Headphones and the iPhone

The geek in me appreciates gadgetry. I have bought a lot of Apple equipment (my first, which my parents bought me, was the Apple //e, with a green monitor, and the DuoDisk drive for writing to two floppies at once). And the one thing I was on the fence about, what today seems, is the most popular Apple gadget after their phones, were the AirPods.

The AirPods seem like a risky investment. They look like the (free) wired headphones that came with your iPhone. So why do they command such a high price?

Losing the wires is magical, but there were wireless headphones before the AirPods. I’m willing to say that I think wearing AirPods is a cultural statement, at least for teenagers, it’s a status symbol. The white things hanging from inside your ears are iconic and wearing them shows you want the best in high tech. The price tag, no doubt, is commanded in part because of the technology in those things. While they appear at first glance like the regular earphones minus the cord, there’s a lot of tech required for charging, for working in sync, for stereo. (My first wireless earphones, from Beats, used a cord to connect the two sides, which made the wireless implementation technically easier.) And when I finally succumbed to the purchase of my own pair, I was pleasantly surprised of the sound quality.

They sounded good!

John's AirPods

I’ve used mine for music listening, but more often, they’re really nice for use with, say, my iPad, when I’m watching YouTube or a video streaming service. No wires. I can walk around, carry the iPad or iPhone with me, and the music is with me too. And since I’m whole-hog into that Apple ecosystem, to be able to put them in and take a walk (you can run if you like) without a phone, using the connection between the AirPods and my Apple Watch—the first time I did that, it did feel magical. There’s music in my ears. No wires, no “thing” to hold. (Perhaps the Walkmans of the 1980s and the iPods of the early 2000s programmed us that music on the go has to come from some kind of box we hold.)

I wanted more.

I’ve tried a lot of different “things” to listen to music: beyond speakers, I’ve tried in-ear earphones, noise canceling headphones, over the ear headphones, and of course the class of devices like Apple’s, which I think we’re calling ear buds. This is the time for the disclaimer: I want high fidelity when I listen to music. I’ve experienced it and it became a requirement. I went to music school. I just want good sound.

But everyone knew, you couldn’t get good sound on the go.

Getting great sound from something that goes into your ear is possible, but those things are expensive. I’m not willing to pay over $1000 for something that I’m going to have to deep clean with a pick later. While still pricy, good over the ear headphones, such as my Sennheiser 650HDs, are really good, but they require some juice. They’re really at their best with an amplifier that can drive the resistance they pose with their drivers. Plugged directly into my phone, they’re flat and can’t get very loud.

Plugged into a home amplifier, I appreciate their open design; your ears don’t get sweaty, because they’re open; it also means that sound escapes, which at least a few times, made it seem like I wasn’t blowing my eardrums when I had the volume too loud.

Wouldn’t it be cool, I thought, to listen with these?

In the house this is very feasible but then you’re tethered to one chair, close to the amplifier. And then the music source needs to be close-by, too.

My Current Solution

Another disclaimer: this solution isn’t for everyone, and I do realize it’s kind of crazy right now. Remember, a few months ago I was using Apple’s AirPods.

So the product I’m using now (which has since been bettered with an upgraded design, called the Cobalt) is the AudioQuest Dragonfly (Red). Your friends will think you have a race car-red colored USB stick. But it isn’t a USB stick. It’s a miniaturized digital to analogue converter (DAC) and headphone amplifier. And despite all of that technology sounding dicey, fitting into a USB stick-sized thing, it sounds awesome.

And it drives my big Sennheiser cans.

headphones with DragonFly and Apple USB Camera dongle

So, with my computer, you plug in the DragonFly into a USB port and you have better sounding audio. Plug in your headphones and you’re good to go. You can use any headphone, really, from a truly portable one to the 300 ohm monsters too.

But wait—there’s more. The DragonFly can be used with a cell phone!

Except, look at that photo. With my Sennheiser 580s, I had to buy an adapter to go from the 1/4 inch plug to the 1/8 inch plug, which is heavy. Then that goes into the DragonFly, which seems dwarfed in the photo with Apple’s version 3 of their Lightening to USB Camera adapter. I have to connect all that malarkey to my phone to enjoy the bigger headphones.


Well, while there’s a big path there from music to your ears, it does sound good. And if anyone sees me with this contraption of wires walking outside, they know I’m pretty darn serious about my audio. (For the record, I do take this outside, but not for walking; I’ll use it sitting on the patio.)

