Q: In light of Oppo's great performance with Blu-ray players, what do you think of the company's headphones and headphone amps?
A: I love Oppo (oppodigital.com) headphones, as does every audio reviewer I know. The headphones use high-end planar magnetic technology, offering something completely different from the dynamic drivers that make up the other 99 percent of the market. Planar magnetics provide extremely transparent, detailed sound without harshness, and audiophiles love them.
I have reviewed only the $399 Oppo PM-3, which many reviewers consider the best headphone available under $400 and a bargain for a planar magnetic design. It is my sub-$400 favorite as well, and I heartily recommend it. Most planar magnetics are open-back designs. The PM-3 is a closed-back design, which makes it a good choice for folks looking to isolate themselves from outside noise while still enjoying planar magnetic sound.
Most planar magnetic headphones require a separate amplifier to drive them, but Oppo headphones do not. You can power them with the headphone output of an audio component or portable device. That said, if you want to improve any headphone's sound quality, check out the $299 Oppo HA-2 portable headphone amplifier with digital-to-analog converter (DAC). The DAC is top class, and the amplifier is tremendously clean and powerful. Using it with the USB output of your device will provide the best results. I think the HA-2 improves the sound quality of the PM-3 a good 20 percent compared with the iPhone headphone output. The sound is quieter, cleaner, richer, just all-around better. You can use the HA-2 with other brands of headphones, as well.
You can read an excellent interview with Oppo headphone designer Igor Levitsky at tinyurl.com/oppostory and learn more about the PM-3 design process. As with any Oppo product, you can expect first-class quality, presentation and packaging, as well as great service after the sale.
While I am on the subject of personal audio, this is a good time to mention a new portable audio product that completely blew me away. Focal (pronounced so the cal rhymes with gal) is a high-end speaker manufacturer in France. It is considered a very high-end manufacturer, offering highly regarded speakers that range up to $269,000 per pair. (That's not a typo; all those zeros are real.)
Focal has new wired earphones called Sphear (tinyurl.com/focalsphear) and they sound so good, I could not put them down. I often have trouble getting a comfortable fit with earphones and usually prefer over-the-ear ones. The Focal Sphear earphones fit perfectly, and they stayed in place once fitted. They have a microphone for phone calls.
Detailed, full, rich, warm, clear, musical, involving — every adjective you can use to describe good sound can be applied to the Sphear. And here's the really good news: These headphones don't cost a quarter of a million dollars. They're priced at $179, and given the sound quality, I think they are a bargain. People who choose from the Bose and Beats offerings at big-box stores and think they sound good probably don't know that this level of sound quality even exists.
Of course, not everyone wants to spend hundreds of dollars on headphones, and I certainly understand that. I recently tested some Bluetooth 4.1 sport earphones with microphone that are well made and have hi-fi quality sound for only $19.99. Next week I will have more about this excellent budget buy.
Send questions to Don Lindich at firstname.lastname@example.org. Get recommendations and read past columns at soundadviceblog.com.