Thursday, February 16, 2012

Headphones . . . from an Engineer’s Perspective – Jeremy R. Kipnis

For better or worse, “Cans” --- a colloquialism used by audio engineers to describe the sound and wear-ability of headphones, are a part of most everyone’s lives each and every day. But in particular, they are involved in the production of sound as heard on Albums, Movies, TV, Live Sports, and Video Games (to mention but a few). Before consumers ever hear any of the their familiar program sources, a sound engineer has listened to them at length, made adjustments, equalized frequencies, compressed dynamics, added reverberation, sequenced songs, and mastered the audio using headphones as one of the most critical parts of the entire production process. So is it any wonder that recordings sound so different from each other and when heard on loudspeakers? What’s going on?

When “Cans” were first invented (at the beginning of the 20th Century), they were initially used by the U.S. Navy, and later as part of the telephone and radio industries. You probably have seen the old telephone earpieces that accompanied hand-crank telephones: basically an acoustic lens made of wood (or Bakelite) that amplified a tiny diaphragm moving in response to an incoming electrical signal. So as long as voices were clear (a big if), the design was satisfactory. In fact, the basic sound quality of “Cans” remained largely unimproved, even through the early “Stereo” era of the late 1950’s, as headphones would come to be used to make high fidelity recordings.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Over the years, I have listened to a lot of headphones, as well as a lot of speakers. In my pursuit of making extremely transparent “You Are There” holographic recordings, which usually feature just a single-stereo microphone, I always refer to earlier great recordings in my collection. I use these as a reference against which to evaluate the new sounds I am capturing. A sound check involves many changes in the musician’s position as well as the height and distance of the microphone within the acoustic space. Not to mention isolating and eliminating any stray source of sound or noise before the first take.

In my many years as a Tonmeister, audiophile recording producer and engineer, I have found it necessary to utilize headphones as an important part of an album’s creationary processes. In fact, when making professional recordings of any kind, headphones must be an engineer’s primary tool; that is . . . right after the microphone(s), of course. Whether creating music albums simply using two-channel stereo, or capturing multichannel sound scapes for use in multimedia, the sound captured has all been evaluated and mixed using headphones as the primary monitoring tool, at some point. That is a large responsibility for what in most cases is either the cheapest or the most colored part of the recording process.

When I first began as a recording engineer in 1990, I was lucky enough to work with Bob Katz, Steve Guttenberg, and David & Norman Chesky of Chesky Records in New York City. The audiophile label’s goal was to create the illusion of live musicians within a real three-dimensional space: the impression of reality, basically. And I was systematically introduced to and taught how to utilize the most advanced recording technologies available at the time, along with careful microphone placement to achieve aural holography. I became part of a recording team that paid strict attention to every minute detail of the production. The result: a listening experience where each album is tangible, pleasurable, exciting, and realistic to experience. Amazingly, we would never have achieved this without the use of headphones (as well as loudspeakers, of course), and here is why.

The first part of any recording session involves choosing a location with an appropriate acoustic (room sound) that will suit the music and the musicians appearing on the album. Typically in our industry, a specially built recording studio with controllable walls and reverberation character is chosen; making the production process far more malleable, quieter, and more comfortable than on location, somewhere out in the world. Yet, this can reduce the actual acoustic contribution since it must be largely created: a synthetic backdrop of sound. Any “Room Sound” is essentially lost in the mix of microphones (sometimes more than one for each instrument) and effects tracks. But … not for any of the Chesky Productions!

Accurate sound presentation was the gold standard, and I learned quickly how and why the use of a single Stereo Blumlein Microphone (known as a Figure-8) can capture exactly what the company’s charter specifies. Judiciously placed to hear both the musicians and the acoustic space in perfect proportion, Bob Katz would listen to the microphone feed using his STAX headphones, and make minute adjustments that produced uncanny sonic illusions. Even though the sound of the space and the timbre of the instruments is different on “Cans” then it is on Loudspeakers, Bob’s keen hearing could extract and localize all the specifics, which need to be carefully balanced when making a recording. The rest of the team listened on both headphones and loudspeakers; both part of a large number of such audio transducers (each with their own colorations), which evolved through the four years that I worked here.

