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Comparing the best of the best

post #1 of 63
Thread Starter 



I’d like to start by thanking/cursing all of you for the recent/pending/future assaults on my bank account. 


This is my first post to Head-Fi, tho I’ve been lurking for 6 months as first I was looking for sound-suppressing IEMs to wear while mowing my lawn for 4.5 hours each week.  Based in large part on reading discussions around here, I ended up with the Etymotic MC-5s because they seemed the right price/performance trade.  They are suitably protective and sound good enough over the noise from the 27-hp Kohler engine and the 60” of blades whirring and whacking at ~18,000 FPM.  They certainly work better and are more comfortable in the heat than ear-muffs, and they make the chore much more enjoyable.  So I thank you for your help in that.


But a funny thing happened while I was reading all of your posts… I started to learn about reference-level headphones… and the next thing I know, I’m talking to The Cable Company about borrowing phones and an amp to figure out if headphones can replace my old Vandersteen speakers and Adcom GFA-555 amp that just moved down into my home theater.  My greatroom is a nightmare for speakers anyway (all live surfaces, crazy angles, very high ceiling in some places but not others), and with headphones I wouldn’t have to worry about acoustics.  I’m the only music listener in the house (the dogs don’t care), so I can be selfish about my sound.  Seems the perfect setup for quality headphones, so after suitable research here, I took the plunge and borrowed 6 pairs of top-end phones and a Burson HA-160 amp from the Cable Company:


  1. Audeze LCD-2
  2. Audeze LCD-3
  3. Grado PS-1000
  4. Sennheiser HD-800
  5. Hifiman HE-500
  6. Beyerdynamic T-1s


They charge 5% deposit, applicable to whatever you end up buying, plus shipping, which does not credit toward your purchase. Given the large amount of stuff I was auditioning, shipping cost me about $70, or about $12 per headphone, but for that unrecoverablef investment I got to compare 6 of the best headphones in the world, directly against each other, in my home environment, on my equipment (and the Burson) for 2 weeks (you get to use them over at least 2 weekends), without having to put any gas in the car or waste time driving anywhere.  Even with the recent drop in US gas prices, I think this is one of the best deals I’ve seen in the electronics world in a VERY long time, and I encourage everybody to take advantage of it, because that might spur every dealer in the world to set up a similar program, which would really make electronics shopping much better in these days of fewer and fewer local high-end audio stores. 


Okay, enough shilling for the Cable Co.  I don’t work for them, never have, never will.  And to prove it, let me say that they also included a bunch of alternate cables in the shipments, mostly Cardas, and I heard no discernible difference in the sound quality by swapping cables on the HD 800s or Audeze’s.  None.  Nada.  Zippo.    Maybe some between the silver HE-500 cable and the Cardas Hifiman cable.  But definitely not $280 worth of difference.  They have tried to convince me to let the cables settle after shipping, yadda, yadda, blah, blah.  No sale there.


So my bucks will go into phones, not cables – and not into an amp either, since it turns out my ~25-yr-old Adcom GFP-555 pre-amp has a very good headphone section, with a separate SS amp.  It sounded as good to me as the Burson, with about as much power, certainly enough to drive any of the tested phones very well.  The only problem I found with the Adcom is that it doesn’t clean up dirty power very well:  when the power went out last weekend and I was using my house’s propane generator, I could hear some noise that was not present using the Burson.  Of course, the fact that I could hear anything at all when most of the DC area was in the dark was a bonus…


Oh… and the winner of my little competition is the LCD-3.  I'll post a review with my impressions of each of them next time, but let me just say now that the accuracy and depth of the textures and timbres that the LCD-3 is able to reproduce -- and the others weren't -- were enough to convince me to spend the extra bucks.


That's all the time I have right now, but I just wanted to thank all of you headphone addicts for getting me hooked on true audiophile sound again.

post #2 of 63

Welcome to Head-Fi ! Sorry for your wallet biggrin.gif

post #3 of 63
Thread Starter 

Thanks.  So far it hasn't been too incredibly expensive... just the $200 for the Emotiva DAC on closeout and the Audeze's.  Not having to buy an amp immediately helps keep things under control... for a while.  But these T1s on my ears right now are very nice, lightweight instruments, an excellent change of pace from the LCDs.  A pair will almost certainly end up next to the Audeze's eventually. 


Given that a pair of speakers this good would cost several thousand dollars, headphones are actually a good value.  The problem is that unlike speakers, you can fit so many pairs in your system...

post #4 of 63
Thread Starter 

Okay, I volunteered that I'd offer my impressions of the 6 cans I've had at my house over the past couple of weeks, so here goes.  Note all of the usual disclaimers, just my opinion, blah, blah.  First, let me say that in isolation, I can understand people liking any/all of these headphones.  But there are huge differences in fit, construction and sound that are readily apparent in direct comparison, and in the end I did not find it all that difficult to pick the one I liked best.


