image: Grado pair
Grado Labs' beautiful RA1 headphone amplifier sits below their top-of-the-line RS1 headphones. The amp works wonderfully with all Grados and makes most other brands sound great as well.
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msnbc.com

The full-sized headphone jacks included on most stereo equipment are worth exactly what you’ve paid for them. Nothing. To get the best sound from your new headphones you need a headphone amplifier.

InsertArt(1861088)I’VE AUDITIONED headphone jacks on receivers, CD players and cassette decks and not one of them sounded the same. Most were horrid.

You can’t even predict the sound quality by brand. In one brand I tried, the jack on the $700 CD player sounded much worse than the jack on the $300 receiver.

Let’s start with the basics. You buy a set of headphones but you have no headphone jack to plug them into. One reader came up with a solution: Ramsey Electronics’ SHA1. This little box is also what Bose recommends you buy to accompany their Wave radio, which doesn’t come with a headphone jack.

You want cheap? How does $24.95 sound?

Of course, that $24.95 price is for the amp kit only, but with only 100 solder points, it looks easy. Add $14.95 for the matching case and knobs and $9.95 for the AC adapter and another $25 if you want Ramsey to assemble it. Total cost: $74.90.

image: SHA1
Ramsey Electronics SHA1 is plain and simple with pretty good sound.
The SHA1 has separate left and right volume controls and the headphone jack is in the back, but for that price you can’t touch anything else that sounds as good. It’s not the highest of high fidelity but leave it plugged in (the SHA1, like other headphone amps, connects to the tape outputs of your stereo) and turned on and you’ll be amazed how good it does sound.

$200 TO $600Next in line is the Creek OBH-11 amp ($199.99). I liked what I heard and would have recommended it as an improvement over the Ramsey, but Creek has just announced new models, the OBH 21 and the OBH 21SE, which uses better-grade components. I’ll let you know the results after I audition one of the new versions.

One step up is Grado’s RA1 headphone amp, featured in part one of this series. Housed in a small wooden box, the Grado is clean-sounding and quite accurate. It’s one of my favorite sounding amps in any price range. All of Grado’s own headphones sound great through this little device, and so do Sennheiser 600s. The RA 1 runs off two 9-volt batteries, so you can even use it as a portable amp (but don’t scratch the beautiful woodwork). List price: $350.

image: ASL MGhead
Antique Sound Labs' MG Head Mark II headphone amplifier. A new external transformer makes this longtime favorite sound even better than before.
A new version of a very popular headphone amplifier, Antique Sound Labs’ MG Head Mark II is about to be released and will sell for $359. It’s an all-tube design with enough oomph to play music very loud, but with enough old-fashioned tube “warmth” and subtlety to please you for years to come. It’s the exact opposite in sound to most of the transistor designs I’m mentioning here.

Antique Sound Labs sent me another new amp, as well. It’s actually an all-tube pre-amp or control amp with headphone jacks on the front. (A pre-amp is the type of amp you’d normally find in a receiver, along with the AM/FM tuner and a power amp for the speakers.)

The MG-Head-OTL32 ($595 list) is a terrific sounding pre-amp and headphone amp even if you don’t consider its special feature. On the front is a special 4-pin jack made especially for the AKG K1000 headphones mentioned in part two of this trilogy. This is the only amp I know of that provides enough voltage for these very inefficient headphones, even when you switch the transformer out of the circuit. The AKG sounds great through the OTL32, although some power amplifiers I’ve tried produce a little more volume levels with them.

OVER $1,000

image: Sugden
Britain's best: Sugden HeadMaster pre-amp/headphone amp sits atop the matching power amp from Sugden's Bijou line.
At the $1,000 mark is one of the hottest new designs on the scene, the Sugden HeadMaster Pre-amp/headphone amp. Sugden produces some of the most incredible sounding transistorized stereo equipment I’ve ever heard. The HeadMaster, produced as the preamp for their bookshelf-sized Bijou system is one heck of a headphone amplifier. The sound quality is smooth and powerful (just like all of their Class-A equipment) and it made a big impression on attendees of a recent London hi-fi show. It also sounds really good as a pre-amp. The Sugden should be auditioned before spending more of your hard-earned money on an even more expensive headphone amplifier.

Image: Grace 901
Grace Design's Model 901 was originally intended for professional use and now this glorious sounding device is available for consumers.
At the recommendation of the Sennheiser representative, I got hold of a Grace Design Model 901 ($1,495) headphone amplifier. The 901 is different from all the rest because it has its own digital-to-analog amplifier (bypassing the circuitry in your CD player) as well as the actual headphone amplification section. I understand a number of very influential recording and mastering experts are making this the amplifier of choice. I can understand why. It’s clean, smooth and quiet - and produces some of the best detailed sound I’ve ever heard from any set of headphones. Highly recommended.

image: Max
Built like a tank and priced accordingly. HeadRoom's Max is an amazing sounding amplifier and it, too, can also be used as a pre-amp for your entire stereo system.
Finally, the other headphone amplifier suggested to me by Sennheiser, the HeadRoom Max. The model they sent me to try had the stepped-attenuator option (that means a volume control that goes up or down in measured steps). It costs $1,887. It is heavy. Built like a tank. It is quiet. It is superb at creating music in your ears. If I could afford one - I’d probably buy it. Except for one thing - HeadRoom makes something better.

The Headroom BlockHead amplifier is made just for the Sennheiser 580 and 600 headphones. You need super-special balanced audio cables ($275 and $350 from HeadRoom, $319-379 for Stefan AudioArt’s) plus everything in your stereo system has to have balanced outputs - so that you can hear just how good a $3,333 headphone amplifier can sound. I’ll have to take their word for it.

That’s it for now. Happy listening. All I ask is that whatever you decide - keep the volume down and save your ears - and enjoy.

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