|Travel Audio - A Guide To Getting Good Tunes When On a Road Trip|
|Home Theater Feature Articles Audio Related Articles|
|Written by Jerry Del Colliano|
|Thursday, 13 December 2007|
In seven-plus years of publishing AudioRevolution.com, it has become a necessity to travel extensively, whether it be to attend tradeshows, visit clients or simply going on a vacation. With my desktop and home A/V systems sitting dormant, the need to get soothing tunes piped into my brain dsuring a road trip has become an increasing priority for me. I therefore went on a search to find some of the finest, highest-performance, most luxurious products you can stash in your briefcase for a flight to anywhere.
The Apple iPod
I am not sure how I ever lived without an iPod. Its sleek design and ultra-easy-to-use interface make this music storage device a must-have for any music fan, no matter what operating system they use (iPods have a PC version). Starting in price at about $299, you can store thousands of songs onto a device that is so small it easily fits in your pocket or any free area of your briefcase. Managing songs on an iPod is done best on a computer (once again Mac or PC) via Apple’s iTunes software. This amazingly intuitive, free software package makes ripping CDs, creating play lists, burning CDs and managing collections of music pathetically easy. I defy you to need to read a manual to figure this out.
iTunes has also received critical acclaim for its new pay-per-download feature that allows you to buy songs for about a buck a pop. Gone are the days of downloading songs from Napster and Gnutella for most people. In the first four months in operation, Apple astonishingly sold over 10,000,000 songs. Whether you are managing your collection of downloaded songs from the old days or you are working with copies of songs from your CD collections, iTunes allows you the chance to really create a world of music that can provide a mood for you when you are away from your music collection. For example, you might create an electronic playlist of songs featuring artists like Paul Oakenfold, Orbital, Juno Reactor and others for an upbeat “work on your laptop” soundtrack. You might drop 12 or 15 cuts from more loungy and hip artists like Thievery Corporation, Bjork, Madonna, Global Underground and others for a more relaxing “read a magazine” playlist. You can have a Beatles list, a Jimi list and so on. The possibilities are endless, especially with the ability to store more and more songs on such a small device. Another cool feature in iTunes is the ability, with two clicks, to burn a CD of one of your playlists for a friend or as a backup. Don’t forget to encourage your friends to actually buy the discs you rip for them. In fact, you would be doing the artists a service by writing a playlist with a Sharpie on the disc itself.
Other cool things you can do with your iPod and iTunes include EQing your playlists. In iTunes, you can literally go in and rework the audio on a track to make it sound better for your on the road audio system. What you get out of your iPod has a lot to do with what you put into it. When you are sitting next to a 325-pound owner of a Harley-Davidson dealership who snores (not that this ever happened to me), you can tune him out with any number of personally crafted musical programs on your iPod.
One warning for iPod users is that if you are not using a Mac laptop, the battery life of the unit is less than stellar. The best bet is to plug the FireWire connector into your iPod and your laptop. This will keep you all charged up long enough to get you from L.A. to New York, or at least from L.A. to Chicago. For long trips, and because the iPod doesn’t take traditional throw-away batteries, I sometimes bring a backup CD player to guarantee that I am always traveling with music. Why airlines do not provide AC power adapters or at least receptacles is just symbolic of why they are in such financial trouble.
While there are many MP3 storage devices on the market, the iPod is clearly the coolest and easiest to use, making that decision an easy one. Picking bitchen headphones for your travel rig is an entirely different situation. Just like speakers for your home, picking headphones is a highly personal decision. In my quest for the perfect audio rig, I enlisted help from a mail order company called HeadRoom located in Montana http://www.headphone.com. They have an assortment of extremely kick-ass travel audio accessories and specifically, headphones.
First off, throw the iPod headphones in the trash. They are insultingly bad sonically, and uncomfortable to boot. I started my quest for good travel headphones with a big set of cans, the H2200s from Sennheiser, which are priced below $100. There was no question that they were comfortable and the bass sounded noticeably better than other headphones in their price range. The problem with the Sennheisers is that they are too big. Literally, they barely fit into my Tumi briefcase and make removing my laptop at security even more of a hassle.
Listening to music on an airplane is a good way to pass time, but an airplane is a noisy place to enjoy music. Besides the people sitting near you, the engines of a modern jet create a high level of background noise. After a while, you get used to it, but when you get back to your hotel room, you might notice how high the volume was set when you were last listening to your music. This is because you were trying to override the background noise on the plane. The Sennheiser headphones did a pretty good job of creating a personal environment around my ears when on a plane. However, the folks at HeadRoom pitched me on a whole other level of the art of the headphone.
When most younger rock and pop stars perform today, they use in-ear monitors to listen to their own personal mix of music that is going on as they perform. These monitors go directly in their ears and are housed by custom-made molds. Believe it or not, for about $550, you too can have custom earphones that make beautiful music right in your ear holes.