Let's start with the Grado PS-1000, because they are the easiest:  They wouldn't stay on my head, so they were pretty much disqualified from the start.  Either the designers think everybody has a huge head, or they expect people to sit motionless while listening.  Not gonna happen. This is another great reason to use the headphone library.  If I had just gone by the recommendation of somebody with a much larger head than mine, I might have bought headphones that were simply unworkable for me.  As to the sound, I actually found them inaccurate at both the high and low ends, both too sizzly and too boomy at the same time.  They have a reputation for sounding different, but sometimes sounding different is just not sounding as good, at least to me.  They are pretty things, all shiny, except where they have fingerprints.  I thought the foam ear covering was pretty cheezy for a piece of hardware that expensive.


Next up from the bottom in my rankings are the HE-500s.  They too were a bit big for my head, which admittedly is small, but not grotesquely so... In any case I had them pushed all the way up, and the cans were still a bit low, though still useable.  They at least had enough clamping force to stay on my head.  And yeah, they are relatively heavy and hot, but no more than the Audeze's.  If they had blown me away sonically, I would have lived with the fit/comfort.  Note that going in I had expected these guys to be a serious challenger to the big boys, and actually had hoped they would be, so that I could save some bucks.  In my mind they are several clear steps above the Grados, but unfortunately I found a few flaws relative to the rest of the more expensive hardware.  First, the bass seemed less controlled, particularly at decent volume, with either the Burson or my amp driving. The bass was there, but pretty boomy, and it ended up kind of muddying the rest of the spectrum.  Note that I was not taxing the amps, as neither was past 12 on the dial, so I'm thinking that this is a limitation of the HE-500, not the input.  They just don't handle the bass as well as some of the others.  I also found the HE-500 highs to be less than accurate.  The cymbals were there, but almost like a cartoon, vs. the real-sounding attack and decay with the better cans -- in particular the Audeze's.  On the other hand, some songs, particularly with lots of mids, sounded great.  In the end, what really turned me off of the HE-500s was the poor imaging on a few songs that put the vocals too close to my ear.  All of the other cans had the voices in the same place, away from my skull, so this was definitely a quirk of the Hifiman design.  Again, having that many systems to directly compare in near-real-time definitely uncovers differences, and in direct combat, the HE-500s were not competitive for me.  Damn, there goes at least a couple hundred bucks.


Next in the standings were the HD800s.  Very light and comfortable.  A joy to wear, actually.  For most of the spectrum, they are superb instruments.  Big open sound, with lots of detail and excellent control of the dynamics below a few kilohertz.  But that high end just grated on me.  Maybe I needed different equipment feeding them, but that's one sizzly set of phones.  It actually bothered me to listen to certain types of music (high energy rock, in particular).  And there was also less connection to the music with them, less warmth, fewer pixels per square inch in in the sonic image, if that makes sense.  You hear the music, but you don't feel it resonate within you.  To their credit, there is always a great sense of the whole piece of music,  which is more than a collection of individual parts.  This is particularly the case with large ensemble stuff, whether classical, or big-band jazz/rock. The difference from the LCD-3s, where you can -- and are drawn to -- easily zoom in on each instrument or voice and examine it in full detail, is pretty stark.  I fully understand why people tend to love one or the other, but not both.  In the end, in my view, the HD800s are for enjoying music from a distance, not up close.  In that way they are the big screens of headphones -- as long as you focus from far enough away, the image is sharp and there is plenty of detail, but if you get too close, you find it gets a bit less impressive.


Okay, that's enough for one night.  I'll get to the final three in the next day or so.

post #5 of 63

its nice to read a comparison between all those top tier headphones, thanks for the reviews and ill be sure to keep following when you post the impressions of the rest of the headphones

post #6 of 63

The problems you're describing with the H500 might be linked to how they fit on your head. Since they don't fit as well as they should, it's likely you don't get the best out of them. Have you tried to bend the headband a bit ? For some people, it helps.

post #7 of 63

I read the first post, thanks for the info on the LCD-3 in your contest and that you heard no difference between the supplied cables.  How different are the LCD-2 and LCD-3?

post #8 of 63

your first purchase didnt $$$hurt that much compared to homefi right...?

very interesting read...down to earth, the lawn i meant..straight cutting,,

i am still using the sickle.



yes yes the size of the head IS a factor indeed...

and the thickness of the neck to carry the LCD3,

i hope u will hold them up well thru the wee hours.


did you keep the burson..?

its beefy enough to make the cables somewhat redundant..

i always tot its an amp with a branded powercable built in..:P

It couldnt keep its place when the BCL arrived at my home.tongue.gif


looking forward to your next chapter.


post #9 of 63

Gary, the Grado headband can be bent. There is steel underneath the leather (or plastic depending on the model) so you can loosen or tighten it.

post #10 of 63
Thread Starter 

I don't have time right now to finish the final 3 reviews, but I will respond to some of your questions.  Regarding bending headbands, I did try to do a bit of that, but one drawback of borrowed phones is that they aren't mine, and I didn't want to do anything to them that would make these particular units mine -- i.e., you break it, you own it. 


