More Headphones: Warwick Acoustics, Aperio, Bravura, Sonoma

I've drifted away from using headphones in recent years, not because I don't enjoy them but because I enjoy them a little too much. That is, I tend to get into the swing of things when I wear them, and am soon inclined to turn up the volume as my excitement rises. That way lies tinnitus, which isn't a lot of fun.

While my collection of personal audio is pretty much complete (with high-end entries from HiFiMan, Audeze, Focal, and Sennheiser), I'd consider an addition from Britain's Warwick Acoustics if I were currently in the market for further headphone bliss. Warwick's Aperio Black (above)—a $32,000 combo of a balanced electrostatic amp/energizer plus an accompanying open-back headset—is near the top of Mount Olympus. The DACs that are built into the CNC-machined aluminum chassis are dual-mono, 32-bit/384kHz affairs, and the DSP promises 64-bit fixed-point processing at native sample rates.

I found the headphones comfortable to wear, thanks to their reasonable weight (14oz) and soft top-grain sheepskin leather. The 6.5' silicone-insulated and Kevlar-reinforced cable isn't microphonic in the least. I wish this were true for every cable that comes with a pricey pair of cans.

Sonically we were off to a slightly shaky start with Derek and the Dominos' "Bell Bottom Blues"; these high-end 'phones, like many others, can be a bit ruthless with less-than-perfect '70s rock recordings. (Not the fault of the Aperio, really.) But soon there was beauty, and lots of it. The product lets you hear lots of air around the notes, something that stood out both on Holly Cole's "Night" and on Keith Jarrett's The Köln Concert. The Warwick combo was also highly resolving. You can hear Jarrett's right foot shuffle on the pedal even when he's not actively pushing it.

Talk about diminishing returns: For a 26 grand savings, you get about 90% of the Aperio's performance with another Warwick product: the excellent Bravura electrostatic headphones coupled with a Sonoma M1 amp (above; $6000 for the silver combo, $6800 for the matte black).

I asked the team if they would throw in a free headphone stand for buyers of the superior Aperio system. Not only that, was the answer: for the $32,000 asking price, they'll send someone to the client's house every week to polish the amp and maybe make you a nice cup of tea. You heard it here first.