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:
When Audeze's LCD-X and LCD-XC were released, they were the first of Audeze's headphones to incorporate a new technology by Audeze called Fazor. To be clear, Fazor is not something obscure, something you can't see, something you can barely hear--you can very much see it (and even feel the Fazor elements with your fingers), and you can definitely hear its effects.
Simply put, Fazor technology is designed to guide the flow of sound around the magnets. In doing this--in minimizing the interference patterns around the magnets--Audeze claims: the improved acoustic impedance-matching extends high frequency response and increases efficiency; phase response is improved by the elimination of edge-diffraction of sound saves around the magnetic structures, and other effects; and impulse response is improved due to better acoustic matching, symmetrical loading and minimized edge diffraction, as well as faster settling of the diaphragm with less ringing. To see Audeze's explanation, visit their website--it's fascinating.
Because the LCD-X and LCD-XC were the first to employ the benefits of Fazor, many (myself included) found that these models (for me, it was the LCD-X specifically)--despite being priced below the flagship LCD-3--led the Audeze pack, in terms of performance. The LCD-X not only moved past its flagship non-Fazored sibling, it became perhaps my top reference non-electrostatic headphone.
Well, finally, earlier this year, Audeze righted their lineup again, adding Fazor to both the LCD-2 and the LCD-3. The LCD-3, the intended Audeze flagship, has some key advantages over its siblings, with the longest voice coil and the strongest diaphragm driving force, and so should have the fastest transient response in the LCD lineup. Perhaps that was still true even before the LCD-3 finally got Fazored, but, even if it was, the LCD-X simply sounded faster, more extended and more resolving to my ears. Not anymore. With Fazor, the LCD-3 takes everything I loved about it before, stripped away a gauzy layer I didn't even realize was there (until the LCD-X stole its pre-Fazored thunder), and simply got better, faster, clearer, instantly,withFazor.
Some of my greatest reference audio tools were gifted to me by David Chesky. I'm talking about albums with music I love, that--thanks to David's open invitation to beathis recording sessions--I wastherefor the performances and recordings of. The LCD-3 is easily one of the clearest windows I've got back to the actual performances through the recordings.
So ask me now which of Audeze's headphones is my favorite. Ask me now which of Audeze's headphones gives me the most transparent window to the music in the LCD lineup. Thanks for asking--the Fazored Audeze LCD-3. And now the LCD lineup makes perfect sense to me again.
"That's great,"perhaps some of you are saying,"but I don't have nearly $2000 to spend on the LCD-3 or LCD-X."If your budget is $1000 and under, you can still get a substantial portion of the performance at half the price by buying the Fazored version of what I believe to be the single most posted-about >$500 headphone in the history of Head-Fi--the LCD-2. Yes, it has improved on its pre-Fazored self just the same.
"The combination of a very neutral frequency response and an almost startling transparency are its hallmarks. The vast majority of the time I enjoyed listening to music through the LCD-3 more than I ever have with headphones."
Written by Jude Mansilla
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.
"With these earspeakers, as Stax terms them, it is as if everything is simply on another level compared to dynamic headphones. Only the more recent high-end orthos, such as the LCD-3s and Hifiman series and maybe the HD-800s, Sony R10s and my Symphones Magnums come anywhere close. Now the SR-009 takes all this to yet another level."
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 flagship high-end dynamic 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, one of the most beautiful headphones 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 very soft 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, rich bass, relatively neutral elsewhere, 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."
Written by Jude Mansilla
Last year, HiFiMAN's Dr. Fang Bian gave me some idea that they were looking to shake up the market with their next generation of planar magnetic headphones. At CES 2014, they tipped their hand for all of us to see and hear, showing some prototypes of their upcoming headphones. One of those was the HiFiMAN HE-560 prototype, and it sounded very promising then. However, even having heard it in a couple of pre-production forms didn't fully prepare my expectations for just how good the final production version of the HE-560 would end up being.
First of all, the HE-560 is one of the most comfortable planar magnetic headphones on the market. It weighs only 375 grams (13.2 ounces), making it the lightest of the planars in this Summit-Fi section by a fairly wide margin. Also, HiFiMAN completely re-did their headband design, the HE-560 sporting an adjustable--andwide--comfort strap headband that distributes the HE-560's light weight very nicely. I'd describe the HE-560's clamping force on my head as medium-heavy, but the full-size, soft, around-the-ear pads help to offset the pressure, and I can wear the HE-560 for hours.
Like the Abyss AB-1266 (and unlike most of the other top planars), the HiFiMAN HE-560's drivers are single-ended--that is, each driver has a magnet array on only one side of it (instead of both sides). Unlike the Abyss, which has its magnet structures on the inner sides of the drivers (closer to the ears), the HE-560's magnets are on the outer sides of its drivers. HiFiMAN claims the single-ended magnetic driver provides superior soundstage and spatial imaging, and I certainly won't argue the fact that the HE-560 excels in that regard.
At 90dB/mW, the HE-560 is reasonably sensitive, andsubstantiallymore sensitive than the HiFiMAN HE-6 (83dB/mW). This ability to get flagship HiFiMAN sound, but with far more flexibility as far as amp selection goes, has been very much appreciated. I tend to be able to plug the HE-560 into just about any good to great amp, and get outstanding results.
