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2012 Head-Fi Holiday Gift Guide (Summit-Fi)





(Ultra-High-End Headphones)

Most of my favorite headphones can benefit tremendously from dedicated headphone amplifiers. And the ones I’ve listed below--if you’re not familiar with this class of headphones--will likely spoil you forever. These headphones have a way of challenging you to bring the best out of them, and that can get very expensive, very quickly. It’s headphones like these that make Head-Fi’s unofficial slogan

"Welcome to Head-Fi. Sorry about your wallet."

You’ve been warned. 








Fostex TH900 (around $2000)
Closed, around-the-ear headphone

Take many different types of sulfur-smoked silver foil pieces, and adhere them--in a manner similar to a torn-paper collage--to a black lacquered base over a precisely shaped Japanese cherry birch wood form. Finish it with an overcoat of rich Bordeaux-wine-colored paint, until the finish looks deep, glossy, liquid. Finally, using platinum leaf, meticulously apply the emblem of the manufacturer of this exquisite thing. Am I describing the creation of something destined for the display cabinets of the Imperial House of Japan? Maybe if the Emperor of Japan is a headphone audio enthusiast. No, what I'm describing is how the traditional, painstaking art of Japanese urushi lacquer is used in the adornment of an earcup of a flagship headphone.

When Fostex decided to craft a new flagship high-end headphone, they wanted it to be impeccable in every way, offering high-end sound quality (of course), and to do so with extraordinary beauty and comfort. Their TH900 headphone was the result, and it is indeed a stunner. Not surprisingly, it wasn't long before the high-end connoisseurs of Head-Fi were abuzz about it, and deservedly so.

The TH900 is one of the easiest headphones to fall in love with. Of course, there's that love-at-first-sight thing. From a purely aesthetic standpoint, the TH900 is, in my opinion, the most beautiful headphone ever created. I've not seen a photo yet that fully conveys the deep beauty of the TH900's urushi-lacquered earcups (nor have I been able to capture it with my own photos, but not for lack of trying).

Then there's the love-at-first-wear thing. The TH900 is extremely comfortable--there are few headphones I'd be willing to wear for longer durations than I do the TH900. A closed headphone, the TH900's earpads are made of an advanced synthetic leather derived from eggshell membrane. The result is a material that has the suppleness of the softest leather.

Fostex wouldn't do all of this without first having sonic performance worthy of it. And in this, its sound, the TH900 is just as accomplished as it is with its style and comfort. Very revealing, relatively neutral, never fatiguing. The TH900 sounds velvety and organic, without ever sounding overly smoothed. I have headphones that are more technically capable in one aspect or another, some that are more neutral, and some that are ultimately more revealing, but few headphones can convey as much as the TH900 does without tiring me at all. It is an eminently easy, yet involving, headphone to listen to.

After having spent over a year with the Fostex TH900 now, it has become perhaps my favorite headphone overall, plying its brilliance not with just one or two rigs precisely crafted for it, but in so many good systems you plug it into. In every way, the Fostex TH900 is simply beautiful, and a wonderfully executed flagship by Fostex.

“I'm quite glad I have the TH900 on rotation in my ever-evolving collection of audio gear. In the month or so I've spent getting to know it, the bordeaux beauty has grown on me to such an extent that I can confidently say it's one of my all-time favorite dynamic headphones. I feel it's a subtle but exciting masterpiece, really.”

Head-Fi member/reviewer MuppetFace








Sennheiser HD 800 (around $1500)
Open, full-size, around-the-ear, ring-radiator driver headphone

The Sennheiser HD 800 is one of the most significant headphones of the last decade. It elevated the state of the art in dynamic headphones, by a wide margin, when it was first announced at the beginning of 2009; and it encouraged others in the industry to also push the envelope.

Handcrafted in Germany, the HD 800 was the first (and still is the only) headphone to use low-mass, low-distortion ring-radiator drivers. These ultra-fast drivers, coupled with the HD 800's extremely non-reverberant chassis, result in a ruthlessly revealing headphone.

