When it comes to comparing audio equipment like speakers or headphones, it is difficult to avoid biased opinions from manufacturers and designers, since it is inevitable that each one has formulated its business model based on an individual preference and an ideal concept.
With this in mind, it stands to reason that a company that makes amplifiers, consoles, or mixing systems might have a more neutral perspective about the types of devices that might be used with their equipment, and the various pros and cons of each,
Nason Tackett is the senior design engineer of Hear Technologies. The company has already made a reputation with Tackett’s cutting-edge monitor mixing units and recording interfaces, as well as other audio/video support devices. Hear offers tablet-sized mixing consoles that allow musicians and vocalists to customize their respective headphone mixes for recording in the studio or for live performance. Although small, these consoles can submix up to 128 channels with a frequency response of 20 Hz to 20 kHz and a sampling rate up to 192 kHz.
Nason graciously made time to share some insights about headphones, in-ear monitors (IEMs) and earbuds from the perspective of the company’s musician, producer and engineering clients, as well as looking at the gray zone that separaes audiophile and professional audio equipment.
John Seetoo: Owsley Stanley, best known for his audio R&D involvement with the Grateful Dead and (sound and musical instrument company) Alembic, held a philosophy that hi-fi home audio gear and pro audio gear should have negligible performance differences apart from the durability requirements of pro audio gear. This is an outlook shared by Pat Quilter of QSC Audio (Copper Issues 118, 119 and 120) and John Meyer of Meyer Sound (Copper Issues 99, 100 and 101).
Do you share or differ with this philosophy?
Another question: apart from mixing capabilities, in what ways does your design of the Hear Back mixing units for musicians differ from or are comparable to audiophile headphone DAC/amps?
Nason Tackett: I do share this philosophy. If I am designing equipment that will be used in the creation of music recordings, I want the accuracy to be at least as accurate if not more accurate than what someone will listen to the playback of the recording on, even if [they will be listening on] a very high-end system. You want to hear all the detail [as well as] all the ugly parts as you make the recording. You don’t want to cover them up and then have someone hear them during playback on a [home] hi-fi system.
The headphone monitoring systems that I have designed are very much like audiophile headphone DAC /amps. The goals in designing them were to be accurate, to avoid coloring the sound, and [to be] as low [in] noise as possible. I like to be able to turn up the master volume and have no hiss. Thankfully, I am in a situation where I’m able to design the best piece of gear I can without anyone telling me to cut corners or cut costs. I just do what it takes to make it the best that I can.
I ran my own live sound and recording company for over a decade, so while designing these products I brought my pair of near-field studio monitors in that I was familiar with, and used them to critically listen to every product I made. I trusted my ears as much as what the test equipment was showing me.
JS: While IEMs are the likely default listening platform for musicians using Hear Back PRO monitoring units in a live setting, headphones of all types probably would be deployed when used in the recording studio. Can you discuss a bit about the differences in headphone types that clients have been using, and any advice for optimal use? For example, would someone in the studio using AKG headphones have an easier time than someone using Dr. Dre Beats?
NT: I will refer to headphones and IEMs (in-ear monitors) collectively as “phones.”
We see people using everything! There is no right answer to what someone should use. It depends on your needs. Some people think [that] using something that has a razor-flat frequency response is the right answer, but this is not necessarily true. Everyone’s hearing is different. People have hearing loss in different areas, so what works for one person might not for another. Your brain gets used to equipment [that] you use frequently.
People who spend the money to get a good-quality pair of IEMs molded to their ears often bring these into the studio to record with because they are used to the way they sound. And this makes good sense. If you don’t have phones [that] you are used to, I recommend visiting a trade show or a shop where you can try a lot of different types to [hear] for yourself. You will want to bring a recording that you are very familiar with and see if you can hear everything, especially the things you really need to hear to perform as a musician.
I don’t recommend a majority of the consumer phones because they are designed to listen to mastered recordings where the dynamics are very controlled. When monitoring live music, the dynamics are not as controlled so the phones usually get hit with a lot more energy that will typically damage consumer-grade phones. Consumer phones also tend to have exaggerated low and high frequencies, which may cause a musician to change their tone to compensate and result in a difference between what the musician and the audience hears. However, there are some really nice consumer phones out there that will work just fine in a live environment. It is important to investigate each design individually to find what works best for you.
JS: Would there be a way for an engineer or musician to use open-backed headphones or even electrostatic headphones during studio sessions?
NT: It really depends on the application. In a studio, if they are in an area that is not very noisy and there are no microphones that could pick up the sound of the headphones, then someone could use open-backed or electrostatic headphones. These are good if someone wants to monitor audio but still be able to hear someone talking to them. They just don’t work if you need to block out room noise or if there are microphones that might pick up sound coming from the headphones. I have a pair of open-back headphones I love to use while designing and testing, but the room I [use them] in is not noisy. My co-workers do get to listen to whatever is in my phones, though.
JS: Hear Technologies has chosen Future Sonics as its preferred IEM supplier, and has stated a preference for their dynamic driver design over balanced armature-based technology (where an armature is balanced between two magnets and is connected to a diaphragm that produces sound). Can you please elaborate on the pros and cons between the two platforms, and in which circumstances, if any, would balanced-armature technology be preferable?
