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High End Headphone and Headphone Amp Roundup

December 15, 2008 By Steve Guttenberg



Click the images below for bigger versions:
Benchmark DAC1 USB
Benchmark DAC1 USB - Benchmark claims an unweighted signal to noise ratio of 114 dB, crosstalk of –125 dB at 1 kHz, and a frequency response of +/- 0.1 dB from 20 to 20,000 Hz at both 48k and 96k sampling rates.
Benchmark DAC1 USB Back Panel
Benchmark DAC1 USB Inside
Woo Audio WA5-LE - The Woo Audio WA5-LE Single-ended Triode Class-A headphone amplifier is built by hand in NY, NY. The 1.5 watt output is more than enough for any headphone.
Woo Audio WA5-LE
Woo Audio WA5-LE - Photo by the Author.
The Denon AH-D5000 has a claimed frequency response of 5 to 40,000 Hz and sports 50mm drivers with neodymium magnets. - Photo by the Author.
Grado GS-1000 - Grado Labs specs the frequency response of their GS- 1000s at 8 to 35,000 Hz with a potential output at 1 millivolt of 98 dB. - Photo by the Author.
Utrasone Edition 9 - Ultrasone’s claims a frequency response on the Edition 9’s of 8 to 35,000 Hz and a potential output of up to 96 dB with their 40mm titanium-plated Mylar drivers.

Denon AH-D5000

The Denon AH-D5000 has a claimed frequency response of 5 to 40,000 Hz and sports 50mm drivers with neodymium magnets.With its lightweight magnesium frame, real mahogany wood earcups and oh-so-soft leather ear pads, the Denon AH-D5000 is a real charmer.

It's the most comfortable headphone I've ever used, and its micro-fiber low-mass diaphragms deliver lightening fast, detailed sound.

The "acoustic optimizer" feature balances the sound pressure in front of and behind the diaphragm.  

The cloth wrapped cable has a luxury feel and protects the headphone's high purity 99.9% oxygen-free copper conductors.

The cable terminates into an aluminum barrel sporting a 3.5 mm plug; a screw on 6.3 mm adaptor is provided for home use.

Audiophile mavens who crave visceral mojo will go ga-ga over the AH-D5000. This headphone makes a lot of bass. It's solid, profoundly deep and the midrange is delightfully natural.

Case in point: Crown Imperial, a stunning CD of "festive music for organ, winds, brass & percussion" was ravishingly delicate, the organ's prodigious bass fully realized, and the headphone's vivid soundstaging put me in the best seat in the house.

Radiohead's In Rainbows CD was something else again. The sheer density of the music's texture and throbbing low-end revealed itself over the AH-D5000 like no other headphone.  

For the home theater trials I checked out The Flight of the Phoenix DVD, and the plane crash scene fully exploited the headphone’s dynamic prowess. The AH-D5000's detailed and airy treble kept my attention glued to the on-screen action.

Finishing up I plugged into a 4GB iPod Nano, and was thrilled to hear how much of the high-end sound was intact, at least on acoustic music. Rock was acceptable, but lacked conviction over the Nano.

The AH-D5000 is a sophisticated beauty with consummate engineering and an immensely compelling sound.

Grado GS-1000

Grado GS-1000 - Grado Labs specs the frequency response of their GS- 1000s at 8 to 35,000 Hz with a potential output at 1 millivolt of 98 dB.John Grado's latest and greatest headphone is a break from his past designs. The retro, World War II "cans" look is gone. 

The GS-1000 is still unmistakably Grado, but with more contemporary styled, hand-crafted mahogany earcups with much larger foam earpads. The headband is covered in real leather.

As much as I loved Grado's sound, I've found that the comfort level on previous generations of Grado headphones was below par. The GS-1000 is a vast improvement; the larger ear pad's pressure is low and the headphones feel light on my head.

Pardon me while I gush over the way the GS-1000 clarifies live recordings. The sound seemed to surround me, with a rare ability to resolve depth, just as you would in a concert hall. 

Ditto for the way this headphone reveals rhythmic underpinnings in rock and jazz CDs. Grados have always been exciting, but classical music now sounds more refined. The bass is deep, yet more controlled and precise than ever before.

The GS-1000 was a natural for home theater. Every scene change on The Mad Men: Season One Blu-ray placed me in a different location.

First there was the clickety-clack of an office full of 1960s era IBM electric typewriters, then the hushed ambiance of an upscale New York City department store, and later the low rumble of a commuter train. The GS-1000's unfailing resolution of micro-details revealed the spatial cues and ambiance of each locale.

The GS-1000 worked its magic connected to the Nano. Sure, the cavernous soundstage was especially impressive on Miles Davis/Gil Evans big band albums, but the Nano ran out of juice when I cranked Led Zeppelin.

The GS-1000's sound really pulls you into the music, so much so it's hard to stop listening to these things.

Utrasone Edition 9

Utrasone Edition 9 - Ultrasone’s claims a frequency response on the Edition 9’s of 8 to 35,000 Hz and a potential output of up to 96 dB with their 40mm titanium-plated Mylar drivers.

The Edition 9 is a closed-back design with incredibly soft Ethiopian sheep's leather ear pads that effectively block outside noise from intruding on your musical bliss. And since the headphones don't "leak" sound to the outside world you can wear the Edition 9 to bed and listen at a fairly loud level without disturbing your partner.

The gleaming chrome over brass earcups triumphantly announces the Edition 9's Germanic design flair, and yet the design feels understated. One nitpick: I felt (literally) the ear pads exerted a little too much pressure on my ears, though the pressure will probably lighten after a few months of use.

The Edition 9's velvety smoothness will flatter the sound of everything you play. The sheer weight of the sound tips the tonal balance down, but the midrange and treble are crisp and clear.

Led Zeppelin's first two albums lit up the Edition 9's heavy metal prowess. Jimmy Page's guitar thrash was amazing, the spectacle of Robert Plant's lung-popping vocals loomed large, and John Bonham's thudding percussion kicked harder than I've ever heard over headphones. So much so I had to check to make sure my REL B2 subwoofer wasn't turned on. It wasn't!

Listener preferences being what they are some listeners may find the Edition 9's bass too much of a good thing. Me, I love the power, which most headphones fail to convey, but there were some recordings that felt too bass heavy.

For home theater sound I went right to the scene in the Live Free or Die Hard DVD where John McClane uses his police car to knock a bad guy's low flying helicopter out of the air. It didn't challenge how Edition 9's home theater skills one bit, yikes!  The headphone’s wham-bam dynamics and extremely rich midrange were key strengths.

But the Edition 9 wasn't as "open" and speaker-like as I remember from previous experiences with Utrasone headphones. The sound was definitely more inside my head.

Finally, the Edition 9 is super easy to drive so it really clicked with the Nano, with all sorts of music.

PRICES:

Benchmark DAC1 USB: $1275

Woo Audio WA5-LE: $2400

Denon AH-D5000: $699

Grado GS-1000: $995

Ultrasone Edition 9: $1500

CONTACTS:

Benchmark: 800.262.4675, benchmarkmedia.com
Denon: 201.762.6500, usa.denon.com
Grado: 718.435.5340, gradolabs.com
Ultrasone: 615.599.4719, ultrasoneusa.com 
Woo Audio: wooaudio.com

 

For more on headphones, check out Improve Your Hearing and High-End Headphones.

 

Comments

All the headphones are over-the-ear "circumaural" designs, primarily intended for home use, but that didn't stop me from plugging them into my iPod.

My receiver's sound was two-dimensional, limp and bland. Once you experience what an uber headphone amp can do there's no going back.

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