SOUNDSTAGE! ON HIFIFeatures Archives

December 15, 2002's 2002 Gift-Gifting Guide
(All prices in US dollars.)

As far as gift giving goes this year, make life easy on yourself: make it a headphone Christmas!

Lots of audiophiles don't think as highly of headphone listening as I do, so scroll down to the end of the article for a special suggestion for that picky audiophile in your life (or for yourself if that person happens to be you).

As for the rest of us, there are lots of times we could be enjoying music, but don't -- whether out of fear of disturbing significant others or rules on noise. I also use mine in the gym as self-defense against the unceasing sonic onslaught of all-the-hits-all-the-time radio in the weight room.

Sennheiser HD 600 headphones ($449): For a complete rundown on the HD 600s, refer to my full review. The short version: Supremely comfortable hour after hour and breathtakingly accurate, these are the headphones most likely to convert the doubting Thomases. They're not perfect, but their flaws are easily fixed. They have a 300-ohm impedance, which means puny IC-driven headphone circuits simply don’t cut it, but there are lots of good headphone amps out there. Shop around and you can buy 'em for less than $300.

Equinox HD 600/580 Sennheiser cable upgrade ($189/9' run): This is a tremendous improvement over the Sennheiser-supplied cable for the HD 580/HD 600 headphones. The Equinox cable is an extremely flexible four-conductor quad-braid field-geometry cable constructed of ultra-high-purity copper encased in a Teflon/oxygen dielectric. One end of the cable terminates in a set of gold-plated Sennheiser spade connections, while the other sports either a professional 3.5mm heavy-duty connector with gold contacts or professional .25" termination with silver contacts. What's that mean? That you barely notice you're tethered to a cable and the sound is richer, more three-dimensional, and possesses greater detail and clarity. Bass has more impact, the highs float effortlessly along the top of the fundamental, and the midrange is positively scary. If you know someone with either headphone, the Equinox HD 600/580 is a no-brainer perfect gift.

HeadRoom AirHead ($119)/HeadRoom Total AirHead ($199) headphone amplifiers: This is the headphone amp for portable applications. It's about the size of a cassette tape and weighs next to nothing (even with batteries). It'll boost the output of your Walkman or MP3 player so that your high-quality headphones don't sound like the crappy ones you traded in for them and it'll get rid of that "music in the middle" clumping. The Total AirHead uses premium parts for smoother sound and greater dimensionality. Perfect for commuting or fitness-center anti-terrorism purposes.

Etymotic ER-6 ear-canal headphones ($149): Far more comfortable than my $300 Etymotic ER-4Ses, but just as effective at sealing out environmental noise. These guys are easy enough for a portable to drive (and are the perfect mate for the AirHead). They have a balanced, full-bodied, detailed sound that is non-fatiguing. I was going to say I fight with my wife over who gets to use them on long trips, but that's not true -- they're hers now. What a nice guy I am. You could be one too -- give somebody a pair this year.

And for the headphone lover who has everything: a bag -- something to carry it all in. There are lots of choices at all price points. I happen to be fond of the ones HeadRoom makes (they have one that fits my PBJ-100 for $49), but CaseLogic and Eagle Outfitters also make handy generic belt and shoulder bags that would make thoughtful gifts.

Now, up top I told you to scroll down for my big suggestion for the pickiest, but most deserving audiophile you know: Shunyata Research Hydra Power-Distribution Center ($1995). I did say special, didn't I? This handsome, compact, densely hefty, six-outlet unit has no moving parts, no current limitations, and does not generate any heat or mechanical noise. What's it do? Think of it as a roach motel for EMI and RFI -- they go in, but they don't come out. The Hydra's compact container is filled with "Stardust": a combination of several chemical compounds that are fired in high-temperature kilns, causing them to crystallize into a granular substance that acts as an HF/AC line-noise "sponge." It literally sucks the garbage out of the AC line when the Hydra's field-shaping bus arrays electromagnetically focus the high frequencies within the Hydra's Stardust-filled interior. Or so designer Caelin Gabriel claims. For all I know, he's using the original floobydust in there. Ask me if I care -- it works! Every system I've used the Hydra in has sounded better for it -- more open, bigger, deeper, broader, higher, faster. The only AC conditioner I've ever used with absolutely no " … but, …" attached.

Happy holidays!

...Wes Phillips

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