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Now Hear This
Hear Technologies' Hear Back Four Pack Headphone System

by Bobby Owsinski

Headphones. They're the bane of an engineer's existence. They never seem to be totally right, especially during tracking when every musician has multiple needs. They're either too loud, or too soft, or distorted, or the balance is off. And how many times have you heard " I need more bass (guitar, snare, etc.)" or "I need more me"? It's no wonder that larger facilities have invested in personal monitor systems for years.

But until recently, personal monitor systems were mostly custom designed and therefore pretty expensive. Although there are now a number of inexpensive dedicated systems on the market, I just tried one that totally knocked my socks off - the Hear Back Four Pack system by Hear Technologies.

The Hear Back Four Pack includes 4 individual "personal" mixers, a hub that the mixers connect to, and all the necessary cabling to connect the system to your console or DAW. Each personal monitor mixer has 8 channels; a stereo mix and 6 additional "more me" channels which can be configured as either mono or linked as stereo pairs with a Link button between channels. Each mixer also has an Aux input for local input of a click, and two mono line outputs. The mixer has two headphone outputs and is threaded so that it can be mounted on a mic stand. Each mixer also has a master level control, a built-in limiter to keep the phones from blowing (or your ears, which ever comes first), and even a headphone amplifier fault indicator.

The mixers are connected to the brains of the system, the Hub, via standard CAT 5 cables (four 50 footers are supplied with the system), which not only carry the audio but also conveniently supply power to each mixer. The Hub has 3 switch selectable 8 channel input sources; either digital via an ADAT optical input, analog via a DB25 connector, or something called the HearBus (more on this later). The front panel also features four-stage input metering for each channel for signal presence, -10, +4 and overload.

Up to eight Hear Back mixers can be connected to a Hub. The HearBus I/O is supplied to allow daisy chaining multiple hubs to expand the system to just about any size that you need. The HearBus can also be used with an optional Extreme Extender ADAT In or Out accessory that converts the optical I/O to CAT 5 for cable runs of up to 500 feet.

The system has excellent specs, with frequency response from 20 to 20kHz (±.04dB), impedance range from 16 to 600 ohms which covers just about every type of headphone, and power output of 700 milliwatts at 16 ohms, 2 watts at 47 ohms, and 220 milliwatts at 600 ohms (according to the manufacturer). The manual is excellent, with a wide variety of applications discussed in detail.

Keep in mind that the entire system is digital, with 24 bit A/D and D/A converters, headphone output limiting in DSP, a system latency of only 1.5 milliseconds (which is outstandingly tiny enough to never be a problem), and a sample rate of either 44.1 or 48k.

For a tracking date, I set the Hear Back system up by sending the mix from the Cue buss on the SSL 9k at Front Page Recorders to the Hear Back stereo inputs. The Cue buss was fed from the console stereo buss, and was selected instead of just the stereo buss so that the musicians would hear the talkback. I then sent separate feeds from the kick, snare, guitar, bass, vocal, and vocal reverb via 6 unused busses each fed from the individual channel's small fader. I guess you could use the Aux busses too, but why waste them when the Hear Back can do the same thing, only better?

On some overdub sessions I found a good way to set the system up was with the drum mix going to the stereo input of the Hear Back with bass, guitar, keys, vox and stereo FX to the "more me" channels.

The front panel indicators on the Hub proved to be quite useful for troubleshooting during setup on a day when things were patched incorrectly. A quick look at the indicators told us which channels where patched and which weren't. About the only time even a hint of a problem popped up was during a percussion overdub when the percussionist had the limiter threshold set way too low, which choked the headphone output pretty good (it is very effective).

One of the major concerns before setting the system up for the first time was whether it would have sufficient headphone level. Let me tell you, there's as much level as a deaf Metal drummer can take and then some. If you're sending a moderate -10 or so level to the hub, you can either blow the phones or your ears if you try to crank these things with the typical Fostex T20's and AKG 240's that most studios use. And it's nice clean level too.

Every time I used the Hear Back, I would take a minute to discuss the operation of the mixer to the player then get out of the way. After that initial education, I never heard another peep out of them. Can you believe that? Everyone pleased with their phones with a minimum of fuss! Every artist that has tried it has loved it and every engineer that's used it has raved about it. On the first session that I did, the rhythm section contained two of Hollywood's busiest session players. As soon as the session wrapped, each of them went out of their way to mention how much they loved the system and how easy it was for them to dial in what they needed, and that has been the universal response so far.

The Hear Back system is fast to set up, easy to use, expandable, and performs way beyond expectations, considering the modest price. Although I used the Hear Back system only in the studio, I'm told that the system is in widespread use in live on-stage monitor applications as well. Plus, the ADAT optical input and low latency makes this the perfect system for DAW recording.

At the end of the review period, I asked for an invoice instead of a return authorization; this system is staying. Great job, Hear Technologies! The Hear Back system is a winner.

Courtesy of Pro Sound News Magazine, July 2003 issue


The Drawing Board

The original Hear Technologies product, the Talk Back control room monitor controller and talk back system, was developed by a group of engineers at Huntsville, Alabama-based systems integrator/acoustic consultant/specialty manufacturer and Hear Technologies parent company, Quantum Technologies. The need for the product grew from the personal experiences of the team of Dave Holland, Brian Dotson and Toot Snoddy.

Hear Back was equally born of personal experience and in response to the lamentations of Hear's Talk Back clients-end users who reported frustration with either the price or performance of available headphone systems. "I've played as a musician both live and in the studio," says senior design engineer and product manager, Holland, "I've done some studio engineering; monitors are the biggest headache in the world." Where each musician desires a slightly different mix, personal mixers can relieve a lot of frustration for an engineer and musician alike. The challenge was to create an affordable, easy to use system that could satisfy even a hearing impaired drummer.

Complicating the design, Hear Technologies had to address the broad range of headphones available, with a correspondingly broad range of impedances. "At higher impedances it's a voltage issue," says Holland, "at lower impedances it's a current issue." The Ethernet cabling used to connect the Hear Back Hubs and the Mixers carries +/- 18 VDC rails to a high voltage, high output OPA551 op-amp based output stage. Though other systems have used the same device, "We used a surface mount piece which allows you to add extra copper," says Holland, "so we have much higher thermal capabilities therefore higher power." The familiar 600 ohm AKG 240s are considered one of the toughest headphones to drive, but Holland says they can beat AKGs highest recommended drive levels by 10 percent.

While Holland says a few users have asked about more channels, the design team wanted to stay compatible with the widely used ADAT I/O interface, and that the systems can be electronically "stacked" both vertically and horizontally. "By virtue of paralleling hub channels one and two," he says, "you can do thousands of mixers and have dozens of more-me's if it's wired correctly." Holland says Hear is very pleased with both the final product, and the reception it's received from end users; "It solves problems, it does it at an economical price point, and it sounds good."

The "Back" family will continue to grow, with Mix Back the next product on the drawing board--a small console conceived as a rich-featured companion to the Hear Back family, designed to solve more problems in live and studio applications.. If all goes as planned, the prototypes will be on display in NY at this fall's AES convention.

— Frank Wells