As soon as I learned of such a concept, I ordered a pair of Etymotic Research ER-4S headphones. Unlike the Sennheisers, these in-ear monitors are tiny. They are so small, in fact, that you have to worry about losing them when traveling. Some people can put a stock earpiece on them and jam them into their ear canals. The comfort of that practice has a lot to do with the shape of your ears. In my ears, this felt horrible, so I called my friends at HeadRoom. They advised me to find an audiologist who could make molds that would accommodate the installation of the Etymotic.
After a call to my doctor, I got a recommendation for an audiologist who could make my molds. However, in order to get the most out of them, I needed to have my ears professionally cleaned. Now I was really getting into it. The doctor literally stuck a metal tool into my ear and scraped impacted earwax out, which was one of the oddest feelings of my life. Little did I know that the cleaning was to be nothing when compared to getting the ear molds made. The way they make your ear molds perfect is to fill your ear canal up with a foam substance. Talk about an unnerving experience. Luckily, I was sitting down at the time, because you start to lose your balance. Then as your ear quickly fills up, you can barely hear. Within three minutes or so, they are done taking the mold, which they then send off to a place where your headphone molds are made.
Two weeks later, I returned to the audiologist to fit my molds to my ears with the headphones attached. They fit perfectly, but getting them in required some getting used to. Because the fit is so tight, you have to twists them into place from the top of your ear – backwards. With that move under my belt, I could get the in-ear monitors physically into place.
Later that week, I took a trip to Carmel, California to play Pebble Beach and Spyglass Hill, as well as to attend a wedding. On the flight from Los Angeles to the Monterey airport, I had my first chance to test the Etymotic earphones on a noisy, turbo-prop plane. While it was noisy in the plane, you sure couldn’t tell this in my head. I had tunes rocking and I was happy. You could hear some of the background noise of the plane, but it was maybe 10 percent of what you could hear with my other headphones. Besides the fitting process, another downside of these headphones was having to take them out as the flight attendant came by. I simply could not hear her when she stopped by my seat to ask me if I wanted a drink. On future flights, I timed when the in-air service was planned and left one earphone out so that I could hear the attendants without having to twist the headphones off.
It was hard to tell just how good the in-ear monitors were on the plane, but at the Lodge at Pebble Beach, I was able to give them a more complete test. While graced by the painfully bad reception of a Bose Wave Radio in the suite, I quickly transitioned to listening to CDs from my backup travel stash via my Mac iBook laptop’s CD drive. The best way to describe the in-ear experience is to call it intimate. It illustrated to me the significance of room acoustics in a home audio system, considering you have no effect from room acoustics when listening to in-ear monitors. Bass was not booming, but it was tight and exciting. I found myself wanting to work with iTunes to play with the tone of the songs I was listening to, not because they sounded bad, but rather because they sounded so good that I wanted to make them even better. Highs sound liquid and real. Mids are believable and dynamic. While it is a very different audio experience that takes some time to get used to, in the end, I was glad I went through the effort to get into the in-ear monitors.
The other category of headphones for a travel audio setup is noise-canceling headphones. There are a number of them on the market, including models sold directly in airports by Bose. Advantages include a more manageable physical size than the Sennheisers I used and less up-front effort in order to get started, as opposed to the in-ear solution. The way noise-canceling headphones work is by creating opposite frequencies to the outside noise, thus reducing or eliminating the effects of potentially distracting noise. I never took noise-canceling headphones on a trip, but they do demand your consideration for their ease of use, cool application of sonic technology and affordability.
The last item that I found made the trip with me more often than not was the AirHead portable headphone amplifier from Headroom. This is an AAA battery power amplifier that the guys at Headroom sell to give you more gain for your travel system. It was definitely a nice addition to my travel audio setup because, despite its added complexity to my travel rig, it gave me additional gain, which I was able to use to my advantage on countless occasions. Just like at home, it never hurts to have a reserve of power, and when listening critically to the in-ear monitors, I like to have the Air Head in the loop. On planes, it gives you the power to amplify past the noise, which is a nice feature, although it requires some self-restraint. You don’t want to spend five hours traversing the nation to find that you left a nice portion of your hearing in Newark. HeadRoom is slated to release new versions of the AirHead and Total AirHead in November, with added features such as additional gain on 4 AAA's, dual headphones jacks, and clipping indicator.
Especially after 9/11, traveling has become a nightmare. While some people can drive to their desired destinations with the benefit of high-performance car audio systems, many of us still must use air travel as our primary mode of transportation. For the time you spend in airport lounges and on flights to be more relaxing and enjoyable, it was easy for me to justify the investment of about $1,300 in a travel audio rig. It is not that the money is chump change, because it isn’t, but the ability to turn the time I spend on a plane into a more relaxing time is a very worthwhile idea. Whether you take your travel rig to the same extremes as I have is up to you. However, look into some of the cool new toys on the market. Perhaps you might even call the people at Headroom. You might find that, for a few hundred dollars, you can make your travel a lot less stressful and a heck of a lot more musical.