In terms of its performance, the HE-560, to my ears, possesses many of the qualities typically attributed to excellent electrostatic sound--in other words, it soundsfast. In terms of overall resolving power, I've strained my memory to recall something I've heard that could challenge the HE-560 in the sub-$1000 price range, and I simply can't. The HiFiMAN HE-560's presentation is like an airy, spacious projection, in contrast to my Audeze headphones that tend to favor solidity and body at the expense of some air. I think this will be one of the differentiating characteristics that someone forced to make a choice between, say, a HiFiMAN HE-560 and an Audeze LCD-X (independent of price) might pivot on.
The HE-560 conveys bass impact well, and there's no doubt it has very deep bass extension, and tremendous bass precision. This is one area, however, that I think some might wish for more impact. That is, the HE-560 can hit deep, and hit low, but it doesn't tend to hit with the impact and peels of bass thunder that the Audeze's can. Of course, depending on tastes, this is certain to be viewed by some as favorable to the HE-560.
When it comes to headphones, perceived neutrality--what's heard as neutral--varies pretty widely from person to person. Even with that in mind, I feel comfortable saying that, overall, the HE-560's tonal balance is neutral-ish, but with a touch of energy in the upper mids and treble region that can shade the HE-560's overall tonejustinto the cool side of neutral.
Overall, Dr. Bian coaxed from his the HE-560 the ability to convey the bleeding edge of detail without crossing into harshness or stridence. HiFiMAN's HE-560 is a reference-level headphone, through and through. How good is it? I personally think the HE-560 is in the top-tier of headphones you can currently buy, at any price. Only you don't have to payany priceto get it--just $899.
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.
"There is also no doubt in my mind that the HD800 are the imaging champs of the dynamic headphone world. I have owned or heard almost every significant dynamic headphone there is - Sony R10, At W5000 and L3000, Senn HD650/600, Grado RS1 and GS1000, all the ones I currently own, and many, many more I have owned and sold. And I have never heard a headphone image like the HD800"
"Be very careful when using balanced headphones--Ragnarok can deliver its full output power into them!"
--< From the Ragnarok Owner's Manual
At first blush, one might think, "How could that possibly be bad?" When I read that warning, I'm reminded of those Viagra commercials that say to call a doctor if you have an erection lasting longer than four hours--with wisecrackers often joking in response that they'd call their girlfriends, not their doctors, if met with such a fortuitous condition. However, like priapism is in actuality, too much power dumped into your headphones can also be dangerous, and very painful; so Schiit Audio's warning should perhaps be heeded with the same seriousness as Pfizer's. Recklessly abuse the Ragnarok's volume control in its high-gain mode, and this beast of an amp can hurl up to 100 watts RMS through your headphone's cable to the inevitable slaughter of your headphone's drivers. Fortunately, the extensive logic that Jason Stoddard and his team built into the Ragnarok is designed (among many other things) to help make the most of the Ragnarok's potency, with some safety measures included.
With two years of intensive research and development poured into it, the Schiit Audio Ragnarok is Schiit Audio's flagship beast of an amp, and one of the most unique headphone amps (and speaker amps) I've yet used (and I mean that in the best of ways). Its topology is described by Schiit as a "Fully discrete Crossfet circlotron-style output stage with direct-coupled solid state gain stage, no DC servo." The extensive logic I mentioned manages all the amp's functions, including "microprocessor monitoring of fault conditions including DC, overcurrent, and transient phenomena, with relay muting on any fault."
From its balanced outputs (and loudspeaker outputs), the Ragnarok can output up to 100W RMS into 4Ω! Into more headphone-typical loads, the Ragnarok can still heave monstrous power, with up to 15W into 32Ω, 10W into 50Ω, 1.7W into 300Ω, and 850mW (0.85W) into 600Ω! From its single-ended output, the Ragnarok's maximum output is 5W at into 32Ω!
"Power is nothing without control." The Ragnarok is a spectacularly powerful headphone amp, and one that easily exceeds the prodigious power demands of two of my hardest to drive headphones (that also happen to be two of my favorites) in the HiFiMAN HE-6 and the Abyss AB-1266. And what I've found, especially with the HE-6, is that properly powering it is almost like taming a wild horse. It's probably hard to appreciate the beauty of a wild horse when it's kickin' yer ass; and if it's underpowered (and/or poorly matched), the HE-6 will buck you off with brightness, hardness. The right kind of power, though--and at least part of that means enough power--and the HE-6 bends to your will and sings If you've heard the HE-6 out of amps like the Ray Samuels Audio Dark Star, the Cavalli Audio Liquid Gold, or HiFiMAN's own EF-6, then you know what I'm talking about.
Given my love of the HE-6 well-driven, the Ragnarok with this headphone alone is already a must-add to the Head-Fi HQ amp library. Compared to the EF-6 (which we also have here), the Ragnarok lets the HE-6 breathe a little more freely. If I'm going to stick to the wild mustang analogy, I'll say the Ragnarok lets out the reins a notch or two in comparison, allowing the HE-6 to run a little faster. With either amp, the HE-6, to my ears, imparts no harshness that isn't in the recording; and, in terms of tonal balance, both are the equal to one another (which is to say largely neutral'ish)--but the EF-6 seems to me to have more of a smoothing effect on the HE-6 than the Ragnarok, which I sometimes prefer. The Ragnarok has the advantage, to my ears, in terms of resolving power with the HE-6, which I also sometimes prefer. With the HE-6 specifically, I have some difficulty choosing between them.
