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:
In 1991, Sennheiser crafted a headphone system thought by many to be the best sounding headphoneevermade, even to this day, 25 years later. It was called the Orpheus HE90/HEV90. HE90 referred to the model number of the system's electrostatic headphone, and HEV90 was the model number of the companion electrostatic tube amp. Of course, this system became known simply as "the Orpheus," and I know many of you here are quite familiar with it, even those of you who've not yet had a chance to hear it.
300 of those Orpheus systems were made, 300 were sold, and the price back then was around $13,000. If you tried to buy one in excellent condition today, that original Orpheus system would likely set you back around $35,000, perhaps even as high as $40,000, if you could find a particularly pristine, factory-refreshed original Orpheus.
Now by 1991, Sennheiser was already one of the most well-regarded companies in the world when it came to microphones and headphones, and the Orpheus represented an all-out effort from Sennheiser (always and still a strong engineering-minded company)--using every resource at its disposal to make the best headphone in the world. And, again, it was so good that many feel it's still the best in the world today.
Now that I've had opportunities to hear fully factory-restored Orpheus HE90/HEV90 systems, I have to say that I agree. I agree that even after 25 years, the original Orpheus system was indeed the best ever--yes,was.
Just a few weeks ago, Sennheiser introduced thenewSennheiser Orpheus HE1060/HEV1060 system. It was designed and engineered by Sennheiser for almost a decade to be the new best headphone in the world; and it is, by a significant margin, the best headphone I've ever heard. In other words, after 25 years, to top the Orpheus, it ended up having to be Sennheiser versus itself, Orpheus versus Orpheus.
A couple of years ago, I had a chance to visit Sennheiser's headquarters to hear an earlier version of the new Orpheus, this system then being referred to internally only by a codename. After an extended tour of the amazing facilities there--including a very cool meeting with Sennheiser co-CEO Andreas Sennheiser--Sennheiser's Axel Grell (the man behind the HD 800) allowed me into a secret listening room only a few people at Sennheiser had access to, and that almost no outsiders ever see. And in there I had a chance to listen to the top-secret Orpheus successor alongside the original Orpheus system and a Stax SR-009 system. Of the many times I'd heard the original Orpheus, this time was clearly the best I'd heard it. Perhaps it's because this one belonged to Sennheiser, and this system was kept in tip-top condition by them. (Yes, they do need to be kept up--things wear out, capacitors dry out, etc.) Compared to the outstanding Stax SR-009, the original Orpheus was less clinical, but no less revealing to me, and, as such, was the more musical and enjoyable of the two. Either way, both systems were amazing. I own several Stax headphones now, including the SR-009, so I'm definitely a Stax fan--but that Orpheus kept coming out on top in the comparisons, and clearly so.
Then I switched to the Orpheus successor, and it was easily the best of the three. I was in awe. Over my two days at Sennheiser, I went back up to that room as much as I could, and they gave me many hours to do it. Amazingly, it would only get better from there. Nearly two years later, and it's now official, and pre-production prototypes of the Sennheiser Orpheus HE1060/HEV1060 have been touring the world.
Right away, when you first see the new Orpheus, you can't help but notice its striking, entirely unique appearance. Like the original Orpheus in its time, the new Orpheus looks like no audio component that came before it. Because we didn't have the web in 1991 to so easily gauge a public reaction, it's hard to know exactly how the world felt about the way the original Orpheus looked. The new Orpheus has what is no doubt an eye-catching design--no less unique than the original Orpheus, but definitely more understated. The marble chassis is crafted from Carrara marble, which is the same kind of marble that Michelangelo used for his sculptures.
The new Orpheus is no doubt visually stunning--absolutely extraordinary to see, especially in person. Its appearance is polarizing, which I would suspect the original Orpheus was too initstime. If you're a strict audio traditionalist, one who has a strong preference for vintage audio gear, then perhaps the thoroughly modern aesthetic of the new Orpheus won't be your cup of tea. Personally, I love it--especially the all-black version.
To me, the new Orpheus, when its turn off, looks like modern sculpture--or perhaps like a scale model of a modern art museum or opera house that's yet to be built. Turn it on, however, and it literally begins metamorphosing from a subtle modern sculpture into what itis, via a multi-stage transformation. First, the control dials emerge from the front of the marble chassis. Then the eight vacuum tubes--each within a quartz glass cylinder--rise from one of the aluminum blocks atop the marble base. Only after the tubes have risen does a cover swing open to reveal and present the headphone to the user.
This is about more than drama (though it's no doubt dramatic), this is also aboutfunction. This almost ceremonial turn-on sequence and movement allows the system to come to temperature, too. Also, the tubes within glass cylinders might also appear to be purely a stylistic choice, but those quartz bulbs around the vacuum tubes are designed to reduce or eliminate airborne noise, as vacuum tubes can be microphonic, which is a fact known to any serious tube audio enthusiast. The main chassis housing, carved from a single block of Carrara marble was chosen for its beauty, but also possessing solidity that helps prevents structure-borne noise. That marble chassis is also spring-loaded and damped.
The control dials that greet you when it's powered on, and virtually disappear when it's powered down, are connected to motorized switches and potentiometers that directly control high-grade relays in the signal path to keep it as short as possible. The calibratable volume potentiometer controls the volume via two balanced driven Muses volume control chips.
Now let's get back to those vacuum tubes: The new Orpheus' amplifier design is a very unique arrangement. You're only looking at a part of the amplifier when you see the tubes in the marble chassis. The final amplification stage is actually accomplished with something Sennheiser is calling Cool Class A MOSFET high-voltage amplifiers that are integrated directlyinto the ear cups!Yes, those fins on the back of each of the ear cups might look like stylish, somewhat Art Deco inspired adornments, but they're actually heatsinks for the integrated amps inside. No, don't worry, the headphones do not run hot, which is perhaps why Sennheiser is calling themCool Class A.
There are some key advantages to a design like this, including the removal of the cable's capacitance, and thus much higher efficiency. According to Axel Grell, the approach was to amplify the alternating voltage to high voltages not at the beginning of the cable but at the point where it is really required--directly at the electrodes in the headphones. The distance between the amplifier and the diaphragm is less than one centimeter in the new Orpheus. Sennheiser says with local and no overall feedback loops, the new Orpheus's amplifier system delivers ultra-high impulse fidelity, too.
While some headphone designs have resorted to sub-micron diaphragm thickness, according to Axel, Sennheiser's extensive research for the new Orpheus HE1060 electrostatic headphones showed that with regard to the ratio of the diaphragm thickness to the coupled air mass, 2.4 micrometers was found to be optimal for allowing controlled vibration of the diaphragm. Axel said that "In this case, it's not a matter of 'the thinner the better,' but of finding the absolute optimum."
