Welcome to the Couch Tour

My name is Philip and I listen to jam band music. I'd say I'm primarily a Phish fan, though I'm also a big fan of the Grateful Dead and also enjoy other types of jam band music - as well as lots of non-jam band sounds. On top of that, I'm a bit of a hi-fi audio geek and have been interested in high-resolution, high bit-rate music for years now.

With this blog I intend to explore the world of high-resolution music. To start, I'll dig into the FLAC HD downloads of live shows offered by Phish, but I'll also be looking into live recordings on etree.org and looking around for more high-res recordings wherever I can find them, including the wide variety offered by HD Tracks - we're not going to limit things to much.

I have borrowed a HiFiMan HM-801 from the people at Head Direct as well as a pair of their fabulous HE-500 headphones and a balanced amplifier module for the player in order to get the most out of the cans. As always with a reference listening system, my goal here was to achieve the best playback possible so that the music can speak for itself.

My main job is as technical editor for Popular Photography and American Photo - two sister publications of Sound+Vision. I wanted to be able to listen while out field-testing cameras, and on the subway during my commute. For mobile listening, I am using my Shure SE535 earbuds, which I have used almost daily for about a year now, using an iPod Classic paired with a Corda Stepdance headphone amplifier connected by an ALO Audio iPod connector.

Compared to my old rig, the HM-801 is a revelation in terms of sound quality, though As Geoffrey Morrison noted in his review, the 801 does have some drawbacks. For one, the interface can be a bit annoying compared to the slickness of an iPod. More importantly for Phish listening, is the fact that the 801 won't playback successive FLAC files gaplessly, so jams are sometimes interrupted for a second if they're spread over multiple tracks. Apple has since fixed this on the iPod, and the folks at Head Direct plan to address this issue across their line of players in the coming year, though it seems to be a complicated issue when dealing with FLAC files.

The sound from the HM-801 certainly outclasses the iPod, especially when listening via its balanced amplifier through the HE-500's. Once you start listening to 24-bit/96kHz sound through the 801 - something that no iPod is currently able to playback - the 801's quirks are quickly relegated to minor inconveniences.

The HM-801 tops out at 24-bit/96kHz, which is what the Phish FLAC HD downloads deliver. Compared to the 16-bit/44.1kHz regular FLAC downloads, the FLAC HD files deliver more dynamic range and detail; each instrument retains more of its natural character, making it easier to hear the subtleties of multiple instruments simultaneously. While all music listening benefits from the increased range, in a jamming situation - such as you'll encounter listening to Phish, where the band members are reacting to one another and more than one is improvising at the same time - being able to hear each player as clearly as possible is essential to realizing the essence of the music.

As this blog continues, I hope to find more such instances in which high resolution music shows its value, and I'll try to offer more insights into the equipment that can be used to enjoy the cutting edge of the digital music playback experience.