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Battle Of The Flagships (58 Headphones Compared) UPDATE: AUDEZ'E LCD-2 Revision 2 (6/4/13)

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Thread Starter 
THE BATTLE OF THE FLAGSHIPS
My quest to find the greatest headphone ever made!
by David Solomon
 
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TABLE OF CONTENTS
The following headphones are reviewed in this evaluation...
Please feel free to click on any model name to skip right to its review
 
MANUFACTURER:
MODEL
AKG:
K501
K702
K1000
ALESSANDRO:
MS Pro
AUDÉO:
PFE-232
AUDEZ'E:
LCD-2 (rev. 1)
LCD-2 (rev. 2)
LCD-3
AUDIO-TECHNICA:
ATH-AD900
ATH-W3000ANV
ATH-W5000
BEYERDYNAMIC:
DT 660
DT 770
DT 880
T1
DENON:
AH-D950
AH-D7000
FOSTEX:
TH900
GRADO:
HP1000 (HP2)
PS1000
RS1
RS2
HE AUDIO:
Jade
HIFIMAN:
HE-6
HE-400
HE-500
JH AUDIO:
JH13
JH16
KAM:
HP1
SENNHEISER:
HD600
HD650
HD700
HD800
HE90 (Orpheus)
IE 8
SENSAPHONICS:
2X-S
SHURE:
SE530
SE535
SRH1840
SONY:
MDR-R10 (bass-heavy)
MDR-R10 (bass-light)
MDR-SA5000
Q010-MDR1 (Qualia 010)
XBA-4
STAX:
SR-007 MkI (Omega 2 MkI)
SR-007 MkII (Omega 2 MkII)
SR-009
SR-507
SR-Omega
SR-Sigma
ULTIMATE EARS:
Custom In-Ear Reference
ULTRASONE:
Edition 8 Limited Edition
Edition 10
HFI-700
WESTONE:
ES5
UM3X
Westone 3
Westone 4
 
PREAMBLE
Some opening words and thoughts...
 
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ABOUT THIS REVIEW
 
This review is an attempt to compare and contrast all the headphones that are presently in my personal collection. The sentiments expressed herein are based on my own personal experiences with the headphones. I in no way intend for this review to be perceived as anything more than one audio enthusiast's personal opinion. I did not use any equipment other than my ears to measure the performance of the various headphones.

 

The review itself involved several hundreds of hours of critical listening. The basic method of comparison involved a considerable amount of flipping back and forth between headphones / amps / songs while writing shorthand opinions as I listened. I have lived with the majority of the headphones listed for a year or more. Some of them, I have lived with for multiple years or even a decade +. A few of these headphones have only been in my possession for a few months, but I have made sure to allow for a minimum of 50 hours of critical listening time before formulating any final opinions.

 

The majority of the headphones included in this review are flagship models or were considered a flagship model at some point. I did not include any headphone which was not in my personal collection because I wanted to avoid all biases related to listening-time and possible favoritism. I was hesitant to include in-ear-monitors (IEMs) in the ranking as I have a preference for 

full-size headphones which not everyone necessarily shares. However, ultimately I decided to include IEMs in the ranking as they constitute a sizeable portion of my collection and listening time.

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The headphones are ranked on performance alone. Each headphone included in this ranking will have its own spotlighted review. The review will begin with some personal thoughts about the headphone or perhaps a brief retrospective. Following these opening thoughts will be two sections labeled "STRENGTHS" & "WEAKNESSES" respectively. These two sections will focus on the positive and negative aspects of the headphone's performance and construction. I have attempted to discuss numerous aspects of the headphone and I have listed each aspect in approximate order of significance to me. Each bulleted description will begin with a keyword (or keywords) in order to appeal to those who do not wish to read the entire description, but who still want to understand my basic impression of the headphone.

 

I have refrained from using a number system to grade different aspects of the headphones for the simple reason that I feel it may be misleading in this case. Most of these headphones are so outstanding in their performance that the number system may not ultimately reflect my opinion quite so accurately.

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Furthermore, some of the things which I consider to be a "strength" may not be a strength for everyone. For example, your listening preferences may differ from my own or you may have a different opinion regarding design. Conversely, some of things which I label as a weakness may not at all be what you consider to be a "weakness."

 

Following the "STRENGTHS" & "WEAKNESSES" section is a section I have titled "ON THE FENCE." This section discusses aspects of the headphone's performance that I felt was good in some ways, but in need of improvement in other ways.

 

The "FOR THE PRICE" section is where the headphone is graded on its price-to-performance ratio. I did not use this grade as a factor in the ranking of the headphone's performance. Headphones with a grade of an A- or better are ones that I consider to be an exceptional value. Headphones with a grade of B- to B+ are a good value although there may be better options for the same price. Headphones with a grade of C- to C+ are headphones that I feel do not constitute their asking price based on the competition. Headphones with a grade of D or lower are headphones that I feel are priced disproportionately to their performance level. A low grade does not mean that I dislike the performance of the headphone. What it does mean however is that for a fraction of the price, one can get close-to or better performance from an alternative headphone.

 

"QUICK CHECK" is the final section. This section is merely a quick run-through of the headphones' specs, design, status, etc. The following key may help provide better insight into my shorthand designations:

  • DESIGN refers to whether the headphone is full-size, on-ear or in-ear.
  • DRIVER refers to the type of transducer employed.
  • IMPEDANCE refers to the nominal impedance rating of the headphone measured at 1Khz
  • noimageISOLATION refers to the headphone's ability to passively eliminate outside noise and prevent sound from leaking out of the headphone. I did not examine any active noise canceling headphones in constructing this review.
  • AMPLIFICATION refers to whether or not the headphone benefits from, requires or does not need an amplifier for operation.
  • MY PREFERRED AMP/S refers to the amp/s which I found to be most synergetic with the headphone in question.
  • SOUNDS BEST WITH refers to the genre/s of music which I feel the headphone excels with.
  • CABLES USED refers to the cable/s which I used in evaluating the headphone's performance. The designation "stock" refers to the original unmodified cable that shipped with the headphone.
  • REVISIONS KNOWN refers to whether or not the manufacturer made specific design changes to the headphone during the course of its production.
  • FLAGSHIP STATUS refers to whether or not the headphone in question ever held the designation of "flagship." Most of the headphones listed were at one time the flagship of their respective manufacturer's product line. If a headphone is currently the flagship of its respective manufacturer, I designate this with "Currently Is." If a headphone was once a flagship, but has been superseded, I designate this with "Once Was." If a headphone was once a flagship, but was produced in extremely limited quantities, I designate this with "Limited Production Flagship." If a headphone is / was the flagship of a specific product-line, I specify this with the designation "Specific To Product Line." And finally, if the headphone was never intended as a flagship from the manufacturer, then I specify this with the designation "Not Applicable."
  • PRODUCTION STATUS AS OF 2012 refers to whether or not the headphone is still currently in production.
  • COST refers to the approximate price which the headphone sells for at the time that I write this review. All amounts are shown as USD.

 

*Back To The Index

ABOUT THIS REVIEWER
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In case you weren't already aware, my name is David. I am 29 years old and have resided in New York City all of my life. I took an interest in music before I was even able to talk and it was discovered that I had perfect pitch when I was a young child. I play a variety of instruments including piano, guitar, bass, and drums. I sing as well. My fascination with audio gear developed out of my desire to hear as many nuances as possible from the music I loved. I acquired my first CD player (a Sony boom-box) as a gift from my parents for my 8th birthday. At that age, I was fascinated by the concept that a CD had music somehow stored inside of it.

 

In my early teens, I began a lifelong fascination with headphones. I immediately identified with the intimate sonic presentation that headphones provided and I recognized the amount of detail that I was able to hear from them. While working at a high-end audio store, I began to explore the functionality of the mixing console. Eventually, the recording and mixing process became an integral part of my life. I completed a degree in sound engineering from the Institute of Audio Research in 2001. In the years following, I worked both as an audio engineer and as a session musician for hire. During this time, I had the opportunity to work with many musicians and industry professionals who I admired and would ultimately learn from.

 

In 2007, I joined the Head-Fi community. I had never been a part of an online community prior to joining Head-Fi, and thus the concept of a message board or forum was foreign to me at the time. I had already been frequenting the site as a visitor for close to a year, but it was my eagerness to ask specific questions regarding the construction of custom-molded in-ear-monitors which served as the motivation I needed to proceed with registration.

 

Of course, many of you know that I am currently the "headphone guru" at headphones.com. For the tremendous role that the Head-Fi community played in my acquisition of this job, I am eternally grateful. I see this review partially as a thank you to the whole of the community which has enriched my life in a very personal way.

 

Lastly, I will talk a bit about my listening preferences and personal music taste. I don't have just one type of sound that I look for from headphones. I can enjoy a fun-sounding headphone as much as a more neutral/analytical headphone. A lot depends on which music I am listening to, but I usually tend to value transparency over all other aspects of sound.

 

My music tastes are pretty far-reaching. The core of my vast collection (approximately 12,000 CDs) of music can be divided into three genres: Classical / Jazz / Rock. Regarding classical music, I am a huge fan of Mahler (hence my user name), Brahms, Mozart, Sibelius, Shostakovich, Dvorak, Bartok, Ravel, Debussy, Bach, Beethoven, Schubert, Schumann, Chopin…the list can go on for pages. Regarding jazz, I am a huge fan of Keith Jarrett, Chick Corea, Charlie Parker, Charles Mingus, Herbie Nichols, Louis Armstrong, Miles Davis, Wayne Shorter, Branford Marsalis, Dave Holland, Pat Metheny, Duke Ellington, Thelonious Monk...and again the list can go on for pages. Regarding rock music, I am a huge fan of The Beatles, Joni Mitchell, Elliott Smith, Genesis, Steely Dan, Neil Young, Radiohead, Jeff Buckley, Nirvana, Led Zeppelin, Bob Dylan and many others.

 

For a complete listing of the CDs used in this headphone evaluation please see MUSIC: CDs Used For The Evaluation

 

 

 
BEING @ HEADPHONES.COM
 

I am far from the first headphone hobbyist to join the headphone industry professionally, but I wanted to say a few words about my experience in the field thus far. Initially, I had a fear that witnessing the industry from the inside out would corrupt my enjoyment of this hobby. I am happy to express that after being at headphones.com, my intrigue and appreciation for the hobby has only increased. Getting to know several manufacturers face to face has improved my understanding of their product lines. Furthermore, the people who I work with are a rare bunch who really understand, appreciate and respect our hobby. Walking into the office feels sometimes like entering my home. It's a good feeling!

 

I love getting calls from someone who says "oh by the way, I'm from Head-Fi." It's the best part of the day for me. For those who may not know, I am always reachable via email both at davids@headphones.com or via PM me here on Head-Fi. If you write me, I will respond to your email. No question is too silly / no comment is too insignificant! :)

 

I began writing this review before I started at headphones.com - yes it has taken well over a year to complete! This review is a largely-expanded version of the "20 Headphones Compared" thread which I did in 2010. Initially, it was my intent to update that original review, but as my collection continued to grow and my opinions began to reshape as a result, I felt that it would be more serviceable to expand it into an entirely new  project.

 

 

 
THE GEAR
 
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I used to obsess over which component in the system was most important to the overall fidelity of the sound. Ultimately, I found that with every upgrade that I made to a single component in my system, my perception of every other component was affected (not always for the better). I personally don't feel that it is necessary for one to use more than a singular source in their audio rig; one exceptional digital-to-analog-converter (aka DAC) or turntable setup is truly all that is needed. However, if one has multiple headphones with different power needs and/or tonal balances, then one may wish to have multiple amplifiers accessible.

 

The following is a list of the gear used in compiling this review:

 

SOURCE

MSB TECHNOLOGY: Diamond DAC IV with the following upgrades:
  • Femtosecond Galaxy Clock
  • Diamond Power Base
  • Universal Media Transport
  • Pro I2S Input

 

AMPLIFIERS

  • HEADAMP: Aristaeus
  • HEADAMP: Blue Hawaii Special Edition
  • HEADROOM: Balanced Ultra Desktop Amp
  • LAROCCO: PRII MkII
  • MANLEY LABS: Neo Classic 300B
  • MEIER AUDIO: Corda Move
  • RAY SAMUELS AUDIO: Hornet
  • RAY SAMUELS AUDIO: Tomahawk
  • SPL: Phonitor
  • TTVJ / MILLETT: 307A
  • WOO AUDIO: Woo Audio 5

 

ODDS & ENDS

  • SPEAKERS: Mackie HR-824 (Pair)
  • POWER CONDITIONER: Monster Pro 3500 Surge
  • SWITCH BOX: Gold Point SW2X-O
  • INTERCONNECTS: A Pure Sound & ALO Audio

*Back To The Index

SOURCE
 
The following are details and brief impressions of the gear used...

 

MSB TECHNOLOGY: Diamond DAC IV

I lived with the MSB Platinum DAC III for a number of years. In that time, it became the most trusted component in my system. The sound of the DAC III was the most lifelike I had ever heard from a DAC. There was no question in my mind that, if and when I would upgrade, I would stick with MSB.

 

Turn the page a few years and enter the Diamond DAC IV. The sound of this DAC is so effortless; so noimagenatural; so invisible - that the old cliché "there are simply no words..." is perhaps the most honest thing I can say. I suspect that the most impressive thing I can say about this DAC is that since becoming an owner, I have been going to concerts far less frequently - It is truly that good!

 

MSB offers an expensive state-of-the-art upgrade for their entire DAC line: the Femtosecond Galaxy Clock. With a jitter measurement of 77 femtoseconds, the Femtosecond Galaxy Clock is presently the most accurate clock in digital audio. Just for clarification purposes, a femtosecond equals one millionth of one billionth of a second. In this way, MSB Technology is truly on the cutting edge of digital audio. If you are serious about state-of-the-art sound and are looking for a no-holds-barred top-end DAC, then the MSB line deserves your highest consideration.

COST:

  • DIAMOND DAC: $21995 (starting price pre-upgrades)
  • FEMTOSECOND GALAXY CLOCK: $9950
  • DIAMOND POWER BASE $4495
  • UNIVERSAL MEDIA TRANSPORT: $3995
  • PRO I2S Input: $995

TOTAL: $41430

 

 

 
AMPS
 

HEADAMP: Aristaeus

Sennheiser's HE90 Orpheus headphone is one of very few headphones which shipped with its own amplifier. This amplifier, known as the HEV90, was an electrostatic design, specifically intended by the manufacturer to be paired with the HE90. It was a gorgeous-looking vacuum tube amp with a built-in DAC module. Consequently, the title "Orpheus" is often synonymous with Sennheiser's complete flagship audio system, rather than just the headphone alone.

 

The Aristaeus is a vacuum tube headphone amplifier designed by Kevin Gilmore (in partnership with HeadAmp Audio Electronics) to be extremely similar to the HEV90's amp section; the Aristaeus does not feature a DAC component. According to its maker, the Aristaeus's amplifier design is nearly identical to HEV90, although the power supply is improved upon. Another notable difference between the Aristaeus and the HEV90 is that the Aristaeus offers a Stax compatible headphone output in addition to the HE90 headphone output, whereas the HEV90 featured two outputs, both intended for the HE90 headphone.

 

While the Aristaeus will work with a variety of electrostatic headphones, I use it almost exclusively to power my HE90 (Orpheus) - the headphone for which it was primarily intended. The only other headphones with which I regularly pair the Aristaeus is Sennheiser's own HE60 (Baby Orpheus) and HE Audio's Jade. My Aristaeus was built with a DACT stepped attenuator for volume control.

 

TUBES USED: 12AX7/ECC83 (JJ Electronics: Stock)

COST: $4495

 

 

HEADAMP: Blue Hawaii Special Edition (BHSE)

Like the Aristaeus, the Blue Hawaii Special Edition was designed by Kevin Gilmore. The BHSE is a hybrid solid state / vacuum tube electrostatic headphone amplifier. With an output voltage of 1600 peak-to peak, it is capable of driving even the most demanding Stax headphones, such as the Omega 2. My BHSE, in particular, exhibits a silver finish, and was installed with an Alps RK50 attenuator. I think it is among the best looking amplifiers in my rig. This amp's performance is breathtaking.  However, the amp does run quite hot. In order to facilitate this, I have carved out a ventilation chamber which rests above the amplifier.  Unfortunately, one cannot see this in the photographs.

TUBES USED: Mullard EL34 Quad (Stock)

COST:

  • AMP: $4995
  • Alps RK50: $1000

TOTAL: $5995

 
 

HEADROOM: BALANCED ULTRA DESKTOP AMPLIFIER (BUDA)

The BUDA is a solid state balanced amplifier which offers a single pair of balanced headphone outputs and two pairs of single-ended headphone outputs. It also offers a pair of preamp outputs. The front panel features a gain switch as well as a crossfeed switch. While I use the upgraded Desktop Power Supply, it may be a superfluous addition since the amp's stock power supply seems perfectly acceptable.

 

COST:

  • AMP: $1599
  • POWER SUPPLY: $549
TOTAL: $2148
 
 

LAROCCO: PRII MkII

The PRII MkII is a portable solid-state amp that has been long out of production. It was designed by Phil Larocco to serve as a reference-grade battery-operated headphone amplifier. One of its most impressive features is its bass contour control. Much of the design here has been implemented into Triad Audio's L3, also designed by Phil Larocco.

COST: $500 (estimated)

 
 

MANLEY LABS: NEO CLASSIC 300B

The Neo Classic 300B is a beautiful sounding amplifier. While it offers a variety of single-ended  outputs, I primarily use this amp for headphones. This is my go-to amp for the Sennheiser HD800 and Beyerdynamic T1. The amp features a switch for the option to bypass the transformers when using the main line-out. However when in headphone-listening mode, you must use the transformers. The sound of this amp is slightly slow and lush, yet romantic and beautiful; it is the best classic tube sound that I have yet heard.

 

TUBES USED:

  • 300B Pair (Sophia Electric Princess: Upgrade)
  • 6SL7GT Pair (Electro-Harmonix: Stock)
  • 5U4GBEH Pair (Electro-Harmonix: Stock)
  • OD3 Pair (NOS JAN USA: Stock)

COST:

  • $5850 (Base Price)
  • $450 (Upgrade Tubes)

TOTAL: $6300

 
 

MEIER AUDIO: Corda Move

The Corda Move is a discontinued portable headphone amp designed by Jan Meier. The model which I own dates from 2008; it is the original production model. I consider it to be a good value, originally having discovered it in Skylab's magnificent portable amp roundup thread. The Corda Move has since been superseded by Meier's Corda 2Stepdance.

COST: $150 (estimated)

 
 

RAY SAMUELS AUDIO: Hornet & Tomahawk

The Tomahawk was my first venture into the world of portable amps, and my acquisition of the Hornet followed soon thereafter. I appreciate the functionality and rugged construction of Ray Samuel's amplifiers. Not only was I a fan of these two amplifiers, but I was also impressed that I was always able to reach Ray very easily. My business experience with Ray Samuels Audio led me to several other RSA purchases, including the HR-2, Raptor, P-51 Mustang, and SR-71A. I have since parted with these four amps, but I still think highly of each one of them. Ray was also kind enough to allow me the chance to spend some time with the B-52; I enjoyed it very much. I have a great respect for Ray as an amp designer and businessman.

COST:

  • Hornet: $370
  • Tomahawk: $295
 
 

SPL: Phonitor (Black)

The Phonitor is the best sounding solid-state amplifier that I have used. It is a very neutral sounding amp and it powers a variety of headphones exceptionally well. The SPL Auditor features the same basic design as the Phonitor, but without the added crossfeed, centering and channel-soloing features. For those on a more limited budget, the Auditor is a great choice. On a side note, I enjoy summing the channels to mono and then putting one of the channels out of phase. hehe:)

COST: $1934

 
 

TTVJ / MILLETT: 307A

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Of all the headphone amplifiers that I own, the 307A is probably the one that I use most. It has a very neutral and natural sound. In my opinion, Pete Millett is one of the pioneers of the field. Only 12 units of the 307A were made before it was discontinued. However, Pete Millett and Todd The Vinyl Junkie have teamed up once again to produce an amp that is quite similar in design: The Pinnacle. I had the opportunity to review the Pinnacle. It is a wonderful amp. The most significant differences between the 307A and the Pinnacle are fourfold. Firstly, the transformers used in the Pinnacle's design are more expensive and, according to the amp builder himself, far superior. Secondly, in order to achieve a lower noise-floor, the power supply is separated from the amplifier section. Thirdly, the Pinnacle uses the PX4 as its output tube in place of the 307A tube. Fourthly, the Pinnacle has built-in preamp functionality while the 307A does not. Minus these differences the 307A and the Pinnacle are virtually the same amp design. Both offer balanced and single-ended inputs and outputs; both are exceptionally neutral with a slight tube-y roundness. I highly recommend both the 307A and the Pinnacle!

 

TUBES USED:

  • 307A Pair (Sylvania)
  • 7N7 (Westinghouse: Stock)
  • 5V4GA (Tung Sol: Stock)
COST: $5000-$7000 (estimated)

 

 

WOO AUDIO: Woo Audio 5

As with the Manley Labs Classic Neo 300B, the Woo Audio 5 employs the 300B as its output tube. Also, like the Manley Labs Classic Neo 300B, the Woo Audio 5 exhibits a wonderfully fluid midrange. However, the decay of the Woo Audio 5's sound is not as slow as the Manley's. Consequently, the Woo is not as lush or romantic as the Manley, but instead, more accurate and even-tempered. The Woo Audio 5's standard headphone output features a high/low impedance option in order to better accommodate each individual headphone's power needs.

 

One of the most significant features of the Woo Audio 5 is its K1K output, which was designed specifically in order to meet the power demands of AKG's K1000 headphone. This output pumps 8 watts per channel into 140 ohms impedance. However, since the release of this amp, other headphones have been introduced which are equally (if not more) demanding than the K1000, i.e., the HE-6 by HifiMan. The Woo Audio 5 powers the HE-6 brilliantly; it is presently the only amp with which I pair the HE-6. This is one of my favorite pairings. Lastly, the Woo Audio 5 can also function as a speaker amp, as it features speaker outputs in the rear panel.

 

*Woo Audio also offers the Woo Audio 5 without the K1K and speaker outputs. This version is known as the Woo Audio 5 LE.

 

TUBES USED:

  • 300B Pair (Sophia Electric Princess: Upgrade)
  • 6SN7GTB Pair (RCA: Stock)
  • 5U4G Pair (Sovtek: Stock)

COST:

  • $3150 (Base Price)
  • $150 (Teflon Tube Socket Upgrade)
  • $450 (with Upgrade 300B Tubes)
TOTAL: $3750

 

 

SINGLE POWER AUDIO: SDS-XLR

I've crossed this amplifier out on purpose. I own this amp. But one would never know it. It's not in my home. Not long before Single Power Audio was put out of business (as a result of fraudulent activity) the owner hand-delivered the amp to my residence - Yes hand-delivered! About a week into ownership, one of the channels started to short. I promptly shipped it back to the manufacturer for a repair. After the manufacturer diagnosed that the problem was a blown capacitor, I expected that the fix would be quick and easy. Unfortunately, my amp was never returned and I would never hear back from the company again. I was never able to track down the owner, and as such, I was never able to retrieve the money I paid.

 

*Back To The Index

ODDS & ENDS
 

MACKIE: HR824 Mk2 (pair)

The HR824 are powered monitors designed primarily for studio application. I've owned the pair for nearly a decade. I usually bring them to studios when I am unfamiliar with the provided in-house monitors. The HR824 isn't the best sounding pair around, but I know their sound signature quite well and I feel comfortable using them in just about any room. As you can plainly see from the photos, I don't have these monitors at an optimal height for listening. I don't use them in my home for anything more than listening to music while laying in bed.

COST: $1399.95 (estimated)

 
 

MONSTER: Pro 3500 Surge

The Pro 3500 is a simple yet effective power conditioner, which I use to keep my power clean and to protect my gear from a power surge.

COST: $300

 
 

GOLD POINT: SW2X-O

For convenience, I purchased the SW2X-O, a high-quality switchbox. I use it because neither the TTVJ Millett 307A nor the Head Room BUDA offer a through-output and therefore it is impossible to daisy-chain the two amps. The SW2X-O is a reference-quality passive switchbox which allows me to distribute the output signal to these two amplifiers, one at a time.

COST: $572

 
 

Interconnects by A PURE SOUND & ALO AUDIO

The majority of the interconnects used in my system (including all the balanced ones) are manufactured by A Pure Sound. I have always been extremely happy with the quality of A Pure Sound cables; I feel they have an exceptional price-to-performance ratio. In addition, I use two ALO Audio interconnects; the quality of these interconnects is exceptional as well.

COST: $2500 (estimated)

 
 

Now on to the core of this evaluation...

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50+ HEADPHONES COMPARED
 
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#58 AUDIO-TECHNICA: ATH-W5000
 

noimageThere are not too many headphones listed here that I truly dislike. I happen to enjoy most of the headphones included, and I can usually find at least one redeeming quality in a headphone, even should I feel it misses the mark. Unfortunately, the only truly redeeming quality that I can find in the ATH-W5000 is that it is one of the best looking headphones ever made. I find its sound quality to be bordering on awful.

 

I purchased a pair of the ATH-W5000 in 2007. I was completely shocked by how poorly it performed. Today, it remains the only headphone that I have ever returned. A couple of years later, I was informed by a respected member of the community that he had encountered two different pairs of the ATH-W5000. According to him, the earlier one sounded defective, while the later one sounded a bit better. After I was given this information, I contacted the manufacturer to see if there was any record of changes made with regard to the production of the W5000. According to the manufacturer, there was no record of a production change and there were no documented defects.

 

However, I was convinced that the pair I had initially purchased was defective since so many people seemed to like the sound of the W5000. In 2010, I purchased the ATH-W5000 for a second time. It sounded about as bad as I remembered. The only way that I can even begin to appreciate its sonic presentation is at an exceptionally low volume level.

 

 

STRENGTHS

ATTRACTIVE: I still think this is the most beautiful looking headphone that Audio-Technica has ever made. Its striped ebony wood finish is even prettier to my eye than the cherry wood finish of the ATH-W3000ANV (Audio-Technica's newer and far greater flagship).

 

COMFORT: Audio-Technica's leather earpads are very soft. While I'm not a fan of the self-adjusting headband design, the ergonomic fit of the headphone allows the earpads to loosely encompass the ears, which is rather comfortable. I have a larger-than-average-size head. It is possible that one with a smaller head may find that the W5000 wears a bit too loosely.

 

STORAGE: The W5000 ships with a really wonderful carrying case. It looks like a hard plastic suitcase specifically designed for your headphones. The case features a wonderfully silky interior as well.

 

ISOLATION: The ATH-W5000 is one of a small handful of full-size closed-back headphones on my list. Because of its closed-back design, it offers some attenuation of outside ambient noise.

 

 

WEAKNESSES

SOUND: Normally, I would evaluate several distinct attributes of the sound in order to determine which are successful and which are in need improvement. In this case, I find that the sound is simply poor all around. It is a nasal, congested, non-transparent, bass-less, unnatural tone.

 

HEADBAND CONSTRUCTION: I'm not a fan of Audio-Technica's self-adjusting headband design. I think it is flimsy and easily breakable. While many of Audio-Technica's full-size flagships incorporate this headband design, I do wish this design was something they would abandon.

 

 

ON THE FENCE

LOW LEVEL LISTENING: The W5000 sounds drastically improved at lower volume levels. No, I'm not trying to be funny by saying "the closer I get to not hearing it, the better" :). At exceptionally low listening levels, the sound broadens and becomes more natural.

 

POWERING: Audio-Technica produced an amp specifically designed to power the W5000. It is known as the HA-5000. I am told by some owners of this pairing that the sonic results are stunning. I have never heard this pairing, so I do not know. In my experience, I have found that the W5000 never loses its nasal, unnatural character despite which amp I choose to pair it with. Of the amps I've used, I have found that it sounds best with the TTVJ Millett 307a, but it still does not sound particularly good.

 

CABLE: The W5000's cable is of a fairly high quality. However, I always prefer easily detachable cables. The W5000's cable is hardwired.

 

 

FOR THE PRICE

F

I won't be giving out too many F's in this evaluation. Unfortunately, the ATH-W5000 is just insufferably nasal sounding to my ears. The drivers sound as though they are being restrained. Perhaps if it were an open-back design, the sound would improve quite a bit. At its price, I feel that every other full-size headphone I have heard outperforms it by leaps and bounds.

 


QUICK CHECK

  • DESIGN: Full-Size
  • DRIVERS: Dynamic
  • IMPEDANCE: 40 Ohms
  • ISOLATION: Some
  • AMPLIFICATION: Recommended
  • MY PREFERRED AMP: TTVJ Millett 307A
  • SOUNDS BEST WITH: Low level listening
  • CABLES USED: Stock
  • REVISIONS KNOWN: None known to me
  • FLAGSHIP STATUS: Once Was
  • PRODUCTION STATUS AS OF 2012: In Production
  • COST: $650-$1000 (estimated)

 

 

#57 SENSAPHONICS: 2X-S
noimage
 

The 2X-S is a custom in-ear-monitor that incorporates two balanced armature drivers per ear in a single passive crossover design. It was the second pair of custom-fit IEMs that I ever purchased. I bought them almost immediately after I acquired the Ultimate Ears UE10 Pro. I had read several positive reviews about it, including that it offered the best noise cancellation and comfort of any customized in-ear. The shell of the 2X-S is made completely out of soft silicone material. Just that description alone sounded promising to me. The 2X-S is a solid offering in several ways. It is able to block out a tremendous amount of ambient noise and it is quite comfortable to wear for extended periods of time.  However, when removing the earpieces from my ears, the flexible material actually manages to cause my ears discomfort. Finally, the 2X-S is just average with regard to sound quality.

 


STRENGTHS

AMAZING ISOLATION: Between the 2X-S and the Westone ES, I'm not sure which offers better passive noise reduction. These two in-ears are the best I have ever tried with regard to passive noise isolation. The 2-XS is truly astonishing with regard to the amount of ambient noise it is capable of attenuating.

 

FIT: Let me specify that by the word "fit" I do not mean comfort. The reason I state this is that the fit itself is essentially perfect. However, when I remove the earpieces from my ear, the silicone bends, causing my inner ear great discomfort.

 

SUPER PORTABLE: With regard to portability, nothing even comes close to IEMs. You can fit the 2X-S inside a small shirt pocket. Try doing that with an MDR-R10.

 

EASY TO DRIVE: Most IEMs are easy to drive. On the rare occasion that I use the 2X-S, I do not use an amplifier. I have used the 2X-S primarily with just my iPod.

 

SERIALIZED: As any customized item should be, the 2X-S is serialized.

 

 

WEAKNESSES

NOT TRANSPARENT: I find the sound signature of the 2X-S to be extremely unnatural. Sadly, the sound is stained by a shrill metallic quality throughout the entire frequency spectrum.

 

IEMS' INHERENT SHORTCOMINGS: In my opinion, full-size headphones possess the ability to sound more natural than in-ear headphones.  The reason I feel this way is that much like natural acoustic sound, sound waves that emanate from a full-size headphone travel through the entirety of the ear, rather than just the canal. To me, this sense of space makes for a more natural auditory experience. Not everyone agrees with me on this matter, but I stand by my assertion.

 

IEM SOUNDSTAGE: To my ears, the soundstage presentation that IEMs portray is lacking in realism. A lot of people happen to like it, but for me, it is not competitive with a full-size headphone's soundstaging ability.

 

TONALITY: I've found that throughout the frequency response here, there are odd peaks and dips. The bass is most definitely lacking in impact. The treble sounds slightly rolled off and brittle. The midrange presentation has its moments, however, the upper-mids sound odd and unnatural.

 

CABLE: Today, I believe that Sensaphonics offers a replaceable cable option. However, back when I ordered the 2X-S, I am pretty sure that the cable was only offered in a hardwired configuration. The cable on my 2X-S appears to be quite flimsy.

 

RESELL VALUE: When I first joined Head-Fi, I remember someone putting up a thread in the "For Sale" section in which they announced the sale of their custom-molded earphones. This thread turned out to be a joke. Reselling a custom-molded product was almost unheard of at the time. Today however, there are many companies which offer a refitting process that makes reselling custom-molded earphones an option. Still, be prepared to take a major hit should you resell them.

 

 

ON THE FENCE

IMAGING: All criticism aside, the 2X-S is actually decent at imaging. The instrument separation is enhanced by a rather smooth decay.

 

STORAGE: My 2X-S shipped with a hard plastic case and a vinyl zipper carrying pouch.

 

 

FOR THE PRICE

D

I feel that the 2X-S is extremely overpriced. The silicone material is quite effective at attenuating outside noise, but ultimately I find that every other in-ear-monitor listed in this evaluation is more natural sounding. Coming off the heels of my favorable UE10 purchase, I was greatly disappointed with the 2X-S when I first heard it. Five years later, I still have not yet warmed up to its sound signature.

 

 

QUICK CHECK
  • DESIGN: In-Ear
  • DRIVERS: Balanced Armature
  • IMPEDANCE: 27 Ohms
  • ISOLATION: Extreme
  • AMPLIFICATION: Not Necessary
  • MY PREFERRED AMP: AMP: n/a (iPod without amp)
  • SOUNDS BEST WITH: N/A
  • CABLES USED: Stock
  • REVISIONS KNOWN: At least 1 known to me
  • FLAGSHIP STATUS: Once Was
  • PRODUCTION STATUS AS OF 2012: In Production
  • COST: $750 + Audiologist

*Back To The Index

 

 

 

#56 SENNHEISER: IE 8
 
 
noimageThe IE 8 was produced by Sennheiser for approximately three years. It served as their flagship in-ear model during this time. It has since been replaced by the IE 80 and (and most recently, IE 800). I have not heard the IE 80, although its basic design is nearly identical to that of the IE 8. Therefore, let me specify that this evaluation is of the IE 8 only. The IE 8 employs a single dynamic driver per earpiece. The IE 8 features a very small bass contour control which allows you to adjust the amount of bass. The only problem is that for most of the music I listen to, I have found that even at its lowest setting, the bass is simply too forward. The most impressive aspect of the sound here is its soundstage presentation, which feels more outside-the-head than average.

 

*The IE 8 was later offered with an optional Apple remote. The version that I own is the original (without the Apple remote).

 

 

STRENGTHS

IMAGING: As far as in-ear-monitors are concerned, the IE 8 has wonderful imaging abilities. While it doesn't quite compete with full-size headphones in this regard, it is certainly near the top of the class with regard to in-ears.

 

EASY TO DRIVE: Like most IEMs, the IE 8 is not difficult to drive. I typically use my iPod with the IE 8. Because the iPod's bass output is inherently rolled off, the bass contour control is sometimes fun to play around with.

 

SUPER PORTABLE: With regard to portability, nothing even comes close to IEMs. You can fit the IE 8 inside a small shirt pocket. Try doing that with an HD800.

 

BASS CONTROL: The IE 8 features a little dial on the faceplate of each earpiece which allows you to tailor the bass response to your preference. In order to turn the dial, you need to use a little tool (included by Sennheiser) which functions like a flathead screwdriver. One small issue I have with the way the bass feature is implemented here is that the dial is not stepped. This means that you have to match the left and right channel's bass output by trusting your eyes and ears only.

 

SILICONE GUIDES: While I never use them, the silicone ear loops are intended to add reinforcement to the cable so that it stays behind your ear when wearing the earphones.

 

 

WEAKNESSES

LACKS TRANSPARENCY: I find that the IE 8 is demonstrative of a grainy midrange presentation. In contrast, the Shure, Audéo and Westone universal in-ear models below offer a  far more fluid midrange to my ears.

 

MIDS: The mids sound grainy and unnatural. Sometimes it also seems as though the midrange gets swallowed up by the bass.

 

IEMS' INHERENT SHORTCOMINGS: In my opinion, full-size headphones possess the ability to sound more natural than in-ear headphones.  The reason I feel this way is that much like natural acoustic sound, sound waves that emanate from a full-size headphone travel through the entirety of the ear, rather than just the canal. To me, this sense of space makes for a more natural auditory experience. As I've said before, not everyone agrees with me on this matter, but I stand by my assertion.

 

STORAGE: I find that the IE 8's carrying case really detracts from the portability of an IEM. It is excessively large (bigger than an iPod) and cannot easily fit in one's pocket. It forces the user to wrap the cable up around an internal guide. This is not my preference. I never use this carrying case.

 

COMFORT: The ergonomic design here feels awkward to me. I also can never manage to achieve an optimal seal from the supplied silicone or foam tips. I believe the reason may be as simple as the larger-than-average size of the earpieces.

 

 

ON THE FENCE

SOUNDSTAGE: Of all the in-ears included in this review, I feel that the IE 8's soundstage presentation is most similar to that of a full-size headphone. I don't generally like the soundstage presentation of IEMs. The IE 8 actually succeeds here in many ways. The soundstage is wider than average for an IEM and has surprising depth as well.

 

TONAL BALANCE: The IE 8 has a warm tonality. Many people (particularly bass-lovers) will enjoy this. However, in my opinion the tonality is awkward due to a grainy upper-midrange.

 

TREBLE: The IE 8's treble presentation is non-sibilant. I appreciate this. Conversely however, there is an awkward quality about the treble; it is slightly rolled-off yet can sound abrasive at times.

 

ISOLATION: Due to the ergonomic fit (or lack of), I am never able to get an optimal seal with the IE 8. The isolation ability is subpar for an IEM.

 

NO SWEET SPOT: I have never really figured out what music the IE 8 sounds good with. It doesn't strike me as the perfect earphone for any genre. However it doesn't sound particularly horrendous with anything.

 

 

FOR THE PRICE

D

I'll say it here: Sennheiser is probably my favorite headphone manufacturer of all time. In terms of value, I find that the IE 8 is the weakest offering I've come across from them. It's not even that it's a bad earphone. It was simply overpriced based on the sound quality it offered.

 

 

QUICK CHECK
  • DESIGN: In-Ear
  • DRIVERS: Dynamic
  • IMPEDANCE: 16 Ohms
  • ISOLATION: Some
  • AMPLIFICATION: Not Necessary
  • MY PREFERRED AMP: AMP: n/a (iPod without amp)
  • SOUNDS BEST WITH: N/A
  • CABLES USED: Stock
  • REVISIONS KNOWN: None known to me
  • FLAGSHIP STATUS: Once Was Product Line Specific
  • PRODUCTION STATUS AS OF 2012: Out Of Production
  • COST: $350 (estimated)

*Back To The Index

#55 SONY: XBA-4
 

noimageI owned the MDR-EX700LP for several years. This was Sony's flagship in-ear model until the release of the MDR-EX1000. While I liked certain aspects of the EX700LP's sound (particularly the bass presentation), I was never thrilled by neither the earphone's overall sound quality nor its ergonomic design. It was because of my lack of enthusiasm for the EX700LP that I never ventured to try the EX1000.

 

In 2012, Sony introduced their very first in-ear product-line to utilize balanced armature drivers. This product-line is known as the XBA line. While they released several different XBA models at different price-points, it was the quad-driver model, which was to be the most highly anticipated within the audiophile community.

 

The XBA-4 is Sony's newest flagship in-ear model. To my knowledge, it is the one of only two quad-driver universal-fit IEM currently available; the other being the Westone 4. However, unlike the Westone 4, which incorporates dual bass drivers, the XBA-4 has a single bass driver and a single driver dedicated to sub-bass frequencies. I pre-ordered the XBA-4, but shortly after it arrived, Sony sent headphones.com a sample of the entire XBA-line. When I had the chance to spend time with each of the earphones, I discovered that I actually found that the XBA-3 sounded better to me. The XBA-4 is brighter and a bit sharper. It seems to me that the XBA-4's sound signature is more revealing than that of the XBA-3, but at the same time the XBA-3 sounds more natural and balanced. If I had known that I was going to be given the opportunity to review the entire series, I probably would have gone with the XBA-3 instead.

 

*The XBA-4 is offered in two different versions. One comes with an Apple Remote and is known as the XBA-4iP, while the other comes without this feature and is known simply as the XBA-4.

 


STRENGTHS

DETAILED: The XBA-4 offers a highly detailed sound signature. This type of sound signature is very desirable for classical-music-listening.

 

IMAGING: The XBA-4 exhibits exceptional imaging abilities. As far as IEMs are concerned, the XBA-4's ability to separate instruments and provide a real sense of roominess is far above average.

 

CLASSICAL MASTER: The XBA-4 can sound a bit sharp with most popular music, but it excels with classical music. In addition, the XBA-4 tends to sound good with very well-balanced (non bright) recordings.

 

ISOLATION: The simple fact is that in-ear-monitors are inherently designed with the ability to offer the user superb isolation from outside noise. That said, the XBA-4's enclosures are rather large and cumbersome. It is not entirely easy to get a seal with the XBA-4. However, once the user manages to get a seal, the isolation achieved is very good. Sony offers silicone and foam/silicone hybrid eartips to facilitate the user with this task.

 

SUPER PORTABLE: With regard to portability, nothing even comes close to IEMs. You can fit the XBA-4 inside a small shirt pocket. Try doing that with an MDR-R10.

 

EASY TO DRIVE: Like most other IEMs, the XBA-4 is designed with the portable user in mind. An amplifier is not necessary to drive the XBA-4, but I have found that they sound particularly good when paired with my Ray Samuels Audio Hornet connected to my 5th generation iPod Classic. The Hornet gives it a tad more impact than going through the iPod headphone output directly. Part of this has to do with the fact that the iPod's headphone output rolls off the sub-bass frequencies.

 

STORAGE: The XBA-4 comes with a hard-shell carrying pouch that locks via magnet. This is a massive improvement over the very awkward carrying case that shipped with the EX700LP. This magnet-locking design is especially considerate of the fast-paced user who may accidentally damage the cable while zipping the pouch.

 

 

WEAKNESSES

NOT TRANSPARENT: I find that the XBA-4 lacks a sense of smoothness. Ultimately, I find that it does not showcase an extremely transparent sound signature.

 

MIDS: The midrange here sounds a bit metallic and lacking in transparency. Voices do not always sound natural to my ears.

 

IEMS' INHERENT SHORTCOMINGS: In my opinion, full-size headphones possess the ability to sound more natural than in-ear headphones.  The reason I feel this way is that much like natural acoustic sound, sound waves that emanate from a full-size headphone travel through the entirety of the ear, rather than just the canal. To me, this sense of space makes for a more natural auditory experience. As I've said before, not everyone agrees with me here, but I stand by my assertion.

 

IEM SOUNDSTAGE: To my ears, the soundstage presentation that IEMs portray is lacking in realism. As I've stated previously, a lot of people happen to like the inside-the-head feeling, but for me, it is not competitive with a full-size headphone's outside-the-head ability.

 

SIBILANT: The XBA-4 is not overtly sibilant. However there are moments when I find that the earphones can border on problematically-sibilant.

 

CONSTRUCTION: I do not like the ergonomic design of any of the Sony in-ears that I've tried. I find that the earpieces do not sit particularly snug in the ear. It is especially difficult to get a seal with the XBA-4 due to the fact that the earpieces are quite large. Furthermore, I detest when manufacturers design their earphones with the cable worn straight down (as is the case here), rather than behind the ear. By wearing the cable straight down, the cable is guaranteed to be microphonic.

