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.