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2007 Awards for Headphones and Amps

Discussion in 'Headphones (full-size)' started by asr, Dec 29, 2007.
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  1. Asr
    With only a few more days in 2007 left, I thought I'd put my audio experience acquired over the past year to some use to share what I think are the best of the best for headphone hi-fi. Not all these products came out in 2007 but all are still available on the market.

    These are, of course, my opinions. I welcome contrasting opinions, please post away! [​IMG]

    BEST OPEN DYNAMIC HEADPHONES: 6-way tie - AD2000, 2006 DT880-250, HD650, K701, RS-1, SA5000

    Those familiar with my posts know I rarely use the word "best" to describe anything, and between these six headphones I would definitely not use the word "best" to describe any one of them. But for the collective segment in open dynamic headphones, these are the best of the best, that I've heard.

    The Audio-Technica ATH-AD2000 remains my perennial personal favorite. Highly musical with a lot of sonic flavoring, and very fast attack. Nicely speedy, and both its treble and bass can blow through complex music with ease. Clean extended treble and fast plentiful, controlled bass coupled with a direct, full mid-range that increases in forwardness in the upper mids. At 40 Ohms it can be driven by anything and it sounds great out of any source, even unamped. The AD2000 can be further improved with aftermarket cables by either APureSound or Moon Audio.

    The latest version of the Beyerdynamic DT880 is another top-class headphone. Detail retrieval is close to the SA5000 but the DT880 provides a better view of the detail so it's not shoved in your ears as much. The mid-range is relatively flat but there's a plentiful amount of bass punch that really helps with electronic music. Unfortunately, the DT880 is pretty slow overall with a speed that simply pales next to the AD2000 and SA5000, and it's also sibilant. It is however one of the most comfortable open headphones on the market, and easily handles the bass lines of electronica as well as it does classical. The DT880 can be further improved with aftermarket cables by APureSound and Moon Audio.

    The Sennheiser HD650 is a top dog too. An awesome scaler, it too is very musical, with a hall-like soundstage and an integrated musical layering that allows you to hear the color of music, because yes, there is color to music. Warm with broad sweeps, it paints a vivid picture that allows instruments to sound full and bowed out. A strong bass current allows it to sound low and powerful when needed. The HD650 can be further improved with cables from APureSound, Cardas, Moon Audio, Oehlbach, Revelation Audio Labs, Stefan AudioArt, and Zu Audio.

    The AKG K701 may be the newest of the six but it's fast earned its place at the top. Also an awesome scaler, as it grows more and more legs with increasingly higher-end equipment. The K701 has a clean, clear, & polished sound that allows you to hear everything. Rather than trying to integrate the musical picture, it peels things apart so you can hear each individual element doing its own thing. A true reference monitor-like sound, in an unusually open design whereas reference monitor headphones are usually closed. The K701 further improves with cables from APureSound, Moon Audio, and Stefan AudioArt.

    Forgoing the oddity of the Grado GS1000 which I haven't spent enough time with, the RS-1 is Grado's second in line, and is the less quirky one too. Another highly musical headphone, yet without the typical Grado forwardness. Refined yet energetic, the RS-1 provides an experience that invites you to participate with it rather than merely listen. A fast attack coupled with full, long decay and a mid-bass/mid-range boost allows it to sound snappy and alive and intensely energetic. Aftermarket cables are available from APureSound and Moon Audio.

    And finally, Sony's MDR-SA5000 remains the most detailed in the category of open dynamic headphones. More detail can be achieved from other headphones, but none are still available new or are not in the open dynamic category. For the ultimate in separation, eye-blinking speed, and detail retrieval, the SA5000 is the penultimate warrior. Highly extended treble and low bass too, with overall probably the flattest sound of the six. It's too bad it's also sibilant though. Aftermarket cables are available from APureSound and Moon Audio.

