Reserved for my early impressions of the TH900.
My Ongoing Love Affair with the Fostex TH900
or: Impressions and Comparisons w/ the Denon D7000 and AT W3000ANV
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This post has been a long time in coming. In consideration of the delay, I must admit to a certain lack of motivation on my part, though there was also a desire to see my initial impressions reach some semblance of maturity before fully propagating them. Surely we're all familiar with "New Toy Syndrome" and its effects. With that in mind, I wanted to allow myself a few weeks to really get to know the TH900 and give my emotional response to it a chance to settle down.
No, it didn't "wow" me upon first listen. By the end of the first week however I was ready to declare them one of my favorite dynamic headphones of all time.
So why bring the D7000 and W3000ANV into the picture? I prefer focusing on a single headphone during a listening session, getting a feel for it as a whole only after some time has elapsed. On the other hand, compulsively switching back and forth between two sets---all the while fixating on one particular facet to the exclusion of all else---doesn't float my boat. My selection is based on my mood, so in contrast the whole A/B process seems too forced. Still, I think there's a genuine benefit in giving others a point of reference with which they're familiar.
The D7000 has been around for a while now, and when I say been around, I'm not just referring to its age: I think many a head-fier has had a pair on his or her head by now. They're practically iconic. It's also no secret that Fostex more or less made the D7000 for Denon to put its name on, so one could reasonably assert the D7000 was the closest thing to a flagship Fostex had prior to the release of the TH900. As for the W3000ANV, the selection seemed appropriate to me given that both it and the TH900 occupy a similar niche for prospective buyers. Both represent the latest offerings of luxuriant exotica from Japan, both display tremendous levels of craftsmanship adorned with their lacquered wooden cups, and both are some of the most expensive closed headphones you can buy at the moment.
Finally, a brief word about value and worth and the lack of any assessment to that effect in my impressions. Given that the TH900 costs a sizable sum---in excess of $2000 USD---it's only natural for people to question whether that's money well spent. While I understand the impetus for such a question, it's nevertheless a question I'm not inclined to answer. Ultimately I think it's up to each individual to determine whether the TH900 is "worth it" or not. I'm also not particularly confident in my ability to assign price tags to the way something sounds. Some individuals seem well equipped with a sort of head-fier's arithmetic; they feel the TH900 should be equivalent to three D7000s given that it's roughly three times the price, for example. In all honestly I'm not sure what the amalgamation of three D7000s would even sound like. I suspect it would have a lot of bass, however.
For better or for worse, I'm afraid the best I can do is report whether I feel the TH900 is money well spent for me personally. For what that's worth.
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Why are Japanese manufacturers so enamored with fabric jackets on their headphone cables? I concede that it's an aesthetically pleasing detail. There's a certain inelegant---almost lewd---quality to rubber by comparison. Unfortunately this wire-based finery comes at the cost of one's sanity: the D7000's headphone cables are endlessly frustrating in their propensity for twisting, coiling, and kinking. Particularly above the y-split. The TH900 is mercifully equipped with a slightly more cooperative length of wiring compared to the D7000. It's a bit thicker too. Additionally the 1/4" plug of the TH900 features a polished mirror finish, indicative of minor details that add up to a luxuriant whole.
Cables and plugs from left to right: TH900, D7000, W3000ANV
The build materials are somewhat similar to the D7000's, but overall they feel sturdier and more robust. The leather is synthetic egg protein of some sort, and while I admittedly prefer the genuine article, this stuff is hands down the nicest synthetic rendition of animal dermis I've encountered so far. As mentioned elsewhere in this thread there's a curious smell to it: something akin to that new car or office building smell one gets with traditional leather, but with an exotic almost spice-like undertone. It's not at all offensive. Just kind of weird. As for the earpads themselves, you can see the difference here:
The D7000 is on the top; the TH900 is on the bottom. On the latter the earpads are more uniform in width, leaving a slightly larger space in the center compared to the former. In terms of earpad depth both are fairly similar. Both models occupy the upper echelons of headphone comfort for me personally, but overall I find the TH900 to rate the highest in this regard; it's simply one of the most comfortable headphones to ever adorn my cranium. Part of the difference between the two stems from the larger interior space offered by the TH900's earpads: it feels as though my ears have more breathing room, and it diminishes the "presence" of the headphone against my face somewhat. Do note that I'm referring to stock D7000 earpads here, so it's quite possible that with the addition of some fancy shmancy aftermarket parts the D7000 would be more or less on the same level as the TH900 comfort-wise.
