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Reviewer: Ryan Clarin
Sources: Meridian G07, Meridian G08, Naim CD3 and CD5i, Sony SCD-1
Headphone amps: Ray Samuels HR-2 and Emmeline Hornet, Headroom Maxed-out Desktop Amp [on review]), Headamp GS-1, Eddie Current HD-25, Meier Audio HA-2
Headphones: Joe Grado HP-1000 (HP-2/HP-3), Grado RS-1, Sennheiser HD600 with Cardas loom, HD650 with Equinox loom, Headphile-modified HP3000, Beyer DT770, and Grado 225s with C-Pads [all on review])
Cables: VH Audio Pulsars with Eichmann Gold Bullets, VH Audio Spectrum and Symmetry Silver Interconnects, Cardas Neutral Reference, Grover UR (various versions), BPT IC-SL [on review]
Review Component Retail after modifications: $1200 for HP3000 ($400-500 if user supplies parts); $360 for Beyerdynamic DT770/80 ($200 for mods themselves); $230 for Grado SR-225s, $99 for Grado C-Pads.

In the world of DIY, modding pre-existing products becomes second nature. Sometimes it appears that once new owners get their hands on anything, the first thing that pops into their heads is, "what can I do to make it better?" To those with the knowledge and expertise, I say kudos to you. Modding has the potential for taking gear to the next level. Nor can one doubt the success of individuals who have made a business out of modifying gear and making it sound considerably better without asking for an arm or a leg to do the job.

One such outfit is Headphile. Resident mod man Larry Dale has created a business of taking some topnotch and well-regarded headphones to the next level. Larry offers many services including headphone modifications, headphone stands and various interconnect options. Some of his headphone modifications include creating wood enclosures, hybrid designs that incorporate swapping drivers into non-stock enclosures, re-cabling and various combinations of these services. Larry and I have had numerous candid conversations and exchanged various emails about his ideas on headphone fidelity; his business and what it offers and stands for; as well as general audiophilia. On designing cables, Larry believes that "since they are the lifeline of either headphones or components, I like them to be fast, non-distorting of especially micro/macro detail and neutral. Usually a stock cable is a hindrance that is forgotten or regarded as unimportant. To me, that would be like running a Ferrari on bias ply tires." Larry believes that with headphones and the underlying concept of modding them, "stock designs can be improved upon most of the time. Thinking that a designer meant them to stay a certain way for "the best sound" is not realizing why the headphone was produced in the first place - to maximize on profit. If there were an ultimate model, there'd be no need to keep introducing new models which most admit are an improvement over the last. There are exceptions of course, usually at a significant price point."

I had the opportunity to check out three of Larry's designs that encompass the wide range and variety of services that Headphile provides. The first of the three creations I received was a hybrid design, sticking HP1000 drivers into the wooden shell of the Sony CD3000s. The sealed shell was altered to an open mesh-backed design and the whole affair was refitted with a silver harness that Larry calls BlackSilver.

They say that Joe Grado, the original owner of Grado Labs and the man responsible for the patent of the moving iron cartridge, was also the man to really put headphones on the map. When Joe came out with the HP-1000 Signature Series of headphones, he really set the audio world ablaze. No one before had heard headphones with such clarity, transparency and an ability to truly convey the emotion of music. Those cans were truly remarkable, a true reference dynamic transducer that many -- including myself -- considered to have virtually no sonic signature whatsoever. They definitely looked the part as well - aluminum cups, metal screws, metal everywhere, no plastic in sight. They probably could stand nuclear warfare and still keep on rocking. The HP-1000s received rave reviews. Electronics designers claimed that they could easily discern the differences between various resistors, capacitors and wiring utilizing the HP-1000s. Recording engineers appreciated their accuracy and amazing portrayal of the performance exactly as it was recorded. Home users enjoyed how musical they were and how the beauty and synergy of their systems shone through. However, those cans were costly in those times and the market was much smaller than today. The HP-1000s were eventually discontinued and the company ran close to being shut down, leading John Grado to take over Grado Labs and turning around the company with a new product line that became quite successful. However, the HP-1000s are still very popular as evidenced by the highly active used market that commands from $600 to $1000 for used sets. To this day, some continue to say that nothing since has come close to what the HP-1000s have accomplished as an utterly neutral and linear dynamic transducer that was practically devoid of any kind of coloration ...

