Do you spend your workweek trapped in a cubicle? Attached to a swivel chair, eyes glued to a computer monitor, surrounded by coworkers who can hear every conversation, cough and keystroke? Is your body going into atrophy because your only exercise is moving your mouse and getting coffee? It’s a lot like being plugged into the The Matrix, but less cool. I know; I’ve been living the Cube Life for about five years now.
Fortunately I have stumbled upon a wonderful product to help provide a little escape from the droll so many of us must tolerate to get that precious paycheck we’re addicted to. The Headroom Total Bithead is a portable digital-to-analog converter and headphone amplifier. It is about the size of a portable digital audio player like the iPod. It sports a USB input for data and power, an analog line input, and two headphone outputs. It is powered by the USB input or four AAA batteries. Music may be ported through the USB input from your computer, or you can hook up an analog source into the 1/8th” line-level input. The Total Bithead retails $269. Also available is the regular ol’ Bithead for $199, which is functionally identical to the Total Bithead, except the Total Bithead boasts higher quality internal parts.
Back in those bad old days of listening to my headphones through the crummy stock soundcard on my old computer, I used to think that internet radio and digital music were simply awful, sounding tinny, anemic, and compressed. I found it painful to listen to; so I rarely did I listen. Still, I knew there was a world of music out there on the net, all at my finger tips, and easier to manage than bringing all my records to my work (I tried it at my old job; it was fun but kind of a hassle). So when Headroom introduced the Bithead, I was intrigued. As soon as I was back at a computer in my new job here at AudioReview, I grabbed one.
I’ve been using the Total Bithead in combination with Sennheiser's HD-497 Headphones (see the mini review below) at my workstation in the Consumer Review offices for about eight months now. I listen to it every day, all day. I listen to a lot of internet radio, from news and public radio to jazz and classical to rock and hip hop, as well as a small collection of digital music files I have stored on my computer. I also used my iPod, and use the line output on the iPod dock to connect to the line input of the Bithead.
Let me take this opportunity to apologize in advance for the following superlative abuse: I'm sorry, I can't help myself. This thing sounds fantastic. The Bithead does an amazing job of doing all the right things to that digital signal; it smoothes out the rough edges of the music, and juices it up with life and detail. The music goes from tinny and compressed to open and lively. Quite simply, it turns those nasty little digital bits into music glorious music.
The analog input is very nice too. Moving from the iPod's headphone output to the Bithead was a great improvement. It sounded as if the Bithead took total control of my headphones, and the headphones responded in kind with an impressive upgrade in performance. The music sounded more powerful and well defined, with great body and tonality, and much improved bass.
I’ve owned the Bithead for many months now and have logged many hundreds of hours listening to it. I’m telling you, I am having a tough time finding many complaints with its audio performance. This is a very enjoyable unit, but like every product, it is not without some limitations.
Garbage in, garbage out. You’ve heard it before: Your system will only sound as good as the source material you are listening to. That is certainly the case here. Listening to low bit rate MP3’s or low bandwidth Internet radio may leave you a bit underwhelmed, wondering what the hoopla is about. The Bithead does an admirable job of making your pc based music sound its best, and does a great job at making low bandwidth and low bit rate music sources listenable. That said, the Bithead can only do so much. You can’t expect it to improve a musical signal that is just plain bad to begin with.
So if you’re going to be listening to primarily low-bandwidth Internet radio or lower-resolution digital music, you may want to consider the less expensive standard parts quality Bithead model.
Compatibility with digital music players. Headroom touts this as a device to go with iPods and other portable digital music players, and they even sell nice portable cases so that you can tote your player and Bithead together. I tried connecting the iPod and the Virgin Five GB Player I reviewed in April into the Bithead’s analog line input, from each of the two players’ headphone outputs. I did not experience a tremendous improvement in sound quality when using the headphone outputs into the Bithead. In fact, I tended to prefer the sound straight from the player to the headphones. Why? Probably because a portable players headphone output is not a proper line output, containing circuitry for driving headphones. When attempting to use this headphone output as line output into another headphone amplifier, the results are somewhat tainted. However, when using the true line output found on the iPod’s dock connector, the sound was great, a major improvement over the iPod’s built in headphone amplifier, as I discussed earlier.
