A new high in high-end headphone amplifier design

The Fosgate Signature Headphone Amplifier is one of the very best-sounding amps I've ever used. It was designed by one of the greats, Jim Fosgate, a man who earned 18 audio related patents, founded a number of successful electronics companies -- oh, and he pioneered high-power car audio systems. He was also a big supporter of the very first home surround format -- quadraphonic -- in the early 1970s, and so committed to the format that even as quad was winding down, he designed the Fosgate Tate 101, arguably the finest quad processor of the era. Fosgate also created … Read more

The Audiophiliac's favorite budget headphones

Great-sounding headphones have never been more affordable. Even the least expensive headphone model on this list, the Panasonic RP HJE 355 in-ear, has oodles of detail and decent bass punch. For me the most important thing when evaluating headphones is sound balance; no frequency range should call attention to itself, so I don't like overly bassy headphones, or ones that overemphasize treble. Headphones should sound clear, not muffled or fuzzy. I prefer spacious stereo imaging over sound that's stuck inside my head. Headphones that allow music's soft-to-loud dynamics to bloom are better than ones that constrict dynamics. … Read more

Who wants perfectly accurate sound?

With the booming popularity of sound bars, iPod docks, and tiny Bluetooth speakers, it's increasingly obvious that most people aren't interested in buying the best-sounding speakers. Other factors, such as the smallest possible size and maximum feature set are higher priorities than sound quality. I go the other way and put sound at the top of my list, but I'm far from convinced that the most accurate sound is the best sound. Accuracy isn't what it's cracked up to be.

Digital audio formats, for example, always have more accurate frequency response than any analog format, … Read more

A great place to shop for headphones

AC Gears sells a wide variety of headphones and gadgets in Greenwich Village in NYC. It's not a huge space, but half of the store is devoted to in-ear and full-size headphones, and I recently spoke with founder Kohn Liu to learn more about his business. The brands and model lineup change from time to time, but right now he has around 50 headphones on display. Many are in the affordable range, but there's also a decent selection of high-end brands as well. AC Gears has most Grado models on display, including the top-of-the-line PS 1000. They also … Read more

Headphone geekfest in Babylon, NY

Head-Fi is a national headphone club, and I went to the local meeting in Babylon, N.Y., last Saturday.

The vibe was friendly, and it was great to hear Head-Fi members' home-built gear, but there were a few surprises popping up from the headphone and electronics manufacturers in attendance.

Logitech Ultimate Ears' Personal Reference Monitor in-ear headphones feature a new twist on custom-molded-to-your-ears headphone design. Lots of brands now make custom in-ear headphones, and Logitech's have been among my favorites for years, but the upcoming Personal Reference Monitor takes the personalization to the next level. Once your ear canals' &… Read more

Heavy-metal thunder: The very best high-end audio products

I had a long fascination with high-end audio before I owned any of the good stuff. I suppose the same allure applies to exotic cars; millions read reviews of cars they never drive, and watch Food Network shows about food they'll never taste. Folks are interested in excellence, but compared to $200,000 cars or celebrity chefs' handiwork high-end audio is more accessible and practical. Two products covered in today's blog -- used high-end Grado headphones and the Oracle Delphi turntable -- sometimes sell for less than $1,000 on eBay. That's still expensive, but more within … Read more

Audiophiliac readers' favorite headphones, speakers, and receivers

Audiophiliac readers have strong opinions about the gear I cover in this blog, so last month I asked for Readers' Choice nominations in a variety of categories, including headphones, speakers, receivers, etc.. I've sorted through all the comments, and here's what I found: there's a wide range of gear you love, but it was in the headphone category where the clearest winners stood out.

The Klipsch Image S4 in-ear headphones were the single most popular product in the survey, you people really love 'em! Grado SR60, SR80, and SR225 full-size headphones also drew raves, and Koss' PortaPro … Read more

Hifiman HE-300: A new high for mid-price headphones?

The market for quality headphones is still growing by leaps and bounds, so there are lots of new brands getting into the game.

When Hifiman introduced the HE-5 headphone in 2009, I was so impressed I compared it with $1,000+ models from Audio Technica, Denon, Grado, Sennheiser, and Ultrasone, and the upstart company's headphone model more than held its own.

More recently I looked at the Hifiman HE-500 headphones ($699), and compared them with one of the best headphones in the world, the Audeze LCD-2 ($945). That one's low bass felt more solid and had superior impact, but the HE-500's midrange and treble were more detailed and present.

The HE-300 ($249) shares the HE-500's styling, but uses more conventional driver technology. It's lighter in weight (270 grams), has a leather headband and soft velvet earpads, and comes with a user-replaceable 9-foot-long cable terminated with a 3.5mm plug (and there's a 6.3mm adaptor). The long cable is bulky and a little stiff, but since it's user-replaceable, HE-300 owners may find shorter, more flexible alternatives. The headphone comes with a sturdy padded storage case. Comfort over long listening sessions was good, but not up to full-size Sennheiser headphone standards. That company has a real knack for making comfy headphones. … Read more

Affordable American hi-fi, does it exist?

While I regularly write about ultra-high-end gear that's made in the U.S., I also cover as much affordable stuff as I can find. Grado Labs in Brooklyn manufactures some of my favorite headphones priced from $79 and phono cartridges from $60. My friends at Schiit Audio in Newhall, Calif., make headphone amplifiers and digital-to-analog converters with prices starting at $249. As for speakers, Zu Audio makes gorgeous-sounding models priced from $1,200 per pair. These companies aren't just based in the U.S., they also manufacture their products here.

If $1,200 doesn't qualify as affordable, … Read more

Upgrade your headphones' sound with Musical Fidelity's new amp

I've been a fan of Musical Fidelity from its beginnings in the early 1980s. The British company's original 30-watt-per-channel stereo A1 integrated amplifier was a hit with budget-minded audiophiles back in the day, and it also offered seriously expensive gear.

Musical Fidelity started making headphone amplifiers long before the current headphones craze started. The model we're looking at today is Musical Fidelity's pure Class A M1 HPA headphone amp ($799).

The HPA has very low output impedance (below 1 ohm), so Musical Fidelity claims it can "drive" any headphones with ease. The circuit is a fully discrete Class A design, with no op-amps in the audio path, so it's built like a small high-end power amp. The HPA has two inputs--line and USB--and there's a variable output, so the HPA can be used as a stereo preamplifier in a hi-fi system. It has two 6.3mm headphone jacks on the front panel.

Some previous generations of Musical Fidelity's styling were a little over the top for my taste, but the M1 HPA is understated and very classy. … Read more