Last-Minute Head-Fi'er Gift Ideas
If you're a Head-Fi'er who intends on treating himself to some new headphone audio gear for the holidays--or if you your significant other to have some good gift ideas for you--then consider the following last-minute Head-Fi'ers' headphones & amps holiday gift guide.
Headphone audio has grown so much over the last few years that sorting through all of the available gear can be challenging. Of course, it would do you well to read Head-Fi's forums, and also Head-Fi's Reviews Section, but, below, I've included some standout headphones and amps (and a few other things) that immediately came to mind. (Unless otherwise noted, I have owned and/or extensively used everything listed below. All of the listed prices are USD.)
- Sennheiser HD 800. With its innovative ring-shaped driver, and years of design and engineering behind it, the Sennheiser HD800--the current flagship of the entire Sennheiser headphone family--can be a challenging match-up, picky as it can be with amps. Find a good match for it, however, and its performance can be otherworldly, with incredible detail from its deeply extended bass through to its just-as-extended treble, all delivered with a generally neutral demeanor. It is undoubtedly one of my favorite headphones ever, and it's quite possibly the most comfortable headphone to have ever been set upon my head and ears. The HD800 is an open headphone. MSRP $1399.95.
- beyerdynamic Tesla T1. The T1 was beyerdynamic's answer to Sennheiser's HD800, and definitely plays in the HD800's yard. Though I feel the HD800 edges the T1 out in terms of resolving the tiniest details, the T1 edges the HD800 out (in my experience) in terms of being easier to system-match to get outstanding results from. Though definitely not as easy to drive as its sibling T5p (see below), The T1's ultimate resolution is greater than the T5p in most of the systems I used both with. The T5p is a closed headphone. MSRP $1295.00.
- HiFiMAN HE-6. HiFiMAN is one of two companies furthering the state of the art in planar magnetic (orthodynamic) headphones (among other hi-fi product areas). The HE6 is a stunning piece, with a treble response that is among the best I've yet heard, in terms of extension, refinement and detail. An extremely power-hungry choice, to be sure, it can be among the more challenging headphones to match up, and will require some of its owners to build systems around it (and specifically for it). Find a good match for the HE-6, though, and your jaw will drop. As one might expect from a top-tier planar magnetic headphone, the HE-6 is heavy, but still comfortable. The HE-6 is an open headphone. MSRP $1199.00 (or more, depending on final pricing), it is currently introductory priced at $999.00.
- Audeze LCD-2. Audeze (pronounced AWE-dizz-eee, by the way) is the other of two companies furthering the state of the art in orthodynamic headphones. The LCD-2 is probably the most talked-about headphone on Head-Fi right now, and deservedly so. It's a world-class planar magnetic headphone that will probably work with the system(s) you've already got on hand, as it's relatively efficient, and less amp-picky than most other top-tier headphones. Like the HE-6, the planar magnetic LCD-2 is very heavy, but I find it comfortable. Be prepared to wait, as the list to get one is usually long. The LCD-2 is an open headphone. MSRP $945.00.
- Sennheiser HD 598. The flagship in a new three-model family of 5-series Sennheisers, the HD598 is, to my eyes, one of the most attractive headphones currently available. Easy to drive, yet able to scale to higher-end systems, the HD598 is a frequent go-to headphone for me. Extremely light and comfortable on the head. MSRP $329.95. (Also check out its more affordable siblings, the also-new HD518 and HD558.)
- beyerdynamic Tesla T5p. If (hypothetically) I was forced to choose just one headphone to use until my end days--and so it had to work well with most any rig, in all environs, for travel, for desktop use, etc.--the T5p would probably be my current frontrunner. It is full-size, comfortable, relatively easy to drive, is closed (which one would need when just about anywhere other than a desk), and has world-class sonics. Though it can be driven by portable amps (and even straight out of some portable digital audio players), the T5p's performance scales very well with top-flight rigs, yet isn't limited to the desktop. MSRP $1295.00.
- Grado Labs HF-2 (Head-Fi 2). You might say I'm biased when it comes to the HF-2, it being the second special Head-Fi commemorative edition by Grado Labs through TTVJ, and that would certainly be fair to say. That said, I still feel the Grado HF-2 is quite possibly the best value in headphones I've come across, maybe ever. Here's the rub, though: It's currently sold out. When available, it sold for $429.00. If you can get your hands on one (they pop up on the used market from time to time), I feel confident your opinion of the Grado HF-2 would be similar to mine. If you're just starting out, or if your budget is tight, consider Grado's SR80i ($99.00).
