Pros: Very good all-around headphone
Cons: Layering and depth
MrSpeakers Alpha Dog
Like many I was bit by the planar magnetic bug years ago and I have not looked back since. I have never heard any of Dan’s other headphones, but I have my own modded Fostex T50RP that I enjoy a lot. Having owned the Fostex T50RP for 2 years I am familiar with its strengths (neutrality, focus, midrange, and tight bass) and weaknesses (air, polite treble). I believe Dan has extracted every last drop of sonic goodness out of this Fostex driver. When I first heard the Alpha Dog I will admit that I was not blown away. I had just owned the Fostex TH-600 which I liked a lot, a more euphoric headphone in regards to treble and bass. However, I was in want of those palpable mids that are associated with a well-driven planar headphone. While waiting for the Alpha Dog I spent more time listening to my own modded T50RP which is a warmer version than the Alpha Dog. Going from my T50RP to another headphone with the same driver took me a couple listening sessions to fully appreciate what the Alpha Dog was doing.
In my brief time of 3 years in this audiophile world there were several headphone transitions that required an adjustment period: (1) Sennheiser HD650 to Hifiman HE-4 and Audeze LCD-2, (2) LCD-2 to HE-500, and (3) Fostex TH-600 to MrSpeakers Alpha Dog. Spend some time to get to know the Alpha Dog. We all know that our opinions can change over time. I have experienced headphones that I never liked even after quite some time and then sold them. I do not force myself into liking headphones. Even with the Alpha Dog there were ups and downs in my experience with them. After spending almost 2 months with the Alpha I am very fond of this headphone and that is what this review is about. I usually own one headphone and amp at any given time so I will be recalling on a lot of audio memory. I thought about waiting to release my review until I got to hear the Alpha Dogs on a solid state amp. For now my experience with the Alpha Dog is that of them being driven by a very good, transparent Decware tube amplifier.
For a closed headphone the Alpha Dog does not disappoint in regards to soundstage. Is it amazingly spacious? No. However, there is more than adequate width or stereo spread, all contributing to an accurate, coherent image. The center fill is right where I expect it to be, not too high or too low. If people are expecting an open headphone type experience then they will need to tame those expectations. My only other mid-tier closed headphone was the Fostex TH-600 which probably beats the Alpha Dog by some margin in regards to air as well as soundstage width and depth. However, on an amp such as the Decware Taboo which has a lucid mode I can narrow the gap in soundstage. When I turn lucid mode off I lose a bit of width and depth. It can be fun trying different amps with the Alpha Dog and observe the differences in the perception of soundstage. I have owned vintage receivers which can present a very wide soundstage and then there is something like the Violectric V200 which has very good depth and average width. Ultimately, there are trade-offs with headphones, amps, and DACs.
In regards to layering I would give the nod to a planar like the LCD-2. Maybe this is not fair because it is an open headphone. Open headphones by their very nature may have an advantage in creating more space for notes to recede and generate an image with more depth. However, I never felt the open HE-500 headphone had amazing depth, and therefore soundstage qualities cannot be simply boiled down to ear cup design. And take the TH-600, I feel it has better layering and depth than either the HE-500 or Alpha Dog. I do not doubt that one’s experience with the Alpha Dog will be largely affected by one’s amp. I consider the Decware pre-amp and amp that I use a more than adequate in its ability to drive the Alpha Dogs with authority. I feel the Alpha Dog will scale nicely with higher end systems. I will be adding a solid state amp in the future, but I continue to enjoy planars with tube amps. Tubes add a dimensionality, texture, and color to music that I like with planar headphones.
My ears are not sufficiently trained to breakdown treble like other established members who can identify spikes and valleys quite easily without looking at a headphone’s frequency response trace. I have not taken a look at the Alpha Dog’s own frequency response. The treble is not fatiguing or harsh, at least for the recordings I commonly use. The treble sounds natural and smooth to me. I primarily listen to jazz and the Alpha Dog’s treble is well-suited for this genre. I am a fan of treble sparkle or brightness but it is not a requirement of all my headphones. Having owned the HE-4 and LCD-2, which take different approaches to treble, I feel there is room for all kinds of treble in this headphone journey.