Sennheiser rates the new Orpheus' frequency response at 8 Hz to >100 kilohertz (though I'm not sure what the plus-minus deviation is on that). Total harmonic distortion (THD) at 1 kHz at 100 decibels SPL is rated at averylow 0.01%, which Sennheiser claims is the lowest distortion rating than has ever been measured in sound reproduction equipment of this type.
Of course, all of this was designed ultimately to result in one primary thing: The ultimate sound. To be the NEW best headphone system in the world. The early version of the new Orpheus I heard nearly two years ago was the best headphone I'd ever heard, by a substantial margin--even directly compared to the original Orpheus next to it. It was so amazing that I've followed this new Orpheus to several places in the world like a stalker, just for any chance to hear it again, and in London (at their first teaser event) I heard theproductionprototype version of the new Orpheus for the very first time. I was absolutely floored, and was practically fighting back tears. Why? You have to understand that Head-Fi has become a very big part of my life, every day, pretty much all the time. And in terms of that seemingly endless pursuit of perfect sound, I felt that maybe this was as close as I'd ever get toperfectfrom a headphone. It took 25 years to get from the first Orpheus to that. And if it would take 25 more years to top what I was hearing, then I'd be at (or past) retirement age then.
In Paris, the day before the official first full unveiling and listening sessions, Sennheiser let me keep and use the new Orpheus in my hotel room. Having had that day alone with the production-voiced Orpheus HE1060/HEV1060 was a privilege, and an opportunity to get to know it a little more.
What does it sound like? It sounds like music unencumbered by all but the most obvious limits that a headphone system will inevitably have. Every voice, every instrument, even the acoustic of the venue on some recordings, simply jumps out of the headphone, and into a place between the realm of electronics and reality--and much closer to therealitypart of that continuum than any other headphone system before it. It's something that goes beyond detailed as we normally describe it. To my ears, it's simply too corporeal to sound merely reproduced, because it constantly excites those parts of my auditory senses that tell me I'm not just listening to an event, but there with it.
To my ears, the new Orpheus is not dark; it's not bright; it's not neutral...it's just the music and you. How did they arrive at this, after still having had the best headphone under their belt? In a recent conversation with Axel, he was telling me how jazz singer Gregory Porter broke into song during one of their meetings, and how it was an amazing moment, an amazing thing to hear and experience--and how he realized, right after hearing that powerful voice he'd heard on recordings many times actually singing right next to him, that there was still more to chase. That's how.
I have absolutely no regrets about chasing the new Orpheus--this masterpiece--around the world. I can assure you it hasn't seen the last of me. The new Sennheiser Orpheus HE1060/HEV1060 is the best sounding headphone system ever made, plain and simple. In a sense, for me, it is what Head-Fi is all about.
In my opinion, in the world of Head-Fi, the HiFiMAN HE1000 is the biggest story of the year so far. Simply put, the HE1000 is the best non-electrostatic headphone I have ever heard. I don't expect there'll be unanimity about this (or anything else in high-end audio for that matter), but I know I'm not alone in this opinion.
As I've said on the forums before, if I had first listened to the HE1000 blindfolded, and was asked to guess what I was listening to, I'd have guessed it was an excellent electrostatic headphone hooked up to an excellent electrostatic amp--an electrostatic headphone that had more impactful bass response and end-to-end tonal richness than I'm used to from electrostats. But the HiFiMAN HE1000 isn't an electrostatic headphone. It's a planar magnetic headphone, and it's a masterpiece.
One of the first tracks I played through the HE1000 was the Firebird finale (Eiji Oue, Reference Recordings), and I don't think I've ever heard such power and physicality from any headphone prior. It is the closest to putting me in the charged acoustic of the performance space as I've ever experienced from a headphone. I just about fell out of my chair. I called@joe over to listen to it. His eyes were saucers, his jaw literally--literally--fell open. I called local Head-Fi friend@musicman59 to see if he was available for a visit. I asked him to start his HE-1000 demo with the same track while I stood behind him. He looked like he was imitating a startled owl responding to a threat behind it when he turned his head practically 180 degrees to greet me with the same expression Joe had on his face (and that I likely had on mine the first time).
From triangles down to the deepest bass my ears can discern (and that my head can literally feel from the diaphragms), the HE-1000 (with recordings that supply it with such information) conveys the sense of a physically energized acoustic at least as well--and probably more--than any other headphone I've heard. Of course, it can't place my body in the space, but it can place my head there. It's uncanny. The bass, for example, doesn't sound to me like it's coming from drivers, but that my head is in the acoustic, experiencing the sound's physicality as if there. musicman59 and I were struggling to put the sensation into words, but what I've said above is pretty much what we were saying.
Of course, not every recording is engineered by Keith Johnson of Reference Recordings, but the HE-1000 will be a tremendous, huge window into any recording. It's at least as revealing as any other headphone I can recall hearing, but it doesn't make me think of the word "ruthless" at all when describing it. The sound and space captured on the recording is just...there...and the rewards are of course most ample on recordings of music one loves that also happen to be high-quality recordings. Even on less-than-ideal recordings so far, though, I've still found the HE-1000 immensely gratifying.
On Hozier's "Like Real People Do," Hozier and his guitar start quietly, joined by his band a little over a minute into the song, the soft-struck drums (sounding like felt mallets to me) conveyed, again, as if your head is there in the room with the drums, with the band, with Hozier. This headphone strips away more of what separates the realization of live from the sensation of reproduced perhaps more than any other headphone currently available.
The Stax SR-009 (to my ears, the best electrostatic headphone in current production) might be able to get itself around the higher, most delicate, most gossamer higher-frequency stuff with a touch more realism; but the HE1000 does it so well across the entire spectrum--from sub-bass to as high as my ears can register a stimulus, and everything in between--that all of the things that excite the acoustic, across the spectrum, come through in great abundance.
I've been listening to this headphone for months. This isn't new-toy syndrome. I thought it might be about a week into it. But it's months later, and I can not help but to continue to be awestruck at having my head brought into the acoustic so convincingly.
What accounts for this? I don't know that there's an easy answer. The drivers are perhaps the largest I can recall seeing on any headphone--the diaphragms are huge. The base diaphragm material is less than a micron thick, making it the thinnest diaphragm material in any headphone I'm aware of, including Stax's SR-009. (Yes, I know the HE1000's conductive traces are almost certainly thicker than the SR-009's diaphragm.)