 

CABLE: Sony really misses the mark when it comes to cable design. If you're an audio purist like me, you will prefer using the earphones without the Apple remote (especially should you have the intention of using it with a dedicated headphone amplifier). However, should you opt for the XBA-4 without Apple remote you may end up regretting your decision (as I have). The reason for my regret is that the XBA-4 (without remote) features an extremely awkward cable design, where the left and right earpieces are connected to one another unevenly. The XBA-4iP features the more common (and much less awkward) Y-split cable design. I do not like the uneven-cable-split at all. Lastly, my final complaint is that all of the models within the XBA series feature non-detachable cables.

 

 

ON THE FENCE

TONAL BALANCE: The XBA-4 exhibits a neutral-ish tonality but it doesn't quite hit the mark of neutrality. It is a little bass deficient, particularly if you find getting a seal with it to be as much of a task as I do. Furthermore, the midrange is not entirely natural-sounding. All in all, the tonal balance is very good, but not outstanding.

BASS: The XBA-4's bass extends rather deep. When one is able to get a proper seal with the XBA-4, the bass is quite impactful; if not, the bass presentation sounds a bit lean. I actually found the XBA-3's bass presentation to be a bit more impactful, particularly in the mid-bass region. Part of the reason for this difference may be due to the fact that I found that the XBA-3 was easier to fit inside my ear.

 

TREBLE: The XBA-4's treble presentation is wonderfully extended, however it exhibits moments of grain and edginess.

 

 

FOR THE PRICE

C

Apart from this review, I evaluated the XBA-4 not too long ago. In this previous review, I gave the XBA-4 a value rating of 8.5 out of 10. This differs significantly from the C rating which I am awarding it here. The reason for this notable difference is due entirely to the fact that in this review I am comparing it against all types of headphones; not just in-ears. Although the XBA-4 shows itself to be an improvement over the EX700LP, I still feel that Sony has yet to address the awkwardness of their ergonomic in-ear designs. While the XBA-4 does not perform poorly, I can't help but suggest that the XBA-3 will be preferable to a large amount of listeners. It is for this reason that I cannot give it a value grade any higher than a C. Had the XBA-3 been included in this evaluation, I would have awarded it a grade of B or B- with regards to its price-to-performance ratio.

 

 

QUICK CHECK
  • DESIGN: In-Ear
  • DRIVERS: Balanced Armature
  • IMPEDANCE: 8 Ohms
  • ISOLATION: Extreme
  • AMPLIFICATION: Not Necessary but Worth Considering
  • MY PREFERRED AMP: AMP: Ray Samuels Audio Hornet
  • SOUNDS BEST WITH: Classical Music / Well-Recorded Music
  • CABLES USED: Stock
  • REVISIONS KNOWN: None known to me
  • FLAGSHIP STATUS: : Currently Is Specific To Product-Line
  • PRODUCTION STATUS AS OF 2012: In Production
  • COST: $349.99 (without Apple Remote) 369.99 (with Apple Remote)

*Back To The Index

#54 ULTRASONE: HFI-700
 

noimage

Of all the headphones that I own, the HFI-700 is the only one which is regularly not in my home. I keep it at the small space where my band rehearses. When we are recording, I like to use this headphone specifically for monitoring drums. Much of this has less to do with the sound quality and more to do with the fact that my HFI-700 is roughed-up after years of use.

 

The HFI-700 was my introduction to Ultrasone. At the time which I purchased it (I think around 2005), I really enjoyed its sonic presentation. In many ways, I still think it provides an exceptionally fun listen. The HFI-650 happened to be an earlier model, but I am told that it is sonically identical to the HFI-700. Today, Ultrasone continues their HFI series, with the HFI-780 being the HFI-700's distant relative.

 

 

 

STRENGTHS

FUN TONALITY: I have always enjoyed the HFI-700's sound for casual listening. It offers a tremendous mid-bass hump, as well as a recessed upper mid presentation. Perhaps the most problematic area of the frequency response is the loose bass. In fact, out of all the headphones in my collection, the HFI-700 probably resembles the typical hip-hop headphone of today. However, unlike most of these consumer-grade headphones, the HFI-700 offers tremendous treble extension. I am not convinced that any particular region of the frequency response here is exemplary, yet the overall tonality is very enjoyable to me.

 

HIP HOP & R&B MASTER: I love listening to hip hop, modern r&b and classic soul with the HFI-700. It has a visceral sound due to a looser bass response. I find that this bass presentation has a tendency to clutter up the mix when listening to rock, jazz and especially classical music.

 

ISOLATION: One of my favorite aspects of the HFI-700 is its ability to seal really well. Of course, it does happen to showcase a closed-back design (closed-back headphones typically provide isolation). However, even when compared with most other closed-back headphones, it ends up in a high place on the totem pole of isolation.

 

 

WEAKNESSES

LACKS TRANSPARENCY: The HFI-700 lacks a sense of realism when compared against higher-end headphones. However, when compared with similarly-priced closed-back headphones, the HFI-700 actually fares quite well in the transparency department.

 

NOT NEUTRAL: The HFI-700 has an extremely colored/fun tonality. In my opinion, it is not suited for critical listening.

 

MIDS: The HFI-700's midrange showcases some unnatural peaks and dips. Sometimes it is easy to overlook this flaw because it is not so extreme. However once one listens to a headphone that offers an extremely pure sounding midrange, the HFI-700 can sound odd.

 

COMFORT: Very early on, the HFI-700's faux leather earpads began to harden and crack. As the earpads continued to harden, I found that the HFI-700 went from being fairly comfortable to physically fatiguing.

 

CABLE: The HFI-700 features a one-sided hardwired cable. This style is not my preference. I prefer a Y-split detachable cable design because it allows the headphone to be easily re-cabled for balanced application.

 

 

ON THE FENCE

BASS: Of all the headphones listed in this evaluation, I might suggest that the HFI-700's bass presentation is the least tight. However, the actual feel of the bass is very full and enjoyable for certain types of music.

 

SOUNDSTAGE: As far as closed-back headphones are concerned, the HFI-700's soundstage is impressive. It is wider than I typically expect from a closed-back headphone. However, it still possesses the closed-in feeling which seems to be an inherent side-effect of closed-back headphone design.

 

TREBLE: I appreciate how forward the treble is here. It helps the sonic presentation remain uncluttered despite the loose bass response. On the other hand, the treble here is not particularly grain-free.

 

AMPING: In truth, the HFI-700 is not a difficult headphone to drive. Yet I think the sound is greatly improved when paired with a neutral solid-state amp. When I pair it with the SPL Phonitor for instance, the soundstage opens up quite a bit and the bass feels slightly more controlled.

 

 

FOR THE PRICE

C

If you had asked me in 2005 (when the HFI-700 was still new to me) what I thought of it, I would have most certainly given it a B or B+. I thought a lot of this headphone at the time. Of course I had far fewer headphones to compare it with. Over time my allegiance towards it has faded. However, it does carry the designation of being the headphone for which I've held on to the longest besides the Denon AH-D950. As far as closed-back headphones are concerned, I think the HFI-700 was a solid offering in its time. I do however wish that the earpads were made of a more supple/durable material.

 

 

QUICK CHECK
  • DESIGN: Full-Size
  • DRIVERS: Dynamic
  • IMPEDANCE: 75 Ohms
  • AMPLIFICATION: Recommended
  • ISOLATION: EXTREME
  • MY PREFERRED AMP: SPL Phonitor
  • SOUNDS BEST WITH: Hip Hop / R&B / Soul
  • CABLES USED: Stock
  • REVISIONS KNOWN: None known to me
  • FLAGSHIP STATUS: Never Was
  • PRODUCTION STATUS AS OF 2012: Out Of Production
  • COST: $150 (estimated)

*Back To The Index

#53 SHURE: SE530
 

noimageIn the early 2000's, Shure introduced the world's very first one-size-fits-all triple-driver balanced armature in-ear-monitor. It was known as the E5. Shortly thereafter, Shure debuted the E500 (also a triple-driver). Upon its release, the E500 was the most expensive universal-fit IEM ever made. It included a device known as the Push-To-Hear module, a small microphone which enabled the user hear outside sounds without having to remove the earpieces from his/her ear. For the most part, the E500 received fantastic reviews. In the mid 2000's, Shure re-branded the E500 as the SE530. To my disappointment, Shure abandoned the Push-To-Hear component with the release of the SE530. However, the SE530's sound signature remained identical to the E500.

 

Like many longtime headphone companies, Shure Inc. began as a manufacturer of radio parts and microphones. In the late 90's, Shure entered the listening device market, specializing exclusively in earphones and personal monitoring components. As far as I am aware, Shure is the only manufacturer thus far to have started out as a maker of earphones, only to add full-size headphones to their product-line later. Usually it is the other way around.

 

For a long time now, I have considered the SE530's sonic character to be demonstrative of what a forward midrange presentation sounds like. Ironically, the SE530's midrange presentation may be its greatest asset to some and its most bothersome liability to others. I personally hold the SE530's sound in fairly high regard even though I feel that there are several IEMs which fare better overall.

I should mention here that Shure's newer triple driver model, the SE535, is viritually identical to the SE530. As a result, the SE530s have been discontinued. I have decided to review the two models separately since there are some very slight, yet distinct differences between them. However, if you already own the SE530, I do not feel it is worth the cost of upgrading to the SE535.

 

 

STRENGTHS

MIDS: I truly adore the SE530's midrange presentation. It's so smooth and grain-free. For a time, it was this midrange presentation which made the SE530 my favorite universal-fit IEM.

 

MALE VOCALS: I've found that the SE530's lush midrange enhances the sound of the male voice. Here, male vocals sound thick and come forward with great presence and depth.

 

COMFORT: In the mid-2000's, Shure introduced a foam ear-tip that resembled the shape of an olive. The SE530 came pre-installed with these tips already on the nozzle. This ear-tip manages to provide a good seal and is relatively comfortable. Although Shure generously included an assortment of silicone and foam ear-tips in addition, I have found that most users prefer the "olive tips."

 

ISOLATION: Once the ear-tip is properly sealed in the ear canal, the SE530 is able to block out quite a bit of ambient noise. It is not quite as impressive in this regard as Westone's universal-fit IEMs. The Westone models are designed to utilize Comply foam tips. Of course, Comply makes foam tips which are compatible with the SE530 (as shown in the photo above). However, I have often found that the SE530's sonic presentation is affected negatively by the Comply tips.  The Comply tips seem to exaggerate the SE530's rolled-off high-end.

 

JAZZ MASTER: Jazz sounds sultry and smooth with the SE530, particularly the old bop records which exhibit an excess of analog hiss and record pops.

 

EASY TO DRIVE: As is the case with most IEMs, the SE530 is extremely efficient and easy to drive. However I do prefer the earphone's sonic presentation when paired with a neutral solid-state amplifier. I find that in doing this, the treble is brought forward a bit.

 

SUPER PORTABLE: With regard to portability, nothing even comes close to IEMs. You can fit the SE530 inside a small shirt pocket. Try doing that with an SRH1840.

 

FORGIVING: The SE530 is one of the most forgiving of all the headphones/earphones reviewed in this evaluation. This is most certainly a pleasant side-effect of the rolled off treble response.

 

STORAGE: I think Shure did an extremely good job at packaging the SE530. Much like Apple's lauded packaging displays, the SE530 was packaged in a compact yet succinct manner. Thankfully, the SE535 continues this tradition. Perhaps, the most important accessory included with the SE530/5 is the protective zippered carrying pouch. I like this case very much. I have used it to store several of my other earphones in addition to the SE530.

 

 

WEAKNESSES

TREBLE: The SE530's treble presentation is enormously rolled-off. At times, this causes the sonic presentation to sound congested and muddy. When I first heard the SE530, I was taken aback by the absence of treble. While the earphones have a very smooth sound, I cannot help but wish for more treble presence and greater extension.

 

LACKS DETAIL: If I attempt to listen to classical music with the SE530, I feel as though my ears are squinting to hear the upper harmonics. Simply put, the SE530 is truly not a detailed sounding earphone.

 

IEMS' INHERENT SHORTCOMINGS: In my opinion, full-size headphones possess the ability to sound more natural than in-ear headphones.  The reason I feel this way is that much like natural acoustic sound, sound waves that emanate from a full-size headphone travel through the entirety of the ear, rather than just the canal. To me, this sense of space makes for a more natural auditory experience. Not everyone agrees with me on this matter, but I stand by my assertion.

 

IEM SOUNDSTAGE: To my ears, the soundstage presentation that IEMs portray is lacking in realism. A lot of people happen to like it, but for me, it is not competitive with a full-size headphone's soundstaging ability.

 

IMAGING: I find that the SE530's sonic presentation is squeezed toward the center. Perhaps, because of the absence of upper-harmonics, the sound feels slightly smeared and cluttered.

 

CABLE: The most distinct difference between the SE530 and SE535 is that the SE530's cable is hardwired while the SE535 features a user-detachable cable. The latter is clearly the more durable design. I know several SE530 owners (including myself) who have had the misfortune of the cable tearing at precisely where the cable connects to the earpiece. It was a terribly fragile design. Shure was wise to address this issue when designing the SE535.

 

 

ON THE FENCE

TONAL BALANCE: I feel ambivalent about the SE530's tonal balance. I really do think the SE530's mid-centric tone enhances the sound of jazz music. At the same time, when it comes to classical music, the missing upper-harmonics makes the music sound as though it is submerged.

 

BASS: The bass response here is well-extended and fairly flat. Unfortunately however, I find that it is not as impactful as I would prefer.

 

 

FOR THE PRICE

C

The SE530 is the only headphone/earphone in this entire evaluation to have been superseded by a virtually identical replacement: the SE535. For this reason, I would only recommend purchasing the SE530 at an extremely attractive price. The SE535 is a better purchase because it addresses the cable issue discussed above. Either way, the SE530 serves as phenomenal earphone for one who loves a lush forward midrange.

 

 

QUICK CHECK
  • DESIGN: In-Ear
  • DRIVERS: Balanced Armature
  • IMPEDANCE: 36 Ohms
  • ISOLATION: Little to None
  • AMPLIFICATION: Not Necessary but Worth Considering
  • MY PREFERRED AMP: SPL Phonitor / Ray Samuels Audio Hornet
  • SOUNDS BEST WITH: Male Vocals / Jazz
  • CABLES USED: Stock
  • REVISIONS KNOWN: At least one known to me
  • FLAGSHIP STATUS: Once Was
  • PRODUCTION STATUS AS OF 2012: Out Of Production
  • COST: $300-$500 (estimated)

*Back To The Index

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


 
 
#52 SHURE: SE535
 

noimage

In 2011, Shure discontinued the SE530, replacing it with the SE535. The two earphones are almost identical with regard to their overall sonic presentations. However, there is a very slight difference with regard to how the two models handle treble; the SE535 offers just a hint more. Yet it is not really this difference which compels me to favor the SE535. The main reason that I prefer the SE535 is due to the detachable cable design. I owned an SE530 which became unusable after the cable began to experience problems. Upon sending my faltering SE530 to Shure for repair, they replaced it with the SE535. Because of the fact that the SE535 has a detachable cable, using it is a far less worrisome experience than using the SE530. The SE535 is offered in two finishes: clear and metallic bronze. I really like the appearance of the bronze finish.

 

In the nature that SE535 was the direct replacement of the SE530, I should mention here that my review of the SE535 will read quite similarly to my review of the SE530 (directly above).

 

 

STRENGTHS

MIDS: I truly adore the SE535's midrange presentation. It is so smooth and grain-free. For a time, it was this midrange presentation which made the SE535 my favorite universal-fit IEM.

 

MALE VOCALS: I've found that the SE535's lush midrange enhances the sound of the male voice. Here, male vocals sound thick and come forward with great presence and depth.

 

COMFORT: In the mid-2000's, Shure introduced a foam ear-tip that resembled the shape of an olive. The SE535 comes pre-installed with these tips already on the nozzle. This ear-tip manages to provide a good seal and is fairly comfortable. While Shure generously includes a variety of silicone and foam ear-tips in addition, I have found that most users prefer the "olive tips."

 

ISOLATION: Once the ear-tip is properly sealed in the ear canal, the SE535 is capable of blocking out quite a bit of ambient noise. It is not quite as impressive in this regard as Westone's universal-fit IEMs. The Westone models are designed to utilize Comply foam tips. Of course, Comply makes foam tips which are compatible with the SE535. However, I do find that the SE535's sonic presentation is affected negatively by the Comply ear-tips.  The Comply foam seems to exaggerate the SE535's rolled-off treble.

 

JAZZ MASTER: Jazz sounds sultry and smooth with the SE535, particularly the old bop records which exhibit an excess of analog hiss and record pops.

 

EASY TO DRIVE: As is the case with most IEMs, the SE535 is extremely efficient and easy to drive. However I do prefer the earphone's sonic presentation when paired with a neutral solid-state amplifier. I find that in doing this, the treble is brought forward a bit.

 

SUPER PORTABLE: With regard to portability, nothing even comes close to IEMs. You can fit the SE535 inside a small shirt pocket. Try doing that with a SRH1840.

 

FORGIVING: The SE535 is one of the most forgiving of all the headphones/earphones reviewed in this evaluation. This is most certainly a pleasant side-effect of the rolled off treble response.

 

STORAGE: I think Shure did an excellent job in packaging the SE535. Resembling Apple's highly-praised packaging displays, the SE535 is packaged in a compact yet succinct manner. Perhaps, the most important accessory included with the SE535 is the oval-shaped protective zippered carrying pouch, which zips up to stay closed. I like this case very much. I have used it to store several of my other earphones in addition to the SE535.

 

CABLE: The biggest difference between the SE530 and SE535 is that the former has a hardwired cable (susceptible to tearing) while the latter has a much more durable user-detachable cable. According to Shure, that is the most distinct difference between the SE530 and SE535.I know several SE530 owners (including myself) who have had the misfortune of the cable tearing at precisely where the cable connects to the earpiece. It was a terribly fragile design. Shure was smart to address this issue when designing the SE535.

 

 

WEAKNESSES

TREBLE: A lot of people claim that the SE535's treble response is improved over the SE530's. The manufacturer claims that the SE535's driver construction is identical to that of the SE530. Therefore, any discernible changes regarding the SE535's treble presentation must be an aftereffect of its slightly different ergonomic fit. With the SE535, I have confirmed that the treble is brought forward to a nearly imperceptible degree. I still find the SE535's treble to be significantly rolled off. At times, this causes the sonic presentation to sound congested and muddy.

 

LACKS DETAIL: If I attempt to listen to classical music with the SE535, I feel as though my ears are squinting to hear the upper harmonics. Simply put, the SE535 is truly not a detailed sounding earphone.

 

IEMS' INHERENT SHORTCOMINGS: In my opinion, full-size headphones possess the ability to sound more natural than in-ear headphones.  The reason I feel this way is that much like natural acoustic sound, sound waves that emanate from a full-size headphone travel through the entirety of the ear, rather than just the canal. To me, this sense of space makes for a more natural auditory experience. Not everyone agrees with my claim here, but I stand by my assertion.

 

IEM SOUNDSTAGE: To my ears, the soundstage presentation that IEMs portray is lacking in realism. A lot of people happen to like it, but for me, it is not competitive with a full-size headphone's soundstaging ability.

 

IMAGING: I find the SE535's sonic presentation to be squeezed toward the center, meaning in this case that is lacks a bit of left/right dimension. Perhaps, because of the absence of upper-harmonics, the sound feels slightly smeared and cluttered.

 

 

ON THE FENCE

TONAL BALANCE: I have mixed feelings regarding the SE535's tonal balance. I really do think the SE535's mid-centric tone enhances the sound of jazz music. At the same time, when it comes to classical music, the absence of upper-harmonics causes the music to sound as though it is submerged.

 

BASS: The SE535's bass response is well-extended and fairly flat. Unfortunately however, I find that it is not as impactful as I would prefer. For those who wish to get more bass from their SE535, try using Compy foam ear-tips in place of the included Shure foam tips. However, I found that an unfortunate consequence of using these ear-tips is that the treble presence is slightly diminished.

 

 

FOR THE PRICE

C

The SE535 is a fantastic choice for fans of older recordings that wish to screen out some of the analog hiss. From a sonic perspective, the SE535 is virtually identical to the SE530. In addition, the SE530 was sonically identical to the E500. In essence, one can say that the sound signature of the SE535 has been around for many years. During this time, it has remained favored by many who prefer a forgiving sound presentation. Fortunately for everyone, Shure addressed the SE530's fragile cable problem when they designed the SE535.

 

 

QUICK CHECK
  • DESIGN: In-Ear
  • DRIVERS: Balanced Armature
  • IMPEDANCE: 36 Ohms
  • ISOLATION: Little to None
  • AMPLIFICATION: Not Necessary but Worth Considering
  • MY PREFERRED AMP: SPL Phonitor / Ray Samuels Audio Hornet
  • SOUNDS BEST WITH: Male Vocals / Jazz
  • CABLES USED: Stock
  • REVISIONS KNOWN: None known to me
  • FLAGSHIP STATUS: Currently Is Specific To Product-Line
  • PRODUCTION STATUS AS OF 2012: In Production
  • COST: $499.99

*Back To The Index

 
 
 
 
#51 WESTONE: WESTONE 3
 

noimage

Westone started out as a pioneer in the field of hearing care. Later they would become one of the key figures in the evolution of in-ear-monitors during the 1990's. Westone served as an OEM (original equipment manufacturer) for Shure and worked alongside Ultimate Ears in the development of the world’s first custom-fit in-ear headphone.

 

Introduced in 2008, the Westone 3 was the very first two-way crossover universal-fit IEM. Essentially, what this means is that there are three balanced armature drivers in the earpiece, each targeted at a different frequency region (lows, mid, highs). Other triple-driver IEMs which preceded the Westone 3 (such as the SE530 and Ultimate Ears' Triple Fi 10 Pro) featured dual drivers for lower frequencies and a single driver for the highs. When I heard the Westone 3 for the first time, I was struck by how full the sound was. In my opinion, it offers a significantly improved sound over their dual-driver model, the UM2. Shortly after acquiring the Westone 3, I began to prefer them to the SE530.

 

 

STRENGTHS

TONALITY: The Westone 3 offers a fun tonality that features an impactful mid-bass response and decent treble extension. In contrast to the SE535's bloomy midrange, the Westone 3's mids are slightly recessed.

 

BASS: The Westone 3 demonstrates a rather noticeable mid-bass hump that adds quite a bit of depth to bass guitar and drums. I find that its bass presentation is ideally suited for rock and metal music.

 

COMFORT: For me, the ergonomic design of Westone's universal-fit IEMs is the most comfortable of all universal-fit in-ears. The angle of the nozzle allows the user to achieve a more comfortable seal. In addition, Westone ships their universal-fit IEMs with Comply brand foam ear-tips. These tips are extraordinarily comfortable and easily provide the best seal of all the ear-tips that I have used.

 

ISOLATION: While Westone ships the Westone 3 with a generous assortment of eartipsI suggest using the longer Comply ear-tips in order to achieve the best seal. Once the foam tips are sealed in the ear, they manage to provide an extreme amount of isolation. Only custom-fitted IEMs do better in this regard.

 

ROCK MASTER: The Westone 3 offers a genuinely fat sound with great impact. I really enjoy listening to rock (particularly modern rock) with the Westone 3.

 

SUPER PORTABLE: With regard to portability, nothing even comes close to IEMs. You can fit the Westone 3 inside a small shirt pocket. Try doing that with an MDR-R10.

 

EASY TO DRIVE: I have found that the Westone 3 really doesn't benefit much from amplification. It sounds almost the same out of an iPod as it does out of a high-end rig.

 

STORAGE: When Westone began shipping the Westone 3, they supplied a round hard zippered carrying case, which resembled Shure's carrying case. However, more recently Westone has switched to a longer, more rectangular zippered carrying case. Both of the carrying cases offered are extremely effective with regard to fitting in the pocket and protecting the IEMs from damage.

 

 

WEAKNESSES

IEM'S INHERENT SHORTCOMINGS: In my opinion, full-size headphones possess the ability to sound more natural than in-ear headphones.  The reason I feel this way is that much like natural acoustic sound, sound waves that emanate from a full-size headphone travel through the entirety of the ear, rather than just the canal. To me, this sense of space makes for a more natural auditory experience. Not everyone agrees with this claim, but I stand by my assertion.

IEM SOUNDSTAGE: To my ears, the soundstage presentation that IEMs portray is lacking in realism. A lot of people happen to like it, but for me, it is not competitive with a full-size headphone's soundstaging ability.

NOT NEUTRAL: The Westone 3 is not a neutral-sounding earphone by any means. I would not suggest it as a choice for anyone looking to monitor a live mix. I would opt for the UM3X or Westone 4 in this scenario.

IMAGING: The Westone 3 is not particularly impressive with regard to imaging. Even though I enjoy the bass presentation, sometimes I feel as though the extra bass emphasis gets in the way of pinpointing the placement of instruments.

SIBILANT: The Westone 3 has the tendency to emphasize the sharpness of the letter "s" and other percussion instruments such as a hi-hat which fall into that same frequency region.

 

 

ON THE FENCE

TRANSPARENT?: I feel as though the Westone 3's sound-signature is on the cusp of transparency, but it doesn't quite make it.

MIDS: I would prefer a slightly more forward midrange. However, the mids here are still quite natural-sounding. Overall, the midrange presentation is ideal for those who enjoy a slightly raised bass/treble EQ curve.

TREBLE: When I heard the Westone 3 for the first time, the first thing I thought was that its treble presentation was a drastic improvement over the SE530's. It is certainly more forward. However, I still wish at times that the treble was more smoothly integrated with the midrange.

CABLE: Westone's braided cable design is the best I have seen in the in-ear market. It is rugged, light and avoids tangling. I only wish the Westone 3's cable was detachable from the earpiece. Westone would later offer this as an optional feature with their UM-series models and the Westone 4.

 

 

FOR THE PRICE

B-

Upon its debut, the Westone 3 was probably the best sounding universal-fit IEM I had ever heard. Today it has been surpassed by a few models - namely by Westone themselves and Audéo. I still prefer the sound of the Westone 3 to any of Sony's XBA series IEMs. For rock fans, I think the Westone 3 may still be the one to own.

 

 

QUICK CHECK
  • DESIGN: In-Ear
  • DRIVERS: Balanced Armature
  • IMPEDANCE: 30 Ohms
  • ISOLATION: Extreme
  • AMPLIFICATION: Not Necessary but Worth Considering
  • MY PREFERRED AMP: n/a (iPod without amp)
  • SOUNDS BEST WITH: Rock
  • CABLES USED: Stock
  • REVISIONS KNOWN: None known to me
  • FLAGSHIP STATUS: Once Was
  • PRODUCTION STATUS AS OF 2012: In Production
  • COST: $349

*Back To The Index


Edited by DavidMahler - 12/16/13 at 12:36pm
post #2 of 4939
Thread Starter 
THE BATTLE OF THE FLAGSHIPS continued...
My quest to find the greatest headphone ever made!
by David Solomon
#50 WESTONE: UM3X
 

noimage

The UM3X was introduced shortly after the Westone 3. I remember when Westone released the Westone 3, many people mistakenly called it the UM3 because Westone's earphone line at the time was known as the Universal Monitor series. Therefore, when I read that Westone had a UM3X, I actually thought it was a misprint. When I realized that the UM3X actually did exist, I was curious to see how it compared against the Westone 3. What I found was that while the two IEMs offer some distinct differences with regard to tonality, they share several similarities with regard to the sonic presentation. I am still not entirely sure if I prefer one over the other. I consider the UM3X to be the more neutral of the two and as a result I have placed it one rank higher on this list.

 

Not long after its debut, the UM3X was offered with a removable cable for $20 more. Had I known at the time that I purchased the UM3X that a UM3X with removable cable was in the works, I would have waited.

 

 

STRENGTHS

TONALITY: The UM3X is a bit more neutral-sounding than the Westone 3. However, I still find that the tonality is a tad warmer than neutral.

 

BASS: The bass presentation of the UM3X is a bit more impactful than neutral, but I would say it is a bit flatter when compared with the Westone 3's bass presentation.

 

COMFORT: For me, the ergonomic design of Westone's universal-fit IEMs is the most comfortable of all universal-fit in-ears. The angle of the nozzle allows the user to attain a more comfortable seal. In addition, Westone ships their universal-fit IEMs with Comply brand foam ear-tips. These ear-tips are extraordinarily comfortable and easily provide the user with the best seal of all the universal tips I have used.

 

ISOLATION: While Westone ships the UM3X with a generous assortment of eartipsI find that the longer foam tips provide the best seal. Once the Comply foam tips are sealed in the ear, they manage to provide an extreme amount of isolation. Only custom-fitted IEMs are better in this regard.

 

JAZZ MASTER: The UM3X is one of the best IEMs I've heard for jazz listening. Its sound-signature is somewhere between warm and neutral. I feel that this balance fares very well with jazz music.

 

SUPER PORTABLE: With regard to portability, nothing even comes close to IEMs. You can fit the UM3X inside a small shirt pocket. Try doing that with an MDR-R10.

 

EASY TO DRIVE: As is the case with nearly all IEMs, the UM3X is exceptionally easy to drive. Unlike the Westone 3 however, the UM3X does seem to benefit from amplification. I tend to use the UM3X in portable scenarios more often than with my home-rig. When I'm using it with my iPod, I like to plug it into the Ray Samuels Audio Hornet.

 

CABLE: The UM3X features Westone's signature braided cable design. I love this design because it is resistant to tangling and creasing. Less than a year after the UM3X made its debut, Westone introduced a UM3X-RC for twenty dollars more; RC stands for removable cable. At just twenty dollars more, I find that the UM3X-RC is a much better offering.  Having a removable cable may add years to the longevity of your earphones.

 

STORAGE: The UM3X ships with Westone's standard hard rectangular zippered carrying case. The case is quite protective and perfectly shaped for storing in one's pocket. I like to store my Westone ES5 in this case as well.

 

 

WEAKNESSES

IEMS' INHERENT SHORTCOMINGS: In my opinion, full-size headphones possess the ability to sound more natural than in-ear headphones.  The reason I feel this way is that much like natural acoustic sound, sound waves that emanate from a full-size headphone travel through the entirety of the ear, rather than just the canal. To me, this sense of space makes for a more natural auditory experience. Not everyone agrees with me on this matter, but I stand by my assertion.

 

IEM SOUNDSTAGE: To my ears, the soundstage presentation that IEMs portray is lacking in realism. A lot of people happen to like it, but for me, it is not competitive with a full-size headphone's soundstaging ability.

 

SIBILANT: Similarly to the Westone 3, the UM3X has the tendency to emphasize the sharpness of the letter "s" and other percussion instruments such as a hi-hat which fall into that same frequency region.

 

 

ON THE FENCE

TRANSPARENT?: The UM3X's sound signature gets rather close to transparency, yet I feel that it isn't quite there. It seems to me that the decay of the sound is lacking just a bit of naturalness.

 

MIDS: The UM3X's midrange presentation is not as recessed as the Westone 3's, but at the same time I actually feel that the resonance of the Westone 3's midrange is more natural sounding in some ways.

 

TREBLE: I find that the treble presentation of the UM3X is similar to that of the Westone 3. However, I feel that the UM3X's treble presentation brings forth just a hint more airiness. Even still, as I had mentioned with regard to the Westone 3, I wish that the treble here was more smoothly integrated with the midrange.

 

IMAGING: The UM3X has a superior imaging ability to all the universal-fit IEMs I've reviewed thus far in this evaluation. With the UM3X, it is easy to hear the basic location of instruments. However, when it comes to universal-fit IEMs and imaging, the Westone 4 and Audéo PFE-232 are superior.

 

 

FOR THE PRICE

B-

I do not necessarily feel that the UM3X is superior to the Westone 3. The UM3X's tonality is certainly closer to neutral. However, I feel that the Westone 3 offers more impact than the UM3X. I would probably use the UM3X over the Westone 3 for monitoring a live mix due to its superior imaging ability and flatter tonality. However, neither the Westone 3 nor the UM3X is as detailed or balanced as the Westone 4. The UM3X excels with jazz music. For a jazz listener, I may suggest that the UM3X is the best choice of all the universal-fit IEMs that I've heard.

 

 

QUICK CHECK
  • DESIGN: In-Ear
  • DRIVERS: Balanced Armature
  • IMPEDANCE: 56 Ohms
  • ISOLATION: Extreme
  • AMPLIFICATION: Not Necessary but Worth Considering
  • MY PREFERRED AMP: Ray Samuels Audio Hornet
  • SOUNDS BEST WITH: Jazz
  • CABLES USED: Stock
  • REVISIONS KNOWN: At least one known to me
  • FLAGSHIP STATUS: Once Was
  • PRODUCTION STATUS AS OF 2012: In Production
  • COST: $379 (without removable cable) $399 (with removable cable)

*Back To The Index

#49 AUDÉO: PFE-232
 

noimageI had never heard of Audéo until I started working at Headphones.com. However, I was somewhat familiar with Phonak, which happens to be the parent company of Audéo. Like Westone, Phonak entered the in-ear-monitoring field, already well-established as a pioneer in the field of hearing aids and aural health.

 

When I first got the chance to hear Audéo's single balanced armature driver model, I was intrigued by the very unique user-installable sonic filter technology which it offered. Audéo created three sonic filters intended to manipulate the earphone's tonality. The filters are quite effective. I prefer the gray filter because it is the most neutral, although sometimes it can produce a rather bright sound. The green filter is designed to produce the most bass impact, while the black filter is sort of in between the gray and green, yet creates a somewhat U-shaped frequency curve.

 

The PFE-232 is Audéos flagship dual-driver model. Here, as they had done with their single driver model, Audéo made use of their very clever sonic filter system. And as was the case with the single driver model, I prefer the sound of the PFE-232 with the gray sonic filters installed.

 

Yes, the PFE-232 is the most expensive dual-driver universal-fit IEM ever made. However, it is also one of the best IEMs I have ever heard. Its sound signature doesn't quite match the transparency of the ES5, JH13, JH16 and UE10, but it is easily the most detailed universal-fit IEM I have ever come across.

 

 

STRENGTHS

SONIC CUSTOMIZATION: One of the most unique and significant aspects of Audéo's design is their user-installable sonic filters. There are three sonic filters to choose from, each one colorized for ease of use. The green filter provides the most bass output; the black filter provides a slightly U-shaped curve and a slightly reduced treble; the gray filter offers the most balanced sound-signature to my ears. Albeit, the gray filter can cause the earphones to sound a bit strident in the treble, but I think its overall effect sounds the best. Just for clarification, let me express that you cannot use the PFE-232 without one of these sonic filters installed.

 

DETAILED: From the perspective of tonality, the PFE-232 boasts the most upper harmonics of any universal IEM that I've used. In order to achieve the most detail, one must use the gray sonic filter. For some ears this sound signature may be too bright and/or sharp. However, due to what I perceive as a slightly unnatural decay, the earphone seems strained at times in order to produce these upper harmonics. Yet, the PFE-232 is able to display complex orchestral passages with more clarity and detail than most IEMs can.

 

BASS: Audéo includes three sonic filters with the PFE-232. The green filter raises the bass impact while bringing down the highs. However, when using the gray filters, the PFE-232 still offers outstanding bass extension and plenty of highs.

 

COMFORT: The PFE-232 is an exceptionally compact in-ear. I find that the shape of the earpiece makes it extremely intuitive to install in the ear. For sonic reasons, I prefer to use the included silicone tips rather than the Comply foam tips. I find that these earphones in particular sound more accurate when using silicone ear-tips as opposed to foam.

 

ISOLATION: Once the ear-tip is properly installed into the ear, the PFE-232 is able to isolate very well.

 

CLASSICAL & JAZZ MASTER: Due to the fact that there are three distinct sonic presentations which the PFE-232 has to offer, it is very difficult for me to determine in one fell swoop which genres it excels the most with. Because of the fact that I find that the gray sonic filter yields the best sounding results, I am basing my preferences largely on this presentation. The gray filter provides a bright, yet highly detailed sound signature. I feel that this sound signature will be too sharp with popular music. However, with classical and jazz it performs very well.

 

SUPER PORTABLE: With regard to portability, nothing even comes close to IEMs. You can fit the PFE-232 inside a small shirt pocket. Try doing that with an MDR-R10.

 

EASY TO DRIVE: The PFE-232 performs loudest with the gray filters installed. I dislike the way this configuration sounds when paired with a tube amp. The top end becomes smeared and murky. To be honest, most of the time that I've spent with the PFE-232 has been directly out of my iPod and I've been perfectly happy with the results.

 

CABLE: The PFE-232 is the only IEM in this evaluation to ship with a smart-phone enabled remote and mic embedded into the cable. However, Audéo wisely chose to offer a second cable (without this feature) as an added accessory. For those who prefer less in their signal path, the remote-less/mic-less cable will be the one to use. I suppose it goes without saying at this point that the cable is detachable. The quality of the cable seems about average, although it proves to be slightly more microphonic than average.

 
 

WEAKNESSES

IEMS' INHERENT SHORTCOMINGS: In my opinion, full-size headphones possess the ability to sound more natural than in-ear headphones.  The reason I feel this way is that much like natural acoustic sound, sound waves that emanate from a full-size headphone travel through the entirety of the ear, rather than just the canal. To me, this sense of space makes for a more natural auditory experience. Not everyone agrees with me on this matter, but I stand by my assertion.

 

IEM SOUNDSTAGE: To my ears, the soundstage presentation that IEMs portray is lacking in realism. A lot of people happen to like it, but for me, it is not competitive with a full-size headphone's soundstaging ability.

 

NOT TRANSPARENT: The PFE-232 displays a rather noticeable metallic hue which prevents it from being definitively transparent.

 

MIDS: The upper-mids here tend to be grainy. I find that this graininess especially comes to the forefront when listening to male vocals.

 

 

ON THE FENCE

TREBLE: No matter which sonic filter is used, the treble presentation lacks some naturalness. While I find that the gray sonic filter offers the best tonal balance and the most detailed sound signature, the earphones always sound slightly strained at times, specifically in the treble region.

 

IMAGING: I feel ambivalent regarding the PFE-232's imaging capability. In one sense I think that the tonal balance is ideal for exemplary imaging. In another sense, I feel that the decay (especially in the upper-mids and treble) is lacking a sense of naturalness. This diminishes the earphone's ability to home in on the location instruments. It's simply not as precise as I would prefer.

 

 

FOR THE PRICE

C

Despite the fact that I think the PFE-232 is one of the best universal-fit IEMs ever made, I am convinced that that the PFE-232's price-tag is a bit too high. Simply put, Audéo is a lesser-known brand, newer in the marketplace than most of their high-priced competitors. Because the PFE-232 boasts only a dual-driver design while costing a great deal more than several quad and triple-driver designs, I feel there is the potential for criticism. However, the PFE-232 is among the best sounding universal-fit IEMs I have ever tried.

 

 

QUICK CHECK

  • DESIGN: In-Ear
  • DRIVERS: Balanced Armature
  • IMPEDANCE: 47 Ohms
  • ISOLATION: Extreme
  • AMPLIFICATION: Not Necessary but Worth Considering
  • MY PREFERRED AMP: n/a (iPod without amp)
  • SOUNDS BEST WITH: Jazz / Classical
  • CABLES USED: Stock
  • REVISIONS KNOWN: None known to me
  • FLAGSHIP STATUS: Currently Is
  • PRODUCTION STATUS AS OF 2012: In Production
  • COST: $599

*Back To The Index

#48 KAM: HP1
 

noimage

 

The KAM HP1 is probably the least-known headphone in this evaluation.  It is manufactured by a small American-based-company known as KΛM Instruments. The HP1 may not look like much, but they are one of the finer closed-back offerings that I've heard. It looks as if it were an AKG clone; and in some ways they exhibit a similar tonal balance to AKG's headphones - very flat and a tad light in the bass. They also utilize the one-sided detachable mini-XLR cable design which AKG employs several of their models, including the K240, K271S, and K702. I think the HP1 is a solid choice for someone looking to purchase a relatively inexpensive pair of headphones that is suited for studio monitoring. When used in a dedicated headphone setup the HP1 does not truly compete with the “big guns” in terms of overall fidelity. However, it is much less expensive and easier to drive than most options which perform at its level.

 

 

 

STRENGTHS

TONALITY: The HP1's tonal balance is a bit more bass-lean / brighter than neutral, but even still it is quite flat. This makes it an ideal choice for studio application as it really does not color the mix all that much.

 

MIDS: As far as closed-back headphones go, the HP1 has some of the flattest sounding mids I've heard. Perhaps, the lower mids could be brought forward a bit, but overall the midrange is very honest sounding to these ears, even if it is just slightly shouty at times.

 

CLASSICAL MASTER: While the HP1's sound signature proves to be lacking a little meat on its bones, it possesses an airiness that facilitates classical music very well.

 

DETAILED: The HP1's sound signature is strikingly detailed for a closed-back headphone. The treble response is titled a bit forward, creating an added sense of air. It may be a tad bright for some listeners, particularly those listening to brightly-mastered pop music recordings. However, the HP1 is far more detailed than I ever expected it to be.

 

SOME ISOLATION:The HP1 was designed with professional application in mind. Because of this, it was necessary to design the HP1 with a closed-back ear-cup in order to avoid sound leakage.

 

COMFORT:The HP1 utilizes a self-adjusting headband design that is nearly identical in presentation and function to that of AKG's standard headband. I find the level of clamp-force exerted by this style headband to be comfortable. The round earpads exhibit a faux leather material that looks cheap, yet manages to feel rather comfortable on the head.

 

EASY TO DRIVE: The HP1 does not demand a lot of power in order to sound good. I reckon that it even sounds good directly out of the iPod.

 

 

WEAKNESSES

NOT TRANSPARENT: With regard to transparency, it is not surprising that a headphone in the sub-$150 price-range would not be able to compete with some of the greatest (and most expensive) headphones ever made. That said, the HP1's transparency-level is above average for its price.

 

BASS: While the bass presentation exhibits very good extension, the overall impact of the bass is lacking. I suspect that bass-heads would not be satisfied with this, and it is possible that the bass may even be a little  meager for some neutrality-heads as well.

 

ANALYTICAL: Part of what makes the HP1 such a good headphone for studio application is that it brings forward the upper-harmonics, allowing the user to hear a lot of subtle nuances. However, some may find its sound signature to be a bit sterile and analytical.

 

APPEARANCE: The HP1 looks cheaply made. The box that it ships in is perhaps the most budget-looking aspect of the headphone's presentation. It is a generic white cardboard box with segments of computer paper printouts hand-glued to the exterior; this makes Grado's mundane packaging look luxurious.

 

 

ON THE FENCE

TREBLE: The treble presentation here is tilted a bit forward, allowing for upper-harmonics to be easily heard. Some listeners may find that the treble is a bit too forward for everyday listening, particularly if they prefer popular music genres such as rock, pop, hip hop and r&b.

 

SOUNDSTAGE: As far as closed-back headphones are concerned, the HP1's soundstage presentation is very large. Of course, being that the headphone features a closed-back design, there is an inherent lack of openness with regard to the sound. The width of the soundstage is fairly large, but the overall depth and dimension is not as notable as the typical open-back headphone.