To wring the best sound out of it, the HD 800 absolutely needs to be matched well with a good headphone amplifier (with this headphone, I've personally had my best results with tube amps).  Match it up poorly, and it can be overly bright. Drive it well, and it'll reward you with what will probably be the best sound quality you've ever heard from headphones.  Yes, the HD 800 is picky, but, in my opinion, it's worth the effort once you get it right.

The HD 800 is also thought by many (myself included) to be among the most comfortable full-sized headphones ever made. The HD 800's headband radius and flexibility (its headband being as close to perfect as I've worn), softly-sprung pivots, large-footprint earpads, and luxurious pad materials make the HD 800 feel feather-light on the head.

In addition to its technical merits, the Sennheiser HD 800 also had epochal industry impact in another way: It began a strong upward shift in flagship dynamic headphone pricing, arriving with a firmly-enforced minimum price that was around three times the price of Sennheiser's previous dynamic flagship (the HD 650). Because this price increase was met with what most considered a commensurate performance elevation, demand for the HD 800 was extremely strong at its launch, and remains so. In my opinion, this encouraged other companies to similarly go all-out, developing high-performance headphones with greater attention to pushing the performance envelope, in the wake of a market that revealed itself more than willing to pay a high premium for ultra-high-performance headphones.

For all of the above things, the HD 800 is a fantastic, important headphone, and one of my all-time favorites.

"...anyone who (like me) values a headphone which excels at many things rather than one, and has the ability to connect the listener to the emotional message of their music definitely owes it to themselves to try the HD800. I doubt you will be disappointed.”

Head-Fi member/reviewer Covenant








Sennheiser HD 700 (around $1000)
Open, full-size, around-the-ear headphone

After the introduction of its flagship HD 800, Sennheiser had a one-thousand-dollar-wide chasm in its product line between the $500 HD 650 and the $1500 HD 800. Of course, Sennheiser's competitors were more than happy to slot into that price range with some amazing new headphones, and I knew it was only a matter of time until Sennheiser would have its own. At this year's CES, Sennheiser unveiled the $1000 Sennheiser HD 700. It was a long time in coming, but I think it's another new winner from the old German mark.

Though it does not come equipped with the HD 800's extraordinary ring drivers, the HD 700 does have a patent-pending ventilated magnet system to manage airflow (and minimize turbulence) around its new drivers--and careful use of sandwiched materials through the headband to damp chassis vibration--equipping the HD 700 with its own innovations. It is also one of the three most comfortable full-size headphones I've worn (the other two being the HD 800 and the Fostex TH900).

Its sound is highly detailed, with a treble tilt north of neutral, reminding me more of the HD 800 than the warmer HD 650, even if it doesn't quite reach the performance heights of its flagship sibling. One key advantage I've found with the HD 700 over the HD 800 is an easier time finding amp matchups for it, and greater ease of driving. As a result, I regularly find myself using the HD 700 in good portable rigs--and more affordable desktop rigs--a lot more than I've ever done with the HD 800 (which I find to be pickier, its use almost always reserved for my higher-end setups). It probably helps that the 150-ohm HD 700 is somewhat more sensitive than the 300-ohm HD 800. The HD 700 also images very well, but again at least a tick behind the HD 800's standard-setting wide, open, airy soundstage.

At $1000, the HD 700 finds itself in a growing crowd of world-class headphones, including some remarkable planar magnetic designs. However, its sonic performance, combined with its light weight and ultra-comfortable design--and relative ease of driving--will have the HD 700 finding its own fan base quickly, including yours truly.

“...the HD 700 has emerged - for me, at least - as the biggest surprise... It has the best price-performance ratio of all the higher-end headphones... and stands out as an incredible balance of being musically versatile, a great technical performer, and very easy to enjoy.”

Head-Fi member/reviewer Windsor








beyerdynamic T 1 (around $1300)
Semi-open, full-size, around-the-ear headphone

Not long after Sennheiser announced the HD 800, beyerdynamic started firing gargantuan salvos of high-end goodness of its own, beginning with the Tesla T 1.