Several types of headphones were always on-hand in order to closely monitor any variations in sound quality; from imaging and sound staging issues, to extraneous noises or even wrong notes. These “Cans” included (and of which some are familiar brands):

1) STAX Lambda Signature, with either the stock Solid State or the Tube Amplifier combination

2) My personal set of SONY CD-999, with the Diamond Amorphous Heads – Woot Woot -

3) The RCA/BMG Studios ubiquitous SONY CD-6 (for musicians out in the studio)

4) The RCA/BMG AKG Acoustics K-240 Semi Open Studio Headphones (for engineers in the control room)

5) Original GRADO HP-1S with the Signature Ultra-Wide Bandwidth Reference Cable (owned by our RCA/BMG liaison engineer, Bill Allen).

6) Etymotic Research ER-4B (Part of my portable recording ensemble)

7) BeyerDynamic DT-990 (on loan from BeyerDynamic for testing by our engineering team)

Not surprisingly, none of these 1990 – 1994 era “Cans” sounds like the others! They are totally different in character from each other, from reality, and from speakers; in so many important ways. But they each offer a specialized opportunity to observe the sound that we were creating on multiple transducer platforms, as the various Chesky projects unfolded. Because the coloration in most headphones is so great, it is fair to say there choice is a matter of personal taste. But certain characteristics remain consistent from Headphone to Headphone, and (based on the requirements of making an album) these are my observations and preferences amongst those candidates, in order of listening preference:

A) STAX Lambda Signature Electrostatic Ear Speakers were the least colored through the mid-range of any of the candidates; revealing minute differences in microphone and musician placement as well as adjustments to the room’s size and the disposition of reflective versus absorptive surfaces. On the down side, dynamics were compressed, and the ability to play them really loudly was rarely there, except with Bob’s tweaked STAX Solid State amplifier – piping HOT!!!

B) GRADO HP-1S had an extremely well-balanced sound, with heart-throbbing palpability and gobs of Bass dynamics, they also threw a very large, wide, and deep sound-stage. This kind of Bass dynamics was almost totally absent from the STAX Earspeakers.

C) BEYERDYNAMIC DT-990 were a clear winner for their well balanced, three dimensional presentation. While not offering the delineation of musical information found in either the STAX or the GRADO, their over all clear sonic view fo our work made them a necessity to listen to; particularly for resolving noise related issues in the studio environment.

D) AKG L-240 do very little that is wrong, but they also sound veiled in both the treble and the mid-range to the degree that instrumental timbres and percussion lose definition as the sound builds in intensity. What the AKG lacks in finesse, it makes up for by being relatively inexpensive and also very comfortable to wear for hours at a time; an important issue as a professional, working well into the night.

E) The two SONY headphones sounded much more similar to each other than you might expect. A bit like listening down a cardboard paper towel roll, the sound from the more expensive CD-999 was full frequency (20 Hz – 20 kHz), and detailed, with a moderately sized sound-stage, capable of delineating depth, but no height and little rear. While the less expensive CD-6 ended up squashing the sound-stage flat as a pancake, along with crushing the dynamics, and lopping off both the top and bottom octaves, I nevertheless found them to sound better than of the SONY Walkman headsets, sold in the late 1970’s to the present.

F) Etymotic Research claimed flat in-ear response for their “B” (for Binaural) version of the ER-4 Ear Canal Speaker. And although certain details of mid-range and treble were indeed amazingly true sounding, there was a lack of true bass, causing a generally bright, thin sound that was not very audiophile. But I used them primarily with a SONY PCM Portable DAT system, and in that role they were more suited to fieldwork where noise isolation and repeatability of high quality playback under harsh environmental conditions is paramount.

Naturally, speakers produced yet another variation in the reproduced sound that (and we had on-hand many, many speaker types), but rarely did they create the intimacy that headphones achieved. Yet, the palpable impression of musical objects imaging outside of your head is only a real possibility with a well set-up set of speakers, and a keen ear will clearly detect nuances in height, width, and depth of the sound-stage from well-engineered recordings that are simply and almost totally lost while listening with headphones. Unfortunately, no amount of processing has yet produced a complete loudspeaker listening experience from a pair of headphones, and so a great distinction in the presentation continues to exist between these two popular transducer types. Yet there will always be a place for headphones alongside a pair (or more) of speakers, and if you listen closely to the recommended recordings I’ve listed (below) while auditioning your next pair, you won’t be able to help picking the best ones, for you!


