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REVIEW: Echofone Echofone Accessory

Model: Echofone
Category: Accessory
Suggested Retail Price: $399
Description: Unique powered transducers for transmitting high frequencies through the skin.
Manufacturer URL: Echofone

Review by Nirmala on December 23, 2007 at 11:53:59
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Pity the poor headphone audiophile. He doesn’t have as much to play with when it comes time to tweak. He can’t put in bass traps or corner pillows to adjust room acoustics. It doesn’t do him as much good to isolate his components from vibration as there are no sound waves in the room generated by his system disturbing his electronics. And of course he can’t use a super-tweeter to super-charge his system, or compensate for any high frequency hearing loss from his misspent youth.

Or can he?

I just received in the mail yesterday an Echofone from Andy at Tools & Techniques (www.echofone.com) and I have been blissing out in the higher realms…er… frequencies ever since. This is a little box with separate walwart power supply, source input cables for hooking up headphone or line level sources, headphone output (a cheap pair of headphones is included) and an ouput for a pair of included sound transducers that you wear on your forehead with a cloth headband holding them in place.

Instead of thinking outside the box, this is a case of thinking outside the ear. These transducers deliver their signal (400 Hz up to 100+ KHz) through the skin and bones. So unless you have nerve damage, the sound gets to your brain even if your hearing ain’t what it used to be. You can test this by playing the Echofone transducers alone and plugging your ears with your fingers resulting in no reduction in the sound level. Of course the sound of the Echofone by itself makes a cheap telephone sound good… it is all tinny with absolutely no bass, but a bit of the mid frequencies.

And so what about the sound with headphones?

I have been discovering more and more how much of a detail junkie I am. I love to hear everything in the music. And somehow when I can hear every little detail, I can then just relax and get into the music. If that is not happening, I find myself turning up the volume (not always a good idea if you value the hearing you have left) to hear more of the details.

Well, with the Echofone, I am in detail heaven. You can insert any of your favorite overused metaphors for improvement to the sound here, but it really is like a camera lens coming into focus, or a veil being lifted. I hear everything without straining and without a sense of a tipped up treble or sibilance (unless I over do it on an overly bright recording in which case I can just turn down the level of the Echofone’s output). It is easy to do A/B testing as you just turn down the Echofone output to hear the sound without enhancement, and then turn it back up to hear the sound of clouds parting and the sun shining through.

One criticism is that maybe it could use a little more power as output is only 3 watts although that is only powering two very small transducers with no bass output. I find most of the time I have the Echofone cranked 75-100% of the way up, only turning it down when a particular song has too much treble in the mix, or if the source is recorded at a very high level overall. But it does seem to keep up even when I am listening with the headphone volume cranked up high, unless the source material has a very low level to start with in which case I sometimes can not get enough useful output from the Echofone. This is a new gadget for me, and I sense that I may find over time that I generally moderate the level of enhancement I use to experience a more subtle effect overall, but again that is as easy as turning the dial down. I can still usually hear a definite difference in the sound at about 50% of maximum volume on the sound transducers.

While generally the effect of the Echofone is subtle, in my case there is a very dynamic interplay going on. I listen to a computer music server that acts like a juke box playing my music in a random shuffle mode. Because each song loaded on my computer was ripped from the original CD with the recording level of that CD intact, the level of each song can vary a lot (my Windows media Player has an auto volume leveling feature, but it does not seem to work with the WAV files I ripped using EAC software). With a very few songs it is hard to get any useful output out of the Echofone because the source has such a low overall level to start with. And on a very few songs the source level is high enough to allow me to drive the transducers to the point of distortion, a kind of tizzing noise. And then there is the relationship of the level of the Echofone with the volume of my headphones which is adjusted separately. I am already used to having to adjust the volume of my regular headphones when a new song comes on much louder or softer than the previous song, and for me it does not seem to be a problem to then adjust the Echofone for ideal output with each new song. But some people might not want to fiddle that much. I find it worth the effort, and overall a great advantage as the recorded sound of different CDs varies so much to start with. I like adjusting my system moment to moment to bring out the best sound for that particular recording. And as a bit of a gadget freak, I generally like fiddling with things anyways. However, if you listened to a whole CD or album at a time, you would probably just need to adjust the levels at the beginning of the first song.

There are some other limitations. This is not a portable contraption by any means, and it is awkward having more wires running to your head. Also to use it with a typical headphone rig, you have to run your headphone output through the Echofone. I was loath to take the output of my $1000 Yamamoto amplifier and run it through the electronics and volume control in the Echofone (note to manufacturer: maybe make an audiophile version with better power supply, more powerful amp, better connections and a loop through output at line level?), Fortunately, I use a Trends UD10 USB converter to connect my music server computer to my external Monica DAC, and the UD10 has a headphone/line-out output that I was not using. So I was able to hook up the Echofone there, leaving my headphones jacked directly into the Yamamoto.

