The Sound of a Barking Dog on a Loop

I took a few days off this week and dove deep into a pool of ambient exploration.

The ambient kick was jump-started by my discovery of several William Basinski releases I found which were missing from my collection.  After tracking down copies of these albums and split seven inch records, I now have the following in my library: (please let me know if I’m missing anything)

1998 & 2007 – Shortwavemusic
2001 – Watermusic I
2002 – The Disintegration Loops I
2002 – The River
2003 – The Disintegration Loops II
2003 – The Disintegration Loops III
2003 – Untitled 7inch [w Andreas Martin & Christoph Heemann]
2003 – Watermusic II
2004 – Silent Night
2004 – The Disintegration Loops IV
2004 – Variations – A Movement In Chrome Primitive (Die Stadt)
2005 – Melancholia
2005 – The Garden of Brokenness
2006 – Variations For Piano and Tape
2007 – El Camino Real
2008 – The River (Alternative Mix)
2008 – The River [Alternative Mix]
2008 – Untitled 1-3 [with Richard Chartier]
2009 – 92982
2010 – Vivian and Ondine
2011 – A Red Score In Tile

There is also a new album pending release, titled Hymns of Oblivion.  You can preview a full track on the label’s website, but I implore you – do not look it up.  Basinski has changed his sound significantly and sometimes… change isn’t a good thing.  I’ll sum up his new project in a few short words which should effectively dissuade you from pursuing it any further.  Dreadlocks.  Leather pants.  Shirtless.  And High-Pitched Wailing.  He had a solid 10 year run, and we’ll leave it at that.

William Basinski - Hymns of Oblivion
Fortunately a newer artist was there to pick up the torch with some impressive drone work I discovered from an ambient blogger.  Black Swan has recorded two full length LPs to date.  Black Swan (in 8 Movements) in 2010 and The Quiet Divide in April of 2011.

Black Swan (in 8 Movements)

Black Swan - The Quiet Divide
Both were released by Experimedia and make for a most satisfying listen.  A word of caution, however – this is not blissful easy-listening ambience.  Black Swan is dark and melancholy, but hauntingly beautiful.

Another collection I’d been meaning to acquire for a few years now is the Dark Side of the Moog series.  Pete Namlook, Klaus Schulze (and Bill Laswell on select albums) collaborated to produce 10 albums between 1994 and 2005, each with a title playing off the recordings of Pink Floyd.

After securing the 10 album set, along with The Evolution of The Dark Side of The Moog (a “best-of” disc) I discovered that in 2008 Namlook released an 11th volume of the series.  It is available in both stereo and 5.1 surround formats.  I picked it up immediately.

Pete Namlook & Klaus Schulze
I also watched three of the KLF’s films – Waiting, The Rites of Mu and The Stadium House Trilogy.  I’ve watched The White Room before and will get to Watch the K Foundation Burn a Million Quid in the coming weeks.

Waiting was a 42 minute ambient recording venture on the Isle of Jura.  It was filmed in 1990 and was available via mail order from the K Foundation.  Elements of Chill Out and their other recordings are clearly audible all throughout the film.  A ltd. ed. soundtrack was available (mis-labeled as Waiting For The “Rights” of Mu) which features the audio from both films.  After watching the movie I dug through my KLF archive and was surprised to find I already had a copy.

If you dig minimal ambient electronic music you should definitely pick up a copy of this last album.  The minimal cover art intrigued me so I queued it up and instantly fell in love.  The LP is available from Discogs for under $15 so I’ll have it soon enough.  Listen to Pantha du Prince’s album, This Bliss.

Sennheiser HD 380 Pro vs Audio Technica ATH-M50

Early this summer the cable of my Sennheiser PMX 200 headphones became frayed and rendered them unusable.  I could have spent $40+ to have the manufacturer service them, or I could save up for an upgrade.  The latter was much more appealing so I began to research a suitable replacement that would work well with my set up.

I wanted to find a fold-flat pair of circumaural headphones with a travel case so that I could use them at home and at work.  Passive noise attenuation would be a plus, to dampen or drown out the Backstreet Boys playing in the break room.  They should also have a thick clothwound or otherwise reinforced detachable cable so that I wouldn’t end up with the same problem I had with the PMX 200s.