The Grados were really loose and very low on my ears even with the cans pushed all the way up.  My impression was that I would have had to pad the band extensively to raise it up, and then put some sort of stickiness (most likely duct tape, in my house) to keep the earpieces from rotating too much every time I moved.  My conclusion was that there is no way I would be willing to do those things to a $1700 piece of audio gear.


I don't think the HE-500 issue was the headband, since there was adequate clamping force. They were just a bit too big, so that the cans sat slightly too low over my ears, even at the smallest setting.  I did still have a pretty good seal over my ears, but I had to rotate the band further back on my head, and to adjust them more often than the others.  The rotation certainly affected the imaging, but I moved them around on my head and held them in position to try to fix the problem, and it was always there for me in some amount.  Note that I think these are very nice headphones, particularly for the price, but I liked others enough more to be willing to fork over the extra bucks.


@Lorspeaker, I did not keep the Burson.  It is a perfectly fine amp, and drives all of these cans very well, but my old Adcom pre-amp sounded just as good and I was very happy to find that I didn't need to spend the extra $800 for an amp.  I promptly plunked $200 of that down on the Emotiva DAC, since I quickly discovered that my computer sounded crappy, and I needed a DAC. After much research here and on other audio forums, I figured that there was no better value than the Emotiva because of all of the input/switching capabilities it offers, and I actually used that switching extensively in my testing.  I ran optical from the computer, coax digital from the CD player and analog from the CD player, and experimented with direct feed out to the Burson, vs. through my Adcom etc.  It was both fun and informative.  Suffice it to say that I could easily hear the differences between the tube analog output of my Carver CD changer vs.the parallel digital output converted by the Emotiva, but could not hear a difference between the two amps.


And I guess I have decades of martial arts and weight training to thank for my ability to carry the load of the LCDs.  My neck never got tired, but my ears sure did get warm -- those puppies are serious earmuffs.  I found myself switching cans after a time just to cool off, which is one reason some nice, cool Beyers are a good change of pace.


I will get to the rest of the LCD-2 vs. -3 questions in my more extensive review sometime in the next couple of days.  I have lots of summer chores to do, so it will likely be another late night writing session.  But I will tease you by saying that I liked both of them and the T-1s enough that I will probably end up owning all 3 of them at some point in the future (sound of bank account draining in the background).


Back at you later.

post #11 of 63

Great write up Gary.

post #12 of 63
Thread Starter 

Before I start my final installment, I want to make a minor clarification.  When Lorspeaker asked if I kept the Burson amp, I indicated that I had not, which was accurate, but I wanted to point out that even if I had bought a Burson based on the loaner demo, I would not have kept the loaner amp.  It stays in the loaner pool, and the Cable Co would have sent me a new one, just as they will be sending me a new pair of LCD-3s now that my credit card has rolled over smily_headphones1.gif.


Okay, now back to our regularly scheduled programming...


Let me begin by indicating that the I would give the Beyerdynamic T-1s and the LCD-2s about the same grade overall, but for different reasons.  The T-1s are very comfortable and lightweight.  I would describe their sound as very clean and pretty accurate, with very nice punch and resonance on the bottom, so that you feel the music, but with superb control.  Imaging is excellent, and things are placed where my ears and brain agree they should be.  There is absolutely nothing flabby about the T-1s.  We are talking about German precision here.  They have more energy than the LCD-2 on the top end, but it isn't at all harsh like the HD-800s.  The details are all there; however, sometimes the depth isn't, particularly in the middle, which leads to a very enjoyable, but at times slightly antiseptic or shallow sound, at least compared to the Audeze's (both of them).  I believe that is what you folks on this site call "analytical."  It is still beautiful, and as good as almost any loudspeaker I've ever heard, and that includes about 40 years of critical listening to lots of different boxes and planes costing many thousands of dollars (I got my first hi-fidelity stereo system in 1973 and have been irritating audio salesmen since that time).  I am currently listening to the T-1s playing a rip of an old CD of Dave Grusin doing Gershwin.  I have used this music as a demo since the early 1990s, and it is freakin' gorgeous on the T-1s.


Now for the Audezes.  Let's start with the ergonomics:  the Audezes are heavy and hot, like the HE-500s, but they fit me much better.  They have directional pads, and that really helps keep everything very comfortable and exactly where it should be.  They feel like earmuffs -- nice, soft, warm, earmuffs.  They'll be great in the winter time, but after a couple of hours of listening during the current historical heatwave, my ears got a bit too warm, making a backup pair of non-Audeze's seem a requirement (repeat sound of bank account being assaulted, this time by Beyerdynamic Inc.).


