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Sight and Sound

Sight and Sound: Music to Your Ears

by ADAM WASSERMAN

Sight Sound HDL 911
Photography: Gregory Downer
© Gregory Downer 2011

The problem with austerity measures is that they can leave life feeling so, well, austere. But the new economic realities don't have to leave us feeling artistically underwhelmed — particularly in the case of high-quality headphones. Even in flush times, attaining genuine audiophile sound often seemed prohibitively expensive. (Really, what's a year's worth of college for your kid when you can listen to Callas's '55 Sonnambula through an electrostatic speaker that looks like the monolith from 2001: A Space Odyssey?) But upgrading your ear-cans has long been one of the most cost-effective ways to hear what all the high-fidelity fuss is about. With virtually no physical space getting between your ears and your music, the aural experience provided by a superlative pair of headphones can exceed what's obtainable through pricey speakers.

I tested five pairs of up-market, commercially available headphones in the hope of finding the perfect match for operatic and classically inclined listening. To appreciate their potential, though, one has to start with recordings of unimpeachable sonic quality. All the music I listened to came either directly from CDs or in the form of digitized audio tracks that had been encoded in a lossless compression format; in the case of MP3s encoded in the blunt, early-2000s standard of 128 kilobits-per-second, these headphones can't restore fidelity that got stripped away long before Lady Gaga ever thought of turning top sirloin into haute couture. I'm guessing that any of these headphones — listed in order of escalating price — will amount to a major upgrade over those crummy plastic ear-buds that came with your iPod. A few of them, though, may leave you willing to forgo the live concert experience for the quiet comforts of home.

Bang & Olufsen Form 2 (3); $100; www.bang-olufsen.com 

I found it curious that these headphones are the only over-ear model currently offered by the luxury Danish firm Bang & Olufsen, whose modish speakers and audio components have always walked a fine line between style and substance. The Form 2's minimalist design did not exactly inspire confidence in its durability. The headphones were also oddly confining to wear for extended periods, particularly in light of their feathery weight of just 2.4 ounces. 

I was mildly impressed by the sound of the Form 2, which utilizes a semi-open-back design for its earpads. In spite of their size, the headphones displayed a surprisingly full-bodied sound, albeit one that seemed to artificially emphasize instrumental midrange and bass over treble clarity. Listening to Rinaldo Alessandrini's 2009 recording of Vivaldi's Armida al Campo d'Egitto, for instance, the string section of the crisp Concerto Italiano seemed to lose a good deal of its distinctive glassy luster and coalesce into a flat, formless mass. Régine Crespin's heartrendingly specific recording of "D'amour l'ardente flamme," a Romantic performance in every sense of the word, sounded particularly mushy and undefined when listening through the Form 2s — the acoustic equivalent of swapping Marguerite's anguished longing for something closer to sweaty teenage lust. Still, for headphones at this relatively inexpensive price-point, perhaps that's splitting hairs. 

Bowers & Wilkins P5 (4); $299.99; www.bowers-wilkins.com 

B&W clearly designed these headphones for an on-the-go experience: they feature a 3.5-mm stereo mini-jack for use with iPods and other digital music players, and their closed-back on-ear design mitigates the noise that a New York City subway car can exert over the breathy intimacy of a recording such as Teresa Stratas's recital of Kurt Weill songs. 

I was impressed by the overall sound quality evinced by these diminutive headphones. The natural, well-defined bass response made listening to the Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra's recording of Edgar Meyer's Concerto in D for Double Bass and Orchestra a musical experience rather than a purely visceral one. At the other end of the spectrum, the P5's unaffected treble range allowed the sheen of Dawn Upshaw's voice to shine through in her exquisite recording of Fauré's La Chanson d'Ève with Gilbert Kalish. Ultimately, though, there was neither the degree of articulation nor the "soundstage" presentation — the impression of sound emerging from musicians in the room rather than from two speakers strapped to one's head — that was audible with some of the other units considered here. 

Constructed of a slender stainless-steel skeleton, with its headband and earpads wrapped in New Zealand sheep's leather, the stylish P5s look like an objet d'art, which raised some red flags about their resilience during day-to-day use. These quibbles, though, would certainly not prevent me from reaching for the P5s during my morning commute. 

