I’d like to let you in on a little secret: You can buy terrific headphones for next to nothing. That’s not to say they all sound great, but a bigger budget definitely buys better build and sound quality.
For this roundup I’ve selected three contenders for the world’s best headphone: the Denon AH-D5000, Grado Labs GS-1000, and the Ultrasone Edition 9, plus a pair of headphone amplifiers, Benchmark’s DAC1 USB and Woo Audio’s WA5-LE.
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.
And lets not forgot that oft-forgotten aspect of headphone performance—amplification. The headphone amplifiers built into A/V receivers and CD players are, with rare exception, merely tolerable.
A great headphone needs to be partnered with a dedicated headphone amplifier to be all it can be. Which brings us to…
Benchmark DAC1 USB
Benchmark is one of the few manufacturers of professional audio gear that has consistently wowed audiophiles. The company offers a range of headphone amplifiers, and the subject of this review, the DAC1 USB is the latest entry to the Benchmark lineup.
So you see, it’s more than just a headphone amplifier—the DAC1 USB features a 192kHz/24-bit digital-to-analog converter (D/A) and, you guessed it, a USB input. Think of it as a digital preamplifier you hook up to your computer via the USB and/or to a digital source component, like a CD player over its BNC, AES/EBU XLR or TOSLINK optical inputs.
The DAC1 USB is a digital only device, lacking analog inputs.
Ah, but the DAC1 USB sports RCA and XLR stereo outputs, which in turn can be used to feed a stereo power amplifier for those applications where the system also needs to be hooked up to speakers.
The DAC1 USB is compatible with Windows and Mac OS X operating systems, and can accommodate 88-96kHz/24-bit USB audio (as well as 44.1-48kHz/16-bit digital). High-resolution audio is automatically passed from the source to the USB without data modification.
The made-in-Syracuse, New York amp may be a jam-packed device, but it measures a compact 9.5 by 1.7 by 9.3 inches. I squeezed the little guy onto my desk next to my monitor. It runs mildly warm to the touch.
The front panel hosts a tiny input toggle switch, two headphone jacks and a volume control. I initially hooked up the DAC1 USB to my Mac Mini via the USB and listened to iTunes and my favorite Internet radio sites. The sound was weighty, powerful and interruption free.
It would be logical to assume the built-in D/A plays a role in the Benchmark’s remarkably clear sound. Chances are it’s way better than the soundcard in your computer, or even the digital converter in your CD or DVD player.
For CD playback I used my Pioneer DV-45A DVD player and first listened to soul singer Lizz Wright’s latest CD, The Orchard. Man, oh man, she has one of those voices that got me going from the second I heard her.
Yeah, that’s what’s so great about headphones, the intimacy, the feeling of being connected to the source. This is a CD to be savored and with a first-class set of headphones and the DAC1 USB, it will be.
Benchmark sells directly over its website with a 30 day return policy. Try it, you’ll like it.
Woo Audio WA5-LE
And now for something completely different. I met the Wu family at a hi-fi show a few years ago. Jack Wu smiled and handed me a pair of Grado headphones and I was floored by the sound.
I’ve used Grados for many years and thought I knew their sound, but the Woo amplifier sweetened the headphone’s sonics without losing any detail.
Woo amps are designed by Jack’s father Wei, and hand-crafted by Wei and Jack’s brother Zhidong in New York City. Each WA5-LE is built to order over a four-day period (the waiting list is typically three to four weeks).
No printed circuit boards are used, all wiring is “point to point” and even parts like the output transformer that are usually outsourced are designed and built by Zei Wu. Woo amplifiers are sold directly on the company’s website.
The WA5-LE is a two-piece affair; one chassis houses the power supply, the other houses the amplifier proper (they’re both 8.5 x 9 x 17 inches). The amplifier has a pair of headphone jacks marked “High,” and “Low” (high is intended for use with a headphones rate of 70 ohms or higher, and low for less than 70 ohms).
Both chassis feature large tubes, which glow a deep orange color, but just be aware the tubes run hot and contain high voltages. I’d recommend keeping the 75-pound WA5-LE out of reach of small children.
The standard brushed pewter gray finish chassis will set audiophile hearts a flutter (and custom painted or plated finishes are available). Build quality is exquisite, easily on par with high-end amps that sell for ten times the WA5-LE’s MSRP.
The amp came on like gangbusters when I played Larry Coryell’s blistering jazz fusion CD, Electric. Lenny White’s crackling drum kit was on fire on these sessions, and the WA5-LE let me hear and even feel all of it.
I’ve never heard anything close to the amp’s visceral punch. A brief, and I do mean brief shootout with a very decent A/V receiver’s headphone jack told the tale. The receiver’s sound was two-dimensional, limp and bland. Once you experience what an uber headphone amp can do there’s no going back.
My sole reservation was bass control and definition, the WA5-LE was certainly decent, but the best solid-state amplifiers (not receivers) can lock onto the sound with greater authority.
The last track on Ani DiFranco’s new CD, Red Letter Year, features a swinging New Orleans jazz band. It was really amazing sounding; the CD had a “live,” this-is-happening-now quality. The musical connection was that strong.
The WA5-LE is a true statement design, built with care, and sounds wonderful.
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.
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
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.
Benchmark DAC1 USB: $1275
Woo Audio WA5-LE: $2400
Denon AH-D5000: $699
Grado GS-1000: $995
Ultrasone Edition 9: $1500
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