April 28, 2005

World's best iPod sound

Ever listened to Mackie studio monitors? Ever seen the Sony NX1 neck-strap headsets?

Today's topic: the world's best iPod speakers and headsets.

Five years ago, in one of our fits of cleaning-the-house insanity, Heidi went to a used-record store and sold the entire pile of old CDs we had toted around since college. We haven't listened to much music since then.

But that changed this year. It started with a little green iPod mini for Heidi's birthday. It was a short-lived experiment - in two months the iPod hard drive died. But by then we had found several hundred of our favorites on iTunes, and we had rediscovered the joy of music. We went straight to the Apple store to get a little pink replacement from the resident Genius, and everthing was right with the world again.

I do listen to Heidi's pretty pink iPod once in a while, but as a proud red-blooded male business traveller, I can't very well pack the effeminate pastel player in my carry-on. So a few weeks ago I got my own white iPod shuffle. For me, the little shuffle is the perfect device. It's nearly indestructible, lightweight, and charges on usb from the laptop that I always need to travel with. Nothing is better for cross-country trips.

How should you listen to your iPods? I'm picky about my sound, and I'm picky about my ergonomics. Here are my conclusions:

(1) Headphones.

For those long cross-country trips, toss the big, rigid in-ear headphones from Apple. Get the Sony MDR NX-1 neck-strap in-ear headphones. They sound better than Apple's, and they're very comfortable. And best of all, they have a built-in neck strap so that you can hang your shuffle from the cord without pulling on your ears. Elegant design and very good sound. Shure also sells in-ear headphones with an excellent reputation. But I think the Sony ones sound just as good, and I like the neck strap.

I have also been happy with the Bose QuietComfort 2 over-ear headset. Their sound is really excellent - better than the in-ear headsets - and they are very very comfortable. And they cancel airplane background noise. But they are big, and they are plastic. A piece on my pair broke when I fell asleep with them on the plane, and so I probably will not use them again.

(2) Speakers.

The little mini came with a pair of labtec speakers for free, but mainly these made me ask, "what are the right speakers to get?"

I'm particularly proud of my find. Get the Mackie HR624 active studio monitors. They're sold individually so you can get just one if you want just one. These are the best sounding speakers I have ever heard. (Apparently the HR824 monitors sound better, but they're big and so they are not iPod-proportioned.) The HR624s are the size of bookshelf speakers, but do not be fooled. They are serious speakers and have a very clean sound, including effortless bass down to about 40 Hz.

The Mackie HR624's get their excellent sound from their internally amplified design: each box contains two amplifiers, one for each driver (100 watts and 40 watts). The crossover is pre-amplification, which means each amplifier only needs to deal with the frequencies in its own range. And the electronics are specifically tuned and calibrated on each unit for a ruler flat and in-phase response. For kicks, each speaker comes with its own frequency response test graph, just to prove to you that each one is ruler-flat.

As pro speakers, the Mackies are also capable of being very loud without distortion (112 SPL, which is louder my pain threshold), and they also protect themselves from overload if you pass that limit.

The beauty of the internally amplified design is that you can plug them directly into an iPod, with no extra amplifier needed. Perhaps doing this with a 128kbit compressed digital stream is a waste of the Mackie's capabilities. But when you do it, your iPod does sound truly superb.

Posted by David at April 28, 2005 01:30 AM

Welcome back to the world of blogging! It was nice meeting you yesterday! :-)

Posted by: mapgirl at April 28, 2005 10:54 AM
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