While the rest of the world laments the "death" of traditional headphone jacks, serious audiophiles have been turning to the 4.4mm Pentaconn - a new balanced plug that sits somewhere between a 3.5mm headphone jack and a high-end XLR. Here's what you need to know.
I wonder if Johnny Cash’s producer was having a lend of him when they recorded Ring of Fire. Or was Johnny Cash having a lend of everyone? He sounds so grim and serious, and the lyrics are quite dark; a guy suffering all sorts of uncontrollable urges as his body chemistry renders him helpless in the presence of whoever it is he’s singing about. And yet the sound behind him is joyous.
I’ve always visualised a mariachi band and an all-girl backing troupe bopping along. Everyone back there sounds like they’re having a ball, making Ring of Fire unique; a dark song that cheerfully rollicks along.
That’s why it’s on my airline playlist, it never fails to make me laugh. It even gets me singing along, aping Johnny’s deathly serious delivery despite the merry mariachis boogieing in their brightly embroidered jackets and the back-up chicks swinging their hips in time. It can get a tad embarrassing for me back there in 42G.
I got lots of feedback about the music I mention in reviews so I’m a bit embarrassed to admit that it was Ring of Fire that convinced me of the worth of a balanced connection for my portable music player. I was three songs into my playlist when Johnny came along on shuffle and it slowly dawned on me that I’d never heard him so clearly defined before. He was more gravely stern than ever. There was sound purity here I’d not heard before.
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.
The headphone jack is an endangered species. Apple got rid of it when they released the iPhone 7, Google laughed at them, and then Google went and got rid of it with their second generation Pixel phones too. I’m certainly not laughing, as the headphone jack prepares for extinction. If you just want a great phone with a headphone jack, here’s what to look at.