I went today to the fall headphone festival organized by Fujiya Avic in Tokyo. I only wanted to check out Stax's new prototype and Ultrasone's Edition 10.
First, I have to say I was impressed by the large number of vendors, a LOT of iem makers, Japan / Tokyo is obviously a lucrative market with everybody commuting daily on the train.
Note that I don't have much listening impressions because one literally only has seconds to sample the gear until the seat must be vacated for somebody else… Yet, one can at least get a very rough idea of the tonality of a headphone, probably not much more so notes below are only worth so much, you are warned …
I will start with Ultrasone Edition 10:
The same people from Ultrasone who did the launch in Japan were present today. I am impressed by their dedication to the Japan market. From a brief chat together, it looks like this is a very important market for them. They're very friendly people, I got a picture taken listening to the Edition 10, I guess the bewildered look of my baby while I was wearing the headphone was not common sight .
I thought it would be more of a departure from the house sound but clearly you know you're listening to an Ultrasone can the second you start playing music. The s-logic does definitely sound nothing like other headphones.
Another thing I noticed is that the Edition 10 are very picky about the position of the earcup, just like other Edition headphones. For instance, I was at first not wowed by the tightness of the bass / smoothness of the highs. But, once I reseated the headphones slightly, the bass very much tightened up (or maybe mid bass hump disappeared) and the headphone lost the bit of shrillness it had at first.
The amplifier was Chord's chordate and 9AM was louder than I can tolerate so either they're very sensitive cans or the amplifier has loads of gain. Source was from Chord too, I am not familiar with this gear so not sure how well a pairing it makes with the Edition 10.
Overall, my quick impression of the headphone is that of a more tonally accurate version of Edition 9 without feeling of listening to a closed headphone (of course…). They are definitely more neutral sounding than Edition 9. Did not have time to make any judgement on the soundstage though. Certainly did not feel "narrow" like the Edition 9. Mind you, I really like the Edition 9 presentation though. To me, a narrow but deep / layered soundstage is much more natural than overly wide one.
For me, on such short listen, I will say that I am not ready to jump for the Edition 10. Maybe I would if I was in the mind of upgrading my Edition 9. But, I have not listened to my Edition 9 for a while and, as you may know, it does take some time to get used to s-logic (and / or Ultrasone's sound signature). So, coming from Stax listening, I did not have sufficient time with the Edition 10 to get accustomed to its sound. As such, I think such short listening auditions are rather a disservice for Ultrasone because their headphones take time getting used to.
To conclude, I think these Edition 10 again are not going to be for everybody. In particular, those who have not been wowed by s-logic sound before are probably not going to change their mind with Edition 10. I can rather imagine current owners upgrading their collection… So, current fans, don't wait until this limited edition sells over!
Next, Stax's new flagship prototype:
First, I apologize for the poor quality pictures, I only had my iPhone as it's a bit difficult to use an SLR while holding a 9 month old baby in your arms… It looks like there were several people with nice photo gear covering the event so we'll surely see some nicer pics in a short while.
Before listening to the new prototype, I had a brief chat with the Stax representative. Unfortunately I do not know who he is, but a very nice senior person. I speak a little Japanese but frankly not well. So please forgive if some of the following is inaccurate due to some loss in translation / foolish interpretation .
First, I asked when it was going to be out: first half of 2011 is the plan. Next, the price: 300k to 500kJPY. Third, a matching amplifier: yes likely, but not in the immediate future. So probably we can't expect an amp to be released at the same time as the new headphone. He did mention though that the current top of the line amplifiers from Stax can "drive this headphone without any trouble".
Next, I asked about the diaphragm: it is a new design. Something about a complicated manufacturing process because their are three layers assembled together by heating process. The thickness is higher than Omega 2 because while a light / thin diaphragm is good for transients, it is affected by "low" frequency resonances. This time around, it would appear that Stax has tried to achieve maximum stiffness (and damping, hence the multiple layers?) with the new diaphragm. Anyhow, it is a complex manufacturing process which I guess is driving the cost up.
Next, the frame: aluminum, much stiffer than Omega 2 frame. The weight is a bit affected but I did not feel the headphone was heavy at all. The frame thickness may change slightly in the final version but looks like the looks is pretty much set (I find it really beautiful, the Omega2 looks cheap in comparison, and well, it will be ).
Last: the name … Of course he did not say but this is a new series, beyond the Omega. The Omega 2 will remain on sale. When I asked about anniversary, he said that this is indeed a point as Stax is reaching 50 years in existence…
Now to the listening. Again, it was too brief but I could go for two rounds fortunately. I listened on the 727A, which is nice because it's also my own amp. The source was a Marantz SA-15 or something like that, not very high end.
Well, what jumped at me is that the tonal balance is quite different from the Omega 2, it seems definitely more tonally neutral while the Omega 2 has a warmer tonality on this amp.
The highs of the prototype are very present but absolutely not shrill or detached from the rest. Next, the bass is absolutely there but tight. In comparison the Omega 2 does feel like the bass could be firmer / more controlled (again on the 727A).
It does seem like the headphones are quicker sounding than the Omega 2, and dynamics are improved. Too short listening to say for sure though, some of this might have to do with the more neutral tonal balance.
Finally, the ease of drive: while I listen to the Omega 2 at 9-10AM at home, I was at 12-2PM with the new prototype. Mind you, the source might have an impact on this. My yamamoto D/A is a rather hot source.
Overall, I have to say I was very impressed. It feels very much like a step in the right direction based on this short listening experience. The price is going to be steep, but it appears Stax is trying to get the top seat for best sounding headphone in production!
Edited by arnaud - 10/30/10 at 7:05am