image: Grado SR60
The Grado SR60 headphones sound great and are priced just right.
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msnbc.com

Cheap ones sound cheap. Expensive ones, when treated with reverence, can sound better than $10,000 stereo systems. But which headphones are really the best?

InsertArt(1855328)I GET A LOT of e-mail, but none has ever sent me off on an odyssey of such grand proportions. What started out as a comment about headphones in response to my article on “Hi-fi nirvana under $1,000” has turned into a major investigation on my part and has turned up a number of interesting options.

It all started with an e-mail from a reader:

Dear Mr. Krakow, Over the past few years, I’ve been trying to build both 2 and 5.1 channel systems ... I just invested in a headphone setup, and I am blown away by the resolution and detail (something akin to Nirvana :). Take care. Since I’ve owned a pair of Grado SR60 headphones ($69) for a number of years, and know how good they are, I decided to hear for myself just how good a full-blown headphone system can sound. So far, I’ve auditioned more than a dozen headphones — some go over the ear, some rest on the ear, a few are placed very near the ear, and a few are placed well inside the ear canal.

I’ve listened to these headphones through portable music gear (iPod, CD, even a portable DVD player), hi-fi equipment (numerous pre-amps, CD and cassette decks) and headphone amps. Yes, there are amplifiers made expressly for headphone listening, and they do make a difference.

I immediately turned for help to a headphone expert. Tyll Hertsens is the boss at HeadRoom, an online headphone superstore. In a former life, Tyll knew nearly everything there is to know about scanning electron microscopes. He used to fly a lot to fix them and he’d take along portable audio gear to cut down on the boredom. Quickly, he became obsessed with how everything sounded. First he bought better headphones, then better CD players, and then he realized the headphones needed their own amps.

Tyll said headphones fall under the 10 percent rule — if you spend $100 on a good set of headphones it is equivalent to spending $1,000 on speakers; spend $1,000 on headphones and a good amp and it’s like shelling out $10,000 on speakers. Tyll sent me a huge box with all sorts of stuff to prove his point.

Today, I’ll tell you about the portable headphones, generally on the cheaper end of the scale. All devices I describe here are made for stereo (2-channel) use.

First of all, if you’re listening to a shiny new MP3, cassette, CD or even AM/FM stereo portable with the headphones which came with the device I have some advice for you — burn them. You probably don’t know how good your music sounds until you attach a good set of headphones to your portable device. For the most part, headphones under $150 or so are very forgettable. But, there are some notable exceptions.

WHAT SHOULD YOU BUY?

It all depends on what you want to spend. I’ve been telling you about Koss KSC-50’s for sometime now. The 50’s (and the 55’s) have a list price of $19.99. They hang off the back of your ears, they’re lightweight and they sound great. It’ll be the best $20 you’ll ever spend for music.

Image: Koss KSC 50
Koss KSC 50 headphones are small, light, inexpensive and sound a lot better than the free ones that come with portable gear.
Actually, the Koss were the best “cheap” headphones I ever heard — until I tried the brand new Sennheiser PX100s. These are conventional headphones (the headband goes over your head) and they fold up into a wonderful hard plastic case. And they sound fantastic. For $49.99 (list price) these headphones rival my long-time favorites for affordable, portable listening.

Image: Sennheiser PX100
Sennheiser's new PX100 headphones are small, light, very portable, and sound terrific.
So are those long-time favorites — Grado’s SR60s. The headband on these headphones fits over the head and the earpieces sit on top of your ears. These are unbelievable sounding devices — deep bass, natural sounding voices and a smooth high end (cymbals and such). Tyll says they’re the best sounding headphones you can buy that don’t need a headphone amp. They come with a mini-jack for portable devices and a converter to plug them into your home stereo components.

Image: Shure E2c
Shure's new in-ear E2c earplugs are primarily designed for musicians to monitor their sound while on-stage, but they also make your CDs and MP3s sound good too.
I don’t want to leave out the latest in-ear devices because they can sound really good. Two new ones are the Shure E2c ($119 list price) and the Etymotic Research ER-6 ($149 list price). Don’t confuse them with those horrible sounding “earbuds” which are barely inserted into the ear. These guys are made to go well inside the ear canal.

They’re also made to block out pretty much all exterior sounds — everything except for your music. Both the Shure and the Etymotic couple the sound transducer (mini-speaker) into your ear with tight-molding foam or plastic inserts.

Image: Ety ER6
Etymotic Research's new ER 6 earplugs sound best when played through a separate headphone amp.
I find the in-ear headphones do take a bit of getting used to, but I know others disagree. Sound wise, I think the Shure headphones are slightly smoother-sounding but the Etymotics have a better bass (especially if you use a separate amp).

HEADPHONE AMPS

I think most headphone amps do make a huge difference in your listening experience. Headroom sent me two portable units to try: their AirHead ($119 list price) and the Cosmic ($879 with the Reference Module). That’s not a typo — the Cosmic sells for nearly a grand.

Image: HeadRoom Cosmic
HeadRoom's Cosmic amplifier is made for audiophiles on the go.
The benefits of the AirHead escape me — it only takes headphones with a mini jack and I didn’t hear that much of a difference.

Overall, the sound quality really depends on your music source. You should take any of the headphones mentioned with you the next time you’re thinking of purchasing a portable device. That way you’ll be buying the best-sounding device and might not need an amplifier.

If you buy the one that sounds the best, you probably won’t need an external amplifier.

The Cosmic sounds unbelievably fantastic but really should be used with top-of-the-line ‘phones — the Cosmic’s price should have told you that.

I’ve also spent a lot of time with Grado’s RA-1 amp ($350 list price). It’s really made for hooking headphones up to your home stereo but because it has a 9-volt battery it can also be used as a portable unit. It sounds pretty amazing for the price. Grado headphones sound terrific through the RA-1as do most other high-end headphones.

But those are the subject of the second part of this series on headphones.

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