BIO: Jeremy R. Kipnis is a producer and engineer of audiophile recordings since 1988. His label, Epiphany Recording Ltd. pioneered the first High resolution Single Stereo Microphone recordings in the world at 192 kHz / 24-bits, early in 1994. This evolved into an internationally awarded A/V playback and editing room design, known as the Kipnis Studio Standard (KSS). He reviews audio, video, and home theater technology for many periodicals throughout the world, and is a frequent guest commentator on television and the internet regarding Ultimate Home Theater and Cinema Technologies. He has been awarded the Guinness World Records Award for "Most Technically Complex Home Theater System in the World" from 2009 - 2012.

SUGGESTED LISTENING: Chesky Records / Produced from between 1990 – 1994


CD75 – The Virtuoso Scarlatti w/ Igor Kipnis

CD78 – Vivaldi: The Four Seasons w/ Igor Kipnis Conducting The Connecticut Early Festival Ensemble


JD49 – Clark Terry Live at the Village Gate

JD68 – Live at The Village Gate: The Second Set


JD55 – Because of You w/ Kenny Rankin




JD63 – Amazonia w/ Ana Caram


JD68 - Best Of Chesky Jazz And More Audiophile Tests Volume 2

Copyright - Kipnis Studios - 2012 ©


Friday, December 10, 2010

NEWS FLASH - Main Street USA: 3D is here to stay ... Or is it?

The burgeoning 3D Home Theater format and it's big Cinema brother may have just run their course (Again)!

--- Written by Jeremy R. Kipnis / Copyright 2010 Kipnis Studios ---

It has been nearly one year since I first reported on 3D Television's introduction as a new home entertainment format in Home Theater Review:

Since then, the number of 3D capable displays, Blu-Ray players, and 3D glasses options have more than tripled, with complete packages (usually packaged for 2 people) well below $2,000 from no less than six companies, thanks in large part to discount chains and wide distribution in the USA and Canada at specialty electronics stores. Although the trickle down effect of automated miniature IC manufacture has given flight to affordable 3D for the masses, software possibilities remain fleeting, with slightly more than 50 titles in circulation as of this writing; and only very recently, Avatar (The Theatrical Cut) in 3D, through a special promotion with Panasonic. So if the technology is prevalent, it remains largely a mystery to most people, with statements such as, "Well, looks good. But so what? What is there to watch on it, anyway?" And while there is agreement about the technicalities and standards for 3D home viewing (and playing video games) - meaning that for the first time since the introduction of the CD in 1983, we do not have a format war, 3D is far from creating the dynamic impact that it might have, starting over a year ago.

A recent survey I undertook from the New York City area up through Bar Harbor, Maine clearly revealed where the strengths and weaknesses are in the burgeoning 3D format. In major metropolitan areas, there are plenty of 3D systems on display from companies like Sony, Samsung, Panasonic, and LG--in addition to the 2nd Generation of Mitsubishi rear-projection DLP TVs, the recent SIM2 twin-projector set-ups. And of course the myriad of high-end solutions like Digital Projection Inc's single projector and 3D media server options, all of which were reviewed beginning last December 2009. But recent additions to the market can be seen in both large discount chains like Costco, Target, and Wal-Mart as well as electronic specialty retailers like Best Buy, PC Richards, and probably your local neighborhood Stereo & Video shop, as well. Each major display manufacturer has its own flavor of kiosk at the chains, featuring one or two pair of 3D glasses (controlled by an IR transmitter) that are held captive in an adjustable height enclosure or via a coiled metal wire. And each manufacturer also has there own demo disc, wherein varieties of movies, concerts, video games, and typical demonstration footage are shown in a loop. None of this demo material is duplicated between discs, and therefore differences in image quality are hard to discern without direct comparison.

