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Introducing the Crutchfield Headphones Bar

Ralph Graves is one of Crutchfield's blog editors, and part of the company's social media team. He writes about home audio/video gear, specializing in Apple-related and wireless technologies. Ralph holds a master's degree in music composition, and his works have been released on various labels. He's served as product manager for an independent classical and world music label, produced several recordings, and worked extensively in public broadcasting. Since 1984 he's hosted a weekly classical music program on WTJU, and is also active as a blogger and podcaster.

More from Ralph Graves

Crutchfield Hi-Fi 2.0

Crutchfield carries a lot of headphones. And customers often ask us, "Which is the best pair?"

There's no single right answer, because there are a lot of variables to consider — like function, for example. Headphones designed for portable use usually have smaller drivers than those built for home use only. Does that make them inferior? Not especially. High-performance headphones usually require more power than an iPod or iPhone can deliver for optimal performance -— power that a headphone amp can provide. So a set of very expensive headphones might not deliver the same level of detail that a good set of portables could.

But how about comparing apples to apples? Surely it's easy to determine which set of headphones is best comparing like product to like product. Again, it depends. Most headphones color the sound in some fashion. Some overtly, some subtly. Whether that's a good thing or not can depend on what type of music you generally listen to. Headphones that reinforce the low end might make a hip-hop track sound even better, while making a string quartet sound unnatural and unbalanced.

That said, comparing headphones can be a helpful way to determine where each fits along the sonic spectrum. We've recently created a headphone listening bar where our advisors (and other employees) can compare up to four similar headphones side-by-side. The setup lets the listener quickly switch from one set of headphones to another, so they have an opportunity to hear the exact same music through two or more headphones one after the other. (Note: you can click on the images to enlarge them)

Our basic setup is designed to eliminate as many variables as possible, while still maintaining a real-world (as opposed to an audio lab) experience.

When you talk to one of our advisors and they mention trying out a certain set of headphones, chances are it was at this listening bar. We'll be using the bar in future posts to actually compare different headphones and report on our impressions.

The headphone listening bar setup:

Our sound source is a NAD C 565BEE CD player. Inside the player is a disc with twenty tracks from many different musical styles and genres. On top of the player is a list of the tracks, with full credits as well as the size of the sound file (which can be an indicator for the amount of compression and therefore the overall sound quality of the track).

A PS Audio Digital Link III DAC (digital-to-analog converter) takes the digital signal from the CD player via coaxial digital cable, and converts it to analog. The component uses a Texas Instruments PCM1798DB DAC with 24 bit resolution and 8X oversampling. The result is accurate, finely detailed sound, giving the headphones something to work with.

AudioQuest Diamondback audio cables connect the DAC's processed analog signal to a four-output headphone amp. Each of the four outputs has its own volume control, allowing the listener to match the volume levels between headphones. This allows us to compare headphones one of two ways: we can use the same volume settings across the board and determine which headphones operate more efficiently (they'll sound louder). Or we can adjust the volume so that each set of headphones is at about the same level and we can then listen for other differences between them.

Other gear to simulate home use:

Most people don't listen to music going directly from a component like a CD player to a headphone amp. Normally, they use the headphone jack on the receiver of their audio/video system. To simulate that, the listening bar also has an NAD C 375BEE integrated amplifier. We just unplug the cables running into the 4-output headphone amp and reconnect them to the amp's CD input. We can then use its front-panel headphone jack to audition the 'phones one at a time. this lets us try our headphones in a more "real world" setting.

High-performance headphones operate best when they're fully powered. Although the headphone jack provides some power, it might not be enough for all types of 'phones. So we also have a dedicated headphone amp to go with our system. A Pro-Ject Head Box II headphone amplifier is connected to the line-level monitor output of the receiver via Audio Quest King Cobra cables. Like the Diamondbacks these cables feature solid copper conductors to minimize electronic and magnetic interference as the signal goes from one component to another. Adding a headphone amp to a system is one of the best ways to improve headphone performance. So we can simulate not only the average listening experience by plugging our headphones into the NAD amp's headphone jack, but a much better (but still realistic) one by using the Pro-Ject headphone amp instead.

All the components are plugged into an PS Audio Quintet Power Center power conditioner and surge suppresser. This unit cleans up the irregularities in the electricity coming into the system, removing electronic noise that can interfere with the audio signal. Plus, it has five isolated filter banks, so the noise generated by each component doesn't affect the others.

At the bar

Currently, our listening bar has four sets of headphones: the Bowers & Wilkins P5s, the Monster Beats™ by Dr. Dre™ Studio headphones, the AKG K 272 HD's and the Sennheiser HD 598 high-performance stereo headphones. How do these headphones compare to each other? We'll have the results soon.

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