Is there a better way to listen to music than with a whiskey in hand? Probably not. So it's not so strange to consider the "you got your chocolate in my peanut butter" idea of using aged whiskey barrel oak to make a toasty pair of headphones.
From the venerable Brooklyn-based Grado Labs, the Bushmills x Grado Headphones are a limited-edition model designed with help from DJ Zach Cowie and actor Elijah Wood. Carved from recycled Bushmills barrels and sporting a burnished leather headband, the headphones have a warm retro folktale feel and a lighter finish. But before you start making any disparaging jokes about inebriated hobbits from Middle-earth wearing wooden cans, you've got to try out these headphones.
This set uses an on-ear design in which the pads sit on top of your ears, rather than resting on oval pads that encircle your ears. Even though we're usually not enamored of the on-ear approach, we found the Bushmills x Grado to be extremely comfortable. The vented design also means you aren't completely sonically isolated; you can hear a phone ringing, but the music shouldn't disturb people in the cubicle next to you (unless you're listening to something they don't like).
Auditioning the Bushmills x Grado proved to be a more than pleasing experience. The vocals on Elbow's "Mirrorball" were truly ethereal on these headphones. Alternatively, listening to Ben Folds' plaintive vocals, it felt as though we were standing next to him on stage. The woodblock on a Ravonettes song sounded like the player was tapping on our forehead. Listening to rococo rock, like Genesis' "Selling England by the Pound," one could hear every Peter Gabriel reverb and even Tony Banks's buried background mellotron noodlings. During the opening piano on a jazz track, "Dear Lord" by Marilyn Crispell, we thought for moment we had left our bookshelf speakers on, but it was just the headphones. (No, we did not imbibe during testing.)
The soundstage of the these cans isn't as crisp as that of, say, high-end Sennheisers, but it has a cozier, tube-amp feel in which lower octave piano and upper bass notes feel closer together. That doesn't diminish the sound; the lower bass end is still tight and accurate.
These are not "bright" earphones. They are designed to be relatively colorless. In other words, they are not supposed to add anything to the sound. We like that; you may not. For example, extremely compressed digital tracks, like those on some streaming music services, tend to sound dull; there's no signal-processing trickery to embellish it or add sound that isn't there to begin with.
Compared to other Grado headphones, the Bushmills have a wider frequency response than the company's Prestige series of headphones, but not up into the beyond-human-hearing levels of the Professional Series models. Ultimately, the whiskey soaked wood may be a gimmick, but it's a great sounding gimmick. [$395; turntablelab.com]