Component Reviews, Part 1 of 2
Published on November 1, 2004
Flying in Style: My Time with the Headroom’s Total BitHead
by John Brazier
|Dual 1/8″ headphone jacks
Runs on 4 AAA batteries
USB 1.1 connection for a direct S/PDIF link
HeadRoom Process switch
Weight: 5 ounces
2020 Gilkerson Drive
Bozeman, MT 59715
I hope all of you have been lucky enough to fly First Class at least once. With mileage reward programs, airline “we’re sorry that we at ABC Air have deplorable customer service” upgrades, or just being in the right place at the right time, it seems that the lair of the traveler with means has been adulterated by the common man. Notwithstanding the palpable disdain for the commoner, First Class is da bomb, with roomy seats, silver silverware, real food, and your own TV, yet the audio that is piped in from those confusing headphone receptacles is strictly pedestrian. Once I broke through the glass curtain separating economy from what I call the “we think we’re better than you” class, I concluded that the seats alone are worth the upgrade. Keep in mind that every trip that I have been in the big seats was the result of unique circumstances, and none of those unique circumstances was the result of actually paying for the upgrade. That would be unique! “Worth the upgrade” may therefore be a bit of a misnomer, but the seats are awesome.
My best flying experience occurred only recently, on our trip to Maine. No, we were not in First Class, but I did have something that those people who pretend not to notice you when you file past them on the way to your skinny seat didn’t have—portable audio nirvana, in the form of the Headroom Total BitHead and Etymotic ER4S earbuds, tethered to my iPod Mini. This will not be a review of the iPod—for that you should read the discourse by our own Danny Kaye in Issue 8—but please take any comment I make about the iPod as a hearty endorsement of the product.
The Total BitHead is small black plastic box, about the size of the iPod, that contains an amplifier and a snug compartment for four AAA batteries. It comes equipped with an input jack, two mini headphone output jacks, a volume knob, on/off and crossfeed processor switches, plus a green light that indicates when the power is on and a red light which glows when low battery power forces the amp to clip. A particularly cool thing about the design of the unit is the battery enclosure door. A piece of molded rubber connects to the plastic portion of the amp with little rubber tabs that slip into slightly smaller plastic slots. On the underside of the rubber door, battery-sized grips hold the AAAs snugly in place. I do not know why the Headroom folks did this, but if it was to securely hold the batteries in place while the amp is biked, jogged, or otherwise carted around, it works! Headroom also makes (and supplied me with) a handy BitHead/MP3 carrying pouch, with room enough for the BitHead and an iPod. It has rubber grommets in all the right places to accommodate the headphone cords, and a clear zippered cover so that you can see and adjust your MP3 player without having to get it out of the bag. Add a pair of the Etymotic ER4S earbuds to all this, and you are ready to roll.
The Etymotics come with two different earpieces—not two different earbuds, but two different materials that can be slipped over the buds for different needs. One is foam, and works much like a typical earplug—roll it between your fingers, insert, then let the foam expand and fill your ear canal for a perfect fit. The other is a not-so-form-fitting rubber cone. The foam one expands to all but completely eliminate outside noise. With these, the sound of your lungs filling with air or the pounding of your footsteps as they radiate through your bones becomes creepy, not to mention a distraction. The rubber ones, I found, were best used when I was walking or doing some other mobile activity, as they are not cavity-filling, and allow a certain amount of external noise.
The sound is as good as it gets for an earbud. I limit my praise to earbuds, since drawing comparisons between an earbud and a conventional dynamic headphone is a bit like comparing a planar speaker to a boxed one. That said, these earbuds are a joy to hear. Over the past few months, I have used the iPod and Etymotics with the BitHead and without. The ER4Ss present lifelike and vibrant sound. The bass response is less then wonderful, but again, the bass is the best I have heard from any earbud. In fact, the only time I have used the Apple earbuds in the past few months was when I was just too lazy to take the 30-40 seconds to change out the foam earpiece for the rubber one before I took the dogs for their walkies.
“Those seated in rows 1 through 7, you may now board the aircraft.” I watched as those that actually paid for their First Class seat, and those who had not, casually, yet with confidence that they will soon have a cool drink in their hands, lined up behind the gate agent while the masses synched up in anticipation of their seat numbers being called. Didn’t matter to me—I had First Class in my carryon. Once I won the argument with my wonderful wife that I should get the window seat, I settled in. To both our elation, no one arrived to claim the middle seat. Oh, this was going to be good! Before the plane leveled off, I had my little audio station ready, and before the flight attendant could finish her notification that “approved electronic devices” could now be used, I was foamed in. She was not heard from again.
The night before we left, I had loaded the iPod to the brim with 456 songs in MP3. I had tried the AIFF and Wav formats, and though the sound was noticeably better, the room it would have taken was not worth it. MP3 offered the best sound-to-space ratio. I set the iPod to play the soundtrack to the film Magnolia, and in relative comfort and silent bliss, I drifted off into it. This soundtrack has an unnerving theme that subconsciously conjures up the tension and edginess of the film. The string section delivers a thread of tension in raw, staccato textures, while floating above is a competing mellifluousness. It’s odd, but I find the piece compelling. Nestled in my seat, I heard all that the music had to offer. Working brilliantly together, the BitHead and the Etymotics unfolded the drama of the music before me. The only hint of being in a cramped, skinny seat were the turbine-generated vibrations sent throughout the fuselage.
The BitHead took the signal and smoothed it, delineating it and giving it life. The bass was tight, while the other elements held their ground. The Etymotics took this reborn signal and presented it unscathed by the outside environment. Not once did I find myself caught off guard by musical deficiencies. The flight from Philly to LA was bit longer than four hours, but much to my wife’s chagrin, I never left my seat. The best she could do was to plug the Apple earbuds into the second jack. These do not isolate the listener—very Economy Class. The iPod held enough music to fly around the world. The advertised battery life for the BitHead is forty hours, so I had enough battery power to fly around the world twice.
Please do not come away from this article with the impression that the primary benefit of this audio trio is to cancel out the noise of the world. Although that is a good enough reason to run out and get this combo, it is not the only one. The combination produces a more than satisfying musical experience. No matter what genre I selected on the iPod, the amp and earbuds made easy work of it. Need some slight tweaking of the sound? The iPod comes with EQ settings for all types of music. Want a bit more out of the amp? Try the crossfeed processor. The effect is to create a more complex soundstage than the one usually achieved with headphones. Some, myself included, avoid processing unless it is absolutely necessary, but I certainly played with the little switch. I found the effect marginal, and I questioned whether what I heard was good for the music. Sure, there seemed to be more elements in the soundstage, but I also heard less clarity. After my initial evaluation of the crossfeed option, I returned to normal operation and left it there for the balance of my time with the amp.
The Total BitHead is also designed to be used as an amp/DAC for a computer. Via the supplied USB, the BitHead takes the signal from your audio program, processes it, bypassing your sound card, and amplifies it before it sending it to your headphones. I did not spent much time with the amp in this configuration, just enough to note that the sound was greatly improved. I would say that even if this product was only a computer earbud amp, it would be worth the investment, but I found mobility with music to be my motivation.
Between the iPod preferences, the BitHead options, and the two earbud cones, the results can be tuned to your personal liking. The amp created solid, smooth, and dynamic sound, while the Etymotics were simply First Class, so tell your friends that you know how to fly First Class every time for the price of the BitHead and Etymotics. For the music lover on the go, this is a wonderful setup.
– John T. Brazier
[This article also appears in the current issue of Positive-Feedback Online and is reprinted with permission.]