I suspect a significant part of the magic we're hearing is Dr. Fang Bian's increasing ability to successfully ply his knowledge of nano material technology (it was the focus of his PhD) in his pursuit of making better headphones. Again, with the HE-1000, the sensation of listening to the acoustic itself--versus listening to drivers recreating it--is more convincing than I can recall any other headphone in production being. I think Fang is attempting to approach the asymptotic ideal of a full-spectrum massless radiating element that disappears in the sound its reproducing, and, to my ears, he is perhaps closer than anyone else at the moment.
Have I any criticisms of this headphone? On the unit I have, the veneer strips could use more precise cutting at their ends. The hinges don't feel like butter--they kind of squeak the ear cups into proper positions. The headband sizers slide in detents that click authoritatively enough to ring the folded metal headband like a minute repeater's gongs (when you put your ears right up to it). What matters most to me about its build, though, is that the HE1000's lightweight structure holds those magical drivers comfortably over my head, and couples them to my head and ears properly, reliably. With that, it's definitely mission-accomplished, because I routinely wear these headphones sometimes for straight hours and hours. I think some will find its build too austere, perhaps not befitting a $3000 headphone, and I would completely understand why.
For me, though, these are minor quibbles for what, again, I feel is the best sounding non-electrostatic headphone I've ever heard--actually, it's one of the best headphones of any type I've ever heard, period.
"The HE-1000 to my ears represent a game-changer, an actual legitimate technical improvement over the rest of the top of the line gear I have tried. It blends together what I previously thought to be exclusive strengths of more clinical-oriented vs organic-orientated headphones into one impressive complete sonic package."
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.
Sennheiser HD 800
Written by Jude Mansilla
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"
At CanJam @ RMAF 2015, Audeze unveiled the Audeze LCD-4, their first new flagship headphone since 2011, which is the year they launched the LCD-3. I view their headphones since the LCD-3 as mild departures (sometimes more than mild) from the original LCD sound. To my ears, the LCD-4 marks more of a return to Audeze's origins--only with very noticeable improvements in resolution.
After a lot of dedicated research & development and advancements in materials science, Audeze has, with the LCD-4, moved to a nanoscale-thickness--or a sub-micron--diaphragm. Now while they've achieved athinnerdiaphragm than they had ever used before, Audeze still substantially increased the power of their magnet array, moving to a Double Fluxor magnet array rated at 1.5 Tesla, which I'm pretty sure that makes it the most powerful magnetic flux density in a planar magnetic headphone today.
So in the LCD-4 we have ultra-thin diaphragms combined with immensely powerful magnet arrays. Lower mass to move...more powerful magnets. Does the LCD-4 sound fast? Yes,veryfast--to my ears, the LCD-4's transient response is outstanding, and probably the standard in this respect among non-electrostats. If not for the LCD-4's weight (which I'll get to in a minute), I might forget I'm not listening to a high-end electrostatic system.
Improving upon the likes of the LCD-3 or the LCD-X is no mean feat, andsubstantialimprovements come even harder--but they've unquestionably done it. Again, it has been four years since Audeze has released a new flagship, and you can hear those years of work in the LCD-4. The resolution and body of the LCD-4's midrange is perhaps what stands out most to me, and places its midrange performance among the very best of the current-production headphones I've heard to date.
As for tonal balance, the Audeze LCD-4 is richer than the more neutral, flatter-sounding Audeze LCD-X--more akin in this regard to the LCD-3, but with more tautness, more control than the LCD-3 down low (which, considering the LCD-3's bass performance, is quite a statement). Treble extension and smoothness compares with the LCD-3, only the LCD-4 is unquestionably more exacting up top. To be clear, though, the LCD-4's treble doesn't sound tipped-up to me relative to my LCD-3, just more precise, more accurate.
Relative to all of the other Audeze headphones we have here, the LCD-4, to my ears, is simply truer to a sense ofbeing there. I've listened to several Chesky Records albums that I was actuallyinthe acoustic for during the recordings, and the LCD-4 is extraordinarily capable of delivering much of what brings me back to a sense of actually being in the acoustic with the performers--in terms of the imaging, and the tonal & timbral richness--at a level only a handful of other headphones have been able to do for me.
In addition to improved sonic performance, the LCD-4 has a new suspension-type headband that incorporates a wide leather comfort strap, and a very nice, very trick carbon fiber band that reminds me of something that was lifted from a Formula One car. Improvements to the headband are certainly welcome, andnecessary--the LCD-4 is even heavier than the LCD-XC, which itself was too heavy for me. If the LCD-4 had the old-style headband, I don't think I'd be able to wear it for long periods of time. Still, in consideration of its weight, the LCD-4 is surprisingly comfortable.
The Audeze LCD-4 is, in my opinion, the best sounding Audeze headphone to date, and one of the best sounding headphones currently available. It will be sold on a built-to-order basis, and is priced at $3995.
Abyss Headphones AB-1266
Written by Jude Mansilla
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."
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
in 2013, 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.
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 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.
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 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 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. 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 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.
"Of all the high end headphones out there the LCD-X is the easiest for me to recommend. It sounds brilliant with any material you throw at them, and they’re easy to drive. It’s hard for me to imagine anyone being disappointed with them..."
"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."
When a company with a sterling history spanning decades decides to marshal its resources and countless man-years of knowledge and ingenuity to make the best product it can, the results can be amazing. Sennheiser did it with the HD 800, the original Orpheus, and now the new Orpheus. Sony had the MDR-R10. Stax has the SR-009. Products like these show that legends can be born from such efforts. Shure has now absolutely blasted its way onto this list of legends with its latest flagship--the Shure KSE1500 Sound-Isolating Electrostatic Earphones.
Developed over an eight-year period--the project pulling in as many as 40 Shure staffers at times--the KSE1500 is a lesson ingoodcrazy, and it started at the top when Shure’s leadership (headed by Shure President and CEO Sandy LaMantia) listened to and approved the flagship that started as a top-secret, exploratory project within Shure’s skunkworks. Amazingly, this product was given the green light to move forward by the senior management team at a major corporation like Shurewellbefore the premium IEM market had grown into what it is today--long before anyone could have known that there'd be a market for such an expensive IEM system. Of course, as most of you know, the market for high-end IEMs had come into its own, so the timing ended up working well for it.
If any of you have ever taken a tour of Shure's secretive R&D facilities, then you know about the fantastic and vast resources they have at their disposal. When they mobilize those resources with the minds and hands of 40+ team members--along with theyearsnecessary to get it where they wanted it--you just might end up with a masterpiece. And Shure ended up with a masterpiece.
Again, the KSE1500 is anelectrostaticearphone system. Specifically, and uniquely, it is asound-isolatingelectrostatic in-ear system, which I'm quite certain is a first. In terms of isolation, it's rated for over 30 decibels of passive noise attenuation. The KSE1500 uses one full-range electrostatic driver per side. Shure's specifications show a frequency response of 10 Hz to 50 kHz, and a maximum SPL (or sound pressure level) of 113 decibels.
