Back To The Future Friday: The World’s First Balanced Earphones

Great sound

I also had a pair of real MX300 earphones. Damn, they sounded great. And they had a long cable. To be honest, I couldn’t hear much of a difference between Sharp’s iteration and the MX300, but that wasn’t the point. I had a balanced earphone system in 2002. You probably just got your first set. Na-na na-na boo-boo! 

I was the guy at the Starbucks counter proselytizing the cute bar girl:

“Hey, check it out: my earphones are 4-poled.”

“Uh, that’ll be 6,43$.”

“Don’t you see that fourth pole? That’s top Q sound qual, yo!”

“Sir, if you’re not going to pay, get out of the queue!”

“Geez, just trying to tell you about the best damn sound out of a pair of ear buds!”

And so on. 

The funny thing was, that, while I had the knowledge of HOW the signal traveled, split, and why it technically was better, I still called the phones 4-pole rather than balanced. I also knew that technically, my earphones should sound better than their 3-pole versions. And maybe they did.

Honestly, those phones did sound good. They were clear, had great bass resolution and extended highs. And anyone that listened to my Auvi systems told me they sounded great. But, then again, I always preambled their listen with a marketing spiel of my own. Then the listen-and-croon session began.

God, was I good. 

God, was I good?

I pored over the Sharp Auvi marketing literature (in Japanese no less) from front to back many times. 「高音質」 gets me every time. Did I convince myself that those 4-pole phones sounded better than actually they did? That they twisted detail out of thin air? That they really did separate elements farther than ever before? That they pumped in more power than their 3-pole variants? 

Damn straight.

I still have my original pair. It is frayed, and worn. When plugged into my second MD-DR7, they sound great. But I can’t directly plug them into any other source to compare. Sound comes out of only one side. I’d love to check them through a Mezzo HiFi MSAK100 or something. So it goes. 

Here’s what sucked about Auvi’s balanced system:

No options

Even today we lack a standard balanced connection. In 2002, the fledgling portable audio market was stuck on buds, and not even isolating buds. And most of it was utter tripe. What cost 100$ back then would barely make the bargain bin today. Excepting Etymotic, a few Shure pieces, and maybe Sony, quality was, on the whole, poor. 

Eventually, I wanted to upgrade from my clones to another balanced option. I waited. And Waited. After 2009, I gave up and sold my first MD-DR7. Better balanced portable headphones was a ship that don’t come. And considering all the standards woes we stuffer still today, me reckon it don’t come never.

Sharp Auvi amps

Auvi was great marketing that invigorated the flailing Sharp. If you were into sound quality, you had to buy Sharp. It kind of reminds me of another recent brand re-invention. But to be honest, the only real advantage Auvi players had was their balanced earphones.

The 1-Bit up-converter was greater part ploy than potent. Auvi’s internal amps were weak, and barely able to put 14-bits worth of dynamic range into any pair of earphones, let alone the balanced MX300 clones. And with horrible separation of stereo elements to boot, chances are that great earphones would sound even worse. Sharp could have employed today’s best DACs in their MD players and still, headphone sound quality would have been mediocre at best.

But MD fans bought Sharp’s marketing, hook, line, and sinker. Auvi units sold by the crate. I had four units.

Hook, line, and sinker.

Legacy

On paper, Auvi showed promise. Today, balanced is one of the things every aspiring portable audiophile looks toward. Obviously, Sharp were onto something.

But their hardware wasn’t up to the task. As good as the balanced MX300 clone phones were, they weren’t good enough to do justice to balanced circuitry. And of course, Sharp’s Auvi circuits weren’t up to MX300 standards.

So, as I pay my respects to the clones, I remember the most marketing-prone time of my life. I wasted a lot of money. But now I have a story to tell. And, to my credit, I own one of the world’s first mass-market balanced earphones. 

Na-na na-na boo-boo.

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Back before he became the main photographer for bunches of audio magazines and stuff, Nathan was fiddling with pretty cool audio gear all day long at TouchMyApps. He loves Depeche Mode, trance, colonial hip-hop, and raisins. Sometimes, he gets to listening. Sometimes, he gets to shooting. Usually he's got a smile on his face. Always, he's got a whisky in his prehensile grip.

5 Comments

  • Reply July 26, 2014

    Inearspace

    Nice article, i am really digging these articles, especially as i was too young to remember these days 😛 One thing though, i dont think the balanced clones would work with the MS-AK100 due to it having a balanced line out and not a balanced headphone out, get them on a HM-901 and thats a different story hehe 😉

    • Reply July 26, 2014

      ohm image

      You make me feel so old! MS-AK100 may have a software-attenuated line out, in which case it may work straight with earphones like this (assuming the wiring is the same). We shall see.

      • Reply July 29, 2014

        Inearspace

        Ahah, i bet you still have a VCR player as well 😉 Oh right, nice. In that case you really do need to try it out as i would love to see how it works. I wasn’t sure if because it was a dedicated line out they changed the signal path too it or not, like they do with the balanced line out of my AK120 (runs in hardware mode so a little different).

    • Reply July 31, 2014

      ohm image

      Well, I checked: they do NOT work with the Mezzo HiFi mods in other than mono. Bugger. I will try to see about HM901.

  • Reply October 5, 2016

    Dianne Sanchez

    It looks amazing.

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