Most recently at the largest chains, Panasonic has been offering a package deal featuring one of their 46" Plasma TVs, a 3D BD player, along with a package containing two pairs of glasses, an IR transmitter, and two discs (an IMAX feature, and some other movie) for less than $1,700. What a bargain! Add another $1,000 and there is a 55" Samsung and 3D BD player, with twin glasses / IR transmitter / and two movies for just over $3,000. And SONY has two offerings (a 55" and a 60") that include a 3D BD player / 5.1 Surround Receiver with speakers and sub, along with two pairs of 3D glasses and IR emitter topping out at $3,300. Picture quality varies somewhat with the technology as one might expect, with the Panasonic offering the smallest and darkest images when viewed through the supplied (brand specific) glasses. SONY offers the largest and sharpest images, but with some degree of ghosting visible, particularly when one tilts one's head. Samsung has the brightest image on display with the best, most interesting demo material. But their kiosk places the viewer within 4 feet of the display and I found the pixel structure to be quite visible and distracting at this distance. The 3D effect varies with the display type, distance, and choice of glasses technology, but I enjoyed the Samsung the best out of the flat panels.

The specialty stores have been carrying 3D for almost a year now, and most sets have been sold on the basis of better performance in 2D as well as being ready when 3D programming truly becomes available regularly from ESPN and Direct-TV. But what is the holdup? Mitsubishi continues to offer single-chip DLP rear-projection from 50" up to 82", with the usual 3D package for two people topping out at $4,500. At the very top-end, Digital Projection Inc. has also been offering a wide variety of DLP projectors (single and triple chip) but they are intended for front projection (installed though a dedicated dealership, who can also potentially make these rear-projection) offering the possibility of truly cinema-sized 3D (& 2D) images in a dedicated light-controlled home theater environment. Front-projection is necessarily more expensive, as it involves the addition of a separate screen (and sometimes a dedicated one for 3D material, alone), but the size and scope of 3D at or near life-size is extremely compelling, particularly when watching live sports or playing video games. Also offering several 3D front-projection options, but utilizing twin projectors for better image quality is SIM2, whose C3X Lumis Host ($35k) and top end HT6000E ($65K) can be installed in pairs to create the ultimate in 3D home cinema. The use of two projectors results in twice the normally expected light output, as well as offering more visual stability over the typical alternating L / R methodology found with single front projector installations, current DLP rear projectors, and all flat panel Plasma and LCD displays over 32" diagonally. This translates into a much more solid and believable image, with far less eye strain and associated brain fatigue than is typical, and follows the top-end approach established by SONY in current AMC Loews Theaters and future Regal Cinemas around the world, featuring Sony's SXRD 4K digital projection technology.

In spite of these many offerings from so many qualified display manufacturers during the first year of this otherwise promising format, it remains a mystery to me why we do not yet have tons of 3D programming to enjoy. Why are the demo movies, concerts, and TV programs not currently available as separate products for the most part? And why did it take almost a year for AVATAR - James Cameron and Panasonic's 3D opus to appear on 3D Blu-ray Disc? Surely, with no format war, we should be seeing as much software as we did when CD first came out in 1983: several hundred titles within the first year, and from a variety of producers. So if you're like so many people I talked to you are waiting to upgrade (yet again) to an all new TV, BD/DVD player, etc. only if and when something worth watching comes along. And what of the video games, and the fact that all PS3 are now 3D capable as of the last firmware update in October? Where are the lions share of 3D games seen on the demo BDs over the last year? Sure, there are two or three 3D (Test) channels on some cable and satellite providers, but you are largely limited to watching what is on at that time, and not very much of it is available on-demand.

Are we in the 21st Century? Get with it Hollywood - and stop teasing us. Otherwise, 3D is not going to be going anywhere, fast!


I'd like to hear from you about your personal observations and feelings regarding the new 3D Home Theater and Cinema formats and their (possible) future.

Please take a moment to comment, below!

Cheers -


Composed on the Kipnis Studio Standard (KSS) - iPad Interface


Thursday, July 1, 2010

What's Kipnis Studio Standard (KSS) all about? --- Why bother to create THE Ultimate Home or Commercial Movie Theater, anyway?