As far as its performance with the Abyss AB-1266, the Ragnarok makes me wish I still had the Cavalli Audio Liquid Gold here for comparison, because the Ragnarok is also something very special with the AB-1266. The Liquid Gold was the best I'd heard with the AB-1266, and may still be--it was a clear step above the amp I'd most been using with the AB-1266, the Schiit Audio Mjolnir. After I sent the Liquid Gold back to Cavalli Audio, I went back to the Mjolnir for the AB-1266, and it's been a good enough pairing to keep me happy, even though memories of the Liquid Gold have beckoned strongly. I know for certain, though, that the new flagship Schiit would be a far more formidable competitor for the big Cavalli than the Mjolnir, and it most certainly is.
If you power the AB-1266 well (and the affordable Mjolnir can certainly do that), the AB-1266's sense of dynamism and impact is among the best I've heard from any headphone, period. Through the Liquid Gold, it took on still more life, conveyed more detail, and projected a stronger, more lifelike image. The Abyss headphone is one of the best imaging headphones I have, bringing a sense of spaciousness that rivals the Sennheiser HD 800, but with more solid images in that space--that is, both headphones project big, airy headstages, but the Abyss is more earthly, the HD 800 more ethereal. And that's why it'd be fun to compare the new Ragnarok with the big Cavalli, as this is also how I'd describe the AB-1266 driven by the biggest Schiit.
In addition to being a tamer of the most demanding headphones, the Ragnarok is probably the single most versatile headphone amp I've used, ever. Despite its ability to push out big power, the Ragnarok is not the headphone amp equivalent of an engine that needs to be revved to the redline to get its best performance. No, the Ragnarok is like an engine with an extremely wide powerband, giving you its strengths at perhaps any RPM.
Compared to the HE-6 and AB-1266, the Sennheiser HD 800 is certainly an easier load, in terms power demands. In my experience, however, it is no less picky when it comes to amp matchmaking for it. A great HD 800 amp pairing can result in sound that rivals virtually any other headphone rig, regardless of price. A poor pairing, on the other hand, can sound brassy, strident, bright. Thankfully, the Ragnarok is fantastic with what might be my most used flagship headphone in the HD 800. Schiit's Jason Stoddard told me--after I'd told him how outstanding I found the Ragnarok to be with the German flagship--that the HD 800 was perhaps the most used headphone at Schiit for Ragnarok testing and evaluation. Danke, Schiit!
I've found some of my favorite amps with the HD 800 to be tube amps that impart some lushness to it, perhaps as a sort of hedge against what might be perceived as a tendency of the headphone to otherwise step out of line into harshland. Last year, however, Sennheiser released its own solid state headphone amp called the HDVA 600 (and a DAC'd-up version of that same amp called the HDVD 800), and it has become one of my go-to amps with the HD 800. Somehow, Sennheiser's amps are able to extract what my ears hear as harshness-free, ultra-revealing sound from the HD 800, with a little of the sweetened tone of some OTL amps I've heard with the HD 800--yet without any sense of overt smoothing or softness. And that is more along the lines of the Ragnarok's performance with the HD 800. I'll have to do more direct comparisons between the Schiit and Sennheiser amps with the HD 800 to come to firmer conclusions between the two; but I feel safe saying the Ragnarok's handling of the HD 800 is more along the lines of the HDVA/HDVD than it is a lusher sounding tube amp. I'm thrilled to have another option here that can drive the HD 800 well, as that's still a club that, for me anyway, not too many amps belong to.
Other headphones I've been using out of the Ragnarok's balanced output so far include the OPPO PM-1, Audeze LCD-X, Audeze LCD-3, and the MrSpeakers Alpha Dog. While none of the four of these are known to be difficult to drive or match, as reference-class as these headphones are, having an amp that's fantastically detailed and transparent serves them all extremely well. These headphones? Easy day for the Ragnarok.
The versatility doesn't stop there. I plugged several of my sensitive custom in-ear monitors into the Ragnarok's single-ended headphone output, and couldn't believe how quiet it was, in terms of self-noise. And though it's not as absolutely tomb-quiet as, say, a Benchmark DAC2 HGC, it is still plenty silent enough that it's actually quieter than a few good portable amps I've used. Remember, the amp circuit that drives this output and the one that drives up to 100W out of the loudspeaker and balanced outputs are one and the same! (I have no in-ear monitors terminated in 4-pin XLR, which is why my IEM use was limited to the Ragnarok's single-ended headphone output.)
And this brings me to my in-a-nutshell description of the Ragnarok's sound signature, in consideration of the vast range of headphones I've tried with it: though there's a smoothness to its delivery, it is not a romantic sounding amp. The Schiit Audio Ragnarok is neutral and dazzlingly revealing of the music you feed it. It's capable of lifting veils you may not have known were there, and scaring away the discordant sounds of bad pairings with a few headphones that have earned reputations for being very challenging mates. When it does these things--when it allows the great headphones to be great--it's capable of helping convey some pretty heady high-end Summit-Fi sound.