 

IMAGING: The HP1's imaging capability is above average for a closed-back headphone. I am able to home in on the approximate location of instruments, however without the highest degree of accuracy.

 

CABLE: The HP1 uses a one-sided, detachable, mini-XLR cable design. Because of this design specification, I am able to use the Stefan Audio Art Equinox which I purchased for my K702 (a headphone which also employs a one-sided mini-XLR connector). The quality of the stock cable seems to be about average.

 

 

FOR THE PRICE

B+

“You can't judge a book by its cover.” Isn't that the old-time expression? Well it's definitely applicable here. The HP1 may not look like much, but it is a very revealing and honest headphone. It possesses a sense of "wisdom" which many more expensive headphones lack.

 

 

QUICK CHECK
  • DESIGN: Full-Size
  • DRIVERS: Dynamic
  • IMPEDANCE: 47 Ohms
  • ISOLATION: Some
  • AMPLIFICATION: Recommended
  • MY PREFERRED AMP: TTVJ Millett 307A
  • SOUNDS BEST WITH: Classical
  • CABLES USED: Stock
  • REVISIONS KNOWN: None known to me
  • FLAGSHIP STATUS: Currently Is
  • PRODUCTION STATUS AS OF 2012: In Production
  • COST: $130 (estimated)

 

 
#47 DENON: AH-D950
 

noimageGrowing up in my household, we had a Denon turntable. This turntable was my introduction to anything audio-related. Therefore, it is not surprising that when I picked out my first pair of headphones, I opted for a pair of Denon headphones. I remember going with my parents to Nobody Beats The Wiz for my 11th birthday with the instructions to pick out anything under 150 dollars and that would be my birthday gift - quite a generous gift, I know! I picked out the Denon AH-D950 headphones.

 

This was to be my first experience with headphones aside from the generic stock headphones which came with my Walkman and Discman. I remember very clearly, the first song I listened to with these headphones was "Driven to Tears" by The Police. The sound quality of the AH-D950 was so much better than any speakers I had heard up to that point. I was barely 11 years old, but that moment lit a spark in me that remained aflame for all these years. For this reason, Denon holds a very special place in my heart.

 

The open-cell foam cushion of the earpads began to deteriorate several years ago. I have since managed to replace them. The headphones also experienced a short in the cable many years ago. Fortunately, I was able to install a new plug and get rid of this short. As far as I am aware, most AH-D950s are long gone as the headphone was made rather cheaply and flimsily. After I refurbished the headphone, I decided that I wouldn't use it all too much. While I have preserved it primarily for sentimental reasons, I must say that it is a real eye-opener at times when I compare any new headphone to the first headphone I ever remember hearing (and loving).

 

 

STRENGTHS

TONALITY: In a way, the AH-D950 sounds like a precursor of things to come from Denon. It's sound signature resembles the recently discontinued AH-D2000. The AH-D950 leans toward neutral, but with a bit of extra warmth.

 

DECAY: All of the Denon headphones I've heard offer a very natural and smooth decay. I remember when I was about 17 the cable of my AH-D950 started to short. I wasn't aware at the time what was causing the issue and I put the headphones away for many years. Following this, I searched many years for a closed-back replacement that sounded as good. I wasn't sure as to what made the AH-D950 sound much better to my ears. Several years later, I came to the conclusion that it was the quickness and naturalness of the decay which made the difference.

 

MIDS: The midrange presentation of the AH-D950 is relatively flat. The quick decay of the sound enhances the midrange tone. Vocals in particular are rendered with tremendous realism.
 

GENRE MASTER: While it lacks the sonic refinement of higher-end headphones, the D950 offers quite a flexible sound presentation. I don't feel it is lackluster with any genre.

 

SOME ISOLATION: The AH-D950 is a closed-back headphone. However, there is a very small section on the ear-cup where acoustic ports are featured. In other words, the AH-D950 is a ported closed-back headphone. It offers adequate isolation.

 

COMFORT: The AH-D950 is a generously padded headphone. The clamp of the headband is not particularly tight, although I do feel that the ear-cups would benefit from being a bit larger. The size of the earpads is somewhere between on-ear and over-ear. However, I presume the AH-D950 was intended to be used portably; any bigger would have detracted from this purpose.

 

EASY TO DRIVE: I had never even heard the AH-D950 with an amp until recently when I fixed the shorted cable. The bass gains impact when the headphone is amplified. However, the headphones sound wonderful even if just out of a standard portable player.

 

 

WEAKNESSES

LACKS TRANSPARENCY: If you had asked me when I was much younger if the AH-D950 sounded transparent, I would have responded with a big fat "YES." However, as I've become aware of other headphones, I am able to see past the pedestal I once put the D950's sonic presentation on. The AH-D950 is certainly one of the most transparent headphones to ever sell for $150. However, I am hesitant to suggest that it is definitively transparent. It seems as though the top end has some harshness and the bottom is not as extended or balanced as I would prefer.

 

SOUNDSTAGE: The AH-D950's soundstage presentation is extremely narrow. It is not impressive in this regard.

 

TREBLE: The AH-D950's treble presentation is lacking both extension and air. I also feel as though there is an awkwardness where the upper-mids transition into the highs.

 

CONSTRUCTION: As it is one of the least expensive headphone models in this entire evaluation, it's not surprising that the headphone itself is made of cheaper parts. However, in my opinion, the AH-D950 feels way too cheap and deteriorated way too early. It is made entirely of plastic and cheapo faux-leather. The open-cell foam guard which sits in front of the driver started to deteriorate less than three years after I purchased it. It turned a strange orange color and then disintegrated. I have since replaced this part.

 

 

ON THE FENCE

BASS: The AH-D950 lacks bass extension although the mid-bass is quite impactful. It is noticeably lacking with regard to the sub-bass region.

 

DETAILED: While the decay is quite fast here, I would say that the sound feels too closed-in for an optimal amount of detail to be retrieved by the listener.

 

 

FOR THE PRICE

B

The AH-D950 foreshadowed even greater things to come from Denon. It was my first headphone and therefore I hold it in high regard. If you can find one in good/refurbished condition for a price of $250 or less, I would consider it an excellent value. It sounds good with any genre that I throw at it and it can be used directly out of a portable device without evidence of clipping. I consider myself lucky that it was my first headphone experience.

 

 

QUICK CHECK
  • DESIGN: On-Ear
  • DRIVERS: Dynamic
  • IMPEDANCE: 30 Ohms
  • ISOLATION: Some
  • AMPLIFICATION: Preferred
  • MY PREFERRED AMP: TTVJ Millett 307A
  • SOUNDS BEST WITH: Everything & Anything
  • CABLES USED: Stock
  • REVISIONS KNOWN: None known to me
  • FLAGSHIP STATUS: Once Was
  • PRODUCTION STATUS AS OF 2012: Out Of Production
  • COST: $200 (estimated)

*Back To The Index

#46 BEYERDYNAMIC: DT 770 (250 Ohm)
 

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The DT 770 was discontinued in 2011, but for the time it was produced it was one of the best closed-back headphones on the market. Its sound signature resembled that of Beyerdynamic's own DT 880, but featured more bass slam and a recessed midrange. It is worth mentioning here that the DT 770 Pro edition still remains available, but this pair is not identical to the standard DT 770.

 

Like the DT 880 and DT 990, the DT 770 was offered with different impedance ratings (32 ohms; 250 ohms; 600 ohms). Beyerdynamic also released the DT 770M which was targeted towards musicians and featured an inline volume control. The DT 770 was replaced by the T70/T70p, a headphone which utilizes Beyerdynamic's breakthrough patented Tesla driver technology. While the T70 boasts quite a bit more detail, the DT 770 had a smoother sound overall. I would say that the T70 has a noticeably quicker decay, but the DT 770 is less sharp. Overall, I prefer the T70, but the DT 770 was a whole lot more affordable.

 

Interesting little tidbit: It is well-known that the "T" in the model name of all of Beyer's latest headphones stands for Tesla. The DT headphone series, which preceded the Tesla series, is actually the longest continuously produced series of headphones. Beyerdynamic has been manufacturing headphone models using the "DT" designation for over seventy years. However, what I recently learned from talking with a Beyerdynamic rep is that "DT" does not stand for Dynamic Transducer as I had imagined; it stands for Dynamic Telephone.

 

 

STRENGTHS

BASS: The DT 770 really digs down deep with tremendous impact. Despite this, its bass presentation manages to be rather tight. What may be most impressive about the DT 770's bass presentation is that it really is able to bring forward the sub-bass frequencies that many headphones skimp out on.

 

TREBLE: The treble presentation is nicely extended and nearly grain-free (although not entirely). It is rare to find a closed headphone so well-extended in both the bass and the treble.

 

GENRE MASTER: Although it has a very impactful bass response, the DT 770 has a sonic presentation that manages to not overstep itself. I wouldn't say it performs phenomenally with classical music, but I've used them to monitor classical recording sessions and have success in doing this. However, with jazz and rock the DT 770 is a very fine closed-back choice.

 

ISOLATION: The DT 770 offers a surprising amount of passive ambient noise reduction. It prevents sound leakage nearly as well.

 

COMFORT: The DT 770 employs the same velour earpads as the DT 880 and DT 990. These circular earpads are extremely comfortable. The grip of the DT 770's headband is not all that tight. Similarly to the DT 880, the DT 770 is a full-size headphone that manages to be relatively light for its size.

 

CHOOSE YOUR IMPEDANCE: I appreciate that Beyerdynamic offered this headphone in three different impedance variations. The manufacturer presently offers the DT 880 and DT 990 with these three impedance ratings as well. The version I own has an impedance rating of 250 ohms.

 

 

WEAKNESSES

LACKS TRANSPARENCY: When it comes to transparency, I feel that each and every "DT" model that I have heard lacks absolute transparency. The DT 770 is no exception. There is a graininess to the sound, however slight it may be.

 

MIDS: The DT 770 showcases an awkwardly recessed midrange presentation. It is not an ideal choice for homing in on vocals.

 

DECAY: The decay here is not exemplary. I would guess that if the treble was not raised, the tonality of this headphone would be noticeably cluttered and congested.

 

IMAGING: The DT 770 has a rather linear presentation that fails to impress with regard to imaging.

 

 

ON THE FENCE

TONAL BALANCE: This headphone's tonality is nowhere near perfect. The recessed midrange presentation was a deal-breaker for me at one point and I sold my first pair. However, I regretted this decision almost immediately because the DT 770 has a lot of things going for it. It possesses an inoffensive tonality in the sense that it does not sound terrible with any genre of music. Yes, the sound is possibly the archetype of a smiley EQ curve (raised bass and treble), but sometimes that's just what I'm looking for.

 

SOUNDSTAGE: As far as closed-back headphones go, the DT 770 is quite impressive regarding soundstage width and depth. However, when compared against high-end open-back headphones, the DT 770 sounds closed-in and limited.

 

 

FOR THE PRICE

B

In my view, the DT 770 was the best closed-back headphone at its price-point for many years. I'm sad to see it discontinued and replaced by the T70 because while the T70 is probably a better headphone overall, it is also a whole lot more expensive.

 

 

QUICK CHECK
  • DESIGN: Full-Size
  • DRIVERS: Dynamic
  • IMPEDANCE: 250 Ohms
  • ISOLATION: Some
  • AMPLIFICATION: Highly Recommended
  • MY PREFERRED AMP: Woo Audio 5 / SPL Phonitor
  • SOUNDS BEST WITH: Everything & Anything
  • CABLES USED: Stock
  • REVISIONS KNOWN: Several known to me
  • FLAGSHIP STATUS: Never Was
  • PRODUCTION STATUS AS OF 2012: Out Of Production
  • COST: $250 (estimated)

*Back To The Index

#45 WESTONE: WESTONE 4
 

noimageAs far as I'm aware, the Westone 4 was the world's very first universal-fit quad-driver IEM. In my opinion, it is the most balanced sounding universal-fit in-ear that I have heard. While the Westone 4 exhibits Westone's classic warm house sound, it is more neutral and airy sounding than any other Westone universal-fit IEM. Furthermore, the Westone 4 is the most chameleonic of all the universal-fit IEMs that I've heard; it seems to excel with every style of music that I listen to.

 

As of 2012, there is only one other quad-driver universal-fit IEM on the market, the XBA-4. Some may want to know which of the two is the better IEM. Firtsly, I will say that I find the Westone 4 to be undeniably more comfortable than the XBA-4. The Westone 4's earpieces are more discrete and the overall design is a bit more ergonomically satisfying. While sound quality tends to be a rather subjective science, I find that the Westone 4 exhibits a tone that is more natural sounding overall. By comparison, the XBA-4 sounds leaner and less transparent, particularly in the treble region where I notice some unpleasant abrasive qualities.

 

About a year after the Westone 4 made its debut, the manufacturer introduced a removable cable version. The pair that I own is the original (non-removable cable) version.

 

 

STRENGTHS

TONAL BALANCE: The Westone 4's tonality is just a bit warmer than neutral. However, its tonal balance manages to get fairly close to the neutral mark.

 

BASS: When comparing the Westone 4's bass presentation to that of the Westone 3 and the UM3X, the Westone 4's sounds flatter and better controlled. The Westone 3's bass presentation features a significant mid-bass hump. In comparison, the Westone 4's bass presentation is leaner, but with superior extension.

 

MIDS: I find that the midrange presentation here is fairly flat, yet with a bloomy quality that gives it a lush presentation.

 

COMFORT: In my opinion, the ergonomic design of Westone's universal-fit IEMs is the most comfortable of all universal-fit in-ears. The angle of the nozzle allows the user to achieve a more comfortable seal. In addition, Westone ships their universal-fit IEMs with Comply brand foam ear-tips. These tips are extraordinarily comfortable and easily provide the best seal of all the ear-tips that I have used.

 

ISOLATION: While Westone ships the Westone 4 with a generous assortment of eartipsI suggest using the longer Comply ear-tips in order to achieve and maintain the best seal possible. Once the foam tips are sealed in the ear, they manage to provide an extreme amount of isolation. Only custom-fitted IEMs are better in this regard.

 

GENRE MASTER: I think the Westone 4 could be described as a jack of all trades. It handles every genre well, especially classical. If I listened primarily to rock music then I would probably opt for the Westone 3 instead; if I listened primarily to jazz then I would probably go with the UM3X.

 

SUPER PORTABLE: With regard to portability, nothing even comes close to IEMs. You can fit the Westone 4 inside a small shirt pocket. Try doing that with an MDR-R10.

 

EASY TO DRIVE: Although one can get fantastic results by simply plugging the Westone 4 directly into their iPod, I find that a neutral solid-state amp is able to open the sound up and add sparkle to the treble. I enjoy the way that the Westone 4 sounds with the SPL Phonitor.

 

CABLE: The Westone 4 features the manufacturer's signature braided cable design. I love this design because it is resistant to tangling and creasing. Approximately a year after the Westone 4 made its debut, the manufacturer introduced the Westone 4R; R stands for removable cable. Unlike the UM3X-RC which costs only $20 more than the non-removable-cable version, the Westone 4R is priced $50 higher than the Westone 4.

 

STORAGE: The Westone 4 ships with Westone's standard hard rectangular zippered carrying case. This case is quite protective and perfectly-shaped for fitting into one's pocket. While on the go, I often store my Westone ES5 in this carrying case.

 

 

WEAKNESSES

IEMS' INHERENT SHORTCOMINGS: In my opinion, full-size headphones possess the ability to sound more natural than in-ear headphones.  The reason I feel this way is that much like natural acoustic sound, sound waves that emanate from a full-size headphone travel through the entirety of the ear, rather than just the canal. To me, this sense of space makes for a more natural auditory experience. Not everyone agrees with me on this matter, but I stand by my assertion.

 

IEM SOUNDSTAGE: To my ears, the soundstage presentation that IEMs portray is lacking in realism. A lot of people happen to like it, but for me, it is not competitive with a full-size headphone's soundstaging ability.

 

 

ON THE FENCE

TRANSPARENT?: I have not found a single universal-fit IEM that reaches a level of transparency comparable to that of the ES5, the UE10 Pro, the JH13 and the JH16, all of which are custom-fit IEMs. However, of all the universal-fit in-ears that I have used, the Westone 4 is easily the most transparent to my ears. If it had one obvious fault, it would be that the decay at times feels slightly unnatural to me; the Westone 3 and UM3X share this issue as well.

 

TREBLE: The Westone 4 offers superior treble extension to either the Westone 3 or the UM3X. I prefer its treble presentation even over that of Westone's flagship custom in-ear, the ES5. However, I still find that some of the upper-harmonics are smeared, diminishing the overall clarity just a hair.

 

IMAGING: I think that the Westone 4 images quite well. While its ability to precisely render the placement of instruments does not quite measure up to that of the UE10 Pro, it probably possesses most spatial acuity of all the universal-fit IEMs that I've tried.

 

 

FOR THE PRICE

B-

At the time which I write this review, the Westone 4 is undoubtedly my favorite universal-fit in-ear-monitor. Although I feel that there are some areas which could be improved, I find its overall sound signature to be quite natural. In terms of fidelity and resolution, I find that the Westone 4 actually gets rather close to Westone's flagship custom-fit IEM, the ES5. On the other hand, the two models have incredibly different sound signatures, and are therefore difficult to compare with one another. The Westone 4R is virtually the same price as the SE535, and yet it offers a much clearer and balanced sound presentation, in my opinion.

 

 

QUICK CHECK
  • DESIGN: In-Ear
  • DRIVERS: Balanced Armature
  • IMPEDANCE: 31 Ohms
  • ISOLATION: Extreme
  • AMPLIFICATION: Not Necessary but Worth Considering
  • MY PREFERRED AMP: SPL Phonitor
  • SOUNDS BEST WITH: Everything & Anything
  • CABLES USED: Stock
  • REVISIONS KNOWN: At least one known to me
  • FLAGSHIP STATUS: Currently Is
  • PRODUCTION STATUS AS OF 2012: In Production
  • COST: $449 (without removable cable) $499 (with removable cable)

*Back To The Index

#44 SONY: MDR-SA5000

 

 

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The MDR-SA5000 was Sony's flagship model for several years... sort of. Sony began producing this model shortly before they discontinued their much grander flagship, the MDR-R10. The SA5000 continued to be produced even as the MDR-CD3000 and Q010-MDR1 (aka Qualia) challenged it for the title of official Sony flagship. Sony continued production of the SA5000 for over a decade, but discontinued it in 2012 without a releasing a clear replacement.

 

Sonically, the SA5000 is quite similar to the famous (or infamous) Qualia 010. Neither headphone offers tremendous bass impact or extension. However, both headphones offer the listener with a generous amount of detail. The SA5000's soundstage presentation is less impressive than that of the Qualia. Conversely, I find that the SA5000 is slightly less abrasive in the treble region. Both the Qualia and SA5000 excel with electronic music. However, the SA5000 may in fact be more forgiving.

 

 

STRENGTHS

DETAILED: At the time that I purchased the SA5000, it was the most detailed sounding headphone I had ever heard. Its tonal balance is on the brighter side of neutral and its decay is quite fast. Some may find their sonic presentation to be hyper-detailed and inauthentic. I certainly could understand this assessment. However, I cannot help but marvel at just how detailed the MDR-SA5000 is.

 

DECAY: Believe it or not, I actually prefer the SA5000's decay to that of the Qualia 010 (Sony's pricier flagship with which the SA5000 is often compared). While the two headphones are markedly similar in presentation, the SA5000's decay sounds smoother to my ears.

 

IMAGING: The SA5000 is supremely skilled at imaging. At the price for which it sold ($350-$700), the SA5000 may have been the very best in its class with regard to imaging. The drivers are angled in order to bring instruments forward and create a more well-defined sense of space.

 

CLASSICAL & ELECTRONIC MASTER: The SA5000 possesses a boosted treble response. As a result, there is quite a bit of air and upper-harmonics. This will be a good thing for some listeners while others may experience ear fatigue. However, I find that the tonality is suited very well for classical music. It is very easy to discern the individual lines of multiple instruments all playing together at once. Similarly, the SA5000's tonality succeeds at providing the detail necessary for an exciting trance listening experience.

 

COMFORT: Considering its size, the SA5000 is fairly light. The headband features a vented cloth material and stepped adjustment rods. The earpads are made of faux-leather material. Overall, I find the fit to be very comfortable.

 

STAND: The SA5000 shipped with its very own proprietary headphone stand . Although it is not quite as extravagant as the Qualia 010's headphone, it looks quite similar; they are both solid metal. The Fostex TH900 and the Ultrasone Edition 10 also ship with their very own proprietary headphone stands.

 

 

WEAKNESSES

LACKS TRANSPARENCY: The SA5000 exhibits a very analytical sound signature that sometimes comes off as sterile and lifeless. I wouldn't say that the SA5000 is offensively nontransparent, but I would suggest that it is not exceptionally high on the totem pole of transparency when compared against several other high-end headphones.

 

MIDS: The mids are not a highlight of the SA5000's sonic presentation. When I listen critically, I find that its midrange sounds a bit honky and unnatural. Perhaps, if the lower mids had more presence, this issue would be somewhat alleviated.

 

FATIGUING: As one may find to be the case any bright sounding transducer, the SA5000 can cause fatigue, particularly at louder volume levels.

 

CABLE: The SA5000's stock cable is easily kinked and, unfortunately, is not user-removable.

 

 

ON THE FENCE

TONAL BALANCE: If you have a preference for forward treble, then the SA5000 is a headphone worth considering. While I don't find the SA5000's tonal balance to be overly aggressive, it is bright.

 

SOUNDSTAGE: The SA5000's soundstage presentation is fairly wide, yet not all that tall. While it suits orchestral music very well, it does feel as though it is lacking dimension at times.

 

TREBLE: Yes, the SA5000 is bright, but its treble presentation does not sound particularly awkward to me. However, I feel it is worth stating that the SA5000 is among the brightest sounding headphones in this evaluation.

 

TRANSIENT RESPONSE: The SA5000's transient response is a bit on the sharper side. This is definitely part of the reason that I find its sound signature to be a bit sterile. Conversely, it is also part of the reason that I find its sound to be extremely detailed.

 

BASS: The SA5000 is lacking a bit with regard to bass extension. However, I find that its bass is capable of being quite impactful at times. I enjoy using the Larocco PRII MkII bass contour control to really bring out the bass here.

 

 

FOR THE PRICE

C+

A few years back, I was talking with someone who was looking to find the perfect complement to their beloved Sennheiser HD650 (a headphone which offers a beautifully romantic sonic presentation). I suggested the MDR-SA5000. The SA5000 offers an analytical / icy tonality. This tone will not please everyone. As such, I would not recommend the SA5000 as a first headphone purchase. However, it is impressively detailed (especially when one considers its price) and performs exceptionally well with classical music.

 

 

QUICK CHECK
  • DESIGN: Full-Size
  • DRIVERS: Dynamic
  • IMPEDANCE: 70 Ohms
  • ISOLATION: Little to None
  • AMPLIFICATION: Highly Recommended
  • MY PREFERRED AMP: TTVJ Millett 307A / Manley Neo Classic 300B
  • SOUNDS BEST WITH: Well-Record Classical / Electronic
  • CABLES USED: Stock
  • REVISIONS KNOWN: None known to me
  • FLAGSHIP STATUS: Once Was
  • PRODUCTION STATUS AS OF 2012: Out Of Production
  • COST: $350-$700 (estimated)

*Back To The Index

#43 GRADO: RS2
 

noimageI have fond memories of hearing Grado's SR60 for the first time. I was a young teenager at the time, and it was one of the first audiophile-category headphone's I'd ever heard (only third to the Denon AH-D950 and Sony MDR-7509). Upon joining the Head-Fi community in 2007, I quickly noticed that Grado headphones appeared to polarize the headphone community more than many other brands. While I have encountered some headphone enthusiasts who are unusually devoted to the manufacturer, I have also come across some who find Grado's entire headphone line mediocre.

 

I traded my Ray Samuels Audio SR-71 for a used RS2. When I received it, I noticed that the left channel had a rattling issue. I contacted Grado and they quickly addressed the problem. It was at this time that I was introduced to the word “grattle” (a word which means the rattling of Grado drivers - an unusually common occurrence it seems).

 

Upon receiving a replacement RS2 from the manufacturer (this time rattle-free), my impression of the headphone was favorable. I feel as though Grado headphones have a rather aggressive, colored sound signature that suits guitar-oriented music exceptionally well. For this reason, I consider it an ideal headphone for the rock and metal fan. I find that the HD650 (which possesses an entirely different sound signature from that of the RS2) is also an ideal headphone for rock music because it diminishes the sharpness of brightly-mastered recordings without removing transparency. However, whereas the HD650 is carries the impact of a boxing glove jab, the RS2 feels more like a raw closed-fist punch to the face.

 

For clarification purposes, let me mention that the “i” in RS2i is specifically used to distinguish newer models from older ones. Grado Labs claims that the RS2i is an improved version of the RS2, although some people disagree with this assessment.

 

 

STRENGTHS

FUN TONALITY: The RS2i exhibits a forward mid-bass, adding weight and impact to the sound. The top end is slightly forward, though lacking in extension.

 

MIDS: In true Grado fashion, the RS2i's sound signature features a significant mid-bass hump which gives the sound a sense of and liveliness.

 

ELECTRIC GUITAR MASTER: The RS2's sound signature portrays electric guitars with great power. The headphone's mid-bass hump adds significant bottom to the tone of the guitar, while the upper harmonics (around 6-10 KHz) are bring forward the guitar's upper-harmonics.

DECAY: I am a fan of the decay presentation which Grado headphones offer. While it's not exceptionally fast, it is very natural sounding to my ears.

 

EASY TO DRIVE: None of Grado's offerings are particularly difficult to drive. However, I do find that powering them with an amp yields positive results. I have found that the RS2 sounds the most balanced when paired with the TTVJ Millett 307A.

 

SERIALIZED: Each RS2 is individually serialized. This can be particularly helpful in identifying the date of manufacture.

 

 

WEAKNESSES

COMFORT: I find Grado's on-ear headphones to be remarkably uncomfortable. Regardless of how loose or tight I make the headband, I never seem to find wearing the RS2 to be a comfortable experience. The ear-cups simply feel awkward on the ears. Perhaps the shape and texture of the foam are just not right for me. Many others have voiced a similar sentiment.

 

NOT NEUTRAL: Neutrality-seekers should look somewhere else. The RS2 is a fun sounding headphone, but is far from uncolored.

 

CONSTRUCTION: The ultra-simplistic aesthetic design of Grado's headphones fails to impress me. While I do know others who appreciate the home-made look, I haven't yet warmed up to it. I don't believe I ever will. Perhaps if it was a more comfortable design, I would feel differently.

 

STORAGE: The RS2i ships in the same thin cardboard box as the SR60i, SR80i, RS125i, RS225i, RS325is and PS500. The box feels extremely cheap and appears under-protective.

 

 

ON THE FENCE

TRANSPARENT?: I am convinced that none of Grado's offerings are definitively transparent. However, all of the Grado headphones that I have heard manage to get relatively close.

 

BASS: I would prefer for the RS2 to have more sub-bass extension, but its bass is quite tight and impactful. I find that the RS1 exhibits a broader bass tone. While I favor the RS1's bass presentation overall, the RS2 possesses a snappier bass presentation, which some may prefer.

 

TREBLE: The treble presentation here is a bit forward, yet it lacks sparkle up on the very top. Ultimately, I find that I enjoy the RS2's treble presentation, but I do recognize that it is not entirely devoid of grain.

 

SOUNDSTAGE: The RS2's soundstage presentation is neither wide nor tall. However, it does display a sense of roundness and depth.

 

IMAGING: The RS2 is able to suggest the positions of instruments, but it doesn't quite home in to their locations with extreme definition.

 

 

FOR THE PRICE

B

For well over a decade, Grado's budget model, the SR60 (today the SR60i) has been one of the most highly-praised headphones at its price-point ($60-$80). The RS2i carries a price-tag of six times more than that of the SR60. Being overly critical perhaps, I will say I am convinced that the RS2i is two times better than the SR60i, let alone six. On the other hand, he RS2i is a whole lot more affordable than its big brother, the RS1i, and it manages to get extremely close to the same level of performance. The RS2i is a very good choice for rock fans because it renders guitar with a sense of aggression and intimacy.

 

 

QUICK CHECK
  • DESIGN: On-Ear
  • DRIVERS: Dynamic
  • IMPEDANCE: 32 Ohms
  • ISOLATION: Little to None
  • AMPLIFICATION: Recommended
  • MY PREFERRED AMP: TTVJ Millett 307A
  • SOUNDS BEST WITH: Electric Guitar / Rock / Metal / Blues
  • CABLES USED: Stock
  • REVISIONS KNOWN: Several known to me
  • FLAGSHIP STATUS: Never Was
  • PRODUCTION STATUS AS OF 2012: In Production
  • COST: $495

*Back To The Index

#42 BEYERDYNAMIC: DT 660
 

noimageI first learned of the DT 660 when Beyerdynamic sent me a variety of headphones for review purposes. Upon unboxing the DT 660, I noticed that its headband design appeared to be nearly identical to the headband used in the majority of Ultrasone's full-size headphones. I assume that both manufacturers have some of their headbands made at the same facility.

 

My initial impression of the DT 660's sound signature was that it was dull and lacking in weight. However, as I continued to use them, I started to become enthusiastic about its sound. Over the course of a few weeks, they had become one of my favorite headphones for classical music. At its price-point, I can think of very few headphones that perform as well with orchestral music. What's even better is that the DT 660 features a closed-back design; this makes them perfect for monitoring when in the studio. In recent times, the DT 660 has become  my go-to pair for when I am tracking guitar or bass. It has a very flat and uncolored sound signature.

 

 

STRENGTHS

TONALITY: The DT 660 has an extremely flat tonality. If it possessed just a bit more bass impact I would say that the tonality was perfectly neutral. However, the tonal balance is just a bit on the bass-light side. Other than this, I feel that the DT 660 offers an exceptionally honest, uncolored and flat tonality.

 

MIDS: The midrange presentation is the core of what this headphone has to offer. As far as closed-back headphones go, I find that it has the least colored mids I have ever heard. It is very impressive to me.

CLASSICAL MUSIC MASTER: As far as sub $1000 closed-back headphones go, the DT 660 is the best that I've heard at rendering classical music. For a closed-back headphone, it demonstrates significant breadth and air.

 

SOUNDSTAGE: While there are several open-back headphones which offer a superior soundstage presentation to the DT 660, this headphone possesses some very unique soundstage properties for a closed-back headphone. It doesn't sound quite as closed-in as the majority of closed-back headphones. It almost gives off the illusion of being open-back.

 

PROFESSIONAL MONITORING: The DT 660 has become my favorite headphone for monitoring in the studio during recording sessions. It's just the right size, price and offers a very honest tonal balance. When I'm on the drums I typically reach for the DT 770 for the added bottom, otherwise I prefer to use the DT 660.

 

ISOLATION: The DT 660 offers quite a bit of isolation - even more than the already generously isolative DT 770. I have worn this headphone within inches of a microphone and found that the cue mix audio leaked minimally onto the track. The DT 660 offers some of the best anti-leakage properties of any headphone I've used.

 

EASY TO DRIVE: In order to really bring out the warmth and add depth to the mix, one is going to want to power these with a warm amp. I happen to prefer tubes in this instance.

 

 

WEAKNESSES

LACKS TRANSPARENCY: The DT 660 is a highly impressive headphone for what it can do. However, it is no surprise to me that it is not an ultra-transparent sounding headphone. The sonic presentation is not entirely free of grain and the decay is not perfect either.

 

BASS: There is no doubt that the DT 660 is a bass-light headphone. Would it benefit from more bass? Yes. However, being that the DT 660 has a closed-back design, I wonder if any more bass would have cluttered the sound presentation.

 

ANALYTICAL: As impressive as the DT 660 may be to me now, my initial impression was that it was analytical and flat sounding. A lot of this has to do with the lack of visceral impact. Over a short span of time the sound signature grew on me and I eventually reformed my opinion.

 

 

ON THE FENCE

TREBLE: The DT660 has a wonderfully extended treble presentation; it is most certainly a forward treble presentation, but the sound is not as bright as it is airy. Of course, a forward treble presentation has the potential to ultimately lead to added graininess and unnaturalness. The DT 660 handles the forward treble quite well, but even still the treble is not entirely grain-free.

 

COMFORT: While the DT 660's round velour earpads are soft and plush, the headband grip is a little tighter than I would like. However, it is in part due to this tighter-than-average grip which rewards the listener with such fantastic sound isolation.

 

IMAGING: While the DT 660's imaging capability is slightly better than average, I would not say it is a highlight of the headphone's sonic presentation.

 

DETAILED: On first listen - maybe even second, I was under the impression that the DT 660 was extraordinarily detailed. The tonality boasts a forward treble which provides quite a bit of detail. However, the decay is a bit slower than would be optimal for ultimate detail retrieval.

 

 

FOR THE PRICE

A-

I had never planned on purchasing a DT 660 for myself. I rarely ever saw the name pop up in conversation on the headphone forums. Yet it is one of the most uncolored sounding of all closed-back headphones. It deserves far more acknowledgement than it receives.

 

QUICK CHECK
  • DESIGN: Full-Size
  • DRIVERS: Dynamic
  • IMPEDANCE: 32 Ohms
  • ISOLATION: Some
  • AMPLIFICATION: Recommended
  • MY PREFERRED AMP: TTVJ Millett 307A
  • SOUNDS BEST WITH: Classical
  • CABLES USED: Stock
  • REVISIONS KNOWN: Several known to me
  • FLAGSHIP STATUS: Never Was
  • PRODUCTION STATUS AS OF 2012: In Production
  • COST: $239
 
#41 GRADO: RS1
 

noimageLike the RS2, the RS1 features a mahogany ear-cup housing. The RS1's housings are just slightly larger. The RS1 is a bit warmer sounding than its less expensive sibling. The sonic superiority of the RS1 is really not that extreme and, in my opinion, does not seem to justify the $200 price difference.

 

That said, the RS1 is a very good sounding headphone. Like the RS2, it excels with rock and metal music. I tend to find myself listening to a lot of progressive rock with the RS1. Since I find that the RS1 and RS2 share several of the same sonic characteristics, this review will read rather similar to my review of the RS2.

 

I should mention that I own two pairs of RS1. One pair is roughly five years old and was re-terminated by Grado Labs with a Stefan Audio Art balanced Equinox cable. The other pair is considerably newer and has the distinction of being an "RS1i." The manufacturer has used this "i" suffix since 2010 in order to distinguish recent models from older ones. According to the manufacturer, "i" stands for improved. Unfortunately, I do not notice any distinct sonic differences between the two pairs.

 

 

STRENGTHS

FUN TONALITY: The RS1i exhibits a forward midrange with quite a bit of extra emphasis in the mid-bass transitional region. I would say that the RS1 is even punchier than the RS2. Its top end can be slightly aggressive at times. The RS1 offers slightly better treble extension than the RS2.

 

MIDS: The RS1's midrange presentation is nearly identical to the that of RS2's - forward and lively with an emphasis in the lower mids, adding impact and depth.

 

ELECTRIC GUITAR MASTER: Just in case you haven't noticed, the review of the RS1 reads almost identically to the RS2's review thus far. This is because the two headphones are remarkably similar; they both excel in the same areas. The sonic presentation here enhances the sound of electric guitars. With respect to the rendering of electric guitars, the RS1's mid-bass hump adds significant bottom to the sound, while the upper harmonics (around 6-10 KHz) are brought forward, adding an aggressive three-dimensional quality.

DECAY: I am a fan of the decay presentation which Grado headphones offer. It's not exceptionally fast, yet it is very natural sounding to my ears.

 

EASY TO DRIVE: None of Grado's offerings are particularly difficult to drive. However, I do recommend using an amp to power them. As with the RS2i, I have found that the RS1i sounds the best when it is paired with the TTVJ Millett 307A.

 

SERIALIZED: Each RS1 is individually serialized. This can be particularly helpful in ascertaining the date of manufacture.

 

 

WEAKNESSES

COMFORT: I find Grado's on-ear headphones to be remarkably uncomfortable. Regardless of how loose or tight I adjust the headband, I never seem to find wearing the RS1 to be a comfortable experience. The ear-cups simply feel awkward on the ears. I've concluded that the shape and texture of the foam is just not my not for me. Many others have voiced similar opinions to what I express here.

 

NOT NEUTRAL: Neutrality-seekers should look somewhere else. The RS1 offers a very fun tonality, but is far from uncolored.

 

CONSTRUCTION: Grado headphones exhibit an ultra-simplistic design that fails to impress me on an aesthetic level. While I do know others who appreciate the home-made look, I haven't yet warmed up to it. I don't believe I ever will. Perhaps if I found the design to be more comfortable, I would feel differently.

 

STORAGE: The RS1i ships in a simple white cardboard box. It resembles a pizza box; not very impressive at all. The box includes an internal foam cutout, intended to preserve the headphone from damage when in storage.

 

 

ON THE FENCE

TRANSPARENT?: I am convinced that none of Grado's offerings are definitively transparent. However, all of the ones which I have heard get very close.

 

BASS: The RS1 exhibits a bit more bass impact than the RS2. Unfortunately, it offers no deeper extension than the RS2. I prefer the RS1's added impact, but the RS2 has a slightly snappier bass presentation.

 

TREBLE: The treble presentation here is a bit forward, yet it lacks sparkle up on the very top. Overall, I like the treble presentation, but I would say that it possesses a very slight grainy texture.

 

SOUNDSTAGE: The RS1's soundstage presentation is neither wide nor tall. However, it does display a sense of roundness and depth. I do not find the soundstage presentation of the RS1 to be particularly different from that of the RS2.

 

IMAGING: The RS1 is able to insinuate the positions of instruments, but it doesn't quite zoom in with extreme definition.

 

 

FOR THE PRICE

B-

The RS1 has remained in production for more than two decades and, according to many, has taken on several sonic incarnations during this time. I have only heard the more recent versions of the RS1. I consider its sound signature to be ideal for rock and metal music, especially if you prefer an intimate yet aggressive presentation. Those who are in the process of reading this whole evaluation will notice that my review of the RS1 is nearly identical to my review of the RS2. The reason for these similarities is that the overall differences between the two headphones are not extreme. Yes, the RS1 is a better, warmer sounding headphone, yet I am not convinced that it is worth $200 more.

 

 

QUICK CHECK
  • DESIGN: On-Ear
  • DRIVERS: Dynamic
  • IMPEDANCE: 32 Ohms
  • ISOLATION: Little to None
  • AMPLIFICATION: Recommended
  • MY PREFERRED AMP: TTVJ Millett 307A
  • SOUNDS BEST WITH: Electric Guitar / Rock / Metal / Blues
  • CABLES USED: Stock / Stefan Audio Art Equinox Balanced (dual 3-pin)
  • REVISIONS KNOWN: Several known to me
  • FLAGSHIP STATUS: Once Was
  • PRODUCTION STATUS AS OF 2012: In Production
  • COST: $695

*Back To The Index

#40 AKG: K702
 

noimageThe K701 was the first full-size headphone that I purchased after joining Head-Fi in 2007. My initial impression was a sour one. At the  time, iLounge.com reviewed the headphone, stating that it sounded great even when directly out of an iPod headphone output. Therefore, I assumed that the limited amplification I had at the time would suffice. However, my findings over time were that the K701 is an extremely difficult headphone to drive. Its low-sensitivity design requires the amplifier to put out a substantial amount of current. I owned the K701 two times and sold both pairs.

 

AKG released the K702 in 2008. According to AKG, it is sonically identical to the K701. However, while the K701 showcases a glossy white finish and a hardwired cable, the K702 showcases a matte black finish and a detachable cable. Some have found that the K702 offers more bass impact. If this is true, I would surmise that it has something to do with an altered earpad design. I have not yet had the opportunity to compare the K701 with the K702. From memory, the sonic differences between the K701 and K702 are indiscernible.

 

I have long had a love/hate relationship with the K702. At times, the praise for this headphone seemed so hyperbolic, so off the mark (in my opinion), that eventually i disputed this praise in the form of extreme criticism. Truthfully, I find that the K702 manages to do certain things extremely well when it is properly driven. It offers one of the widest soundstage presentations in the business and it succeeds in providing a neutral-ish tonality.

 

In 2010, AKG re-branded the K701 yet again, this time as the Q 701 (with acclaimed record producer, Quincy Jones as its celebrity spokesman). Some have specified that the Q701 bares some slight sonic distinctions from the K701. However, I have not had the opportunity to confirm these differences with my own ears. According to AKG, the Q701 utilizes the same transducers as the K701. Quite frankly, I was annoyed with AKG when they re-packaged the K701, yet a third time, without adding anything wholly new to their flagship line. In the time since I compiled this review, AKG released a K702 Anniversary Edition. I heard this headphone at a meet and I was unable to determine if there were any distinct sonic differences. Some people have claimed the Anniversary Edition offers a massive improvement. I would need to hear it in my personal setup in order to determine how different it does in fact sound to me.

 

 

STRENGTHS

MIDS: The K702's midrange presentation is fairly flat. The midrange gains a bit of forwardness and roundness when I pair the headphone with a tube amp.

SOUNDSTAGE: The K702 offers the listener with an exceptionally wide soundstage presentation. The soundstage is a little bit more linear than I would like, but nevertheless, it is wide and spacious.

 

CHAMBER MUSIC MASTER: The K702 is a bit lacking with regard to bass impact. However, its midrange presentation is not particularly colored. In addition, the headphone's wide soundstaging abilities provides a sense of space not typically achieved by headphones. If I want to listen to a piece of chamber music, I sometimes reach for the K702. It offers an airiness which is not devoid of intimacy.

 

COMFORT: Many have criticized the K701/2 for being uncomfortable due to the padded leather bumps on the underside of the headband. In my experience, I find that the headphones are perfectly comfortable to wear for long listening sessions, even should the earpads and headband not be all that soft.

 

SERIALIZED: Each K701/2 is individually serialized. This can be helpful in determining the age of the headphone. The earlier K701s are stamped with  AKG's original trademark logo, while later K701s and K702s feature the more simplistic modern AKG logo.

 

 

WEAKNESSES

LACKS TRANSPARENCY: The biggest criticism I have of the K701/2 is that it lacks transparency. The overall sonic presentation is not free of grain. I never quite forget that I'm listening to headphones when listening to music with the K702.

 

BASS: The K702's bass presentation lacks punch. While it offers a deeply-extended bass, it is simply lacking impact. As such, the K702 is not a headphone which accommodate many listening preferences.

 

DIFFICULT TO DRIVE: Due to its low sensitivity rating, the K702 is a very difficult headphone to drive. I have found that it sounds best when paired with the Woo Audio 5 and TTVJ Millett 307A. When opting for the latter amp, I use a balanced aftermarket cable, designed by Stefan Audio Art. However, I am not convinced that it has any sonic impact.

 

 

ON THE FENCE

NEUTRAL?: The K702 possesses a fairly neutral tonal balance, and yet it is too lacking in bass impact for me to call it truly neutral. I have used the K702 for mixing; in doing this have I found that myself I overcompensating with regard to bass.