For those of you with a USB-C equipped phone, such as one not from Apple, AudioQuest is making a USB-C dongle of themselves which is far more better equipped for mobile usage. (Me thinks this could all have been made less dorky if AudioQuest only chose to make an Apple-branded version with the lightening adapter.)

So, all of that said, the music many people listen to on a mobile device is compressed. It’s MP3s or compressed MPEG-4 files, such as those from Apple Music, or streamed via Spotify. With this setup, you (or at least I) can start to hear the limitations of that compressed music.

Of course, you can rip CDs and push those via iTunes to your iPhone. But more recently I’ve changed my setup at home and it makes this use case of big headphones with several adapters in tow, while at least not truly portable, at least worth the effort.

CD quality and beyond

Several years ago when I gave up my MacPro at home (the big cheese grater (original cheese grater), the one that could store four drives of data), I had to come up with a new solution for my music collection. The new 1TB iMac wasn’t going to cut it.

I bought a network-attached storage server (NAS) and I can access my music over the network.

I still used iTunes as my player. I have a big CD collection, so all of that was ripped on the computer. I was on the fence with streaming services. (For me, with my primary interest in classical, services like Apple Music or Spotify weren’t as appealing, and they didn’t offer CD quality sound.)

Today I use software called Roon. Their server software runs on my iMac; it indexes all my music sitting on the NAS, and adds value through their rich catalog of metadata (for instance, it knows my albums and knows details about them, like who mastered a recording, where it was recorded, and they provide access to information about the performers). I then need the client software to playback my music, which can live on my phone, my iPad, or my computer.

And today, you can “stream” the music to endpoints on your home network. This includes my phone or my iPad, but also a network streamer like the Auralic Aries, or a Sonos speaker, or to my reference DAC, the PS Audio DirectStream with its network bridge card.

So, using Roon, I can listen anywhere inside my house.

Roon running on my iPhone. Currently it’s configured to control playback on the DAC/streamer connected to my loudspeakers.

Sitting outside on the patio, with my phone, I have access not only to the music loaded on my phone, but to my entire music collection, at the native resolution of every file. And more recently, I’ve begun a subscription to Qobuz, a French high-fidelity music streaming service (compare this with Tidal), which seamlessly integrates with Roon.

So with this mess of wires and my big over-the-ear headphones, I can move about the house and listen to anything, all in high fidelity.

Does it rival a big tube-powered headphone amplifier? No. But the convenience is worth the compromise. It’s not as convenient as the AirPods, but I think we only have to wait. In five years, I’ll probably laugh at having so many wires and dongles hanging from my phone.

(But did I mention it sounds really good?)

New Workflows (Geeking Out on the Phone)

You know the saying, “you can’t teach an old dog new tricks.” I’ve been using Adobe Photoshop since 1991 (version 2, I believe), when it fit onto a floppy disk. I really don’t have a need or desire to use another tool, especially when I feel I want complete control.

Some years ago my mind was gently changed when I saw Aperture, from Apple, which excelled at editing RAW photos. I used it until finally it seemed it was no longer being updated. I have several Aperture vaults saved somewhere.

What made Aperture special, if I remember, was that it used the GPU on the computer to help drive the “speed” by which you could make edits. It wasn’t so much for doing creative things, but adjusting lighting and setting RAW exposure settings.

Then my mind was changed a little more when Snapseed came out (before it was purchased by Google). Suddenly, on vacation, I was importing photos into my iPad (my iPad?!) and editing them there. It felt weird. Like, what’s going on? I’m using this mobile computer to do like really creative editing?

So, yes, I evolved somewhat. I was open to some casual editing on a mobile device using sliders and the such. Then this summer at the ADE Institute, they challenged us to do some things that made me feel uncomfortable. Let me explain. Nothing inappropriate. But I wasn’t used to doing image manipulation quickly in an app designed for delivering presentations.

It felt weird. Keynote? For image editing?

Of course, Keynote (and by extension, Numbers and Pages) is a powerful app. And while I use it primarily for designing presentations, this evening I started playing. Making Memoji characters and using Instant Alpha to take away the white background. And then playing with backgrounds. Exporting the things to JPEG and then heck, why not, posting the result as my Twitter avatar?

I know what an incredibly powerful computer my cell phone is, trust me. But doing this little thing, making an avatar, cutting it out, and putting in a background, and then exporting it just so, and seeing it there, felt transformational. It wasn’t the iPad, it wasn’t Photoshop on my Mac. It was a cell phone that did all of this. And again, maybe it’s not that impressive to you, but it took just a minute and a half to do this.

