Review & Story: Stax SR-007 + HeadAmp Blue Hawaii SE
a recap & postmortem of my SR-007/BHSE and related headphone journey
written on February 28, 2012
Since not much has been written about the HeadAmp BHSE by its current owners so far, I thought I'd take the opportunity to share my own experience with mine over the last 2+ years.
This isn't meant to be an actual "review" in the style of which I've typically done. It's more of a story of my personal journey and how I got to the point of owning the SR-007/BHSE system. But this is a type of review too - specifically to address a generic question that probably many people want to know: "What does the SR-007/BHSE offer over dynamics/orthos?"
Reviewer Biases & Info, Equipment Setup, etc
I'm not going to rehash here what I've already written several times before. For those who haven't seen it before I'll just provide this link to my most recent mini-review. Nothing has changed since then.
This part can be skipped for those not interested in my personal headphone journey, but since it affects how I got to the SR-007/BHSE, I wanted to include it.
Though my join date on Head-Fi is listed as April 2004, I "lurked" for almost an entire year before buying anything, and when I finally started researching info in late 2005, one of the first things I wanted to buy was a set of closed portable headphones, which ended up being the AKG K271S. Funny how we all start out with naive aspirations, right? Back then I had no idea what I was getting into, and $300 for the AKG K701 that I bought in April 2006 was really expensive to me. I thought it would end there. I didn't foresee buying anything "audiophiley" or expensive - back then all I wanted was simply a set of headphones to plug into a basic CD/radio boombox's headphone jack to listen to my paltry CD collection at the time (less than 20 CDs).
That's how I got started in 2005. And then when the announcement for the then-unprecedented Head-Fi 2006 National Meet in NYC came, I thought, why not? I was 24 at the time and the idea of traveling to NYC seemed exciting on the prospect of seeing the city alone, so I made the plans to go. That too started a trend - a crazy, deranged trend of traveling the country just to attend meets, ranging from NYC to North Carolina to Florida to Texas to SoCal to NorCal to Washington State to Illinois, and even my home state of Colorado.
It's been a crazy but awesome journey for me since then in so many ways, and I'm genuinely grateful for most of it. The 30+ meets that I've attended have all been awesome. I don't regret traveling to any one of them for an instant. Through them I've listened to lots of gear and music, and just as importantly if not moreso, I've met tons of awesome, enthusiastic people. I find it a little bit crazy how many hardcore headphone listeners I've come to know over the years from so many parts of the world (not just the USA). To all of the people I've met, and I mean this genuinely, I have to say thanks - for being an awesome set of crazy headphone fiends. It's been amazing, fun, and I wouldn't have had as great of a time without many of them. Seriously, kudos to you guys (and girls - yes I've met a few). Head-Fi has been an amazing resource and community too and as much as I've taken from it, I've tried to give back too - helping out members on the site, writing about various things, organizing local meets, and contributing in other ways that I thought I could, like loans & giveaways of headphone equipment.
The gear part of my journey was definitely wild, and most people here know exactly how it is. You buy that first headphone and then get the upgrade bug. Combined with tons of enablers on Head-Fi and the fortuitous experience of being able to hear tons of stuff at meets (which helped to both mentally blacklist gear and find hidden gems), I went through tons of gear. Most of it is listed in my profile. I went through headphones at first, then amps, followed quickly by sources and cables. My goal back then was merely to sample everything. I had to know how new stuff sounded. If a new headphone came out, I bought it. It became an insatiable curiosity for me.
Then, in the middle of my personal trailblazing, came CanJam '08 in Florida, in June of that year. It was then and there that my journey was abruptly interrupted and realigned. What happened?
I heard HeadAmp's "Blue Hawaii SE" prototype with the Stax OII MKII.
It was awesome. It turned my world upside-down. It made me re-think stuff. But most of all, it made me want to buy it. And since I could afford it, I did. And kudos to Justin of HeadAmp of course for being the cool guy that he is and being flexible with a spontaneous payment plan. When I ordered the BHSE in June 2008, I had no clear audio goals in mind. I had no idea if the BHSE was going to be my "end-game" setup. At the time it was just something I bought and wasn't sure I was going to keep. In fact, I'd also ordered a silver GS-X (in July 2007) and was secretly hoping that my end-game setup would actually be with dynamic headphones instead.