What makes the Ragnarok even more of a keeper are those loudspeaker outputs out back. I hitched up one of my pairs of KEF LS50 loudspeakers to the Ragnarok using Nordost Frey 2 speaker cables, and the results with the Ragnarok have been impressive enough to keep one of my two beloved pairs of LS50's--easily one of the best sounding mini-monitor type loudspeakers I've heard at any price--permanently tethered to the Ragnarok.
Is the Ragnarok Summit-Fi stuff? Oh yeah. Big time. Do I recommend it? Unhesitatingly. To do all it does, as fantastically as it does it, for only $1699, makes it a remarkable high-end value. As Schiit states in its description of the Ragnarok: "From IEMs to speakers, from balanced inputs to single-ended headphones, this is Schiit’s real end game. Welcome to the end of the world: Ragnarok."
Audeze LCD-X and LCD-XC
Written by Jude Mansilla
Immensely popular in the high-end of the Head-Fi community already, it seems this year that Audeze is gaining still more strength with the release of two new headphones that are Summit-Fi all the way. The new open-back Audeze LCD-X and closed-back Audeze LCD-XC use Audeze's new Fazor Technology, the very visible Fazor elements helping to guide and manage the flow of sound in the headphones, which Audeze claims helps improve phase response, frequency extension, and imaging.
The two newest Audezes are also quite a bit more efficient than the LCD-2 (90 dB/1 mW), LCD-3 (91 dB/1 mW), with the LCD-X able to crank out 96 dB/1 mW, and the LCD-XC 95 dB /1 mW. Both of the newer Audezes also have low 22Ω nominal impedance, which, combined with their high efficiency, make for headphones that I'll occasionally plug directly into my iPhone and iPods and get surprisingly good results from.
So far, my time with the LCD-XC (the closed one) has been limited to a pre-production version that I believe was close to production voicing, but not quite there yet. Because of that, I'll be brief with my comments about LCD-XC today, and will update my comments here once I've heard a production version (which is arriving in the next couple of days). I can say, though, that if the model I heard was short of the production voicing, then I'm dying to hear the final cut. The pre-production model I heard had very well controlled bass, and was closer to neutral than I expected an Audeze closed headphone to be. Voicing seemed closer to the LCD-X (the production version of which I do have, and which I cover below) than to the LCD-3. Soundstaging was spacious for a closed headphone. And that's all I'll say about the LCD-XC until I've spent some time with a production unit.
For now, then, the gem--not just of the two new Fazor-equipped models, but the entire Audeze line--is the open-back Audeze LCD-X. As I hear it, the Audeze LCD-X is like a potent combination of many of the best aspects of every other Audeze headphone. Its tonal balance is also most even-handed of the bunch to me, and what I'd expect from Audeze if they were developing a studio monitor--regardless of whether or not that's what they set out to do, I have a feeling the LCD-X is going to find itself in the employ of many in the pro audio world.
One thing that neither of the new Audezes have improved upon is weight--both are heavier (the LCD-XC at 650 grams being the heaviest) than the two more senior models. Both the LCD-X and LCD-XC also have aluminum housings versus the older Audezes' wood housings, which opinions seem split on--I prefer the aluminum myself (especially the gunmetal color). (The LCD-XC does have wood outer cups.)
As for things to grouse about, my key criticism of both the Audeze LCD-XC and LCD-X is their pricing, which puts them awfully close to Audeze's flagship LCD-3, which I think may make the higher-end Audeze selection process a bit daunting.
For me personally, the answer is simple: X marks the spot. Though the LCD-3 is ranked above it in price and line position, the LCD-X is, in my opinion, the best Audeze headphone yet, and one of the finest headphones on the market right now, regardless of price.
"...if someone is looking for a better “all round” performer that also includes acoustic and classical music, then I’d recommend the LCD-X. "
"I feel that Audeze has brought to market a wonderful pair of closed headphones that no longer has me having to sacrifice either sound quality or a natural sound for a more coloured one... Yet another winner by Audeze."
Emotion. Body. Presence. Realism. The Donald North Audio Stratus 2A3 single ended triode tube amplifier is Donald North's foray into Summit-Fi and follows on the heels of the popular DNA Sonett (now in its second generation). The Donald North signature blue powder-coated finish and fantastic build quality makes a true statement and is part of the experience of owning a real piece of audio art.
Designed to operate with both low and high impedance headphones, the Stratus has a completely silent background and is a purist class A single ended triode (SET) design. To provide the user with a wide range of configuration options, the Stratus' single-ended headphone output has user selectable output impedance between 8-ohm and 120-ohm, and selectable gain attenuation between 0dB and -6dB for greater volume range.
The XLR outputs have 8-ohm output impedance and come in both dual-3-pin and single-4-pin variety. The 4-pin XLR output is labeled K1000, the legendary headphone which provided inspiration for Donald to develop the Stratus. And with 1.8W (into 50 ohms) of output power, I can confirm that the Stratus has enough juice to power the AKG K1000 (and the even harder to drive HiFiMAN HE-6). But the real standout pairing with the Stratus is the Sennheiser HD800. The Stratus-HD800 is one of those magical combinations where you can simply forget that you're listening to music being reproduced, and instead just listen to, and become one with, the music.
