Grado Labs sent its latest, the 325i, which I compared to my heavily modified 1991 vintage Grado HP-1. Grados sound completely different from everything else, with a unique hear-throughthe- veils kind of transparency. On the Zarathustra intro, the horn attacks were really bright. Not painfully so, but nothing like any of the other models. But they started to really sing during the string crescendos. While my modified HP-1s are clearly the best of this bunch, I preferred the 325i for this music. Are Grado ’phones too bright as a family? Probably. They’re certainly brighter than my speakers, but because they’re also different from my speakers in just about every way, it’s an irrelevant comparison.
Switching to LP, I picked Joni Mitchell’s Blue for repeated listening because of the transparent mastering typically found on early Seventies Warner/Reprise LPs. The news here is that the overall winner was the AKG K 501, where the beauty of the recording was right “there.” (Blue does, however, lack bass extension.) A close second was my custom Grados, but the 325i was too bright. While both were very good, the Ultrasone 2500 and Sennheiser 650 sounded a little over-pronounced in the lower mids, creating a slight masking of the sound. Although slightly coarse and bright, the lower model Ultrasones didn’t make this so apparent; nor did my older Sennheisers.
One’s choice of headphones has a lot to do with one’s choice of source. I initially thought I would end up with different choices for CD and iPod. But my choices for iPod listening are the Ultrasone 2500, Sennheiser HD650, and Grado 325i. And while Robert Harley loves the Shure E5c in-ear monitor (see last issue’s “The Audiophile iPod”), I could barely get it to work. In order to get anything approaching decent top-tobottom balance, I had to place the 5c uncomfortably far inside the ear. And though I found it atrocious with my main system, it was acceptable with the iPod, particularly with the Porta-Corda headphone amp. While the Porta-Corda diminished the performance of every other headphone I used with the iPod, it was essential for the Shure.
Finally, if there’s any way you can try headphones in your ears before buying, do it—fit is very important.
I spent the better part of an afternoon listening to the ’phones and, like Dan, was surprised at the consistently high level of performance of the entire group. The extension and refinement of the premium Ultrasones and Sennheiser were impressive. But the uncolored mids of the AKG really sold me. Dan predicted I’d like the AKGs, and he wasn’t wrong.
It wasn’t merely the tonal balance and frequency extension that defined this group; it was the unique listening environment each created. The transducer might be the distance of an eyelash to your ear, but your brain quickly adjusts, and so I noted a fairly wide variety of spatial and soundstage distinctions. You may not be getting floor bounce and wall reflections like you would in a room, but the presentation is still influenced and colored by the sound butting up against the structure of the outer ear. That said, the combination of transducer distance and the AKG’s open construction created a preferably spaciousness and link with the greater room environment. In addition, it was one of the least claustrophobic, creating the perception of sound traveling from a more distant point rather than mainlining directly into my ear.
Dan’s experience with the Shure E5c illustrates a common conundrum when it comes to head and in-ear ’phones; every wearer experiences the same model differently. Head size and ear design significantly varies from person to person. Some listeners prefer the extreme isolation of closed headphones, while others do not. In all cases, fit and comfort are critical. If you audition these, by all means listen for at least 15 minutes. If a model is uncomfortable, listener fatigue will quickly set in.
I had less trouble seating the Shure earphones than Dan. Nonetheless, they do take a longer period of time to get comfortable with. And achieving adequate bass response takes a firm push into the ear channel—a move that’s counterintuitive to everything we’d been taught as kids about putting objects in our ears. But the Shure’s isolation is without peer in this group. They sounded superb with the iPod, and the feather-light ’phones are the only ones in this group to even consider using with a walk-along player.