    BEST PORTABLE CLOSED HEADPHONES (<$200): 2-way tie - ES7, RP-21

    The Audio-Technica ATH-ES7 and Equation Audio RP-21 go in completely different sonic directions, yet both are among the best-sounding you can get for under $200. The ES7 has nearly twice the amount of mid-range of the RP-21, which allows it to sound full and expressive. It has a nice thumping bass that extends low enough for most purposes and the treble is clear and extended, at least for a portable and compared to Audio-Technica's other portables the ES5, OR7, and FC7. And it sounds a lot like Audio-Technica's open flagship the AD2000 for a fraction of the cost. At roughly 75% of the performance of the AD2000, it's a great value.

    The RP-21 is much flatter overall with a clear, clean, and nearly flat mid-range. There's a boost in the treble and bass that makes it sound a bit similar to the Beyerdynamic DT770-80 and Audio-Technica ATH-A900, which are both fine closed headphones, but you can get the RP-21 for even less than those two headphones, and it's smaller too, and sports a better look.

    BEST FULL-SIZE CLOSED HEADPHONES: 2-way tie - K271S, W5000

    The AKG K271 Studio has been around for years and is still on the market, which must mean it's doing something right. A musical-sounding headphone, the K271S has a pleasant warm mid-range with a decent mid-bass push, and sounds best on acoustic music. It sports AKG's trademark boost in the area of female vocals that makes them stand out. It lacks extension in both directions but makes up for things with a good integrated picture of the event. An aftermarket cable is available from Zu Audio.

    The Audio-Technica ATH-W5000 is one of the top dogs when it comes to closed headphones and for good reason. A highly precise soundstage along with a high level of detail give it technical points. Innately musical, like the AD2000 it also captures music in a soul-moving performance. Deep bass power along with clean extended treble as well. Unfortunately, the W5000 has a very low level of isolation and its sonic colorations may not be to everyone's liking. Aftermarket cables are available from APureSound and Moon Audio.

    There are other closed headphones that I haven't heard that I might suggest researching and auditioning if possible: Denon AH-D5000 & AH-D2000, Ultrasone PROline 2500 or 750, Ultrasone Edition 9.

    BEST GATEWAY HEADPHONES: 3-way tie - DR150, KSC75, SR60

    So you want to get into headphones, eh? Want to test the waters and dip your feet?

    The Goldring DR150, Koss KSC75, and Grado SR60 are all great ways to get into this hobby. The DR150 isn't too far off sonically from the SR225 (for less) and beats it on a few technical points like treble extension and clarity.

    But by far the value leaders are the KSC75 and SR60 which both sound good from any source. For $20 and $70 respectively, it really and honestly doesn't get much better until you can spend more than $300.

    BEST DISCONTINUED HEADPHONES: 4-way tie - L3000, Qualia 010, K1000, PS-1

    For the hard-core among us, there are the real top dogs that you can no longer buy new. I wish I've heard more than this sample of 4. But when it comes to the discontinued headphones, these are awesome!

    The Audio-Technica ATH-L3000 is a hell of a bass monster. Deep and growling, it settles into the music like a beast and really brings out the lower body of instruments. Dark-sounding, but still musical. Just watch out for a lack of soundstage and treble sparkle.

    The Sony Qualia 010 doesn't share much with the SA5000 overall but does share the sense of speed, along with treble and bass extension. Extremely detailed with a clear open soundstage, the Qualia provides a great laidback view of the music.

    What else needs to be said about the AKG K1000? These earspeakers can sound truly exceptional when you pair them with the right integrated amp. A vast soundstage along with the ultimate in layer separation allows the music to flow in eerie directions. Detailed too, with the ability for serious high-end scaling.

    And then there's the limited edition Grado PS-1. Of all the discontinued headphones, the PS-1 is pretty much the only I actually want to own and would if not for the price ($2500+). Deep bass, with the ultimate thrash factor. Headbangers, this is your headphone, if you can get one used.