So, I trudged on with my journey while waiting for the BHSE and GS-X. Curiosity led me onto more headphones, amps, & sources in the meantime. For me it would be a duel - dynamic headphones with the GS-X, or electrostatic headphones with the BHSE? The BHSE arrived first in August 2009 (technically, completed and shipped in time to arrive at CanJam '09 in June but I didn't actually have it at my home until August). The GS-X arrived later in January 2011.
The duel was on. But I let it simmer for a while. After all there were more headphones and amps to buy. But during that time, the duel continued. Dynamic vs electrostatic traded some very good blows:
WHAM! The GS-X delivered the first punch with a motley crew of headphones, most of them balanced: AD2K, HD800, HP1000, & Qualia 010.
BAM! The BHSE beat back with the Stax SR-507 and laughed.
POW! Not down yet, the GS-X attempted to retaliate with the Audeze LCD-2, re-acquired HD800 & balanced cable, and then the LCD-3.
But now the duel is over. It was close but definitive - neither the GS-X or BHSE won. It was a tie. I had to have both of them. They were both too awesome to part with. Dynamic + electrostatic ftw!
So to go back to the question: "What does the SR-007/BHSE offer over dynamics/orthos?"
I'm first going to list what I've heard and what I haven't heard. I've heard most of the current flagships:
- AKG K70x (if it counts as a flagship now, since AKG doesn't have a better current-production headphone)
- Audeze LCD-3 & LCD-2 (r1/r2)
- Beyerdynamic T1
- HiFiMan HE-6 (ok, for only a couple of days)
- Sennheiser HD800
I've heard out-of-production flagships too, like:
- AKG K1000
- Audio-Technica L3000
- Grado HP1000
- Sennheiser HE60
- Sony Qualia 010 & R10 (never liked the R10 though)
I haven't heard:
- most HiFiMan models
- most Ultrasone models
- Sennheiser Orpheus (HE90 + HEV90 or with HeadAmp Aristaeus)
The next thing I'm going to say is that the SR-007/BHSE is highly dependent on the source. You can't just throw the headphone and amp together and expect to have an awesome system. It needs a proper high-end source to show off its capabilities. I've heard 9 sources with my BHSE (all in quiet conditions): Arcam FMJ CD36, Ayre QB-9, BAT VK-D5SE*, Cary Audio 306 SACD Pro, Classe CDP-202, Electrocompaniet EMC1*, North Star Design Sapphire, Pathos Endorphin*, and Plinius CD-101. I heard all sources in balanced mode wherever possible - which is all of them except for the Arcam, which doesn't have balanced output. (Starred items are sources I didn't buy but heard in a controlled enviroment. All other sources were bought.)
With that out of the way, I'll start by saying about the SR-007 and BHSE that they form THE most transparent combo that I've heard. "Transparent" meaning that they reveal the sonic character of the source without adding much of their own. And they do it far better than anything else that I've heard. Too many of the other headphones I've heard either add too much sonic coloration in one aspect or another or just aren't detailed enough to really reveal much about a source. This isn't meant to be a criticism against lesser headphones - more of a praise to the SR-007/BHSE in that they really & genuinely show off a high-end source, and the better the source, the better the music will sound. Out of all 9 sources I heard with my SR-007/BHSE, I only really liked it with 2 of them (for different reasons): the Pathos Endorphin and Plinius CD-101. All of the other 7 sources were less than stellar (some more than others) and I'd go so far to say that no one should use any of those 7 to gauge the capability of the SR-007/BHSE. So my recommendation here for others is that you really need to consider the source in a BHSE system, because the wrong source could set you up for disappointment.
Another thing that definitely needs to be pointed out is that the SR-007/BHSE is extremely revealing of recording quality. This isn't meant as criticism against bad recordings. I mean that awesome recordings will sound truly amazing on it. And by "truly amazing", I can't emphasize that enough. I'm talking about potential to turn your thinking upside-down. The potential to tap into your emotional soul. In short, the potential to make you think "Holy crap how is this possible?!" or to make you react with a literal stunned disbelief.
I've taken CDs I've heard countless times before on other headphones, including specifically the T1, HD800, and LCD-2/LCD-3, amped by such top-class amps like the B22 and GS-X. And in some cases, meet settings have provided opportunities to hear other amps, though not ideally, like the Eddie Current Balancing Act.