When I was a little boy, my father took me to see Walt Disney's FANTASIA (1940) at New York City's - Radio City Music Hall. This film is an unbelievably creative pastiche of different narrative and none narrative elements that combines cutting-edge hand-drawn animation with well known classical show stoppers conducted and largely produced by Leopold Stokowski - an early Audiophile, as it turns out. Because of his status as a celebrity and his love of recordings, Stokowski was able to cultivate his longtime desire to create a benchmark stereophonic soundtrack for the film, which took complete advantage of every technological innovation available to him at the time. His work in the early 1930's with Bell Telephone Labs produced the first Stereophonic recordings of orchestral music in the world, and pioneered much of the recording and playback equipment that would predict our modern 5.1 Surround Sound Standard. It is his tireless work with Bell Labs and Walt Disney that made this film the tour de force of cinema for nearly 50 years, and beyond!

Because I came from a family background that included three generations of musicians and performers, and each one of them embraced photography and movies as a serious part of their work I became aware of the mechanism of film and photography very early on. And from what I recall, the presentation I experienced of FANTASIA that afternoon was simply astounding - leaving a life-long impression! First, it featured a fresh 35mm print (which was explained to me by the projectionist, after the show), accompanied by an eight channel soundtrack that surrounded the audience, completely and believably. It was like being in the movie! When it was over, whatever little bit of me there was would never be the same, again! What transpired that afternoon was a transention of the human condition, call it spiritual or transedental if you like, but a profound, life changing event occurred that would forever shape my life and work. That event was a combination of all that represents the very best and the true essence of great cinema and live music performance:

1. The presentation was HUGE!!! Immense!!! And the picture was BRIGHT as daylight. Yet it also included inky jet blacks which still contained visible detail while also displaying incredible color fidelity and range of hues - saturations that made these images appear to be real, or even supra-realistic.

2. The audio quality was clear and precisely layered in three-dimensional holographic space --- all around me. There were deep bass fundamentals --- 32 Hz as I would later come to understand, from my lucky encounter with Stokowski, HIMSELF at one of my father's recording sessions for Vanguard Records. This bass shook my chest, yet continued seamlessly and continuously in an unbroken manner up until the very top of the treble (15 kHz). Loud sections played back faithfully with respect to the size and disposition of The Philadelphia Orchestra (as I heard live in concert, shortly thereafter) but soft passages preserved the intimacy associated with solo instrumental moments of winds and brass which are sometimes heard overlaid on a velvety background of dulcet strings. There was an unbelievable sense immediacy and emotional intimacy which produced a sense of limitlessness --- that the sound could and did go on, forever --- both physically and volumetrically.

3. The architecture of the main hall at Radio City is quite simply a work of art, and on so many different levels. First, it is a brilliant design of Art Deco origin, capable of seating 6004 people, each of whom are supposed to experience an optimal performance - whether live or on film. Second, the architectural design and choice of materials along with specific construction techniques affords optimal acoustics for both types events, giving the venue a multi-media capability far in advance of modern multi-channel digital entertainment. Third, coming into this building, one is immediately struck by a sense of occasion which focuses attention acutely on the grandeur of the place, the setting, the time, and the incredible nature of the performances about to be appreciated there. It is entirely tangible and palpable!

Whereas most great movie theaters of the late 1960's & early 1970's were quickly becoming either parking garages or early multiplexes --- created by subdividing one big screen into many smaller, poorly set-up and modified theaters --- Radio City Music Hall remains a hallmark of great human design and engineering to this day, particularly with respect to the art and science of presenting cinema and live performances, properly. These factors and characteristics have appeared to me illusively around the world at different times and in different places, these last 41 years. When I have come across it (the right combination of ingredients for the perfect cinema experience), I have breathed it in like the life's breath that sustains us all. But in it's absence (which has been frequent) I have always striven to recreate it as best as possible. The goal was a larger than life, sharper, and more immediately tangible presentation quality than could be found reliably, even in such rare locations around the world.

During the journey, an interesting effect became apparent: it occurs in human beings when they are presented with the above quality presentation parameters along with something interesting to watch and listen to. There is a physiological response that is triggered through the optimal experience of both visual and aural stimulation which creates illusory or hypnotic levels of consciousness. The precise accuracy of the image and sound quality determine the degree of the illusion, and the physiological response occurs on an involuntary and even subliminal level. The result is that one feels like they are IN the presentation! And this results in what I term "Active Viewer Participation".