... which brings us to current times in the land of Larry. Larry is quite fond of the HP-1000s and has communicated that they are his favorite set of cans. When he can, he places the HP-1000 drivers into different enclosures to create a slightly different sound and fit. Why? The stock HP-1000s were made of aluminum and combined with the clamping force of the metal headband, exerted heavy pressure on the user. Larry felt the need to utilize those great drivers in a more comfortable setting. The HP-1000s, like current Grados, were also supra-aural, which some home users felt was a part of their comfort issues. The CD-3000 shell is very comfortable, featuring an adjustable headband with earpieces that are of a circumaural fit and feature nice wooden enclosures.

As for the sound? If you already love and adore the HP-1000 sound as I do, you should find it just as brilliant. Some may prefer the originals, some may prefer Larry's hybrid but the latter don't deviate too far from the stock versions while offering some subtle yet noticeable differences. Regarding comfort, the nod goes to Larry. Those CD3000 shells sure feel good and the circumaural pads fit nicely around the ear, with the headband giving enough leeway to the top of your head without exerting too much pressure. Joe's original HP-1000s, regardless of how heavenly they sound, do get uncomfortable after a while. I'm a big boy though and usually tough out the pressure for hours on end because these 'phones just sound so damn good. The new circumaural nature appears to create a more airy sound, with instruments that seem to have more space and separation between
them. I have noticed that circumaural designs can sound more natural due to the fact that the pads go around the ear so that the sound interacts with the outer pinnae of the ears. To some, this is a more natural presentation.

The supra-aural nature avoids the outer pinnae of the ear, thus also some of the frequency aberrations created by the reflections of sound bouncing off the outer ear to create a perhaps more accurate sound. I can appreciate both sides of the argument. In real life, we hear sounds utilizing all aspects of our ears including the important outer pinnae, which help capture sounds in the first place. However, Joe Grado designed these cans first and foremost to be recording monitors. The HP-1000s were designed to be the most accurate sonic tool, one that could be used to avoid the sonic pitfalls of the room and its reflective and absorbent walls and materials that would aid the recording engineer as well as the electronics designer in getting as accurate and pure a sound as possible. As with all of audio, it comes down to preferences and I would say this is an example of that as well. The stock HP-1000s are quite rare and expensive and if you have listened to them, you might be quite content with grabbing them in any way, shape, form or fashion.

Going back to the hybrids which Larry calls HP3000s, in addition to the more airy and spacious sound, there is a bit more headstage distance from the listener as it appears the drivers are placed a bit farther from the ears. The bass impact is not as strong as the stock versions. The rewiring seems to contribute to the more airy presentation and sounds a bit leaner than the stocker, however I can't be completely certain unless I heard the stock and BlackSilver cabling with the same enclosure. According to Larry, the BlackSilver is a perfect match for the HP-1000 drivers. Overall, I prefer the original Joe Grados. The HP3000 version, however, offers a lot while not deviating too far off from the original to retain the signature transparency they're known for while adding a lot of wear comfort. Larry offers other hybrids utilizing the CD3000 shell. For example, he has placed AKG K1000 drivers into the CD3000 shell to author the K3000, which word on the grapevine has creates a more substantial and filling bass while maintaining the K1000s' famous clarity and spaciousness.

