Stereophile's Products of 2010 HEADPHONE PRODUCT OF THE YEAR


Benchmark DAC1 HDR USB D/A headphone amplifier ($1895; reviewed by Erick Lichte, Vol.33 No.9 review)

2010 RUNNERS-UP (in alphabetical order)
CEntrance DACport 24/96 USB headphone amplifier ($399.95; reviewed by John Atkinson & Erick Lichte, Vol.33 Nos.6 & 10 review)
Etymotic Research hf2/hf5 in-ear headphones (hf2, $179; hf5, $149; reviewed by Wes Phillips, Vol.33 No.8 review)
Grado SR60i headphones ($79; reviewed by Jim Austin, Vol.33 No.4 review)
Music Hall dac25.2 D/A headphone amplifier ($599; reviewed by Sam Tellig & John Atkinson, Vol.33 No.2, review)

I guess we can blame the current headphone rage on the Apple iPod—if you've got an iPod, you've got headphones, and who, other than Sam Tellig, doesn't have an iPod? But let's face it: Headphones have become as much a fashion necessity as Levi's or Chuck Taylors. They're ubiquitous. And this is a good thing. Have you seen all the kids rocking their headphones? Pink headphones, blue headphones, zebra-striped headphones, headphones with skulls on them, bedazzled headphones, itsy-bitsy headphones, gargantuan, old-school headphones. And celebrities, too: At this very moment, every hip-hop artist in the world is talking to an agent, discussing a product-placement strategy involving their favorite brand of headphones. Dr. Dre's got 'phones, Lady Gaga's got 'phones, P. Diddy's got 'phones.

Yes, headphones are pretty cool. The kids are having fun, and we can expect some of them to turn their attention to higher-quality sound reproduction. Meanwhile, for the audio enthusiast who can't afford a big two-channel system, or who doesn't have a dedicated listening environment, a headphone system provides a viable and rewarding alternative. So it only makes sense that we would create a category honoring the best headphone components.

The classic, crazily affordable Grado SR60i—my trusted reference—came this close to being our first-ever winner, but was edged out by the outstanding Benchmark DAC1 HDR USB D/A headphone amplifier, the latest in a growing line of fine Benchmark products. The DAC1 HDR offers slightly better build quality than earlier models, and adds a motorized Alps volume potentiometer. National Semiconductor LM4562 op-amps are used throughout its analog stage, as well as Teflon RCA connectors. Though it maintained the tonal balance of earlier DAC1s, the HDR proved more musical and engaging, with a bigger soundstage, better solidity and separation of instruments in the stereo image, and better treble resolution, said Erick Lichte.

Erick is having fun, too. As I write this, he's shaking his booty, using his Benchmark DAC1 HDR to blast Lady Gaga's "Telephone." (I'm just guessing.)