Also note that the TH900's construction, like the D7000's, is most certainly not conducive to isolation. If blocking outside noise is one of your top priorities, you may as well cross the TH900 off your list of considerations. I'm reminded of those cartoons where an entire building disappears only leaving behind a doorframe, yet the door is still closed and the character still bothers to open it to walk through despite a lack of surrounding walls. The TH900 is "closed" in that sense.
What about the aesthetic category? Quite the subjective criterion, even by our highly subjective hobby's standards. Personally I find the TH900 to be one of the most visually pleasing headphones around. Its victory over the D7000 in this respect is something of a clear knockout sucker-punch; the match against the W3000ANV however is less decisive, as both utilize exotic and highly specialized lacquering techniques. The W3000ANV employs a darker, more even finish that appears almost monolithic in low lighting, yet comes to life with a Starry Night rendered in woodgrain when spotlit. The TH900's "bordeaux" finish on the other hand is a brighter, more vibrant metallic red comprised of a luminous multitude, a distant and mysterious nebula rendered in a Byzantium mosaic. The platinum leaf Fostex brand name rests amongst the clouds. What ultimately tips the balance in favor of the TH900 for me personally is the overall presentation: it's a gorgeous, cohesive whole. The W3000ANV on the other hand eschews Audio-Technica's more recent metal arc assembly in favor of a legacy approach, going instead with the thicker more plasticy build of earlier W models.
All three headphones are packaged in what amounts to a cardboard box more or less. The TH900's is the largest of the three and about as thick as the D7000's, forgoing the leather padded top and ornamental fabric bed on the inside. Instead there's thick foam with the headphone's basic outline recessed into it, providing an effective but rather bland way of storing such exotica. Additionally, one gets a nice little pamphlet that explains the headphone's specifications and the purpose of the various materials used in its construction, along with a rather odd headphone stand as well. Compared to those included with the Edition 10 and the Muramasa VIII, the TH900's stand seems a bit inadequate for the headphone itself, so I'm not particularly inclined to use it. I'd worry too much about it tipping over.
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Adequately conveying the appeal of the TH900's sound has proven somewhat difficult for me. I don't want to overstate its neutrality and transparency, as it does have some color to it, but by the same token I don't want to overstate this coloration, either. That wouldn't do justice to much of its subtlety. For me personally, the TH900 manages to tightrope walk the thin line between too much and too little; its sound is highly accurate but possesses just enough emphasis here and there to amount to a subtle but lively enhancement. Specifically: the bass gets a slight boost, the midrange is recessed a bit while vocals are projected forward, and the treble is nudged just barely over to the brighter side of neutral.
Switching back and forth between the TH900 and D7000, it's obvious to me that the latter is voiced more extremely on either end. Bass on the D7000 is more prominent, more plentiful and somewhat thicker. The TH900 still packs a wallop when the need arises however, and in terms of overall refinement it surpasses its Denon-branded sibling. I can discern its texture more fully. Of course, some folks may prefer the added heft of the D7000; overall this makes it the more "fun" choice so to speak. In keeping with the trend, the top end of the TH900 is slightly more restrained compared to the D7000 but has a greater level of refinement as well. Neither is overly bright to my ears, but in a relative sense the TH900 is less so, falling closed to a neutral center point than the D7000 on an imagined continuum. The W3000ANV is also brighter up top compared to the TH900, though the TH900 does have a bit more heft down below.