The stock tube complement of the DNA Stratus includes a Winged "C" (SED) 5U4G rectifier, a Sovtek 6N1P dual triode input/driver tube, and 2 Shuguang 2A3B directly heated power tubes. Donald has done a great job here finding budget tubes that provide rock solid performance, musicality and lush intimacy.
For enhanced resolution, speed and increased soundstage layering, popular tube upgrades for the Stratus include: EML Meshplates, Sophia Princess, and Shuguang Nature Sounds for 2A3's; EML 5U4G Mesh, NOS RCA 5U4G, and Ken-Rad CKR 5U4G for the 5U4G rectifier; and NOS 6BQ7A's and Cryoset 6N1P's for the input tube.
Originally released in 2012, the Stratus has undergone one revision change in 2013 with the introduction of new balanced choke-filtered 2A3 filament supplies. This upgrade option was offered to all Stratus owners at the time and is included in all current production Stratus amplifiers. The main result of this upgrade was an even blacker background, enhanced soundstage layering, and an increased sense of three-dimensional realism.
The DNA Stratus is an incredible value at $2700. It is worth noting that lead times for the Stratus can be fairly long due to the nature of it being a custom-built product. But good things come to those who wait, and the Stratus is certainly worth waiting for--especially if you're an HD800 owner looking for an end-game rig.
Over the years, there have been several AKG headphones I quite like, but only a couple that I loved, one of which I've now loved for years--the vintage, charming, spectacularly complex AKG K 340 (the hybrid dynamic / electrostatic headphone, not the later-model AKG earbud of the name). The other was the AKG K1000, which was more like a pair of speakers suspended over your ears. Of course, both the K340 and the K1000 have been discontinued for years. In 2014, however, AKG love finally struck me again, when the Harman-owned Austrian outfit released their new flagship, the AKG K812.
The K812 is an open-back, dynamic headphone. Its driver's 53mm transducer is the largest ever made by AKG, with an ultra-lightweight copper-covered aluminum voice coil, and 1.5 Tesla magnet system (similar in magnetic as Fostex's TH900). It is a very sensitive headphone, rated for 110dB SPL/V, with a nominal impedance of only 36Ω.
The K812 comes with a gorgeous Sieveking Omega headphone stand (I'm pretty sure it's the real thing, not an imitator). It does not come with a carrying case, however, so I picked up a SLAPPA HardBody PRO headphone case which fits the K812 (and its cable) very well.
In terms of design, the K812 is, from what I can tell, AKG's answer to Sennheiser's flagship HD 800, in that it's large, and super-open. Though their designs are definitely not identical, it seems to me that there is no mistaking the similarities of the in the style and type of earpad/ear chamber configuration, most noticeable when you compare the insides of the two headphones' earcups. Veteran Head-Fi'ers who look at the inside of the K812 cups will also probably be reminded by the Sony Qualia 010. Aesthetically, I think the K812 is the better looking headphone than the stock silver HD 800. I think the K 812 is actually one of the most professional, attractive looking full-size headphones currently made--understated, modern, industrial, belongs-in-a-studio looks.
The K812's sound is incisive, revealing, and can be ruthless in a way not entirely unlike Sennheiser's HD 800. However, the K812--airy and wide though it is--is more immediate than the Sennheiser, bringing sonic images a bit closer to the listener. The HD800's soundstage is even bigger, more spacious; and I'd have to give the HD 800 the edge in imaging, as I find sonic image placement within the HD 800's soundstage more coherent, more precise. Still, though, the K812 is outstanding in this regard.
The K812 has stronger bass presence than the Sennheiser HD 800, which, as evidenced by the K812 fans on Head-Fi, its owners seem to like--I certainly do. Don't misunderstand me, though, we're not talking basshead levels. The K 812's bass is punchy, it's strong, it's fast, it's well-defined.
The K812's midrange and treble detail are, to my ears, excellent. And while I feel the HD 800 trumps the K812 in this range--sounding more refined, more detailed, a little less edgy--the HD800 has to be at its best (or at least near its best) to seize the advantage from the big AKG.
The K812 delivers remarkable performance out of a far wider variety of gear than the HD800 can, which has to be due at least in part to the K812's high sensitivity and low impedance. I mean, I'm smiling an awful lot at what I'm hearing when I'm walking 'round with nothing but an Astell & Kern AK240 and the K812--there's unquestionably very high-end sound coming from that little setup (although with this setup I find myself using the AK240's equalizer to do a tiny bit of tailing down the high end at 4kHz, 8kHz, and 16kHz). I've got nothing that compact--nothing in a single chassis as small as the AK240--that, alone, can push the HD 800 past the AKG. (My favorite portable amp for the K812 so far has been the Fostex HP-V1 hybrid tube/solid state amp, which I used at this year's New York Meet to showcase the K812.)
As for complaints about the K812, there are very few from me. First of all (and this is very much a personal preference thing), I prefer dual cable entry designs for my Summit-Fi headphones. I like knowing that I can replace the entire cable easily, and not think about the conduit going through the headband. Also, the single-side plug/jack on the AKG K812 is a three-pin connector. Arrggghhhh. Some of my music players and amps are at their best in balanced-output mode, and getting the K812 configured for use with balanced outputs will certainly require some modification.