    BEST >$1K TUBE AMP BRANDS: Eddie Current, Ray Samuels Audio, Singlepower Audio, Woo Audio

    Since I haven't clocked much listening time with any >$1K tube amps yet I'll instead recommend these brands as a whole based on brief listening time with several in meet conditions.

    There's the Eddie Current Zana Deux for starters. Check out the reviews and audition one if you can, and hope you can get in line for one, because this one is about to stop production!

    Ray Samuels Audio has two high-end tube amplifiers available, the Raptor and B-52. Pick your poison between single-ended or balanced.

    Singlepower Audio released several custom tube amplifiers in 2007 to many satisfied Head-Fi customers. From the electrostatic ES-1, ES-2, and SDS-XLR Accent T, along with other upgraded Supra models, Singlepower is the name of the game for fully decked-out, customized tube amps, for any headphones - dynamic or electrostatic. Prepare for your wallet to be sucked dry before placing a call to Mikhail @ Singlepower. If you prefer solid-state, Mikhail can do that too, just ask.

    Woo Audio also has a few high-end tube amps, the GES, 4, and 5.

    BEST <$1K DYNAMIC TUBE AMP: Singlepower Extreme

    Singlepower's new Extreme can do it all. From the 40 Ohm Audio-Technica ATH-AD2000 to the 400 Ohm AKG K340 (and the K1000 which I didn't try but has been recommended by others), it really can drive any dynamic headphone. Limitless tube rolling possibilities allow you to tailor the sound to almost any preference, and Mikhail @ Singlepower can both recommend and offer a wide range of tube complements on request.

    Note that extra tubes and any custom options will drive the cost of the Extreme over $1K.


    A fully balanced topology and completely dual mono, HeadAmp's GS-X is the last word in transparency. It can unlock the potential of any high-end source to drive almost any dynamic headphone short of the K1000. At $1795 it's also an excellent value.

    Also check out the Ray Samuels Audio Apache, Rockhopper Audio Balanced Beta 22, and Singlepower Square Wave XL for other >$1K solid-state alternatives.

    BEST <$1K DYNAMIC SOLID-STATE AMPS: Eddie Current EC/SS, HeadAmp GS-1

    Using Alessandro, Grado, or Audio-Technica headphones? Consider the EC/SS, designed for the RS-1. My full review will follow within the next couple weeks on StereoMojo.com.

    Not using those brands? Then the HeadAmp GS-1 is the better alternative. With enough reserve power for both low- and high-impedance headphones, the GS-1 can drive them all handily. Extremely versatile and loaded with features, the GS-1 is loaded with transparent sound to pair with any decent source. Watch for MOSFET module upgrades hopefully next year too.

    BEST PORTABLE AMPS: HeadAmp AE-2, Rockhopper Mini³

    For portable sound, it really doesn't get better than the AE-2. Loaded with features, and incidentally it has the same transparent sound found in HeadAmp's discrete Gilmore-based amps. It can easily pull double duty as both a portable and home amp too thanks to the RCA jack inputs. Clean and clear with an open soundstage.

    For something much cheaper, it really doesn't get better than the Mini³. Although it lacks the overall refinement of the AE-2, it's still plenty detailed and has a nonoffensive sound and will easily drive most <300 Ohm headphones.
  2. carlineng
    6-way tie? Not very controversial... I want controversy!!
  3. Dr. Strangelove
    Needs more Dark Voice and Little Dot in the tube catagory.
  4. OptionTrader
    I like your list and after reading your Awards post for the second time, I was glad to see that the Ultrasone Edition 9 made it on your list of headphones that should be auditioned. I wholeheartedly agree. After listening to many other closed 'phones, I really believe these are the best. But that's just me...
  5. acegazda
    no award for the best IEM?
  6. khbaur330162
    Lol. Who are we to rip on this guy's opinion?! Why are we doing this?

