That was just the start. Super-audio CDs, especially from labels like 2L, and high res downloads deliver music that’s crisper and so beautifully precise that it will be, if not the road to Damascus moment you had when you first put on decent headphones, an ‘oh-wow’ nevertheless. The bass is tighter, but balanced connections are all about the mids and highs. Listen to the brief piccolo in Prokofiev’s Troika from Lieutenant Kije; there you have it.
Balanced connections are all about noise reduction; more music, less interference fuzzying things up. But the difficulty for portables has always been the connection itself. It’s done with XLR plugs that occupy a major chunk of real estate on anything they’re fitted to. And there’s one for left and a second for right.
They’re so big and clunky they’ve never been a possibility for anything that will fit in your pocket or bag, and yet with lossless files and high-res technology portables now have the wherewithal to do a balanced connection justice.
Enter the Pentaconn, a new balanced plug that looks like a regular 3.5 mm headphone plug only longer and thicker at 4.4 mm. It needs more space than a 3.5, but a whole lot less than XLRs.
I first saw a Pentaconn socket on a Sennheiser headphone amp two years ago and back then Sennheiser didn’t have any headphones that would plug into it.
Now they have three ranging from $800 to $3499. And Sony has built the socket into its premium Walkmans. It has Pentaconn headphones too, from $400 to $2500.
I use my Pentaconn-equipped portable frequently, not just travelling but all around the house, and that vacant Pentaconn socket has been winking at me for months. So I plugged in a pair of Sennheiser’s sweet and beautifully comfortable $800 660S headphones and, I admit hesitantly, Ring of Fire was more fun than ever.
Heather Reid from Sennheiser says Pentaconns get premium headphones working to their full potential but they’re still pretty much unknown outside the cognoscenti. If this is the first time you’ve heard of them do yourself a favour.