Grado Laboratories SR 125 headphones
I've recently constructed a system, based on my Dell Windows PC, for recording, notating, and playing back musical compositions. It consists of the Coda Technologies Finale 2002 music-notation software, the Lynx Studio One soundcard, the Roland SC-8850 Sound Canvas MIDI synthesizer, a Fatar Studiologic SL-161 MIDI keyboard controller, a Creek 4240SE integrated amplifier, the Polk RT25i loudspeakers that I reviewed in September 2001, MITerminator 5 interconnects, and MITerminator 2 speaker cables. My goal was to maximize my computer's capability, flexibility, ease of use, and sound quality. My first project was a three-movement classical piece for acoustic fretless bass guitar and piano, which I'm writing for John Atkinson.
The 2002 version of Coda's Finale software is incredibly powerful and user-friendly. Just set up a blank score for any number of instruments, start tapping away at the MIDI keyboard and the notes appear on the screen, where they can be easily edited, played back as any orchestral instrument in the General MIDI format, and printed in manuscript-quality fonts. Unlike more mundane composition software, which quantizes one's MIDI input to the nearest eighth or 16th note (like a cheap drum machine), then prints something on the screen in a hard-to-read format, Finale quantizes each quarter note into 1024 parts, records exactly what you played, including all the subtle dynamic inflections, and plays it right back at you.
The Lynx Studio One soundcard ($499 direct from Lynx) has an audiophile-quality analog section and a detailed and musical D/A converter, but I bought it primarily for its MIDI input/output capabilities. I run Finale through the Lynx into the Roland SC-8850 Sound Canvas, and the Roland into the Creek. Roland's Sound Canvas MIDI synthesizers are known for their natural-sounding acoustic samples, recorded stereophonically with realistic ambience. The SC-8850, in particular, is designed for computer-music applications and can play back up to 16 MIDI instrument patches simultaneously. According to Roland, the patches are designed to sound natural when layered atop one another orchestrally. I was particularly taken with the naturalness of the grand piano, acoustic guitar, woodwind, brass, and percussion patches, the electronic synthesizer patches are as good as anything I've heard, and the sound effects (chirping bird, gunshot, seashore, helicopter) are quite fun. In a pinch, you can tuck the little Roland box under one arm, the MIDI controller under the other, and pick up some extra bucks playing a bar mitzvah on the weekend.
What does all of this bumpf have to do with Grado headphones? Well, most of my composing was done in the evenings and weekends, when either the baby was sleeping or my mother-in-law was watching TV in the computer room, and I did not want to submit my family to the process of musical composition (it's kind of like watching sausage being made). For most of this process I used the Grado SR-125 headphones as playback monitors, and only now do I realize how special these headphones are.
I've always known that the '125 is a neutral, detailed, and warm-sounding headphone overall, with extended frequency extremes, wide dynamic range, and the ability to sound natural at a wide range of volume levels. Based on my experience with the budget and top-of-the-line Grado models, I remain convinced that the SR-125 represents the greatest sound quality per dollar in the Grado range.
However, it was during the composition of this piece that, for the first time, I wore the SR-125s for several hours at a stretch, and not for one instant were they aurally or physically fatiguing. They were simultaneously musical and revealing of every nuance I recorded, but were amazingly comfortable on my head—more so than any headphone I've ever used. Even after four hours of continuous use, my ears and head never hurt or became itchy, and there's just enough of an external acoustic seal to filter out outside noises (such as my mother-in-law watching Wheel of Fortune in the same room). I can't think of a better headphone for studio monitoring.
As for how the SR-125s compared with the RS-1s and SR-60s: The Grado RS-1s are far more detailed and neutral, with more extended bass and greater clarity and dynamic range. They also retrieved ambience cues like the Dickens, and would be my headphone of choice (despite their slightly polite top octave) for an hour or less of hardcore audiophile listening. However, in order to achieve bass extension, resolution, and clarity, Grado houses the drivers in wooden "salad bowl" cans which, I believe, are made from the same materials as their Reference-series cartridges. The wooden cans are a much heavier and tighter fit on the head, and can become a bit tiring after an hour or so, and the ears begin to sweat.
I preferred the cheaper SR-60s—reviewed in the June and October 1994 issues of Stereophile—for portable use. Compared with the SR-125s, the SR-60s are less revealing and more euphonically colored (particularly in the midbass), and so will hide and sweeten any fatiguing shortcomings inherent in an inexpensive portable CD player. (I use the RadioShack Optimus 3400 with a HeadRoom D battery power supply.) Moreover, although the specs don't indicate it, the SR-60 seemed to be easier to drive than the low-impedance SR-125, and are therefore less likely to cause strain and distortion on the part of the CD player.
Here are three headphones at three different prices for three different purposes. If you're a hardcore audiophile who also happens to do studio recording and monitoring and/or computer-music applications, and who occasionally uses a portable CD player, buy them all. I did.