Because full-range electrostatic headphones require specialized, high-voltage amplification, the Shure KSE1500 is asystem, consisting of the earphones and a specialized portable amplifier. In the case of the KSE1500 system, the amp unit is not just an electrostatic amplifier, it's actually also a DAC. The KSE1500's DAC accepts digital connections via USB, and is also Apple MFI certified, so can it can directlydigitallyconnect to modern iDevices (iPhones, iPads, iPods)withoutthe camera connection kit. It is also compatible with Android devices that support USB Audio Class 2 and Micro-B OTG connectivity. The KSE1500's built-in DAC supports up to 24-bit / 96 kHz, including 88.2 kHz.
The system also includes a built-in easy-to-use 4-band parametric equalizer that's easy to use. For quick adjustments, there are some built-in equalizer presets, including flat, low boost, vocal boost, loudness, and de-ess (to reduce sibilance). The amp's EQ and other settings are easy to access through an easy-to-understand, easy-to-use menu of options, adjustments, and settings.
If you already have a source component that you want to use with the KSE1500, there's an analog input via 3.5mm mini stereo jack. Because we have top-notch source components (portable and desktop) at the office--sources that I've found to exploit the KSE1500's remarkable performance envelope more fully than its built-in DAC--I most often use the KSE1500 via its analog input.
The KSE1500's DAC/amp is charged via USB, and will provide around 10 hours of operation from a full charge using the analog input and EQ bypass. When you engage the DAC and/or the equalizer, battery life is around seven hours from a full charge. The amp is beautifully constructed of black anodized aluminum, and feels ruggedly built. Inside is aten-layerPCB that helps make the KSE1500 all but impervious to radio frequency interference in my experience with it so far.
Those of you into electrostatic headphones are no doubt familiar with the Stax name. They make some of the best sounding headphones ever made. I own Stax's current flagship SR009, as well as the SR007 Mark I, and I currently have their most recent SR-L700 on hand. All three of these headphones are world-class beyond argument, in my opinion. Now some of you may not have known that Stax also makesin-earelectrostats, like the Stax SR002. Stax's in-ears are very nice sounding, but, in my opinion, nowhere near the performance level of the top-flight Staxover-ears, whether in stock form or modified. Make no mistake about it, though: The new Shure KSE1500 competes not with Stax'sin-ears, but at the level of Stax's bestover-ears. The Shure KSE1500 is, in every way, a world-class headphone, regardless of form factor.
Because the KSE1500 is closed-back, and isolates so well, it has some very unique qualities. In essence, it's kind of like listening to world-class headphones in an anechoic chamber. That is, when you block out over 30 decibels of outside noise, details that are lost under the burden of typical ambient noise floors are uncovered. When you're talking about that kind of isolation coupled with the detail retrieval and performance of high-end electrostats, it's something very special--a blacker background from which even the tiniest details are laid more bare, in clearer relief.
In terms of tonal balance, the Shure KSE1500 is a bit hard for me to describe, as it strikes me as so natural as to be neutral--yet it doesn't sound flat. Having let many other people listen to it, the KSE1500 has had more universal appeal than I can recall any headphone not named "Orpheus" having. That is, many who've heard it who like emphasized bass have found it incredible; many who've heard it who prefer neutrality have found it incredible; many who've heard it who prefer brighter headphones have found it incredible. It's almost like asking someone what they think of the sound of live, unamplified acoustic instruments or singing in a good acoustic. Natural and real transcend audio gear personal preferences.
That said, the Shure KSE1500 has strong bass when called for, presented in great detail and with ease. While it may not be as capable of delivering the slam and sheer impact that some of its high-end multi-armature competitors can, the overall quality of the KSE1500's bass is the best I've heard in an in-ear headphone. In fact, relative to any other in-ear headphone, from low bass to as high as I can hear in the treble range, the KSE1500 presents among the most realistic, most timbrally rich and lifelike presentations as I've ever heard from a headphone.
The KSE1500 also images fantastically well--also among the top tier of any headphone I've heard. No, it doesn't image as wide or airy as some of the top open-backs can, but the level at which it can convey the coherence of a sonic image--the anchoring and placement of players and singers in the soundscape--can be jarringly good at times.
I could go on and on about the Shure KSE1500, but I'm running out of space. Since it has arrived here, it has received the lion's share of my ear time. Why? Because it does what it does--and what it does is be a world-class electrostatic rig--and I can take it with me. It's the closest thing as I'll have to an Orpheus in a backpack, that I can use on an airplane, in a library, at a coffee house or book store--almost anywhere.
The Shure KSE1500 is, again, the best sounding in-ear headphone I've ever heard. It's also, in my opinion, one of the best sounding headphones ofanytype that you can buy today.
Written by Jude Mansilla
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.
An early welcome greeted me when I arrived in Los Angeles for the 2015 CanJam SoCal meet: A new pair of MrSpeakers headphones. Dan Clark, having spent many years modifying the inexpensive Fostex T50RPs, up to and including 3D printing his own cups and modifying their drivers, was working up to something even bigger as it turned out. The Ethers are 100% unique, using no parts from other headphones, but encompassing all the technology Dan had developed making his previous models, having taken the T50RPs to their limits.
In the Alpha Primes, we not only saw his cleverly 3D printed cups, but the “V-Planar” stippling applied to the drivers to make their performance more even across the driver itself. Sonically this brought out a better treble response. Working with Bruce Thigpen, Dan came up with a new driver that is both larger and more sensitive, which would allow good performance from more devices, especially portable ones. Originally code-named the Dreadnaught and intended to be closed-backed, the Ethers, thanks to Dan’s ability to 3D print any design he wanted to experiment with, went through a number of iterations, including a version where closed cups could be removed on the spot.
Aside from the main metal chassis, gimballs and headband, the cups, grill and many parts of the driver enclosure are 3D printed in the MrSpeakers workshop, after which they are spray painted with automotive paint by hand. One of the most tricky parts of a headphone to get right, the headband and arc is one area where Dan hit a home run. Trying different materials, one of Dan’s employees suggested a metal alloy known as NiTinol. Used in denistry, NiTinol is a memory wire, one that will always return to its original shape, even after being severely bent. It is so effective at this that Dan even considered shipping the Ethers twisted into a long tube. NiTinol is also relatively lightweight for its strength, meaning that the headband could be light, yet extremely flexible and strong. For fit, the Ether uses a fairly common system with a neatly carved chunk of metal to connect the two NiTinol wires for the arcs to the gimball and offset swivel that holds the cups. On my prototype pair the cups can swivel all the way, allowing them to fold flat, but the final versions have a protrusion that prevents this.