The midranges of both the D7000 and TH900 are slightly recessed, though I'm finding the TH900 has more of a sense of presence, primarily due to the more forward character of vocals. The midrange on the D7000 is perhaps a bit more lush sounding due to its thicker quality; the TH900 sounds clearer and more open here by comparison. I foresee some feeling the D7000 is a richer listening experience because of this, but personally I find the D7000 a bit dull sounding in comparison to the more lively TH900. It's perhaps the lack of thickness that contributes to this effect. Note that a lack of thickness is NOT necessarily thinness: the TH900 is not thin sounding in the slightest bit to my ears. The difference is more akin to a haze versus a clear day.
Interestingly enough, I am finding the W3000ANV slightly thin-sounding in comparison to the TH900. Its midrange is noticeably more colored than the TH900's, and it's precisely this coloration that makes it so endearing for many people. I've oft described it as an "antique hue," the aural equivalent of sepia tone in a sense. When listening to the two headphones back-to-back however, the W3000ANV comes across as slightly disconnected, an effect I've attributed primarily to the less immediate quality of vocals in comparison to the TH900. There's a certain vitality present in the TH900's midrange that is simply lacking in the W3000ANV for me despite the undoubtedly beautiful saturation it imparts. Compared to the D7000, the TH900's midrange has more breathing room and feels more open; compared to the W3000ANV, it has more presence and a more organic quality. Of the three the TH900's mids are my favorite. There's a greater sense of texture and dimensionality to them. If you're looking for romance however---a certain x-factor or sense of magic---the W3000ANV is hard to beat.
So, in a proverbial nutshell, we can say the following about the TH900's sound signature:
--> Bass quantity: D7000 > TH900 > W3000ANV
--> Bass quality: TH900 > D7000 = W3000ANV
--> Midrange clarity / openness: TH900 > W3000ANV > D7000
--> Midrange coloration: W3000ANV > D7000 = TH900
--> Treble brightness: W3000ANV > D7000 > TH900
--> Treble clarity / quality: TH900 = W3000ANV > D7000
Each has a certain appeal given its qualities, though in my humble opinion the TH900 is the most versatile in application of the three and the closest to a true reference. To my sensibilities, the balance of the TH900 is simply magnificent, its tuning indicative of decades of experience in engineering audio equipment. What really fuels my love affair with the TH900 however has more to do with its spatial qualities.
The TH900 has a fairly large, open and expansive sound field. It's not the sort of presentation one would stereotypically associate with a closed headphone, though some may argue the TH900 isn't a truly closed headphone given its lack of isolation. Regardless, I find it rather impressive. More impressive still however are the spatial arrangements within that field, the placement of instruments on stage. Instrument separation is marvelous: all the constituents of a given track are spread out around the listener without being clustered or compartmentalized, that "blob" effect that can sometimes occur with certain headphones or earphones. That being said, the presentation isn't so large as to become cavernous; it seems natural rather than artificial in its grandeur. Furthermore it scales appropriately from track to track, allowing smaller scale recordings to retain their intimacy while letting symphonies flourish.
Individual notes are handled skillfully, surrounded with enough air to let them breathe with a sense of effortlessness, allowing crowded passages to retain their integrity and avoid collapsing into an incoherent jumble. I wouldn't consider the TH900 a particularly "airy" headphone, however. It has a characteristic openness, but it does not continue on that trajectory to the point of becoming vaporous. There is a certain weightiness to the TH900's sound---in part thanks to the slight bass emphasis, but also across the entire sonic spectrum---that gives it a definite sense of presence. It conveys instruments as grounded, placing them on a more solid foundation in the sonic space which surrounds the listener. Having lived with the TH900 for several weeks now, I've come to appreciate just how adept it is at imaging; in fact I'd go so far as to say it deserves a spot alongside the most capable electrodynamic headphones in this regard.