There was simply no contest between the SR-007/BHSE versus the dynamics/orthos. None. The CDs on the electrostatic system didn't just "sound" better. They almost became different & new recordings on it. I couldn't find a single well-recorded CD that wasn't rewarded with the magnified resolution of the SR-007/BHSE.
Let's take just one of my recurring test CDs, Julia Fischer's Bach Concertos for example. On every other headphone - the HD800, T1, LCD-2/LCD-3, etc - that CD has simply sounded "good". Like any classical music should sound - you can hear the instruments playing, each instrument section, etc. As far as Fischer herself, you can hear her violin playing. Very standard stuff. It all just sounds like you're listening to pre-recorded music, which you are.
But on the SR-007/BHSE, this CD doesn't just sound like instruments are playing. The electrostatic system channels something very inexplicable off of that CD, through my CDP - the sound becomes more than just "listening" to a chamber orchestra. Although this might sound like an extreme analogy, it's sort of like the difference between merely watching a movie and actually being in that movie's world, if you could. It's like that level of immersion - the SR-007/BHSE provides a true holographic & immersive effect of being in front of the chamber orchestra live, right at the position where the conductor would be, and the instruments are more than just instruments and virtually become the musicians themselves. It's no longer merely listening to an instrument, but listening to a musician play, with every single nuance and detail that involves. Specifically Fischer on her violin - you can hear every aspect of her technique and technical ability like she's playing right in front of you, and I say that as a violin player. It makes it seem so peerlessly real that I can imagine being in Fischer's position and playing her violin part myself, though I'm nowhere near as proficient of course. The entire CD is just one example of how the SR-007/BHSE does more than something like "reveal extra detail" - I mean it does, but the CD becomes something hair-raisingly real, dynamic, & intense, almost to the point of being surreal. It's the sort of listening experience that makes you ask yourself if you're really listening to a pre-recorded CD on headphones, because it makes it sound so much like a live event, and the musicians sound both human yet highly talented.
And it's really not just classical music either, even though that's my favorite example, because classical is a genre that can be easily compared to a live performance (especially for me since I'm a violinist). I can just as easily take a CD by Alison Krauss & Union Station, Eva Cassidy, Porcupine Tree, Massive Attack, Dave Brubeck, or Tord Gustavsen, and all of them will benefit in a similar way. The SR-007/BHSE has a way of making music sound completely real and like it's taking place right in front of you. What could be better than hearing Alison Krauss live, for example? Hearing her on the SR-007/BHSE anytime you want, where it sounds just as real and maybe even better, because it has that private-concert feel. And Eva Cassidy - it's too bad that she passed on, but with the SR-007/BHSE you'd never know, because the system completely captures every little detail in her voice - her uncertainty, her strength, the story of her life, and those awesome moments when she increases her vocal intensity & volume that makes it that much more sad- and emotional-sounding.
The SR-007/BHSE vs dynamics/orthos for me boils down to two ways of listening to music: (1) the dynamic/ortho presentation where you're just listening to pre-recorded music being played, or (2) the electrostatic presentation that makes the musicians or vocalists practically come off the CD and for a moment become real and nothing is masked. Nothing hidden. Just straight music and your listening environment disappears, because you can imagine yourself at a live performance being done just for you.
Now if you can already imagine that on a dynamic or ortho headphone system, then that's awesome. Now imagine it being done way better, completely holographically without a break in realism, and without losing any of the essence of musicality from live musicians or singers.
The SR-007/BHSE isn't perfect of course though and there are a few minor flaws that subtract from the experience for me. It does lack a physical "directness" to the sound, contrasting with dynamic headphones which seem to not have that problem. I think it could also use more lower-bass and upper-treble quantity. But most of all, it doesn't really fit all of the music genres that I listen to, specifically electronica and metal. The bass lacks the quantity and pressure to really satisfy for bass-driven electronica (like The Crystal Method), and it's not really capable of sonic aggression or oppression, which IMO is key for metal. Or to put it another way, I don't think the SR-007/BHSE's complete sonic neutrality is necessarily a good thing for every genre - IMO some genres do benefit from sonic coloration of some type.