I feel the Alpha Dog is somewhere in the middle of my planar experience in regards to treble emphasis (HE-4 > HE-500 > Alpha Dog > LCD-2 > Self Modded T50RP). I like the tuning of the Alpha Dog’s treble. The music is lively with adequate realism. I am guessing that when I get around to trying a solid state amp the Alpha Dog’s top end will be slightly brighter in comparison to the presentation I get from my tube amp. I may change my opinion of the Alpha Dog’s treble when I get a chance to hear it from a solid state amp. For now, I do not think the treble is neither a weakness nor a major advantage of the Alpha Dog.
The bass is full and when called upon will deliver rumble and impact that is far from polite. I did not adjust the bass from Dan’s factory settings. I suspect what one hears in regards to bass may be dependent on other things in one’s chain such as amplification, equalization, and/or tubes in my situation. Bass from planar magnetic headphones is something one loves or hate. I enjoy tight bass but I can also get into the deep, rich bass of say the TH-600. I would call the LCD-2 the king of bass among planars that I’ve owned, especially in regards to impact and rumble. When I had the HE-500 I felt it had deep, impactful bass yet I always felt it was a one-note type of bass. The Alpha Dog bass is more textured than the HE-500. It has more personality to me. I can’t take away the visceral nature of the HE-500’s bass and it extends lower than the Alpha Dog. Additionally, the speed at which the LCD-2 and HE-500 can deliver quick, succinct and clear bass notes is not to be trivialized. The Alpha Dog is not going to deliver those bass lines in the same manner. If you like jazz you will likely enjoy the Alpha Dog’s low end response. It is more than adequate for that type of music.
My preference rankings for midrange, especially vocals, would go LCD-2 > Alpha Dogs > HE-500. Keep in mind I could live with the mids from any of these headphones. The LCD-2 midrange has that smoky Audeze house sound. The strength of the midrange of the Alpha Dog is neutrality, clarity, and focus. The vocal experience is full, intimate, and the smoothed treble works well with female singers. Male voices do not sound flat and you will also like the Alpha Dog with male vocals from say Marvin Gaye or Kurt Elling. The Alpha Dog really shines with acoustic guitar performances. With its midrange I get an excellent portrayal of detail, palpability, texture, and smoothness that I enjoy. The delicacy of the Alpha Dog makes it an excellent headphone for low-volume listening as well. In the end, vocal and stringed performances that I enjoyed in the past with other headphones have retained their magic when heard through the Alpha Dog. That is always a major worry for me when using a new headphone. The Alpha Dog's midrange sounds very good to my ears.
I use piano and acoustic guitar pieces as my reference points for tone and timbre. Additionally, I play the clarinet and shakuhachi so music pieces that highlight these instruments are good reference points for me. If these instruments sound natural then I usually can assume reproduction of other sounds will be on point. Nothing sounds off key to me with the Alpha Dog. I do not hear any major weaknesses in regards to tonality and timbre.
ATTACK and PACE
The Alpha Dog has plenty of bite. Although one might call it a smooth presentation among the competition of planar headphones, the Alpha is not so laid back to cause real concern. When compared to the dynamic headphones I have owned the Alpha Dog leads the pack in regards to attack and pace. In comparison to other planars, the LCD-2 and HE-500 drivers have more edge, punch, and dynamics. I do believe those drivers are faster than the Alpha Dog which helps with rhythm and timing. The HE-500 can be intoxicating and at times fatiguing because it hits harder, quicker, and sometime harsher than the Alpha Dog. Even my recollection of say the HD-650 was that it has more energy in comparison to the Alpha Dog, especially for piano. With that said, I prefer the overall presentation of the Alpha Dog to the HD-650. The Alpha Dog is a planar to the core which means the T50RP driver delivers music in an impactful and visceral way. We all have had headphones that do not move us. The Alpha Dog will release those music-induced pheromones. I do not worry about the Alpha Dog keeping up with faster genres of electronica and traditional Indian music that I have in my library. Is it best for those genres? That question is best left for those who listen to a lot of fast music. In the end the Alpha Dog has very good control and is far from sluggish. It is more than capable of keeping up with most of your music.