The problem is, it is hard to find a line out on most portable players. For the iPod there is the Dock Connector, which is not portable. Also for the iPod is a third party manufacturer named SendStation, which makes a tiny portable line output that plugs into the iPod’s data port. Why doesn’t Apple make one? Why doesn’t Headroom make one or sell them on their great website?
I discovered one more slightly disturbing issue when I experimented with two pairs of in-ear "earphones" that I have in for review. Both the Shure e2c and Etymotic er6i earphones are sealed in-ear type, where an airtight seal in your ear is required for proper sound. When using either of these headphones with the Total Bithead, there was fairly loud hiss through the headphones, at all times, regardless of the volume setting. It was loudest when there was no music playing. It was still present when music was playing, but not quite as bothersome. The fact that it occurred with both of the similar in-ear type headphones tells me that the amp and this type of earphones might not be a great match. I haven't experienced the hiss phenomenom when using these earphones directly with my portables.
Finally, there’s cost. For those with plenty of cash and a bad case of Audiophilia, $269 is cheap. But for a greater (and saner) portion of the population, this seems a prohibitively large amount of cash to drop on a headphone amp. After all, you’ve still got to buy the iPod, the Headphones, and any accessories you might need. Pretty soon you’re closing in on $1,000 for a portable/headphone setup. I’ve told plenty of Non-Audiophiles about the Bithead, and every time, the response has been “COOL!! That’s exactly what I’m looking for!” until the subject of price comes up, at which point I get a discouraged “oh” and they forget about it. There is the standard Bithead model at $199, but that is still something of an expensive step up from the free stock soundcard in your computer.
For workplace listening, I am extremely happy with this unit. It has made my workdays much more relaxing and enjoyable. I’ve been using it for months and everyday I think about how much I love it. It sounds great. It is a bit expensive and there are some use limitations to consider, but for my purposes and maybe yours, the Headroom Total Bithead is a savior.
Excellent sound quality
Flexibility as portable or desktop amp
Two Headphone outputs
USB and Analog line inputs
Battery or USB Powered
Only incremental improvement in Sound quality when used with some portable sources headphone output
Apparent compatibility issue with sealed In-Ear headphones
Headroom Total Bithead
$269, available direct from www.Headphone.com.
Read and Write Reviews of the Headroom Total Bithead here.
Sennheiser HD 497 Mini Review
I mainly used the Total Bithead with Sennheisers’ HD 497 Headphones. The HD 497 is an “Earpad” type headphone that retails for $59.99. The 497’s fall into the “Supra-Aural” category, meaning that their plastic covered foam pads sit on top of your ear, as opposed to around your ear. They’re very light headphones and quite comfy.
The Sennheisers kept up their part of the bargain with smooth and detailed playback that is never fatiguing. They fit so snugly on my head that I often forget that I am wearing them. Indeed, sometimes find myself wearing them long after music has stopped playing. This makes for a system that I can listen to all day, without growing weary of the sound, or uncomfortable with the fit. Their comfortable fit combined with the non-fatiguind sound makes for a set of headphones that I can listen to all day.
I also listened to the Sennheisers with all kinds of other devices. The Virgin 5GB player i a few weeks ago, a Sony portable CD Player, an Apple iPod, and at home through the headphone outputs of my Panasonic SA-XR50 receiver, Yamaha CX-1000 Pre-amp, and the M-Audio Audiophile USB external sound card(which has a very nice headphone amplifer by the way). The Headphones were easily driven with each device, portable or not. I got the same nice neutral and easy sound every time.
They're not quite cut out for noisy environments, however. Because they are an open, not a sealed design, they let in all sound around you. Therefore, you can scratch them off the list if you want to listen on an airplane or other very noisy environments. That noise will come right through and overpower the music. In turn you will have to crank up the music, potentially causing damage to your ears. In an office setting, I like the open design. It strikes a nice balance of being absorbed in music while still being able to hear your coworkers when they call your name.
Comfortable, good sounding, non-fatiguing headphones at a reasonable price. Need I say more?
Sennheiser HD 497
Read and Write Reviews and find best prices on the Sennheiser HD-497 here.