As far as recommendations go, I can't say the SR-007/BHSE is the end-all for everyone, because it's definitely not mine - I'd call my end-all the AD2K/GS-X system instead. But I will say that if its price tag is within reach and you can tolerate both the wait time for the amp and hunting down a discontinued headphone, then I see no reason to not acquire it. It's the best, most unbelievable-sounding system I've ever heard, and I'm saying that after spending more than 2 years with it. If the kind of experience I've written about here sounds intriguing to you, then I highly recommend buying it.
I for one am very glad to have the audio gear that I own now, especially at this time in my life, when I still have a lifetime ahead of me to enjoy music on it. The SR-007/BHSE still brings supreme musical bliss every time I listen and nothing else can really compare to it. It's just a different experience that has changed my life forever and I hope more people can and will enjoy it too. Happy listening to the imminent group of new BHSE owners!
Finally, thanks & kudos to Justin @ HeadAmp for all of the awesome amps that I've bought from him over the years. The BHSE tops them all sonically & aesthetically. HeadAmp - my #1 amp brand since 2006 and for many more years to come.
Summary & Comparisons
If I had to sum up the sound of my electrostatic system in general, I'd describe it having these qualities:
- Unmatched clear, pure, & radiating sound, way beyond the level of the HD800. The only dynamic headphone remotely in competition in this aspect is the Qualia 010.
- Supreme balance across the frequency spectrum.
- Unrestricted dynamic range portraying everything between extremely quiet to extremely loud.
- Unrestricted scaling portraying everything between small groups or solo sound sources to massive orchestras.
- Recording-adaptable soundstaging: size and depth changing with respect to different recordings.
Versus the Audeze LCD-2 and LCD-3, the SR-007 had a substantially cleaner & clearer sound with a more-open soundstage and properly unrestricted dynamic range & scaling. In the case of the LCD-2, it roughly retained a similar (but not identical) frequency spectrum balance.
Versus the Beyerdynamic T1, the SR-007 had an overall cleaner sound, substantially more clarity, more soundstage depth, and more dynamic range (specifically better ability to produce low volumes).
Versus the Grado HP1000, the SR-007 lost that headphone's unique "living soul" x-factor and very full mid-range, but to compensate it had much more clarity, more frequency extension in the bass & treble directions, and a holographic 3D soundstage severely contrasting from the Grado's compressed soundstage. This holographic soundstage contributed to the SR-007's sense of realism in a similar way that the Grado's natural tonality contributed to its sense of realism - they were both very realistic-sounding, but in different ways.
Versus the Sennheiser HD800, the SR-007 had a less treble-tilted signature with more of a tilt towards the mid-range & bass for better balance, marginally more clarity, more accurate soundstaging (not as open & wide), and a closer-positioned more assertive sound.
Versus the Sony Qualia 010, the SR-007 had maybe a little less clarity but only a little, but a much better frequency spectrum balance with a lot less treble tilt (and more bass to compensate) and a smaller soundstage (the Qualia's was too over-the-top large).
These basic comparisons are vastly oversimplified though - there are aspects of the SR-007 that just can't be put into words and can only be heard.
- Audeze LCD-3 multi-way mini-review: http://www.head-fi.org/t/594426/mini-review-audeze-lcd-3-vs-lcd-2-r2-sr-007-et-al
- HeadAmp KGSS vs BHSE mini-review: http://www.head-fi.org/t/566419/mini-review-headamp-kgss-vs-blue-hawaii-se
- LCD-2 multi-way review: http://www.head-fi.org/t/548875/review-audeze-lcd-2-r1-r2-hifiman-he-6-stax-sr-507-stax-oii-mki-bhse-et-al
- Audio-Technica AD2K 5-year re-review: http://www.head-fi.org/t/574882/5-year-re-review-audio-technica-ath-ad2000
- Beyerdynamic T1 vs Senn HD800 review: http://www.head-fi.org/t/511201/review-beyerdynamic-t1-vs-sennheiser-hd800
- Pathos Endorphin, BAT VK-D5SE, & Electrocompaniet EMC1 impressions report: http://www.head-fi.org/t/481329/audition-impressions-pathos-endorphin-bat-vk-d5se-electrocompaniet-emc1
Edited by Asr - 2/29/12 at 10:29pm