How to create this visceral effect on demand (other than attending a huge screening event at an incredible performance venue which also features incredibly life-like fidelity, IF you are lucky enough) has been my creative journey now for over four decades. And in that time, it has occurred to me that these presentation standards are not just good for movies (like Star Wars & Ghandi), but also for television (like Star Trek & LOST), video games (like HALO & EA Madden Sports), and even listening to music albums (by Bach or the Beatles) on their own. In fact, experiencing any type of audio and video media that you might imagine under what has evolved into the Kipnis Studio presentation Standard (KSS) offers the closest experience to that of a time machine or portal through time: it brings you (the remote viewer) the varied experience of people, places, and things from a "First Person Perspective" (FPP) --- patent pending --- catapulting your emotions backward (and forward) through time and space to the moment of their actual existence!

Imagine THAT the next time you watch your favorite TV SHOW or MOVIE . . .

Cheers -


Written on the Kipnis Studio Standard (KSS) - iPad Interface


Tuesday, February 23, 2010

In the beginning . . . there was only picture and sound to consider!

If someone were to ask you, "What is required to create the Ultimate Home Theater?" what would you tell them?

Is it the type of display (or projector), or perhaps something about the speakers or amplifiers; should it be about the interior room design or the comfort of the recliners, some of which cost more than a good looking display or even a whole Home Theater. Given how much has been said and written about Home Theater design over the last 40 years (starting with magazines like Stereo Review, High Fidelity, Video Review, and even Popular Mechanics), and along with the internet being so filled with everyone's facts (?!?), opinions, and reviews (even by well established names), how is an ordinary person (much less a professional expert) supposed to know what pieces of information are really important or even true (and how much is purely words for advertising's sake)?

If the goal is a Home Theater (or dedicated listening room) that sets the benchmark at or near the top of this field, which we now know of as Home Theater, how can one be certain not to be misled even by the most trustworthy of individuals, friends, and even well established experts?

This is why I have started this blog -- to demystify an extremely complex subject and to present my personal journey (beginning at the tender age of 4 - thanks to my parents and their parents). Over the coming months (and years), I will carefully elucidate many scientific and artistic principles that govern great and even sensational picture and sound quality, regardless of the time and monetary expense incurred or required. For example, it is well known that not every pair of speakers sounds the same even when manufactured using the same materials and methodologies, and heard under identical conditions. In fact, a great many terrific and musical sounding speaker designs can be found for a fraction of the cost of a new speaker utilizing the very same design (and materials), if only one knows what and where to look for it.

Here is a simple but key example:

All too often in this world, compromises are made based on assumptions (rather than valid testing: both empirical and subjective), and these have led many otherwise amazing and brilliant individuals to go down the wrong path at a critical juncture in the history of technology, particularly in terms of sound and picture reproduction. Does anyone remember when Thomas A. Edison was in the process of inventing the Lightbulb, way back in 1885? And his scientific conclusion was that Direct Current (DC - as from batteries) was THE WAY to transmit power across a distance! Well his employee at the time, Nikola Tesla, apparently knew a little better that Alternating Current = (AC Power) was a much more efficient choice when applied to transmitting power across great distances. Because they disagreed so vehemently (and in no small way because Edison was not willing to approve a much deserved raise), Tesla quit working for Edison. And later begin work for his competition, George Westinghouse Jr. Together, Tesla and Westinghouse pioneered and went on to prove the use of AC power to be a better, less costly, more efficient method of getting current to those lightbulbs, particularly at the World's Fair - World's Columbian Exhibition (1893) - the first pavilion to be lit entirely by light bulbs.

If Edison (a genius) couldn't see the future of AC power (and fought against its consideration in all kinds of political and social ways - many rather embarrassing), then who is to say which elements of audio and video have been compromised (or forgotten altogether) at some point in their journey? These are issues we will be covering in close detail as this blog unfolds.

Feel free to comment or ask any questions you may have. But be forewarned: I will delete anything that is of an argumentative or intolerant tone --- there is far too much of that, which can be found in droves on all the other blogs and forums on this particular topic, and who needs anymore of THAT kind of negativity, anyway!

Cheers -


Kipnis Studio Standard