Headphone shops in your home town

I remember when I first decided I needed to get a better set of earbuds because my iPhone ones had packed it in. Again.

It was about six or seven years ago and I got the idea because A) This was the second set of Apple 'buds cables that had fallen apart on me B) I was trying in vain to twist and squeeze the cables so the left channel would work instead of coming through intermittently and C) I saw something out the window of the bus that morning while commuting to work struggling with the Apple earbuds that I had never seen before: A shop dedicated to selling only headphones.

My neck swivelled around almost 180 degrees as we passed by and I read the sign in the window: "Headphone Bar."

There were all sorts of boxes of different headphones on display in the front window that I had never seen or heard of. I made up my mind then and there to go back on my way home form work that afternoon.

Walking into the shop later that day I felt like I did the first time I entered a high-end car dealership with my father as a child, and was reminded of a day several years earlier when I went with a friend to a private tailor who was having a bespoke suit made in Mayfair, just off London's hallowed Saville Row.

There was such a sense of refinement and clear purpose to the shop. The high-quality of goods on shelves all around me was so clearly apparent that it brought a smile to my face and a sense of calm to my being.

Ten feet away and initially unnoticed, looking at me from behind the shop's counter was a bespectacled young man with a lopsided grin that seemed to mirror my own. His name was Travis Rice and he was the shop's proprietor.

Rice was a gold mine of headphone information and helped me find a great set of affordable IEMs to replace my broken 'buds that day, and a year later I went back to him and upgraded those to a better set. A couple years after that I went to him again to get over-ear headphones for my daughter for her birthday and I had another great experience catching-up and connecting with him.

Fast-forward a couple more years and I had an audiophile headphone-centric friend visiting Vancouver from Los Angeles for a work-related trip. We hung out for a couple of days and I took him to check out Headphone Bar. My friend was as impressed with what Rice had accomplished as I had been and the two chatted for some time and as far as I know they stayed in touch.

My whole point is that there are just not as many bricks-and-mortar headphone dedicated shops out there – Rice also carries headphone amps, DAPs, DACs, as well as a plethora of headphone-related goods – as we probably all wish there was.

I’m big on real, organic experiences involving going somewhere, meeting people and sharing great moments. I thrive on learning something new through actual face-to-face conversations and interactions.

Don’t get me wrong, scooping a deal on eBay, Discogs or Amazon for a rare piece of music, science-fiction literature or film-related memorabilia still brings a thrill, but it is short-lived and is remembered only be me, there is no shared experience or fuzzy feelings of recollection to rehash over a beer years later like the time you and friend stumbled across some rare Led Zeppelin pressings at a thrift store.

I feel extremely fortunate that Rice and his shop are a resource I can drop in on anytime during his working hours. Many headphone enthusiasts must rely on sites like InnerFidelity for information and reviews on headphones, or hit up online forums – which can be difficult to navigate without acrimony – or just search the Internet in general and hope to hit gold.

Since I’m now helming IF I decided the time was perfect to connect with Rice about headphone culture in general, his own experiences with 'cans and what it was that got him into this quirky business. I dropped by the shop and asked him if he’d be willing to be interviewed for this article: he happily complied and here is our conversation. I hope you enjoy our back-and-forth.

Travis Rice Q&A

Rafe Arnott: Travis, you've been running The Headphone Bar in Vancouver for several years now, what was the impetus to get it started?

Travis Rice: At the time, I was trying to buy a nice set of headphones, about $500, to listen with at home. Few stores carried any and each store seemed to only have one brand. It seemed odd that stores stocked $1,500 computers but not $500 headphones. I had also seen stores in Asia where these products are on demo and stocked to the ceiling. After some research I was certain a dedicated store here in Vancouver could work.

RA: Have you always been into music, I mean, as a child even? Was your family musical in that they played instruments, or simply loved listening to music on the radio, LPs, CDs, etc. What was your exposure to music like, how did it form?

TR: Zero exposure to making music, zero musical talent. I have listened to plenty of live music and really appreciate the skill and talent of those who can play. My teen years were filled with hip hop, electronic music in my twenties. My first record was Hard Times, by Run DMC – awesome song – and I also went on an Art of Noise kick too.

RA: When did the connection with headphones come about, was it a gift of a pair of cans? Did you listen to someone else's headphones? Was it a specific incident where you had a 'eureka!' moment listening to something on your parent's hi-fi through 'phones?

TR: It was very simple and I hear it all the time in the store – I had kids. Once your three-month-old goes to sleep, you are not inclined to break out the tunes, so the very nice stereo was used far less often but I still wanted to spend time enjoying music at home. It came from a need.

RA: Some would say that music lovers who are headphone devotees are a breed apart in this strange little corner of a hobby we call being an audiophile, what are your thoughts on this?

TR: I think its great that people are enjoying their music.

Period.

It is as easy to enjoy the different reproduction aspects of a home hi-fi as well as top of the line headphones/earphones. I've had both a nice stereo and great headphones available to me for some time now and gladly appreciate both.

RA: Do you think there's a specific reason people come to completely prefer headphones? I'm not talking about casual users who may have a hi-fi (or Bose dock, what have you) and a decent pair of headphones for their commute or on plane trips, I'm talking about the dyed-in-the-wool headphone animal who prefers cans over any other type of listening option and will spend hundreds, if not thousands of dollars to pursue ultimate fidelity.

