High End Headphone and Headphone Amp Roundup Washington DC
Falls Church, VA
Baileys Crossroads, VA
High End Headphone and Headphone Amp Roundup
December 15, 2008 By Steve Guttenberg
A mini survey of ear-bogglingly good headphones and headphone amplifiers
I'd like to let you in on a little secret: You can buy terrific headphones for next to nothing. That's not to say they all sound great, but a bigger budget definitely buys better build and sound quality.
For this roundup I've selected three contenders for the world's best headphone: the Denon AH-D5000, Grado Labs GS-1000, and the Ultrasone Edition 9, plus a pair of headphone amplifiers, Benchmark's DAC1 USB and Woo Audio's WA5-LE.
All the headphones are over-the-ear "circumaural" designs, primarily intended for home use, but that didn't stop me from plugging them into my iPod.
And lets not forgot that oft-forgotten aspect of headphone performance—amplification. The headphone amplifiers built into A/V receivers and CD players are, with rare exception, merely tolerable.
A great headphone needs to be partnered with a dedicated headphone amplifier to be all it can be. Which brings us to...
Benchmark DAC1 USB
Benchmark is one of the few manufacturers of professional audio gear that has consistently wowed audiophiles. The company offers a range of headphone amplifiers, and the subject of this review, the DAC1 USB is the latest entry to the Benchmark lineup.
So you see, it's more than just a headphone amplifier—the DAC1 USB features a 192kHz/24-bit digital-to-analog converter (D/A) and, you guessed it, a USB input. Think of it as a digital preamplifier you hook up to your computer via the USB and/or to a digital source component, like a CD player over its BNC, AES/EBU XLR or TOSLINK optical inputs.
The DAC1 USB is a digital only device, lacking analog inputs.
Ah, but the DAC1 USB sports RCA and XLR stereo outputs, which in turn can be used to feed a stereo power amplifier for those applications where the system also needs to be hooked up to speakers.
The DAC1 USB is compatible with Windows and Mac OS X operating systems, and can accommodate 88-96kHz/24-bit USB audio (as well as 44.1-48kHz/16-bit digital). High-resolution audio is automatically passed from the source to the USB without data modification.
The made-in-Syracuse, New York amp may be a jam-packed device, but it measures a compact 9.5 by 1.7 by 9.3 inches. I squeezed the little guy onto my desk next to my monitor. It runs mildly warm to the touch.
The front panel hosts a tiny input toggle switch, two headphone jacks and a volume control. I initially hooked up the DAC1 USB to my Mac Mini via the USB and listened to iTunes and my favorite Internet radio sites. The sound was weighty, powerful and interruption free.
It would be logical to assume the built-in D/A plays a role in the Benchmark's remarkably clear sound. Chances are it's way better than the soundcard in your computer, or even the digital converter in your CD or DVD player.
For CD playback I used my Pioneer DV-45A DVD player and first listened to soul singer Lizz Wright's latest CD...