In-Ear Monitors (IEMs) / Portable Headphones
- JH Audio JH16 Pro. Jerry Harvey (the "JH" in JH Audio) is the man who pretty much invented the custom IEM segment. After leaving Ultimate Ears, he set out to improve on all his previous designs via JH Audio, and he did it, forcing JH Audio's competitors to elevate their games, too. In 2009, the JH13 Pro set our Head-Fi world on fire, with its excellent soundstaging, and an ability to convey detail and treble extension like no IEM before it. Not surprisingly, the JH13 Pro continues to be one of the best-selling custom IEMs available. The JH16 Pro might reasonably be described as similar to the JH13 Pro, but with subwoofers--the low-bass on the JH16 Pro is extremely detailed, yet thunderous. With its boosted bass, the JH16 Pro remains my top recommendation for money-no-object IEMs for frequent travelers. The 6-drivers-per side JH13 Pro starts at $1099.00, and the 8-drivers-per-side JH16 Pro at $1149.00.
- Ultimate Ears In-Ear Reference Monitor. Designed in conjunction with Capitol Studios, the In-Ear Reference Monitor was designed to have a flat curve--to be neutral--to be used as a studio reference monitor. I found this piece to be very resolving, and currently one of my favorites to turn to when evaluating gear further up the chain, as well as for listening for pleasure. As it was designed to be, I find the In-Ear Reference Monitor virtually uncolored, which brings with it its own flavor of fun. As might be expected from something intended to be used as a studio reference monitor, the UE In-Ear Reference Monitor's imaging is wide for an IEM, yet very precise. The UE In-Ear Reference Monitor starts at $999.00, and I suspect it will be one of the most popular custom IEMs in the coming year.
- Westone ES5. It might be fairly said that Westone was last to the custom IEM game with what I'll call a latest-generation piece, but their effort paid off. The ES5 was introduced at CanJam 2010 in Chicago, and it is now starting to make big waves in the rarified world of bespoke IEMs. More on the neutral side--though not as dead-flat as the UE In-Ear Reference Monitor--the ES5 is highly resolving, and an amazing all-'rounder. I also find Westone's heat-activated tips (that soften at body temperature) makes the ES5 the most comfortable custom IEM I've yet worn (not to mention the most isolating custom I've yet worn). The Westone ES5 starts at $900.00.
- Westone 1. Of all the IEMs I've used (universal-fit and custom), none can match the Westone universals for comfort while laying one's head down, as the earpiece bodies of all the Westone univerals I've used sit deeper than flush with the ear. And every Westone universal I've heard so far also sounds exceedingly good at its price point, so, even if your budget is higher than the Westone 1's price, look at the other Westone universal-fit IEMs. MSRP $199.99.
- Monster Cable Turbine Pro (Copper Edition). This IEM (often referred to simply as "The Copper" in our forums) is so far the best sounding headphone from Monster Cable, to my ears. It is also among my favorite of the vast universal-fit IEM heap. Fun and resolving is how I'd describe The Copper--I enjoy it a lot. Easy to drive, and scales up with good gear. MSRP $399.95.
- Bowers & Wilkins P5. B&W's first headphone, the P5 is the only over-ear headphone I've ever carried with me pretty much everywhere. With a sound signature tailored for mobile use (as opposed to straight reference listening), very good passive noise isolation, and one of the most durable builds I've yet seen in a portable headphone, the P5 is almost perfect in its execution for what it was designed for--being used on-the-go. With its included microphone/control cable, it can be used as a headset with an iPhone, too (and will control iPhones and the later-generation iPods). I'll be posting a review of the P5 this coming weekend on Head-Fi. MSRP $299.95.
- SHURE SE425. SHURE's SE425 is their latest-generation two-driver-per-side universal-fit IEM. The SE425 has all the richness and detail SHURE has become known for, and it's not surprising that the SE425 is a popular choice for pro audio applications. The new 360-degree rotating cable plugs on the SE425 make for a more comfortable, tangle-free cable, compared to most other IEMs I've used. The durable SHURE "olive" foam tips make the SE425 very comfortable and very isolating. MSRP $349.99.
- HiFiMAN RE-262. This is the best of the RE family of earphones so far, with more extended bass and a more balanced output, to my ears, than its predecessor. I've found the RE262 to be a great match for the HiFiMAN digital players (HM-601/602 and HM-801). It's also matches up well with my portable rigs with dedicated amps, and also with the VentureCraft GO-DAP (see below). With its 150-ohm impedance, the RE-262 is best suited for use with these dedicated amps, so keep that in mind. The RE-262 is so new I can't yet find it on the Head-Direct website. I believe MSRP will be around $249.00.
- Sennheiser PMX 680 Sports. Yes, it sounds good--so do a lot of other headphones by Sennheiser. But unlike my other headphones, I sweat all over my PMX 680 Sports, and then rinse it under running water. It doesn't fall off--or even budge--when I exercise, and yet it's very comfortable. For those who wear their iPods in an armband while exercising, the two-part cable can be quickly shortened to the perfect length for that. The styling by adidas is very cool. The Sennheiser PMX680 Sports is my #1 recommendation for exercise headphones. MSRP $79.95.
