Today, I had an opportunity to listen to the new Stax flagship prototype (referred as C32 below) at Fujiva Avic store in Tokyo. They had it for demo during the holidays and I took the opportunity to spend about 1 hour and a half switching back and forth between the C32 and the current Omega 2 (referred as 007A below).
For me, it is the second time I have a chance to listen to the C32, see here ( http://www.head-fi.org/forum/thread/520391/tokyo-fall-2010-headphone-festival ) for the previous encounter and some background information on this new product. There are no news compared to last time, the C32 is still targeted for release this spring and the price is not yet fixed.
Before I move on to listening impressions, I have a few pictures to share (some of the shots are the C32 in comparison against 007A):
Although still at prototype stage, the C32 finish is absolutely awesome, the pictures above just don't do it justice. It is clearly a step above the 007A from simply looking at it and touching it. The headband is that of newer generation Stax Lambdas, the adjustable strap is much nicer than the spring type relief on the 007A. Although the C32 seems a tad heavier than the 007A, it actually feels even more comfortable on the head. Part of it has to do with the adjustable headband I believe. Additionally, although the ear pads look very similar to the 007A, they feel softer. I consider the 007A one of the most comfortable headphone I have owned but it is outclassed by the C32.
Oh, one thing I need to get out of the way: if you're uneasy reading about the 007A being outclassed by another Stax earspeaker, stop right here because I am afraid there is not a single thing I noticed where the 007A did not bite the dust during this A/B comparison. Actually, after the listening today, my main impression is that Stax has pretty much set the bar well above ANY of the competition today. I have not heard it all, far from it, but I have owned and listened to a bit of gear in the past 10 years.
I can't imagine what this headphone will do with a high-end source and even better amplification. For today, I listened to the C32 and 007A while driven by the 727A which I know well as I own one. The source was a Marantz SA7003 fed by CDs, far from high-end. As for volume matching, although I felt like the 007A was louder than C32 during previous listening couple of months back, today I felt more like the C32 might have been slighter louder than 007A at the same volume level (12PM-1PM with that source).
The reason why I am being so presumptuous about Stax having redefined the limits of headphone sound reproduction is that nothing sounds off after listening to a varied set of recordings through the C32 prototype. I clearly cannot say that from listening to the HD800, T1 or especially Edition 10 to name a few recent flagships who all seem to be excellent at some things but show some faults even after short listening. It feels like Stax has kept the best of Omega 2 (midrange, finesse) and improved upon in four main areas:
- Frequency extension: bass is much firmer and goes lower, upper frequency extension feels higher although it might be due to change in tonal balance
- Tonal balance: the C32 sounds much more toward the neutral side of warm while the 007A is clearly on the warm side (you might even call it bass heavy on the 727A). Overall, the C32 is much more natural / realistic sounding in comparison to 007A.
- Transients and impact: the 007A simply sounds slow in comparison to C32. It is obvious on drums, guitars but actually noticeable instantaneously during A/B listening with any kind of music. Along the same lines, the impact / kick of the C32 is much more pronounced than 007A. This is one thing that people who don't like electro-stats refer to: the lack of impact. Well, you will need to listen to the C32 before making that generalization about electrostats again...
- Soundstaging: the 007A sounds much narrower than the C32 (and HD800 for that matter). The good news is that while the HD800 sounds wide but imprecise in comparison to the 007A, the C32 does not loose any ability to perfectly stage instruments in depth and width. You simply feel like the room has gotten much more spacious with the C32 rather than deep but narrow hall will the 007A.
For the rest of the listening impressions, I will simply list the notes I took during the A/B listening session. The notes are organized by song I sampled ("song title", artist - album name), but as you'll see, it's pretty much always the same findings. Note that this is just what comes out from 90 minutes A/B using an unknown source. It is thus very rough and only meant to give you a feel for what the C32 is about. One would need much more extended listening period to ultimately judge the true quality (and possibly find some defaults) of the headphone.
1. "Through The Valley", Joshua Redman - Compass: bass is firmer on C32, loudness feels the same
2. "Sweet Thing", Tomasz Stanko Quartet - Lontano: 007A sounds veiled and a bit grainy. Cymbals shimmer feels softer and less extended than C32. Room feels much deeper and spacious with C32, the reverberation is heard more clearly. The placement of instruments is easier on C32. C32 sounds a bit louder than 007A.
3. "Heart In Your Hand", Page & Plant - Walking Into Clarksdale: the bass is heaver and more upfront on 007A. C32 simply sounds better, more real. C32 is faster sounding like the amplifier has much more control of the transducer.
4. "We'll Be Together Again", Jimmy Cobb Quartet - Jazz in the Key of Blue: C32 extends higher, attacks are more convincing, much faster than 007A. 007A has a warmer, more forgiving sound.
5. "If... (Forcione)", Charlie Haden & Antonio Forcione - Heartplay: bass is much more controlled on the C32, guitar transients / attacks are much more believable. 007A soundstage is narrower while C32 sounds spacious.
6. "The Day Of Wine And Roses", Oscar Peterson Trio - We Get Requests (K2HD version): 007A sounds a bit harsh on this remaster (also at home with my Yamamoto D/A which is a very smooth source though). I actually prefer the original CD version at home as the K2HD sounds a bit metallic with the 007A. With the C32, all is changed: the sound is much smoother. I wonder if there is some kind of high frequency content which does not play well with the 007A but just fine with the C32.
7. "Saturday Come Slow", Massive Attack - Heligoland: 007A misses some kick / impact. The bass in the C32 is much cleaner.
8. "Heartbeat", HeadFi and HDtracks Sampler - Open Your Ears: C32 has much more kick / impact. My head felt like it was literally shaken / rattled by the bass sound! Only the last one sounds attenuated with the C32/727A combo. For the 007A/727A combo, only the first one sounds unattenuated.
9. "Impressions", Giovanni Mirabassi Trio - Out Of Track: much more impact on C32. Deeper soundstage on C32.
10. "Me And Armini", Emiliana Torrini - Me And Armini: 007A sounds much warmer, C32 has more impact. 007A sounds too bass heavy and slow in comparison, the bass is boomy.
11. "Elixir", Marilyn Mazur - Elixir: C32 sounds much more realistic, more attack / kick, more precise placement of instruments, 10x more impact than 007A.
12. "Bye Bye Blackbird", Patricia Barber - Night Club: soundstage feels narrow in the 007A, C32 sounds much more spacious. 007A sounds warmer, C32 sounds more realistic. Piano sounds veiled and anemic through the 007A in comparison to the C32.
13. "Extraordinary Machine", Fiona Apple - Extraordinary Machine: 007A sounds warmer. C32 has more grip on the instruments and sounds more spacious but less forgiving that 007A (would need to hear it through a better source to pass judgement on how C32 is forgiving of bad recordings).
14. "Chinar Es (You Are as Tall as a Plane Tree)", Tigran Hamasyan - Red Hail: 007A sounds more forgiving, I think you need to pair the C32 with a good source as it is less forgiving than 007A. Echos are more easily heard through the C32, the hall comparatively sounds dead through the 007A.
15. "Lies", Kaki King - Legs To Make Us Longer: the 007A sounds too warm in comparison to C32 and a bit grainy at the same time. The 007A sounds like it is has some peaks and valleys in its frequency response which make it sound unnatural compared to the C32. The C32 sounds much more realistic and natural with much more speed, faster transients.
This is all for now. Needless to say I am excited about the release of the new Stax flagship although a bit concerned about pricing. Well, only thing left to do now is to start saving!!!