Grado RA1 headphone amplifiers
We're going to let you in on a secret: the headphone amplifiers built into most A/V receivers deliver only so-so sound quality. Brooklyn's premier headphone manufacturer, Grado, has a solution: a dedicated high-performance headphone amplifier, the RA1. The amplifier's electronics are discreetly housed in a solid, real mahogany cabinet fitted with an aluminum volume-control knob. The device is blessedly simple to use: connect it to an audio source, turn it on, plug in a pair of headphones, and adjust the volume level. That's it. The battery-powered DC version retails for $350; we reviewed the AC-powered version, which goes for $425.
With measurements of 5 inches wide, 5.5 inches deep, and 1.5 inches high, the RA1 is tiny enough to fit anywhere. It weighs just 12 ounces. Connectivity is restricted to a pair of RCA analog line-level inputs and one 1/4-inch headphone jack. Buy a Y cable, and your RA1 will drive two sets of headphones; likewise, an 1/8-inch adapter (also not included) can be used to connect standard minijack-equipped headphones.
To assess the sound, we compared the RA1 to the headphone jack in our old $1,500 Pioneer VSX-27TX receiver using ourheadphones. The Pioneer actually sounds pretty good on its own, but on the Ladykillers CD soundtrack, the RA1 clearly delivered deeper, better-defined bass, and the gospel singers sounded more natural. Switching back and forth, the Pioneer consistently sounded harsher, brighter, and more aggressive.
On DVDs such as The Matrix Reloaded, the differences between the Pioneer and the Grado were less obvious, but for audiophiles who crave the best sound, the RA1's greater clarity will add a new dimension to the listening experience. To put it another way, the RA1 made the Grado SR125 headphones sound like more-expensive headphones.
We noted two small snags with the RA1: Even with its volume control turned up all the way, it wouldn't play all that loud with other brands of headphones. Our Sennheiser HD-580 and Ultrasone HFI-2000 headphones never made it past moderately loud. That's why Grado introduced a "high-gain" model, the RA1-HG ($425), for use with other brands of headphones. Second: When the amp is turned on or off, you'll hear a pop sound through the headphones. We got around that problem by removing the headphones from our head when we switched the amp on or off.
The Grado RA1 is a welcome addition to any listening station, but even the battery-powered version is a bit hefty for toting around. Listeners on the go can opt for HeadRoom'sor headphone amps instead--both are more affordable and portable than Grado's luxurious offering.