Day: November 7, 2019

Headphones: the final frontier.

Headphones can be such a nuisance.

Since the beginning of time, every year or two the cord for my Sennheiser HD265s craps out on me — though I seem to have solved this problem at long last by using separate cords upstairs and downstairs, cutting down on wear and tear. If I’m not accidentally sitting on a pair and destroying them (sorry, Direct Sound EX29s), I’m swearing when one of the drivers stops working and I’m left with sound in only one ear (I’m looking at you, Vic Firth isolation headphones).

The most frustrating of them all might be my Denon AH-D7000s — and not for any of the reasons you’d expect.

I bought them ten years ago, right in the middle of recording LOVE SONGS FOR NIHILISTS. They ran me about a thousand bucks. I was reluctant to spend that much money on a pair of headphones, but these were worth it. Some headphones will lie to you and make poorly-recorded music sound okay. Not these guys. Bad recordings and bad mixes are revealed in all their awful, glorious mediocrity. At the other end of the spectrum, when something is recorded and mixed well, it sounds otherworldly on these headphones. They’re a little on the bright side, but that allows me to hone in on and eliminate lip smacks, tongue clicks, and other unwanted incidental sounds that might otherwise slip through the cracks.

I’m sure something like the Stax SR-009s would blow the AH-D7000s away. I’m going to go out on a limb and say even if I won the lottery, I wouldn’t begin to consider spending $10,000 on those headphones and the amp needed to drive them. The AH-D7000s do the job just fine for me.

They’ve become an indispensable mixing tool. If I can get a song to sound good on my monitors, the darker (and somewhat more flattering) Sennheiser headphones, and these Denon headphones, I know it’s going to translate just about anywhere, whether it’s a full-range hi-fi setup or tiny laptop speakers.

All was well until three or four years ago, when something strange started to happen. Every once in a while I would leave one of my spiral notebooks lying around in the studio and a small splotch would appear somewhere on whatever page the book was flipped open to. I don’t have oily fingers, so it was a bit of a mystery to me. I started to think maybe there was a friendly ghost wandering around in our house and he/she enjoyed reading my lyrics. Nothing else made much sense.

Then I noticed I kept leaving the Denon AH-D7000s on top of whatever notebook I was using. It wasn’t greasy ghost fingers making those splotches. It was the ear pads on the headphones.

I’ve never been rough with the AH-D7000s — I take care of my stuff — but they’ve been very well-used in the time I’ve had them. When one of the structural screws popped out, forcing Steve Chapman to turn into MacGyver and save the day, it was shoddy craftsmanship on Denon’s part that led to the problem, not headphone abuse on my part.

Now it’s the same thing again. Here’s a company that charges a lot of money for high-end headphones, and they can’t be bothered to use a PVC solution that won’t completely break down over time.

It’s been getting worse over the last little while. Now both the headband and the ear pads are degrading, and some days I’m finding bits of pleather in my hair and on my face.

Laurette, the owner and alterationist at Seams to Fit, has done a fair bit of mending for us over the years. Seventeen years ago, Johnny Smith brought Jiffy — a stuffed giraffe I’ve had since I was a baby — to her for some surgical intervention. Too many trips to the washing machine in my childhood left him with some awful scoliosis, and he couldn’t even raise his head anymore. Thanks to Laurette, Jiffy got his swagger (and his posture) back, and he’s still going strong today at the age of thirty-six.

If anyone was going to be able to do something to salvage these headphones, I thought it might be Laurette.

I asked her what she thought about sewing a fabric over the headband to cover the decrepit pleather so it wouldn’t break off in my hair anymore. Without batting an eye, she said, “What about vinyl?” She had an extra piece squirreled away that looked like it was just the right size. It was black, and it looked and felt very similar to the material the existing headband was made out of. She said she could rig something up with velcro so it would be removable, in case I ever wanted to clean it.

Two days later it was ready. She charged me all of five bucks. From a distance, you wouldn’t even guess the headphones have been altered in any way.

The ear pads are another story.

A lot of third party companies sell replacement pads that cost anywhere from thirty to sixty dollars. That sounds semi-reasonable, but there’s a serious drawback. Because none of these ear pads are manufactured from the original materials Denon used, they all change the way the headphones sound. That wasn’t going to work for me.

You’d think I could just buy replacement ear pads from Denon themselves. Nope. They used to sell replacement parts, but they’ve discontinued most of the headphones they used to make, and though the new AH-D7200s look almost identical to the AH-D7000s, you can’t even buy replacement ear pads for them. Talk about not standing behind your products.

After doing some research, I discovered Fostex is the only reputable company making replacement ear pads that are more or less interchangeable with the original AH-D7000 pads, and they won’t alter the sonic signature of the headphones too much. After shipping, they would run me well over a hundred dollars. For ear pads. Made of the same material that will someday degrade and flake off on my face all over again.

“Nuts to that,” says I.

I’m sticking with the decaying ear pads I’ve got. I don’t mind picking the occasional tiny bit of pleather off of the side of my face. At least I don’t have to worry about it getting stuck in my hair anymore. That’s progress.