Along with a simple headpad system, a piece of shaped leather screwed onto a block that slides up and down the arc wires, with adjustable stoppers limiting the movement. How readily the blocks slide can also be controlled via the tightness of the headpad screw, so while my prototype loaners would slip too easily, tightening the screw fixed that. After initial customer suggestions, a smaller headpad will also be offered. Finally, the earpads are leather and foam and remove and replace easily and are flat rather than sloped.
Most important, the overall combination of materials results in a pair of headphones that weigh only 370 grams and adjust very easily, but still sit reasonably firmly in place on your head. That means excellent comfort while listening, though air guitar practitioners might find them too loose.
Even though the drivers are smaller compared to those from Audeze and Hifiman, they are larger than the T50RP drivers and the presentation from the headphones isn’t small at all. If anything their imaging is closest to that of the Stax SR009s, with very precise imaging that represents the music well. Tonally they come across as monitor flat, with no emphasis anywhere in the range. At the same time music comes through with an uncanny precision. They had no trouble revealing the character of any equipment, from DACs and amps through to cables, that they were connected to. Schiit Audio’s Yggdrasil, for example, has an uncanny degree of resolution compared to anything in, and quite a bit above its price bracket that I have experienced. This was as apparent with the Ethers as it was with the Hifiman HE1000s. The lively character of Cavalli Audio’s Liquid Carbon and the Liquid Crimson were immediately obvious, as was the greater capabilities of the latter.
What is more, the Ether achieves this with a very present, but very clear treble, lacking any harshness. The amount of treble has been dialled in just right to my ears, neither with an excessively strong peak, nor rolled-off. Compared to Audeze’s LCD-X, they overall sound feels lighter, all the way from the bass through to the mids and treble. If the Audeze house sound is a bit too dark, then the Ethers are light, but without overdoing it. A better comparison to the Ethers might be the AKG K7XX. The Ethers are more like a very resolving version of those. The K701s always had a reputation for uncanny imaging and the Ethers are the same, but dialled up to a vastly greater degree of resolution.
Shirley Bassey, singing what I believe was her best song, the Rhythm Divine by Yello is brought out in full glory through the Ethers, including her ability to deliver a slow vibrato in her voice while singing long notes, something I’ve only heard from the very best headphones. In fact, the Ethers are simply ridiculously precise, able to deliver a pinpoint treble that has not the slightest harshness or grain. While the soundstage seems to be somewhat intimate and in comparison a bit in-your-head at times, when the venue moves to a hall, they easily switch to presenting a sense of space.
The bass on Kids with Guns by Gorillaz on their Demon Days album comes through with such precision I look up to double-check I haven’t left my speakers on. My brain is telling me that my body is feeling the bass, but this impossible. It’s a disturbingly convincing illusion though and one I don’t recall happening with other headphones. Similar things happen with Bostich (Reflected) from the Touch Yello album, at the end of which is a recording of a thunderclap. For a moment I thought that the sound was coming from outside and not the music!
Though I sometimes wish I could have the bass from the HE1000s, as soon as any singer starts up, all is forgiven and forgotten. Be it Patricia Barber, Samantha Crain or Fiona Bevan, the delivery is nigh on perfect. This is awesome I can only recall experiencing with the best of the best when it comes to vocals — Stax’s SR009s and SR4070s and Sony’s MDR-R10s.
At $1500-$1610 depending on options, I expect these headphones to become a favorite of the high-end headphone crowd.
"The Ether is an outstanding new flagship offering by Mrspeakers to a crowded high-end planar magnetic field. With no significantly notable flaws, the Ether presents an extremely well-balanced overall sound signature that can be described as a tight bass, clean midrange, and smooth treble."
MrSpeakers ETHER C
Written by Jude Mansilla
The evolution of MrSpeakers has been one of the more compelling company stories in our community of the past several years. Dan Clark of MrSpeakers started with his extensively modified T50rp model called the Mad Dog, working tirelessly to get it into the community. No matter where in the world I'd go for a meet or event--Head-Fi Meets all over the U.S., the Tokyo Headphone Festival, etc.--there was Dan, smiling, showing off the Mad Dog. I've met people in the industry who work as hard as Dan, but none harder.
When Dan felt he'd reached the limitations of the T50rp's enclosure, he decided to 3D-print his own enclosure; and the resulting MrSpeakers Alpha Dog became the world's first 3D-printed production headphone. At the time, the Alpha Dog was, in my opinion, one of the best closed-back headphones available.
When Dan felt he'd reached the T50rp driver's limits, he decided to modify the diaphragm by knurling it, which he called V-Planar technology--and the MrSpeakers Alpha Prime was born. When he felt he'd reached the limitations of the Alpha enclosure, as well as the extent to which he could modify the T50rp's driver (often experimenting to the point of diaphragm failure), Dan decided to develop an all-new headphone, including an independently designed all-new planar magnetic driver--and thus was born the MrSpeakers ETHER, which, as of this moment, is MrSpeakers' flagship headphone.
At $1500, the ETHER was MrSpeakers' first open-back headphone. It is, in my opinion (at the time of this writing), one of the finest headphones available for those looking for a more neutral monitor sound, with fantastic resolution--and very low distortion, as evidenced by MrSpeakers' measurements, as well our own measurements using the new audio measurement system here at Head-Fi HQ (which we'll be talking more about very soon).
Over the last year or so, though, my tastes have been shifting a bit. Whereas I had been seeking more neutral headphones for the previous several years, I have found myself lately seeking a sound that's somewhat richer than perceived flatness--a dose more bass and midrange presence than would be considered neutral by most. (I actually know when and why my tastes started shifting, and I'll talk about that in a separate post and/or aHead-Fi TVvideo some day.) As much as I enjoy the allure of the ETHER's neutral monitor charms, the richer sounding (but twice-as-expensive) HiFiMAN HE-1000 has been winning more of my ear time with its fantastically impactful presence. Still, whether I'm in the mood for the flatter tonal balance of the ETHER, or the richer sounding HE-1000, their open-backed designs limit where I can use them. Library? Nope. Coffee house? Quieter nights with my wife reading next to me? Nope, and nope again.
For the last couple of years, one of my main reference high-end closed-back headphones has been the Audeze LCD-XC, which I own and very much enjoy the sound of. Unfortunately, the LCD-XC is also one of the heaviest current-production headphones, weighing around 650 grams. I haven't determined exactly what my headphone weight threshold is for long-term comfort, but I now know it's somewhere shy of 650 grams.