As for sound... well, the Audezes sound very similar to each other but unlike anything else in this 6-can field -- there definitely is a signature Audeze sound, which I can only describe by saying that they sound live.  At their best, the other 4 headphones sound like outrageously good speakers.  The LCD-2s make you forget you are listening to speakers.  The LCD-3s make you think you are in the room where the music is being played live, and if you turn up the volume it even feels like you are in the band.  The Audezes have accuracy, depth and dimension, particularly in the mid-range where human hearing is optimized, making them sound like the singers and instruments are truly right there, and making all of the other headphones in this test sound 2-dimensional at best, and in some cases cartoonish. 


So for the T-1s vs. the LCD-2s, I believe it comes down to a choice between the T-1's light weight and relative coolness on a hot summer night, plus an extra bit of energy on the top end when I'm in the mood for that sort of thing, vs.the LCD-2's involving depth and reality of sound.


As for the LCD-2s vs. the -3s, I can tell you that I spent a LOT of time switching between the two headphones, trying to decide if the -3s are worth twice as much as the -2's.  And in the end, I decided that for me they are, because they have near-perfect attack and decay on every sound, giving every track on a recording a realism that is almost frightening at times. The best example for me was on layered percussion.  With the LCD-2s (and to be fair, most of the other phones as well), you can hear each percussion instrument clearly.  But with the -3s, you distinctly hear the hand or stick striking the drum, triangle or cowbell, then you hear the full-bodied thrum of the drum skin, or the ring of the metal, and then it decays naturally.  No extra sizzle, no overemphasis, no over-extension or boominess, no harshness, no matter how much you crank the amp (and yes, I did crank both amps... I may be getting old but I still like loud music... at least sometimes).  At any volume, the LCD-3s just transmit the full timbre of the sound in all of its shapes and dimensions, with a depth and richness that is often breathtaking.  Note, however, that the -3s can also sometimes be overwhelming as your brain picks out the individual pieces and tries to focus on the intricate details of each.  In fact my only criticism of the LCD-3s' sound is that I kept focusing on the individual parts/singers/instruments and often had to remind myself to stop trying to hear whether the conga player had trimmed his fingernails that day and just listen to the damned music.  I'm assuming that after owning them a while I'll be able to force myself to back off of the hyper-critical listening, but as an overly anal analyst, I definitely love the thought of having a tool that enables me to evaluate every performance by every musician on every recording I own.tongue_smile.gif.


So in the end, I am buying the LCD-3s now, and putting the T-1s on the near-term (i.e., sometime in the next year or so, I hope) wish list because I want a change of pace and added comfort for my 2nd pair of high-end phones.  But if I had been doing this 18 months ago, before the LCD-3s existed, I would almost certainly be going with the LCD-2s now, with the Beyers still on the wish list.  I just really like the Audeze sound.


Thanks for reading all of this verbiage.  I hope this review/thread has been helpful, or at least marginally entertaining, and I am willing to answer any more questions folks might have.  But if you are seriously shopping for high-end phones (and most of you are, constantly, which is why you show up here) you might want to have your own comparison test... all it really costs you is shipping from/to the Philly area...

post #13 of 63

Thanks for your review: I really enjoyed the read.


I agree that the 3 is the superior can but, IMO the HA160 cannot drive the 600ohm T1 properly; so perhaps the comparison might be slightly unfair.


I've done some side-by-side home comparisons of the T1 via the HA160 and the SPL Auditor, and the difference was the proverbial night and day in terms of imaging and clarity of sound.


Having said that, the Audeze headphones would also scale with different amplication.


Horses for courses.

post #14 of 63

this is a damning review...this latest chapter is gonna break my year-end-bonus-lockup oath.

after this review i am darn sure i can tell the brand of the drumsticks on the LCD3...thru a BCL or a phonitor. 

just teasing...tongue_smile.gif


Hey MD, can u find a denon D7k somewhere and the fostex japanfolkart can and write some more....

love reading your reviews.


post #15 of 63
Thread Starter 



I used both my Adcom and the Burson (both jacks) to drive the T-1s, and neither amp seemed to struggle pushing the drivers.  Critical listening sound levels on my Adcom start at 9 on the clock for the T-1, and it gets VERY loud by 11,  The LCDs typically started at ~10 or 11, and got very loud by 1, but interestingly could get much louder than the T-1 before I felt pain.  Instead the band or orchestra just got closer, and closer, until it felt like I was going to be handed an instrument and told to keep up...

Lorspeaker:  If somebody sends me some Denons or Fostex -- or more intriguingly, some Stax -09s and an amp that can drive them -- to demo I'll "force myself" to listen to them, but I'm not sending CC any more money for demos right now. 


G in MD

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