It’s 2019. I know (I’m getting older). But this just felt cool because it was so effortless. Perspective matters.


So I know it might be the tourist-y thing to do, but I’d heard about this place from guidebooks and from folks on TV, like Ina Garten. Berthillon supposedly had the, and I quote, “best ice cream in the world.” It was enough to make me try it.

photo of Berthillon on the Ile St Louis
Berthillon store front at a time it’s closed; located on the Île-St. Louis

During my last trip, in the summer of 2018, they’d opened a second store right across the street, and one assumes it’s to serve all the folks flocking to this street in the summer months. You can get take-away or eat in the salon.

If you don’t get to this street, shame on you, but for reals, the ice cream and sorbets are sold in other parts of Paris. Look for their logo, the “B,” and be rest assured, you can sample some of their stuff without too much trouble.

So the location of the island is pretty close to where Notre Dame is. You can walk across the bridge and as a destination, it’s a cool little island, and is one of the more expensive places to live in all of Paris. If you like ice cream, it might be the best place to live in the world.

How is the ice cream, then?

So I am not sure I am qualified to say if this ice cream is the world’s best. I mean, how can that even stick? We can possibly say it’s the best ice cream I’ve had, and then you might be impressed? I make my own ice cream from time to time and I’ve sampled a lot too, and given my age, you can be fairly certain that I’ve had a lot of ice cream experiences. And I’m gonna give in here and agree with Ina Garten. I think this ice cream is some of the best I’ve ever had.

So the flavor I kept going for, which is now easily found in my local Whole Foods from brands like Jeni’s, is the salted caramel. It’s also my favorite, probably, of any ice cream flavor. I like salt and I like the flavor of brown, melted sugar. Look for a label such as beurre-salé and that’s what we’re talking about. I’ve had their chocolates. I’ve had their very-intensely flavored sorbets, which I think are incredible. I’ve never had anything I didn’t like.

Which is to say, get a flavor that looks interesting to you, and know that you can order a cone or cup with scoops from multiple flavors. Try them out, or steal some from your friend(s).

The ritual I’ve followed is to always get my glacé to go, and I walk around the corner (to the south, make a left) and start to cross the bridge. You’ll see once-famous fine dining restaurant (La Tour d’Argent) on the opposite side of the bridge, and Paris’s patron saint overlooking the water. There are some indentations in the bridge, so you can look out, and I hate to say how many times I’ve stood in one of those things, almost religiously scooping out ice cream from the cup, and into my mouth, with a smile a mile-wide, trying to remember the whole experience: the creamy texture, the intense flavor, and the whole scene around me. I know I’ll have to leave, and then it will be uncertain when I can ever enjoy that little coupe of ice cream again.

Luckily Paris isn’t the only place to get ice cream. But you should still go. Trust me.

29-31 rue Saint-Louis en l’île
75004 Paris France

VMFA—Richmond, Virginia

The art museum in Richmond, Virginia has changed a lot since I moved to capital of Virginia, about twenty years ago. Since then, they have a new addition, which now serves as the entry point for visitors. There’s a really decent restaurant, Amuse, on the top floor, that overlooks open space behind the museum. And while special exhibits carry an admission fee, the museum is otherwise free. Twice I’ve become a member and enjoyed special exhibits at no extra cost. Members also enjoy free parking in the museum’s adjacent parking deck.

In August 2019, I went to the VMFA to attend a musical performance, part of VCU’s GSIM event, bringing global musicians together each year. It’s but one example of how the museum uses their large atrium space to add value to their art collection by bringing diverse audiences to the museum.

GSIM Performance at VMFA

So we are currently re-thinking the role of the school library in schools. They shouldn’t just be a place to go grab a resource (read: book). They should also be a space where things happen. Think of a plaza in a large city, like Madrid or Mexico City. It’s a place people gather, conduct business transactions, eat, become entertained.

It’s what I really like about the VFMA. You can have a beverage outside over the weekend. You can hear music, or see a cultural performance. And like many art museums, the collection is always changing with special exhibits. And you can think of the VFMA as a place to see fine art, sure, but it’s also a place to hang out, to be social, and to think.

And for someone like myself who does not live in the city, proper, it’s always a great excuse to get out of the house and visit the city. It’s located on Arthur Ashe Boulevard and nearby all kind of interesting places to eat.

Virginia Museum of Fine Arts
Open 365 Days a Year
200 N. Arthur Ashe Boulevard
Richmond, Virginia USA