Sennheiser PMX 200

Sennheiser PMX 200 – note the thin cable.

I consulted head-fi.org, where one member suggested the Beyerdynamic DT 1350 closed supra-aural monitoring headphones, priced at $300.  I had my heart set on a circumaural design for better noise cancellation and reduced sound leakage so I continued looking.

Bowers & Wilkins P5s came highly recommended by the salespeople at Best Buy, but I don’t look to big box stores for pro audio solutions.  One of my best friends, with whom I worked for a local home theater specialist provided a personal critique of the P5s.  Put simply, he said that they reproduce the sound of a recording “accurately, and do nothing more.”  Sound without emotion, if you will.

I finally narrowed my selection to two models: The Sennheiser HD 380 Pro and the Audio Technica ATH-M50.  Both are marketed as professional studio monitors.  I phoned the eight major retailers in my area and only one had both models available and offered to let me compare the two with my own lossless audio.

Sennheiser HD 380 Pro Headphones w Case

Sennheiser HD 380 folded in case

Sennheiser HD 380 Pro headphones

Audio Technica ATH M50 headphones

Audio Technica ATH M50 headphones

After carefully assembling a playlist of my favorite artists and genres of music, I put the two pairs of headphones to the test.

First and foremost – these two sets are not for bassheads.  (But what basshead shops for monitors to begin with?)  If you want bass, buy Dre’s Beats and call it a day.

The bass of the 380s is smooth and natural.  With a portable media player and no portable amp they sound just fine, but hook them up to a solid home receiver and dial up your EQ and you’ll feel them pulsate against the side of your head.  I was perfectly satisfied with the way they handled early house music. The M50s have more pronounced bass, but at a cost.  (More on that in a moment.)

A feature of the 380s that instantly gained my favor is the cable.  It is 1 meter long coiled and stretches to approximately 3 meters.  The end of the cable is threaded to ensure a solid connection with the included 1/4″ gold plated adapter.  Best of all – there is a 3.5mm plug on the other end of the cord that snaps into a jack hidden in the left ear cup.  All these features preserve the life of the cable.  Like all the other parts of the 380s, the cord can be replaced should anything happen to it.  The M50 cable is available coiled or straight (the straight model is called the M50s) and also features a threaded adapter.  The end of the cable is covered by a spring to prevent fraying, but the detachable feature of the Sennheiser cable won me over.

Sennheiser Cable Unplugged

The detachable cable of the HD 380

After thoroughly testing the Sennheisers I tried on the M50s and instantly noticed the difference.  As I stated, the bass is slightly more pronounced in the Audio Technicas but the soundstage is significantly smaller/narrower than on the 380s.  Members of head-fi.org have stated that the term “soundstage” was invented by Sennheiser’s marketing department to push a particular model of their headphones, but the term accurately describes what you experience when comparing the two sets.

I particularly noticed the larger and more open soundstage from the Sennheisers when listening to Ladysmith Black Mambazo delicate vocal harmonies.  I felt closer to the performers, and the echoes of their voices hung in the air longer than with the M50s.  Also, the wall of sound created by J Spaceman and his band Spiritualized backed by a full orchestra and gospel choir had a much bigger impact when listening to the 380s.  Finally, the immeasurably faint decay of the notes in any of William Basinski’s recordings, (such as The Disintegration Loops I) were reproduced with greater precision by the Sennheisers than by the ATH-M50s.

Both headphones have rotating, collapsable earcups for easy storage and each come with a travel case.  The M50 case is a simple black vinyl drawstring bag, while the Sennheisers come with a hard shell zipper case with a felt inner lining and an embossed Sennheiser logo across the center.  This scored several more points for the 380s for both style and function.

The Sennheisers were a clear winner, and I ordered them immediately.  The MSRP is $299.95, though you can find them for $187 with shipping from Amazon.  I ordered a refurbished like-new pair from a licensed supplier for $79 and they arrived in just a few days.

I’ve also worked out the dimensions for an Easter Island head headphone stand which my girlfriend will sculpt out of clay.  Photos to come!

Easter Island Headphone Stand