Overall, though, what a fantastic new flagship headphone AKG has with the K812! It's a bold statement from AKG, and a return to their Summit-Fi flagship form that, in my opinion, they haven't had since the discontinuation of the legendary K1000.
Written by Jude Mansilla
Not long after Sennheiser announced the HD 800, beyerdynamic started firing gargantuan salvos of high-end goodness of its own, beginning with the Tesla T1.
The beyerdynamic T1 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 T1. 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 T1 (as well as the portable Tesla DT 1350) made me a beyerdynamic enthusiast.
"The T1 has an absolutely unique ability to make music sound natural, in my experience. Music simply flows from the T1 in a way that makes it unbelievably enjoyable to listen to, but without requiring any kind of noticeable coloration to get that job done. In my experience, it is that combination of neutrality, accuracy, and musicality that makes the T1, for me, the king of the dynamic headphones."
There many Head-Fi'ers who don't realize that Koss' flagship headphone is actually an electrostat that's been around since the 1990's. Electrostatic headphone aficionados all know of the Koss ESP950, where it remains almost an insiders' topic. It's a headphone that most of those familiar with it seem to hold in high regard, but that few go out of their way to promote. I'd known about the ESP950 for many years, but, until recently, never really spent much time with it. When I finally did, I felt like I'd cheated myself of one of the best bargains in high-end headphone audio for way too long.
The Koss ESP950 comes with its own energizer/amp called the Koss E90 that some seasoned electrostatic headphone enthusiasts consider a virtual write-off--something that should be immediately cast aside to make way for an amp upgrade. Then there are some who appreciate the ESP950, even with the stock E90, as a crazy bargain package, and one of the best sounding headphones a thousand bucks can buy. (If you shop around, you can occasionally find it for substantially less than its $999.99 MSRP.) I'm one of the latter.
Yes, I understand that I can squeeze more performance out of it with mods and amp upgrades. But I'm perfectly happy with the ESP950/E90 system's performance, even at its MSRP, and find it a world-class headphone, and a world-class bargain. The ESP950/E90 combo also comes with a Koss carrying case that allows the system (which is very lightweight) to travel very easily. I'll probably keep the stock pairing together for the foreseeable future.
The ESP950 is perhaps the best way to introduce someone to the enchanting world of electrostatic headphones, as its sound signature is so friendly, so easy to listen to--and yet still very resolving. Bass response, to my ears, is very good, but may come off as a bit light to some (especially those used to bassier headphones). The Koss ESP950's midrange is beautiful, forward, detailed, liquid. The treble isn't quite as impressive as the mids, but still extended and detailed enough to keep me drawn in. The airy nature of the ESP950 is unmistakably electrostat. Its generally neutral bent--but with more forward than neutral mids--is very easy to listen to, very inviting. Like I said, this little system is a great welcome to the world of electrostats.
I do have some issues with the system, though: Though I haven't had any problems at all with my ESP950, I do feel that the headphone's build feels a bit too light, almost flimsy. But perhaps the headphone's light weight is a key reason why I can wear the ESP950 for hours on end--it's super comfortable. Another issue I have is that the E90's RCA jacks are recessed into holes so narrow that the only RCA cables I've got that can fit into them are the ones that came packaged with the ESP950/E90. My biggest gripe is with the concentric volume knob on the E90, the center of it turning independent of an outer ring, each of those controlling one of the two stereo channels--it's pain to turn them both in perfect unison.
Given the ESP950's performance, though, those are minor nits to pick. Again, the Koss ESP950 is, in my opinion, absolutely one of the best sounding headphones at a thousand bucks, and a wonderful entry that gets you well into Summit-Fi.
Written by Jude Mansilla
Fostex's flagship TH900 is, without a doubt, one of my favorite headphones of all time. I'm certainly far from alone in expressing unbridled adulation for the TH900, and there are many who've heard it who want one but find its price too much of a stretch. Fostex took notice, and the TH600 is their answer.
No, the TH600 doesn't have the stunning urushi lacquer over birch wood earcups. It does, however, have more understated matte black die-cast magnesium earcups that are still gorgeous, and might actually be preferred by those who are partial to a more subdued aesthetic. Its driver's magnet is not quite as powerful as the TH900's (1.0 tesla versus 1.5 tesla), so the TH600 has slightly lower sensitivity, but is still quite easy to drive. None of these differences keep the TH600 from offering up most of what so many people love about the flagship TH900, and it does it at a substantially lower price ($799.00 versus $1499.00).
No, the TH600 doesn't sound exactly like the TH900; but, sonically, the key differences between the two are, for me, only readily apparent when the TH600 and TH900 are right next to each other, and I go back and forth between the two. The TH900 is more transparent, with more treble presence--more shimmer--and with more controlled bass. I don't keep them side by side, though, so, for me, the TH600 is essentially everything I say the TH900 is. And, like the TH900, the TH600 can scale to world-class performance, and fit in wonderfully in the very best rigs.
