drivers. But when I found myself digging on the bottom of a box for something to listen to podcasts/music with, I knew it was time to make new purchases.

Talk to Juraj. Industry favorite is apparently the KZ-ATE. OK. Lets grab two. I also managed to find a Piston 2. Made me so happy. And as I tried it out today, it is certainly not a fake. (Yeah, it is that bad. They are counterfeiting the cheap headphones in China. So everyone BEWARE!)

(This was the worst rambling way too long intro I ever wrote.)

Well, this was interesting. I put on the < 20 EUR KZ-ATE and I knew I was up against something very-very serious.  So it was time to do some more in depth testing. I did not use any special equipment. Just my Google Pixel Phone and Amazon Music. The test songs were Tom Russel’s Man from God Knows Where (my favorite test song) and Chris Thile’s I’m Nowhere and You’re Everything. This covers the style of music I listen to where I most care about quality. These are songs I know very well. They are well recorded.

The KZ-ATE had incredible clarity and detail. Despite the stupid size (don’t worry, they are not as uncomfortable as they look) it was not bassy. I figured the rationale behind the size was to fit a big driver in there. In fact, it was surprisingly not bassy. With the clarity I was up against, I expected more bass. The roll off on the low-end was very smooth though. The top was weird. The resolution was incredible. I could hear every little detail in the music, but it sounded off. The acoustic guitar overtones especially were simply incorrect. That is not what a guitar sounds like. Mandolin was ditto. Thile’s vocals were also off. It was such a strange feeling to hear all the details and hear it incorrectly.

For good measure I did a listening test with the Piston. Nowhere near the resolution. The bass was also not there. (OK, maybe a bit more there, but definitely not a big difference.)  The sound was not nearly as sooth. Resolution was not there at all. But the guitar and mandolin (not to mention Thile’s voice) sounded right. And the sound stage was open and musical.

There are so many terms in the audiophile vocabulary and I don’t know what most of these mean (but I swear, neither do anyone else – this often reminds me of the fruits people list off when tasting wine). But I felt that the KZ-ATE has incredible sound within that middle range. Once we got to the top and bottom, it was not correct. I know that many people are in love with their single driver speakers. I assume this is the kind of sound those has. Missing top and missing bass. But it is very musical, easy to listen to and the detail will not bother your ear/brain. (I am guessing here. Never heard such a system.) But I still prefer the Piston. (Should hunt for more old stock I guess and pray they are not fake.)

I put the KZ-ATE through some burn in. Have not tested since. If it turns out I didn’t do them justice, I will update.  I do wonder which of the two causes more listening fatigue. I know my home system does quite quickly and it is probably because the incredible resolution and the sheer high-end coming out of the horns. (I am sure the cross-over is also not helping, though that has been updated since.) I don’t know if it is the resolution of the KZ or the high-end clarity of the Piston 2 that would tire the ears/brains more. But I do know which of the two I prefer.

This said, at the price I paid, the KZ-ATE is an incredible headphone. It does not happen often that I hear a headphone and I schedule a dedicated listening session to figure out what is going on. I didn’t even do this for the Piston 2. Only that outlier dot on the figure got this treatment before and that was a biased pre-conception. The Sony never got the honors. I knew from the get go that they were nothing to write home about. So, at this price, they are recommended despite al the “bad” things I said about them above. They are great headphones.

If anyone is interested, I got them here.