I attended the Head-Fi "meet" last Saturday at the Crowne Plaza Hotel, in White Plains, NY. Head-Fi is a grass roots online community that reviews and discusses headphones, in-ear monitors (IEMs), headphone amplifiers, and music. Head-Fi's core is its discussion forums, where on average 3,000+ posts covering all aspects of headphones are made nearly every day. Head-Fi started in the U.S., but now has meets in Canada, England, Australia, Denmark, Singapore, and all over the world! You can join Head-Fi for free or just enjoy the site. I've attended a number of NY meets … Read more
Audioengine's spectacularly good A2 has been my powered speaker reference for years. I recently enthused about Audioengine's slightly larger passive P4 speaker ($249/pair) that need to be powered by a separate amp. I was surprised that Audioengine didn't introduce an amp when they brought out the P4, but now with the N22 ($199), the time has come.
It's an unobtrusive, vertically oriented design--7 inches high, 2.75 inches wide, and 5.5 inches deep--and it weighs 3.5 pounds. The clean front panel has just a volume control and a 3.5mm headphone jack; the … Read more
Though there are many types of full-size (circumaural) or earpad (supra-aural) headphones, for this blog I'm going to compare an open-back headphone from Grado, the SR225i ($200), with a closed-back headphone from Phiaton, the PS 500 ($299).
Sure, other manufacturers make open- and closed-back (aka sealed) headphones, but generalizations about the sound of the two types hold up pretty well. DJs, musicians, and recording engineers generally prefer closed headphones because they seal the wearer's ears, limiting how much sound they hear from the world around them, and at the same time, people close to the person wearing the headphones don't hear very much sound "leaking" from the headphones. So closed 'phones are great to wear in bed. Isolation from external sound isn't as effective as a noise-canceling headphone, but the closed-back headphone doesn't use batteries to power the noise-canceling circuitry. And closed-back headphones tend to make a lot more bass than similarly priced open-back designs.
The Phiaton PS 500's outer earcups and earpads are covered with genuine black leather, and the cloth-covered cable adds a touch of luxury to the design. It's a very comfortable and beautifully built headphone.
With an open-back headphone, like the Grado SR225i, you hear external sound quite clearly. This is a good thing if you ever want to listen on the street. Anyone near you will hear some of the sound of the Grado. Bass may not have the weight of a closed-back design, but the bass quality and definition are clearer than most closed-back designs. Open-back headphones tend to be directed to the audiophile market, but that's not to say there aren't closed models that appeal to audiophiles. For me, the biggest sonic difference is spatial: closed headphones make a sound that's "inside the head," and open models are literally more open, so they sound a bit more like speakers. The better closed headphones exhibit less of the inside-the-head quality, but they sound less open than the very best open headphone models. … Read more
I've known my share of audiophiles who own lots of speakers, amplifiers, etc., but Wayne McManus has 40 high-end headphones. He's slowed adding to the collection, and now mostly concentrates on out-of-production classics--Sennheiser HE90 electrostatics, Sony MDR R-10, Sony Qualia 010, AKG-K1000, Audio Technica L3000, Grado HP-2--because each one has its own distinctive character and feel. McManus thinks speaker-only audiophiles are missing that aspect of the hobby; they're stuck with one sound. For the price of a pair of high-end speakers you can buy a healthy selection of the world's very best headphones. McManus has invested around $50,000 to date.
McManus bought a motor home three years ago, and now spends every April through August exploring the U.S. and Canada. He's semiretired and takes a small selection of headphones with him on the road.
At home he uses a very impressive hi-fi outfitted with MBL 101E speakers, MBL electronics, and a VPI turntable, but headphones have superior detailing. He put it this way: "You may have heard the same album a hundred times over speakers, but you pick up on new stuff over headphones, and when you move up to IEMs [in-ear monitor headphones] you hear even more of that microscopic effect. But you lose the sense of being at a live concert."