If you listened to and loved the Fostex TH900, but just can't stretch your budget to get to it, the TH600 is raising its hand wildly, and you'd do well to call on it.
"I think for those who are curious about the Fostex TH-series house sound, the TH-600 will please. It actually performs well for a headphone of it's price range. I actually can't think of another closed back of that price that would sound nice and articulate."
One look at the Abyss AB-1266 tells you it's an unusual headphone. "Elegant" isn't what immediately comes to mind when first laying eyes on it. Actually, it's kind of medieval looking--as in something-you'd-find-in-the-basement-of-the-Tower-of-London-to-torture-with medieval.
It's bulky. It's heavy. It's overbuilt, with the use of a lot of metal--a lot of metal. See that foam just inside each earcup? That's foam all right--foamed aluminum! The round chassis that forms the main structure of each of those earpieces is made of billet aluminum, and looks tough enough to be a suspension component from an unlimited-class off-road truck. Instead of using several bar magnets, each earpiece contains a single whopping magnet, slotted and cut to shape. I was told one of the goals of the AB-1266 design was an inert chassis--mission very much accomplished.
Yet somehow, some way, Joe Skubinski (also of JPS Labs) has managed to massage this beast of a headphone into something that is unexpectedly comfortable--and unexpectedly (to me anyway) one of the best sounding headphones currently made. Last year, Abyss brought a prototype to CanJam @ RMAF, and it was good, but it didn't give a clear indication (to me anyway) that the final version was going to sound like this.
The Abyss AB-1266 is a world-class headphone, capable of revealing everything, from the most abyssal bass (c'mon, I had to) to the highest highs. The thing is that you have to really play with the fit--adjust the headband, rotate the pads--until you get the sound you want. For example, for me, a complete earpad seal results in rather subdued bass, and a touch of treble brightness. Rotate the pads a bit to break the seal a touch, and the bass fills in, and the Abyss AB-1266's tonal balance balances out, and, then...wow.
Characterizing the Abyss headphone's sound signature is challenging, given its ability to be seasoned to taste. One thing it always is, though, is astonishingly revealing. Does the Abyss compete with other world class headphones?? To my ears, absolutely. Is it worth the price of nearly three Audeze LCD-3's or more than four HiFiMAN HE-6's? That's a tough call, but I know there's a hungry market for the best, even at this price.
Keep in mind that the Abyss AB-1266 is a power-hungry headphone. I've had excellent results at low listening levels with a wide variety of amps, but the HiFiMAN EF-6 and Schiit Audio Mjolnir--both Class A beasts--really open up the dynamism of the Abyss AB-1266. I've been told Cavalli's amps are also amazing pairings with the Abyss, so check out Cavalli's amps in the Desktop Amps & DACs section.
Simply put, the AB-1266 is an amazing first headphone from Abyss Headphones, and, to my ears, one of the best sounding headphones currently made.
"The AB1266 just has a realism to the way it presents music that I have to remind myself not to look around for the source of the sound."
The result of many years of steady development by the proprietor of Audio-gd, Qinghua He, the Master 7 is an old-school, massively over-built design based around the classic Burr Brown PCM1704UK chip, known for its ability to render instruments in a way that sounds more natural than many more modern designs. At over 15 kg (33 lb) it is a substantial DAC, in fact three complete components including transformers and power supplies: One 6-input digital signal processor and two mono digital-to-analog converters, housed in a single chassis.
The centrepiece is the digital signal processor with proprietary programming which takes the digital audio from any of the six inputs, including a custom USB solution using a VIA chipset and sends them to the left and right DACs. The analogue output is then handled by discrete, low-distortion non-feedback current-gain circuits which can be connected directly to other Audio-gd components via the ACSS connection, bypassing the voltage gain stage for maximum fidelity.
Like its predecessors, the Reference 7, Reference 1 and DAC 8, the Master 7 has won many fans with its organic, natural presentation, a contrast to the more “hi-fi” presentation that is popular with newer designs.
As I wrote in my review of the Master 7:
"[W]hen I played music through the Master 7 for the first time, via my Audiophilleo and Pure Power set-up I was shocked. I can only relate the experience to one of Jeremy Clarkson of Top Gear fame, when he drove the Lotus track car. He said that he'd driven a car with that much power before, a car with that amazing handling before, and a car with that much acceleration before, but never a car with all those things together. With the Master 7/AP1/PP combination, I feel as if I have the ultra detail of a top-of-the-line brand-name DAC with the organic presentation of Parasound, the forgiving nature of the Metrum Octave and the liveliness and openness of the Calyx, but all together at the same time."
"As I wrote this, I stopped the music a few times because I had been hearing murmuring, quiet voices or other noises in the background which I thought were coming from other people in my apartment. They weren't -- they were sound on the recording I had not ever heard before. Yes, cliché central, but after going through more DACs for little difference it was great to feel that I'd actually made a proper upgrade. Listening to Cannonball Adderley's Radio Nights, for example, not only can you hear people speaking in the background, it's possible to make out what they are saying very clearly. I'm used to those kinds of significant differences when I move from listening in my car to listening at home or going to a local hi-fi store and listening to their most expensive components. Not from a digital upgrade, even an expensive one."