The beyerdynamic T 1 approaches neutrality with a slightly more forgiving nature than Sennheiser's HD 800. I also find it easier to find a good amp match-up for the T 1 than the HD 800.

If the Sennheiser HD 800 is on the cooler side of your tonal preferences--but you enjoy its detail and transparency--give serious consideration to the T 1.  Like few other headphones, beyerdynamic's flagship somehow balances ultra-revealing with sense of ease. Though it's deserving of outstanding amplification, I've not found it a hard headphone to coax greatness out of.

I've always enjoyed some of beyerdynamic's headphones, but the Tesla T 1 (as well as the portable Tesla DT 1350) made me a beyerdynamic enthusiast.

"Despite having an impedance rating of 600 ohms, the T1 is easier to pair with an amp than many other headphones. Part of this has to do with the efficiency level of the Tesla driver design. The T1 is a wonderful all-round choice for someone who appreciates everything from Beethoven to Jay-Z. At its price-point, the T1 is a top pick."

Head-Fi member/reviewer David Solomon (DavidMahler)








beyerdynamic T 5 p (around $1300)
Closed, full-size, around-the-ear headphone

I occasionally get asked a question that goes something like this: If you could pick only one headphone to take with you to a deserted island, which one would you choose? Let's break down my current answer. It'd have to be closed, and with good isolation, as I'd prefer maintaining the option of having the sounds of island nature separated from my music. It'd have to be an over-ear headphone, and, specifically an around-the-ear type for maximum comfort. It'd have to be durably built. It would have to be relatively easy to drive, as I'm assuming this hypothetical deserted island might not necessarily come with a dream rig to go with the headphone. And, in the event that I was also able to take a good rig with me--or at least have the hope that someone might send me a good rig in a care package some day--it'd have to be a model with higher-end sound quality.  In other words, my current deserted island headphone choice would be the beyerdynamic T 5 p.

In the Head-Fi community, the T 5 p can be a bit polarizing; but those who love it tend to love it. Well, I'm one of the ones who loves it. Looking at the rather vast collection of headphones around me, I see no other full-size, closed, around-the-ear headphone that isolates well, and that can be driven by an iPhone, and yet scale to higher levels of performance in higher-end rigs. If you find yourself always choosing headphones with a warmer tonal balance, the T 5 p might not be your cup of tea. Is it bright? It can be; but, for me, it's never harsh (unless the recording is).

Every other headphone in this Summit-Fi section can reach higher heights than the T 5 p. But none of them can be all of the things that the T 5 p can.

Now for the next question: Ginger or Mary Ann?

“They are extremely detailed and transparent. They provide great sound stage with good positioning - especially for a closed headphone.”

Head-Fi member/reviewer Szadzik








HiFiMAN HE-6 open, around-the-ear, planar magnetic headphone
and HiFiMAN EF-6 Class A headphone amplifier and preamplifier 
(around $1299 and $1599, respectively)

The last few years has seen the fierce reemergence of planar magnetic driver technology. And one of the two companies currently pushing the envelope in planar magnetic driver design is HiFiMAN.

Last year, the HiFiMAN HE-6 almost didn't make it into this guide, not because it isn't one of the best headphones in the world (to my ears, it certainly is), but because it can be so difficult to drive well.  The problem is that not just any headphone amplifier will do--the HE-6 needs power, and lots of it. Last year, I recommended its use with the Ray Samuels Audio DarkStar (around $3500), a pairing I still highly recommend if you have the budget for it. Even if you do have the scratch, though, make sure to also give serious consideration to the new HiFiMAN EF-6 Class A headphone amp and preamp, which is less than half the price of the DarkStar.

The EF-6 was built and voiced with the HE-6 in mind, and, like the DarkStar, the EF-6 drives the HE-6 so adeptly that the HE-6 loses none of the detail (especially in the treble) that makes it so special, but also gains body noticeably everywhere else. When the HE-6 is driven well, it is an absolute force of nature, ultra-detailed yet smooth--utterly world class. I've also used the EF-6 to drive many other headphones, including ones by Sennheiser, Audeze, beyerdynamic, Denon and Fostex, and it has done wonderfully with all of those.

