Even with a steep add-on price of $50 - which includes a headphone encounter with the techno-rockin' opener Sound Tribe Sector 9 and an access code for downloading the show from um.com - "we've been selling them out every night," said guitarist Jake Cinninger recently. "Now we're looking to expand the program."
With the move indoors for their fall and winter run, that makes sense. As the audio-conscious ("Grado-headphones lovin' ") Cinninger acknowledged, acoustics in the average rock venue often make a mess of the music, "especially if you're listening off to the side or under a balcony. Rooms with hard corners are the worst."
Playing outdoors at the Mann's hill-topping Skyline Stage, "slap back" reverberation was minimal off trees and distant buildings. Yet even there, getting rigged up with the pro-grade Sennheiser wireless monitor pack and Audio-Technica headphones proved the superior listening experience, with sharper vocals, stereo "split" and the harmonic interplays between Cinninger and fellow guitarist Brendan Bayliss.
And you can take that sound everywhere - even the bathroom. The music only slightly "stalled out" (sorry) in the concrete block-walled restroom maybe 250 feet from the soundboard setup.
Because the ear-hugging Audio Technicas have good noise isolating properties, I could listen at a lower (or higher!) volume with the headphones to preserve what's left of my hearing. But I could still enjoy the body-jolting vibrations oozing from the big-rig house sound system.
It was also a major pleasure to tune out the couple arguing behind me.
And I needn't have feared that I would look like a geek. In today's headphone-wearing culture, I got big smiles, thumbs up and offers of "hugs for headphone listens" from some sweet McGee maidens.
I tried to duplicate the phenomenon at other shows: listening to YouTube streaming audio on my mobile phone at Made in America and taking in the bluesy James Cotton band last weekend at TLA while listening on WXPN's radio simulcast.
In both instances, the sound was certainly crisper on the headphone mix, but the 10- to 12-second signal delay was a royal drag.
Many concert halls and movie theaters already offer headphone rentals for the hard-of-hearing and could readily expand to those who just want to hear the music more clearly.
In a small club, bands and DJs could pull off the stunt with a low-powered FM transmitter (C.Crane sells a good one for $50) and listeners tuning in on their own portable radios and headphones.
"That's how we first got the idea, from guys staging a late-night silent disco," said Umphrey audio tech Matthew Heller.