Week 21, 2015: Great premium headphones from Grado and Audio-Technica


Sound Advice

By Don Lindich

Week 21, 2015

Q. I have $300 budgeted for headphones to use with my CD player (which has a headphone output,) iPad, and iPhone. Would I get better sound quality by spending the whole $300 on the headphones, or by buying $150 headphones with a $150 headphone amplifier?

-John Y., Milwaukee, WI

A. I’ve done a lot of testing regarding this, and the answer was very clear. Spend your money on the headphones.

There are some great $300 headphones out there, as well as expensive models that fall short of better choices that sell for under $100, such as the $79 Grado SR60e and $49 Audio-Technica ATH-M20x. There has been a lot of reader demand for headphone information so I tested higher-end offerings from both manufacturers, who I consider to be the leaders in offering sound quality and performance beyond their price point.

I started with the $295 Grado SR325e. I think Karen Carpenter has one of the most (if not the most) beautiful female voices of all time, and used her recording of “Superstar” from both CD and a Vevo YouTube video to start my testing. Though I have always loved her voice, I had not actually seen her perform and it was thrill to find so many videos of her online. Most people are unaware that she was an extremely talented drummer as well, and if you search YouTube under “Karen Carpenter drummer” you can see for yourself. A beautiful person with a beautiful voice, she left us much too soon.

When the track started playing with the Grados, you could actually get a sense of the acoustic space in the recording room and when the vocals started, it was like her voice was bring etched in my brain with a laser. Every little detail was present and rendered with tremendous precision. They sounded clean and natural, though not quite as warm as the SR60e. An incredible performance!

The Grados are an open-back design, so they do not completely isolate you from the world around you. I think comfort could be a bit better. I thought the other headphones, including some other Grados I tested, were a bit more comfortable to wear on my ears. They also do not have a mic or the possibility to use one with them, which may limit their use with cell phones. From a hi-fi sound quality standpoint, they are beyond reproach for $295. Comparing them to $300 Beats headphones is like comparing a Ferrari to a Ford! www.gradolabs.com

Next, I tried the $249 Audio-Technica ATH-MSR7. These are closed-back headphones with a removable cord, allowing you to substitute a smartphone mic cable (included) and use them with a cell phone. I found them extremely comfortable to wear. Detail and resolution are just a bit below the Grado SR325e, but they have a slightly warmer, slightly softer and more forgiving sound. Design, materials and workmanship are top notch, and they rate as a great buy and a great value.www.audio-technica.com

This brings me to my final point. Ultra-high resolution headphones are going to reveal every flaw in the recording, so good tracks will sound amazing and bad tracks can sound, well, bad. I once heard an audiophile saying that sums it up well: “A clean window shows all the garbage in the yard,” and these are very clean windows, indeed. The less expensive headphones like the SR60e and AT-M20x did not sound as clear and didn’t have the “oh, wow” factor when playing a good recording, but they tended to sound agreeable with both good and not-so-good recordings.