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MDR SA5000: Sony's classic, audiophile-grade, full-size headphone

When I first spotted the Sony MDR SA5000 headphones at a local Head-Fi meeting in Bayside, Queens, my first impression was that it was eerily similar to Sennheiser's HD 800 headphones. The MDR SA5000 is clearly derived from Sony's old flagship $3,000 Qualia Q10 headphones; both Sonys were first announced in 2004. The HD 800 was introduced in 2009.

The magnesium-framed, open-back MDR-SA5000 is superlight (260 grams) and remarkably comfortable. The real leather earpads' head-clamping pressure is oh-so-gentle, and the sound is remarkably detailed, spacious, and open -- I found the MDR-SA5000 extraordinary in those regards. I … Read more

High-end audio aims higher in Denver

The Rocky Mountain Audio Fest is held every October in Denver, and every year it's packed with the latest and greatest high-end audio goodies. High-end doesn't necessarily mean outrageously expensive, though; Schiit Audio was previewing its upcoming $119 Vali tube headphone amplifier, and I quickly auditioned Audioengine's soon-to-be-released $249/pair A2+ desktop speakers. I hope to get one of the first pairs in for review. Hifiman was showing prototypes of a sleek portable music player that comes with a set of the company's excellent in-ear headphones; the complete system price was $249.

Oppo, best known for … Read more

The 404 1,243: Where clouds are for the weak (podcast)

Leaked from today's 404 episode:

- A headphone "club" meeting in Babylon on April 20.

- Amazon extends AutoRip to vinyl records.

- Happy Audiophiliac April! To celebrate, here's what the Head-fi crew did to Steve.

- Follow Steve Guttenberg on Twitter.… 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

Poll: Are there any young audiophiles?

Where are the under-30 audiophiles? I don't know a single one here in New York City. Sure, high-end audio gear can be expensive, but that's no excuse. A pair of Audioengine 2 speakers ($199) and an iPod can sound pretty sweet. Maybe an older relative would be happy to give you a hi-fi or speakers they don't use anymore. There's no shortage of dirt-cheap, decent-sounding gear at yard sales, and there are lots of awesome deals on used hi-fi classics at Audiogon. So high prices can't be the only reason why young people aren't … Read more

Higher-fi, making the best-ever sounding recording

It may be a lofty goal to try to make recordings that sound as close as possible to real, live music. But every now and then the state of the art advances.

I attended such a recording session in mid-December and was treated to the best, most realistically natural sound I've heard. Over monitor speakers the sound was excellent, but the sound over my Ultimate Ears Reference Monitor in-ear headphones was vastly better. I could listen to the music "live," and then rush back to the control room and don the headphones. The gap between live and … Read more

Headphone mania hits White Plains, NY

I attended the Head-Fi "meet" last Saturday at the Crowne Plaza Hotel, in White Plains, NY. Head-Fi is a grass roots online community that reviews and discusses headphones, in-ear monitors (IEMs), headphone amplifiers, and music. Head-Fi's core is its discussion forums, where on average 3,000+ posts covering all aspects of headphones are made nearly every day. Head-Fi started in the U.S., but now has meets in Canada, England, Australia, Denmark, Singapore, and all over the world! You can join Head-Fi for free or just enjoy the site. I've attended a number of NY meetsRead more

High-end audio fest rocks Denver

The Rocky Mountain Audio Fest 2010, held last weekend at the Denver Marriott Tech Center Hotel, showcased the best and brightest high-end audio designs.

Hundreds of high-end manufacturers from North America, Europe, and Asia, from tiny one-person operations all the way up to industry giants like JBL were on hand. RMAF has a very different vibe than the Consumer Electronics Show held in Las Vegas every January--RMAF is a more grassroots affair.

Vandersteen Audio's incredible Model 7 ($45,000 per pair) features balsa wood/carbon-fiber woofer, midrange, and tweeter drivers individually hand-crafted by Richard Vandersteen himself. Each driver can take up to one day to build. The sound is more believably natural and realistic than that of any other speaker at the show. Stereo imaging was full-bodied and dimensionally convincing in ways no other speaker can match. Vandersteen speaker prices start under $1,000, and they're all made in Hanford, CA.