Resolution or definition can be a hard thing to gauge among different reviewers because it can also be influenced by one’s audio chain. I have owned detailed IEMs like the Heir Audio Tzar 350 and Hifiman RE-Zero but never a super detailed headphone like the Sennheiser HD800. I would not consider the Alpha Dog’s detail level analytical or smeared. Probably in the middle of the pack in regards to headphones I have owned. The T50RP driver does not have the resolving power of the Hifiman and Audeze drivers, but it is not far off. This is my opinion and where I really have to stretch my audio memory because it is not like one of these headphones dominates. The Alpha Dog does not disappoint in regards to detail and there are no glaring weaknesses here. Notes are whole and distinct. Low-level detail is good. For jazz trios this is important to me. The subtleties of plucked guitar strings and the tapping of piano keys are never lost in the Alpha Dog. Headphones like the LCD-2 and HE-500 have a bit more snap and crisp to them which help with emphasizing details. In this scenario, the Alpha Dog may not be missing details. It takes a more balanced approached across the entire spectrum with very little bias or overemphasis. Though I am fairly loud listener of music, the Alpha Dog is very good headphone for low volume listening without losing the meaning of the music. This is possible when the headphone has an ability to get across those micro-details.
The weight of most planar magnetic headphones doesn’t bother me. The pads on the Alpha Dogs are comfortable and do not cause any type of sweating. I can wear the Alpha Dogs for 1-2 hours with no worries. Because I shave my head the Alpha Dog sits lower on my head than I would prefer. I will likely add additional padding underneath the headband, such as I did with my own T50RP using HD600 foam.
Purchase regrets? None. Is the Alpha Dog worth 6X the stock form of the Fostex T50RP? In my opinion, yes. The Alpha Dog improves upon the stock driver’s performance by a good margin, plus it comes with a better cable and gorgeous ear cups. Let’s admit it; the Fostex T50RP in its stock form is capable but boring headphone. With the Alpha Dog I am not worried about a laid back experience. Sure it is smoother around the edges than other planars but the Alpha Dog never fails to deliver an enjoyable experience. With music you love, you will continue to love it on the Alpha Dog. For me the Alpha Dog is the last stop on the closed headphone tour. I may get around to trying the other flagship closed headphones but I am not in any rush. The Alpha Dog will be part of a one-two punch in many people’s rig with the Alpha’s taking care of the closed headphone portion and people throwing in their open headphone of choice.
I want to hear this Alpha Dog on a solid state amp like the Emotiva Mini-X as well as compare the stock cable to the Q-audio cable. I will offer anyone who wants to hear the single-ended version of the Q-audio cable with their Alpha Dog a chance to do so as with some sort of loaner program.
Acoustic guitar and jazz trios
Very good all-around headphone
Layering and depth
Macbook Pro > Amarra > Ciunas DAC > Decware CSP3+ > Decware Taboo MKIII > Mr. Speakers Alpha Dog (balanced stock cable, single-ended Q-audio cable)
Main Music Rotation:
Helge Lien “Hello Troll”, “Natsukashii”
Avishai Cohen “Sensitive Hours”, “Duende”, “Seven Seas”
Arvo Part “Tabula Rasa”, “Alina”
Diana Krall “Live in Paris”, “The Girl in the Other Room”
Joni Mitchell “Blue”
Dawn of Midi “Dysnomia”
Metallica “Black Album”
Pierre Bensusan “Altiplanos”
Jerry Garcia and David Grisman “Grisman and Garcia”
Jimmy Hendrix “Blues”
Johnny Cash “The Man Comes Around”
Ottmar Liebert “Up Close”
Keith Jarrett “Up For It”
Shankar “Eternal Light”
Hilliard Ensemble “Morimur”
Groundation “Upon the Bridge”
Previously owned headphones serving my audio memory:
Hifiman HE-4, Hifiman HE-500, Audeze LCD-2 (rev1, rev2), Audio-Technica WS-99, Audio-Technica ATH-900X, Sennheiser HD-600, Sennheiser HD-650, Fostex TH-600, Fostex T50RP (self-modded – Blu Tack & Dynamat dampening, semi-closed vents, V-Moda cable, ATH W5000 ear pads), Beyerdynamic DT-770 LE 32 ohms, Koss ESP-950, Grado 225i