The great thing about headphones is that you can, with a bit of effort, find great-sounding models in every price range. True, the best expensive models definitely sound better, but my picks for the cheapest ones are still pretty awesome. In fact, the $89 Velodyne vPulse headphones are the ones I regularly used long after I wrote the review! There was something about the sound of the vPulse that had me coming back for more. I cover audiophile, in-ear, full-size, wireless, and noise-canceling headphones, and prices run from dirt-cheap to insanely expensive.
Since in-ear headphones sit in or near the ear canal, they don't interact with the pinna, the bends and curves of the outer ear that direct sound to the ear canal. The pinna also serves as an acoustic filter, enhancing the frequency range of human speech, and it also supplies directional cues, so we can localize where sound is coming from. That's how our ears and brains process sound in real life, but in-ear headphones don't interact with the pinna, so they can't sound as realistic as full-size headphones or speakers. In-ears can still sound great, … Read more
I've written about the Audeze LCD-2 headphones in this blog before, but now I'm going to cover the LCD-3 model, Audeze's best headphones. At first glance the two don't look all that different, but the LCD-3s sport real zebrawood earcups and have thicker and softer real lambskin leather cushions to coddle your ears. This is a fairly heavy (550-gram) set of headphones, but they're comfortable to wear for hours at a time. Details of why the LCD-2s and LCD-3s sound different aren't forthcoming from Audeze, other than the drivers, which use similar technology, are … Read more
Red Wine Audio makes some of my all-time favorite headphone amplifiers, but they're pretty expensive. The Isabellina HPA LFP-V Edition, for example, runs $2,500; it was designed and built in Vinnie Rossi's small factory in Durham, Conn. The Isabellina is more than just a headphone amp, it features a spectacularly good digital-to-analog converter and a hybrid transistor/vacuum tube audio amplifier. While the amp can be run off an AC power outlet, it sounds best powered by its built-in 25.6 volt Lithium Iron Phosphate battery pack. The battery can play for up to 10 hours, and … Read more
Sound-quality advances in headphone design show no sign of slowing down, and even old names like Philips and Sony are getting serious about making great-sounding headphones. Sadly, those brands aren't attempting to make anything that could be compared with the world's best, like the JH-3A headphone/amplifier system, from JH Audio.
That company's founder and designer, Jerry Harvey, started building in-ear monitors for rock bands in 1995. He counts Lady Gaga, Alicia Keys, Aerosmith, Foreigner, and Linkin Park as customers. Harvey is currently with the Van Halen tour--the band uses his 'phones onstage--and Harvey uses their feedback to improve his designs.
The JH-3A is an amplifier/in-ear headphone system, with analog and digital inputs with up to 24-bit resolution and 96kHz sampling rates. I've used portable headphone amplifiers before, and they can sound great with all types of headphones, but the JH-3A takes in-ear headphone performance to another level.… Read more
The Rocky Mountain Audio Fest 2011, held last week at the Denver Marriott Tech Center Hotel, not only showcased a vast array of high-end audio designs, there was a special headphone-oriented show within the show called CanJam. It was a fantastic opportunity to sample the world's best headphones and headphone amplifiers.
The energy in the CanJam ballroom was palpable. There's no doubt the headphone market is still expanding at a rapid rate, and anyone who spent some time listening to the latest crop of cutting-edge products had to come away from the experience shaken and stirred. … Read more
Most headphones have tiny dynamic drivers, basically miniaturized versions of the drivers used in box speakers. The Audeze LCD-2 features a completely different technology: it uses thin-film planar magnetic drivers. I first checked out the Audeze LCD-2 headphones last year and absolutely loved them. The company redesigned the drivers to produce even better sound, made the earpads thicker, and now covers the headband in real leather. I found the sound improvements of the revised model significant enough to warrant a new review.
The styling is bulky and retro, but the quality feel of the LCD-2 is more than skin deep; … Read more
I've been a fan of Musical Fidelity from its beginnings in the early 1980s. The British company's original 30-watt-per-channel stereo A1 integrated amplifier was a hit with budget-minded audiophiles back in the day, and it also offered seriously expensive gear.
Musical Fidelity started making headphone amplifiers long before the current headphones craze started. The model we're looking at today is Musical Fidelity's pure Class A M1 HPA headphone amp ($799).
The HPA has very low output impedance (below 1 ohm), so Musical Fidelity claims it can "drive" any headphones with ease. The circuit is a fully discrete Class A design, with no op-amps in the audio path, so it's built like a small high-end power amp. The HPA has two inputs--line and USB--and there's a variable output, so the HPA can be used as a stereo preamplifier in a hi-fi system. It has two 6.3mm headphone jacks on the front panel.
Some previous generations of Musical Fidelity's styling were a little over the top for my taste, but the M1 HPA is understated and very classy. … Read more
I've reviewed and auditioned a lot of headphone amplifiers over the years, but Red Wine Audio's Isabellina HPA LFP-V Edition stood out from the pack. The amp improved the sound of almost every headphone I used with it.
Priced at $2,500 the Isabellina is very much a high-end audio product. Designed and built in Vinnie Rossi's small factory in Durham, Conn., the headphone amp's elegant functionality belies its technical sophistication. Rossi started Red Wine Audio in 2005, and before that he worked on high-speed laser transmitters for Bell Labs.
The Isabellina is more than just a headphone amp; it features a spectacularly good digital-to-analog converter and a hybrid transistor/vacuum tube audio section. While the Isabellina can be run off an AC power outlet, it sounds best powered by high-current lithium iron phosphate (LFP) batteries. Rossi claims "The batteries use organic, phosphate-based material, providing an ideal combination of performance, safety, reliability and environmental friendliness...in fact, more so than any other rechargeable battery technology."
The amp's digital connectivity options include USB, Coax, and Toslink/optical inputs; there are no analog inputs. The Isabellina has analog outputs, so it can be used as a stereo preamplifier, with a separate power amp to drive speakers, or a digital-to-analog converter in a hi-fi system.
The Isabellina features old tech 16-bit, non-oversampling digital-to-analog converters. Rossi acknowledges the latest chips' specifications look more impressive on paper, but he thinks most of them (even some really expensive ones) sound "quite sterile and artificial" in comparison. The Isabellina will work with digital sample rates up to 192kHz, but it will only playback with 16-bit resolution. … Read more
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