 

TREBLE: I am impressed by the K702's treble extension. However, I take issue with what I perceive as a slightly metallic hue.

 

IMAGING: The K702's imaging ability is slightly above average. I can detect the horizontal positioning of instruments quite well even though the sonic presentation falls short a bit with regard to dimension.

 

DETAILED: It seems to me that the K702 exhibits a slower decay than optimal. However, it exhibits a widespread sound presentation that permits the listener to retrieve quite a bit of detail.

 

CONSTRUCTION: I must admit that the K701 is probably a nicer-looking headphone than the K702. For my money, it is prettier still than the sportier-looking Q701. I don't mind the construction or appearance of the headphone all that much. I only have two complaints. One, I feel that the K702 should have been designed with a glossy finish because not only is it better-looking, but it is also less susceptible to nicks. Two, I would have preferred a Y-split cable design over the one-sided cable design. I do appreciate that AKG designed the K702 with a detachable cable. However, for best results (particularly when connecting to an amp in balanced-mode) I believe that a Y-split design is preferable as it avoids a longer signal path.

 

 

FOR THE PRICE

B+

For several years, the K701, HD650 and DT 880 were considered by many to be the three top non-limited-edition dynamic headphones on the market. The K701 was always my least favorite of this trilogy, as I simply found that its presentation was the most forced and least transparent. However, when it comes to chamber music and small ensemble acoustic music, the K701 performs the best out of any headphone at its price-point.

 

 

QUICK CHECK
  • DESIGN: Full-Size
  • DRIVERS: Dynamic
  • IMPEDANCE: 64 Ohms
  • ISOLATION: Little to None
  • AMPLIFICATION: Required
  • MY PREFERRED AMP: Woo Audio 5 / TTVJ Millett 307A
  • SOUNDS BEST WITH: Chamber Music
  • CABLES USED: Stock / Stefan Audio Art Balanced Equinox (dual 3-pin)
  • REVISIONS KNOWN: None known to me
  • FLAGSHIP STATUS: Currently Is (along with K701)
  • PRODUCTION STATUS AS OF 2012: In Production
  • COST: $349 (without aftermarket cable) $600 (with aftermarket cable)

*Back To The Index

#39 AKG: K501
 

noimage

 

 

 

 

The K501 is a fantastic headphone for classical music listening.  I rarely, if ever, listen to anything else with the K501 besides classical music. In true AKG fashion, the K501 doesn't boast a tremendous amount of bass. However, it offers a very honest midrange and decent treble extension. I find that this headphone sounds just slightly more transparent than the K701/2. As such, it is my preference. Unfortunately, AKG discontinued the K501 several years ago. If you find it on the used market in good condition for around $200, I say grab it! There is no $200 headphone on the market today which impresses me as much as the K501.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

STRENGTHS

TONAL BALANCE: I find that the K501 offers an articulate, analytical tonal balance, without going too far with regard to treble emphasis. To my ears, the tonality seems to be essentially flat minus an absence of bass impact and extension.

MIDS: The K501's midrange presentation is very similar to that of the K702 (or perhaps I should say it the other way around since the K702 is a later model). The most obvious difference between the two presentations is the way in which the midrange transitions into the treble. To my ears, the K501 offers a smoother midrange-to-treble transition. This difference is the main reason I prefer the K501.

 

CLASSICAL MASTER: The K501 is a real prize for the classical music enthusiast. While it lacks the absolute transparent and euphonious qualities offered by higher-end headphones, it gets about as close to sounding like a real concert hall as I've ever heard for a headphone of its price. I find that opera sounds particularly good with the K501. The K501's sound signature seems to complement voices recorded from distantly-placed microphones.

 

COMFORT: The K501 is a comfortable headphone; one which boasts AKG's classic self-adjusting elastic headband. Its earpads are a bit softer than the K702's earpads. The K501 does not feature the cushion-bumps on the underside of headband; this may be a plus for some.

 

 

WEAKNESSES

BASS: The K501 definitely lacks bass. In terms of impact and extension, it is one of the most bass-light headphones listed in this evaluation. For some, this may be seen as a major issue.

 

ANALYTICAL: The sound here can feel emaciated at times. At times, I feel the sound is a bit sterile. In truth, I'm not sure the sound is as sterile as it is just lacking in bottom.

 

 

ON THE FENCE

TREBLE: The treble can sometimes lack a sense of naturalness. Even though the treble is very well extended, I feel as though there can be awkward resonances that emanate from a slower-than-optimal decay. For instance, sometimes during dense orchestral passages, I begin to notice that the upper-harmonics sound as though they are competing for attention.

 

SOUNDSTAGE: The K501's soundstage presentation is not quite as wide as the K702's. However, the K501 has a more focused center. The K501's soundstage presentation would have probably gained dimension if the drivers were angled drivers.

 

IMAGING: The K501 possesses decent imaging ability. I find that the sound is not as contoured as I would prefer. Yet I can still pick out the basic position of instruments.

 

DETAILED: I feel as though the K501 suffers from many of the same problems which I criticize the K702 of having. The decay and transient response are slower than I would like. What seems to happen as a result is upper-harmonics seem to blend into one another.

 

AMPING: I have found that the K501 benefits from being paired with a warm solid-state amp. The added harmonic distortions which tubes provide, seems to degrade the sound a bit. For this reason, I prefer using the Headroom Balanced Ultra Desktop Amp.

 

 

FOR THE PRICE

A-

In the headphone comparison which I did in 2010, I attempted to compare the K702 and K501. To paraphrase myself, I said that I felt the K501 did everything the K702 could do except better. I still agree with this overall sentiment. It lacks even more bass than the K702. This assertion may cause some to be turned off to the K501 since the K702 already shows to be lacking in bass. However, the midrange presentation of the K501 is more realistic as far as I am concerned. Neither headphone is blemish-free, but to my ears, the K501 is more transparent. It was one of AKG's finest offerings. I wish they hadn't discontinued it.

 

 

QUICK CHECK
  • DESIGN: Full-Size
  • DRIVERS: Dynamic
  • IMPEDANCE: 150 Ohms
  • ISOLATION: Little to None
  • AMPLIFICATION: Highly Recommended
  • MY PREFERRED AMP: Headroom Balanced Ultra Desktop Amp
  • SOUNDS BEST WITH: Classical
  • CABLES USED: Stock
  • REVISIONS KNOWN: None known to me
  • FLAGSHIP STATUS: Never Was
  • PRODUCTION STATUS AS OF 2012: Out Of Production
  • COST: $200 (estimated)

*Back To The Index

#38 SONY: Q010-MDR1 (aka Qualia 010)
 

noimage

The Qualia 010 is a headphone which I dreamed about owning for a long time. In the world of elite audio, it is considered to be one the most legendary out-of-production models. At the risk of inciting a debate, I want to express that I feel that the Qualia is the most overpriced headphone of all time. I paid just around $5,000 for my pair (a standard asking price for the Qualia 010 today). I can honestly say this was the most disappointed I have been with a headphone purchase. I've held onto it merely for collection purposes (as well as for this review). Now I know a few will believe that my sour opinion emanates from an improper fit. I do not think my opinion is related to this at all. I presently own both the medium-size and small size headbands.

 

Since publishing the initial review, I purchased the small headband (for the enormous price of $660) direct from Sony, hoping that it would make a difference in the way in which the headphone sounded. Despite the headband's jaw-dropping price, I was happy to see that Sony still has parts available for this long discontinued model. Did the headband make a difference. The short answer is "yes, it sounds better with the small headband." However, the longer answer is that the difference is primarily found in the bass presentation - not in the transparency. The Qualia 010 still suffers from a largely nontransparent sound signature no matter which headband I use. I haven't altered the review a great, but I did move the headphone up a few spots because the over tonality feels more even to me with the added bass impact. I have a fairly large head and I use the medium-sized headband (considered by most to be the ideal size for large heads).

 

To further reiterate what I've said about the awkward/unforgiving fit of these headphones, I will repeat what I stated upon my initial publication of this review: I have raised and lowered the ear-cups several times, searching for a sweet spot. I have even attempted to use a sponge beneath the headband in order to manipulate the fit. I am able to get the headphones to sound good, yet not astounding; for $5000, I expect the headphones to astound. In my opinion, the MDR-R10 (Sony's earlier and equally-pricy flagship) literally wipes the floor with the Qualia 010.

 

The biggest complaint I have about the Qualia is that it just never sounds entirely natural. I never get lost in the music when using it. It is an exceptionally detailed sounding headphone. However, this detail comes at the price of sounding thin and often metallic. Considering that one could collectively purchase the LCD-3, HD600, T1 and AH-D7000 for approximately the same amount it takes to afford a single Qualia 010 on the used market, I can only recommend the Qualia to completists.

 

Last but not least, I find that Sony's own MDR-SA5000 (recently discontinued) is a very similar sounding headphone and costs just a fraction of the price. On the basis of sound quality alone, I would not have ranked the Qualia 010 any closer to #1 in this list, even if its standard asking price was $300.

 

 

STRENGTHS

SUPER DETAILED: The Qualia offers a tremendously detailed sound signature. In fact, in terms of revealing the most harmonic content possible, I would say the Qualia ranks as one of the top 3 headphones I have heard (along with Stax's SR-Omega and SR-009). Because of this, I am able to hear certain nuances when using the Qualia that I cannot ordinarily hear when using other headphones. Sometimes that's an awesome thing to behold, while other times I wish it were a bit more forgiving.

 

SOUNDSTAGE: The Qualia's soundstage presentation is a triumph. It is large, well-defined and very spherical. For this reason, listening to dense orchestral passages with the Qualia is often an engulfing experience.

 

TRANSIENT RESPONSE: The Qualia's transient response is very fast, exhibiting a sharp attack. While it is not my favorite transient response of all, I do find it interesting.

 

ELECTRONIC MASTER: The Qualia 010 doesn't sound phenomenal with all that many genres. It is simply too revealing to facilitate the majority of my listening preferences. However, the Qualia's sonic presentation really does enhance the sound of trance, dubstep, and other electronic music genres.

 

IMAGING: The Qualia's imaging ability is phenomenal. A friend of mine, who teaches music at a university, played me a composition by one of his students. I listened to the recording using my Qualia 010 (which at the time was a brand new purchase for me). After a few minutes of listening , I asked him why it seemed that clarinetist had shifted their seat midstream. He told me that the recording was compiled from two takes, made on two different days. Apparently the clarinetist and bassoonist accidentally switched seats on the second day. According to my friend who was in the studio, their chairs were adjacent to one another out of a nine-piece ensemble. I am very impressed by the Qualia's ability to render the placement of instruments.

 

BASS: When I swapped out the "medium" headband with the smaller, tighter "small headband," I was immediately struck by how much more impactful the bass sounded. Not only did the bass sound noticeably fuller, but the headphone's tonality shifted slightly as a result, to a warmer flavor. Albeit, the Qualia is still not a warm sounding headphone.

 

COMFORT: Once you adjust the headband to properly fit your head, the Qualia happens to be extraordinarily comfortable. Unlike the norm, one needs a jeweler's screwdriver in order to adjust the headband. Like the SA5000's headband, the Qualia's exhibits a vented cloth fabric. The headphone is actually much lighter in person than it appears to be in photographs. The leather earpad design is very unique; the earpads are hollow, not padded.

 

STAND: Only four of the headphones included in this evaluation ship with their very own proprietary headphone stand. The Qualia 010 is one, while Ultrasone's Edition 10, Fostex's TH900 and Sony's own MDR-SA5000 are the other three. The stand that ships with the Qualia is made completely of metal. It is very similar to the stand that ships with the MDR-SA5000.

 

SERIALIZED: The Qualia 010 was a serialized limited-production headphone. Only a few hundred Qualia 010s were made. Sony continued to produce the Qualia for approximately two years (2004-2005). The leather earpads were offered in either red or blue, while the headband came in three sizes - small, medium, and large. The small headband has been found to be large enough for most users. However, the medium is probably the most common. I have never seen the large headband.

 

 

WEAKNESSES

NOT TRANSPARENT: The Qualia 010 is not one of the most transparent headphones in this evaluation. In fact, there are several less expensive headphones which are considerably more transparent (the HD600 or DT 880 for instance). At such a high premium, the Qualia 010 fails to impress in this regard.

 

CONSTRUCTION: Perhaps I've yet to find the perfect way to wear the Qualia 010. I am open to suggestions. However, I don't think highly of a headphone design that requires the listener to use a jeweler's screwdriver in order to adjust its size. To make matters worse, these headphones are extremely sensitive to placement.

 

TREBLE: I find the Qualia's treble presentation to be abrasive and excessively grainy. As a result, cymbals have the tendency sounding piecing.

 

EXTREMELY EXPENSIVE & OUT OF PRODUCTION: In the years since the Qualia 010 was discontinued, replacement parts have become more difficult to find.

 

FATIGUING: I noticed once, when using the Qualia 010 at a relatively normal volume level, that I actually experienced physical pain inside my ear due to the resonance of certain frequencies. As a result, I was forced to stop listening.

 

SIBILANT: I find the Qualia's treble presentation to be sibilant. I have managed to reduce the sibilance by repositioning the ear-cups. Unfortunately, I have often found that in repositioning the headphones to be less sibilant, the overall clarity is diminished

 

SA5000: The MDR-SA5000 was intended to be as sort of mainstream version of the Qualia. Although this headphone was discontinued in 2012, it has long been considered to be inferior to the Qualia. However, I'd like to challenge this view. To me, the Qualia and the SA5000 are practically equals in terms of sound quality. The Qualia has superior spatial qualities, while the SA5000 has a superior presentation.

 

STORAGE: I find that the Qualia's cardboard packaging is simply not all that impressive for a headphone of its price.

 

 

ON THE FENCE

TONAL BALANCE: The Qualia exhibits some peakish qualities in the upper-mids and treble. It is brighter than neutral. While its tonality is certainly bright, it isn't that far away from neutral.

 

MIDS: The Qualia's lower-mids are very natural sounding. However, I find that the upper-midrange exhibits a tinny quality.

 

CABLE: The Qualia's stock cable is clearly of a mediocre quality for a headphone of its price-point. Fortunately, Sony made it possible for the cable to be easily removed/replaced. I have never bothered upgrading to an aftermarket cable because I simply did not like the sound of the headphone enough to justify spending any additional money on it.

 

 

FOR THE PRICE

F

There are many headphone enthusiasts who truly enjoy the Qualia's sound signature. It is never my intent to offend, but I must be honest and say that, in my opinion, the Qualia 010 is just slightly better than the average $300 headphone. Its is impressive in several ways, but I find that its overall sonic presentation does not sound entirely natural.

 

 

QUICK CHECK
  • DESIGN: Full-Size
  • DRIVERS: Dynamic
  • IMPEDANCE: 70 Ohms
  • ISOLATION: Little to None
  • AMPLIFICATION: Highly Recommended
  • MY PREFERRED AMP: TTVJ Millett 307A
  • SOUNDS BEST WITH: Electronic / Well-Recorded Music
  • CABLES USED: Stock
  • REVISIONS KNOWN: None known to me
  • FLAGSHIP STATUS: Once Was
  • PRODUCTION STATUS AS OF 2012: Out Of Production
  • COST: $4000-$6000 (estimated)

*Back To The Index

#37 WESTONE: ES5
 

noimageThe Elite Series 5 (or ES5 for short) is Westone's flagship custom-fit in-ear monitor. It features a three-way crossover design,exhibiting five balanced armature drivers inside each earpiece (one for bass, two for mids and two for highs). While it's not the highest-ranking, the ES5 is my favorite earphone in several ways. Firstly, it is the most comfortable custom-fit IEM that I have ever worn. Secondly, it offers the best noise isolation I have ever experienced from an earphone (tied with the Sensaphonics 2X-S). While the majority of the earpiece is made of a hard acrylic shell, the canal section is flexible and expands with the heat of your ear. In my opinion, this design is the best out there.

 

The ES5 offers an exceptionally mellow and smooth sound signature. While I take some issue with its rolled-off treble response, I feel that it has the most beautiful midrange of any IEM I have heard. When I am out and about, I usually have the ES5 with me. I use it on the go even more than my JH Audio customs because I am able to listen at exceptionally low volume levels and can still hear everything I need to! The reason for this is that the isolation ability of this headphone is so extreme, that I usually don't need to struggle to hear even the quietest sounds. In a city as noisy as New York, the ES5 protects my hearing, and for that it is probably one of my favorite headphones/earphones on the list. The reason I have it as far back in the ranking as I do is purely based on the fact that I feel that the JH13, JH16 and UE10 scale better with a high-end amplifier.

 

 

STRENGTHS

DECAY: The ES5 offers the most natural decay of any IEM I have ever used. It is an extremely liquid-like decay which enhances the emotional impact of vocals.

 

MIDS: While the ES5 does not get everything “right," I am convinced it has the fullest and purest-sounding midrange presentation of any IEM I've tried. The mids are pushed forward and the smooth decay gives the sound a sense of roundness.

 

ISOLATION KING: The ES5 offers the most isolation of all the IEM's I have used. Actually, let me clarify - the ES5 and 2X-S have similar isolation capability; however the ES5 is a whole lot more comfortable. The ES5's soft flexible tip expands with the heat of your ear, providing an unbelievable seal. This amount of isolation allows me to listen at very low volumes.

 

ROCK MASTER: The ES5 is a fantastic choice for those who wish their brightly-mastered rock music could sound a bit warmer and less digitized. The ES5 offers a tubey sound, partially because of the fact that the highs are recessed.

 

CONSTRUCTION: The ES5 showcases the most impressive design of all the custom-fit IEMs that I've used.  While its shell is made of hard acrylic material, the canal section of the earpiece is flexible and “magically” expands to the shape of your ear. It is truly impressive!

 

SUPER PORTABLE: With regard to portability, nothing even comes close to IEMs. You can fit the ES5 inside a small shirt pocket. Try doing that with an MDR-R10.

 

EASY TO DRIVE: Due to their high sensitivity, most IEMs tend to be easy to drive. Of all the custom-fit IEMs on this list, the ES5 seems to be the one which benefits least from amplification. I know of a few owners who prefer to EQ the ES5 for more treble presence. However, for me the ES5 is my favorite IEM to use on the go because its sonic presentation is very much on point even when paired with an iPod.

 

CABLE: The ES5 comes with a fairly rugged cable, which is easily detachable at the base of the earpieces. Like all the other IEMs in this evaluation, the stock cable terminates to 3.5 mm plug intended for portable application. The cable also features plastic reinforcements which helps keep the cable wrapped behind the ear.

 

CUSTOM ARTWORK OPTION: One cool feature of custom IEMs is that many manufacturers offer the option to customize the faceplate with artwork. My ES5 features a translucent blue shell and a black faceplate with the Westone logo printed in blue and orange. Many other owners happen to be a whole lot more creative with regard to their customized artwork than I am.

 

SERIALIZED: As any custom-built in-ear should, the ES5 features a unique serial number right on the inner-side of the earpiece.

 

 

WEAKNESSES

IEMS' INHERENT SHORTCOMINGS: In my opinion, full-size headphones possess the ability to sound more natural than in-ear headphones.  The reason I feel this way is that much like natural acoustic sound, sound waves that emanate from a full-size headphone travel through the entirety of the ear, rather than just the canal. To me, this sense of space makes for a more natural auditory experience. Not everyone agrees with me on this matter, but I stand by my assertion.

 

IEM SOUNDSTAGE: In my experience, the soundstage presentation that IEMs portray is lacking in realism. As I've stated prior, a lot of people happen to like it, but for me, it is not competitive with a full-size headphone's soundstaging ability.

 

TREBLE: The ES5 exhibits an extremely rolled off treble presentation. In some ways this really bothers me. A lot of the upper-harmonics get smeared and/or lost because the treble region just doesn't have a lot of presence.

 

RESELL VALUE: When I first joined Head-Fi, I remember someone putting up a thread in the “For Sale” section in which they announced the sale of their custom-molded earphones. This thread turned out to be a joke. Reselling a custom-molded product was almost unheard of at the time. Today however, there are many companies which offer a refitting process that makes reselling custom-molded earphones an option. Still, be prepared to take a major hit, should you resell them.

 

 

ON THE FENCE

TRANSPARENT?: I actually find that at lower volume levels, the ES5 can sound quite transparent. However, I do wish there was a little bit more treble sparkle. I think it is lacking this and ultimately I cannot quite call the ES5 transparent in all regards.

 

BASS: The ES5's bass presentation doesn't showcase tremendous slam, but it is extended fairly well. The bass extension is not quite as good as the JH13, JH16 and UE10. I would say the ES5 is dark sounding rather than bassy sounding.

 

IMAGING: I am very mixed with regard to how I feel about the ES5's imaging capability. The natural-sounding decay makes it possible to articulately place instruments while listening at lower volumes. However, as the volume is raised, the sound becomes more lush and bloomy. It is at louder volumes that I feel the ES5 loses some of its magic. The upper-harmonic content is not present enough to provide the listener with a fine-tuned sense of instrument placement.

 

COMFORT: To be honest, I have never found custom-molded IEMs to be as comfortable as universal fit IEMs with foam tips. But after many years of getting used to it, I've adapted to the feeling of custom-molded shells. I find that the hard acrylic is less comfortable than the soft material used in Westone's and Sensaphonic's designs. Nevertheless, wearing the hard acrylic pieces inside my ears has become more livable with time.

 

REFITS?: I did not need to get refitted for the ES5. However, I did need to get refitted for the UE10, JH13 and JH16. The reason for this may be simply due to the fact that the ES5 utilizes a flexible material that expands to your ear canal. However, it is still always possible that other customers will not be as lucky as I was with regard to their first fitting.

 

 

FOR THE PRICE

B

When judging an IEM's price to performance ratio, I only compare its sound with that of other IEMs. The ES5 is my favorite IEM to use on the go. Part of this is definitely due to the fact that I love listening to rock music while in commute. The ES5 performs excellently with rock music, particularly at lower volume levels. The superior isolation helps preserve my hearing. However, when it comes to over-all transparency and tonality, the JH13, JH16 and UE10 Pro are probably a little higher up on the totem pole.


I have encountered quite a few audiophiles who prefer the sound of IEMs to full-size headphones. They find that the presentation (the inside-the-head sound) is more agreeable to their sensibilities. For these users, IEMs like the JH13, JH16 and ES5 constitute as top-tier choices.

 

 

QUICK CHECK
  • DESIGN: In-Ear
  • DRIVERS: Balanced Armature
  • IMPEDANCE: 20 Ohms
  • ISOLATION: Extreme
  • AMPLIFICATION: Not Necessary
  • MY PREFERRED AMP: n/a (iPod without amp)
  • SOUNDS BEST WITH: Rock
  • CABLES USED: Stock
  • REVISIONS KNOWN: None known to me
  • FLAGSHIP STATUS: Currently Is
  • PRODUCTION STATUS AS OF 2012: In Production
  • COST: $950 + Audiologist

*Back To The Index

#36 JH AUDIO: JH16
 

noimageAlong with the JH13, the JH16 is JH Audio's flagship model in-ear-monitor. As far as I am aware, it currently holds the record for most balanced armature drivers per earpiece.It boasts a three-way crossover design, with double-dual lows, dual mids and dual highs in each earpiece. These double-dual lows (four drivers targeting bass frequencies) provide the JH16 more bottom than the JH13. Furthermore, JH Audio has released a DAC/Amp combo known as the JH-3A, specifically designed to be paired with the JH16. My assessment of the JH16 was made without the inclusion of the JH-3A.

 

More frequently than not, I find that I happen to prefer the sound of the JH13 over the that of the JH16. The two models showcase an identical sound signature, except in the bass region where the JH16 provides more impact. To my ears, this emphasis causes the midrange to sound recessed. I feel that, while the JH16 provides more bass, the JH13 sounds better balanced.

 

Even still, when I'm on the go, I often reach for the JH16 over the JH13 because I find that it makes up for in the extra bottom that the iPod lacks. However, if I am plugging into a high-end system, I would much rather use the JH13.

 

 

STRENGTHS

TONAL BALANCE: As I have stated above, the JH16 and JH13 are nearly identical with regard to tonality. However, the JH16 offers more bass impact. I find that the JH13's bass is impactful enough when it is paired with most amplifiers. I prefer the JH13's tonal balance in this scenario. However, when I use my iPod's headphone output (which is notoriously rolled off in the bass), I prefer the JH16.

 

TRANSPARENT: The JH16 exhibits a highly transparent sound presentation. While the bottom end is just slightly excessive in my opinion, its transparency is no less impressive than the JH13's.

 

BASS: For those who prefer a controlled, yet robust and impactful bass, the JH16 will probably be your preference when it comes to the JH Audio line. I personally prefer the bass presentation of the JH13. However, I can see how some would prefer the JH16's more impactful bass, particularly if they intend to use it primarily with a portable device.

 

ROCK MASTER: The JH16 has a bit of a kick to it. This extra punch enhances the sound of rock music.

 

SUPER PORTABLE: With regard to portability, nothing even comes close to IEMs. You can fit the JH16 inside a small shirt pocket. Try doing that with an HD800.

 

DETAILED: The JH16 is almost as detailed sounding as the JH13. Due to the added bass emphasis, the JH16's midrange sounds comparatively recessed; this leads me to suggest that it is slightly less detailed.

 

AMAZING ISOLATION: The two indisputable benefits of IEMs are their portability and their ability to attenuate outside noise like nothing else. JH Audio claims that their IEMs attenuate up to 26 decibels of outside noise. While the ES5 clearly blocks out more sound for me, the JH16 does an amazing job as well.

 

IMAGING: Despite the fact that IEMs possess an inherently small soundstage, they still have ability to image very well. The JH16 images quite well, however, both the JH13 and UE10 Pro perform slightly better in this regard.

 

EASY TO DRIVE: Due to their high sensitivity, most IEMs tend to be easy to drive. However, it seems to me that Jerry Harvey's in-ear designs benefit the most from amplification. I find that the JH16 may in fact outperform the JH13 in portable applications because of its added bass impact. However, I still enjoy using it with my home rig. I especially like the way the JH16 sounds with the SPL Phonitor.

 

CABLE: I actually prefer the cable design of the UE10 Pro (also designed by Jerry Harvey) to that of the JH16 because it is more resistant to tangling. However, I find that the plastic material used here for the ear-loop reinforcements is an improvement over the material used in the construction of my UE10 cable. Thankfully, the JH16's cable is easily detachable and replaceable.

 

CUSTOM ARTWORK OPTION: One cool feature of custom IEMs is that many manufacturers offer the option to customize the faceplate with artwork. My JH16 is pretty plain looking when compared with many others I've seen. My JH16 showcases a translucent blue shell with the words “JH Audio” in white lettering. I don't have much of an imagination when it comes to these things; my JH13's artwork is equally nondescript.

 

SERIALIZED: As any custom-built product should be, the JH16 is serialized. Like the JH13 and UE10, it showcases the owner's initials next to the serial number.

 

 

WEAKNESSES

IEMS' INHERENT SHORTCOMINGS: In my opinion, full-size headphones possess the ability to sound more natural than in-ear headphones.  The reason I feel this way is that much like natural acoustic sound, sound waves that emanate from a full-size headphone travel through the entirety of the ear, rather than just the canal. To me, this sense of space makes for a more natural auditory experience. Not everyone agrees with me on this matter, but I stand by my assertion.

 

IEM SOUNDSTAGE: To my ears, the soundstage presentation that IEMs portray lacks realism. As I've stated prior, a lot of people happen to like it, but for me, it is not competitive with a full-size headphone's soundstaging ability.

 

JH13: The JH13 does not boast as many drivers per earpiece as the JH16. However, don't let this mislead you into thinking that the JH13 is an inferior model. JH Audio has expressed that the JH13 and JH16 are equals in spite of the fact that the JH16 is $50 more. In my experience, the JH13's sound signature fits a wider variety of genres and scales better in a high-end setup. However, should one intend to use the JH-3A as their source and amp, the JH16 is recommended due to its greater headroom.

 

SIBILANCE: At times, the JH16 can sound sibilant. In fact, I find that it is more sibilant than the JH13 because of the fact that the mids are more recessed.

 

STORAGE: I am underwhelmed by the plastic case than ships with JH Audio's IEMs. The soft microfiber carrying pouch is not secure enough for carrying the IEMs in my pocket. The aluminum tin which shipped with the Ultimate Ears UE10 Pro was much more effective. I bring this up because Jerry Harvey was also responsible for the designs of Ultimate Ears products, back when I purchased the UE10 in 2007. When commuting, I carry my JH16s in a hard-shell Westone pouch.

 

RESELL VALUE: At around the time that I first joined Head-Fi, I remember someone putting up a thread in the “For Sale” section in which they announced the sale of their custom-molded earphones. Alas, this advertisement turned out to be a joke. Reselling a custom-molded product was almost unheard of at the time. Today however, there are many companies which offer a refitting process that makes reselling custom-molded earphones an option. Still, be prepared to take a major hit, should you resell them.

 

 

ON THE FENCE

MIDS: Even though the JH13 and JH16 employ the same midrange drivers and are tuned identically, I prefer the JH13's midrange presentation. The reason is because of the midrange's relationship to the bass. The JH16 offers higher degree of bass impact; as such the mids feel recessed.

 

TREBLE: I think the treble presentation of the JH16 is nearly grain-free. However, I wouldn't mind a hair more extension and sparkle. The sound of the JH16 lacks just a pinch of airiness, but I'm really nitpicking here.

 

COMFORT: To be honest, I have never found custom-molded IEMs to be as comfortable as universal-fit IEMs using foam tips. But after many years of getting used to it, I've adapted to the feeling of custom-molded shells. I find that the JH16's hard acrylic is less comfortable than the soft material used in the construction of Westone's and Sensaphonic's in-ears. Nevertheless, wearing the hard acrylic pieces inside my ears has become more livable with time.

 

REFITS?: I found that I needed to get refitted for both the JH13 and JH16. This could be perhaps because the hard acrylic shells lack flexibility. If you're as unlucky as I was, this refitting process can become frustrating and (with added shipping costs) an even greater expense than you had initially anticipated.

 

 

FOR THE PRICE

B

When judging an IEM's price-to-performance ratio, I only compare its sound with that of other IEMs. The JH16 is a wonderful in-ear-monitor. It offers exceptional bass impact. If the JH13 did not exist, I would probably be even more enthusiastic regarding its sound signature. The JH13 sounds more balanced to my ears.

 

I have encountered quite a few audiophiles who prefer the sound of IEMs to the sound of full-size headphones. These people express the opinion that the inside-the-head sound is very agreeable to their sensibilities. For these users, IEMs like the JH13, JH16 and ES5 constitute as top-tier choices.

 

 

QUICK CHECK
  • DESIGN: In-Ear
  • DRIVERS: Balanced Armature
  • IMPEDANCE: 18 Ohms
  • ISOLATION: Extreme
  • AMPLIFICATION: Not Necessary but Worth Considering
  • MY PREFERRED AMP: SPL Phonitor
  • SOUNDS BEST WITH: Rock; Metal
  • CABLES USED: Stock
  • REVISIONS KNOWN: None known to me
  • FLAGSHIP STATUS: Currently Is (along with JH13)
  • PRODUCTION STATUS AS OF 2012: In Production
  • COST: $1149 + Audiologist

*Back To The Index

#35 ALESSANDRO: MS Pro
 

noimageAlessandro headphones look exactly like Grado headphones. This is because Alessandro headphones use Grado parts for their housing. Inside the ear-cups are drivers designed by George Alessandro. In totality, the sound is similar to Grado's, but not identical.

 

The Music Series Pro uses the same housing as Grado's RS1. This means it uses the same mahogany ear-cups, the same leather headband, the same adjustment polls, and the same cable. It is inside the ear-cup where differences lie.

I happen to prefer the sound of the MS Pro overall. It possesses a more neutral tonality. Because of this, I feel it suits a wider variety of genres. Out of all the Grado headphones that I've had the pleasure of hearing, the MS Pro's sound signature most closely resembles the HP1000. However, the MS Pro lacks some of the refinement which the HP1000 offers. Ultimately, the HP1000 is a superior sounding headphone, but at its price, the MS Pro is a better value.

 

 

STRENGTHS

TONALITY: I don't want to say that the MS Pro is perfectly neutral because it isn't, but it manages to get close to the neutral mark.

 

MIDS: The midrange presentation of the MS Pro is really pure sounding to my ears. I actually prefer the midrange presentation here to any of Grado's current offerings. I particularly like the way female voices sound with the MS Pro.

TREBLE: The MS Pro offers tremendous extension and clarity. The treble seems slightly raised, but not aggressively so. I would say there is evidence of grain every so often, but nothing that should be cause for alarm.

 

GENRE MASTER: I enjoy the MS Pro's sound signature with a wide variety of music. I find that it fares particularly well with large-ensemble jazz and rock music.

 

EASY TO AMP: The MS Pro doesn't require all too much power to sound good. However, it really gains a fuller sound with tube amplification. I happen to really enjoy the way it sounds with the TTVJ Millett 307A, which is a fairly neutral sounding tube amplifier.

 

 

WEAKNESSES

COMFORT: The MS Pro comes with the Grado “Bowl” earpads. I simply do not find these pads to be comfortable. Regardless of how loose I make the headband, the shape and fit of the bowl pads seem to irritate my ears like few other earpads can.

 

CONSTRUCTION: I'm not a fan of the Grado retro-design. As Alessandro headphones incorporate the same exact design as Grado headphones, I am afraid they fail to please me in this regard.

 

IMAGING: Like the RS1 and the RS2, the MS Pro is not particularly strong in the imaging department.

 

STORAGE: Unfortunately, the MS Pro ships with the same style packaging with which Grado headphones ship: a pizza-box-style cardboard exterior with an open-cell foam interior.

 

 

ON THE FENCE

TRANSPARENCY: With the MS Pro, the level of transparency largely depends on the positioning of the ear-cups. I have noticed at times that sound can have a nasal quality to it. This is easily amendable by repositioning the ear-cups. However, even with the ear-cups in their most sonically-pleasing position, there is still an absence of complete and utterly brilliant transparency.

 

BASS: The bass here offers punchy mid-bass impact, but lacks extension. I enjoy the way that toms sound with the MS Pro.

 

SOUNDSTAGE: Just as with the Grado on-ear models, the Ms Pro's soundstage is neither wide nor tall, but it is round and well-defined.

 

CABLE: As with the RS1 and the RS2, the MS Pro's stock cable is hardwired and terminates to a quarter-inch plug. The cable's quality seems to be about average.

 

 

FOR THE PRICE

B

If I had to choose between the RS1 and the MS Pro, I would choose the MS Pro. I prefer its more neutral tonality. Both happen to be excellent mid-priced high-end headphones. Of the headphones which I own, I find that the MS Pro is the best on-ear headphone currently in production alongside the Ultrasone Edition 8. While I have spent time evaluating the Grado PS500, I do not own it. When I've compared it against the MS Pro, I have found that I prefer the MS Pro.

 

 

QUICK CHECK
  • DESIGN: On-Ear
  • DRIVERS: Dynamic
  • IMPEDANCE: 32 Ohms
  • ISOLATION: Little to None
  • AMPLIFICATION: Preferred
  • MY PREFERRED AMP: TTVJ Millett 307A
  • SOUNDS BEST WITH: Jazz
  • CABLES USED: Stock
  • REVISIONS KNOWN: None known to me
  • FLAGSHIP STATUS: Currently Is
  • PRODUCTION STATUS AS OF 2012: In Production
  • COST: 699.99

*Back To The Index

#34 ULTRASONE: Edition 8 Limited Edition
 

noimageI purchased the Edition 8 (ruthenium version) in 2009. At the time, it was the only version of the Edition 8 available. Soon after, Ultrasone released a palladium version of the model for $200 more. Then soon after that, Ultrasone followed with the Edition 8 Limited Edition model for $300 more than the Palladium version. This model featured brown leather instead of black, wooden ornamentation instead of plastic and an attractive leather case. In the end however, the limited edition version costs $500 more than the original incarnation. However, the sound quality remained unchanged. I personally never felt it was in good taste to release multiple cosmetic variations of the same headphone at different price points. However, this has become common practice in “Headphone Land." I wouldn't have purchased the Edition 8 LE myself, but I came upon this pair when Ultrasone replaced my malfunctioning pair of Edition 8s, with the more exclusive version as a courtesy for an extensive repair delay.

 

The Edition 8 is an anomaly in the headphone market. It is a travel-size, world-class headphone that is extremely expensive and probably too delicate for standard portable use. Ul­trasone describes the Edition 8's ear-cup design as over-ear, but in truth, I think it's more accurate to suggest that the ear-cup design is on-ear. Either way, I have always found that the Edition 8 was very comfortable. However, not everyone agrees with me on this.

 

I've used the Edition 8 several times with an iPod and I am always impressed by the sound quality. But perhaps the most significant feature of the Edition 8's design is that it offers significant noise reduction. It is not a noise cancelling headphone, but it probably is the best sounding headphone to offer substantial noise attenuation.

 

Please know that all three Edition 8 models use the same driver components. As such, there should be no distinct variations with regard to the sound quality between the different versions. All of the assessments of the Edition 8 (below) are not specifically regarding the Limited Edition version unless otherwise noted.

 

 

STRENGTHS

TONALITY: The Edition 8's tonal balance is warm, with great impact. It possesses a distinctly fun tonality which sounds particularly good with percussion-heavy music.

 

BASS: Even should it not be “accurate” by definition, the bass presentation of the Edition 8 is extremely enjoyable. While it does lack quite a bit of extension, the bass presentation is quite forward, adding substantial weight to the sound. It is not the absolute tightest bass response, yet it is not boomy.

 

EASY TO DRIVE: The Edition 8 sounds great even without amplification. You can use it with an iPod or computer without substantially diminishing the sound quality.

 

JAZZ MASTER: I enjoy listening to jazz with the Edition 8, specifically smaller combos such as a piano trio. The Edition 8 has a wonderfully intimate sound signature which is very accommodative to this type of music.

 

ISOLATION: The Edition 8 offers an impressive amount of passive ambient noise reduction. Other than in-ear models, the Edition 8 offers the best passive isolation that I've ever experienced from a headphone.

 

ATTRACTIVE: In all its incarnations, the Edition 8 is a mightily impressive looking headphone. The Edition 8 Limited Edition is probably the most exclusive looking. However, all three versions feature very soft sheepskin leather material. All three versions feature a metal faceplate. The limited edition version features brown leather in place of black. It also features beautiful wood ornamentations, similar to that of the Edition 10.

 

COMFORT: I think the Edition 8 is very comfortable, but not everyone shares this opinion. My ears happen to be larger than average so I am surprised when people say that the padding shape is too small for their ear size. The headband clamp is not overly tight, but strong enough to provide a really good seal.

 

STORAGE*: I have starred this to specify that here I am commenting specifically on the Limited Edition 8's wonderfully posh hard leather case. It is one of the nicest looking cases I have seen. The Ruthenium and Palladium versions come with a soft leather bag which feels cheap by comparison. However, it would have been nice had the Limited Edition version included a leather bag as it is easier to travel with.

 

PORTABLE: While I can't imagine too many people would feel comfortable using the Edition 8 outside, you can if you don't mind the risk of damage or theft. Either way, the Edition 8 is compact enough that it is suited to travel with you from place to place. As I have previously specified, the headphone can be powered quite well even by an iPod, and it offers supreme isolation. In this way, it is an ideal travel companion, but I still wouldn't use it outside.

 

SERIALIZED: The Edition 8 Ruthenium, Palladium, and Limited Edition are all individually serialized. Only 888 units of the Limited Edition will be made. The other two versions are not limited production models.

 

 

WEAKNESSES

LACKS TRANSPARENCY: The Edition 8 is not entirely transparent sounding. Unfortunately, there is evidence of grain in the upper-mids and treble. Another issue I take with the Edition 8's sonic presentation is that it can occasionally sound congested during dense passages of music.

 

NOT NEUTRAL: While the Edition 8's tonal balance is an enjoyable one, it is far from neutral.

 

IMAGING: Here, there is a really well-defined center. However, I find that the sound does not permit the brain to easily lay out a map of the instruments.

 

SOUNDSTAGE: The depth and height here is just okay; nothing to write home about, but passable. The Edition 8's sound signature is enormously impressive for a portable headphone, but when compared with several other top-level headphones, it is easy to observe how its average soundstage presentation hinders it.

 

SWIVEL NOISE: I have owned three pairs of the Edition 8. With each one, I have noticed that the ear-cups make an unpleasant squeak-like noise when they swivel. I have checked with other owners and it seems that most (if not all) experience this sound when moving the ear-cups.

 

 

ON THE FENCE

MIDS: The Edition 8's lower midrange is brought forward, adding weight to vocals. The upper-mids are slightly recessed. As a whole, the midrange is very smoothly integrated, but my one significant qualm with it is that it lacks transparency in the upper-mids.

 

TREBLE: The treble presentation here is well balanced and extended. My one criticism of it is that it lacks some transparency at times. Compared against other top-level headphones' treble presentation, I have noticed that the Edition 8's sounds slightly grainy.

 

CABLE: Because the Edition 8 can be used on-the-go, Ultrasone designed the hardwired cable to be approximately four feet in length, while providing an extension for those who desire a longer cable. The cable quality itself seems about average.

 

 

FOR THE PRICE

C

If one doesn't mind using an incredibly expensive (and somewhat fragile) headphone on-the-go, then the Edition 8 is likely going to please. It is the best sounding portable headphone I have ever used. However, when compared with the “big guns,” it falls a bit short in terms of overall fidelity. Because I find it hard to imagine a time and place where one would use the Edition 8 outside of their home, I feel that the Edition 8 fights a bit of a losing battle. At about $1500, the original ruthenium version is the best value. The Limited Edition version is nicer looking (I think), but no better sounding.

 

 

QUICK CHECK
  • PRODUCTION STATUS AS OF 2012: In Production
  • FLAGSHIP STATUS: Once Was
  • REVISIONS KNOWN: At least three known to me
  • CABLES USED: Stock
  • SOUNDS BEST WITH: Jazz
  • MY PREFERRED AMP: TTVJ Millett 307A / SPL Phonitor
  • AMPLIFICATION: Recommended
  • ISOLATION: Good
  • IMPEDANCE: 25 Ohms
  • DRIVERS: Dynamic
  • DESIGN: On-Ear
  • COST: Ruthenium: $1499; Palladium: $1699; Limited: $1999

*Back To The Index

 


Edited by DavidMahler - 6/4/13 at 7:46pm
post #3 of 4939
Thread Starter 
THE BATTLE OF THE FLAGSHIPS continued...
My quest to find the greatest headphone ever made!
by David Solomon
#33 DENON: AH-D7000
 

noimageFor nearly five years, the AH-D7000 held the title of heavyweight champion in Denon's headphone line until it was discontinued in 2012. The AH-D7100 is Denon's newest flagship. As is the case with all of Denon's current headphones, the drivers of the D7000 were designed by Foster Electric Company, Limited. Foster is, of course, better known in the headphone world as the founder of the manufacturer Fostex. Perhaps, this is why the TH900 is strikingly similar in appearance to the AH-D7000.

 

I owned the AH-D5000 for several years prior to purchasing the AH-D7000. At the time which I owned the D5000, it was the only closed-back headphone in my collection that I used frequently. I greatly admired its full tone, which oozed of rich impactful bass. However, I never found myself using this headphone all too much. Upon hearing the D7000, I parted with the D5000.

