Shopping: I want...A funky pair of headphones - The route to a secret world of sound

Not everybody appreciates the importance of quality headphones. Some people hold "cans" in such contempt that they would never consider owning a set, were it not for the proliferation of the personal stereo, which, of course, comes equipped with "free" ones. These people are unlikely to have ever experienced the trainspottery buzz of putting on a new CD and being delighted by the discovery that a seemingly two-dimensional song played on a cheap stereo unfurls into virtual stage play when headphones are worn. Take the intro to Timbaland's new album, for instance, wherein you find yourself strolling alongside - and having the same blushing perspective as - vocalist TK Kirkland as he observes that the woman walking ahead of him has a great future behind her.

Should the patter of tiny feet ever stomp all over your life, then the enjoyment of headphones is doubled. After the watershed, you can listen to whatever the hell you like, safe in the knowledge that your little angels won't be disturbed by you playing your old Beastie Boys 45s at ear-threatening volume. OK, so you may look like a prat in humungous state- of- the-art ear mufflers, but only you, your partner and the cat ever need know about it.

AUDIOPHILE HEAVEN

Name: Beyerdynamic DT 911

Price: pounds 190

Stockists: 01444 258258

Description: Big, but not overly bulky, German headphones (275g), with stitched headband and earphones padded with velvet-covered cushions ensuring comfort for the long-haul headphone wearer. Likewise, the sound is warm, full and impressively clear, even at low volume. Call it vorsprung durch technik if you must - the packaging prefers to hyperventilate: "triple neodymium `rare earth' magnets for high efficiency and superior transient response." Ja?

Bluffer specs: SPL 98dB; operating principle 5Hz-35KHz; THD less than, or equal, to 0.2%.

Suitable for: Anyone whose record collection is bigger than their head.

Style rating: ***

Any others worth considering?

If money really is no object, then nothing competes with Sennheiser's Orpheus system (pounds 9,652; stockists: 01494 551531). Comprising an A-valve amplifier base unit and electrostatic headset, this limited edition (300 only) model is handmade from walnut, stainless steel and glass. Slightly less expensive, the company's HD 565 Ovation (pounds 149) bear comparison with the Beyerdynamic DT911s. In fact, they are marginally more comfortable, due to their light weight (225g), a thick, jointed headband and phones with Xtra-large, cloth-covered sponge doughnuts which circumnavigate the ear (they call it "circumaural"); and are more stylish (the mesh on the exterior of the headphone case is metal, rather than plastic in the case of Beyer). The lead is 3m long, comes equipped with 3.5/6.3mm jack plugs and is made of kevlar.

EXECUTIVE TRAVEL

Name: Stax SR0011

Price: pounds 270

Stockists: 01494 441736

Description: At first glance the Japanese-made Stax SR0011 look like basic portables that have been deconstructed by an inquisitive infant. The metal headband is similar to those on the freebie ones given out on inter-continental flights, and the circular plastic ear-pieces have little black snouts sticking out of them with clear plastic rims that are reminiscent of something you'd be made to put into your shell-likes for an NHS hearing test. This probably explains why they fit so snugly. And the sound, when boosted by an accompanying granite-coloured driver unit (hence the expense) the size of a small mobile phone, is phenomenally bright and clear.

Suitable for: those travelling in the posh seats on Virgin trains (God knows, they'll need something that'll help to pass the time).

Style rating: **

Any others worth considering? For those in the cheap seats (or in the loo, trying to avoid the ticket inspector), Aiwa's HP-V551 (pounds 12.99; 0990 902 902) in-ear 'phones do an acceptable job, considering they are a 20th of the price and boast a gold-packed mini-plug and "air- fit technology", plus an annoyingly difficult-to-use cord-winding carrying case.

MAN ABOUT THE HOUSE

Name: Sennheiser RS400 Cordless Radio Headphones

Price: pounds 79.95

Stockists: 01494 551 532

Description: Cordless headphones have a similar reputation to pre-digital cordless telephones: move more than six feet away from the source box and the signal becomes so distorted that it sounds like Squarepusher has done a drum'n'bass remix of your favourite Elaine Paige CD (if only). Add to that the fact that infra-red systems tend to cut out the moment a solid object comes between you and the signal transmission unit, and the technology begins to seem somewhat limited in its use. The lightweight (160g with battery), closed-back, RS400 radio wave headphones aren't perfect either (if you walk out into the street, they tend to suffer signal failure when you walk past lampposts, and cut out before you reach the cornershop), but they are very versatile and surprisingly good all-round performers. You can even pick up a signal through walls (the sound was astonishingly ungarbled, even in my neighbour's front room).

Bluffer specs: Wireless transmission frequencies 863-864 MHz; frequency response 20Hz-19.5KHz; SPL 103 dB.

Suitable for: Green-fingered Scritti Politti obsessives with short gardens.

Style rating: ***

Any others worth considering? If you want high-end audio quality, then search out the Sennheiser IS850 (pounds 858.99). No longer in production, but still available to special order, these infra-red headphones are unique in transmitting digital signals, which are decoded by the headsets.

THE WILD ONES

Name: Jecklin Ergo 2

Price: pounds 139

Stockists: 01756 793777

Description: If you're young enough to remember the Cybermen in Dr Who, you will have a pretty good idea of what you'd look like wearing a pair of Ergophones. Reassuringly clumpy (like those Seventies Pioneer SE-505s), these Swiss-made monsters are huge and slab-like. When you put them on it feels like your head is being gripped by a sponge-lined vice. The sound quality can't be argued with, but you won't want to be seen opening your front door to anyone in these. Even to the pizza delivery man.

Bluffer specs: THD less than 0.3%; SPL 96dB; 380g.

Suitable for: Crichton of Red Dwarf.

Style rating: *

Any others worth considering? No, these are in an electromagnetic field of their own.

LITTLE BLACK BOX

Name: Naim

Price: pounds 205 (+pounds 170 for an additional NA PSC power supply)

Stockists: 01722 332266

Description: Many top-end hi-fis don't have headphone sockets - the theory being that the boxes are fine-tuned for one specific function; speaker amplification. In these instances, you'll need an extra little black box to accommodate your 'phones, hence this mundane-looking but highly effective output and volume.

Suitable for: Rich music buffs.

Style rating: *

Any others worth considering? You can upgrade the power supply. The Hi- Cap is pounds 700 (plus pounds 22 for an SLIC interconnector).

With thanks to Graham's Hi-Fi (0171-226 5500) for the use of their listening facilities and their congenial service

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