- Etymotic MC5. I heard the MC5 at at CanJam 2010 (Chicago), and was mightily impressed. Etymotic calls the MC5 "The world's most accurate noise-isolating earphones under $100." I was surprised to hear a bit more bass emphasis than I might expect from something bearing the Etymotic name, but I found it done well, and considered it a positive MC5 trait. Etymotic's claim for the MC5 is a bold one, but the MC5 certainly does sound exceptionally good for $79.00.
- Apex Audio Pinnacle (by TTVJ). If you have one of these, you are among the most fortunate Head-Fi'ers in the world, as it is one of the best headphone amps I've ever heard (with the Sennheiser HD800). Designed by Pete Millett for TTVJ, the Apex Audio Pinnacle is, as TTVJ describes it, "a highly evolved vacuum tube preamplifier and headphone amp." Fully balanced, the two-chassis Pinnacle is the result of Todd Green's desire to create the best headphone amp available, independent of any cost considerations. If you're in the market for a cost-no-object headphone amp, considered by those who've heard it to be among the best ever made, then you probably won't mind parting with $10,000.00 for the Apex Audio Pinnacle.
- HeadAmp pico SLIM. As its name suggests--twice--this thing is tiny. I haven't personally heard the HeadAmp pico SLIM, but many respected Head-Fi'ers consider it a portable favorite, for its combination of high fidelity in an extremely compact size, with a luxurious chassis, and the fine volume adjustments afforded by its stepped volume control. The pico SLIM also ships with a gorgeous embossed bespoke leather case. Get in line, as demand for the pico SLIM is understandably very high. MSRP $399.00.
- VentureCraft GO-DAP. Do you own an iPhone 3GS/3G that you'd like to build a rig around? What if you could just slide it into an amp? What if the high-powered battery for that amp also charged your iPhone? And what if that amp also sounded very good driving headphones your iPhone struggled to drive alone, and improved the fidelity of the headphones you're using directly with your iPhone now? It's called the VentureCraft GO-DAP. I love it. And I reviewed it.
- Schiit Audio Valhalla. Take two experienced, respected audio designers who decided to open up their new venture by offering extremely affordable desktop headphone amps made in the U.S.A., throw in a healthy does of sauciness, and you have the beginnings of one of the most interesting new companies to come 'round these parts in a long time. With design experience at Theta and Sumo, the founders of Schiit (yes, it is pronounced the way you think it is) have released two amps, one of them being a $349.00 tube amp. I have a Valhalla, and don't understand how they're offering it at this price. The Valhalla is a very nice tube amp. Get one now, before these guys come to their senses and raise their prices. (They also make a solid state amp called the Asgard for $249.00. I have one of these, too, and, again, I don't understand how these guys are doing it.)
- Ray Samuels Audio SR-71b. Fully balanced. Able to drive the very challenging HiFiMAN HE-6 planar magnetic headphones very well, as well as the Sennheiser HD800. A good, powerful desktop amp should be able to do that, right? That's the thing, though: The SR-71b is a portable amp. I don't know that any portable amp currently exists that has the drive that the SR-71b has. I heard it at the most recent New York Meet, and couldn't believe what was coming out of the HE-6. Given that I'm looking for a portable amp for both the HE-6 and the HD800, I'm on the pre-order list. Pre-order sign-up is happening now. MSRP $650.00
- ALO Audio Rx Mk2. This little amp is a stunner. Head-Fi moderator jp11801 (who was also the lead organizer of CanJam 2009 in Los Angeles, and co-organizer of the CanJam@RMAF) is the one who first told me about the first-generation ALO Audio Rx amp, giving it much praise. I spent some time with it, and he was absolutely right. ALO Audio has since improved an already excellent portable amp with this Mk2 version, both in terms of sonics and function. MSRP $449.00.
- iQube V2 with USB DAC. With a Class D amplifier circuit, the iQube V2 is certainly unique. In my time with it, the iQube V2 drove every headphone I had that one could reasonably expect a portable amp to drive, and did so beautifully, so it's as excellent as it is unique. This is one of the nicest portable amps I've heard, and has the looks to match--its unique chassis has superb fit and finish. MSRP $699.00.
- The HiFiMAN HM-601. Okay, so it's not only an amp--it's more of a DAP (digital audio player). Given it's a rather uniquely placed product in the mix, I didn't want to start a new category in this guide just for it. That said, the HM-601 consists not only of an outstanding built-in DAC section (with its Phillips TDA1543 DAC), but a very capable built-in amp section, too. All together, the sound the HM-601 can deliver is rather astonishing--it sounds much larger than it is. The price is currently $259.00, which includes the HiFiMAN RE-ZERO in-ear headphones during a special promotion. I'm not sure what the price will change to after this initial promotion.
May all of you, through the busy holidays, have the time to relax, listen to music, and enjoy the company of those you love. Happy holidays to all of you!