 

The D7000 is similar to the D5000 in several ways: the headband design; the incorporation of wood ear-cups; even the full tone. On the surface, the D7000 looks simply like a D5000 that went to a spa and walked out with a shiny complexion. However, in reality the sound signatures of the two models are quite different. The midrange presentation of the D7000 is much more forward than that of the D5000. The D7000 also has a slightly larger soundstage than the D5000.

 

When I compare the D7000 against other extreme high-end headphones such as the HD800, HE-6, LCD-3, T1 and SR-009, I feel it falls a bit short with regard to the naturalness of the sound. However, in its own way, the D7000 are no less enjoyable. I notice nothing in the AH-D7000's sound signature which could be described as abrasive or offensive to the ears.

 

It is worth mentioning that Denon's headphone line has become one of the most commonly modified in the land of “Do-It-Yourself” practitioners. One of these DIY-ers, Markl of head-fi fame, had such pleasing results when modifying the D5000 that he subsequently ended up starting a business which specialized in the customization and modification of pre-existing headphones. This business, known as Lawton Audio, offers several modifications to Denon's pre-existing headphone line. I have yet to hear these modified headphones, so I cannot comment from experience on their quality, but a lot of people do prefer the Denon headphones once modified by Lawton Audio.

 

 

STRENGTHS

TONALITY: The D7000's frequency response is not flat by any means. However, the D7000 offers a tonal balance that is extremely compelling and quite musical. One word that comes to mind when I've attempted to summarize the D7000's tonality in a single word is “full-bodied." OK that's two words (hyphenated). :)

 

BASS: All of Denon's full-size headphones showcase a robust mid-bass response. The D7000's bass response lacks a bit of extension, but is highly impactful all the same. The bass here is significantly tighter than the D5000's, yet it features equally as much slam and superior damping.

 

ROCK MASTER: The D7000 is one of my favorite headphones for listening to rock music. Its tonality is both full-bodied and slightly laid back. Furthermore, the sound signature brings guitars and vocals forward in a pleasant, yet unaggressive manner.

 

COMFORT: The D7000 is a very comfortable headphone. The plush earpads feature a soft faux leather exterior. The headband adjusts lengthwise using indented notches. The pressure exerted by the headband is noticeably less than average. One of my friends complained that he would be concerned to make any significant head movements while wearing the D7000, in fear that the headphones may fall off his head. My head is larger than average in size and as a result I've never experienced this concern.

 

SOME ISOLATION: As a closed-back headphone, the Denon D7000 is able to block out more outside sound than an open-back headphone. However, the difference between the noise isolation properties of the D7000 and that of the standard open-back headphone is marginal.

 

EASY TO DRIVE: The D7000 sounds good with any amp I try them with. It even sounds decent when plugged directly into my computer's headphone out.

 

 

WEAKNESSES

LACKS TRANSPARENCY: I've gone back and forth on this issue - meaning that at times, I really felt as though the D7000 were a highly transparent headphone, but other times I found myself fully convinced that they lacked certain elements that make a headphone sound transparent. Ultimately, what I found is that the D7000 lacks a sense of openness.

 

NOT NEUTRAL: The D7000's tonal balance is not so far away from neutral, but it is certainly too far for me to be inclined to describe the headphone as neutral sounding.

 

SOUNDSTAGE: The soundstage of the D7000 is not particularly wide or tall. At its price-point, it offers one of the less impressive soundstage presentations.

 

IMAGING: The earpads cause the drivers to be angled slightly; angling the drivers typically leads to improved imaging. Even still, the imaging here is just not that strong. There's a bit of congestion in the sound presentation which dilutes the headphone's ability to image as well as it should.

 

 

ON THE FENCE

MIDS: At around the 1 KHz mark, the mids of the D7000 come forward, bringing vocals with them. Because of this, the D7000 is an exceptional choice for people who really enjoy added vocal presence. In my opinion, the midrange presentation of the D7000 is not faultless, but still very pleasant.

 

TREBLE: The D7000's treble presentation is very smooth. However, it is also slightly recessed, ultimately lacking in a hint of air and dynamics.

 

CABLE: The quality of the D7000's stock cable is decent. Unfortunately, it is not user-detachable. This makes installing an aftermarket cable an invasive process.

 

STORAGE: The Denon's hard faux-leather case features a satin interior. It is actually quite nice, even if it is not in the same playing field as other top-end models' storage cases. At its price, it ships with one of the best storage boxes I've seen.

 

 

FOR THE PRICE

B

Since the AH-D7000 model was literally just discontinued, I am not sure as to what its asking price will eventually equate to on the used market. At its retail asking price of $999.99, the D7000 was a good, if not great value. During its five year existence, the D7000 was among the best closed-back headphones on the market (in my opinion, it was the best closed-back model during the course of its run). Yet Denon's AH-D2000 and AH-D5000 (both of which were also recently discontinued) were very similar to the AH-D7000 and were a lot less expensive.

 

 

QUICK CHECK
  • DESIGN: Full-Size
  • DRIVERS: Dynamic
  • IMPEDANCE: 25 Ohms
  • ISOLATION: Some
  • AMPLIFICATION: Preferred
  • MY PREFERRED AMP: TTVJ Millett 307A / SPL Phonitor
  • SOUNDS BEST WITH: Rock; Jazz
  • CABLES USED: Stock
  • REVISIONS KNOWN: None known to me
  • FLAGSHIP STATUS: Once Was
  • PRODUCTION STATUS AS OF 2012: Out Of Production
  • COST: $999.99

*Back To The Index

#32 AUDIO-TECHNICA: ATH-AD900
 

The ATH-AD900 was not a headphnoimageone that I ever anticipated purchasing. However, we had a demo model laying around at headphones.com and I absolutely loved the way it sounded. I find that it is voiced similarly to Shure's SRH1840. At around one third the cost of the SRH1840, I consider the AD900 to be a true bargain.

 

While I find that the SRH1840 is ultimately more refined sounding, the differences are not all that extreme. The AD900's sound signature offers a slightly colder sound than the SRH1840. However, both headphones excel with classical music. At its price-point, I can think of no finer headphone choice for the classical music fan. It eclipses the DT 660 with regard to sheer openness of sound. However, unlike the DT 660, it does not possess the added benefit of a closed-back design.

 

 

 

 

STRENGTHS

TONALITY: The tonal balance here is just slightly colder than neutral. While it exhibits a lack of bottom and warmth, it does showcase a fairly balanced midrange as well as decent treble extension.

 

MIDS: For the most part, the midrange presentation here is really quite flat. The upper-mids exhibit some slightly odd peaks and dips, but nothing all too alarming. I would even suggest that the upper-mids here add a bit of color to violins and violas; a coloration that I happen to enjoy.

 

CLASSICAL MASTER: For under $300, I cannot think of a headphone which is truer to the sound of a real concert-hall than that of the AD900. It may not look like much, but the AD900 is a classical music wizard.

 

SOUNDSTAGE: The AD900 exhibits a very open sound. The soundstage is not exceptionally well-defined, but it is really quite large and more than adequate for dense orchestral passages.

COMFORT: I feel that the AD900 is the most comfortable Audio-Technica model that I have ever used. It is a fairly light headphone and the velour earpads are extremely plush. The ear-cups are around the same size as the W5000 and W3000ANV. However leather earpads (such as those used in the W5000 and W3000ANV) are more conducive to heating up the head than velour earpads.

 

 

WEAKNESSES

LACKS TRANSPARENCY: At its price, the AD900 is a front-runner with regard to transparency. However, when one takes a step back and compares it against all of the major players, it comes up short. The sound is not entirely smooth across the entire frequency spectrum.

 

BASS: Perhaps one of the unfortunate trademarks of several classical-oriented headphones is the absence of bass impact. With regard to the bass region, the AD900 comes up short in terms of impact as well as extension.

 

CONSTRUCTION: The AD900 has a very plain appearance. In fact, in some ways I feel that it almost resembles a toy headphone. The headband looks cheaply made; of course it incorporates the signature auto-adjust Audio-Technica headband design, which I happen to feel is really quite fragile. The earpads, as comfortable as they are, collect dust like few other headphones do. The headphone employs a one-sided cable design; some may prefer this for comfort reasons, although I always prefer a Y-split cable design because it ensures that the signal path has fewer obstacles.

 

 

ON THE FENCE

TREBLE: The AD900 exhibits a decently-extended treble. I find that there is some awkwardness in the area where the upper-mids transitions to treble. Ultimately however, the AD900 provides a wonderfully breathy sound. This is largely due to its treble presentation.

 

IMAGING: The AD900 is not the last word in instrument placement, but it is one of the best in its price bracket. I feel there's only so much one should expect from a headphone of this price. The AD900 consistently blows away my expectations.

AMPING: The first time I used the AD900, I listened to Metallica's Black Album using my iPod alone. To my ears, the sound was all wrong and I was very disappointed. However, a few days later, I took the headphones home for a listen and I found that the midrange really bloomed when I used tubes to power the headphone. I still do not recommend these headphones for the metal-head. :)

 

DETAILED: Because of the fact that the treble presentation is quite airy, these headphones offer a fair amount of detail. However, the decay here is not supremely fast and this ultimately compromises the amount of detail which can be retrieved.

 

 

FOR THE PRICE

A+

If you have been reading this review from beginning to end, you may notice that the ATH-AD900 is the first headphone for which I've awarded an A+ value rating. To my ears it sounds a thousand times better than their ATH-W5000 (a headphone which sells for a whole lot more). I have already reviewed two other headphones within a similar price-range, which share the ability to perform exceptionally well with classical music - the DT 660 and the K501. The DT 660 will be the one to go with if you are looking to have quite a bit of isolation; the K501 will be the one to go with if you can find it at around $200 or less. If priced the same as the AD900, I wholeheartedly recommend choosing the AD900 as it is a better-sounding headphone.

 

 

QUICK CHECK
  • DESIGN: Full-Size
  • DRIVERS: Dynamic
  • IMPEDANCE: 35 Ohms
  • ISOLATION: Little to None
  • AMPLIFICATION: Recommended
  • MY PREFERRED AMP: TTVJ Millett 307A
  • SOUNDS BEST WITH: Classical
  • CABLES USED: Stock
  • REVISIONS KNOWN: None known to me
  • FLAGSHIP STATUS: Never Was
  • PRODUCTION STATUS AS OF 2012: In Production
  • COST: $270 (estimated)

*Back To The Index

#31 SENNHEISER: HD700
 

noimageAs it is my newest purchase, the HD700 is the headphone for which I have spent the least amount of time evaluating. While I do enjoy it's sound very much, I have some issues with it. In terms of detail retrieval, it is an improvement over the HD650. This is largely due to a raised treble response. However, its overall presentation is less natural than either the HD650 or the HD800. In this sense, I feel that the HD700 is not a success, although I still enjoy the headphone immensely. I should also mention that it was released three years following the debut of the HD800, making it the only full-size Sennheiser model in this evaluation to never have been given a flagship status.

 

Upon its unveiling, fellow Head-Fier Nick01 remarked that the HD700 looked like the HD800's evil twin. I haven't been able to let go of this image. In a vague sense, it manages to perfectly describe the HD700's appearance. The HD700 is smaller and more angular while maintaining much of the HD800's likeness.

 

From a sonic perspective, the HD700 tends to be warmer than the HD800 (something which many will appreciate), but it has a more problematic top end. The HD700's tonal balance dances around the line of neutrality, even if it is not quite as neutral as the HD800. While I personally am skeptical of the benefits of burn-in, I do want to mention that my HD700 has been used for less than 100 hours at the time which I am evaluating them.

 

 

STRENGTHS

NEUTRAL: Since the HD700's tonal balance manages to get very close to neutral, I would surmise that Sennheiser was attempting to produce a neutral sounding headphone when it created the HD700. Short of a few peakish qualities in the top end, the HD700 is a neutral headphone.

 

MIDS: I really enjoy the core of the midrange presentation here; it seems relatively flat to my ears. Where the upper-mids transition into the treble region, I begin to take issue with its forwardness, but overall, the mids here are classic Sennheiser exquisiteness.

 

BASS: The HD700's bass presentation is just a bit heftier than the HD800's. However it is not quite as tight or extended. Ultimately, I prefer the HD800's bass presentation, but the HD700's bass presentation has its merits.

 

ACOUSTIC MASTER: The HD700 is extraordinary in its rendering of acoustic guitar. The sound is crisp and clean; the upper harmonics of the strings are brought forward. With regard to acoustic guitar, the treble response is rarely problematic. However, in some rare instances where the fingers slide up and down the fret-board aggressively, the slide of the fingers may be sharper than optimal.

 

DECAY: The HD700 offers a very fast decay. To my ears, the decay sounds even quicker than the HD800. However, the HD800's decay sounds more natural.

 

IMAGING: One thing the HD700 does exceptionally well is imaging. It far surpasses the HD650's ability in this regard.

 

COMFORT: With regard to their high-end headphones, Sennheiser always seems to get it right with regard to comfort. The HD700's velour earpads are quite similar in feel to that of the HD800. Due to its smaller size, the HD700 does not offer quite as much ear room as the HD800, yet it is nearly as comfortable.

 

CONSTRUCTION: I happen to like the look and feel of the HD700 very much. It really does look like the HD800's younger brother. I still prefer the design of the HD800 quite a bit more. However, for those that find the size of the HD800 to be cumbersome and unflattering, the HD700 may be preferable.

 

CABLE: The HD700's cable may very well be an improvement over the HD800. Like the HD600, HD650 and HD800 before it, the HD700 employs a user-detachable stock cable. I appreciate this feature not only for durability reasons, but also because it makes for a noninvasive aftermarket cable installation. I prefer the mono-plug connectors of the HD700 over the customized connectors of the HD800's. The quarter-inch plug here is very uniquely executed. I have noticed that the HD700's cable is slightly stiffer than the HD800's cable.

 

 

WEAKNESSES

TREBLE: The treble presentation here is awkward. In the opinion of many, the HD700 is warmer than the HD800 (the HD800 has been criticized by some for being too bright). Well, to my ears, the HD700 is even brighter and sharper. With the HD700, cymbals tend to sound a bit strident and untamed. However, as I greatly enjoy several other aspects of the HD700's sound, the treble response doesn't ruin the headphone for me. That said, I am convinced that the HD600's and HD650's treble presentation is more natural.

 

SIBILANT: Harsh treble is typically accompanied by sibilance, so this particular commentary is kind of redundant. The HD700's sound signature happens to be noticeably sibilant.

 

STORAGE: The HD700 does not come with one of the more impressive cases at its price-point. Cardboard again?

 

NOISY EARPADS: I have found that odd click-like noises emanate from the HD700's earpads from time to time. While it's not terribly distracting, I do find it rather peculiar.

 

 

ON THE FENCE

LACKS ABSOLUTE TRANSPARENCY: Unfortunately, the HD700 is not one of the most transparent of the bunch. I expected more from Sennheiser in this regard. The HD600, HD650 and HD800 are all of a higher degree transparency to my ears than the HD700. However, due to what I see as a superior decay, the HD700 is more transparent than average. For instance, despite its more problematic treble, I find the HD700 to be more transparent in certain ways than the SRH1840.

 

TRANSIENT RESPONSE: The HD700's decay is on point. While it's not quite as fast as the HD800's decay, it is much faster than the HD600's and HD650's decay. The transient response itself is quite good, yet the abrasive quality of transients is brought forward because of the peakish treble.

 

SOUNDSTAGE: Medium-sized is how I would describe the height and width of the HD700's soundstage. However, the soundstage is quite three-dimensional. I happen to really enjoy its presentation.

 

AMPING: Supposedly, the HD700 is much easier to drive than the HD800. This may be true in some ways, but I personally would probably rather listen to a poorly powered HD800 over a well-powered HD700.

 

 

FOR THE PRICE

C+

I find it funny that the HD650 has long been criticized by some for being veiled sounding, while the HD800 has been criticized for being too bright and aggressive. For the first hour or two that I spent listening to the HD700, I was convinced that Sennheiser had nailed the act of merging the two sound signatures. Yet as I listened more and more, I began to feel that the sound was lacking the naturalness of both the HD650 and HD800. For this reason, I consider the HD700 a weaker offering despite its many merits.

 

 

QUICK CHECK
  • DESIGN: Full-Size
  • DRIVERS: Dynamic
  • IMPEDANCE: 150 Ohms
  • AMPLIFICATION: Highly Recommended
  • ISOLATION: Little to None
  • MY PREFERRED AMP: Manley Labs Neo Classic 300B / TTVJ Millett 307A
  • SOUNDS BEST WITH: Acoustic
  • CABLES USED: Stock
  • REVISIONS KNOWN: None known to me
  • FLAGSHIP STATUS: Not Applicable
  • PRODUCTION STATUS AS OF 2012: In Production
  • COST: $999.95

*Back To The Index

#30 GRADO LABS: PS1000
 

noimageGrado Labs introduced the PS1000 in 2009 alongside Beyerdynamic's T1 and Sennheiser's HD800. Of these three flagship headphones, the PS1000 received most varied reviews. This may be due to the fact that sonically, the PS1000 deviates furthest from the norm.

 

In the mid 2000's, Grado Labs released a highly distinctive pair of headphones known as the GS1000. In many ways, this headphone was a significant departure from Grado's established template. All the way up the Grado headphone chain from the SR-60 to the RS1, the models all seem to be aimed at the same sound target. Well, the GS1000 appears to be aiming at an entirely different dartboard. I admired Grado's desire to change things up quite a bit, but I was never the GS1000's biggest fan. To me, the GS1000 lacks mids and it is simply too bright for extended use.

 

Turn the clock a few years forward and enter the PS1000. The PS1000 incorporates much of the GS1000's design although the PS1000 ups the ante a bit. The most notable difference between the two models (at least to the eye) is that the PS1000 features a metal exterior versus the GS1000's wood. Underneath that metal however is a wooden housing, much like the GS1000's. The PS1000 also employs the GS1000's larger cushion earpads. While the PS1000's sound signature bares more than just a resemblance to the GS1000's, it is a clear improvement in my opinion. Still demonstrating a highly U-shaped frequency response curve, the mids of the PS1000 are brought forward in comparison to the GS1000. This makes for a better sound signature in my opinion, as for me, the GS1000's mids were too recessed.

 

The PS1000 has slowly become one of my go-to headphones for casual listening. I especially enjoy the way it sounds with acoustic jazz. Coincidentally, the PS1000 was one of the most difficult headphones to review. Before publishing this evaluation, I went back and reread every review, in order to ensure that I remained in agreement with what I had written. My current opinion of the PS1000 is ever so slightly more positive than what my initial review seemed to reflect. As a result, it is the only review that I ended up revising.

 

 

STRENGTHS

SOUNDSTAGE: The soundstage of the PS1000 is the best I've ever heard from Grado's line and one of the best I've heard all-round. It is pretty wide with a highly-focused center.

 

EXCITING TONE: My perception of ­ideal tone is not in total agreement with the PS1000's tonal balance. But I consider the PS1000's tonal balance to be among the most fun in the industry. In comparison to the more accurate HE-6, HD800 and SR-009, the PS1000 offers a more characterized depiction of the sound. While I find reason to criticize the PS1000's bass, mids and treble presentations, the overall tone is much greater than the sum of its parts. There is something awesomely compelling about the tone of the PS1000. I don't crave the sound all too often because I find quite a bit of fault with it, but there are times when I reach for the PS1000 over all other headphones, conceivably because it is so different sounding.

 

DETAILED: The PS1000 offers exceptional detail due to its openness and tilted treble. It is one of the few highly-detailed headphones I've heard that never falls into the analytical category. For people who seek a highly-colored sound, but also want detail, the PS1000 should be a definite contender.

 

DECAY: As with most Grado headphones that I've heard, the PS1000 offers a fairly natural-sounding decay, which adds to the dimensionality of the sound.

 

JAZZ MASTER: I love listening to jazz with the PS1000. Its tonality makes the music filled with emotion and expression that I don't find when using many other headphones. The sound comes alive as the cymbal is ridden against the thump of the upright bass.

 

EASY TO DRIVE: Grado headphones tend to be easy to drive. The PS1000 is no exception.

 

EARPADS: The large Grado earpads are without a doubt the most comfortable pads Grado has ever designed. Despite the fact that the PS1000 is, by far, the heaviest Grado's I have ever owned, it is the most comfortable because of the earpads. Of course, as with all Grado headphones, the earpads are extremely easy to remove and replace.

 

SERIALIZED: The PS1000 is one of Grado's many serialized headphones. I actually appreciate that the box itself displays the handwritten the serial number. There's something very simple and authentic about that.

 

 

WEAKNESSES

FAR FROM NEUTRAL: The U-Shaped frequency response curve (accentuated bass and treble) makes the PS1000 about as far from tonally neutral as any headphone listed.

 

SIBILANCE: Yes the tone of the PS1000 is exciting in many ways, but the tilted treble happens to accentuate the sibilance of this headphone. It is hard to take sometimes, particularly on brighter recordings.

 

MIDS: I just can't agree with those mids. Despite an enormous mid-bass hump, the upper-mids of the PS1000 are recessed, lacking bloom and presence. However, the mids here are not as recessed as the GS1000's mids.

 

STORAGE: I cannot understand why Grado can't offer something better than their standard, non-descript cardboard box for such an expensive headphone. For their next flagship, I implore Grado to consider designing more unique and protective packaging.

 

 

ON THE FENCE

BASS: Impact without deep extension is how I would describe the PS1000's bass in a nutshell. The bass has tremendous impact but rolls off before reaching the bottom. However, I enjoy the bass tone. It's one of the aspects which make the PS1000's sound as exciting as it is.

 

TREBLE: The treble presentation is on the bright side. Initially this really bothered me, especially since it is adjacent to a recessed midrange response. However, I actually enjoy its character quite a bit. I still find it problematic at times, but nevertheless, I find it intriguing.

 

IMAGING: The PS1000 offers an exceptional soundstage. However, its imaging capability is not quite as impressive.

 

TRANSPARENT?: The PS1000 is not a transparent headphone per se. Its frequency response is far enough from flat that I cannot commend it for being a transparent headphone. However, I don't find the sound to be particularly grainy.

 

CABLE: While I always prefer a user-detachable cable design, I find that Grado's stock cables tend to be durable. The PS1000 ships with an extension cable and mini-plug adaptor.

 

 

FOR THE PRICE

C

I think the PS1000 is an acquired taste. I can actually picture someone auditioning the PS1000 only to prefer it far more to several other headphones which I feel outperform it. But for me, the PS1000's extremely colored tonality makes me use the word "flagship" with caution. That is not to say that a flagship headphone can't possess a fun-sounding tonality, but I think it limits the headphone as to which music it can excel with. While I find that both the PS500 and RS1i are a better value than the PS1000, the PS1000 is my favorite of Grado's in-production headphone line.

 

 

QUICK CHECK
  • DESIGN: Full-Size
  • DRIVERS: Dynamic
  • IMPEDANCE: 32 Ohms
  • ISOLATION: Little to None
  • AMPLIFICATION: Preferred
  • MY PREFERRED AMP: SPL Phonitor / Manley Labs Neo Classic 300B
  • SOUNDS BEST WITH: Jazz
  • CABLES USED: Stock
  • REVISIONS KNOWN: Only cosmetic variations known to me
  • FLAGSHIP STATUS: Currently Is
  • PRODUCTION STATUS AS OF 2012: In Production
  • COST: $1695

*Back To The Index

#29 SHURE: SRH1840
 

noimageI remember the day when Shure announced that they were joining the full-size headphone market. The first three full-size models released were the SRH240, SRH440 and SRH840. A short time later, a new flagship model followed - the SRH940. These four headphones were all closed-back in design and ultimately best suited for professional application. I must admit, I wasn't smitten with any of these models.

 

In 2012, Shure released two new models - the SRH1440 and SRH1840. Unlike the Shure headphones mentioned above, these two are open-back in design. Both the SRH1440 and SRH1840 exhibit a neutral-ish tonality. For me however, the SRH1840 is clearly superior to the SRH1440, as should be the case granted the price difference. The SRH1840 has a smoother / more natural tone with finer bass extension. I have heard the entire line of Shure full-size headphones and the only one that I chose to purchase for my very own is the SRH1840.

 

I have read several reviews which attempt to compare the SRH1840 with Sennheiser's much more expensive HD800 (sometimes favorably). I must say, I cannot quite get on board with this comparison. Yes they both lean toward tonally neutral, but the HD800 is far more transparent, showcases a superior transient response, and (when paired with a synergetic amplifier) is far more engaging. The bass quality of the HD800 is more impressive as well. Conversely, if you are looking to save some money, the SRH1840 is less than half the price of the HD800 and is much easier to drive. I find that the SRH1840 is sonically much closer to Audio-Technica's ATH-AD900 than it is to the HD800.

 

 

STRENGTHS

NEUTRAL: Simply put, the SRH1840 is one of the most neutral-sounding headphones in this whole evaluation. If you are reading this evaluation from beginning to end, then let me say that the SRH1840 is the most neutral headphone reviewed thus far.

 

MIDS: "Almost flat as a board" is how I would describe the midrange presentation of the SRH1840. This makes it a wonderful headphone for editing and mastering.

 

CLASSICAL & JAZZ MASTER: The SRH1840 excels with classical music. It actually sounds fantastic with most well-recorded music, especially modern-day jazz recordings.

 

COMFORT: The SRH1840 is a headphone I can wear for hours without discomfort. The headphone itself is fairly light for its size and the clamping pressure of headband is just right. The velour earpads do not overheat my head even after extensive use.

 

CABLE: While the cable is easily detachable, it stays locked in the headphone without the worry of it becoming easily undone. The quality of the stock cable appears to be about average, but on the plus side, Shure generously includes a spare cable!

 

EARPADS: The comfy and easily removable earpads are reminiscent of Sennheiser's HD600 & HD650 earpads. What perhaps is most significant is that Shure supplies spare earpads!

 

STORAGE: Considering its similarly-priced competition, the SRH1840 generously packaged. In my opinion, the cardboard design is superior to any of Sennheiser's current offerings. Furthermore, the SRH1840 comes with a very nice hard-shell zippered carrying case.

 

 

WEAKNESSES

LACKS TRANSPARENCY: In my opinion, the SRH1840 lacks quite a bit of transparency. Unfortunately, its sound is not free of grain in the treble.

 

BASS SHY: The SRH1840's bass presentation lacks both impact and extension. I feel that a bit more extension and impact would make the SRH1840's sound even more compelling. No matter which amplifier I use, I come away with this same impression regarding the bass.

 

LACKS DETAIL: For all its neutrality and treble extension, I can't help but feel the SRH1840 lacks a bit of clarity and detail.

 

SOUNDSTAGE: The SRH1840 has a fairly narrow and somewhat laid-back soundstage. Based on its size, I honestly anticipated that it would have a larger soundstage.

 

 

ON THE FENCE

TREBLE: The extension here is very good. Unlike Shure's in-ear models which all seem to suffer from rolled-off high frequencies, the treble here is not rolled-off in any way. However, the treble is not absolutely free of grain.

 

IMAGING: The SRH1840 has decent imaging ability. While the drivers are not angled, I am still able to detect the placement of instruments with more vividness than is average.

 

AMPING: The SRH1840 is not so picky with regards to amplification - it sounds good with all the amps I've paired it. However, with a warm tube amp, the treble sounds quite a bit rounder and the bass is lifted a bit. I recommend tubes for this one.

 

 

FOR THE PRICE

B

The SRH1840 is a fine headphone for its price. In a way, I view its sound signature as a colder variation of the Sennheiser HD600. It may be better suited for professional work than the HD600 due to its more revealing treble presentation. Without consideration of the price difference, I prefer the HD600 over the SRH1840 for every genre except classical music. If Shure prices their next flagship similarly to the Beyerdynamic T1 and the Sennheiser HD800, I feel that they will need to refine the sound a bit for it to be competitive.

 

 

QUICK CHECK
  • DESIGN: Full-Size
  • DRIVERS: Dynamic
  • IMPEDANCE: 65 Ohms
  • ISOLATION: Little to None
  • AMPLIFICATION: Recommended
  • MY PREFERRED AMP: Woo Audio 5 / Manley Neo Classic 300B
  • SOUNDS BEST WITH: Well-Recorded Music / Jazz / Classical
  • CABLES USED: Stock
  • REVISIONS KNOWN: None known to me
  • FLAGSHIP STATUS: Currently Is
  • PRODUCTION STATUS AS OF 2012: In Production
  • COST: $699.99

*Back To The Index

#28 BEYERDYNAMIC: DT 880 (600 Ohm)
 

noimagePrior to the introduction of Beyerdynamic's innovative Tesla Driver design, the DT 990 was Beyerdynamic's self-declared flagship headphone. However, within the headphone community itself, the DT 880 received even more acclaim than the DT 990 because of its more neutral sound signature. Initially, the DT 880 was only offered by the manufacturer with an impedance rating of 250 ohmsToday however, it is offered in three different impedance configurations (32 ohms; 250 ohms; 600 ohms). The 32 ohms model is designed with portable (amp-less) use in mind, while 250 ohms and 600 ohms models are designed to be paired with an amplifier. In particular, the 600 ohms version really needs an amp in order to be brought up to an optimal volume level. When properly powered, the 600 ohms version is the best sounding of the three.

 

The DT 880 is one of only five headphones on my list that I have awarded an A+ value rating (the other four being the Audio-Technica ATH-AD900, the Sennheiser HD600, and HifiMan HE-500 & HE-400). Some have described the DT 880's sound as being a notch brighter than neutral. Perhaps this is the case, but at the same time, the DT 880 offers a wide-open sound which I find extremely compelling. Since the headphone is offered with three different impedance ratings, it is easily among the most recommendable headphones that I know of.

 

 

STRENGTHS

NEUTRAL: The DT 880 is a very neutral sounding headphone with a bit of extra sparkle in the treble. In my opinion, the tonal balance of the DT 880 is actually flatter than that of Beyerdynamic's current flagship, the T1.

 

MIDS: The DT 880 has a very pure sounding midrange. To my ears, it is neither forward nor recessed. The mid presentation here is able to complement just about any genre.

 

BASS: The DT880's bass is wonderfully extended. It is able to dig down deep into the lowest notes of a pipe organ.Several headphones which sound bassier than the DT 880 have what is called a mid-bass hump (an emphasis in the upper bass and lower-mids), but sometimes lack deep extension. The DT 880 is quite capable of deep robust bass because of its extension.

 

GENRE MASTER: The DT 880 is not a bass-head can, but when paired with a warm amp, they certainly can deliver big bass. Conversely, when paired with a bright amp, the DT 880's treble can sound accentuated. Over time, I've come to see the DT 880 as a fine all-rounder. I feel as though it complements every genre of music that I know of.

 

SOUNDSTAGE: The DT 880 offers a fairly wide sound view. It is not as impressive as the T1 in this regard however. Unlike the T1, the drivers of the DT 880 are not angled. The DT 880's soundstage is spacious without being as well defined as the T1's or the HD800's.

 

COMFORT: The DT 880 is a wonderfully light full-size headphone. It feels especially light on the head - lighter than the T1 by a significant margin. The round velour earpads never seem to overheat my head. They are one of the most comfortable headphones that I've ever worn; top ten in this regard.

 

CHOOSE YOUR IMPEDANCE: I appreciate that Beyerdynamic offers this headphone with three different impedance ratings. They offer these three impedance ratings with the DT 990 as well (and did so with the DT 770 until they discontinued the model in 2012). I have owned the 250 Ohms version in the past, but in this review, I evaluated the 600 ohms version specifically.

 

SOME ISOLATION: The DT 880 features a semi-open design which blocks out a bit of outside ambient noise, but not as much as a closed-back design is typically able.

 

EARPADS The DT 880's stock earpads are made of extremely comfortable velour material. Furthermore, they are very easy to remove and replace. Beyerdynamic offers replacement earpads in the form of the original stock velour as well as leather. I prefer the feel of the velour and I also favor the sound of the headphone when using the velour earpads.

 

 

WEAKNESSES

LACKS TRANSPARENCY: For all its neutrality, the DT 880's ability to serve as an ultra-transparent window to the music is surely surpassed by many other offerings. It does not offer an entirely grain-free sound and it does not possess quite the speed of many flagship headphones which are capable of providing extreme detail retrieval.

 

LACKS DETAIL: The DT 880 has extra sparkle in the treble which brings out much of the upper harmonics. I appreciate this. However, when compared against other headphones which offer a superior transient response and quicker decay, it becomes apparent that even the extra treble sparkle does not compensate for the slight lack of detail.

 

IMAGING: While the DT 880 offers a wide soundstage, its ability to image is lacking in some ways. In this case, the soundstage is wider than it is ultra-defined. The overall presentation of the DT 880 lacks some of the precision which higher-end headphones have.

 

CABLE: The DT 880 has the distinction of being the highest ranking headphone on my list with a one-sided cable design. I don't particularly like this cable design as I feel there is a high likelihood of sonic degradation in this configuration. On the other hand, many may find a single-sided cable design to be more comfortable than a Y-split cable design.

 

 

ON THE FENCE

TREBLE: I happen to like the treble presentation of the DT 880. It is just a hair forward. It doesn't resemble the rather subdued treble presentations of the HD600 or the HD650 (two headphones with which it is often contrasted). Consequently, it is less veiled sounding than either of those two headphones. Many users will love the DT 880's treble, although others will prefer the more rolled-off treble presentation of the HD6xx for the simple fact that it is less fatiguing. I prefer the treble presentation of the DT 880 over the HD600's and HD650's. However, I find the overall sound of the DT 880 to be less engaging.

 

 

FOR THE PRICE

A+

It is probable that the DT 880 was never intended to be considered a flagship by its manufacturer. But that is precisely the reputation it took on for several years until the T1 was introduced in 2009. The DT 880 is a phenomenal choice for editing and mixing, yet no less wonderful for just plain ol' listening. The HD600, ATH-AD900 and HE-500 are the only other headphones to which I have awarded an A+ price-to-performance rating.

 

 

QUICK CHECK
  • DESIGN: Full-Size
  • DRIVERS: Dynamic
  • IMPEDANCE: 600 Ohms
  • ISOLATION: Some
  • AMPLIFICATION: Highly Recommended
  • MY PREFERRED AMP: Manley Labs Neo Classic 300B / TTVJ Millett 307A
  • SOUNDS BEST WITH: Everything & Anything
  • CABLES USED: Stock
  • REVISIONS KNOWN: Several
  • FLAGSHIP STATUS: Not Applicable
  • PRODUCTION STATUS AS OF 2012: In Production
  • COST: $349

 

 
#27 AUDIO-TECHNICA: ATH-W3000ANV
 

Tnoimagehe first Audio-Technica headphone that I ever heard was the ATH-W5000. I'm sure you can imagine after reading my review of that headphone that my enthusiasm for exploring the Audio-Technica line further was diminished. It wasn't until I came to work for Headphones.com that I had the opportunity to hear several Audio-Technica models that I found favorable.

 

In 2012, Audio Technica celebrated their 50th Anniversary by releasing a variety of limited-edition products, one of which was the ATH-W3000ANV. Like the ATH-W5000, the ATH-W3000ANV features wooden ear-cups, leather earpads, and the signature Audio-Technica self-adjusting headband. Other than this, the two headphones are practically nothing alike. Whereas I found the tone of the ATH-W5000 to be insufferably nasal, the ATH-W3000ANV is one of the most euphonic headphones that I have had the pleasure hearing. It is a joy to listen to ATH-W3000ANV even should it not offer a neutral sound. The ATH-W3000ANV happens to be my second favorite closed-back headphone currently in production, just behind the Fostex TH900.

 

 

STRENGTHS

EUPHONIC: The ATH-W3000ANV offers a uniquely euphonic sound. There's no other headphone that I've heard which sounds similar to it. The sound possesses a soulfulness that is very difficult to convey with words. Music feels rather personal when listening to the ATH-W3000ANV. The sound here is colored in a way that is very agreeable to my ears.

 

MIDS: The mids here are where the magic happens. The mids are smooth, rounded, and put a smile on my face every time. They are not entirely free of a slight nasal quality, but it's quite a difference from the ATH-W5000's Pinocchio-size nasal sound.

 

BASS: The bass of the ATH-W3000ANV is of a very distinct quality. It doesn't quite extend down to ground, but its impact is robust and well-suited for a number of music genres.

 

TREBLE: I find that the treble here has naturalness about it, even though it isn't quite perfect. The treble is nicely extended without demonstrating any strange peaks. It is just slightly rolled off here, but shows no signs of being veiled.

 

JAZZ MASTER: I find that the mids of the ATH-W3000ANV enhances the sound of horns. The treble allows for cymbals to ring without the sense of harshness or unpleasantness. The bass presentation is capable of providing tremendous weight to drums and bass guitar without the feeling of intrusive sub-bass. Ultimately, I found that the W3000ANV's concoction of sound proved to be fantastic for listening to jazz music.

 

ATTRACTIVE: The ATH-W3000ANV is an attractive headphone. It features wooden ear-cups made from Japanese Asada cherry trees. To my eye, it is slightly less appealing than the ATH-W5000 which, in my opinion, has a more exceptional wood finish. However, there is no doubt that both headphones are candy for the eyes.

 

ISOLATION: The ATH-W3000ANV is one of a rather small handful of full-size closed-back headphones on my list. Because of its closed-back design, it offers some attenuation of outside ambient noise.

 

SERIALIZED: As any flagship should be, the ATH-W3000ANV is individually serialized. Only 2000 units of the ATH-W3000ANV will be made.

 

 

WEAKNESSES

NOT NEUTRAL: If you are seeking out a neutral sounding headphone, look elsewhere since the ATH-W3000ANV is one of the more colored sounding options in this review.

 

LACKS TRANSPARENCY: If a headphone possesses a colored tonality, this does not automatically imply to me that the headphone lacks transparency. In this case however, I find that the ATH-W3000ANV is not as transparent as I would like. It dances around the fence of transparency, but there is just some colorations that are too extreme for me to be convinced that this headphone offers top-level transparency.

 

NARROW SOUNDSTAGE: The soundstage of the ATH-W3000ANV is rather narrow, demonstrating a hard separation between the left and right channels. Furthermore, it lacks a sense of openness that I associate with great soundstaging properties.

 

IMAGING: In some ways, the ATH-W3000ANV has a cluttered aura about its sound. It's ability to image with accuracy is not nearly as impressive as several other headphones.

 

HEADBAND CONSTRUCTION: I'm not a fan of Audio-Technica's self-adjusting headband design. I think it is flimsy and easily breakable. While many of their full-size flagships incorporate this headband type, I surely wish it was a design the manufacturer would abandon.

 

 

ON THE FENCE

DETAILED: The ATH-W3000ANV is not as detailed sounding as many other offerings. At the same time, it is certainly not unimpressive with regard to its rendering of detail. While the ATH-W3000ANV is ultimately not an ultra-revealing headphone, it is in no way muffled.

 

POWERING: The ATH-W3000ANV is nowhere near the most difficult headphone to drive. However, I do find that it excels when paired with some amplifiers, yet sounds especially dull when paired with others.

 

STORAGE: The packaging of the ATH-W3000ANV is better than average, but strangely it is somewhat appealing (in my opinion) to the less expensive ATH-W5000's packaging. The ATH-W3000ANV ships in a fancy cardboard package, while the ATH-W5000 ships with a miniature headphone suitcase.

 

COMFORT: While the W3000ANV and the W5000 incorporate essentially the same headband design, the W5000 actually feels more comfortable to me. This may be a simple matter of physical break-in. The auto-adjust headband design, which Audio-Technica uses on many of their full-size models, somehow feels awkward on my head. I wouldn't call it uncomfortable as much as I would call it unusual. The leather earpads can sometimes be a bit conducive to heating up the head. All in all, the ATH-W3000ANV is a fairly comfortable headphone.

 

CABLE: The ATH-W3000ANV's stock cable has a really fancy-looking plug. The cable itself appears to be above average in quality. However, I personally prefer when the stock cable is user-detachable, both for durability and modifiability purposes.

 

 

FOR THE PRICE

B-

The ATH-W3000ANV is an expensive headphone which is out-performed in many ways by competitively-priced models. However, it offers a wonderfully unique sound signature that may complement someone's headphone collection very well. Only 2000 units of the ATH-ANV3000 are available, which means that its value may in fact rise in the coming years.

 

 

QUICK CHECK

  • DESIGN: Full-Size
  • DRIVERS: Dynamic
  • IMPEDANCE: 40 Ohms
  • ISOLATION: Some
  • AMPLIFICATION: Recommended
  • MY PREFERRED AMP: Woo Audio 5 / SPL Phonitor
  • SOUNDS BEST WITH: Jazz / Blues / Acoustic
  • CABLES USED: Stock
  • REVISIONS KNOWN: None known to me
  • FLAGSHIP STATUS: Currently Is
  • PRODUCTION STATUS AS OF 2012: In Production
  • COST: $1549.99

 

 
#26 HIFIMAN: HE-400
 

Fnoimageor readers who have been following this review since its “original edition,” I will mention here that the HifiMan HE-400 was the first headphone to be added to my initial post. No, the HE-400 is not a flagship headphone and was not intended as such. However, I received a large amount of requests to have this headphone added to the evaluation.

 

Currently, the HE-400 is at a similar price point as the Sennheiser’s HD600 (a long-time favorite of the audio community). While I would not say the HE-400 sounds anything like the HD600, I would say that its performance-level manages to be on the same plane. For this reason, the HE-400 is a welcome edition to my collection.

 

Whereas the HD600 succeeds in being slightly lush, romantic, and a hint slow without veering too far from the line of neutral or transparent, the HE-400 is noticeably more colored, but with a wonderfully-layered and detailed sound that, with time, may find as many champions.

 

It is important to mention here that since its debut (not even a year ago) the HE-400 has undergone at least one significant sonic revision (and as many as five from some sources). According to the manufacturer, the version which I own (acquired in November of 2012) is the stable version.

 

It is also worth mentioning that HifiMan ships the HE-400 with faux-leather earpads pre-installed. Whereas the HE-500 and HE-6 ship with both the faux-leather earpads and velour earpads (my preference for both models), the HE-400 unfortunately does not. However, one can acquire the velour earpads directly from the manufacturer or through one of their authorized dealers. Switching the earpads is not a very difficult process, but it does require that the user be meticulous, as the flaps which connect the earpads to the ear-cup are rather delicate.

 

 

 

STRENGTHS

BASS: Very few headphones possess as deeply textured, well-extended, and impactful bass as the HE-400. I must stress that the bass in particular is drastically improved when switching from the stock faux-leather earpads to the HifiMan velour earpads (which one must purchase separately). When listening for the fullness of sub-bass and bass frequencies, the HE-400 performs with flying colors.

 

DETAIL: The HE-400 offers a fast yet natural-sounding attack and a smooth decay, which brings forth a great amount of detail. In my experience, most headphones which produce as weighty-a-sound as the HE-400 do not simultaneously manage to be as resolving. The HE-400 is very impressive for being able to accomplish both feats.