Earlier this year, MrSpeakers announced a closed version of the ETHER called the MrSpeakers ETHER C. ("C" is for closed.) As its name suggests, the ETHER C uses the same planar magnetic driver its open-backed ETHER sibling uses. The ETHER C also uses the same headband and yoke bits and pieces as the ETHER. When it comes to higher-end headphones, I've generally preferred open-back headphones to closed-back ones. Even in the cases where there are open-back/closed-back sibling sets, I've preferred the open ones--like the EL-8 Open-Back over the EL-8 Closed-Back, or the LCD-X over the LCD-XC. The ETHER C, however, bucks that trend, edging out its open-back sibling with me.
Again, the ETHER C shares mechanical parts with its open-back peer, save for the cups. So, like the ETHER, it's light in weight, tipping the scales at only 394 grams (versus the open ETHER's 375 grams). Nominal impedance (as with the ETHER) is 23Ω, and the new ETHER C is a little less sensitive than its open-back sibling. Yes, I can drive it with my iPhone 6 Plus. No, I won't be doing that. I used the ETHER C with the Ayre QB9 DSD DAC feeding a Cavalli Audio Liquid Carbon amp, and also with a Chord Electronics Hugo TT serving as both DAC and amp. This headphone deserves a fantastic amp.
In addition to the benefit of its closed-back isolation, the ETHER C is, for my tastes, again, the better sounding of the two ETHER headphones. Compared to the open-back ETHER's brand of neutral, the ETHER C is like...neutral plus. There are moments the ETHER C reminds me more of the HE-1000 than its own open-back counterpart, with its comparatively richer bass tone and a bit more flesh in the midrange.
I've done quite a bit of back-and-forth between the two ETHER models, and I love that the ETHER C doesn't sacrifice midband articulation, even though it adds a bit more meat--a bit more mass--to the ETHER signature. On Noah And The Whale's "The First Days Of Spring," the mallet-struck drums throughout the song sound mixed-in extra-heavy to me; and I love how the ETHER C renders those doughy-soft leading-edge drum notes in such a way that they completely encircle lead singer Charlie Fink without impinging one single bit on the extra-crisp aritculation of his vocals. (Through the ETHER C, this plays out similarly on Hozier's "Like Real People Do," although the mallets--though prominent--aren't mixed-in as proudly as on the Noah And The Whale track.)
As I said earlier, the ETHER C's sonorousness sometimes reminds me at moments of the HE-1000. To more directly compare the two, I cued up the track that I use most often to wow people with the flagship HiFiMAN: the Firebird finale (Eiji Oue, Reference Recordings). As I said in my impressions of the HE-1000, I don't think I've ever heard such power and physicality from any headphone prior to it--the HE-1000 sounds the closest to putting me in the charged acoustic of the performance space as I've ever experienced from a headphone. How did the ETHER C do with the Firebird finale in comparison? It conveyed much of the sonic power, but not the level of physical"you're head's actually in there"sensations that the HE-1000 can. Still, for half the price of the HE-1000, it's good enough to be a peer, a player in the same halls--it's just not first-chair in a direct HE-1000 comparo, but would be against all but an elite few, in my opinion.
One place the ETHER C does do a great job of keeping stride with the HE-1000 is in its smooth, detailed mids and highs. Like the HE-1000 does, the ETHER C allows heaps of detail through, without imparting artificial, overly sharpened edges to the sonic picture. Compared to its open sibling, the ETHER C's treble sounds just as extended, but a touch smoother in a way I consider an advantage.
In terms of imaging: Whereas the ETHER (open-back) does a wonderful job of floating sonic image objects into an airy, open soundscape, the ETHER C trades some of the airiness for more image solidity, more corporeality. It's still pretty open-sounding for a closed headphone, but that light, spacious air of the ETHER is something I've found I can only expect from good open-back headphones, and the ETHER C doesn't upend that. While I wouldn't turn down a hint more of the ETHER's air in the ETHER C, it is (as is) a worthy net tradeoff for all the things you get in return.
The ETHER C's black carbon fiber cups aregorgeous, by the way--although I may be biased in this opinion, because I'm rather obsessed with carbon fiber. If you're so inclined, there is an optional cable upgrade (strangely called the DUM Cable) that adds $100 to the price.
MrSpeakers' ETHER C is one of the most well-balanced, articulate high-end closed-back headphones available, and is, in my opinion, the best headphone yet from Dan Clark, one of the hardest working men in the headphone industry.
I confess.... When I first saw the Chord Hugo TT at CES 2015, I got really excited. The Chord Hugo was my favorite product of 2014 and judging from the unprecedented success of the Hugo, it certainly seemed that many others shared the same sentiment. Chord Electronics managed to release a truly state of the art FPGA (field programmable gate array) DAC in the form of a portable dac/amp. And with its incredible engagement and musicality, the Chord Hugo was a pure home run, and arguably the finest sounding portable dac/amp on the market. But for those of us who loved the Hugo sound and did not need portability, the Hugo had some room for ergonomic improvement in desktop/home use applications. Enter the Chord Hugo TT.
The Chord Hugo TT (which stands for Table Top) is Chord’s desktop version of the Chord Hugo. It features the same FPGA DAC with a 26k tap-length filter, and follows a similar design philosophy of the Hugo with its topside component viewing portholes, its touch-sensitive volume control, along with its color-coded LEDs that indicate volume settings, sample rates, crossfeed selection, and input settings. Build quality is exceptional with the TT, weighing in at a stout 3 kg (6.6 lbs); and like the Hugo, the TT comes in silver and matte black.
I can answer the most pressing question right away. Running as a DAC only into my DNA Stratus/HD800 rig, the Hugo TT is a significant step up from the already excellent Chord Hugo. The TT sounds smoother, without any loss of detail or resolution and provides incredible texture, layering, and three-dimensionality to the musical canvas. The bass hits harder, and has more impact. The overall sound is more nuanced, more fleshed out, and the overall image is even more coherent and intoxicating than the little Hugo.
So, how did they do this? Despite identical FPGA specifications, including the same 26k tap-length filter, the Hugo TT has a few tricks up its sleeve which provide this significant jump in sound quality. New for the TT (as well as the recently released 2Qute) is galvanic isolation (up to 384k) on the HD USB port, which removes incoming noise from the computer. Like the Chord Hugo, the TT is battery powered but the addition of supercapacitators adds energy storage and maximizes battery and charging efficiency, and provides the increased dynamics and transient response. In addition to galvanic USB isolation and supercapacitators, the TT uses an all new and much larger circuit board, has upgraded I/O connections, as well as a new alphanumeric display and remote control.
The retail price of the Chord Hugo TT is $4795 which is commensurate with the upgrade in sound and ergonomics from the Chord Hugo. Anyone looking for an end game DAC in this price range owes it to themselves to seek out an audition of the Chord Hugo TT, which gets my highest recommendation.