So I was hardly surprised to hear that McManus owns a Smyth Realiser A8 processor that makes headphones sound like speakers. He thinks the Realiser A8 makes it almost impossible to distinguish between the sound coming from headphones and speakers. It improves the stereo localization of all of his headphones.… Read more
You can buy a set of great full-size headphones for $100 from Grado or Sennheiser, but if you want to pick up one of the world's best headphones, be prepared to spend more than $1,000. Granted, no one needs a $1,000 headphone to listen to music or a $140,000 Porsche Panamera Turbo sedan to drive to work, but they're nice things to have. That's why we cover them on CNET.
Audio-Technica, Sennheiser, Grado, and Ultrasone's latest attempts to advance the state-of-the-art are really expensive, but before the introduction of the T1, Beyerdynamic's top models all carried an MSRP of less than $400. With the Tesla T1, Beyerdynamic joined the $1,000-and-greater club; it sells for $1,295.
Steep prices haven't stopped the high-end headphone market from booming, and Beyerdynamic can't keep up with the demand for the T1. It's hand-built and tested in the company's headquarters in Heilbronn, Germany.
Its padded leather headband and soft earpads provide high comfort levels, and while we were testing the T1 over some rather hot and humid late spring days, the headphone remained comfy for hours on end. The T1 comes packed in a very impressive aluminum storage case.
According to Beyerdynamic, the T1's transducer is the first to produce more than one Tesla of magnetic flux density (hence the T1 designation). A more powerful magnet better controls the diaphragm's movement, which should produce lower distortion.
Most of the T1's outer earcup is covered with a finely woven wire mesh, which allows the user to hear outside sounds. Actually, the T1 is classified as a "semi-open" design, so it partially limits how much sound the wearer would hear, compared with open Sennheiser and Grado designs. The T1's thick cable is just shy of 10 feet long (118 inches) and it's fitted with a 6.3mm connector. Beyerdynamic doesn't include a 3.5mm adapter for use with iPods or other portable devices.
I listened to the T1 with three different amplifiers: an Onkyo TX-SR805 receiver, Woo Audio WA6-SE vacuum tube amp, and Burson Audio HA-160 solid-state headphone amp ($699). Beyerdynamic's headphone amp, the A1 ($849), would likely be a serious contender, but I didn't have a chance to try it. … Read more
Bowers & Wilkins (B&W) has a new headphone, the P5.
B&W is one of the more legendary names in British hi-fi, and its speakers are used in many of the world's top studios, including the Beatles' favorite, Abbey Road.
B&W is also known for its sleek styling, and the P5 is definitely a looker. Its real leather and chunky construction put all of the other $300 headphones on the market to shame. The P5 is a handsome luxury design, on par with B&W's high-end speakers.
Comfort? The P5's thickly padded leather headband and ear pads are soft and comfy. That's great, but the full leather-to-ears contact may promote perspiration. My ears didn't sweat, but they sure felt hot when I wore the P5s for extended periods. The upside to the close contact design is that it blocks a fair amount of external noise. Not as effectively as noise-canceling headphones, but the P5 doesn't need batteries.
The P5 is being marketed as a portable design, so it's smaller than most full-size, over-the-ear headphones. The included quilted carry bag is nicer than what you get with most headphones.
A user-replaceable 48 inch cable is attached to the left earcup. The P5 is supplied with two cables, one of which, the MFI cable with built-in microphone, is for use with the very latest Apple iPod and iPhone models. The removable (magnetically attached) earpads are more squarish than round, about 3 inches high, and they fold flat against your chest when you put the headband on your neck..… Read more
Sure, iPods and Zunes can sound perfectly fine, but no one ever claimed they were bona fide portable high-end audio devices. Their "good enough" sound isn't entirely their fault: they're too small to house a battery potent enough to power a high-quality headphone amplifier and a high-resolution 24-bit/96kHz digital-to-analog converter.
The Hifiman High Fidelity Music Player HM-801 is the Hummer of portables; it's big enough to get the job done. It's 3 inches wide, 4.5 inches high, and 1 inch thick; that's about the size of an old Walkman cassette player from the 1980s. Hifiman doesn't say how much the HM-801 weighs, but it feels substantial.