 

JAZZ & ELECTRONIC MASTER: In response to its deep, impactful bass, I initially wanted to suggest that the HE-400 was a top choice for rock music, but after several hours of listening, I began to feel that its sound-signature was better-suited for jazz music. The reason is that there is a dip in the upper mids which slightly reduces the presence of vocals and accentuates the forwardness of metallic instruments. For me, this sound presentation is not problematic, but rather a fantastic seasoning for jazz music (particularly well-recorded jazz music) and electronic music. If you're a jazz-head, break out your ECM recordings. :) If you're a fan of electronic, consider that the HE-400 exhibits the necessary bottom end for a visceral experience, and the often-lacking quickness for ultimate detail retrieval. 

 

UNIQUE TONALITY: The HE-400's tonality is not "fun" in the sense that it is totally un-neutral - It is fun because it has a very specific upper-mid dip that allows the listener to home-in on specific instruments. The HE-400's tonal balance is not the definition of neutral, but it is also not the complete antithesis either. It manages to find a unique equilibrium between "colored" and "neutral." 

 

TRANSPARENCY: Despite certain obvious colorations in the mids, I find that the HE-400 fares pretty well with regard to transparency. It is not quite on equal footing with HifiMan's own HE-6 or even the HE-500, but it isn't too far off the mark regardless. I am certain that the exceptional transient response and decay properties offered here help offset the slightly awkward midrange presentation; this ultimately finds the headphone to still be fairly transparent without being entirely neutral.

 

EASY TO DRIVE: The HE-400 sounds significantly improved when paired with a headphone amp, but it still sounds impressive when plugged directly into a computer headphone output and even an iPhone. It definitely trumps most of its similarly-priced competition in this regard.

 

IMAGING: I'm tempted to suggest that at its pricepoint, the HE-400 is the best at imaging of all the headphones I've heard. It's not quite as good in this regard as the HE-500. However, with regard to imaging (and perhaps soundstage as well) it is a definitive step above Sennheiser's HD600 and HD650.

 

TREBLE: When contrasted with the upper-mids, the treble sounds a bit forward. However, it is neither harsh nor abrasive. The treble may benefit from being a tad more extended, but either way, the treble sounds rather natural to my ears.

 

DETACHABLE PARTS: As with all the HifiMan headphones I've come across thus far, both the cable and the earpads are removable. I'm not particularly fond of how the cable disconnects/installs from the ear-cups, but nevertheless, having this detachable capability preserves the headphone long-term. The HE-400 stock cable seems sturdily built. The earpads also detach/attach in a slightly haphazard manner, but again, detachable parts are my preference.

 

 

WEAKNESSES

DESIGN: During the course of writing this review, I found that my third-party HifiMan cable shorted, presumably because of the fact that in order to lock the cable into place, one needs to screw it in; if you do this a lot you may also run into a short in your cable. In my case I was flipping between the HE-400, HE-500 and HE-6 for review purposes. Even before this happened, I detested the screw-in HifiMan cable design because it frequently unscrews. As previously mentioned, the HE-400 ships with faux-leather earpads. The faux-leather earpads do not allow the headphone to sound as good (to my ears), as the HifiMan velour earpads. One can acquire the velour earpads and carefully swap them with the faux-leather pads. Unfortunately, the velour earpads attract dust, lint and hair unlike any other earpad I've seen.   

 

STORAGE: In its current revision, the HE-400 ships in a very basic cardboard box. The box itself is rather fragile and unimpressive.

 

REVISIONS?: At the time which I write this review, the HE-400 is not even a year old and it has already undergone at least one significant sonic revision (some sources say four or five). According to many, the first incarnation of the HE-400 was darker and duller sounding. If in fact there have been as many as four revisions in such a short time span, it may be difficult to know what you're getting should you buy a used HE-400.

 

 

ON THE FENCE

SOUNDSTAGE: The HE-400's soundstage is more impressive than most of its similarly-priced competitors. While it is not the widest, it exhibits significant depth and height. It is a fairly natural sound presentation.

 

MIDS: The mids here are interesting. The lower-mids are significantly forward while the upper-mids are significantly recessed. However, this is not as problematic as it sounds. The mids are recessed in the region where many odd nasal characteristics typically emanate. Here there is none of that. Of course, the recessed upper midrange will find detractors. It prevents this headphone from being "neutral." But I must counter this by suggesting that this coloration is not offensive to my ears, and I think many people may ultimately be won over by the headphone's ability to render detail without sounding shouty or nasal.

 

COMFORT: The HE-400 is not one of the most supremely comfortable headphones I've ever worn; the headband's grip is slightly tighter than optimal, but I don't find them to be uncomfortable by any means.

 

 

FOR THE PRICE

A+

The HE-400 has a rather unique sound-signature that many will find appealing. The HE-400 is simultaneously a fun-sounding headphone and an articulate-sounding headphone. It assumes a fun character because of its thickly layered bass response and recessed upper-mids; it exhibits an articulate sound-signature because it is fast and detailed, much like the other HifiMan headphones in this evaluation. The HE-400 is one of only five headphones in my evaluation for which I have awarded an A+ value rating. The other four include HifiMan's own HE-500, Sennheiser's HD600, Beyerdynamic's DT880, Audio-Technica's ATH-AD900

 

 

QUICK CHECK

  • DESIGN: Full-Size
  • DRIVERS: Planar Magnetic
  • IMPEDANCE: 35 Ohms
  • ISOLATION: Little to None
  • AMPLIFICATION: Recommended
  • MY PREFERRED AMP: Woo Audio 5 / TTVJ Millett 307A
  • SOUNDS BEST WITH: Jazz / Electronic
  • CABLES USED: Stock / A Pure Sound V3 balanced
  • REVISIONS KNOWN: At least one known to me
  • FLAGSHIP STATUS: Never was
  • PRODUCTION STATUS AS OF 2012: In Production
  • COST: $399.00

 

 
#25 ULTIMATE EARS: UERM
 

noimageSince publishing the initial review here on Head-Fi back at the end of October 2012, I frequently get messaged regarding Ultimate Ears UE10 Pro. It is an important in-ear with regard to my personal history as a headphone enthusiast. It is also the headphone/earphone which spurred my curiosity enough to prompt me to join this community officially back in 2007. However, unlike every other headphone in this evaluation, it is nearly impossible to acquire for oneself; one because Ultimate Ears no longer makes the UE10 and hasn't for some years now, and two it is a custom-molded design. The concept of including the UE10 in this review, initially seemed as though it served a purpose back when I began writing it over two years ago. At that time, the UE10 was only recently discontinued, but today it seems to be almost a tease to include it.

 

Therefore, I took it upon myself to find its most obvious replacement, Ultimate Ears' Custom In-Ear Reference (known as the UERM), which like the UE10 before it, also employs a triple driver design. However, whereas the UE10 employed a 2-way passive crossover design, the UERM employs a 3-way passive crossover design. I hope that this specific review will answer some questions for those who have always wondered (as I always have) what the differences are with regard to the UE10 and UERM. I would like to comment on the fact that I have removed the UE10 Pro from this evaluation and have moved the UERM up two spots from where the UE10 was. While the UERM is not better in every regard, I have found it to offer an even-more satisfying listening experience overall than that of the UE10.

 

Every UERM ships with a clear shell/black faceplate design (unless one specifies otherwise). On one faceplate you find the UE logo in white, while on the other faceplate you find Capitol Records' long distinguished logo. According to Mike Dias of Ultimate Ears, the UERM was collaborative effort between Ultimate Ears and Capitol Studios. The engineers at Capitol Stuidos and the technicians at Ultimate Ears worked side by side to bring the UERM to fruition. As a result, the UERM can be seen as a tool developed by and for sound engineers. For me, the UERM is most useful in professional application. I have found that I use it even more for this purpose than I do for pure listening enjoyment.

 

I should also mention here that the Ultimate Ears Custom In-Ear Reference should not be confused with another model which Ultimate Ears offers, the Personal In-Ear Reference. The latter model is far more expensive and is the first (to my knowledge) in-ear monitor to be designed for total sonic customization - a very cool feature, especially if you suffer from a hearing imbalance or if you prefer having total control over your desired sound signature.

 

STRENGTHS

IMAGING: One of the things which floored me most about the UERM was its refined precision with regard to imaging. In this way, the UERM surpasses every other IEM I've ever come across. More specifically, listening to binaural recordings, I felt it surpassed any expectation I ever had regarding IEM imaging. The UE10 Pro also excelled with imaging, but this was a whole new ballgame.

 

TRANSPARENT: The UERM is among the most transparent sounding IEMs I've ever heard, eclipsed maybe by the JH13, but not by much. I should add here that when listening to orchestral music specifically, the UERM sounded even more transparent to me than the JH13.

 

NEUTRALITY KING (IEM): Jude Mansilla(founder of head-fi.org) has referred to the UERM as a pallet cleanser. In other words, he finds the UERM to be so neutral, that he is able to cleanse his auditory pallet when using them. I can honestly say that I agree wholeheartedly with Jude here. The UERM is extremely uncolored, perhaps even more than the HD800 which I find to be among the most neutral headphones I've heard. By comparison, the UE10 Pro presented a weightier sound (one which I like better in some rare cases) but not as free of colorations.

 

GREAT ENGINEER TOOL: Having a background in sound engineering, I know what industry professionals look for (or should look for) when mixing and mastering sound. Let me say here that if you are an industry professional looking for an in-ear to monitor live mixes / and have an in-ear reference in the studio, then there is nothing else in the market that I've heard as of yet which comes across as unflavored as the UERM. As a matter of fact, the UERM sounds as though it were designed for professional application. And of course, this is precisely the case. For listening purposes only, I feel the UERM has some serious competition in the in-ear market. However, from the perspective of being behind the console, I have no higher recommendation. The UE10 would have likely been my highest recommendation for this purpose prior to hearing the UERM. However, the UE10 was more forgiving and ultimately falls short when compared against the UERM.

 

CLASSICAL MASTER: I'm hesitant to call the UERM a jack-of-all-trades. While it's certainly a transparent sounding earphone, I do find that that its sound signature lacks a bit of weight for most popular music. However, with classical music, it excels more than any IEM I've heard. If you are a classical enthusiast, I believe the UERM would quickly become a daily companion. When I compare the UE10 against the UERM, I feel like the UE10 actually is better at rock and pop because it is a touch warmer. However, I personally find that the UERM excels with classical music more than the UE10 excelled with any one specific genre. For me, it was certainly worth the tradeoff. However, some may find that the UE10 leaned more to their preference.

 

MIDS: Without having the equipment to measure each and every headphone reviewed here, I am reasonably certain that the UERM's midrange is the flattest listed. This adds significantly to its value for professional use. However, some may find it to be a slightly sterile/boring midrange. I lean a little bit both ways, but I applaud Ultimate Ears for accomplishing such a task.

 

SUPER PORTABLE: Nothing even comes close to IEMs in terms of portability. You can fit the UERM inside a small shirt pocket. Try doing that with an HD800.

 

DETAILED: Between the JH13, UE10 and UERM, the latter is, for me,the most analytical. As such, the UERM often comes across as the most detailed. However, the JH13 and UE10 still manage to wow me with the amount of detail they boast.
 

TREBLE: Out of the iPod alone, the UERM sounds a bit harsh - moreso than the ES5, JH16, JH13 and UE10. One of the reasons for this is that the treble response here is relatively flat, and the iPod/iPhone is a bit colored in the treble region. However, when I use the UERM in my home setup, the treble is smooth and wonderfully extended.

 

EASY TO DRIVE: Due to their high sensitivity, most IEMs tend to be easy to drive. However, I notice that the UERM scales better in a dedicated headphone setup with a higher quality DAC. With regard to amplification, my prefered choice is the TTVJ Millett 307A.
 

DESIGN: Despite the fact that JH Audio and Ultimate Ears both utilize a hard acrylic shell, I found that the UERM's fit was more intuitive and ergonomic. While this is really a matter of personal preference, I preferred that the Ultimate Ears canal tip was longer on both sides, and that the faceplate offered slightly more to grab onto when removing the earpiece. I also found that the UERM offers marginally better isolation than the JH Audio IEMs. The UERM's cable is a detachable, braided design which is quite tangle resistant. It is also worth mentioning that of the lot of IEMs in my possession, I am the most impressed with the UERM's packaging and travel case. It is designed so that the IEMs do not move while in transport, using a flexible rubber-like material inside the case. The hard case closes with a slide-&-lock mechanism, which is quite a bit sleeker than cases I am used to. Lastly, one of the most unique aspects of Ultimate Ears' packaging is a tracker ID which Ultimate Ears imprints inside the case so that if the earphones are misplaced and someone finds them, they can be returned to Ultimate Ears for a cash reward.

 

SERIALIZED: As any custom-molded product should be, the UERM is serialized. Like most of the other custom-molded IEMs that I own, the UERM showcases the owner's initials next to the serial number.

 

 

WEAKNESSES

IEM'S INHERENT SHORTCOMINGS: In my opinion, full-size headphones possess the ability to sound more natural than in-ear headphones.  The reason I feel this way is that much like natural acoustic sound, sound waves that emanate from a full-size headphone travel through the entirety of the ear, rather than just the canal. To me, this sense of space makes for a more natural auditory experience. Not everyone agrees with me on this matter, but I stand by my assertion.

IEM SOUNDSTAGE: To my ears, the soundstage presentation that IEMs portray is lacking in realism. As I've stated prior, a lot of people happen to like it, but for me, it is not competitive with a full-size headphone's soundstaging ability.

BORING?: With its extremely flat frequency response, the UERM may actually underwhelm listeners looking for a bit more personality and/or weight. I could certainly understand someone finding the UERM to be a marvel of sound science rather than a marvel of sound quality. For me, it is precisely this attribute which makes it the perfect tool for audio engineers - the fact that it has almost no personality whatsover.

RESELL VALUE: When I first joined Head-Fi, I remember someone putting up a thread in the “For Sale” section in which they announced the sale of their custom-molded earphones. This thread turned out to be a joke. Reselling a custom-molded product was almost unheard of at the time. Today however, there are many companies which offer a refitting process that makes reselling custom-molded earphones an option. Still, be prepared to take a major hit, should you resell them.

 

 

ON THE FENCE

BASS: The bass extension here is excellent. However, if you desire a sense of weight and impact in your sound, the UERM will probably fall short for you. It is quite reserved with regard to bass. For most listening, I actually prefered the UE10's bass presentation. It is really the only area which I find in favor of the UE10. However, having the bass tuned the way it is makes it a very solid choice for professional application.

 

COMFORT: To be honest, I have never found custom-molded IEMs to be as comfortable as universal fit IEMs with foam tips. But after many years of getting used to it, I've adapted to the feeling of custom-molded shells. I find that the hard acrylic is less comfortable than the soft material used in Westone's and Sensaphonic's designs. Nevertheless, wearing the hard acrylic pieces inside my ears has become more livable with time.

 

REFITS?: Unlike with JH Audio and my UE10, I did not need to get the UERM refitted. However, in the case of acrylic-shell custom-fitted IEMs, some users may find the need to be refitted. This could be perhaps because the hard acrylic shell lacks flexibility.

 

 

FOR THE PRICE

B+

When judging an IEM's price-to-performance ratio, I only compare its sound to that of other IEMs. In my opinion, the UERM is the top choice in this evaluation if you are an audio engineer looking for something to bring from gig to gig. Its tonality is noticeably uncolored, and its ability to image with precision is top-of-the-class. However, when it comes to sheer music listening, some may find its sound signature to be a bit reserved or too polite. I think the word "reference" is very fitting for the UERM, because I view it as such.

 

If I was in the market for a custom IEM for rocking out, I would opt for the ES5 or JH16. If I wanted a custom IEM that was a "genre master" (jack of all trades), I would probably opt for the JH13. However, if I spent the majority of my time listening to classical music, I would opt for the UERM. Furthermore,if I were looking to complement any of the other custom in-ears with a second pair, I would want that pair to be the UERM because they are the least affected/most neutral.

 

QUICK CHECK
  • DESIGN: In-Ear
  • DRIVERS: Balanced Armature
  • IMPEDANCE: 21 Ohms
  • ISOLATION: Extreme
  • AMPLIFICATION: Not Necessary but Worth Considering
  • MY PREFERRED AMP: TTVJ Millett 307A
  • SOUNDS BEST WITH: Classical & Professional monitoring
  • CABLES USED: Stock
  • REVISIONS KNOWN: None known to me
  • FLAGSHIP STATUS: Once was
  • PRODUCTION STATUS AS OF 2012: In Production
  • COST: $999 + Audiologist

*Back To The Index

#24 FOSTEX: TH900
 

noimageFostex has long been an OEM (original equipment manufacturer) for other manufacturers. The list of manufacturers for which they have designed headphones is rather extensive and includes Denon, Creative Labs, and most notably Apple (the earbuds that ship with the iPhone and iPod are made by Fostex). As its own brand, Fostex had rarely (if ever) released a headphone exceeding the $150 price-point. Therefore, I was a bit surprised to learn of TH900 and its tremendous asking price of $2000.

 

Even just on paper, the TH900 is quite an impressive product. The ear-cups of the TH900 exhibit a unique looking Japanese lacquered “Urushi” finish. The earpads exhibit protein leather made from eggshell membranes. The Neodymium magnet possess a magnetic flux density that measures 1.5 tesla (which exceeds the T1's by 25%). The driver incorporates Fostex's bio-cellulose “Biodyna” diaphragm. And finally, the TH900 ships with its own proprietary headphone stand made of metal wire material. I have no reservation in proclaiming that the TH900 is one of the best closed-back headphones ever made. Today, it ranks alongside the ATH-W3000ANV as the finest closed-back headphone in production. I prefer the TH900's tonality for most listening, but I find the W3000's tonality to be more unique with a greater sense of euphony.

 

I would say that the sound quality of the TH900 is similar to Denon's AH-D7000 (a headphone designed by Fostex). However, the TH900's sonic presentation is slightly improved, both in terms of tonality and transparency. The D7000 sold for $1000 less than the TH900 sells for. In my view, the D7000 was a far better value.

 

 

STRENGTHS

TONAL BALANCE: The TH900's tonal balance leans toward the warmer side of neutral, but its treble extension is superb. The sound signature here is quite full, but the decay of notes is fast enough that there is minimal muddiness.

 

EUPHONIC: The TH900 offers a very pleasant colored sound which I can only describe as euphonic. The sound here is not void of colorations, but it is not nearly as colored as the ATH-W3000ANV's sound. I prefer the ATH-W3000ANV's unique euphonic flavor in some ways.

 

BASS: In my experience, Fostex's drivers typically produce deep, impactful bass. The TH900 exhibits the most well-defined bass I have ever heard from a Fostex headphone (OEM or otherwise).

 

IMAGING: The TH900 is able to image very well. After the MDR-R10, it is the best closed-back headphone that I have used with regard to precise instrument placement.

 

GENRE MASTER: While this headphone's frequency response is a bit on the warmer side, it actually succeeds at being graceful with every genre I've tried it with; this includes, but is not limited to rock, jazz, classical, hip hop, r&b, pop, electronic, and metal.

 

DECAY: The decay here is similar to that of the R10. Perhaps this is due to the fact that both models utilize bio-cellulose material in their transducer construction.

 

COMFORT: The TH900's ear-cups were designed to provide ample room for the ear to sit inside. I happen to adore the texture of the leather used throughout the TH900. The actual headband design is extremely similar to the AH-D7000. However, the actual feel of the TH900 is markedly more impressive than that of the D7000.

 

ISOLATION: The most obvious benefit of closed-back headphones is that the design provides isolation for the listener and the listener's surrounding neighbors. The TH900 offers an average amount of ambient noise isolation for a closed-back headphone.

 

STAND: The TH900 is one of four headphones in this evaluation that ships with its own headphone stand; the other three being the Ultrasone Edition 10, and two Sony models - the Qualia 010 and MDR-SA5000. The TH900's headphone stand looks as if it was molded from a very expensive hanger. It's my least favorite of the four headphone stands, but it's still a thoughtful inclusion nonetheless.

 

EASY TO DRIVE: The TH900 is one of the easiest full-size headphones to drive. It even sounds very good directly out of an iPod.

 

SERIALIZED: Each TH900 is individually serialized. I am not certain as to how many will be made.

 

 

WEAKNESSES

NOT NEUTRAL: The TH900's sound signature shows hints of neutrality, but all in all, it is not neutral. I wouldn't use the TH900 for professional monitoring.

 

MIDS: The midrange is more recessed than I would prefer. To my ears, it is actually more recessed and colored than the AH-D7000's midrange.

 

DESIGN FLAW: Multiple pairs of the TH900 (including my own) have shipped with an ear-cup-swivel defect. In defective pairs, the ear-cups do not swivel evenly. Some pairs exhibit this issue more noticeably than others, while some pairs do not show any signs of this defect. This defect does not appear to affect the way this headphone sits on the user's head.

 

VERY SENSITIVE: The TH900 is one of the most sensitive full-size headphones I've ever used. This makes it a wonderful choice for those who would like to use them out a standard computer headphone output. However, unless your amplifier has a low gain setting, you may have a little bit of trouble finding an optimal volume level (especially when adjusting with a stepped attenuator).

 

 

ON THE FENCE

LACKS ABSOLUTE TRANSPARENCY: The TH900 has a fairly transparent sound signature. I find its decay to be breathtakingly smooth. If I were nitpicking I would say that there is just a hair of treble and midrange unnaturalness. Fellow Head-Fier Axaxilus described the TH900's sound signature as “something of a R10 and D7000 having a baby.” I think this is an interesting view. In a way, it does share many characteristics of both headphones.

 

TREBLE: The treble presentation of the TH900 is a clear improvement over the AH-D7000; it is not nearly as recessed. That said, I find that there are some slightly abrasive moments with regard to the treble that detract from the overall transparency of the sound.

 

SOUNDSTAGE: Aside from the MDR-R10, the TH900's soundstage presentation is probably the most impressive of all the closed-back headphones that I've tried. It possesses a clear sense of space and dimension. However, it does have a closed-in feeling that takes away a little bit from the overall depth.

 

CONSTRUCTION: I like the TH900's construction; the feel of the leather, the cherry wood cups featuring an Urushi finish, etc. My one complaint is that its construction immediately makes one think of the AH-D7000. For the simple fact that Denon's D7000 was the last expensive flagship to be designed by Fostex, the TH900 was going to inevitably draw comparisons with it. The fact that the TH900 headband looks like a modified D7000 headband is a bit of a letdown for me.

 

CABLE: The cable here is of a fairly high quality. I only wish that the cable had been designed to be detachable.

 

 

FOR THE PRICE

C+

The Fostex TH900 is one of the most expensive headphones on the market today, eclipsed only by the Edition 10, the SR-007 Mk2, and the enormously expensive SR-009. Of the four, the TH900 is the easiest to drive and the only one to offer any degree of noise isolation. The TH900 is a very versatile headphone, capable of sounding good with every genre. My main criticism of the TH900 is that it is not worth the price based on the fact that Denon's AH-D7000 was nearly as good at half the price.

 

 

QUICK CHECK
  • DESIGN: Full-Size
  • DRIVERS: Dynamic
  • IMPEDANCE: 25 Ohms
  • ISOLATION: Some
  • AMPLIFICATION: Recommended
  • MY PREFERRED AMP: SPL Phonitor; Woo Audio 5
  • SOUNDS BEST WITH: Everything & Anything
  • CABLES USED: Stock
  • REVISIONS KNOWN: None Known to Me
  • FLAGSHIP STATUS: Currently Is
  • PRODUCTION STATUS AS OF 2012: In Production
  • COST: $1999.99

 

 
#23 JH AUDIO: JH13
 

noimageThe JH13 is the highest ranking of the thirteen in-ear-monitors on my list. Initially, I was persuaded to not include IEMs in the ranking at all. The reason I didn't want to include IEMs is largely because I feel they handle sound reproduction in an enormously different manner from headphones. I thought by including IEMs in the ranking, I would actually be shortchanging them. This is largely because they inherently lack the ability to utilize the outer-ear in order to create a more natural sound presentation. It is not the fault of the IEM that it cannot do this. It would be similar for me to criticize an open-back headphone for being unable to block out outside noise. All in all however, when I compare the inherent sonic character of open-back design against that of In-ear design, I end up with the conclusion that IEMs are inferior more often than not. It is no small feat for JH Audio that I've placed the JH13 at #22 in the context of my entire collection. I've placed the JH13 in front of some major full-size headphones.

 

The JH13 is a custom-molded in-ear-monitor. The shell is made of hard acrylic material. Like all other custom-molded IEMs, you must have ear impressions made prior to ordering them. The JH13 employs 6 balanced armature drivers (2 bass, 2 mids, 2 treble - integrated into a 3-way passive crossover) in each earpiece.

 

I owned the JH16 prior to ordering the JH13. My initial impression of the JH16 was that it was too bassy for its own good. It's an impression I maintain to this day in most ways. I think the JH13 offers a superior tonal balance for most listening preferences.

 

A little side-story: In November 2011, while on Jury Duty, I was waiting outside the courthouse when I was tapped on the shoulder by a security guard. I had the JH13s in my ear and could not immediately hear what he was saying. I thought I was going to be asked to move for loitering. When I took my JH13s out of my ears to hear what the security guard was saying, he turned to me and said "sorry to bother you man, I saw you had the Jerry Harvey logo on your earphones and I wanted to know if those were the JH13 or JH16?" I was so surprised. It's not every day that people come up to me with questions like that. I smiled and told him that they were in fact the 13s. We then talked about music for the remainder of my break. I thought that was pretty awesome. :)

 

 

STRENGTHS

TONAL BALANCE: No one else in the in-ear-market that I've come across gets tone quite like Jerry Harvey. The tone of the JH13 is very neutral with just a little added bass impact. The tone is just so natural-sounding and uncolored, yet not analytical at all. In consideration of tone alone, the JH13 is no less impressive than the HD800 and HE-6.

 

TRANSPARENT: The JH13 is as transparent as I feel an IEM is able to be. This is to say, I still feel a full-size headphone has the ability to exceed the JH13's transparency level.

 

MIDS: Out of a portable device such as an iPod, the mids of the JH13 sound a bit recessed. But when I use a tube amplifier, the mids gain presence and even sound just a notch forward. The resulting tone is wonderfully smooth.

 

BASS: With excellent extension and just a little more impact than neutral, the JH13 should offer enough bass to satisfy most listening preferences.

 

GENRE MASTER: The JH13 sounds good with anything - rock, jazz, classical, electronic, r&b, hip hop. It doesn't matter what you throw at it - it's going to sound good.

 

SUPER PORTABLE: Nothing even comes close to IEMs in terms of portability. You can fit the JH13 inside a small shirt pocket. Try doing that with an MDR-R10.

 

DETAILED: Considering that there is not much air for the sound to travel through, the JH13 are phenomenally detailed. They are the most detailed sounding IEM that I have heard.

AMAZING ISOLATION: The two indisputable benefits of IEMs are their portability and their ability to attenuate outside noise like nothing else. JH Audio claims that their IEMs attenuate up to 26 decibels of outside noise. While the ES5 clearly blocks out more sound for me, the JH13 does a phenomenal job as well.

IMAGING: Despite their inherently small soundstage, IEMs have the ability to image very well. The JH13 has very fine imaging abilities. However, I find that the UE10's imaging ability bests the JH13's with regard to precision.

EASY TO DRIVE: Due to their high sensitivity, most IEMs tend to be easy to drive. However, it seems to me that Jerry Harvey's in-ear designs benefit the more from amplification than many other manufacturers' do. While I can easily get rewarding results from plugging the JH13 directly into a portable player, I also like to use it with my home rig. I especially enjoy the way that the JH13 sounds when paired with the TTVJ Millett 307A.

CABLE: I actually prefer the cable design of the UE10 Pro to that of the JH13 because it is more resistant to tangling. However, I find that the plastic material JH Audio uses for the ear-loop reinforcement is an improvement over the material used for my UE10 cable (however, I happen to prefer the UERM's cable). The JH13 cable is easily detachable and replaceable.

CUSTOM ARTWORK OPTION: One cool feature of custom IEMs is that many manufacturers offer the option to customize the faceplate with artwork. My JH13 is pretty plain looking when compared with many others I've seen. My JH13 showcases a translucent purple shell with the words “JH Audio” in white lettering; I know it's “Zzzzz," but I think it looks nice. :)

SERIALIZED: As any custom-molded product should be, the JH13 is serialized. Like most of the other custom-molded IEMs that I own, the JH13 showcases the owner's initials next to the serial number.

 

 

WEAKNESSES

IEM'S INHERENT SHORTCOMINGS: In my opinion, full-size headphones possess the ability to sound more natural than in-ear headphones.  The reason I feel this way is that much like natural acoustic sound, sound waves that emanate from a full-size headphone travel through the entirety of the ear, rather than just the canal. To me, this sense of space makes for a more natural auditory experience. Not everyone agrees with me on this matter, but I stand by my assertion.

IEM SOUNDSTAGE: To my ears, the soundstage presentation that IEMs portray is lacking in realism. As I've stated prior, a lot of people happen to like it, but for me, it is not competitive with a full-size headphone's soundstaging ability.

SIBILANCE: The JH13 can sometimes sound sibilant, but when paired with a tube amp, this sibilance is diminished quite a bit.

STORAGE: I am underwhelmed by the plastic case than ships with JH Audio's IEMs. The soft microfiber carrying pouch is not secure enough for carrying the IEMs in my pocket. The Ultimate Ears aluminum tin is much more effective for instance. When commuting, I carry my JH13s in a hard-shell Westone pouch or the Ultimate Ears tin.

RESELL VALUE: When I first joined Head-Fi, I remember someone putting up a thread in the “For Sale” section in which they announced the sale of their custom-molded earphones. This thread turned out to be a joke. Reselling a custom-molded product was almost unheard of at the time. Today however, there are many companies which offer a refitting process that makes reselling custom-molded earphones an option. Still, be prepared to take a major hit, should you resell them.

 

 

ON THE FENCE

TREBLE: I find that the treble presentation of the JH13 is nearly grain-free. However, I wouldn't mind a hair more extension and sparkle. The sound of the JH13 lacks just a pinch of airiness, but I'm really nitpicking here.

 

COMFORT: To be honest, I have never found custom-molded IEMs to be as comfortable as universal fit IEMs with foam tips. But after many years of getting used to it, I've adapted to the feeling of custom-molded shells. I find that the hard acrylic is less comfortable than the soft material used in Westone's and Sensaphonic's designs. Nevertheless, wearing the hard acrylic pieces inside my ears has become more livable with time.

 

REFITS?: I found that I needed to get refitted for both the JH13 and JH16. This could be perhaps because the hard acrylic shell lacks flexibility. If you're as unlucky as I was, this refitting process can become frustrating and (with added shipping costs) more of an expense than you had anticipated.

 

 

FOR THE PRICE

B+

When judging an IEM's price-to-performance ratio, I only compare its sound to that of other IEMs. Overall, the JH13 offers the best sound quality of all the IEMs that I've tried. If you primarily listen to music out of a portable device or are simply looking for a top-tier travel companion, then the JH13 is surely one of the best options for you. If you are simply looking for the best sound quality money can buy, then I feel that there are options in the full-size headphone market that exceed the performance of any IEM.

I have encountered quite a few audiophiles who prefer the sound of IEMs to the sound of full-size headphones. These people express the opinion that the inside-the-head sound is very agreeable to their sensibilities. For these users, IEMs like the JH13, JH16 and ES5 constitute as top-tier choices.

 

 

QUICK CHECK
  • DESIGN: In-Ear
  • DRIVERS: Balanced Armature
  • IMPEDANCE: 28 Ohms
  • ISOLATION: Extreme
  • AMPLIFICATION: Not Necessary but Worth Considering
  • MY PREFERRED AMP: TTVJ Millett 307A
  • SOUNDS BEST WITH: Everything & Anything
  • CABLES USED: Stock
  • REVISIONS KNOWN: None known to me
  • FLAGSHIP STATUS: Currently Is (along with JH16)
  • PRODUCTION STATUS AS OF 2012: In Production
  • COST: $1099 + Audiologist

*Back To The Index

#22 SENNHEISER: HD600
 

noimage

The HD600 has long been one of the best values in the headphone market. It represents one of those rare instances where the performance level is so high for the price that one may feel compelled to use it as the gold standard in terms of value; I certainly do. When I grade all other headphones' price-to-performance ratios, I consider the HD600 and how close it gets to perfection for around 400 dollars.

 

The HD600 is an evolution of the HD580, which debuted nearly 20 years ago. The HD600 has been in production for well over a decade and it has remained among the most recommendable headphones at its price for its entire production run. It may not compete with extreme-high-end models for the title of "best headphone"; It may not exhibit the transparency-level nor clarity-level of high-end Stax models; it may not be as emotive sounding as the R10s; it may not offer the impressive soundstage capabilities of the K1000, SR-Sigma, HD800 and T1; it may not offer quite the impact of the flagship orthodynamic models by Audez'e and HifiMan - but in its class, I know of no other headphone that is deserving of more acclaim.

 

 

STRENGTHS

EXCELLENT TONE: I adore the tone of the HD600. The bass, mids and treble are beautifully integrated. The tone is very close to neutral, featuring a pinch of extra warmth and body.

MIDS: The HD600 has a slightly forward midrange that adds weight to vocals. There are no odd peaks or dips here. Simply put, the HD600 possesses a very natural midrange.

GENRE MASTER: The HD600 is ready to serve its listener. Whether you like pop, classical, rock, hip hop, r&b, jazz, funk, blues, country, electronic, dance, world, etc. it will be a worthy purchase for you.

TRANSPARENT: While the HD600 lacks the speed and agility of electrostatic headphones, and although the HD600 doesn't offer quite the depth of several top-flight dynamic headphones, the HD600 is still a highly transparent headphone.

BASS: Some people will ultimately prefer the bass response of the HD600 to its younger sibling, the HD650. The HD600 has a leaner, yet more neutral bass response when compared with the HD650. The two headphones are largely similar, but it is in the bass presentation as well as the lower-mids where the two Sennheiser models reveal their most obvious differences.

NOT TOO AMP PICKY: With a nominal impedance rating of 300 ohms, the HD600 really does benefit from amplification. However, I have found that this headphone is not particularly amp picky. It sounds fantastic When paired with most of the amps with which I've used it. Furthermore, it sounds particularly good when connected in balanced mode.

COMFORT: The oval-shaped earpads are made of generously plush velour material. This helps make the HD600 a very comfortable headphone to wear. I prefer an oval shape to a round shape because an oval is more form-fitted to the human ear. I have used the HD600 for several hours without break. I have not a single complaint with regard to its comfort-level.

EASILY REMOVABLE PARTS: Many of the parts used in the HD600's construction, including the earpads, cable and grills are user replaceable. Parts are still easily obtainable from Sennheiser. This ensures that your headphone can look and function as new for a very long time.

 

 

WEAKNESSES

LACKS DETAIL: The HD600 has a very smooth sound that can sometimes feel slow and slightly blurred. The HD600 is not the last word in terms of detail retrieval.

TREBLE: For as long as I've been a member of the Head-Fi community, the HD600 and HD650 have been criticized by some for having what many refer to as a veiled sound; a sound lacking in both air and harmonic content. I can understand this criticism. Conversely, the HD800 has been criticized for having the treble tilted too far forward. I don't agree with this criticism as the HD800 changes drastically from amp to amp (it can sound quite warm in some setups). The HD600's sonic presentation ultimately lacks some upper harmonics regardless of with which amp it is paired. The good news is, the treble is almost complete void of grain and is not at all harsh or sibilant.

 

 

ON THE FENCE

SOUNDSTAGE: The HD600 has an open sound, yet its soundstage is not particularly wide. In my opinion, the soundstage presentation here is best suited for smaller ensembles. In particular, I really enjoy the way jazz music sounds with the HD600. But realistically, just about everything sounds good with the HD600.

IMAGING: The HD600 has the ability to image decently. However, it does not quite offer the pinpoint accuracy which some higher-end headphones are capable of offering.

DECAY: The HD600's decay is slightly slow, but at the same time is very smooth and natural. This makes for a rather engaging (and somewhat romantic) sonic experience.

CABLE: The quality of the HD600's stock cable is not too bad considering the price of the headphone. However, Sennheiser makes the cable easily removable. This makes it very easy to install an aftermarket cable replacement. I use the Moon Audio Silver Dragon when in balanced mode. I think the HD600 scales nicely in balanced mode. In the picture shown above, the HD600 is photographed with the HD650's stock cable.

 

 

FOR THE PRICE

A+

The HD600 is one of only five headphones that I have awarded an A+ value rating in this entire evaluation (the other four are Beyerdynamic's DT 880, Audio-Technica's ATH-AD900, and HifiMan's HE-400 & HE-500). Dollar for dollar, the HD600 is among the best sounding headphones I have ever heard. Therefore, I feel it deserves a place in every serious headphone collection.

 

 

QUICK CHECK
  • DESIGN: Full-Size
  • DRIVERS: Dynamic
  • IMPEDANCE: 300 Ohms
  • ISOLATION: Little to None
  • AMPLIFICATION: Highly Recommended
  • MY PREFERRED AMP: TTVJ Millett 307A / SPL Phonitor
  • SOUNDS BEST WITH: Everything & Anything
  • CABLES USED: Moon Audio Silver Dragon Balanced / Stock
  • REVISIONS KNOWN: None known to me
  • FLAGSHIP STATUS: Once Was
  • PRODUCTION STATUS AS OF 2012: In Production
  • COST: $399.95 (without aftermarket cable) $699.95 (with aftermarket cable)

*Back To The Index

#21 SENNHEISER: HD650
 

noimageThe HD650 is an extension of the HD600, which as I mentioned above was an evolution of the HD580. The HD650 and HD600 are both still being manufactured today whereas the HD580 has long been discontinued. There's never been unanimity within the audio community with regard to which of these three headphones is the best. The HD650 is the warmest and most-colored sounding of the trilogy. Simultaneously, the HD650 is the most euphonic sounding of the three.

 

I have often thought of the HD650 as a sepia-hued lens for music. Its sound has a quiet and calming charm about it. I can listen to HD650 for hours and hours because of the sheer beauty of its sound. Yes, the HD650 is not neutral; yes, the HD650 lacks some overall clarity, but even with its faults, the HD650 is an extremely involving headphone which, in my opinion, slightly eclipses its more neutral siblings - the HD580 and HD600.

 

I should mention that the sonic differences between the HD650 and HD600 are minimal. They are virtually as close to one another, sonically, as the SR-007 MkI and SR-007 MkII are. The cosmetic design of the HD650 and HD600 appears to be derived from Sennheiser's own out-of-production flagship, the HE90 (Orpheus). The dimensions of the HD600 and the HD650 are nearly identical and, as a result, many of the parts are interchangeable. The most noticeable cosmetic difference between the two models is the HD650's solid-color finish versus the HD600's marble finish. The two models also feature a different headband padding design.

 

One final thing I will say about the HD650 is that when I joined head-fi in 2007, the HD650 had a reputation within the community for being one of the most prestigious headphones in production. Today, it has taken a back seat to several recent flagships, including Sennheiser's own HD800. I must say however, the HD650 remains one of the most talked about headphones in the community, and for good reason.

 

 

STRENGTHS

BEAUTIFUL TONE: Such body, such warmth, such smoothness! The HD650's tone encapsulates what a beautiful laid-back sound signature is. The HD650 takes the sound of the HD600 and tints it to a warmer color by just pinch or two.

MIDS: The HD650 showcases a forward midrange which adds weight to vocals. In particular, I really like the way this forwardness affects the presentation of the male voice.

TRANSPARENT: While the HD650 lacks the speed and agility of electrostatic headphones, and although the HD650 doesn't quite offer the depth which several top-flight dynamic headphones do, the HD650 is a highly transparent headphone.

BASS: HD650 showcases a slightly more impactful bass than the HD600. This causes the HD650 to sound weightier. Some people may ultimately prefer the bass response of the HD600 because it is more neutral. The two headphones are largely similar, but it is in the bass presentation as well as lower-mids where the two Sennheiser models reveal their most obvious differences.

NOT TOO AMP PICKY: With a nominal impedance rating of 300 ohms, the HD650 really does benefit from a headphone amplifier. However, I have found that this headphone is not particularly amp picky. It sounds fantastic out of most amps with which I've paired it. Like the HD600, it sounds particularly good when in balanced mode.


EXCELS WITH MOST GENRES: The HD650 sounds fantastic with rock music. Its warmish tone makes bright recordings more livable. One of my best friends actually refers to the HD650 as "the rock headphones." :) After years of using the HD650, I've concluded that it is not quite airy enough to excel with classical music. Other than this, I believe it can satisfy pretty much any musical appetite.

COMFORT: The oval-shaped earpads are made of generously plush velour material. This helps make the HD650 a very comfortable headphone to wear. I prefer an oval shape to a circular shape because an oval is more form-fitted to the human ear. I have used the HD650 for several hours without break. I have not a single complaint with regard to its comfort-level.

EASILY REMOVABLE PARTS: Many of the parts used in the HD650's construction, including the earpads, cable and grills are user replaceable. Parts are still easily obtainable from Sennheiser. This ensures that your headphone can look and function as new for a very long time.

 

 

WEAKNESSES

TOO SMOOTH: The HD650 can sometimes sound suffocated in its own warmth. It can sometimes sound as though it is attempting to lull you to sleep.

TREBLE: For as long as I've been a member of the Head-Fi community, the HD600 and HD650 have been criticized by some for having what many refer to as a veiled sound; a sound lacking in both air and harmonic content. I can understand this criticism. Conversely, the HD800 has been criticized for having the treble tilted too far forward. I don't agree with this criticism as the HD800 changes drastically from amp to amp (it can sound quite warm in some setups). The HD650's sonic presentation ultimately lacks some upper harmonics regardless of with which amp it is paired. It may in fact be more "veiled" than the HD600. The good news is, the treble is almost complete void of grain and is not at all harsh or sibilant.

HD600: Not only do the HD600 and HD650 sound very much alike, but many actually prefer the HD600's more neutral tone to the more laid-back tone of the HD650. Considering that the HD600 sells for 100 dollars less, the HD600 is clearly a better value.

 

 

ON THE FENCE

SOUNDSTAGE: The HD650 exhibits an open sound. Yet its soundstage is not particularly wide. When comparing the soundstaging abilities of the HD600 and HD650, I find that the HD650's soundstage is, perhaps just a notch wider. In my opinion, the soundstage here is best suited for smaller ensembles, in my opinion.

IMAGING: The HD650 has the ability to image fairly well. However, it doesn't offer quite the pinpoint accuracy that some higher-end headphones are capable of.

DECAY:  The HD650's decay is slightly slow, but at the same time is very smooth and natural. This makes for a rather engaging (and somewhat romantic) sonic experience.

CABLE: The quality of the HD650's stock cable is not too bad considering the price of the headphone. Some have remarked that its internal design is a downgrade from the HD600's stock cable. However, Sennheiser makes the cable easily removable. This makes it easy to install an aftermarket cable replacement. I use the Moon Audio Silver Dragon when in balanced mode. I think the HD650 scales especially well in balanced mode; it opens up the soundstage a bit.

 

 

FOR THE PRICE

A

The HD650 is one of the most beautiful sounding headphones that I've ever heard. It seduces you with its sultry tone. It always brings a smile to my face when I use them. At about a hundred dollars more than the HD600, I feel that the HD650 is less impressive. But at the same time, I prefer the HD650's sound signature overall.