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."
The last several 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. In the past, 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. In 2013, 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 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."
Audeze LCD-2 (Fazor)
Written by Jude Mansilla
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, in 2014, 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."
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.
ALO Audio Studio Six
Written by Amos Barnett
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 three 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.
"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."
"Ragnarok provides a capable integrated and universal headphone amplifier. It provides the ability to drive sensitive and demanding headphones with control and low noise. It provides a great range of volume control for each of these scenarios. This is a tremendous amount of capability and versatility in one box. The amp is a jack of all trades."
As many of you Head-Fi'ers know, Schiit Audio was founded by two seasoned audio industry figures, Jason Stoddard (formerly of Sumo), and Mike Moffat (formerly of Theta). Many of you know Jason Stoddard, because is very active at Head-Fi, and published his book "Schiit Happened" chapter-by-chapter in his blog area here at Head-Fi, each chapter of which we featured on the homepage as it was published by Jason. It's a must-read book, by the way, and Jason is still posting bonus chapters for us now.
Mike Moffat doesn't post nearly as much on the forums, where he goes by "baldr," so you may not know him quite as much yet. What you should know about him is that his career is storied, his reputation in the industry beyond sterling.
Jason does more of the work on the analog side of Schiit. Mike does more of the work on the digital side of Schiit, so their new flagship Yggdrasil DAC is definitely more Mike's baby. When I asked if Mike would call the Yggdrasil the best DAC he's yet designed, the answer was "Yes." And that would include being better than all the Theta DACs he's designed, up to the Theta Generation Five.
In addition to using a multibit ladder architecture--whereas almost every DAC today is of the delta-sigma type--the Yggdrasil makes use of extensive DSP to implement the digital filter and the formatting needed to interface with the DACs. The multibit DAC chip selected for use in the Yggdrasil is the Analog Devices AD5791BRUZ, which I wasn't familiar with until the Yggdrasil.
Now I'm certainly not one to make any assumptions based on a piece of gear's bill of materials. That said, there was one glaring thing about the AD5791BRUZ in this regard that I simply have to mention. I priced out that part at Digikey, and that chip is priced at $104 each. In quantities of a thousand, the price is $82 each. The Yggdrasil has four of these in it.
There's a lot more to the Yggdrasil than buying four very expensive DAC chips that weren't even intended for audio, and putting them in a box--a lot more. Rather than have me try to ineptly and incorrectly venture an explanation about what makes the Yggdrasil different, I'd rather quote Mike Moffat himself, from some posts he made on Head-Fi's forums:
Originally Posted by Baldr
...AD5791BRUZ - Headline specs: 1 ppm 20-Bit, ±1 LSB INL. We use 2 per channel (1 per phase) to get an honest 20 bit level of performance. That is four per Yggy. The BRUZ version is the higher specced model.
I know only 20 bits you say? You can get a 24 delta sigma bit (advertised) DAC chips for 3% of the cost of one 5791. Check it out. Go to Mouser or Digi-Key and see how much AD5791s cost. Yup, you get just about $400 worth of DAC chips in every Yggy. I have seen $10,000 dollar D/A converters with $22 bucks worth of dac chips inside. The Yggy is by far away the best fu***ng parts cost deal going in the arena of high end DACs
Biggest problem was figuring out how to get it running without glitching - sample and hold amps sound like ass.
Also you have to drive it with DSP because every sample requires a fixed preamble.
For the above reasons, I don't expect a lot of competitors to be using it. After all, even analog devices told me it was not designed for audio. The best way to get me to do something is to tell me I can't or shouldn't do it.
Originally Posted by Baldr
I cannot get too engaged at this point; given my efforts to finish Yggy and get it to market.
Let me just say that being in the business of building audio reproduction equipment allows no, nada, ******-all control of whatever the recording engineers did or didn't do, what equipment they used, whether it was originally analog or not, what microphones were used, what and how it was digitized, how it was processed, etc., etc.
Nor does it solve who or what was done to various issues of identical recordings to make them sound different, etc. etc.
Maybe I assume too much, but I accept it as a given that there are recordings of a very wide spectrum, from god-awful to sublime. It has been so as long as I have been addicted to this hobby. It is a constraint we must live with if we are to be audiophiles.
In the old analog days, we used the best components we could afford to give us the best possible sound. Everybody in the hobby knew they could not fix bad recordings. I thought that was yet obvious today.
Now I almost offer (next 90 days or so) a D/A converter. It has a very special digital filter/sample rate converter that is only available from Schiit. It is neither magic nor faith based. It neither raises the dead nor makes bad recordings sound good. There is no smoke, mirrors, or doves spontaneously appearing. It is pure science, and it is amazing because the technology was contributed over a 70 year period, from the 1910's until the 1980's. It exists because I am stubborn and kept going, finding new geniuses when necessary in the quest of trying to make digital sound better than analog.
Digitally, it takes nothing away from the original information. Nothing, nada, ******-all. It then takes a weighted average of the original samples and adds frequency (read flat) and time (read image) extra info between the samples to convert the samples to 352.8/396KHz. All complete calculations – NO approximations. All info is a function of the original. Real math – hard science. Not psychology or social science. 2 + 2 = 4. Now and forever.
The result is a D/A converter that images like nothing I have ever digitally heard. The promise is that with better recordings (Cowboy Junkies, for example) you hear the entire environment. If you check it against photos of the original session (often available as part of the LP/CD documentation or online), you may be shocked.
That's what Yggy digitally does. Period! (Pardon the shouts) IT DOES NOT MAKE BAD RECORDINGS SOUND GOOD. If you let it warm up all the way, IT DOES NOT MAKE BAD RECORDINGS SOUND WORSE. If you are listening to a lot of bad recordings, you may try stamp collecting or another hobby. You do not have to believe in the tooth fairy, the easter bunny, or swing dead chickens around your head while dancing nude and covered with moose dung in the Alaskan tundra in February. Flippin' science.
There is no way to fix a bad recording, for now and ever shall be. Amen
Now to get back to finishing it!!!
Originally Posted by Baldr
Bit Perfect – in a closed A/D system, a give analog level with a defined maximum and minimum is converted to a number. What is significant is what is the bit resolution and speed of the converter. In an 8 bit case, there are 256 possible numbers – a 16 bit case yields 65,528 possible numbers. That number of numbers doubles with each additional bit. If the A/D converter (case 8 bit) yields 256 numbers from 1 to 256 (or more accurately, 0 to 255) then there are no missing codes; the device works for coarse MRIs or weapons. The D/A converter in this perfect system then converts these numbers back to analog levels which all should be unique according to the decoded numbers. There should be no missing or duplicated levels; this is Bit Perfect. A goal for high end products. No sonic glare; unbelievable detail levels.
