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Product Review - Sony MDR-CD3000 and Grado RS1 Stereo Headphones - February, 1997

By John Sunier

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(Sony)
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(Grado)

SONY: Frequency range: 20 Hz - 20 kHz; 32 ohms impedance; Sensitivity: 104 dB for 1 mV input; Maximum input: 1 W; Cord length: 10 ft.; Circumaural design; vinyl covering; 14 oz.; $699.99; Sony Corp. Consumer Audio, 1 Sony Drive, Park Ridge, NJ 07656; 201-930-1000.

GRADO: Frequency range: 12 Hz - 30 kHz; 32 ohms impedance; Sensitivity: 96 dB for 1 mV input; Cord length: 6 ft.; mahogany air chambers; 9 oz.; $695.00; Grado Laboratories, Inc., 4614 7th Ave., Brooklyn, NY 11220; 718-435-5340. FAX: 718-633-6941.

Headphones are probably today the most-used transducers in the world for listening to stereo music, due to the over 200 million headphones sold in the U.S. in the past decade -- mostly for portable FM, cassette, CD, and MD listening on the go. In the home, quality stereo headphones have not been as popular in the U.S. as in Europe, where people live in closer proximity to one another and turning up the speaker volume is less of an alternative.

Lately, though, a growth in high-end phones and dedicated amplifiers for them seems to happening. This is in spite of the unfortunate demise of one of the leaders in the field -- Stax. That leaves Sennheiser as the Dave Wilsons of the headphone biz with their $13,000 Orpheus system, plus their more reasonable and excellent HE 60/HEV 70 system at $1,800.

Recent refinements in both dynamic and electrostatic headphone design have resulted in some of the new phones in the $500-$700 area equaling, in most important respects, the sonic transparency of much more expensive models. The latest top-of-the-line models from both Sony and Grado strongly attest to this fact.

DESCRIPTIONS

The Sony MDR-CD3000 are dynamic phones employing a new "Bio-cellulose" natural fiber diaphragm material made by bacteria! Vegetable fibers are also blended into the giant but light-weight housing domes to suppress resonance in the material. The closed-ear-type drivers are a large 50mm in diameter, and impedance is 32 ohms at 1kHz with a sensitivity of 104 dB and power handling capacity of 1000 mW (1 watt). The lengthy 3-meter elastic webbing-covered cord terminates in a gold plated two-way plug and resists tangling. Retail is $650.

The Grado Reference Series RS1 replaces the former aluminum body HP-1 and HP-2 Signature series in about the same price range. The driver enclosures are hand crafted from mahogany, and the other parts are made of a strong plastic material. The RS1 is an open air design with vented diaphragm, has an impedance of 32 ohms and a SPL of 96 dB at 1mV. Both the voice coils and the connecting cable use ultra-high-purity oxygen-free copper wire. Retail is $695.

SETUP

The better the headphones, the more important it is to provide them the cleanest possible input signal to realize the utmost in transparency and clarity from the phones themselves. Small compromises that might not be noticed during loudspeaker playback show up greatly exaggerated via headphone playback, even with those phones free of the tendency (heard with many of the electrostatics) to put a sonic "magnifying glass" over the music. Therefore, unless you own a unique high end component with a really first class headphone output, it makes sense to either invest in a dedicated headphone amp or rig something yourself with a small class A basic amp and some resistors. The low-grade op-amp design of those few audio components that still deign to include a headphone jack is not the way to get the best results from quality phones.

Next, your best interconnect cables should be used between your preamp Tape Out and the headphone amp. Also make sure the level of the incoming signal is correctly matched to the headphone amp. I had to lower the Tape Out internal pots on my preamp as far down as they would turn in order to avoid distortion in the peaks with both of the headphone amps I used in this review: the Creek OBH-11 and the Audio Alchemy HPA v1.0. Better yet, go directly from your CD player or DAC into the headphone amp, bypassing your preamp altogether. You may also find that tweaks such as the Big & Little Foot (AudioQuest sorbothane feet) or even the Shakti Stone -- whose effect may sometimes be dismayingly subtle on larger components -- can result in an easily discerned improvement in headphone sonics when used with a headphone amp.

LISTENING SOURCES

I eventually settled on the Audio Alchemy headphone amp, a fine audio bargain, lacking only very slightly in the "foundation" portion of the spectrum and subtly in the transparency department vs. my reference headphone amp at ten times the cost. (By the way, this unit, the AKG K 1000 dynamic phones and matching amplifier, are available in the U.S. again after a period during which they were only distributed in Europe.) It includes the HeadRoom spatial processor circuit, which I did not use in this evaluation because I listen primarily to classical and jazz, where its subtle "connecting-up" of the sounds inside your head is of less value than with most pop recordings.