"It's at this point I have trouble describing what I'm hearing. It rather reminds me of what the Metrum Octave sounded like when it was new. Before it settled down and became more mellow, it seemed to highlight absolutely everything, even the smallest sounds so they were all clear. The Master 7 is almost this way and I hope it doesn't mellow at all, because the sound is so alive and addictive.“
Eventually Texas Instruments will stop making the PCM1704 and Audio-gd will have to stop making the Master 7. Then I don’t doubt it will become a sought-after classic, much like old Mark Levinson products are.
HiFiMAN HE-6 and HiFiMAN EF-6
Written by Jude Mansilla
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 incredibly transparency, and a very wide-bandwidth delivery that is remarkably even and smooth."
A manufacturer once said to me, that being a dedicated audiophile isn’t about owning gear that is good enough, it is about gear that is better than good enough. To design an amp, or any piece of gear for that matter, that sets itself truly above the many that are available, not just in price, requires great skill and dedication. Head-Fi members insist that such equipment lives up to its price as well. Thus a top-of-the-line amp from ALO Audio was both unexpected and raised many questions. The answer was that the amp is designed by Thomas Martens in conjunction with ALO Audio, and has been in development over the last two years.
However top-quality SET amps have a reputation for their ability to deliver music with a delicious authority and the Studio Six is no exception. Initially I thought that the soundstage was smaller than my regular reference amp, the Audio-gd Phoenix. However, comparing them showed that it was the other way around: The Studio Six was delivering the music so precisely that I was hearing the music exactly as it was and exactly as everything else in the rest of my system was capable of delivering it.
Playing very fast and complex, yet very well recorded music, such as Friday Night in San Francisco (available from HDTracks), the unrelenting detail, without the slightest let-up was overwhelming. Binaural recordings from Chesky Music, such as Amber Rubarth’s album, were phenomenal, with every sound produced in the entire venue, down to the birds chirping outside, were delivered with absolute precision. Changing any component in my system, I could hear precisely how it affected the overall experience.
The performance of the amp is so unwavering that even if one plugs 4 completely different pairs of headphones in, even IEMs, the performance through any single pair does not change in the slightest. The question I had at the end of it all was not about whether the amp is worth it, but why it didn’t have speaker outputs. Ken Ball’s reply to this question was to send me a custom cable with a headphone plug on one end and speaker banana plugs on the other.
What’s more, the amp is a tube-rollers delight. The tubes range in what they can potentially cost, from the inexpensive OB2s to the 6SN7, 6V6 and 5AR4 which can range from cheap to highly expensive. Despite this, the amp really comes to shine the most when at least NOS 6V6s are used in place of the included TADs and good choices are made with the other tubes. The main benefit of this is more towards clarity and a lack of harshness, as the amp isn’t “tubey” sounding as such, being more precise-sounding than any solid-state amps I’ve owned.
Not surprisingly, ALO Audio offers a complete package of headphones, amp, tubes and cables (if not source). For a high-end one-stop kit for someone already with a high-end source it most definitely delivers as good as you can get, and you can have fun rolling tubes to your tastes too.
Apex HiFi Audio Teton
Written by Jude Mansilla
This is an evolved version of the Wheatfield HA-2? That classic Wheatfield amp (from around 15 years ago), also designed by Pete Millett, was good--sometimes it was a lot more than good. But this amp--the Apex High Fi Audio Teton--is simply one of the best amps I've heard with the Sennheiser HD 800 (a headphone that didn't yet exist when I had the Wheatfield HA-2 here so many years ago). The one headphone I did have then that I still use now is the Sennheiser HD 600, and I don't remember the Wheatfield doing things with the HD 600 quite like this.
With the Teton, the Sennheiser HD 800 takes on a fuller body, which is something I look for with amps to pair with the flagship Sennheiser. And when it can be done without any sense of losing all of the amazing resolving abilities that help make the HD 800 what it is...well, then, that's a magical pairing, and we have that with this particular union.
I've also had wonderful, long Teton listening sessions with the Audeze LCD-X and HiFiMAN HE-500, and, again, that fleshy (but not bloated) tube-imparted body finds its way into these headphones, too. And for my tastes, again, we have beautiful pairings with these two headphones, too.
On other thing I love about the Teton is how quiet it is. Whereas the old HA-2 had a noise floor that even mildly sensitive headphones could get into, the Teton is dead quiet, the latter having one of the lowest noise floors I've experienced with a tube amp. Plugging several IEMs into the Teton using its "IEM" output setting still yielded silence. Very impressive. Of course, IEMs aren't in the Teton's wheelhouse. Yes, it can drive them in a pinch, but it's when you plug headphones like the Sennheiser HD 800 and HD 600 into it that the Teton absolutely shines.
The Teton's tube compliment: input tube is 6SN7. Output tube is 6080 standard (or optionally 6AS7, 7236, 5998, or 6528). Rectifier is 5U4GB standard (with many options possible, including GZ34/5AR4, GZ37, etc.). If you're a tube roller, you'll be in for fun times with the Teton.
$5000 is a heckuva lot for a headphone amp. But you're in the Summit-Fi section, baby, and when it comes to sound quality, the Teton is definitely Summit-Fi.
"If you're after detail and speed above all else, this is a great choice. Really extended and clean without being bright."