Like any spice, it is a matter of taste how much of this effect you like. Again, you can adjust the output of the Echofone independently of the volume of the headphones. I also use an Aura Cushion bass vibration transducer behind my head and shoulders, which when used with a bit of discretion adds a nice visceral bass effect to listening through headphones, sort of like a subwoofer for headphones. Using both the Aura Cushion (hooked up to the regular headphone out of the Echofone) and the Echofone means I have a kind of EQ I can easily adjust depending on the source material, adding a little bass oomph or adding overall clarity and a bit more treble as needed. As I said, I like to fiddle, and it does seem to increase the odds of getting into that magic zone where the system falls away and the music is there in all of its glory. A few seconds of fiddling at the beginning of the song for several moments of musical bliss seems like a good trade off to me.

But let’s be clear about one thing: the Echofone does not really seem to excessively tip up the treble, as long as you don’t overdo it on very bright or loud recordings. As many have noted with using regular super-tweeters in a speaker system, the benefits are to the whole spectrum of frequencies. Strangely, even the bass tightens up when the Echofone is added to the mix. And the midrange takes on a sense of fullness and depth. Remember the output frequency range of the transducers starts at 400 Hz.

Another little side effect is that the soundstage with headphones shifts more to the front, especially if you move the transducers to the front of your forehead instead of over your temples. This is a bit more natural an arrangement with the band arrayed out in front of you instead of wrapping around the back of your head, as is typical with headphones alone. It is kind of trippy to gradually turn up the transducers and hear instruments gradually move from the sides or back to their new location in front of me. This side effect is also more pronounced on some recordings than others. The increased detail and focus also means that instruments are highly localized in space compared to my headphones alone, and there is more space or air around each instrument.

By the way, you can use the Echofone with regular speakers. I listen almost exclusively through headphones to maximize my marital bliss, and the return on my audio dollar. However I did try out the Echofone on my living room system which is a pretty basic two channel system I use mostly for TV and movies. It consist of a 12 year old Onkyo receiver and those little Bose speakers with a subwoofer (I got the speakers for free as they were left behind in a house we lived in). The speaker placement is pretty bad as they are about three feet apart and on top of the tall TV cabinet. About all you can say for it is that it does sound better than the built in TV speakers! Adding the Echofone to this system has very similar effects as with the headphones. However it was much easier to drive the Echofone to levels of distortion because I hooked it up to the headphone out of the receiver, so the level was much higher than the output on my UD10 and also the Echofone volume went up with the volume of the speakers (alternatively, you can hook it up to any pre-out RCAs if your system has some unused outputs). If I again used proper discretion with the level control I could get that same clearing up and focusing of the sound I hear with headphones. And in the case of speakers the Echofone seems to bring the sound much closer, sort of like moving from the middle of the hall to the front row. Especially with the poor placement of my speakers, this was a very nice effect. The sound really leapt up into a 3D field and the sense of listening to speakers disappeared.

Finally, I just turned 50 this month and while I have not had my hearing tested, I bet there are some missing frequencies up top. I was not too much of a rock concert aficionado, but I have heard my share of loud music. Hearing loss is cumulative and so anyone who has lasted half a century will lose a bit of the treble anyways. And this is what is truly unique about the Echofone….it can put back those missing frequencies whether you listen on headphones or speakers. Again, as long as there isn’t hearing loss due to nerve damage, the high frequency sounds will still get to the brain bypassing the ear’s limitations. The designer of the Echofone was a former Cobra pilot who lost a lot of hearing above 10 KHz from his exposure to jet noise, and this was his solution to be able to hear high frequencies in music again. Any perceived boost in treble with the Echofone may be due in large part to these previously unheard frequencies being added back into the sound.

In conclusion: This is my new favorite toy. It is already hard to go back to listening without the Echofone as I love the added detail, focus, depth, and clarity which just happen to be my favorite things musically. When it gets to be a bit too much (only on about 1 in 20 recordings so far) I just turn it down to a level where any sibilance or distortion is replaced with smoothness and clarity. While such a toy-like gadget will probably turn off a purist, if you are also a detail junkie, and/or if you have moderate or severe high frequency hearing loss, then this might be just the ticket.

At $399 this is not the cheapest gizmo to buy, but there is a 45 day return policy (minus 15% restocking fee). Reliability is still to be determined. I already need to send mine back for a problem with the headphone output cutting in and out and distorting on one channel, although fortunately it does have a 1-year warranty, and Andy at Tools & Techniques has already sent out a new unit even before I returned the old one, which suggests a high level of service. For me it is worth every penny, and quite a revelation to use.

Product Weakness: see review
Product Strengths: see review

Associated Equipment for this Review:

Amplifier: Yamamoto HA-02 Headphone Amp
Preamplifier (or None if Integrated): none
Sources (CDP/Turntable): Dell music server feeding Monica DAC
Speakers: Audio Technica ATH-W1000 headphones
Cables/Interconnects: Signal Cable
Music Used (Genre/Selections): mixed
Other (Power Conditioner etc.): Echofone, Aura Cushion, Graham-Stetzer filters, Blue Circle Noisehounds, Symphony Pro, Extra-heavy Z-sleeve
Type of Audition/Review: Product Owner

This post is made possible by the generous support of people like you and our sponsors:
  Atma-Sphere Music Systems, Inc.  

Topic - REVIEW: Echofone Echofone Accessory - Nirmala 11:53:59 12/23/07 (5)


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