This applies to multibit A/D and D/A converters only. At the higher bit and speed levels required for audio resolution, this becomes expensive. Hence the development of “audio” parts (Sigma-Delta A/Ds and Delta-Sigma DACs). Even worse is DSD, which I have previously addressed. These are offered by all of the “audio” chip makers, complete with reference designs and “Howto” data sheets that make it possible for fourth graders to build them as class projects. They are cheap, and have resulted in digital audio technology that is nearly as universal as it is insipid. That's not to say that a builder can't add “designer” capacitors, over-designed analog sections or power supplies, fancy over-machined front panels, water-cooling, palletized delivery, jewels, etc., etc, ad nauseum. This sort of extravagance is perfect for the user who wants to invite people over to have his guests admire the piece first. Unfortunately, even though you have wrapped plastic around the vile-smelling “audio” parts, they still have the same performance stench.
A good analogy is a tire. You can have the best performing car in the world and easily kill yourself if you have poorly designed tires. Now, do you invite all of your friends over and say “Look at my tires”? Of course not! All you care about is their performance. But I digress..........(Good thing Jason is around to make sure the Schiit stuff looks absurdly good.)
An SOF (Schiit only feature) – The Schiit Footlong Mega Burrito Supersauce Digital Filter:
It is a digital filter/sample rate converter designed to convert all audio to 352.8 or 396KHz sample rates so that it may drive our DACs. You get it from us; it is our filter. It keeps all original samples; those samples contain rudimentary frequency and phase information which can be optimized not only in the time domain but in the frequency domain. We do precisely this in the Yggy with said filter; this is the reason that on good recordings through Yggy you can hear the hall, its dimensions, and the exact position of anyone coughing or farting in the room, the motions of guitars being hoisted in preparation of being played, sheet music pages being turned, etc. etc. This comes from our mega burrito filter. A friend of mine, Jonathan Horwich, sells analog master tapes in ½ track form – at least 15 IPS, and 30 (I believe) as well. On those analog masters, you can also hear the entire environment before the music starts – what is amazing there is that even if on accounts for hearing “down into” the analog noise, the S/N indicates a 14 bit performance at best for those tapes. 14 bit or not – those tapes, totally scratch my itch. If you want that, we got that and more in the Yggy.
Originally Posted by Baldr
Now that my play is over, it is with blinding speed that I comment on the ENOB exchange seen in this thread several pages back. Now, I may need to reread it, but the emphasis seemed to be on more bits equals more dynamic range. Fair enough, but there is much more involved.
Analog audio has increasing distortion with increasing level; digital audio has increasing quantization error (which translates as well to distortion)with decreasing level. The former, I argue is intuitive – the latter counter intuitive.
Just for the sake of a starting point, let us posit an analog signal to noise ratio of 72 db. It is a commonly accepted fact of analog radio voice communication that weak signals well down into the noise can be clearly understood. It is also clearly possible to hear subtleties and spatial cues into the noise on good analog recordings. In a 16 bit system, ther remain 4 bits worth of quantization. At this level, one has 4 bits of resolution which is a 1 part in 16 error, or 6.25%.
The way the Yggy works, we have 20 bit time and frequency domain samples inserted between the originals, which leaves 8 bits worth of quantization, with a 1 part in 256 error, or just under .4%. A lot better. This is exactly why Redbook 16/44.1 does not and will never scratch my itch.
I have been referring to the DSP in the Yggy as the megaburrito filter. In a recent conversation, Jason pointed out to me that it is really a megacomboburrito filter, since it uniquely optimizes time and frequency domains. This is what causes Yggy users, on a variety of systems to report hearing subtleties previously not experienced.
One more comment – I have received many requests for certain analog topologies to be incorporated into the Yggy. I also get questions on how I voice the Yggy with its chosen analog.
Please hear this – the Yggy has been deliberately designed with a DAC output so high only a buffer is required. This is significant because buffers tend to have far less perceptible sonic differences between them than gain stages. The means that the topology of the analog of the Yggy is as close to sonically irrelevant as possible. What you hear (or not) is chiefly the result of the digital stuff within. I believe that it is misguided (and really expensive) to attempt to “voice” your system with a DAC. There are many, many, amplifiers available to accomplish that.
The only reason to “voice” a DAC with analog is to cover up what your DAC does too much of or doesn't do at all. Kinda like makeup. A really beautiful girl does not need it.
If you're at all interested in the guts of these things--even if you're like me, an enthusiast struggling to try to understand all he's saying--a couple of reads of what he's saying above suggests that perhaps Mike Moffat and his team really did set out to create a DAC that, at the very least, is the result of contemporarily uncommon choices and different approaches. What he's explaining above is at least some of the background behind what Schiit Audio claims for the Yggdrasil when they say the Yggdrasil is...
...the world's only closed-form multibit DAC, delivering 21 bits of resolution with no guessing anywhere in the digital or analog path. We’ve thrown out delta-sigma D/As and traditional digital filters to preserve the original samples all the way through from input to output.
...Most DACs simply use the stock digital filters embedded in their D/A converters. But even the most sophisticated ones, using their own digital filter algorithms, don’t have what Yggdrasil has—a digital filter with a true closed-form solution. This means it retains all the original samples, performing a true interpolation. This digital filter gives you the best of both NOS (all original samples retained) and upsampling (easier filtering of out-of-band noise) designs—and it is only available on Yggdrasil.
Some on the forums who've heard it have claimed it's the best DAC on the planet, perhaps the best ever. Is it? I don't know, as I haven't tried every DAC on the planet. I've never listened to the very best ultra-expensive DACs from the likes of MSB or Totaldac or dCS outside of a show environment, in my own systems, for extended periods of time.
That said, Head-Fi's office, at any given moment, has scads of DACs within. In addition to the surfeit of DACs on hand at any given time, we've had more DACs come and go than I could possibly recall, at a wide variety of price points. Some are relatively unknown, some are mass market, some have been reviewed at Stereophile and measured by John Atkinson.
While I can't say with any authority that the Schiit Audio Yggdrasil is the world's best DAC, I can say that it's the best DAC I've yet heard in my own systems, and I've heard a lot of them. We were so impressed by the Yggdrasil prototype we heard that we picked up two of the production Yggdrasils the moment they were available.
What, to my ears, sets it apart? Like the HiFiMAN HE1000 has done for me with headphones, the Schiit Audio Yggdrasil has helped clear the fog between the performance and my ears, stripping away more of what separates the realization of live from the sensation of reproduced than any DAC I've used before it.