Following up on Jennifer’s well-rounded radio gift guide and Matthew’s essential recommendations for radio books, I’ve assembled a list of gear I recommend to enhance the radio listening experience, from broadcast to internet. I have tried everything on this list, and many of these items are in my personal stash of audio equipment.
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First off, every radio and audio lover should have a good set of headphones. Sometimes you want to shut out the world around you and escape into a great broadcast, or you simply don’t want to bother others nearby. I go through earbuds like crazy for portable use, but for more relaxed or serious listening I prefer more traditional on-ear and circumaural (over-the-ear) headphones.
The Sony MDR-7506 is a mainstay of radio, music, film and video production. I’ve been using these ‘phones for well over a decade for my own professional work. The reason is simple. They have very balanced, uncolored sound in a very rugged package. Their circumaural design effectively isolates the listener from outside noise without the use of any electronic active noise reduction hardware. A sound recordist on a film set needs to be sure she is hearing what her microphone is picking up, not the ambient sound, just as a radio announcer needs to hear his own voice clearly without the headphone’s sound being picked up by his microphone. These Sony’s perform well in all these circumstances, and are just as well suited for listening at home.
For home use I own a similar model in Sony’s consumer line, the MDR-V6. The difference between these and the 7506 are very slight. The V6 seems to have a bit more padding around the ear. The sound is every so slightly warmer, and so a bit more suited for extended music listening at home. Right now Amazon has the V6 priced at the amazingly low price of $65, which is an absolute bargain. These are the kind of headphones that are built to be used for years, not months.
While the Sonys are great headphones, sometimes you want to trade in some of the sound isolation for a slightly more detailed experience. Grado Labs is a small Brooklyn-based company that primarily makes headphones and phono cartridges, almost all of which are still made in the US. Their headphones range from a very reasonable $79 all the way up to about $1700. I haven’t had the pleasure of auditioning the high-end Grado headphones, but I’ve greatly enjoyed their two least expensive models.
The Grado SR60 headphones are the company’s entry model, and easily outclass other manufacturers’ headphones at several times their $79 street price. Unlike the Sonys, these don’t seal you off from your surroundings, so they are definitely more appropriate for using in settings where you might need to hear some ambient sound. They are very balanced, and do not over-emphasize bass the way so many other under-$100 headphones do.
The Grado SR80 headphones are the company’s next model up. I use these at home when listening to CDs, my iPhone or internet radio. The SR80s are a bit more detailed than the 60s, with a somewhat more realistic soundstage. The only complaint I might have is that they reveal the flaws in compromised digital sound sources, like poorly encoded MP3s. Yet listening to analog sources with restricted fidelity, like AM radio, is very pleasant.
USB Audio Interface + Headphone Amp: HiFiMan HM-101
As I’ve been writing about lately, digital audio, especially from the internet, can be all over the place when it comes to fidelity. One simple way to improve your computer audio listening experience is to use an external audio interface. The headphone amplifiers in most computers are pretty poor, certainly not even on par with what’s in most iPods, MP3 players and smartphones. Plus, all of the components inside a computer, laptop or desktop, are pretty hostile to audio signals. So taking the digital to analog processing and headphone amplifier outside the computer instantly improves the listening experience.
These days there are dozens of USB audio interfaces aimed at musicians and audiophiles, with prices from $25 to $2500. I recently bought a little USB audio interface and headphone amplifier that knocked my socks off, especially for its tiny price of only $40! Just slightly bigger than a matchbox the HiFiMan HM-101 has just two connections for headphones and line-out, the latter of which can be used to connect to a home stereo.
Compared to the built-in headphone jack in my MacBook Pro the HM-101 gives individual instruments a little more space, rendering them more distinct. Somehow at the same time it also makes the sometimes grainy high frequencies of MP3s a little less annoying and fatiguing. I can’t really think of a less expensive upgrade to your computer’s audio that will yield as much bang for the buck.
Paul’s Desert Island Radio: The RCA Super Radio III.
Last year I recommended four great radios that fit a variety of uses. This year I’m adding one more to the list, the venerable SuperRadio III. I last wrote about the Super Radio in 2010 when this much beloved radio started becoming available again. This radio is particularly well suited to AM listeners because it pulls in distant stations well, and delivers higher fidelity on strong local stations. Its large two-way mono speaker is designed for natural reproduction of voices and sounds very nice with FM music, as well. If I could only own one radio, the Super Radio III would be my choice.
If there’s a radio lover on your gift list this year I’m certain you can’t go wrong with any of this gear. Is there a radio listening accessory you’d recommend? Let us know in the comments.
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