I haven't yet had the chance to compare the DarkStar and EF-6 side by side, but will do so when I can. Even so, I can say with complete confidence that the HE-6/EF-6 combo is a staggeringly good combo at the combined price of around $2900--one of the best headphone/amp combos I've ever heard.

“The HE-6 have incredible transparency, and a very wide-bandwidth delivery that is remarkably even and smooth.  While they have just a slightly lively treble, this is more an elevation overall than a single peak, and their treble performance sets them apart from the HD800 and Edition 10...”

Head-Fi member/reviewer Skylab








HiFiMAN HE-500 (around $899)
Open, around-the-ear, planar magnetic headphone

The HiFiMAN HE-500 is the everyman's HiFiMAN world-class planar magnetic headphone.  I actually prefer the HE-500 to the HE-6 (or any other planar magnetic HiFiMAN has released) in all but a few setups.  Far more efficient than the HE-6, the HE-500 can pair with a great many more amps (if you've got a headphone amp, it can probably drive the HE-500 just fine); and its performance, when driven well, reminds me of the HE-6 at its tonal best (even if the HE-500 never does quite catch the HE-6 in terms of detail retrieval).  If you've listened to the Audeze LCD-2 and found it a touch too bassy for your preferences, then the HE-500 should be auditioned.

Now, just because the HE-500 is easier to drive than the HE-6 does not necessarily mean it's easy to drive.  That said, I've found that most good desktop headphone amplifiers (and some of the stronger portable amplifiers) can drive the HE-500 well; just don't expect your iPhone's built-in headphone output to massage high performance from it.

“When it comes down to it the HE-500 are a masterpiece and I can’t see anyone disagreeing. ...unquestionably it’s an aural deity.  It is amazing in its technical abilities, just staggeringly amazing, so incredibly fast and effortless.  It has a phenomenally capable low end.  Its mids are supremely open and clear.  Its soundstage is like hearing a hologram.  Its treble is hyper extended and impossibly detailed.”

Head-Fi member/reviewer Mark Ramos (mark2410)








Audeze LCD-2 ($945)
Open, around-the-ear, planar magnetic headphone

Why is the Audeze LCD-2 the most discussed $500+ headphone in Head-Fi.org's history?  Simply because it puts an 'X' in so many of the dream headphone checkboxes.  Extremely good detail retrieval across the frequency spectrum?  Check.  Outstanding, visceral bass?  Check.  Easy to listen to, and non-fatiguing?  Check, and check.  Scales well, from portable systems to world-class desktop rigs?  Check.  Relatively easy to drive?  More so than any other non-Audeze planar magnetic headphone, so check that box, too. You get the point.

The Audeze LCD-2 has become my quickest go-to recommendation when asked about high-end headphones.  Why?  Because it's not a bear to find a good rig match for, it can perform well in a great variety of rigs.  Also, I've found most people prefer strong, impactful bass, and the Audeze shines there, without giving up anything in the way of low frequency detail.  The LCD-2 is extremely easy to recommend, because just about every Head-Fi'er can find a place for it--which is why it's the most discussed $500+ headphone in Head-Fi'dom.

“They seem to only want to reveal a bit about themselves at a time. It's like learning to appreciate a fine wine, or the difference that a really good cigar offers; your senses have to catch up to the added nuances. I would go as far as to say that the auditory information offered by the LCD-2 is like seeing the sun set on the water for the first time. It's hard to take it all in on the first observation, or listening session, but you are rewarded with new revelations every time you come back for another look (or listen, as it were).”

Head-Fi member/reviewer Vince (grokit)








Audeze LCD-3 ($1945)
Open, around-the-ear, planar magnetic headphone

Take everything about the Audeze LCD-2 (sonically), improve on all of it, and what do you get?  You get one of the very best headphones I've ever heard, the Audeze LCD-3.

It looks a lot like the LCD-2, yes.  But it's equipped with an entirely new driver that sports a new magnet structure and a much lighter diaphragm.  There are other differences, too (like softer, more supple pads, a new earpiece cable entry design, and fancier wood), but it isn’t until you listen to the LCD-3 that you grasp that this is not the same headphone (as the LCD-2).