TR: Sure, there are a few reasons. First, the most pragmatic is you can get more for your money with headphones. Money talks you know. I can take an AudioQuest Dragonfly DAC and Meze 99 headphones (or nice earphones) and for $400 have clear, fun, wonderful sound quality, including full bass response. This cannot happen for $400 with a stereo. I can also use an iFi DAC and a $1,000 set of Audeze LCD2 or Campfire earphones and have full-range sound quality that most people rarely ever hear, at all. Again, tough to do with a stereo at that price point.

Second, I can use these any time of the day and with earphones, anywhere I choose.

Third, many people in the store have mentioned they prefer the way earphones or headphones completely envelop them in the music. It's a bit of sinking into your own little world. Also, the higher-end products today can be just fantastic sounding.

RA: Could you describe your average customer? Age? Usual reason for buying headphones? Do many of your customers have multiple pairs of cans?

TR: I am very happy to say it's a really varied age range, from 16 to 70 years old. Mostly male unfortunately – enjoying good sound quality is not a "tech thing" so I am not really sure why we don't see more women making sound quality a priority. We have many repeat customers and it is natural to want the latest, most newly-improved thing.

RA: Of those spending serious coin at your shop – because you carry some of the highest-end headphones available – are they buying for dedicated home rigs, or are portable amps more of a factor in their choices? Is Vancouver a particular market, or is it demonstrative of other major urban cities in your experience?

TR: Younger people are out more, or listening at work, so they buy more portable products, like the $1,000-plus earphones. People are buying higher-end products as their main listening system, for sure. For many people, most or all of their listening is done through headphones and as I said earlier, the flagship products sound wonderful. Try Sennheiser HD800s and you cannot help but listen to them for a while. I don't think Vancouver has significantly different purchasing trends than other cities.

RA: I don't think it's out of line to say that the headphone market is the largest single sales market in stereo equipment in the world, I'd also venture that more headphones/earbuds/IEMs are sold in a year than every other type of speaker, or audio-related product combined. Why do you think this is?

TR: Regarding headphones, there were 368 million units sold in 2017. They are affordable and can provide good value, which matters for high volume. The vast majority are appliance-like products though, just like the Amazon Echo is considered a speaker. They work, but no one is crazy about owning them.

RA: Lastly, do you think headphones are the future of hi-fi? Is the world turning inward in its preferences for listening now more than ever? Is the headphone going to save high fidelity for future generations or will it always remain an offshoot of the home stereo (in whatever guise that takes these days or in the future)?

Instead of 'turning inward,' I prefer 'unlimited access.' The source has changed, which has changed everything. The LP/CD are now fringe sources, so the stereo system is a dead concept in some regards, replaced by powered speakers and headphones. Audio sources are now a computer and phone, so we can access and manage our music easily and listen to anything we want, anywhere we may be. We can plug a high end set of earphones into a phone, DAC or DAP and get powerful, beautiful sound anywhere, anytime, including at home. Personal audio is already the new hi-fi and enables more people than ever the option of pursuing and fulfilling their desire for better sound quality.

RA: Lastly, if you had to have your desert island pair of headphones, what would they be and why? Same for a DAP or portable amp/DAC to power them.

TR: Yes, this is easy. Woo Audio WA7 tube amp/DAC at home with an Audeze LCD2 headphone. It’s beautiful to listen to and I love the way both are made. Portable, I'll take my Campfire Andromeda earphones and a good portable music player, thank you very much!

COMPANY INFO
Headphone Bar
4534 Main St, Vancouver, BC, V5V 3R5
headphonebar@live.ca
1-604-569-0694

COMMENTS
Ceynon's picture

I love this place. I have bought a couple pairs from headphone bar.

Nice to learn more about Travis.

Impulse's picture

I so wish there was a store that carried even half a dozen brands around here... The one nearby Best Buy isn't even a Magnolia and it's headphone section is seemingly relocated and reshaped every few months... Same for camera stores.

Simply Nobody's picture

Let us all move to Vancouver ......... We can also listen to Rafe's audio system, once a week or so :-) ...........

ednaz's picture

...to have a place like this nearby. In a perfect world, I'd be able to go to a place like this with one of my existing favorites and spend an hour trying out some new possibilities, comparing them to my existing favorites. Every headphone or IEM is a bit different - otherwise I'd only own ONE set, and when I decide to treat myself (that's another reason for headphones over speaker based systems - it's a lot cheaper to treat yourself to something special as a reward for nailing that presentation or closing the big deal) I want something that will bring a new perspective to listening.

I'm very curious about his business. When I'm in Best Buy and look at people in the (astonishingly skimpy) headphone area, I never see anyone listening to the available samples. They walk in, grab and buy. Oh so many years ago, I remember the headphone section of the enormous audio store that was near me. On any given day, there'd be a dozen people in there spending a lot of time going from headphone to headphone.

brause's picture

Also top notch service!

Peter Puck's picture

I have been shopping at Headphone bar almost exclusively for the last 4 or 5 years I've purchased 4 different Hifiman earbuds and headphones I've picked up a peach tree shift DAC Amp and several Fiio products as well I purchased a pair of PSB headphones as well as a pair Of Master & Dynamic MW 60's wireless phones and finally I bought a pair of Focal Earbuds and A pair of RHA buds . Travis is a encyclopedia of headphone knowledge and let's you spend time listening to everything they have in stock ,it's how all retail should be . This by far my favourite store in Vancouver and the lower mainland. If your in the market for anything to do with portable audio this is your one stop shop .

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