On Sunday, I went to a meet organized by Head-Fi, a national headphone club.
The vibe at the Bayside, New York, event was relaxed as I sampled the mind-expanding sounds of Grado, Sennheiser, AKG, and Stax headphones, driven by awesome headphone amplifiers, some of which were commercial products. Some were one-offs, built by their proud owners.
A few of the amps were portables, and the standout was the superslim MiniBox D ($79) from Head-Direct. This little thing pumps up the power of iPods with amazing gusto, and while listening to Head-Direct's Yuin PK2 earbuds ($79), the sound was remarkably un-headphone-like (more like listening to speakers). Bass was deep, rich, and weighty.
The catch: these headphones, plugged directly into an iPod, won't play at all loud; you really need to use the Yuin earbuds with the MiniBox D to get the full effect.
I next listened to a set of Sennheiser HD880 headphones over a Shanling PH3000 amp ($400). This combo's dynamic range, impact, and resolution of fine detail blew my mind. Truly amazing.
I was totally wowed by Woo Audio's vacuum tube headphone amplifiers. First of all, they look amazing, the quality of the machined metal chassis is extraordinary (it's made for Woo in China, but the internal construction is handled here in New York).
Instead of the usual printed circuit boards, Woo hand-wires each unit; it's a labor-intensive process, but it yields the best sound quality. And since the amps are hand-built, they can be custom-ordered with all sorts of parts upgrades. I spoke with Jack Woo, and he explained that his company does that sort of thing all the time. It can build one-off designs, and yet the prices are solidly in the affordable range.
I played my own CDs over Woo's $570 WA6 all-tube headphone amp while listening to a Grado headphone not so different from my Grado RS-1 'phones.
It was almost magical the way the Woo WA6 made every recording sound better than I thought it was. There was a satisfying "wholeness" to the sound, voices were so much more natural, flesh and blood human, and the bass definition was truly exceptional. Treble detail was sweet, delicate, and clear as can be.
The fact that Woo can offer artisan craftsmanship at prices competitive with the plastic, disposable tech sold at chain stores and Web sites is icing on the cake. For about a grand, you could pick up one of Woo's amps and AKG's stellar K 701 headphones.
Head-Fi has meets in cities all over the country. Check its Web site to see when it'll have one near you. I had a blast.