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A new high in $300 audiophile headphones

The Audiophiliac listens to the MrSpeakers Mad Dog headphones and comes away impressed.

The MrSpeakers Mad Dog headphones MrSpeakers

I'm usually a sound-first guy, but when it comes to evaluating headphones, comfort is a very close second. So even when I love the sound of a headphone, if they start to hurt my ears after a half an hour, that's a deal-breaker.

That's why I'm happy to report on a remarkably comfortable and great-sounding headphone, the MrSpeakers' Mad Dog. That's an odd name for a headphone maker, but MrSpeakers' Dan Clark started out as a speaker designer. Now he extensively modifies Fostex T50RP headphones, a headphone that I've never cared for. Clark transforms the sound with a wide range of modifications and makes it a super-comfy headphone. MrSpeakers is a family business, all of the work is done by hand, and Clark carefully measures and tests every Mad Dog. Talking with Clark it's clear he loves his job, and he's committed to doing everything he can to keep his customers happy.

The latest version of the headphone comes with Clark's super-supple, real leather "Alpha Pads." Clark claims the ear pads have a major impact on the sound because the "coupling" between your ears and the headphone drivers is key, and they form the acoustic environment for the sound. Clark sent two Mad Dogs, one with the older style pads and one with Alpha Pads, and I agree that the new pads radically improve the sound. The stereo image is broader and more expansive, the midrange frequencies are smoother so vocals, guitars, horns, and so forth sound more natural. The new pads also do a better job blocking external sound, so you can wear the Mad Dogs to bed and listen without disturbing your partner. Customers with older Mad Dogs can upgrade and add the Alpha Pads. The headphones come with two sets of cables, a 10-foot long one with a 6.3mm plug, and a shorter 70-inch V-Moda sourced cable terminated with a 3.5mm plug.

The Mad Dogs sound fine with phones and iPods, but they really came alive at home with the $99 Schiit Audio Magniand $249 Schiit Asgard headphone amps. The Los Lobos Live at the Fillmore DVD from 2005 sounded phenomenal. I especially enjoyed listening to the way the two drummers, Cougar Estrada and Victor Bisetti, created amazing rhythm patterns. I've played this disc many times and never really appreciated their grooves as much as I did over the Mad Dogs.

The older ear pads (left), and the new thicker Alpha Pads (right). Steve Guttenberg/CNET

When I compared the Mad Dogs with one of my favorite headphones in this price range, the $300 Sony MDR-1R, it was no contest. The Mad Dogs sound was more spacious, the midrange detail and resolution were far better, bass definition was superior, and they were more comfortable. The Mad Dogs have advanced planar magnetic drivers; the Sony relies on conventional dynamic drivers, and that's a difference that's easy to hear.

To finish up, I compared the Mad Dogs with another planar magnetic headphone, the $399 HiFiMan HE-400. That open-back headphone has a brighter treble and a cooler midrange tonal balance than the Mad Dogs. Switching between the two headphones the Mad Dogs were richer and warmer sounding, but I also liked the HE-400's immediacy. They sound different, but they're both excellent. The HE-400 sells for $100 more than the Mad Dogs.

MrSpeakers sells the Mad Dogs direct, with a 15-day money-back guarantee.