What Music Takes You To Church?

Revisiting a few familiar favorites this evening.

Every listener has a few – one or two exceptional records which transport them to a metaphysical beyond, or one could say, records that take them to church.  One unparalleled example is Glenn Goins calling down the Mothership at Parliament Funkadelic’s performance in Houston in 1976.

But my personal favorite out-of-body musical experience is Spiritualized’s Ladies & Gentlemen We Are Floating in Space.  The entire album is a neo-psychedelic gospel noisepop anthem and one of the finest and most cohesive works of the shoegaze genre.

J Spaceman and his band are accompanied by Dr John on the piano and the Hammond B3, as well as the voices of The London Community Gospel Choir. There are touches of hammer dulcimer, autoharp, accordion, string and horn sections, and pedal steel making for one brilliantly-refined heroin-inspired masterpiece.

The 17-minute closing epic, “Cop Shoot Cop” is a monumental performance.  The track’s foundation is a simple gospel blues oscillation between two fundamental chords.  J’s understated half-spoken vocals usher the listener through a series of verses varying on a primary lyrical theme, each punctuated by twelve bars of distortion pedal punching noise which culminates after the final verse with 6 minutes of an unrelenting eruption of cacophonous clamor.  Impressively, the hyperactive electric bass which has been walking up and down scales for the duration of the piece slowly introduces and repeats the root note of the track and guides the performers through the fog machine and wall-of-sound pandemonium back to the familiar gospel structure for a few minutes of meditative peace while Spaceman repeats, “and I will love you… and I will love you…” for the album’s finale.

This is a record best-experienced in your finest pair of circumaural headphones, and bested only by the 3-disc UK Expanded Edition.

Ladies and gentlemen… we are floating in space.

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