Vandersteen's sound just nudged past Kaiser Acoustics' stunning Kawero speakers. These slender towers are priced about the same as the Model 7, but were even more transparent and pure sounding. The made in Germany speaker's transient speed and dynamic punch were spectacular. The design is said to produce excellent sound quality in real rooms, without any acoustic treatment. Kaiser invested seven years into research and development of the Kawero speakers.

Entry-level audiophile gear from Napa Acoustic made an immediate strong impression. Their NA-208S ($199 a pair) speakers, mated with their NA-208A ($399) tube integrated, 25-watt amplifier sounded rich, with lots of detail. Napa's build quality is the best I've seen for budget-priced gear.

The best headphone sound came from the Audeze LCD-2 ($945). These full-size headphones had a huge, open sound, with effortless clarity. Audeze has a hit on its hands, and its customer waiting list is currently running to four weeks! I hope to get a pair for review soon. The LCD-2 was plugged into Red Wine's Isabellina HPA headphone amplifier, but the headphone can also work with iPods.

I had a great chat with headphone guru and Head-Fi founder Jude Mansilla about the future of high-end audio. Our conclusion: today's younger headphone audiophiles will be tomorrow's high-end audiophiles. That is, headphones are a great way to discover what high-end sound is all about, for a fraction of what a speaker-based high-end system would cost. Mansilla promised to introduce me to a bunch of young Head-Fi-ers, who are just starting to get into speakers. The next-generation audiophiles are an intensely passionate group of people! I'll report back soon about what they have to say. … Read more

One man, two ears, and $50K worth of headphones

I've known my share of audiophiles who own lots of speakers, amplifiers, etc., but Wayne McManus has 40 high-end headphones. He's slowed adding to the collection, and now mostly concentrates on out-of-production classics--Sennheiser HE90 electrostatics, Sony MDR R-10, Sony Qualia 010, AKG-K1000, Audio Technica L3000, Grado HP-2--because each one has its own distinctive character and feel. McManus thinks speaker-only audiophiles are missing that aspect of the hobby; they're stuck with one sound. For the price of a pair of high-end speakers you can buy a healthy selection of the world's very best headphones. McManus has invested around $50,000 to date.

McManus bought a motor home three years ago, and now spends every April through August exploring the U.S. and Canada. He's semiretired and takes a small selection of headphones with him on the road.

At home he uses a very impressive hi-fi outfitted with MBL 101E speakers, MBL electronics, and a VPI turntable, but headphones have superior detailing. He put it this way: "You may have heard the same album a hundred times over speakers, but you pick up on new stuff over headphones, and when you move up to IEMs [in-ear monitor headphones] you hear even more of that microscopic effect. But you lose the sense of being at a live concert."

So I was hardly surprised to hear that McManus owns a Smyth Realiser A8 processor that makes headphones sound like speakers. He thinks the Realiser A8 makes it almost impossible to distinguish between the sound coming from headphones and speakers. It improves the stereo localization of all of his headphones.… Read more

Headphone mania hits New York again

This was my third Head-Fi "meet," and at each one I've met lots of great people sharing a common passion for hi-fi. I'm not sure why, but Head-Fi members are a lot younger than most audiophiles. You see a lot of under-30 members, and it seems like under-40 Head-Fi-ers are in the majority! The weather outside on Saturday in Queens, NY, was frightful, but inside the vibes were warm and inviting. This event was hosted by my friend, Aaron Kovics (Head-Fi username Immtbiker).

Head-Fi meets gather Internet friends at a place, in this case a hotel, where they can listen to each other's headphones and headphone amplifiers. Some amps are home-built designs, some are commercial units. And unlike regular hi-fi shows, you can listen to what you want, with your own music, as loud as you want.

I met one guy with a set of vintage Grado Signature HP-2 headphones, probably from the early 1990s. They had a very dynamic, bold sound, and a special something I can't quite put my finger on. I'm a big fan of John Grado's current line of headphones (and phono cartridges), and I sold a lot of those early Grados (designed by John's uncle, Joseph Grado) when I worked as a salesman at a high-end audio store.

As I recall the original Grado headphones sold for $400 or $500, but used ones now go for $1,300 to $2,000! That's what I love about the best high-end gear; it sounds amazing, it's built to last, and it goes up in value! Think anybody will want to buy a 30-year-old iPod for a premium price in 2040 to actually listen to? I doubt it. … Read more