The next two concoctions I received in one shipment. They consisted of a Beyer DT770 modified with wooden enclosures and re-cabled with a copper/silver hybrid known as BlackMax plus an equally modified set of Grado SR225s. New Grado pads called C-Pads were also included for evaluation. First off, Larry's woodwork is simply outstanding. It really is beautiful and pictures simply don't do it justice. Larry offers various types of woods depending upon your preferences. Regarding sonic improvements, Larry states that sonic upgrades are more attributable to the re-cabling than the wooden enclosures but many users have reported a more accurate sense of
timbre and decay in regards to live natural music. Wooden enclosures do appear to have that effect on various headphones including my personal Grado RS-1s which, with certain instruments -- specifically woodwinds and strings -- simply nail timbres. Larry offers various types of wood primarily for their cosmetic appeal and to meet personal preferences, however he does not deny that he can hear subtle differences between the various woods in his creations. One can research the effect of various woods on the tone of a guitar to get a good grasp of wood's contributions to sound.

Let's start with the Beyers. Stock, all I can say is that they really leave a lot to be desired. The bass is quite overwhelming and sounds bloated and ill defined to destroy any sense of depth and extension. The highs are sharp, edgy and occasionally grainy and the midrange is overly dry and recessed, with vocals that are too distant and lacking in body. Larry's re-cabling offers a very noticeable improvement. With my Sennheiser HD600/650 and the various re-cabling efforts by Cardas, Stefan AudioArt and Zu I've been through, I have begun to understand just how big an aspect those cables are of a headphone's overall performance. It is something that should not be overlooked.

In an effort to reduce cost, some companies use generic OFC cords of a basic stranded design with a plain-as-Jane connector. Like speaker cables, the headphone cable is responsible for carrying signals with higher voltage and current ratings than standard interconnects and as a result, the sonic improvement can be quite substantial. This is the heart of the improvement with the Beyer DT770. The bass is tightened with a better sense of depth and extension. The highs lose their grain and edge and gain some smoothness. The mids are brought a skoch forward and while still a bit dry for my tastes, are a vast improvement over the stock version. The Sony wooden enclosure has been modified to become an open-backed design. This adds a bit more air and separation and allows the sound to breathe, sounding more organic and liquid than its inferior sealed version. The bass could stand more tightening yet and some midbass bloat remains evident but the modified version is a definite improvement over the stocker.

The Grado 225s have been a Head-Fi favorite for quite a while. They offer great performance for their price tag and have a sonic balance similar to the RS-1s. Many users who complain about Grado shrillness in the highs usually gravitate towards the 225s and RS-1s for their warmer tonal quality and full-bodied bass. However, the stock 225s don't really compare to the RS-1s, lacking their depth of sound, bass extension and timbral performance, casting a smaller and more compact headstage with more diffuse imaging and more hazy placement within the soundscape. Larry's BlackMax re-cabling tightens up some key areas of the 225s' stock sound with more clarity especially on top. The bass now has less of the Grado midbass bloat while still maintaining the house impact, with harmonics a bit on the leaner side, sounding cleaner than the stocker. The wooden enclosures don't seem to affect the sound as much as the re-cabling but the bigger enclosures really do add in providing a sense of a vaster headstage with a bit more depth and air.

How do these woodies then compare to the Grado big boys, the RS-1s? They are closer than the stock 225s but still a notch below by lacking that last bit of refinement. The RS-1s sound more full-bodied, organic and liquid, with a sweet decay against which the modded 225s have a cooler, cleaner, leaner presentation. It appears that the material of the driver housing that faces the ears and connects with the ear pads has a bigger effect on the sound than the outer enclosure. Larry's modded 225s, while featuring a wooden outer enclosure, still maintain a plastic driver housing to retain its coloration whereas the RS-1s enclosure including the driver housing is made from Grado's specially cured mahogany.

Many have complained about comfort issues with Grados, which could be attributed to the supra-aural nature. The bowl pads that come with current Grados also suffer a treble shrillness that I find unacceptable. I much prefer the original flat pads sold by Todd the Vinyl Junkie. Larry's created new ear pads for the Grados, taking the circumaural velour pads of the Beyer DT770s to fit them right on the Grados by placing a wooden board adaptor within the velour pad itself. You snap them right on and Shazaam, circumaural Grados. The wooden board adaptor of the pads includes several ports, which can be plugged with wooden pegs to control the amount of airflow for more or less bass presence.

