Some time ago, I was pleasantly surprised to find the big Best Denki ("Best Electric") in the city had a dedicated high-end headphone listening table, including a Luxman P-1u, AT amps and Yamaha and other SACD players. The current round of headphones present on the table were: Denon D2000 and D5000, Sony SA-5000, AT W5000, W1000X, A1000X and A2000X, Victor DX-1000 with a couple of other models coming and going from time to time. Unfortunately the area is noisy, being adjacent to home theatre demo stages and whatnot, but it's better than nothing.
From time to time I drop in there for an hour or so and try some of the headphones. Today was one of those days. The DX-1000 was a new addition to the table I'd long wanted to try, so I'd picked a good day. As well, it has been some months since I first tried the A2000X and others, so hopefully they've been used enough that any changes that come about from use will have happened and I can get a better idea how they sound.
Compared to my own rig, which is tuned slightly towards being bright and is very clear and natural sounding, the Luxman/Yamaha combo, due to a number of factors, such as lack of power filtering and cable selection, is probably less lively than mine. As well, it was my first listen to music for the day, so I probably found it more enjoyable than I would had I already been listening with my rig before going out. These things I will try and take into account with my impressions.
First up were the DX-1000s. Most noticeable was their reputed "darker" presentation, with very strong, tight bass out of the Luxman. They reminded me very much of AT's L3000s to the point that if someone were after epic bass, but didn't want to shell out the big dollars for the L3000s, I'd suggest these would fit the bill instead. Like the L3000s, everything other than the bass was considerably less epic, more average than great. Some of this is the Luxman too, which has good punch with headphones, and is enjoyable to listen with.
Next up, the A2000X, a headphone which, the first time I tried, sounded so tonally off I didn't listen with them for more than a couple of minutes. The fit is still as bad as I remember, with me having to push them towards my ears to get a seal, especially if I want more than almost no bass. However, the mids and treble were much improved, and unless it's just my brain having adapted, AT's typical very forward mids were not as irritating as I remembered, even using the same very wide selection of tracks I first auditioned them with. Being used to a rig with no harshness in the treble at all, I was wondering where my feeling of discomfort with the music was manifest the whole time I was there, starting with these. Mids were great and I had a lovely time listening to Norah Jones (with the Dave Malick Group) to the point I ended up listening a lot longer with them than I had planned.
The W1000X was an obvious next choice. Compared to the A2000X, they have noticeably more bass, though I found it a tad too thick in the mid-bass with the Luxman (the AT amps give it more L3000-like bass) but otherwise very similar. Again, the first time I'd tried these, the mids were far too forward to the point some music sounded odd, but for whatever reason, either my brain or the cans themselves, I didn't find this as much a problem, and, despite the slightly flawed bass in that set-up, they had quite a good presentation. Overall, these are the ATs I so wished were perfect, as they are the first I've tried that have a "You can have your cake and eat it too" presentation, neither sacrificing bass fun nor treble extension and they look awesome and are beautifully made to boot. There has been some interest by people in paying me to buy a pair for them and keep them for a couple weeks first to try on my own rig. I might be tempted to do this in the future.
One problem that cropped up with all these headphones is, I was having trouble hearing anything other than completely lack-luster presentation of percussion. Drums on any music with any of the headphones sounded dull and flat with no body at all. Putting on the same music back home, this isn't a problem, even with a cheap and simple pair of Grado HF-1s out of the cheapest amp I own. I suspect that, despite the expensive components, the shop rig just doesn't perform as well as it should, as I have trouble believing that the headphones I tried are that bad with percussion. There was a bit of harshness across the rest of the spectrum too, making me wonder if the electrical environment there wasn't introducing considerable distortion into the rig.
Anyhow, at that point I decided to do something different. Since my Pico Slim has arrived and I've been using it for a while, I bought it along with my iPod Classic and TWAG LOD, a combination which gives me the open, but surprisingly not annoyingly harsh, treble I like. The regular headphone rack on the wall includes the AT ES10 and ESW9, so now was a good chance to see how I felt about these two with the Pico Slim.
Whatever first track kicked in, it had a lot of bass, and the ES10s out of the Slim were excellent, much better than I had expected. The better fit of the smaller cans than the A2000X probably helped a lot in this regard, but possibly also probably due to my not having listened to my main rig at all beforehand that day and my appreciation being higher. However I have always liked the top-of-the-line AT supra-aural cans such as the ESW10JPNs. As well since they do tend to be a bit darker than I prefer, maybe the combination with my deliberately bright rig (my iPhone is slightly darker, and the TWAG lod also brings out more treble) pushed them to just where I liked them. Similar thing with the ESW9s, though they are slightly darker with less forward mids from what I could hear. This is seriously tempting me to pick up a pair of ES10s in the future for travel.
Finally, when I dropped into the Apple Store to put my name on the pre-order list for the iPhone 4, I noticed they'd finally broken out the Bowers & Wilkins P-5s for demo. Allowing for the tonal balance of my rig mentioned above, they were surprisingly smooth out of the Slim. Inoffensive is the word that comes to mind. No tinniness or anything unpleasant, but the usual strong mid-bass and bass that average people tend to like without overdoing it. Very comfortable though. I can understand people picking up a pair of these for casual and non-fatiguing listening. They didn't do anything amazingly, but didn't do anything really badly, even classic jazz, which tends to reveal just how awful many mass-market headphones are, such as Beats. The only oddity about them I found was a bit of a peak in the lower mids, which is an unusual place to sound a bit strong.
Back on the train, my new RE-ZEROs reminded me in stark contrast of the bass of the ES10s and W1000X, making me wish the former were more isolating. Damn.