Grado RS2i (2); $495; www.gradolabs.com 

Hands down, these headphones were my favorite pair among those tested here. Handmade in Brooklyn, these boutique cans look like a throwback to the audio appurtenances of yesteryear. With their featherweight cured-mahogany air chambers, tensile headband and open-back design, the RS2is presented no issues when it came to extended listening. Their supra-aural design — featuring pads that sit comfortably on top of the ears, rather than enveloping them in an attempt to isolate the ear from outside sound — created a notably neutral acoustic environment. 

Describing the experience of listening to music via the RS2is is slightly elusive, if only because these headphones don't attempt to impose a distinct sonic signature; instead, they're pristinely accurate aural lenses through which only the recording itself is transmitted, allowing one to perceive a lot more and a lot more clearly. Listening to Pierre Boulez's recent Mahler CD featuring the unfinished Tenth Symphony's Adagio, I could hear the string players from the Cleveland Orchestra breathing in time with the maestro's conducting of the aching opening measures. The music seemed to exhibit a depth and vitality that, in my experience, has only been associated with a live experience. The understated virtuosity of Cecilia Bartoli's charming performance of Clari's "Come dolce a me favelli" seemed to emanate from directly in front of me, as an actual full-throated voice instead of a recording. 

For anyone who's spent a lifetime listening to music on sub-par headphones, hearing the RS2is can be a bit of an overwhelming experience at first — akin to firing up your new fifty-five-inch HD TV, only to notice that it lets you count every pore on your local news anchor's face. With continued listening, though, you'll come to expect nothing less, because you simply won't find anything better. 

Sennheiser HD 650 (1); $649.95; www.sennheiserusa.com 

I was prepared to love Sennheiser's foray into the fray, having long appreciated the company's more affordable models for daily use. Unfortunately, while the HD 650s were the most comfortable pair I tested, some key aspects make their use with certain home-stereo and mobile setups impractical. Specifically, these headphones have a remarkably high impedance of 300 ohms — a unit of electrical resistance denoting the efficiency with which the headphones' drivers convert incoming electrical energy into sound. As a result, the HD 650s sound as spectacularly detailed and vivid as any of the others, but only when listening with the help of a high-powered amplifier or home-theater system; they sound somewhat anemic when used with lower-power, integrated devices, including iPods and computers. 

While relatively faint in volume in low-power scenarios, the sound of the headphones truly blossomed when the testing equipment was upgraded. A notable emphasis on bass frequencies seemed to arrive at the expense of vocal and instrumental articulation but certainly made the listening exciting. With the HD 650s, Joan Sutherland's 1962 recording of "Deh, se un'urna," from Beatrice di Tenda,was suffused with an audible ease of emission, agility and luminosity that seemed to bring those of us who never saw her live one step closer to the actual experience. The headphones shine brightest, though, when the cabaletta rolls around and Sutherland lets 'er rip. Issues with their overall versatility aside, I'd make these headphones my go-to pair when watching an opera DVD. 

Audio-Technica ATH-W1000x (5); $699.95; www.audio-technica.com 

The largest and most expensive of the units reviewed here, the ATH-W1000xs top out at more than three quarters of a pound and are so big that the burnished black-cherry housings encroach on the peripheral vision of the wearer. Still, Audio-Technica has mitigated the potential strain of extended use with plush circumaural earpads and two spring-loaded wings that buttress the headphones against the head. 

Everything about the W1000xs feels swanky, and the sound they produce is just as luxurious as one would expect. To my ears, these headphones presented a sonic profile that was equally vivid to that of the aforementioned Grados, though perhaps slightly warmer and more mellow. They notably excelled in the bass arena, and René Pape's performance of "O Gnade! Höchstes Heil!" from Valery Gergiev's recent Parsifal recording was a revelation, full of desperation and previously unnoticed definition. Also impressive was the headphones' capacity to individuate the elements of dense orchestral parts while defining low notes that might otherwise get lost in sonic murk: a close listening to "Gegrüsst, O König" from Esa-Pekka Salonen's recording of Gurrelieder found that the headphones imparted an almost three-dimensional transparency to the crowded, jazzy opening measures. These might just be the most extravagant headphones you'll ever own, so perhaps it's only appropriate that their outsized construction makes them a fair substitute for a Royal Wedding hat. spacer 

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