    Asr: Your comments on the SA5000 kill me! The more I read about these the more I want a pair. I've attempted to stray away from SA5000 Appreciation threads and such, but some one who can actually verbalize their feelings towards these cans is even worse! [​IMG]

    I think it'll be interesting to see your comments concerning electret and electrostatic cans if you ever get into them. You seem like a candidate very ripe for the picking. [​IMG] Have you ever auditioned a pair? What did you think?
  7. boomana

    Excellent round-up, and I wouldn't change a thing except perhaps to add the Sony MDR-R10 in the best of the discontinued category, and though it's new, and not under $200, the ATH-ESW9 is a very impressive portable (or semi-portable) headphone. Also, LaRocco may have its problems right now, but the PRII is still the best transportable amp I've heard.

    I think Jude named 2006 the year of the iem. I'm thinking 2007 (or the tail end of it), could be the year of the portable amp/dac for the developments we've seen.

    Thanks again, asr!

    Originally Posted by acegazda /img/forum/go_quote.gif
    no award for the best IEM?

    Good call, I nominate the Sony MDR-EX90SL/LP for best IEM.

    Best buds?

    I nominate the MDR-E888SP/LP, some sweet sound comes out of those babies!

    But come on, no award for the best noise canceling headphones and the best NC IEMs?

    I nominate both the MDR-NC60 and MDR-NC22.

    ...and how about one for the best stock (bundle) phones/buds/IEM's?

    I know there are not many that would make that list (certainly not MDR-027 or those crappy iPod buds either), and in that case I will nominate the ever-venerable Sony MDR-A34 headphones.
  9. IPodPJ
    D5000 for the win in 2007, and it is a 2007 release.
  10. WittyzTH
    where's my AT-ESW9? [​IMG]

    where's the King R10? [​IMG]
  11. Zorander Contributor
    Does not the HD-25 count as closed, portable headphone too?
  12. Asr

    Originally Posted by acegazda /img/forum/go_quote.gif
    no award for the best IEM?

    I've heard only 3 IEMs to date. Not enough experience to hand out an award for that category IMO. [​IMG]


    Originally Posted by khbaur330162 /img/forum/go_quote.gif
    I think it'll be interesting to see your comments concerning electret and electrostatic cans if you ever get into them. You seem like a candidate very ripe for the picking. [​IMG] Have you ever auditioned a pair? What did you think?

    I've heard only the K340 (extensively) and the Stax Omega II SR-007 (for about 5 minutes) amped by the HeadAmp KGSS DX. I have to say that I wasn't immediately impressed by the OII and I feel now I should've given it a fairer chance.


    Originally Posted by boomana /img/forum/go_quote.gif

    Excellent round-up, and I wouldn't change a thing except perhaps to add the Sony MDR-R10 in the best of the discontinued category, and though it's new, and not under $200, the ATH-ESW9 is a very impressive portable (or semi-portable) headphone. Also, LaRocco may have its problems right now, but the PRII is still the best transportable amp I've heard.

    Well I've heard the R10 for only 5 minutes and I wasn't immediately impressed by anything. That too is another headphone I'd like to hear more. I haven't heard the ESW9 yet or the PRII, I can't award something I haven't heard, but I'll take your word on both. Would like to hear them someday.


    Originally Posted by WittyzTH /img/forum/go_quote.gif
    where's my AT-ESW9? [​IMG]

    where's the King R10? [​IMG]

    See above. [​IMG]


    Originally Posted by Zorander /img/forum/go_quote.gif
    Does not the HD-25 count as closed, portable headphone too?

    It sure does, I just haven't heard one. Someday I'll probably hear that one, along with the HD280.
  13. SK138
    Great Round-up!

    Did you get to check out Yammy tube amp? I thought that was very impressive for the price.

    In any case.... GSX Rules!!! Senn HD650 Rules!!![​IMG]
  14. threEchelon
    The SA5000's aren't flat. They have a huge spike at 2.5kHz, if I remember correctly.
  15. krmathis Contributor
    Dynamic headphones only?! [​IMG]
    Nice writeup and comparison though. Well done!
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