The LCD-3 has all the impact and boldness of the LCD-2, but with a noticeable bump up in delicacy and finesse. While this improvement spans the audioband, it's most noticeable in the lower registers, where its combination of bass impact and bass detail is, to me, unrivaled by any other headphone.

Outside of the the Stax SR-009 or Sennheiser HE 90 (Orpheus), the Audeze LCD-3 is simply one of the best headphones I've ever heard.  So, even at nearly $2000.00, that makes the LCD-3 a solid value, in my opinion.








TAKET H2+ (around $1900 for the H2+, plus around $1200 for its companion TAKET TR2 transformer box)
Open, suspended-in-front-of-the-ear, Heil-type polymer piezoelectric driver headphone (with built-in ribbon supertweeters)

You know how your ears can discern a note struck on a piano live (in real life) versus one coming from a loudspeaker? A live drum strike? A live string pluck? No other headphone I've used conveys music with that live-type physicality that the TAKET H2+ does throughout the entire audible spectrum. It's an effect that can be a bit unnerving at first, but then you come to realize that level of tactility makes for very real, very live-sounding musical reproduction (particularly with acoustic music).

Know, though, that the H2+ can also be a lot of work, definitely a more involved thing than typical headphones. To start, the H2+ requires loudspeaker outputs that are used to feed the TAKET TR2 transformer box that in turn feeds the H2+ the voltage it needs. Even after getting it hooked up, the H2+/TR2 isn't a plug-and-play affair, as to meet my sonic preferences requires equalization of the H2+ (which I do with a parametric equalizer in Sonic Studio's Amarra software). Most consistently, what I end up tweaking is the upper-mid-bass and upper bass range, where I'll often hear rather pronounced peakiness from the H2+. Once I've got it dialed in, though, the H2+ becomes, for me, one of the world's best headphones, and one that sounds like no other.

As I said in a Head-Fi TV episode about the H2+, I definitely do not recommend this headphone for everyone. This headphone is for the diehard, veteran, grizzled Head-Fi'er, willing to put the effort in, and already possessing many other headphones. For folks who fit that description, the H2+ will almost certainly be an absolute thrill.








Stax SR-009 (around $5200)
Open, around-the-ear, electrostatic headphone

Sennheiser's now-discontinued, limited edition electrostatic HE-90 Orpheus had been my personal choice for best sounding headphone for so long that I assumed it would remain in that spot permanently.  However, Stax's flagship now wears my personal best-ever crown.  In Episode 008 of Head-Fi TV, I called the Stax SR-009 my choice for best sounding headphone I've yet heard, and nothing has changed my mind about that since.

The Stax SR-009 is the most revealing, most captivating, most neutral, most outstanding transducer of any type I've yet heard.  With this headphone, you really will hear things, textures, air, details you hadn't previously heard in many of your favorite recordings.  The SR-009 is simply sublime.  A masterpiece.

Here's the rub, though:  If you want to extract the very best from this headphone, plan on spending approximately $5000 to $6000 more for a top-flight electrostatic headphone amplifier, like the HeadAmp Blue Hawaii SE, Woo Audio WES or Ray Samuels Audio A-10.

Could it really be worth all that?  This is Head-Fi.  So, yes, for some people, it's absolutely worth all that.

(We discussed the Stax SR-009 in Episode 008 of Head-Fi TV.)

"The pinnacle of headphone listening... The resolution of those things was so incredible I thought that they reproduced the notes of a double-bass with such amazing resoultion you could hear the detail of the strings vibrating and that's before you get an idea of what their ribbon tweeter could do! ...overall [with the Stax SR-009], I believe we now have our king."

Head-Fi administrator/member/reviewer Amos Barnett (Currawong)


Comments (6)

thanks for that. i think i have to get a t5p and let it get recabled single sided...
no w3000 on the list?
always nice to checkout some expensive toys!
$5200 for headphones + another 5k for the amp. Oh my god. That's almost my mom's yearly income.
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