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A Fire In The Head

Could audiophile be done for so little, I wondered?

Amazingly, it seems, the answer is yes. I've been listening to these headphones for a few weeks now for at least a couple of hours a day, and I can safely tell you that they are, by a distance the best value item of hi-fi equipment I have ever bought, borrowed or built. These headphones are so good that even connected to a humble MP3 player they sound almost as good as my four grand hi-fi set-up. That's something I'm still having trouble coming to terms with.

I plugged them into the Trekstor Vibez player I reviewed a couple of weeks ago, and the clarity and detail they reveal in music is nothing short of astonishing. Pat Metheney's jazz guitar has a ring that I can only imagine being more real when standing a few feet from the man himself on stage. The piano on Stacey Kent's The Lyric album really sounds like you've got Dave Newton playing in your head. It's scarily realistic.

These are also the only pair of headphones I've ever put on my ears that capture the kind of bass impact you get from a really good quality pair of speakers. And it's not just any old bass either: you really get a thump of quality with the 325i's. You can hear and feel the double bass player plucking away at the strings during the tracks on Lisa Ekdahl's stunning Back to Earth album. Complex rock is rendered with incredible texture and vigor, and Ayrshire's best, Biffy Clyro, assaulted my eardrums with joyous rhythm and rip-roaring energy.

What I did next, however, really took the sound to the next level. I ordered a battery-powered headphone amplifier from a DIY builder in the States. I paid £20 (yes you read it right - there's no missing zero!) and he built one, stuck it in a mint tin and sent it across the pond to my home address. The one thing that small MP3 players often suffer with is low power output. That doesn't usually matter when they're powering earbuds or ear-canal noise isolation phones such as the ones we've reviewed from Shure, Etymotic and Ultimate Ears in the past, but when larger headphones such as these Grados are connected you have to turn the volume up to near max to achieve decent volume levels and at those levels music can often sound strained and a little compressed as the player's amplification circuit is stretched to its limits.

A headphone amp rectifies that, boosting not only volume, but more importantly, dynamics, and the difference is really noticeable in all types of music. All the clarity and detail is there, but when you turn it up the music sounds effortless rather than strained. Even without turning the volume up, stuff like big classical pieces and choral music take on an extra depth and dimension. It's another essential piece of kit for audiophile listening on the move.

There are a few problems with all this, though. I now don't want to listen on the move with anything less than my Grados. But they're not very portable - especially not when you're carting around a portable headphone amp as well, and neither do they block out external sound. The open back design is also likely to seriously annoy anyone who sits next to me on a plane or train (at least I think it does - no one has asked me to turn it down yet), and the cable is so long that you have to wrap it around your waist if you want to use them on the move. Finally, in order to plug them into the 3.5mm socket on a player you have to use an adapter as the cable terminates in a larger 6.3mm socket.

The enormous gold earcups and retro radio-ham appearance also make you look pretty gittish, and the supra-aural earcups aren't the most comfortable in the world for extended listening either. But for all that I wouldn't go back. Not for anything. Not to anything else. Everything else now pales in comparison.

So what does this all prove - apart from the fact that I've got an unhealthy obsession with music and spend too much of my time and money on audiophile gear? It proves that in a world of diminishing returns and hi-fi snobbery, anyone can enjoy audiophile results for under £500.

For anyone with even a passing interest in experiencing good sound quality, it's worth experimenting with this sort of a set up. Believe me, you won't regret it.

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