 

 

QUICK CHECK
  • DESIGN: Full-Size
  • DRIVERS: Dynamic
  • IMPEDANCE: 300 Ohms
  • ISOLATION: Little to None
  • AMPLIFICATION: Highly Recommended
  • MY PREFERRED AMP: TTVJ Millett 307A / SPL Phonitor
  • SOUNDS BEST WITH: Jazz, Rock, Metal, Blues, Reggae, R&B, Hip Hop, Pop, Electronic
  • CABLES USED: Moon Audio Silver Dragon Balanced / Stock
  • REVISIONS KNOWN: At least 1 Known to me (unconfirmed sonic differences)
  • FLAGSHIP STATUS: Once Was
  • PRODUCTION STATUS AS OF 2012: In Production
  • COST: $499.95 (without aftermarket cable) $799.95 (with aftermarket cable)

 

 
#20 AKG: K1000
 

noimageThe K1000 is one of the most unique headphones ever created. The transducers are enclosed, not in a stationary ear-cup, but in a housing that is able to swivel. This design allows for the user to customize the width of their desired soundstage. When the housings are moved to their widest point, the K1000's soundstage can sound quite speaker-like. It is truly impressive - something every headphone collector should hear at some point. However, do not purchase the K1000 without knowing precisely what you're getting into. The K1000 is no ordinary headphone. It requires a lot of power and was, in fact, designed to be powered by a speaker amp, not a headphone amp. In today's expansive and accommodative market, several manufacturers have specifically designed amps in order to power the K1000 and other similarly power-hungry headphones.

 

My personal experience with the K1000 has been one of frustration and mystification. I've had the opportunity to hear several pairs of K1000s, and I presently own two pairs. Ultimately, I come away each time with the realization that the K1000 has a significant design flaw - Rattle. With every pair that I've listened to, I have noticed that the grills make a rattling sound every once in a while. This rattle occurs regardless of the output volume level. I have discussed this issue with many owners. Most have told me that they have never noticed this rattle-like sound with their pair. However, of the seven pairs I've tried, I have noticed it on each and every one. I' managed to significantly reduce the frequency of this rattle with one of my pairs by putting electric tape around the perimeter of the grills on both sides. It doesn't look so sharp, but it reduces the rattle by roughly 75%.

 

One day at a Head-Fi meet, I came upon a K1000 that appeared to be in excellent condition. After listening to it for about 10 minutes, I noticed that I was not hearing any rattle from this pair. I inquired with the owner about purchasing the headphone from him; sure enough this K1000 was soon my pair. Well, about two days after I purchased it, I started to notice rattling sounds emanating from this new pair. I contacted the seller to ask if he'd ever experienced such a sound. He told me that he did in fact occasionally notice the rattle sound and that it bothered him somewhat. He then told me that several other K1000 owners admitted to hearing the same sound with their respective pairs. In a strange way I was relieved to hear that I wasn't alone in spotting such an obvious issue. I decided to keep this K1000 because it was in such fine condition. Over time, I've noticed that the rattle issue frequently dissuades me from using the K1000.

 

The soundstage which the K1000 offers is, perhaps, the best in the industry. Had AKG addressed and rectified the rattling issue, the K1000 would most definitely be found in the top 15 on this list. In a sense, the rattling issue bothers me so much, that I considered disqualifying the K1000 from the top 20. Ultimately however, it seems that several owners do not hear/experience this issue. I have had several respected audiophiles and industry professionals listen to my pairs of K1000s; many of them do not hear the rattle whatsoever.

 

It is also worth mentioning that the K1000 was produced for approximately 15 years. In this time, it underwent at least one design alteration. It is believed that this production change led to the existence of two variations of the K1000. At approximately the #4000 serial number mark, it is believed by many that AKG started using an altered driver which featured a leaner bass response. Both of the K1000s that I own precede this serial number and therefore I cannot confirm this theory. I have never had the opportunity to do an A/B comparison with an earlier and later pair.

 

 

STRENGTHS

SOUNDSTAGE KING: The K1000's soundstage is not only the widest that I've heard, but it's also the most customizable. When the K1000's left and right housings are swiveled to their widest point, the resulting soundstage width is ideally-suited for orchestral music and opera. When the housings are swiveled to a narrower position, the soundstage achieved is better-suited for smaller combos. With regard to soundstage customization, the K1000 is probably the most impressive headphone ever made.

NEUTRAL: It seems to me that the K1000 aims to be tonally neutral; it does not miss the mark. It is one of the more neutral headphones I have heard.

IMAGING: The K1000's imaging ability is superb. The angled drivers allow for a finely-contoured listening experience. In order to achieve the most accurate imaging presentation possible, it is crucial that one matches up the angles of the driver housings.

MIDS: While I would not say that the K1000 is at the front rank of the “best mids competition," it does succeed in being relatively uncolored without demonstrating any bothersome peaks or dips. Sometimes however, the K1000 renders vocals with a bit more leanness than I'd prefer.

NATURAL CROSSFEED: Loudspeaker devotees will typically criticize a headphones' performance for the inherent absence of crossfeed between channels. What this criticism refers to is how headphones encompass the ears, leaving each ear without the ability to hea the opposite channel. With nautral acoustic sound , the brain analyzes the location of a single sound source by using both ears. When listening to sound with headphones, the brain's ability to analyze the sound's location and dimension is limited. Some dedicated headphone amplifiers feature a built-in simulated crossfeed option, intended to add a realistic quality to the headphone's soundstage presentation. However, because of the fact that the K1000's transducers are placed a considerable distance from the ears, natural crossfeed occurs when listening to them.  As a result, for some the K1000 may sound more natural than other headphones.

CLASSICAL MUSIC: Very few headphones can compete with the K1000 with regard to classical music, particularly with large ensemble works.

TREBLE: The K1000's treble is well-extended and nearly free of grain. The treble response of this headphone provides a great sense of air around the instruments.

SERIALIZED: Each K1000 is assigned its own individual serial number. I have heard from several sources that, beginning at approximately serial #4000, the manufacturer began to use an altered transducer, which resulted in a leaner bass response. I have not been able to confirm this from firsthand experience. However, this specific serial number mark would probably coincide with Harman International Industries' acquisition of AKG Acoustics in 1994. Maybe this trivial factoid is significant to understanding the sound change / maybe not.

 

 

WEAKNESSES

RATTLE: The worst thing about the K1000, by far, is that there are occasions when the metal grills create a rattle-like sound. This rattle sound resembles the unpleasant muffled vibration achieved by placing an object on resonating piano strings. Considering that this headphone is, all-round, one of the best ever made, it is highly unfortunate that this rattle issue exists. While the rattle is not particularly loud, if you are listening with full attention, you may find it disturbing. The rattle doesn't occur all the time; I can sometimes listen for a while and not hear any rattle. But the fact that it will eventually occur is somewhat distracting. Because of this distraction, I do not use the K1000 all that much.

COMFORT: Unlike most full-size headphones, the K1000 does not feature ear-cups that encompass the ears. Instead, the K1000 features pads that rest near the temples of the skull, while the transducer housings sit adjacent to the ears. Although the K1000's headband is made of a supple material, its elasticity doesn't quite weaken the pressure exerted by temple pads. Due to its heavier than average weight as well as its unusual design, the K1000 is not the last word in comfort. While it may not be quite as uncomfortable as I've made it sound, I do know quite a few ex-owners who sold their K1000 because of comfort issues.

LACKS TRANSPARENCY: Despite its amazing soundstage presentation, the K1000 is not the most transparent headphone I have ever heard. Its overall tonality lacks a sense of naturalness at times.

DIFFICULT TO POWER: The K1000 is a power hungry beast. It was designed by AKG to be connected to a speaker amp! Being as such, you can't use just any old amp to power them. Of the amps which I own, I feel that the Woo Audio 5 drives the K1000 best. The Woo Audio 5 features an output specifically designed to power the K1000; it offers 8 watts per channel at 140 ohms output impedance.

OUT OF PRODUCTION: The K1000 has been long out of production. Despite its popularity and legendary status among audiophiles, Harman Industries (owner of AKG) does not appear to be interested in bringing the K1000 back. However, the good news is that many of the parts are still available for repair/refurbishing purposes.

 

 

ON THE FENCE

BASS: The bass quality of the K1000 is very good. However, it does lack extension. Bass-heads will not be pleased with the K1000.

DETAILED: The K1000 offers a uniquely detailed sonic presentation due to its large and tailorable soundstage properties. However, I have noticed that some nuances and intricacies seem to get smeared at times.

STORAGE: The K1000's wood case was offered in a black finish or plain wood finish. Inside the case was a foam interlay, specifically designed to fit and protect the headphone. It's a rugged, but ultimately plain-looking, storage design.

CABLE: Both of my K1000s have aftermarket cables installed. I certainly wish, however, that the K1000 was designed with a user-removable cable design.

 

 

FOR THE PRICE

C+

The K1000 is one of those headphones that you either love or hate. Either way, the headphone is known to leave an impression on each and ever person who hears it. The rattling issue (discussed in detail above) disturbs me. If it were not for this issue, I would have awarded the K1000 no less than a grade of  B in terms of value. For those who appreciate a large soundstage and are prepared to meet the necessary power requirements, the K1000 is worth considering.

 

 

QUICK CHECK
  • DESIGN: Full-Size
  • DRIVERS: Dynamic
  • IMPEDANCE: 120 Ohms
  • ISOLATION: None
  • AMPLIFICATION: Absolutely Requires Amp
  • MY PREFERRED AMP: Woo Audio 5
  • SOUNDS BEST WITH: Classical / Acoustic
  • CABLES USED: Stefan Audio Art Equinox on 1 Pair / DIY cable on other pair
  • REVISIONS KNOWN: At least one known to me
  • FLAGSHIP STATUS: Once Was
  • PRODUCTION STATUS AS OF 2012: Out Of Production
  • COST: $900-$1500 (estimated)

 

 
#19 ULTRASONE: Edition 10
 

noimageIn all the time that I've been a member of the Head-Fi community, I have never seen a flagship headphone released to as unfavorable a reception as the Edition 10. Several knowledgeable members of the community detested this headphone. Many of these unfavorable reviews came from people who purchased the headphone (ultimately to sell it on the used market) while other unfavorable reviews came from people who auditioned the headphone (but passed on purchasing it). The reputation of the Edition 10 seemed to hit rock bottom when Tyll of innerfidelity.com (a man whose opinion I have much respect for) did an extensive review of this headphone and produced what appeared to be unfavorable measurements of its technical performance. And of course there's a video that Tyll made which makes me laugh every time. :)

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=L34S4Tt1EuQ

 

I waited a long time before purchasing the Edition 10 because I was hardly enthusiastic about the concept that I'd be blowing money on such a highly-criticized pair of headphones. When I finally decided to take the plunge, I did so for review purposes only. However, I am truly glad that I purchased them.

 

While I can clearly understand the criticisms which have plagued this headphone's reputation, I have to trust my ears - my ears say wow! There are certain things which the Edition 10 does so well - so astonishingly well - that I am able to forgive it for its shortcomings. In my mind, the Edition 10's most obvious shortcoming is its price.

 

When Ultrasone released the Edition 10 in 2010, they priced it as the most expensive dynamic transducer headphone on the market. At $2750, it is more than double the price of the HE-6 and LCD-2; it is nearly double the price of the T1, HD800 and PS1000; it is ­even more expensive than Stax's well-established Omega 2 MkII. It seems to me that the Edition 10 was unable to live up to expectations, primarily because of its asking price. In a market where headphone veterans such as Sennheiser and Beyerdynamic price their flagship models at around half that of Ultrasone, the Edition 10 may have been doomed for criticism.

 

Following the Edition 10's initial sour reception, Ultrasone attempted to relieve the public by announcing that there was a quality control issue regarding the Edition 10's earpads. According to the manufacturer, some earpads were improperly padded. Supposedly, the defect caused the headphone to sound poor. This revelation led to a mixed uproar of disappointment, confusion, disbelief, and relief among those who had already purchased the headphones. Ultimately however, the general opinion regarding the Edition 10 remains one of polarization. I have confirmed that the earpads on my pair are not defective.

 

I hope that the Edition 10's story will be considered by manufacturers going forward - that pricing can have tremendous negative consequences. Had the Edition 10 been given a price tag that was more in line with the competition, I believe its overall reception would have been warmer.

 

 

STRENGTHS

AMAZING SOUNDSTAGE: The Edition 10 offers one of the most unique soundstage representations that I've ever heard in a headphone. With this headphone, the soundstage totally encompasses your head, causing almost a surround-like effect. If this is evidence of Ultrasone's S-Logic design, then the Edition 10 is the first headphone I've used to actually demonstrate the effects of this design to a very noticeable degree. While the K1000 and Sigma showcase a speaker-like sound presentation, the Edition 10 conveys the feeling of surround-sound unlike I've ever experienced from a headphone. The K1000 is my choice for "soundstage king" because of its customizable nature, but for me, the Edition 10's soundstage is hardly less impressive.

 

DETAILED: The Edition 10 is wonderfully detailed. It may, in fact, be the most detailed dynamic transducer headphone I have heard. Occasionally this detailed sound can feel over-emphasized, but it is quite impressive nonetheless.

EXCITING: What is an exciting sound signature? For me, it is a sound signature that keeps me coming back to it, not because of its technical perfection, but because it is very unique in the way that it conveys the music.

BASS: The Edition 10 has a robust bass response. It lacks a little extension, but it is of a very enjoyable quality.

AMAZING LOOKS: Alright Ultrasone, you got me here. The Edition 10 is my pick for the best looking headphone. It's a pleasure just for the eyes to behold. Unfortunately, when the Edition 10 was released to poor reviews, its aesthetic appeal was sort of stigmatized by references to the headphone's high price being a reflection of a skin-deep design.

COMFORT: I've heard the Edition 10 referred to as the most comfortable headphone ever, but for me, that award goes to the HD800. Nevertheless, the Edition 10 is a very comfortable headphone. The leather ear-cups are patterned with tiny ventilation holes; this resolves most of the issues that result from leather's thermal qualities.

EASY TO DRIVE: The Edition 10 is not particularly difficult to drive. However, I have been told by someone whose opinion I trust that it happens to be very revealing of its source. I have only evaluated the Edition 10 using a single source - the MSB Diamond DAC.

STAND: The Edition 10 is one of only four headphones in this whole evaluation that ships with its own proprietary stand. The other three are the Fostex TH900 and two Sony models, the  Qualia 010 and MDR-SA5000. In my opinion, the Edition 10 comes with the most impressive stand of the four.

STORAGE: The wood case that ships with the Edition 10 is among the more attractive headphone cases I've seen. In terms of grandiosity, I would say that the Edition 10's storage case comes in 4th behind the MD-R10, SR-009 and HE90.

SERIALIZED: The Edition 10 is serialized. According to Ultrasone, there will only be 2010 units made of the Edition 10.

 

 

WEAKNESSES

NOT TRANSPARENT: It really is a shame that the Edition 10 lacks transparency. If it were more transparent, I would be inclined to place it in my top 12 headphones. Unfortunately, the Edition 10's sound is blemished by a slight metallic hue. There are moments where the Edition 10 sounds shrill and unpleasant. For this reason, I prefer to listen to the Edition 10 at lower volume levels.

NOT NEUTRAL: The mids of the Edition 10 are noticeably recessed. The Edition 10 is clearly not a neutral sounding headphone.

MIDS: The midrange presentation of the Edition 10 lacks both presence and naturalness.

EARPAD DEFECTS?: According to Ultrasone, many early pairs were shipped with defective earpads. If you are in possession of a pair with an early serial number (under #400), then it may be worth sending to Ultrasone for evaluation.

 

 

ON THE FENCE

TREBLE: The Edition 10's sound signature is a bright one. The treble is truly forward. This persuades me to suggest that it may be worth hearing the Edition 10 before purchasing it. Its treble presentation forces me to listen at a lower volume than I would normally. However for the detail it provides, I think the treble presentation here is very interesting. Yet there are times when I've noticed the treble as sounding strident and metallic. As such, the Edition 10's treble presentation has sometimes prevented me from using the headphone for extended listening sessions. I can understand how the Edtion 10's treble presentation would be a deal-breaker for some.

IMAGING: Despite offering a highly unique sound presentation, the Edition 10 lacks some of the pinpoint accuracy which some other high-end headphones have.

CABLE: Not everyone sees it my way - not everyone thinks that a user replaceable cable is preferable. However, I don't like re-wiring expensive headphones. I prefer when a headphone features the option to easily detach the stock cable for replacement. The Edition 10 seems to come with a decent cable; it comes with an extension cable as well. However, because it is hardwired, I will probably never opt to hear my pair re-terminated with a different cable.

 

 

FOR THE PRICE

C

The Edition 10 is an overpriced headphone. There's no way around it. It is priced too high based on how it performs against other manufacturers' less expensive offerings. However, I still consider the Edition 10 to be an excellent and undervalued headphone within the community. It offers one of the most unique sonic presentations that I have ever come across; it is a presentation that I enjoy immensely. And as I said before, it's a strikingly attractive headphone.

 

 

QUICK CHECK
  • DESIGN: Full-Size
  • DRIVERS: Dynamic
  • IMPEDANCE: 40 Ohms
  • ISOLATION: Little to None
  • AMPLIFICATION: Recommended
  • MY PREFERRED AMP: TTVJ Millett 307A / Woo Audio 5 / SPL Phonitor
  • SOUNDS BEST WITH: Classical / Jazz / Well-Recorded Music
  • CABLES USED: Stock
  • REVISIONS KNOWN: None Known to Me
  • FLAGSHIP STATUS: Currently Is
  • PRODUCTION STATUS AS OF 2012: In Production
  • COST: $2749

 

 

Edited by DavidMahler - 6/4/13 at 6:38pm
post #4 of 4939
Thread Starter 
THE BATTLE OF THE FLAGSHIPS continued...
My quest to find the greatest headphone ever made!
by David Solomon
#18 STAX: SR-507
 

noimageIn 1960, Stax introduced the very first electrostatic headphone. Without delving into too much detail, let me say that electrostatic transducers operate differently from dynamic transducers. Dynamic transducers are far more common in headphone design. However, electrostatic transducers are highly praised for their extremely low distortion levels. Electrostatic headphones require a dedicated electrostatic amplifier. While Stax manufacturers several of these amps themselves, many third-party manufacturers have designed some marvelous electrostatic amps.

 

Stax introduced their Lambda series around 1980. More than thirty years later, Stax is still adding new headphones to this series. The SR-507 is the most recent addition to the Lambda series. The most obvious characteristic of this series is its rectangular-shaped ear-cup. The SR-507 is the only Lambda model I have ever owned. However, I have auditioned several Lambda models, including the SR-407 and SR-404 Limited Edition. I was highly impressed with the SR-404 Limited Edition, but I opted for the more easily-available SR-507.

 

The SR-507 is not Stax's current flagship (that designation belongs to the SR-009), but it is the current flagship of the Lambda series. Coincidentally, the SR-507 is the lowest ranking of the eight electrostatic headphones included in my list; not a bad feat for electrostatics, considering that #17 is still a very high ranking. When contrasting the general sound properties of electrostatic and dynamic transducers, I find that electrostatic transducers often sound more transparent, whereas dynamic transducers often possess more impact and character. The sound signature of the SR-507 is just a hair on the analytical side, but nevertheless, it manages to be very engaging.

 

 

STRENGTHS

TRANSPARENT: The SR-507 is a very transparent sounding headphone. It possesses a slightly cold temperament, but is transparent nonetheless.

TREBLE: The SR-507 exhibits grain-free treble extension. I prefer its treble presentation over most other headphones, save for the SR-009 and HE90.

MIDS: The midrange response of the SR-507 is very close to flat. I don't hear any awkward peaks or dips here.

DETAILED: The SR-507 provides the listener with a fantastic amount of detail. At its price, the SR-507 is the most detailed headphone that I have heard. The mids and treble sound extremely natural; upper-harmonics are audible without a sense of harshness.

DECAY: Electrostatic headphones tend to offer a faster decay than dynamic transducer headphones. The SR-507 most certainly showcases a fast decay.

TRANSIENT RESPONSE: From my experience, electrostatic transducers typically offer a liquid-like transient response. In terms of naturalness, the SR-507's transient response and decay surpasses that of most high-end dynamic headphones.

SMALL ENSEMBLE MASTER: I find that the sound signature of the SR-507 is best-suited for small ensembles, such as an intimate jazz combo or chamber ensemble. It is also handles electronic music extremely well. I find that its sound signature may be just a bit too bright to be optimal for rock music.

EASY TO AMP: The SR-507 requires an amplifier, but you don't need to spend a fortune to get it to sound good. Although I personally do not own any Stax amps, I have heard several Lambda models (including the SR-507) paired with Stax amps and I was mightily impressed with their sound.

SERIALIZED: To my knowledge, all currently-produced Stax headphones are serialized; the SR-507 is no exception.

 

 

WEAKNESSES

ANALYTICAL?: To my ears, the sound signature of the SR-507 is a bit on the colder side. I enjoy its analytical nature sometimes, but other times, I find its sound to be verging on icy.

SMALL SOUNDSTAGE: The soundstage here is narrow and without much height. If this headphone was to be criticized for having a weak spot, it would be its soundstage presentation.

COMFORT: I have tried other Lambda models which happen to be far more comfortable than the SR-507. I do not find the SR-507 to be particularly comfortable; the internal area of the ear-cup exerts pressure on my outer ear. But the real issue here is just how much the leather earpads heat up my head; I sweat within 20 minutes of using the SR-507. I would reach for this headphone more if this was not the case.

STORAGE: The packaging here is nothing fancy - just a cardboard box with Styrofoam padding inside. It's not the easiest task to put the headphones back in this box. In my opinion, the SR-507 ships with one of the least impressive storage boxes at its price-point.

 

 

ON THE FENCE

IMAGING: While the soundstage here is fairly narrow, the drivers are angled for a more realistic sound presentation. The SR-507 provides the listener with the ability to place instruments with a fair amount of precision.

BASS: The bass response of the SR-507 is very tight and shows excellent restraint. Even still, it is just a touch leaner than I would like. I would prefer the SR-507 have a weightier / fuller tone. Perhaps, this is from where my perception of the SR-507's analytical nature stems.

NEUTRAL?: The SR-507 is a fairly neutral sounding headphone. However, I wouldn't necessarily champion the SR-507 as a completely uncolored headphone.

CABLE: The quality of the stock cable is very good. I have never had urge to re-cable any of my Stax headphones. However, you all already know that I prefer a user-detachable cable design. :)

 

 

FOR THE PRICE

A-

At its price-point, the SR-507 is a very good value. Of course, you will need an electrostatic amplifier in order to power the SR-507. The biggest criticism that I have regarding the SR-507 is that the earpads cause me to sweat excessively. If you don't mind this aspect so much, the SR-507 is among the best headphones you can buy for its price.

 

 

QUICK CHECK
  • DESIGN: Full-Size
  • DRIVERS: Electrostatic
  • ISOLATION: Little to None
  • AMPLIFICATION: Absolutely Requires Amp
  • MY PREFERRED AMP: HeadAmp Blue Hawaii Special Edition
  • SOUNDS BEST WITH: Jazz / Chamber Music / Electronic
  • CABLES USED: Stock
  • REVISIONS KNOWN: None Known To Me
  • FLAGSHIP STATUS: Specific To Product-Line
  • PRODUCTION STATUS AS OF 2012: In Production
  • COST: $1099.99

 

 
#17 HIFIMAN: HE-500
 

noimageHifiMan's HE-5 was my introduction to orthodynamic headphones. It was a headphone which I had great reverence for until the fateful day when the left driver malfunctioned. When I returned the headphone, I was given a replacement pair. To my dismay, this replacement pair also experienced the same malfunction.

 

However, HifiMan acknowledged that there were issues regarding the HE-5 and subsequently discontinued the model. Some time later, I tried their brand again - this time with the HE-6. The HE-6 quickly became one of my favorite headphones. However, the HE-6 has significant power demands. Because of this, one really needs to purchase an amp specifically designed to power it. This can become rather expensive.

 

The HE-500 was designed with the intention of being easier to drive than the HE-6, without sacrificing much of the sound quality. Admittedly, the two headphones look nearly identical. The physical design is not one that gels with my tastes. However, the HE-500 is a genuine success. It's nearly as good sounding as the HE-6, can be paired with most headphone amplifiers, and costs $600 less! What's most compelling is that quite a number of people have voiced their preference for the sound quality of the HE-500 over that of the HE-6. To my ears, the HE-6 is better sounding. However, the HE-500 is clearly the better value.

 

 

STRENGTHS

MIDS: At its price, the HE-500 has the best midrange presentation that I have heard. Even if the HE-6 did not exist, the HE-500 would suffice as an extraordinarily impressive flagship, largely because of the midrange presentation. It is an extremely flat presentation which does not present any odd colorations.

NEUTRAL: The HE-500 offers a very neutral tonal balance. All across the board, I do not notice any peaks that compromise the tonal balance. When compared directly against the HE-6, I feel that the HE-500's sound presentation lacks just a hint of air and dynamics, but many may prefer its less aggressive style.

BASS: The bass presentation here is close to top-level. The bass presentation of the HE-6 exhibits a higher degree of tactility, but the bass presentation of the HE-500 is no less extended. Here, percussion has fine dimension and weight without any sense of boominess; it is tight!

IMAGING: The HE-500 demonstrates remarkable imaging capabilities, even if not quite as impressive as the HE-6's. I feel as though the HE-6 offers a quicker decay which improves the three-dimensionality of the instruments, but the HE-500 is very close in this regard.

TRANSPARENCY: The HE-500 has a slightly smoother, less aggressive sonic presentation than the HE-6, but consequently it lacks a bit of the air and dynamics which makes the HE-6 a better sounding headphone overall. However, some may prefer the sound of the HE-500 for its more forgiving nature.

DETAILED: The HE-500 may not be the most detailed headphone ever created, but they boast an articulate sound with an awesomely-refined decay.

VOCALS: I find that all the HifiMan headphones I've owned have excelled with vocal music.

GENRE MASTER: The HE-500's sonic presentation is suitable for any genre of music. In particular, I enjoy how its sound complements rock and jazz music.

DETACHABLE PARTS: Both the HE-500's cable and ear-pads are easily removable and replaceable. Aside from the obvious longevity factor, these removable parts make the HE-500 a great asset to re-cablers and DIYers. It ships with both velour and faux-leather earpads. I prefer both the texture and sonic enhancement of velour pads. The HE-500's stock cable will be more than adequate for most users, but HifiMan includes extra headphone cable connectors for DIYers who wish to construct an improved cable of their own.

 

 

WEAKNESSES

DESIGN: I am not a huge fan of the HifiMan design. I feel that the materials used have a cheap feel to them. I also take issue (perhaps trivially) when an entire headphone line has a uniform appearance aside from color and texture. The HE-6 and HE-500 look identical from three feet away. Perhaps if the headphones felt as though they were constructed with finer materials, I wouldn't have an issue with this.

AMPING: The HE-500 is considerably easier to drive than the HE-6. This is not particularly hard to do as the HE-6 is among the most power-hungry headphones ever conceived. However, the HE-500 is still not one of the easiest headphones to drive; it requires more current than average for optimal results.

 

 

ON THE FENCE

SOUNDSTAGE: The HE-500's soundstage presentation lacks a bit of dimensionality. However, it is still above average with regard to height and depth.

TREBLE: The HE-500 has a more laid-back treble presentation than the HE-6. Some may prefer this because it provides the headphone a smoother overall sound, but in my opinion it detracts from the airiness and the sense of dynamics.

COMFORT: The HE-500 is not one of the most supremely comfortable headphones I've ever worn; the headband's grip is slightly tighter than optimal, but I don't find them to be uncomfortable by any means.

STORAGE: The HE-500 presently ships with the proprietary HifiMan hard zipper carrying case. It is protective even should it not be particularly attractive.

 

 

FOR THE PRICE

A+

In this whole evaluation, I have only awarded a value rating of A+ five times. The other four headphones for which I awarded an A+ value rating are the Sennheiser HD600, the Audio-Technica ATH-AD900, the Beyerdynamic DT 880 and HifiMan's own HE-400. However, the HE-500 has the distinction of being my favorite headphone for which I awarded this rating. The HE-500 is also the highest ranking headphone on my list to have never been a flagship. At $699, it outshines every similarly priced headphone on the market today. I recommend it without even the slightest hesitation.

 

 

QUICK CHECK
  • DESIGN: Full-Size
  • DRIVERS: Planar Magnetic
  • IMPEDANCE: 38 Ohms
  • ISOLATION: Little to None
  • AMPLIFICATION: Requires Amp
  • MY PREFERRED AMP: Woo Audio 5 / TTVJ Millett 307a
  • SOUNDS BEST WITH: Everything & Anything
  • CABLES USED: Stock / A Pure Sound V3 balanced
  • REVISIONS KNOWN: None Known to Me
  • FLAGSHIP STATUS: Never Was
  • PRODUCTION STATUS AS OF 2012: In Production
  • COST: $699 (without aftermarket cable) $1099 (with aftermarket cable)

 

 
#16 STAX: SR-Sigma
 

noimageHaving made its debut in 1977, the SR-Sigma is the oldest headphone in this evaluation. My personal pair is one of the original pairs before Stax altered (some would say improved) the design. Several years following the Sigma's debut, Stax released a higher bias version known as the Sigma Pro.

 

Following this, Stax released an additional version of the Sigma which incorporated the drivers from the Lambda series' SR-404. Unfortunately, the only Sigma I have ever heard is my personal pair. This version is known as the normal (or low) bias version in order to distinguish it from the later versions. If the later versions are truly better, then I really must check out a pair. I love the sound of the original Sigma. It is a gorgeous, wide-open sound with unusually lush character for a Stax headphone.

 

The first thing one always notices about the Sigma is how odd they look. I'm not sure which is more cumbersome looking - the K1000 or the Sigma. In my opinion, the Sigma is even more unusual looking, although it is far more comfortable than the K1000. Both models are champions of the soundstage, though I gave the K1000 top prize because its soundstage presentation is customizable.

 

The Sigma, in all its incarnations, has been out of production for quite a while. Unfortunately, it doesn't seem that Stax is bringing back the design any time soon. However, these things pop up for sale on the forums fairly often.

 

 

STRENGTHS

TRANSPARENT: The Sigma's sound signature is all about space and ambiance. Stax really got it right here. The Sigma is not only effortless with regard to its rendering of space, but it also manages to produce a fairly natural sounding tonal balance. All in all, I would say that the Sigma is a transparent sounding headphone.

TONALITY: For what it's worth, I love the tonality of the Sigma. However, this does not mean that I don't take issue with a few its attributes. The Sigma's tonality is very close to neutral. There is a bit of added warmth, though the bass extension is lacking. The mids have an unusually natural quality about them. The Sigma's top end is not nearly as forward as the SR-507's, yet it is no less detailed. 

MIDS: The Sigma's mids are very pure sounding. There is a lifelike quality about the Sigma's sound; I find that much of this has to do with three things, decay, soundstage and the midrange presentation, the latter of which is flatter than most and is seamlessly integrated with the treble region.

SOUNDSTAGE PRINCE: In all honesty, the Sigma's soundstage is no less impressive than the K1000's (which I awarded the title of "Soundstage King"). The Sigma's soundstage is huge. It offers tremendous height, width, and depth. It is quite spherical in its presentation. The only reason that I have awarded the K1000 top bill is that unlike the Sigma, the K1000's soundstage presentation is customizable.

DECAY: The SR-Sigma's decay is wonderfully quick, but is slightly slower than the SR-507's decay. However, I actually prefer the Sigma's decay­ to that of the SR-507. It sounds even more natural to me.

TRANSIENT RESPONSE: From my experience, electrostatic transducers typically offer a distinctively liquid--like transient response. The Sigma is no exception.

IMAGING: The Sigma's imaging ability is pretty on-point. Instruments are easy to position within the mix. Only a few other headphones are able to home in with more accuracy.

GENRE MASTER: Because of its highly-praised soundstaging abilities, I presumed that the Sigma was targeted to the classical-music-listener. Classical music benefits tremendously from a headphone which offers a wide/three dimensional soundstage presentation. However, I have found that the soundstage is quite spherical rather than just wide. The Sigma manages to excel with every type of music, although I still find that it sounds the best with classical and large-ensemble jazz music.

 

 

WEAKNESSES

AMPING: The original (normal bias) Sigma terminates to 6-pin plug. Stax abandoned this design long ago and as a result, the number of amps available to accept this type of connector is less than optimal. Fortunately, my Blue Hawaii Special Edition offers this output.

OUT OF PRODUCTION: Many parts are still available for the original Sigma; however, not all of the parts still exist. As a result, the headphone is not all that easy to service/repair. Considering that many of the original Sigma models are well over 30-years-old, this may be a bit of a concern.

 

 

ON THE FENCE

BASS: I find that the Sigma's bass presentation is a bit of a mixed bag. While the headphone's sound has a warm tinge about it, there is no denying that it lacks a bit of bass extension. On the other hand, the mid-bass exhibits quite a bit of weight without being overly impactful or intrusive.

TREBLE: The Sigma's treble presentation is a bit subdued. I have read several accounts which claim that the Sigma Pro and the Sigma/404 offer a more natural and forward treble presentation. I am not unhappy with the Sigma's treble presentation, but I am open to hearing a more forward treble presentation.

COMFORT: Funnily enough, this bulky headphone is not that uncomfortable. Yes, it weighs a bit more than average, but the headband exerts a mild grip, giving the listener much more comfort than can be perceived by just observing the headphone.

CONSTRUCTION: One of my closest friends says that the Sigma is a monstrosity. It certainly is unusual looking, and quite cumbersome. However, I appreciate what Stax attempted to achieve here - a large sound. The Sigma's debut preceded the K1000's by more than a decade. The reason I bring this up is because I feel that the Sigma and the K1000 are headphones that were designed to provide a more speaker-like sonic presentation. As a result, both headphones happen to be incredibly awkward looking. I think it is to Stax's credit that my personal pair is more than thirty years old and it has not fallen apart or stopped functioning. Other than the earpads, my pair is in entirely original condition.

 

 

FOR THE PRICE

A

I truly enjoy the sound of the Sigma. I considered giving it an A+ value rating, but I decided that since it was no longer in production, the price is too uncertain. If you are in the market for an amazing electrostatic headphone and happen to find a Sigma in excellent condition for around $800, I would consider the purchase. I hope to hear the highly-touted variations of the Sigma one day. For now, I will stick with the original SR-Sigma.

 

 

QUICK CHECK
  • DESIGN: Full-Size
  • DRIVERS: Electrostatic
  • ISOLATION: Little to None
  • AMPLIFICATION: Absolutely Requires Amp
  • MY PREFERRED AMP: HeadAmp Blue Hawaii Special Edition
  • SOUNDS BEST WITH: Everything & Anything
  • CABLES USED: Stock
  • REVISIONS KNOWN: At least 2 known to me
  • FLAGSHIP STATUS: Once Was
  • PRODUCTION STATUS AS OF 2012: Out Of Production
  • COST: $800 (estimated)

 

 
#15 STAX: SR-007 MkII (Omega 2 MkII)
 

noimageI own both the SR-007 MkI and the SR-007 MkII. Without exception, I find that the MKI version is more natural sounding. I have found that many people who have spent time with both models also prefer the original version.

 

I feel it is worth mentioning that the SR-007 is universally known and referred to as the Omega 2. There are two official versions of the Omega 2 as specified by the manufacturer. In addition to their sonic differences, there are some slight cosmetic variations between the two models.

 

The most obvious difference in sonic character between the Omega 2 MkI and MkII is the bass presentation. The MkII's driver features two small holes whereas the MkI's driver does not. The two holes were implemented by Stax in order to increase the mid-bass impact. As a result, the overall tonality feels less balanced. Renowned Head-Fier Spritzer invented a mod which fills these holes in order to bring the sound signature of the MkII closer to that of the MkI. It is not a mod that I've attempted, though it is reversible, and many appreciate its effects.

 

Despite my assessment that the MkI version is, all around, better than the MkII version, the latter is still a fine headphone which deserves praise. Some may prefer the more forward mid-bass presentation of the MkII version. Yet, the most obvious advantage of the MkII version is that it is still currently in production as I write this review; the MkI version has been out of production for a number of years.

 

 

STRENGTHS

TRANSPARENT: The Omega 2 MkII is an extremely transparent headphone. It may be no less transparent than its highly-esteemed sibling, the MkI version.

MIDS: The midrange presentation here is very enjoyable, offering some low mid emphasis. Here, vocals have depth and stringed instruments possess a sense of weight that is very natural sounding.

TRANSIENT RESPONSE: If you are reading this review from beginning to end, then I think it is significant to mention that, in my opinion, the Omega 2 MkII offers the most natural transient response in the ranking thus far. Transients produced here are neither aggressive nor overtly smooth.

ROCK & JAZZ MASTERS: The Omega 2 MkII, like its predecessor, is a wonderful headphone for rock and jazz listeners. Because its sound signature is a bit on the darker side, brightly-mastered music and/or sonically aggressive music (i.e., excessive cymbal work; overdriven guitars) will not be extraordinarily fatiguing; instruments sound full and thick, without harshness.

DECAY: The SR-007 offers a fast decay. This plays a significant role with regard to detail retrieval.

DETAILED: The SR-007 MkI is slightly more detailed to my ears than the MkII successor. Both are extremely detailed sounding headphones when compared with many others on this list. However, both headphones exhibit a suggestion of mellowness nature which, in my opinion, diminishes their overall detail retrieval just slightly.

COMFORT: I have no complaints regarding the comfort of these headphones. The headband sits on the head in a relaxed but secure manner. The ear-cups, while made of leather, do not overheat my ears all that much. The clamping force of the headband is just tight enough to keep the headphones sturdily in place without exerting any uncomfortable pressure onto the head.

CONSTRUCTION: The SR-007 MkII showcases a very well-articulated design. The cable is installed into a rotating wheel so that you can decide how it hangs while wearing the headphones. The leather earpads can also be rotated; this allows you to manipulate the soundstage presentation to some degree. The materials used in constructing the headphones are primarily metal and leather. The SR-007 MkII features an exceptionally rugged appearance; it looks like serious business. I personally prefer the brown leather finish of my Omega 2 MkI over the black finish of my MkII.

SOUNDSTAGE: The SR-007 MkII's soundstage is fairly wide and fairly tall. Even still, its soundstage is bested by quite a few models.

STORAGE: The Omega 2 MkII comes with an attractive metal carrying case. Inside the case is an open-cell foam interlay; it is certainly one of the most protective cases around. The thick cardboard outer box features a high quality gloss finish; Stax did very well with regards to packaging.

SERIALIZED: As is the case with nearly all high-end audio products, the SR-007 MkII is individually serialized. It is worth mentioning that the SR-007 MkI was simply known as the SR-007 until the release of the MkII version; the MkI edition does not specify the MkI designation. On the other hand, the MkII edition of the SR-007 has always been stamped with the MkII designation.

 

 

WEAKNESSES

LACKS EXCITEMENT: Based on the SR-007's reputation, I imagine that I may take some heat for saying the headphone is not as involving as it could be. Well, I'm willing to accept that not everyone will see eye to eye with me on this, but for me, the SR-007's sound lacks a sense of excitement and energy. Perhaps the fact that the sound signature is subdued is what makes me find it to be a good match for sonically aggressive music.

TINTED: The sound signature of the SR-007 is transparent; however the transparent window between you and the music is darkly tinted - kind of like sonic sun glasses. The sound is very realistic, but the sound also feels darkened and mellowed.

AMP PICKY: In order to sound its best, the SR-007 (both MkI and MkII versions) needs to be driven by an amp which offers a hefty amount of voltage swing. From my experience, the amplifiers which Stax currently offers do not have enough voltage swing to power the SR-007 optimally. When I finally heard the SR-007 paired with HeadAmp's Blue Hawaii Special Edition, I was happily surprised by the results. Prior to acquiring the BHSE, I considered the SR-007 to be a clouded and sometimes inauthentic sounding headphone. The BHSE certainly controls the bass and brings out the transparency of the SR-007 better than any amp I've used. I have not heard the SR-007 paired with the Woo Audio WES, but I have read good things regarding this pairing as well.

MKI: In my opinion, the SR-007 MkI is a superior sounding headphone to its successor. It just has a more honest and natural tone. Considering that the MkI version can typically be found on the used market for less money than a new MkII model, it makes it difficult to recommend the MkII version. Of course, this is all an opinion and there are certainly some users who prefer the SR-007 MkII version to its predecessor.

 

 

ON THE FENCE

TREBLE: Here, the treble presentation succeeds at being nonabrasive - not at all harsh. Yet, I'm not floored by it. For me, there is a lack of air surrounding instruments which is caused by the fact that the treble response is somewhat subdued.

BASS: The most blatant sonic distinction between the MkI and MkII versions of the SR-007 is the bass presentation. The upper bass response of the MkII model is boosted, adding a bit of thickness to the sound. However, I think the overall bass response of the MkI version is better integrated and offers superior extension.

IMAGING: The Omega 2 MkII's imaging ability is far above average. However, if there were more air around the instruments, I feel that the imaging would be enhanced.

EARPAD REMOVABILITY: Replacement earpads are readily available for the SR-007.  However, replacing/re-installing them by hand is not as easy of a task as one may like.

CABLE: As with all the electrostatic headphones that I own, the cable here is not user-removable. This of course is not really a weakness, but surely I prefer when a cable is easily removable. However, as with all the Stax headphones I have used, the construction of the cable is outstanding.

 

 

FOR THE PRICE

C+

The Omega 2 is one of the priciest and most highly esteemed headphones currently in production. However, it is no longer Stax's flagship model; this designation belongs to the SR-009. From the standpoint of price-to-performance, the SR-007 has its pluses and minuses. It is less than half the price of Stax's new flagship, however, it is extremely demanding with regard to amplification, which ultimately may add tremendously to the overall cost. Many actually prefer the SR-009 with a $2,000 amp to the SR-007 with a $5,000 dollar amp. In addition, it may be difficult for some to fork out 2 grand for a headphone that is not a flagship any longer.

The most troubling aspect of the second version of the Omega 2 is that by most accounts, it does not sound as good as its predecessor. As such, I feel hesitant in recommending it. However, if purchasing expensive merchandise used (without warranty) is cause for discouragement, the MkII may be the better version for you.

 

 

QUICK CHECK
  • DESIGN: Full-Size
  • DRIVERS: Electrostatic
  • ISOLATION: Little to None
  • AMPLIFICATION: Absolutely Requires Amp
  • MY PREFERRED AMP: HeadAmp Blue Hawaii Special Edition
  • SOUNDS BEST WITH: Jazz / Rock / Metal / Hip Hop / Reggae / R&B / Pop
  • CABLES USED: Stock
  • REVISIONS KNOWN: At least one known to me
  • FLAGSHIP STATUS: Once Was
  • PRODUCTION STATUS AS OF 2012: In Production
  • COST: $2500 (estimated)

 

 
#14 BEYERDYNAMIC: T1
 

noimageThe 2009-2010 biennial was probably the most exciting two years to be a member of the Head-Fi community, especially if you were in the market for a new flagship headphone. In this period, two new manufacturers (HifiMan and Audez'e), established themselves as industry leaders of planar magnetic headphones; Sennheiser redefined themselves with the HD800 which introduced a revolutionary ring-shaped transducer design; Grado introduced their wood / metal hybrid flagship - the PS1000; Ultrasone introduced an impressive yet expensive portable flagship with the Edition 8; JH Audio introduced the JH13 - the first IEM to incorporate 6 balanced armature drivers per ear...and Beyerdynamic introduced their breakthrough full-size flagship headphone - the T1.