For listening tests, I chose some of the gold CDs that I was reviewing anyway, some Nimbus ambisonic CDs, and some of my personal favorites of the true binaural CDs which I air on my twice-annual All Binaural national broadcasts of AUDIOPHILE AUDITION. Many of the gold CDs have an added clarity that, whether due to the gold or to other improvements during mastering, does show up easily -- as nearly every just noticeable difference does -- in headphone auditioning. Ambisonic recordings sound much better on stereo headphones (without any special decoding) than standard stereo recordings. This is because the matrixed surround information "fills in" some of the "holes" in one's head that occur with stereo material. The same improvement can be realized with old SQ and QS recordings transferred to CD, if you know which ones those were. Some of us still have the original quad LPs, but then one has to deal with the increased attention to the surface noise of the LPs which is unavoidable during headphone listening.

Finally, since binaural recordings are made especially for headphone listening rather than speaker playback, they are perfect material with which to evaluate phones. I have found that slight phase irregularities in phones can damage or destroy the realism of the "you are there" binaural experience. One of the few phones I have found to suffer seriously from this are the various incarnations of the Sony MDR-V6, widely used due to recommendation by Consumer Reports. On a revealing test on my own Binaural Audition Sampler tape, an electric shaver is moved in a straight line left to right in front of the viewer, err, listener. If the shaver's location becomes diffuse and not clearly placed when it passes directly in front of you, phase problems with your headphones or perhaps elsewhere in your equipment are the culprit. With the V6s the shaver images fuzzes out almost completely.

(Another area in which phase abnormalities can damage binaural localization is various noise reduction systems. With analog binaural recording, no encoding is best of all, Dolby B's effect is minimal, Dolby S is not too bad, but Dolby C and dbx II reduce binaural accuracy of location beyond salvage.)

LISTENING COMPARISON

Sony's new CD3000s have no difficulty maintaining a superb binaural image with all binaural recordings. Part of the reason is surely what Sony calls the "ear-conscious design" of the driver unit. The large drivers are positioned inside the roomy outer shells in accordance with the angle of the pinna of each ear, i.e., they are parallel to the front angle of the pinna yet not touching them. This makes use of some of the direction-locating abilities of the folds and troughs in the pinna and eliminates the feeling of pressure upon the ears. A very wide and unencumbered sonic field is the result. This is very similar to headphones such as the Jecklin and AKG K 1000 whose drivers sit slightly away from the outer ears.

The comfort level of the Sony is also very high, though from first appearance it might seem that such large phones would be heavy and fatiguing. They have an ingenious free-adjust mechanism that eliminates any adjustment of the headband. Whatever your head size, the phones accommodate automatically to it with a soft fit. Special cushioning insulators between the front of the driver housing and the earpad suspend the assembly and suppress any extraneous sounds coming from the cord, headband or the driver on the other side of the head.

These are very definitely closed-ear headphones, and while I have never found such designs inferior to open-air phones for binaural or stereo, you should be aware that you might not hear UPS or mail delivery at the door when listening on these phones. On the other hand, they would be perfect for use as recording monitors when the recording engineer is in the same room as the performers.

The Grado flagship phones will quickly be compared with the previous HP-1 & 2 models that they replace. With their wood bodies they are lighter than the older versions, and they are less power hungry. With both the Grados and Sonys plugged into the same headphone amp, levels were actually a bit higher on the Grados. The great bass end, for which all the Grados are known, is still there as strong as ever, but it is joined with a more extended high end -- yet one that never even hints of tizziness or steeliness.

Both of these phones are at the top of the headphone-designer's art today, and a choice between them would have to be made on the particular sonic taste of the user, just as with speaker systems having roughly similar price and characteristics. Both will enable the wearer to concentrate fully on the music and not think about the phones -- after all, one is not seeing them in front as with speakers. On this point I think many would prefer the Sony for their terrific comfort factor. They also sounded better than the Grados with very low-output headphone jacks such as on portable CD and cassette players.

The realism with binaural recordings was excellent with both phones, but with stereo material, the Grados suffered from a more exaggerated "separation distortion" -- the effect of the orchestra or band being grouped into three clumps inside the head -- one at each ear and one in the center of the skull. This was evidently due to the closer proximity of the drivers to the ears with the Grados. The Sony had a more distant and natural perspective with both binaural and stereo. Though stereo material was never intended for headphone listening in the first place, it was most enjoyable to listen to, even for long periods of time. I would say because of the uniquely-angled drivers (for closed headphones) the Sonys are the equal of my reference AKG K 1000 phones for binaural audition.

The ultra-transparent sonics of these two phones (with a good source) cannot be beat at this price by any loudspeakers. There are some problems with all headphones that keep us at arm's length from perfection, just as there are plenty of problems with all loudspeakers. (The new VLS "Auri" headphone processors promise a complete, private Pro-Logic surround experience with any stereo headphones - sure to be of interest to Home Theater fans.) To close, I'd like to quote fellow headphone-oriented colleague David M. Doll writing in The Sensible Sound: "I suggest we accept the psychoacoustic and physiological limitations of listening with phones and balance these against their obvious pluses."

John Sunier


Copyright 1995, 1996, 1997 Secrets of Home Theater & High Fidelity
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