People are always asking my advice about audio equipment. A great way to get started is to pump up your headphone system. iPods and laptops have crappy little op-amps in them that can’t drive good phones accurately or to truly satisfying levels. I recommend the Grado SR-60s for rock in the under-$100 range, or if you have broader taste in music, the Sennheiser HD-600s (which list for $499 but can be found online for as little as $179) which are much comfier to boot. Both these phones are large and open; closed and noise-cancelling headphones are good for planes but little else, and personally, I can’t stand putting things inside my ears.
Then there’s the whole amp game. Without getting into huge amounts of detail, you need a LOT more power to drive Sennheisers than Grados, and a lot more power again to drive electrostatic headphones such as the AKG K-1000s or the legendary Japanese Stax line. However, even a little solid-state amp like Grado’s RA-1 ($349) will improve your Grado headphones to an extraordinary degreee. And it’s made of a solid block of wood – who can argue with that?
Myself, I prefer tubes, and have recently invested in the handbuilt custom amps from Singlepower, based in Colorado… incredibly nice guy, but beware of the prices. I got a fully tricked out Singlepower MPX3 Slam and it is blowing my mind. (And probably eardrums, but that’s another story.)