Review: Phil Jones Bass BigHead, H-850 Headphones, and Ear-Box
I’ll never forget my first encounter with a Phil Jones Bass (PJB) product, in my early days at Bass Player. A freight truck pulled up to the office, unloading a monstrous box on a palette. Enlisting the help of my fellow editors, we wrangled the behemoth upstairs and managed to extract its contents: a pair of large cabinets filled with a combined total of 24 silver-colored 5″ speakers. I had never seen anything like it, and we were all immediately intrigued by this radical rethinking of conventional wisdom around bass speaker and cabinet design. As I began to research the cab’s designer, Phil Jones, I quickly understood the formidable knowledge behind the singular design. A lifelong bass lover, Jones was already an icon in the hi-fi industry before expanding his business to include a suite of bass-centric products. Honing his craft in the audiophile world, which tends to embrace innovation in the pursuit of ultimate fidelity, Jones brings the same attitude to his now-substantial range of bass products. The three PJB products on review here represent clever solutions to a trio of challenges many bass players confront.
BIGHEAD MOBILE HEADPHONE AMP
The BigHead is one of those products that you don’t think you need until you have one, at which point it might become a constant companion. Its versatility is all the more impressive when you consider its diminutive size. At just half-a-pound and small enough to fit in a jacket pocket, the BigHead has a number of cool tricks up its tiny sleeve. First, it’s a high-end headphone amplifier. Audio geeks know that the output of the typical smartphone (the source, for better of worse, of most of our listening these days) is fairly weak. When plugged into the BigHead’s aux input, the source audio is boosted substantially, allowing the device to drive high-end high-impedance headphones (or just your fave ear buds) with better dynamic range and frequency response. The BigHead is also a handy practice tool, thanks to its ¼” input. You can use the aux input and blend a good ratio between your bass and any music or a metronome you may be practicing with; plus, it features two bands of EQ to further tailor tone. Power comes courtesy of a built-in lithium-ion battery rechargeable via micro-USB. (Full specs on all of these products are available on the Phil Jones Bass website.)
On top of all the above, the BigHead also contains a high-end Burr Brown A/D converter, making it possible to track on the road or in any mobile situation without lugging around a larger, more feature-laden audio interface. The BigHead’s preamp is clean and transparent, so it’s a good source for tracking a no-frills tone to digital media. And, given that it has a preamp capable of 12dB of gain, you can even use the headphone jack to drive a mixer or power amp. For the price, the BigHead does a lot of nifty stuff, and I’d especially recommend it to anyone who is often obligated by circumstance to practice “silently” or track on the go.
Given how much time bass players spend in headphones, it’s surprising that this is the first pair I’ve encountered purpose-built for us. Sure, some off-the-rack headphones artificially boost bass to create an illusion of low-end impact, but the H-850s were designed specifically to work well in conjunction with the singular dynamic range and low frequencies of bass guitar.
For the price, the H-850s felt well made, although they don’t have that burnished look and feel some may associate with multi-hundred-dollar pairs. The detachable cable felt robust, and it’s good to know it can be replaced should the need arise. The low-impedance neodymium drivers make them mate well with even low-output headphone amps (like that smartphone), but most important, the frequency response and isolation are specifically tailored to the instrument. In practice, this means that even a fairly high-output open B string arrived at my ears undistorted and pure—a feat even for some higher-end studio headphones. Given their broad frequency response, comfortable fit, and good isolation, the H-850s would be a great set of headphones for everyday use, too. It’s just good to know that should the need arise, they can handle bass with aplomb.
Now we come to the simplest—but perhaps most beguiling—of the trio of PJB products on offer here, the why-didn’t-I-think-of-that Ear-Box. One of the most aggravating challenges of playing live is the impact that a venue’s acoustic environment, and our proximity to our amp, have on our perception of tone. Factor in the monitoring quality and the bash-factor of your band’s drummer, and on any given night it can be a vexing challenge getting a satisfying and clear sound from your rig. The Ear-Box is basically a small nearfield monitor designed for mounting on a straight mic stand. To use it, you simply plug a Speakon cable from one of your amp’s spare outputs or one of the parallel outputs of your cabinet. Don’t worry about blowing out the speakers, as the Ear-Box designed to handle up to 1,000 watts. The Ear-Box is a remarkably effective way to ensure you’re hearing just as much of yourself as you need, with the sparkly tone that your amp is actually outputting, relatively free of the muddying impact of a troubling acoustic space.
While its look may disrupt your ideal stage aesthetic, when I tried the Ear-Box on a gig, I was immediately entranced by its substantial impact on my perception of my sound. No longer did I feel inclined to crank my amp just to hear myself over the din of the band (a bad idea anyway); rather, I just moved the Ear-Box closer or turned it slightly and found myself able to hear all the articulation and nuance that I knew was there, but was being lost onstage. It’s a dead-simple but highly effective asset to anyone who plays live, and barring a set of good in-ear monitors, a possible godsend if you’re tired of struggling to hear yourself onstage.
Pros Super-versatile box for practice, on-the-go tracking, and listening to music
Bottom line If you want a great-sounding headphone amp, a clean preamp, and an audio interface in one box … well, here it is.
Pros Purpose-built for bass players, the H-850s can deal with our instrument’s lowest notes while retaining good fidelity
Cons Perhaps a little less fancy-feeling than one might expect
Bottom line Great-sounding headphones that also happen to feature good isolation and frequency response for bass players. A winning combination.
Pros Dead-simple solution to a common acoustic problem
Cons Using it effectively on a gig means having a box on a stand next to your head. It is what it is; deal with it.
Bottom line Solves the problem of not hearing yourself well onstage.
Made in China