Headphones & Headphone Amps
Ok so saying that I am a little bit of an audiophile would be an understatement. I like my music… a lot. I have a music collection of over 4000 albums. I was there through the rise.. and eventual and unfortunate downfall of Oink. I prefer FLAC over MP3′s. I think iPod’s are for amateurs with no ear for music ( I personally own a Cowon S9). Even though I own a pair of BOSE headphones.. I’m really not that impressed with them and wouldn’t rank them as great headphones. Which brings me to the main topic of this little post. I need a new pair of headphones. Hell lets make that TWO new pairs of headphones. Anything worth doing is worth doing twice right?
First up. The Sennheiser HD 800 Premier Headphones. These would make a great replacement for my BOSE cans. Sennheiser is pretty synonymous with quality sound. The HD 800′s push the envelope just a bit further. Besides being devastatingly good looking, these headphones take what was already a formidable sound in Sennheiser’s previous king of the mountain- the HD 650‘s – and just blew it clean out of the water. These headphones are hands down THE BEST over ear cans I’ve ever listened to. The sonic detail is precise and these beauties seem to just disappear into the background and give you the feeling that you are not in fact listening to headphones at all but rather ultra high-end floor standing speakers.
So what’s the downside you ask? Well for starters.. the price tag. Cheapest I could find these beauties for sale was around $1400 dollars. Granted these are the kind of headphones that you keep for a decade or more, so the hefty price tag isn’t completely unjustifiable. The other disadvantage is of course that you can’t drive headphones like these with your portable MP3 player. For that you will need a headphone amp. And if you are spending $1400 on a pair of headphones.. the last thing you want to do is to jack them into a sub-par amp that is going to ruin the input signal to these babies.
That’s where the folks over at Red Wine Audio come in. These folks have created what just might be the best headphone amp ever made. Enter the Isabella. Now technically the Isabella is meant to be a line-stage pre-amp. but when you are using it to drive something low powered like say… a pair of headphones.. it really becomes an amplifier at that point. And what an amp it is. These guys have thought of everything. Worried about ground loop feedback or the nasty hum and hiss associated with AC to DC conversion? Don’t. This thing is powered by high-current sealed lead-acid (SLA) batteries. With 8 hours of battery life per charge, and no need for transformers or rectifiers what you get is pristine “off the grid” playback.
What’s that? Prefer the warmer sound of a tube amp you say? Not to worry. They got you covered there as well. Two 6922 dual triode tubes are at the heart of sound production in the Isabella. And as if all of this wasn’t enough they even thought to include an internal DAC with 3 options for digital input (USB, Coaxial and TOSLINK) as well. All of this easily justifies the $6000 sticker price. And if you are not convinced of that… did I mention that it’s portable? Oh yeah. At 12″ width x 10.5″ depth (including volume knob and rear panel jacks) x 3.5″ height (including feet) and weighing in at a svelte 15 lbs, carting this thing to the office with you is no chore at all. But what about listening to music at the gym? Ok I see your point. Can’t very well jog with this amp in tow. Hey.. I did say I wanted TWO new sets of headphones didn’t I? NOW you’re catching on…
Amp aside.. over the ear cans really aren’t ideal for the either the gym or the beach. When you are on the go you need something a bit smaller. Reducing size doesn’t HAVE to mean a sacrifice in quality however. Sure, the stock ear buds that came with your iPod aren’t going to be an acceptable substitute for your HD800′s when you are on a road trip… but a nice pair of custom-mold IEM’s (In Ear Monitors) might do the trick. And, if those IEM’s happen to be the JH13 Pro‘s well then we might just be getting somewhere.
Jerry Harvey, former sound engineer for Van Halen and founder of Ultimate Ears- a company that produces IEM’s that have become the defacto industry standard for musicians and audiophiles alike- has done it again. After leaving Ultimate Ears, Jerry formed JH Audio and brought forth from it the JH13 Pro. Each ear piece of the JH13 Pro contains 6 proprietary precision balanced armature drivers. Dual low, mid and high with an integrated 3-way crossover.
To even get a pair of these on order you have to first visit your local audiologist’s office and get an open-mouth full shell impression mold of your ear canals and ship it off to JH Audio. That’s right, each set is made to order and is custom fit to your ear. That means you get a perfect seal, blocking out ambient noise and making for a listening experience most can only dream of. One more thing these have going for them is that Jerry figured if you are going to pay $1099 for a set of ear buds, he might as well make the cords detachable so that if it breaks you aren’t out a grand. Just swap them out for a new set of wires and you can keep right on rocking out.