With the C-Pads, the fit is more comfortable. The velour is plush and fits around the ear, creating a nice, soft and relaxed feeling on the ears with minimal pressure and clamping force. Compared to flat pads, the C-Pads have a more spacious soundstage and a better sense of inner detail especially on string instruments. Compared to bowl pads, the high end is nowhere near as shrill and the bass is more full-bodied. Physically, the drivers' distance from the ears is about halfway between flats and bowls, creating a nice balance. Those who feel that flat pads are congested, too dark and lack inner detail will appreciate the C-Pads. Those who feel bowl pads are too shrill with little bass will find the C-Pads a great improvement. Add the ability to tweak the bass performance with the ports and you get a highly customizable setup. Simply plug holes, trap more air and create a fuller bass presence. Or go the other way. Whatever floats your boat.

How do these creations stand up to the stock models value-wise? The 225 mod is well worth it for the overall improvement. The stocker has always sounded like nothing more than a fun mid-fi product but I really don't consider it a serious quality reference listening tool. The modded 225s take it much closer to that ideal, improving especially in the realm of resolution and low-level detail. The modded Beyers are okay. I don't see much value in them because the stock ones are simply atrocious. For the money, you can go with a modded Sennheiser or Grado and achieve much more. But for those of you who like the stock DT770 sound, you might find Larry's creation to be a nice improvement, which I did; in fact, the only way I could ever listen to those Beyers again would be through Larry's mod.

The HP3000s were truly a delight and the mere fact that stock HP-1000s have been discontinued for quite a while and used prices are rising, Larry's versions may be the only way for some to get their hands and ears on these. I've seen and received offers up to the thousands for my stock sets so Larry's price seems more than fair, offering even better value if you can supply the cans themselves. I prefer the stock versions but that is due to personal preference. I feel Joe got it right the first time. Larry's version offers a bit more speed and upper end extension, with more air and space around the instruments but you can't go wrong either way. The C-Pads are $99. Some of you may go, "what? That much for mere ear pads?" However, those of you in the know surely realize that the Grado sound is highly dependent on what pads you use. I find the flats to be my pads of choice, with the exceptions being bowls on the HF-1s and PS-1s. Those of you who have issues with the comfort of the supra-aural Grado pads or that Grados in general lack soundstaging will find lots of comfort (physically and sonically) in the C-Pads. In fact, I would say that the C-Pads offer the most dramatic change of any of the tweaks I've sampled from Headphile. I found them making Grados sound more natural and smooth, with lots of depth and layering in the soundstage while also giving my ears a nice massage with its plush velour pads.

Larry offers much more than what I had to sample. The breath and depth of his business and what he offers is outstanding. In addition to HP3000s, he also offers K3000s (CD3000 shells with K1000 drivers) and PS3000s (CD3000 shells with PS-1 drivers). He offers various interconnect options employing silver, copper and various hybrids, with a wide range of connectors ranging from Canare and Homegrown to Neutrik. The wooden enclosures and re-cabling can also be had for the Sennheiser HD580s, 600s and 650s. He even can offer repair services if you ever damage your cans. In fact, I have an interesting anecdote to share with you that shows the type of customer service Larry offers.

When I first got my HP-2s, I snagged the cord on a corner within a week and part of the wire connected to the voice coil broke off. I was stricken with fear. Not really knowing whom to come to, I contacted Larry because I'd heard through the grapevine that he was the one to talk to about the innards of Grado headphones, especially the HP-1000s. I told him of my predicament and he gladly accepted to take a look. I shipped them to him on my bill and within 30 minutes of receiving them, he was able to open up the cups, resolder the voice coil wire, reattach the enclosure and do the same for the other side just to ensure integrity, all without charging me an arm and a leg. He sent them back to me the same day, too. This kind of customer service is simply unrivaled and I knew from that encounter that this was someone I wanted to learn more about.

It should also be noted that Larry has a working relationship with Todd Green from Todd the Vinyl Junkie, who was able to supply the original stock Beyers and Grados for the purpose of comparison in this review. Larry offers the option of purchasing stock cans from Todd and having them sent directly to Headphile for modifications. Sweet all around!
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