NT: Like many aspects of audio, IEM preference is subjective. We like Future Sonics’ approach because it’s simple and it works. They use one dynamic driver, and it works exceptionally well. They were also the first company to commercially produce IEMs, so they have been doing it the longest. [Other companies] have adopted armature technology from the hearing aid industry. [However], hearing aids are designed to reproduce voice frequencies and are made to be as absolutely tiny [and invisible] as possible. With IEMs, [on the other hand], nobody is ashamed to be wearing them, so you can get away with a larger piece in your ear.
Armature technology is limited in the frequency response it can reproduce. To overcome this, designers will use multiple armatures, each reproducing a different frequency range. This leads to a much more complex design. More parts logically means more possible failure points. Also, because the Future Sonics design is simple, the cost is significantly less than multi-armature technology. The number of well-known musicians who use Future Sonics attests to their quality.
Ultimately, you’ll want to listen to a lot of different IEMs yourself, [again], using a recording you are very familiar with and see what sounds the best. Don’t let anyone tell you. Go listen!
JS: As some musicians also like to hear the sound of the room when performing, they might only use one IEM in one ear, or IEMs or earbuds that are not sealed to enable them to hear some room sound. Do you have clients that subscribe to this, and are there any tips you would give them?
NT: The best choice really depends on the application. I don’t really recommend the open-back design for situations where the music you are playing can both come into the port of the phones [physically] and also through the phones electrically, because now you have multiple [sonic inputs] that are probably out of time and phase. [This] could throw you off or make things sound funny. If your stage is totally silent and you want to hear the audience, then maybe an open design could work, but you might still get reflections of the main PA coming back in at a delay, [which could] possibly throw you off. When in doubt, use a sealed design.
If you choose to use just one IEM, make sure you disconnect the other earpiece, as IEMs are designed to have back pressure on them. When you take them out of your ear, there is no back-pressure and you can easily damage the driver.
JS: When listening via a networked audio interface, are there challenges in delivering the same audio quality you’d get with a standard wired connection, or are there audible tradeoffs that can be heard?
NT: Once [an audio signal is] converted to digital, the only thing you really need to worry about is the latency. It’s not really going to matter if [you’re listening via an] Ethernet or an AES/EBU, S/PDIF, MADI et cetera connection. They just move bits from one location to the other. In the very beginning, digital did not sound as good as analog, but now with all the oversampling that the D/A converters do, it’s pretty much an exact copy of the signal, especially with a sampling rate of 96 kHz. Anything higher than this really has no value because even the highest harmonics of the musical instruments that we are capturing are under 40 kHz ([and the sampling rate needs to be greater than double the frequency you want to capture). Going higher just wastes more data.
Latency, on the other hand, can become a problem. It’s not so much an issue for live sound and using stage monitors because the time it takes the sound to get from the speaker to your ear is in the milliseconds range. The latencies for digital audio are typically 6 milliseconds or less. But issues arise when you are using IEMs. You have that little speaker so close to your eardrum that there is almost zero acoustical latency. Those few milliseconds are going to be noticeable. It won’t sound like a delay; it will sound more like a comb filter or like if you cup your hands in front of your face and talk.
Singers and drummers really tend to notice even 2 milliseconds. [Singers] hear an acoustic copy of their voice in their own head through bone conduction, and if the in-ear is a couple milliseconds behind, it will sound weird. A lot of singers have had to use an analog monitor console just for their in-ear mix so there is zero latency just for their vocal channel. So whatever digital protocol is used, the latency should be considered. If it is below 2 milliseconds (our digital equipment ranges from .25 to 2 milliseconds) it will likely be a non-issue.
JS: What are some of the differences between pro IEMs and consumer or audiophile in-ear headphones?
NT: In general, consumer earbuds are not designed to keep up with the energy and dynamics of live music. [However], there are some pretty well-designed consumer earbuds, so it’s hard to paint all [of them] with a broad brush. We do notice that many praise and worship bands seem to use consumer earbuds. We find out about it when they complain about distortion and it turns out they are using a cheap pair of earbuds – those just can’t keep up with the energy of live music. Our equipment can only sound as good as the phones you hook up to it.
Every design is different, so it is important to look at each individually. Many consumer and professional earbuds share the same drivers. There are good and bad consumer phones and good and bad professional designs. Professional [models] tend to have higher power handling capacity and more rugged [construction]. Consumer [phones] also tend to have exaggerated low and high frequencies. But there are plenty of exceptions. Comfort is another factor. With IEMs, having a molded design is essential to long-term comfort. If you are going to have something stuffed in your ears for hours, it needs to be comfortable.
JS: How has the pandemic affected your company?
NT: We have amazing and dedicated customers. Like everyone [else], 2020 sent us some unexpected challenges. But we’ve increased our online outreach and digital trade show presence, and we’ve been able to connect with people we wouldn’t otherwise be able to reach. That has been really good. And since we build our products in the US we’ve been able to keep everything in stock, which has been an advantage. Our team has made sure Hear Technologies’ ability to respond quickly to orders and support hasn’t changed.
J.S.: Is there anything else you’d like to add?
NT: Go listen to it before you buy it!
Special thanks to Katie Stallcup of Hear Technologies for arranging this interview.