While these spatial qualities are important to me in their own right, it's the overarching phenomena to which they contribute I find most intriguing: the sense of being there amidst the performance. It's a sense of presence or physical manifestation, a cumulative effect that is more than the sum of its parts and difficult to ascribe with any great degree of certainty to specific variables. Grossly overgeneralizing the strengths of various technologies, it often seems as though orthodynamic headphones excel here more than their electrodynamic counterparts in my humble opinion (though the piezoelectric TakeT H2+ still reigns supreme in this respect). Nevertheless, the TH900 is able to convey music in a fairly lifelike and convincing manner, drawing the listener in with its immersive presentation and sound that pulsates with vital energy. As I've mentioned previously, music just seems to have an organic quality when played through the TH900; it sounds as though it were alive, as though it were natural.
I feel a connection to the music, and in this sense I feel as though I'm partaking of it.
There is much that remains to be said, I'm sure. We all have different priorities when it comes to satisfying our audio desires. Consequently my impressions may very well deemphasize certain facets of how the TH900 sounds that others would find more important than those I've hitherto prattled on about. For instance, when it comes to the variable of detail retrieval, I'm simply not as invested as others in trying to exact every last bit of information from a recording. I will say that the TH900 seems exceptionally detailed to my ears, roughly comparable to the Audez'e LCD-3. I haven't scrutinized the two side-by-side however. From my general observations, the TH900 is what I would consider to be reference-grade in its detail, accuracy, and faithfulness to source material. Fortunately such detail never feels overwhelming to me. The TH900 is voiced in such a way as to avoid an un-involving or cold sound which is often (and often erroneously) associated with 'analytic' headphones. That's not to say the TH900 is warm, but rather that it is natural and involving. There're those two words again.
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I must admit to a certain feeling of inadequacy when looking over these impressions. It may seem as though I'm being non-comital, describing the TH900 as being fairly neutral on the one hand while detailing the effects of its coloration on the other. I've called it both restrained yet lively, both expansive and open yet grounded, both clear yet full-sounding. Therein lies that which makes the TH900 so endearing, however. It's a headphone that manages to strike a balance, one that manages to exist on the audio coin's edge rather than one side or the other. It is, in essence, a serious reference headphone that doesn't take itself too seriously. It's a reference headphone that manages to be somewhat playful at the same time.
Of course, this assessment is based on my own personal taste. For some the TH900 may not be quite so perfectly poised, instead falling too much into the category of reference or---alternatively---coloration. I must also admit to a certain lack of experimentation on my part when it comes to synergy and source compatibility. I've tried the TH900 with portable DAPs such as the Sony A865 Walkman and iBasso DX100, with a portable amp/DAC combo (the Leckerton UHA-6S) connected to my MacBook, straight from my MacBook sans amp, and finally on my main dynamic rig (Onkyo DAC-1000 --> Eddie Current ZDSE). In each case I enjoyed what I heard and felt that the TH900 was sufficiently driven. The differences I observed were primarily found in the extremes of the sonic spectrum. For instance: the DX100, UHA-6S, and ZDSE afforded the TH900 even more control and added a bit more refinement on either end. I also felt the midrange was slightly more distant sounding when unamped, though the effect was less immediately discernible, so I'm less confident in my reporting it. Overall these headphones are not difficult to drive however, and I personally feel they sound exceptional out of a variety of sources.
And so we come to the end of the line for now.
Is the TH900 worth its steep price?
I have no idea.
Do I feel it was money well spent?
Would I still feel that way if I paid the full MSRP for it instead of $1750 USD?
I'm inclined to think so, though I must confess that I'm glad I didn't pay in full. Who wouldn't be?
In closing, 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.
Such is my ongoing love affair with the Fostex TH900.
Edited by MuppetFace - 5/2/12 at 10:36pm