‘Phones and Dacs Make a Match

Hi-Res Audio and Headphones Go Hand in Hand

Only the eldest among Sound & Vision readers would know that the use of the term high-performance to define a better class of headphones is a relatively new development. Back in the day, high performance headphones were the only kind you could buy. Classics like the Koss Pro4AA (born in 1970 and still available in a slightly revised form for $99) and the Sennheiser HD414 (pictured above, left) were the first crossover ’phones that found popularity with both engineers and consumers. They brought a new kind of private and intimate listening experience to ’70s and ’80s audiophiles.

The “return” of the high-performance headphone to today’s market is the end result of the Apple iPod earbud debacle coming full circle, as everyday consumers woke up and slowly demanded more quality from the ’phones they carried around with their portable player. The movement kicked into full gear when rapper-producer Dr. Dre teamed up with engineering and marketing powerhouse Monster to introduce Beats (now its own company), somehow moving large cans from an encumbrance to a fashion statement; jewelry to be draped proudly around the neck when not in use. The subsequent explosion of the headphone market has resulted in plenty of off-brand pretenders unfit for human ears, but also an overall improvement in both the state-of-the-art and the affordability of fine-sounding ’phones.

And it could not have come at a better moment for those of us who are serious about sound. High-resolution audio, which has been loosely defined as any content or component that can deliver better-than-CD quality, has been slowly percolating on a parallel path alongside the headphone revolution. The emergence online of high-res music stores like HDtracks.com and SuperHiRez.com (among others) is providing the drive for a series of new products that can reveal the additional detail, imaging, and dynamic range inherent in the software. A well-engineered digital-to-analog converter (DAC) is critical to the playback process, as is quality amplification and, finally, a transducer at the end of the chain that can extract all this wholesome musical goodness and deliver it to your ears.

That’s where high-performance ’phones come in. Quality headphones can easily reveal what the best high-res music files have to offer, and can do so at a fraction of the cost of a pair of great-sounding speakers. No, they’re not a replacement for in-room speakers, but as an addendum, they deliver a personal and engaging listening experience for home or portable use that will prompt a rediscovery of your music library in much the same way a significant system upgrade can.

To prod you along, we asked audio editor Mark Fleischmann to listen to some affordable DAC/headphone amp combinations, along with a new cutting-edge high-res portable music player. Our headphone maven Steve Guttenberg offers up a buyer’s guide that explains the options in today’s market and includes extensive recommendations of some of his favorite ’phones.

Whether you’re an old headphone fanatic reacquainting with your audiophile roots or a newbie to the category, there’s never been a better time to give today’s crop a fresh listen.