If Apple wanted to build something as good or better, it could, but the potential market for something that sounds better than an iPod is probably insignificant, and certainly too small for Apple or Microsoft to bother with. They're too busy jamming more features into their players, and sound quality never makes the cut. Besides, the market demands ever cheaper products, and real quality is never cheap. so the HM-801 is downright pricey.
That's another way of saying it's aimed at the sort of music lover who's already invested in a set of top-of-the-line Etymotic, Grado, Klipsch, Monster, Shure, or Ultimate Ears headphones. If you have and you're using an iPod or Zune, you're not hearing all the sound quality you paid for with those headphones.
The HM-801 was conceived as an audiophile player, so non-sound-oriented features are pretty scarce. The HM-801 has a user removable headphone amplifier circuitboard/module that makes future upgrades easy as pie. Hifiman already has one such upgrade in the works, a $170 board specifically designed to maximize detail and resolution of high-end in-ear headphones. Looking inside the HM-801--it has removable panels--so you can see it features top quality components, like a Burr-Brown PCM1704U digital-to-analog converter and Burr-Brown OPA627 Op-Amp. This is a level of technology normally found in audiophile home componentry, and never before used in a portable music player. … Read more
Plugging your headphones into your computer or receiver's headphone jack won't produce the best possible sound. Why? The embedded headphone "amp" is probably just a good-enough chip amp. It may sound acceptable, but nothing like what you'd hear from a properly designed dedicated headphone amplifier.
Sure, if you have a set of $50 or $100 headphones, it doesn't make a lot of sense to drop $400 on a dedicated headphone amplifier.
But if you have something closer to the sort of world-class headphones I write about from time to time, you'd be foolish not to take the plunge. You've already made a substantial investment in headphones, but you're not getting all the sound quality you paid for.
Head-Direct's EF5 Desktop Tube Hybrid Amp ($399) is a two-box affair; one chassis is the power supply, the other is the amp itself. Each unit is solidly built and fairly compact: just 4.33 inches wide, 1.97 inches high, and 10.63 inches deep.
The amp uses a single (RCA 12AU7) vacuum tube. The amp takes about a minute to come to life after turning it on, and when the top panel's blue LEDs light up you know it's ready to play. Plug the headphones into the 6.3mm jack, adjust the volume, and you're good to go.
The Drive-By Truckers' excellent "Live From Austin TX" CD had tremendous presence and impact. Patterson Hood's straight from the heart vocals really cut through, and ditto for the raucous guitars. Sweet!… Read more
If you're going to make fitness-friendly tech, teaming up with an athletic company is a good way to go. At least Sennheiser thinks so. The headphone manufacturer elected to work with Adidas when updating its sport line of earphones.
The line includes four new models--the MX 680, the CX 680, the OMX 680, and the PMX 680--ranging in design and price. For more details on each, check out the slide show, but the most compelling info is the fact that the headphones are super sweat and water resistant. Expect to see them on the virtual marketplace later this month.… Read more
The Grado PS-1000, Sennheiser HD 800, and Ultrasone Edition 8 full-size headphones all sound amazing. They're all expensive to buy, but if you listen to headphones with your hi-fi or computer, they might be worth the investment. Which one is right for you?
My personal favorite was the Grado, as it was the most exciting to listen to. It seemed to bring out details more, and its dynamic impact was simply more visceral than the other two headphones. It worked well enough with my iPod, sounded acceptable with my Onkyo TX-SR805 receiver, and best with my Woo Audio WA6 Special Edition headphone amplifier.
Which reminds me, if you're going to spend big bucks on a headphone, check out dedicated headphone amplifiers. I've blogged about Woo's amps many times, and they offer models starting at $470. I will try to get around to covering other brands soon.
The Ultrasone was the bass champ of the three headphones. If you love bass and you want to feel it, check out the Edition 8. As I said in the review, it gets closer to the full sound of a large floor-standing speaker than the other headphones. It's also the most iPod/MP3 player-compatible deluxe headphone I've heard. I couldn't believe how good it made my iPod sound. … Read more