 

The T1 introduced an innovative driver design which was the first to achieve a magnetic flux density measurement exceeding 1 tesla. Essentially, what this means is that the headphone is very efficient, with the potential for a broader dynamic range. Furthermore, the T1 is the most detailed sounding headphone I have ever heard from Beyerdynamic; this includes the T5p and the T70 (both which are newer models that incorporate Beyerdyanmic's patented Tesla driver design); the T1 demonstrates a superior transient response and decay over every other Beyerdynamic model that I have used previously or since.

 

 

STRENGTHS

TONE: The tonal balance of the T1 is accommodative to a wide variety of music; I would describe its frequency response as slightly U-shaped (raised in the bass and treble).

DETAILED: I stepped away from the T1 for a while prior to writing this evaluation. When I came back to it, I was shocked to be reminded just of how much clarity it offered and the amount of nuances it was capable of revealing. In terms of detail, the T1 ranks near the top, even if not quite the top.

SOUNDSTAGE: The T1's soundstage presentation is exceptional, both in size and shape. While it's not as wide as the K1000's or HD800's soundstage, the T1's soundstage is impressive for its forwardness as well as its formidable depth.

DECAY: The T1 boasts one of the fastest-sounding decays of all dynamic transducer headphones.

IMAGING: The T1's drivers are angled. By positioning the drivers on an angle, the sound presentation becomes more finely-contoured; this ultimately enhances the listener's ability to place instruments with greater accuracy.

BASS: The T1 offers wonderful extension and bass quality; however, the bass quantity will depend a great deal on the amplifier one pairs it with.

TRANSIENT RESPONSE: The transient response here is very good. For the most part, it is top level, but I have encountered some rare instances where the attack of a cymbal felt unnatural.

GENRE MASTER: The T1 is one of those headphones that has speed. Because of this, the sound never feels cluttered. For this reason, I find that the T1's sound signature works well with just about any genre.

OFFERS SOME ISOLATION: The T1's semi-open design provides the headphone the ability to block out some ambient noise.

STORAGE: In addition to the traditional cardboard sleeve, the T1 ships with a metal storage case. It is surely nicer than the HD800's rather plain cardboard case. Although it is not the last word in flagship packaging, it is certainly above average.

COMFORT: The T1 is not quite as comfortable as Beyerdynamic's own DT line (such as the DT 880 & DT 990) for the simple reason that it is heavier. Nevertheless, the T1 is still quite comfortable.

SERIALIZED: In my opinion, a flagship headphone must be serialized in order for it to legitimately fulfill the title of "flagship." The T1 is individually serialized.

 

 

WEAKNESSES

LACKS TRANSPARENCY: The T1 does not quite meet my expectations with regard to transparency. It sounds as though it is almost transparent, yet not quite free of grain.

LACKS IMPACT: The T1's sound signature offers a fast decay, but in return, it somehow lacks some visceral impact. I've noticed that I have felt this way regarding all of Beyerdynamic's Tesla-driver models that I've heard thus far.

 

 

ON THE FENCE

MIDS: The mids are slightly recessed here. Bringing the mids forward would put the vocals out front a bit more. Overall however, I think the midrange presentation here is very natural sounding.

TREBLE: When paired with some amps, the treble presentation of the T1 can sometimes sound very hot. Notwithstanding, I normally find the T1's treble presentation to be very natural.

CABLE: For sheer convenience purposes, as well as durability, I always prefer when a cable is user-removable. Even still, the quality of the T1's stock cable seems to be above average.

 

 

FOR THE PRICE

A-

Despite having an impedance rating of 600 ohms, the T1 is easier to pair with an amp than many other headphones. Part of this has to do with the efficiency level of the Tesla driver design. The T1 is a wonderful all-round choice for someone who appreciates everything from Beethoven to Jay-Z. At its price-point, the T1 is a top pick.

 

 

QUICK CHECK
  • DESIGN: Full-Size
  • DRIVERS: Dynamic
  • IMPEDANCE: 600 Ohms
  • ISOLATION: Some
  • AMPLIFICATION: Highly Recommended
  • MY PREFERRED AMP: Manley Labs Neo Classic 300B / SPL Phonitor
  • SOUNDS BEST WITH: Everything & Anything
  • CABLES USED: Stock terminated to 4-pin XLR and stock adaptor
  • REVISIONS KNOWN: None known to me
  • FLAGSHIP STATUS: Currently Is
  • STATUS AS OF 2012: In Production
  • COST: $1399

 

 
#13 AUDEZ'E: LCD-2 (Revision 1)
 

noimagePronounced like “odyssey," but with a “z” instead of the “ss,” Audez'e has played a key role in the resurgence of planar magnetic headphones over the past three years. The LCD-2 was the model which really opened the Audez'e floodgates.

 

The LCD-2 has undergone a number of revisions during the course of its production-run. Therefore, for clarification purposes, I will specify here the Revision 1 refers to the original production version. When I originally published this comparison in October 2012, the Revision 1 was the only version of the LCD-2 that I had spent significant time with. Quite a few people who have heard the LCD-2 in various incarnations, claim that the sound of LCD-2 has been improved since the Rev. 1. I share this sentiment. However, the LCD-2 in its original incarnation is still a wonderful headphone, worthy of its own consideration and ranking position.

 

In my 2010 review of my top 20 headphones, the LCD-2 was my runner-up choice, just behind the R10 bass-heavy model. At its present ranking position, the LCD-2's noticeable difference in rank may deceive some into thinking that it has fallen out of favor with me. This is not the case.  The reason for this is that since writing the original review in 2010, I have acquired an abundance of headphones and gear which gave way to several new front-ranking inclusions. The HE-6 and HD800 are the only two headphones on my current list to move in front of the LCD-2 from the previous list. The reason for this has to do with improved amplification. However, the most feasible reason for the LCD-2's fall in the ranking is the LCD-3; the LCD-3 essentially does everything the LCD-2 can do but with a greater sense of clarity and transparency. The two models sound quite a bit alike and perhaps I see less reason to give the LCD-2 head-time because of this.

 

 

STRENGTHS

PRINCE OF DARKNESS #1: The LCD-2 is a wonderful sounding headphone. It offers a slightly darkened flavor, though in doing so, it provides a non-fatiguing / mellow-sounding listen; all this without compromising on transparency. I consider the LCD-2 to be the “prince of darkness."...a little inside joke for you jazz fans... :)

TRANSPARENT: In terms of transparency alone, I may in fact favor the LCD-2 to the HE-6 and the HD800. But it is not so simple. The sound of the LCD-2 is smooth, very smooth, and as a result it lacks a bit of air up on top. Both the HE-6 and HD800 possess a bit more air in their sound signature, and as a result, exude more naturalness in certain ways. Simultaneously, both the HE-6's and the HD800's treble presentation can sometimes sound overly aggressive, depending on the system.

MIDS: The midrange presentation of the LCD-2 is truly one of the best I've heard - full and thick without excessive forwardness.

BASS: It seems that one of the hallmarks of Audez'e's sound is their bass. The bass here is not only fully extended, but is of a quality that is bested only by an extremely small handful of headphones, one of which is Audez'e's own LCD-3.

STORAGE: The wooden case which came with my LCD-2 Revision 1 is quite stunning. However, it is a very fragile case, which seems to be prone to small nicks. Most recently, Audez'e has switched to shipping all LCD-2's with the much more rugged travel case.

CABLE: The LCD-2's cable is terminated with mini XLR connectors (my favorite type of connector), which are easy to install and unplug from the headphone. AKG too uses this type of connection in the K702's design. I personally wish HifiMan would switch to this design, rather than their screw-in cable design which often becomes easily unscrewed. While the quality of the LCD-2's cable appears to be above average, I still opt to use an aftermarket cable; I use the A Pure Sound V3.

SERIALIZED: While each LCD-2 is individually serialized, the serial numbers are generated at random, rather than in numerical order. Audez'e generously includes a frequency response report of your individual pair.

 

 

WEAKNESSES

LACKS DIMENSION: The sound of the LCD-2 sometimes lacks a sense of airiness. When I compare the LCD-2 against other top-flight headphones such as the SR-009, HE90, and HD800, I often feel as though the LCD-2's sound lacks some depth and dimension.

NOT NEUTRAL: The sound of the LCD-2 is seductive, though neutrality seekers should probably consider other headphones first; the sound here is a bit darker than neutral.

COMFORT: For me, the LCD-2 Rev.1 is one of the least comfortable headphones in my collection; the clamp is tight and the earpads are not particularly soft - a bad combination. For this reason, I rarely find that I use the LCD-2 for long listening sessions. Some LCD-2 owners have told me that the later revisions of the LCD-2 are an improvement with regards to comfort; others have told me that the improvement is not drastic enough.

THE LCD-3: At around half the price of the LCD-3, the LCD-2 is one of the best values in all of the high-end headphone market. Yet at the same time, the LCD-3 has a similar sound signature that bests the LCD-2 in every conceivable way.

TOO MANY REVISIONS: In the time since I have acquired the Rev. 1, the LCD-2 has undergone numerous design changes. Some of these changes involved alterations to the sound, while others were implemented in order to improve the functionality and design of the headphone. Personally, it bothers me when there are several distinct variations made of a single product, especially in such a short period of time - less than three years.

OPEN-CELL FOAM HEADBAND: At the time that I purchased the LCD-2, it was not yet being built with the improved leather headband. In its original configuration, the LCD-2 Rev. 1 featured a small strip of open-cell foam glued onto the metal headband; this is not an attractive sight to behold, nor is it particularly comfortable. Today, the LCD-2 is sold with the leather headband exclusively.

 

 

ON THE FENCE

TREBLE: The treble here is never harsh or abrasive, but it lacks sparkle. I once tried to use the LCD-2 as a headphone for mastering purposes, but I found that I often over-compensated for the recessed treble; I ended up with bright results when I did this.

SOUNDSTAGE: The LCD-2's soundstage is fairly wide. However, it is not as well-defined as some other headphones' soundstages, including Audez'e's own LCD-3.

AMP PICKY: The LCD-2 has the tendency to be amp-picky. However, following the boom of orthodynamic headphones (for which the LCD-2 played a major role) many third-party manufacturers introduced amplifiers specifically designed to accommodate the specific needs of the LCD-2 and other orthodynamic headphones.

 

 

FOR THE PRICE

A

The LCD-2 is one of the best sounding sub-$1000 headphones I've heard. I do wish Audez'e would have done some further beta testing before releasing this LCD-2, only to change and correct the design several times. However, throughout its course of production, the LCD-2 has remained at the forefront of high-end audio. If you are discerning about sound, but not ultra picky about comfort, the LCD-2 is worth your consideration.

 

 

QUICK CHECK
  • DESIGN: Full-Size
  • DRIVERS: Planar Magnetic
  • IMPEDANCE: 50 Ohms
  • ISOLATION: Little to None
  • AMPLIFICATION: Highly Recommended
  • MY PREFERRED AMP: TTVJ Millett 307A / SPL Phonitor
  • SOUNDS BEST WITH: Jazz / Rock / Metal / Electronic / Reggae / Hip Hop / R&B / Pop
  • CABLES USED: Stock Single-Ended / A Pure Sound V3 4-Pin XLR
  • REVISIONS KNOWN: Several
  • FLAGSHIP STATUS: Once Was
  • STATUS AS OF 2012: In Production (not Rev. 1 Version)
  • COST: $995 (without aftermarket cable) $1295 (with aftermarket cable)

 

 
#12 GRADO: HP1000 (HP2 version)
 

noimageGrado is a brand that has polarized the audio community for at least as long as I've been a part of it. Maybe it's their simplistic retro-design; maybe it's their unremarkable packaging; maybe their sound signature is simply not for everyone; maybe their SR60 model gets so close to perfection at such an affordable price that not everyone can justify spending more for an improved-yet-similar-sounding headphone. Whatever the reason, I have seen Grado take more heat in the forums than most other brands.

 

Despite the fact that the SR60 was one of my first headphone purchases, it was several years before I pursued the Grado product-line further. In fact, when I compared 20 headphones back in 2010, not a single one of them was a Grado. Today, I own five Grado headphones and I have had the chance to spend considerable time sampling their entire current product line.

 

Grado's long-out-of-production HP1000 is considered by many to be the single best headphone that the manufacturer ever made. It was produced in three different incarnations: the HP1, HP2 and HP3. A thousand units were made in total. The HP1 featured polarity switches. The HP2 is the most common variation of the HP1000 and is considered to be the best sounding by many. The HP3 was similar to the HP2, but is considered inferior due to the fact that the manufacturer was more lenient with regard to matching the drivers.

 

Founder of Grado Labs, Joseph Grado, is still pursuing ultimate audio perfection. Today, at 90+ years of age, he offers an exclusive mod for owners of the HP1000 (a headphone which he personally designed). I had the opportunity to hear a pair with this modification. While I could understand some preferring the sound quality of the modded pair, for me, the unmodified pair sounds more neutral and is ultimately my preference.

 

Of all the Grado headphones that I have had the pleasure of hearing, the HP2 is the most neutral sounding. Because of this, it remains my favorite in their product line.

 

 

STRENGTHS

NEUTRAL: The HP2 is a highly neutral-sounding headphone. It does not emphasize any specific region within the audio spectrum. No matter the music you throw at it, it's going to sound tonally balanced.

 

VISCERAL TACTILITY: When I use the HP2, I experience a wonderfully visceral feeling that connects me with the music.

 

MIDS: The hallmark of this headphone is its midrange presentation; it is a very flat and involving midrange. With the HP2, vocals come forward and sound tonally accurate.

 

BASS: While the HP2 is not the last word in bass extension, it possesses a wonderfully impactful bass response. You really get to feel the slam of the drums.

 

MONO MASTER: I love listening to older jazz recordings with the HP2 - those great mono recordings. I feel as though the older Okeh, RCA and Savoy recordings really shine when using the HP2 - perhaps it's the finest choice for these recordings.

 

DECAY: While the decay here is not as fast as with electrostatic headphones, the HP1000 offers a very natural-sounding decay.

 

EASY TO AMP: It is difficult to make this highly efficient headphone sound bad; it sounds good with any amplifier that I've paired it with.

 

REMOVABLE EARPADS: As is the case with all other Grado headphones, the HP1000 was designed with removable earpads. However, unlike Grado's current offerings, the HP1000's stock earpads are scarcely available for replacement. As far as I am aware, Todd the Vinyl Junkie still has these earpads available. Meanwhile, I have been told that Joe Grado is currently developing an improved earpad design for the HP1000.

 

SERIALIZED: Only 1,000 units of the HP1000 were made. Each one is individually serialized.

 

 

WEAKNESSES

CHIPPING PAINT: I was lucky enough to score a pair in excellent condition. However, the majority of HP1000s today display chipped paint where red lettering was imprinted onto the ear-cup.

 

COMFORT: Like most of Grado's on-ear offerings, the HP1000 is not a top pick for comfort. The only Grado headphones which are noticeably more comfortable to my ears are the PS1000 and GS1000i (their circum-aural models which feature larger earpads).

 

STORAGE: The original box that came with the HP1000 featured a thin cardboard exterior with an internal blue foam interlay - nothing fancy. Of course, the original asking price of the HP1000 was not what it is today on the used market.

 

 

ON THE FENCE

LACKS ULTIMATE TRANSPARENCY: While the HP2 is a very transparent sounding headphone, it feels somehow lacking when compared against other headphones at a similar price point (such as the LCD-3 and Omega 2).

 

TREBLE: The treble presentation of the HP1000 is very good, if just a hair rolled off. Ultimately, this roll-off makes it a more forgiving headphone.

 

SOUNDSTAGE: Grado headphones generally don't offer the widest soundstage presentation; the HP1000 is not an exception. However, the soundstage here is wonderfully intimate and extremely well-defined.

 

CONSTRUCTION: The HP1000 is probably the most industrial-looking headphone in my collection; the design is extremely rugged. I appreciate this. Like all full-size Grado headphones, the headband is adjustable by exerting some pressure to the bow. In this case, you have to work a little hard to manipulate the shape and tension of the headband. However, the simplistic/plain-looking design of Grado headphones has never thrilled me - not a deal-breaker, but not particularly appealing to me.

 

CABLE: My HP2 has the original stock cable installed. I cannot confirm much about its internal quality; however, I have heard the HP2 re-terminated with an aftermarket cable and I happen to prefer the sound of my pair. As with all other Grado headphones, the HP1000's cable is hardwired.

 

 

FOR THE PRICE

B-

The asking price of the HP1000 varies quite a bit on the used market. Some things to consider are the headphone's overall condition, whether or not it is an HP1, HP2 or HP3 version, and finally, whether or not it has been modified by Joe Grado (and only Joe Grado). One of the reasons the price varies so much is due to the chipping paint. If you can be satisfied with a headphone that looks used and abused, then save yourself some money and search for one that has chipped paint; it's just a cosmetic blemish anyway. I've seen poor condition pairs sell for less than a grand, while I've seen excellent condition pairs sell for an excess of 3000 dollars. For the price of $3000+, the HP1000 is, perhaps, not an amazing value. However, for around a grand, the HP1000 may be a best buy.

 

 

QUICK CHECK
  • DESIGN: On-Ear
  • DRIVERS: Dynamic
  • IMPEDANCE: 40 Ohms
  • ISOLATION: Little to None
  • AMPLIFICATION: Recommended
  • MY PREFERRED AMP: TTVJ Millett 307A / SPL Phonitor / Woo Audio 5
  • SOUNDS BEST WITH: Jazz / Rock / Metal / Blues / Old Recordings
  • CABLES USED: Stock
  • REVISIONS KNOWN: At least three known to me
  • FLAGSHIP STATUS: Limited Production Flagship
  • PRODUCTION STATUS AS OF 2012: Out Of Production
  • COST: $1000-$3000 (estimated)

 

 
#11 AUDEZ'E: LCD-2 (Revision 2)
 

noimageThe LCD-2 has undergone several revisions; more than two, although the headphone is presently discussed in terms of two distinct revisions. These two revisions are distinguished by the sonic change brought forth by an alteration to the thickness of the driver. Essentially, the second revision employs a marginally thinner driver, resulting in some subtle yet definable sonic distinctions. Upon introducing this headphone roundup, I had only had experience with the first version of the LCD-2. Today, I own both versions. I am happy to say with certainty that I prefer the second revision in every conceivable way. It is built better, looks better, and most importantly, sounds superior.

 

One specific question that I had running through my head as I wrote this section was “how different does the Revision 2 sound from the Revision 1?” For me, the answer to this question is that the Revision 2 is better while still maintaining the overall signature of the original. While critical listening reveals some obvious differences, the two versions may in fact be similar enough so that a quick/casual comparison may not necessarily yield a victor in one's mind. This leads me to the conclusion that one who already owns the first Revision should not be overly concerned that they own the "lesser" version. Of course, there will be some who feel that the difference is not as subtle as I feel it is. My response would be that it's all about relativity. Compared to a totally separate headphone model, the two LCD-2 revisions sound largely similar. Compared to each other, they show themselves to be different. The Revision 2 sounds airier than the original. Despite this, if I had it my way, I would actually prefer even more air and sparkle. The decay of notes is slightly quicker as well. Subsequently, the sound of the headphone is marginally brighter (and more neutral perhaps) than the Revision 1's.

 

Please note: As I compiled this review, it became increasingly difficult for me to avoid recycling some of the same comments I had previously made regarding the Revision 1. In truth, the two headphones are marginally different. Therefore, this review will read similarly to that of the Revision 1.

 

 

STRENGTHS

PRINCE OF DARKNESS #2: I am going to start here by reiterating what I originally stated about the Revision 1: The LCD-2 is a wonderful sounding headphone. It offers a slightly darkened flavor, though in doing so, it provides a non-fatiguing / mellow-sounding listen; all this without compromising on transparency. I consider the LCD-2 to be the “prince of darkness."...a little inside joke for you jazz fans... :) The LCD-2 Rev. 2 is not quite as dark as the Rev. 1. There is a sense of added air and neutrality. However, I still maintain that the LCD-2 is darker than neutral. As such, I feel it would be appealing to someone looking for a darkened quality, not entirely devoid of neutrality.

 

TRANSPARENT In terms of transparency alone, I may in fact favor the LCD-2 to the HE-6 and the HD800. But it is not so simple. The sound of the LCD-2 is smooth, very smooth, and as a result it lacks a bit of air up on top. I must say that the Revision 2 is improved in this regard, but still not entirely devoid of this characterization. Both the HE-6 and HD800 possess a bit more air in their sound signature, and as a result, exude more naturalness in certain ways. Simultaneously, both the HE-6's and the HD800's treble presentation can sometimes sound overly aggressive, depending on the system.

 

*Please note here that I have made nearly the identical statement regarding the Revision 2's transparency as I did of the Revision 1. However, I want to make clear that to my ears, the Revision 2 is actually more transparent than the Revision 1. It manages to have faster, more natural decay which lends itself to being more transparent. It is the main area in which the Revision 2 improves upon the original, and it is the most notable reason for which I have given the Revision 2 a higher rank.

 

MIDS: To my ears, the midrange presentation of the LCD-2 Revision 2 is a just a hair more recessed than the Revision 1. However, the difference is extremely marginal; I feel that both versions possess a close-to-flat midrange presentation, possessing hints of forwardness. I'm not entirely convinced there is a clear winner here.

 

DECAY: The LCD-2 Revision 2 offers a slightly quicker decay than the Revision 1. While this adds a sense of greater detail, it is a characteristic that could be easily overlooked while doing casual comparison. Instead, one may come away with the impression that the LCD-2 Revision 2 is brighter than the Revision 1. While the Revision 2 does sound marginally brighter, I believe this is largely because the decay is faster.

 

JAZZ & VOCAL MASTER: Let me first note that the Rev. 2 excels in all forms of percussive music. This includes reggae, r&b, pop, electronic, hip hop. As I flipped between the Revision 1 and the Revision 2 versions, I took note that jazz music in particular sounded more lively and vivacious with the Revision 2. To me, the sound signature seems to be an ideal flavor for small ensemble jazz (particularly piano trios). The sound rivets resonated in the cymbals came forward a bit more but without any added aggressiveness. Pianos sound full of weight without a shred of tubbiness. And bass sounds fully extended and extremely well balanced in the mixed. Moreover, vocals exhibit a greater sense richness when I compare directly with the Revision 1. In contrasting the two versions of the LCD-2 over several hours, it became more and more noticeable to me that the LCD-2 brought forth a greater sense of air and upper-harmonics. It is not a tremendous difference in presentation, but rather a refinement.

 

BASS: The Revision 2’s bass response feels equally extended as the Revision 1’s. However, there may be a tad less impact. I could imagine some people actually preferring the first revision for this reason. However, the bass here feels better defined. I prefer this. Again, these differences are marginal.

 

STORAGE: Audez’e ships all their headphones now with a travel-size pelican style case. It is extremely rugged and keeps the headphones secure while in transit. It is not quite the eye candy of their earlier wooden cases, but functionally, it is a better way of securing and storing the headphones.

 

CASE:The LCD-2's cable is terminated with mini XLR connectors (my favorite type of connector), which are easy to install and unplug from the headphone. AKG too uses this type of connection in the K702's design. The Revision 2 ships with Audez’e’s wonderfully sleek flat cable, reminiscent of electrostatic headphones.

 

SERIALIZED: While each LCD-2 is individually serialized, the serial numbers are generated at random, rather than in numerical order. Audez'e generously includes a frequency response report of your individual pair.

 

 

 

WEAKNESSES

LACKS DIMENSION: The sound of the LCD-2 sometimes lacks a sense of airiness. Even though the LCD-2 Rev. 2 is superior to the LCD-2 Rev. 1 in this regard, I still come away with the same criticism. When I compare the LCD-2 against other top-flight headphones such as the SR-009, HE90, and HD800, I often feel as though the LCD-2's sound lacks some depth and dimension.

 

NOT NEUTRAL: If you're keeping score, you may notice a trend: my criticisms of the LCD-2 Rev. 2 are identical to that of the Rev. 1. However, in that the sound signatures are not identical, I happen to feel that the Rev. 2 manages to be a bit more neutral than that of the Rev. 1. Either way, the LCD-2 is not my recommendation for neutrality-seekers. I toyed with the idea of moving this particular attribute to the "On the Fence" section because the LCD-2 comes across as neutral-ish, but ultimately falls short in this regard. Again, this is only a criticism if one is seeking neutrality.

 

COMFORT: Despite Audez'e's numerous revisions to the LCD-2's design, I don't feel as though the LCD-2 manages to be a supremely comfortable headphone. The headphone is still a heavy one that clamps the head more aggressively than I would like. Fortunately, the tension is a bit looser here than the Revision 1 version and, as a result, it is slightly more comfortable than the original. Unfortunately, I don't feel it is improved enough in this regard.

 

THE LCD-3: In the Revision 1 segment, I commented that the LCD-3 bests the LCD-2 in every conceivable way. I still feel this way regarding the Revision 2 - the LCD-3 is better. This makes choosing between the two a no-brainer if cost is of no issue. However, the LCD-2 Revision 2 inches closer to the LCD-3 in its current revision assuming that the LCD-2 is in its final revision, which leads me to...

 

TOO MANY REVISIONS From the headphone enthusiast perspective, I will always commend a manufacturer for spending time and money on improving their products. That is precisely what I feel Audez'e as done with regard to the LCD-2. However, from the perspective of the consumer, it is frustrating to fork out almost a grand and then find out shortly thereafter that there is a new revision. The good news is that it doesn't appear that Audez'e is revising the LCD-2 as often as they used to. Perhaps they have reached a final version?

 

 

 

ON THE FENCE

TREBLE: I criticized the Revision 1 for having a recessed treble. When I A/Bed the Revision 1 and the Revision 2, the Revision 2 left me with the impression that there was an added layer of air around the instruments. Then when I switched to the SR-009 and the HD800, I felt as though the LCD-2 Rev. 2 still could have benefited from more presence in the treble. It's a matter of relativity of course. Many will prefer the treble of the LCD-2 because it is less forward. Like many of the attributes discussed here, the treble presentation here shows to be an incremental improvement over the Revision 1's.

 

DESIGN: I thought it would be worth making note of the various design/cosmetic improvements which the Revision 2 has over the Revision 1. These include, but are not limited to a leather headband (instead of hideous open-cell foam), angled metal connectors (instead of wood), and the option of bamboo wood (as shown in my photo) in addition to the original rosewood. The tension of the headband is also improved. Still, the deisgn is not without its problems. I still find the headphones too tight for optimal comfort. Equally concerning, the tighter-than-average grip causes the leather earpads to overheat more easily than they should.

 

SOUNDSTAGE: While there is an added sense of air over the original, I still find the soundstage presentation to be lacking. It is fairly wide, but not as well-defined as many other options.

 

AMP PICKY: The LCD-2 has the tendency to be amp-picky. However, following the boom of orthodynamic headphones (for which the LCD-2 played a major role) many third-party manufacturers introduced amplifiers specifically designed to accommodate the specific needs of the LCD-2 and other orthodynamic headphones.

 

 

FOR THE PRICE

A

The LCD-2 Revision 2 is a clear evolution of the Revision 1. It maintains everything I liked about the Revision 1, but with some noticeable improvements, both sonically and functionally. While the degree of improvement is debatable, I am confident that most listeners would agree that the Revision 2 sounds better. It is also worth noting that the LCD-2 has maintained its status of being the highest ranked headphone on my list for under $1000.

 

 

QUICK CHECK
  • DESIGN: Full-Size
  • DRIVERS: Planar Magnetic
  • IMPEDANCE: 50 Ohms
  • ISOLATION: Little to None
  • AMPLIFICATION: Highly Recommended
  • MY PREFERRED AMP: TTVJ Millett 307A / SPL Phonitor SPL Phonitor / Woo Audio 5
  • SOUNDS BEST WITH: Jazz / Vocal / Rock / Metal / Electronic / Reggae / Hip Hop / R&B
  • CABLES USED: Stock Single-Ended / A Pure Sound V3 4-Pin XLR
  • REVISIONS Several
  • FLAGSHIP STATUS: Once Was
  • PRODUCTION STATUS AS OF 2013: In Production
  • COST: $995 (bamboo version) / $1145 (rosewood version)

 

 
#10 STAX: SR-007 MkI (Omega 2 MkI)
 

noimageThe SR-007 MkI was a headphone that I had heard at several meets before I decided to purchase it. While the headphone left a positive impression on me, I was never able to understand the sense of awe which some its fan base seem to have. I've observed the Stax devotees (better known as the "Stax Army") for years. After much persuasion and influence, I decided that I would purchase a top-of-the-line Stax setup for myself.

 

For clarification purposes, let me reiterate that the names SR-007 and Omega 2 are synonymous. I purchased the Omega 2 MkII version first. I was very impressed with how this headphone performed with my HeadAmp Blue Hawaii Special Edition amplifier. Several months later, I purchased the SR-007 MkI. My feelings regarding the differences between the two models are pretty much identical to the majority of sentiments I've read on this forum - the MkI version is, overall, the better sounding model; it exhibits more sparkle in the treble and greater extension in the bass. The MkII version has a raised mid-bass response, but ultimately sounds less natural. Let me just say... Both headphones are excellent sounding regardless of which one I prefer.

All praise aside, I still cannot quite get on board with others who feel that the SR-007 is among the two or three best sounding models in headphone history. There are quite a few people who hold this headphone in much higher regard than I do. Some see the Omega 2's sound signature as an extremely neutral and transparent window into the music. I personally feel that while the SR-007 succeeds at being very enjoyable much of the time, it sometimes falls short in terms of  excitement. Despite the fact that I enjoy the SR-007's sound immensely, I sometimes find its sound to be a bit underwhelming; its sonic presentation does not captivate me nearly as much as the SR-009's for instance. The SR-007 exhibits a mellow and dark tone - not a neutral tone to my ears.

 

Yet before one reads this section as a negative campaign against the SR-007, please allow me to clarify that, in my opinion, the SR-007 succeeds at being extremely transparent. It may in fact be more transparent than the HE-6, HD800, LCD-3, and MDR-R10 - all four of which I have placed higher in the ranking than the SR-007. It is the headphone's subdued nature which ultimately persuades me to position the SR-007 MkI as far back in the ranking as #10.

 

I feel it is also worth mentioning that the SR-007 is not the SR-Omega. The SR-Omega is a different headphone which Stax manufactured prior to the Omega 2.

 

 

STRENGTHS

TRANSPARENT: In my opinion, the most impressive thing a headphone can do is erase itself - make itself disappear so it's just you and the night and the music. That is what transparency is to me. For its transparency alone, the Omega 2 MkI is a genuinely wonderful headphone. There is something ultimately transparent about the sound of electrostatic transducers altogether.

 

BASS: I prefer the Omega 2 MkI's bass presentation to that of the MkII version. It exhibits better extension but less mid-bass emphasis.

 

MIDS: The midrange presentation of the Omega 2 MkI is very flat with just a hair of emphasis in the lower mids. This type of presentation allow vocals to come forward with fantastic depth.

 

TRANSIENT RESPONSE: For those who are taking the time to read this review from beginning to end, let me say here that the Omega 2 MkI (along with the Omega 2 MkII) has the best transient response of any headphone in the review thus far. Here, transients are neither aggressive nor overtly smooth; the transient response sounds very natural.

 

DECAY: The SR-007 offers a fast decay. This plays a significant role with regard to detail retrieval.

 

DETAILED: The SR-007 MkI is slightly more detailed to my ears than the MkII successor. Both are extremely detailed sounding headphones when compared with many others on this list. However, its subdued nature diminishes the overall detail retrieval just slightly.

 

ROCK & JAZZ MASTERS: I highly recommend the Omega 2 MkI to rock and jazz listeners. Because its sound signature is a bit on the darker side, brightly-mastered music and/or sonically aggressive music (i.e.: excessive cymbal work; overdriven guitars) is not extraordinarily fatiguing; instruments sound full and thick, without harshness.

 

COMFORT: I have no complaints regarding the comfort of this headphone. The headband sits on the head in a relaxed yet secure manner. The ear-cups, while made of leather, do not overheat my ears all that much. The clamping force of the headband is just tight enough to keep the headphones sturdily in place without exerting any uncomfortable pressure to the head.

 

CONSTRUCTION: The SR-007 MkI showcases a rather thoughtful design. The cable is installed into a rotating wheel so that you can decide how it hangs while wearing the headphones. The leather earpads can also be rotated; this allows one to manipulate the soundstage presentation somewhat. The materials used in constructing the headphones are primarily metal and leather. The SR-007 MKI features an exceptionally rugged appearance; it looks like serious business. I personally prefer the brown leather finish of my Omega 2 MkI to the black finish of my MkII.

 

SOUNDSTAGE: The SR-007 MKI's soundstage is fairly wide and fairly tall. Even still, its soundstaging ability happens to be bested by quite a few models.

 

STORAGE: The Omega 2 MkI comes with an attractive metal carrying case. Inside the case is an open-cell foam interlay; it is certainly one of the most protective cases around. The thick cardboard outer box features a high quality gloss finish; Stax did very well with regards to packaging.

 

SERIALIZED: As is the case with nearly all high-end audio products, the SR-007 MkI is individually serialized. It is worth mentioning here that the SR-007 MkI was simply known as the SR-007 until the release of the MkII version. In other words, the MkI edition does not specify the MkI designation on the headphone itself or the box. On the other hand, the MkII edition of the SR-007 has always been stamped with the MkII designation.

 

 

WEAKNESSES

LACKS EXCITEMENT: Based on the SR-007's reputation, I imagine that I may take some heat for saying the headphone is not as engaging as it could be. Well, I'm willing to accept that not everyone will see eye to eye with me on this, but for me, the SR-007's sound lacks a sense of excitement and energy. Yet the fact that the sound signature is subdued is perhaps the reason that I find the headphone to be a good choice for sonically aggressive music.

 

TINTED: The sound signature of the SR-007 is transparent. However, the transparent window between the listener and the music is darkly tinted - kind of like sonic sun glasses. The sound is very realistic, but at the same time feels darkened and mellowed.

 

AMP PICKY: In order to sound its best, the SR-007 (both MkI and MkII versions) needs to be driven by an amp which offers a hefty amount of voltage swing. From my experience, the amplifiers which Stax currently offers do not offer enough voltage swing to power the SR-007 optimally. When I finally heard the SR-007 paired with HeadAmp's Blue Hawaii Special Edition, I was happily surprised by the results. Prior to acquiring the BHSE, I considered the SR-007 to be a clouded (and sometimes) inauthentic sounding headphone. The BHSE certainly controls the bass and brings out the transparency of the SR-007 better than any amp I've paired it with. I have not heard the SR-007 paired with the Woo Audio WES, but I have read good things regarding this pairing as well.

 

OUT OF PRODUCTION: While the SR-007 MkII is still in production, the MkI version is no longer being made. It is unknown to me whether or not Stax still has MkI drivers available for replacement should a driver fail. I suspect they may, but acquiring it may not be an easy task. Either way, I consider "out of production" to be a negative attribute for the simple fact that an out-of-production headphone is typically more difficult to service than an in-production headphone.

 

MKII: While I do find that the MkI version is better sounding than the MkII, the latter comes with a full manufacturer's warranty when purchased new. This may make the MkII a more attractive offering to some.

 

 

ON THE FENCE

TREBLE: The SR-007 MkI's treble presentation succeeds at being nonabrasive; it is not at all harsh. And yet, I am not floored by it. For me, there is a lack of air surrounding instruments here.

 

IMAGING: The Omega 2 MkI's imaging properties are far above average. However, if there was more air around the instruments, I feel that the headphone's ability to image would be enhanced. In my opinion, the SR-007 MkI's imaging ability is slightly superior to the MkII's.

 

EARPAD REMOVABLITY: Replacement earpads are readily available for the SR-007. However, removing/installing  earpads on the SR-007 is not quite as easy as I would prefer.

 

CABLE: As with all the electrostatic headphones that I own, the cable here is not user-removable. This of course is not really a weakness, but surely I prefer when a cable is easily removable. However, as with all the Stax headphones I have used, the cable quality is outstanding.

 

 

FOR THE PRICE

B-

The SR-007 is no longer Stax's flagship model, yet it is still in production (in the form of the MkII version). However, the SR-007 MkI is often available on the used market since many units were made prior to the introduction of the MkII version. If you are in the market for an SR-007, I believe waiting for a well-preserved MkI may be the best option for you; I and many others find that the MkI version is superior to the MkII version.

 

 

QUICK CHECK
  • DESIGN: Full-Size
  • DRIVERS: Electrostatic
  • AMPLIFICATION: Absolutely Requires Amp
  • ISOLATION: Little to None
  • MY PREFERRED AMP: HeadAmp Blue Hawaii Special Edition
  • SOUNDS BEST WITH: Jazz / Rock / Metal / Hip Hop / Reggae / R&B / Pop
  • CABLES USED: Stock
  • REVISIONS KNOWN: At least one known to me
  • FLAGSHIP STATUS: Once Was
  • PRODUCTION STATUS AS OF 2012: Out Of Production
  • COST: $1500-$2500 (estimated)

 

 
#9 HIFIMAN: HE-6
 

noimagePresently, I am in possession of two pairs of the HE-6. One is from the very first production run while the other is from one of the more recent production runs. I got a second pair because there have been several small design changes made to the HE-6 during the course of its production and I was curious to see if and how these two headphones would sound different. My findings are that the sound quality is nearly identical when the same earpads are being used. The newer earpads are more comfortable since they provide more space for the ear, but the older headband design (which was slightly larger) may be my preference -aka I have a big head.

 

In the time since writing my 20 Headphones Compared thread, I have acquired a Woo Audio 5. Hearing the HE-6 through the K1K output (which is designed to pump 8 watts per channel at 150 Ohms) has really opened my eyes to just how amazing the HE-6 really can be. Iron Dreamer's review of the HE-6/EF-6 combo has piqued my interest in the EF-6 amp, but I haven't yet pulled the trigger on purchasing it. The EF-6 is an amp specifically designed by the manufacturer to power the HE-6. I also have yet to hear the HE-6 paired with Ray Samuels Audio's Dark Star, which like the EF-6, was designed in order to meet the power requirements of the HE-6.

 

Prior to acquiring the HE-6, I owned the HE-5. The HE-5 was not only my introduction to HifiMan as a brand, but it was also my first encounter with Planar Magnetic headphones. I loved the sound of the HE-5, but alas the drivers in one of the ears died on me...twice! I almost gave up on HifiMan, but as the manufacturer was able to address and correct the issues of their products, my faith and enthusiasm was restored. Today it seems that the occurrence of driver failure is far less frequent.

 

I personally feel that HifiMan has yet to design a headphone that looks and feels as impressive as their sound. I'm not entirely satisfied with the fit and finish of their products in general. The sound quality which the HE-6 achieves is so astonishing that I am able to still consider it a wonderful value, despite its lackluster appearance and construction.

 

 

STRENGTHS

TACTILITY: The HE-6's sonic presentation is one of tactility. Sound just seems to emanate from the drivers in such a visceral way. It sounds most impressive at louder volume levels.

 

MIDS: Back in 2010, I stated that I felt the HE-6 had the best mids I had ever heard from a headphone. I have since had the opportunity to hear many more headphones and I still maintain a very high opinion of the HE-6's mids. The midrange presentation here certainly is great (among the 3 or 4 best) - very flat and balanced-sounding without any odd peaks or dips.

 

BASS: The HE-6's bass presentation is among the best I've ever heard. When fed a significant amount of current, the headphone produces a wonderfully extended and punchy bass response.

 

IMAGING: There HE-6 offers an incredibly spacious sound presentation. Their imaging ability is quite good, in spite of the fact that the drivers are not angled.

 

NEUTRAL: To my ears, the HE-6's tonal balance is very close to perfectly neutral. It is only eclipsed in this regard by the HD800 and the SR009.

 

TRANSPARENT: The HE-6 serves as a fairly transparent window into the music - the sound feels more tactile than the typical headphone; this definitely contributes to the feeling of realism.

 

TRANSIENT RESPONSE: The transient response here is excellent - extremely natural-sounding.

 

VOCALS: With the HE-6, vocals (both male and female) are reproduced with a distinct sense of depth and clarity. It is also easy to pinpoint exactly where the voice is in relation to the other instruments.

 

GENRE MASTER: Throw any genre at the HE-6, from rock to reggae, country to classical, hard bop to hip hop; the HE-6 excels.

 

DETACHABLE PARTS: Both the HE-6's cable and earpads are easily removable and replaceable. Aside from the obvious longevity factor, these removable parts make the HE-6 a great asset to re-cablers and DIYers. Recent shipments of the HE-6 have included both velour and the faux-leather earpads. I prefer both the texture and sound enhancement of velour pads. The HE-6 has always come with a 4-Pin XLR cable and a single-ended adaptor. I felt that this was a very thoughtful inclusion on HifiMan's part. To my knowledge, HifiMan was the first manufacturer to offer the single-ended adaptor/4-Pin configuration. The HE-6's stock cable will be more than adequate for most users, but HifiMan includes extra headphone cable connectors for DIYers who wish to construct a cable of their own.

 

 

WEAKNESSES

DESIGN: Quite frankly, the physical design of the HE-6 does not live up to its price. The headphones sound amazing, but their look and feel leaves much to be desired. I despise the screw-in connector cable design. It sometimes becomes disconnected even when not being touched. The velour earpads (which I prefer over the faux leather pads) attract dust like no other pad I've seen. The headband has a flimsy feel to it. The cables of all HifiMan headphones connect at the headphone's base, falling straight down and sometimes knock into my collarbone. None of these criticisms are a deal-breaker for me because the headphones themselves perform outstandingly. However, surely most of these criticisms can be easily addressed with some simple redesigning. To me, the HE-6 looks and feels unfinished.

 

POWER HUNGRY: The HE-6 is a power-hungry beast! I don't sincerely view this as a weakness. However, you will need to purchase a powerful amp in order to hear the full potential of this headphone. Without the proper amplification, you may experience a lack of liveliness, a sense of harshness, and the annoying sound of transient clipping. HifiMan has designed their EF-6 in order to power the HE-6; Ray Samuels Audio's Dark Star also was designed specifically in order to meet the power demands of the HE-6. The amp that I use to power my HE-6 is the Woo Audio 5 (K1K output). This pairing is sublime!

 

HE-500: The HE-500 is HifiMan's much-easier-to-drive second tier headphone. At almost half the price of the HE-6, it is a tremendous value. The HE-500 manages to get very close to the performance level of a well -driven HE-6, without demanding the power requirements of the HE-6. For anyone on a limited budget, I would recommend the HE-500 over the HE-6 without hesitation.

 

 

ON THE FENCE

SOUNDSTAGE: The HE-6 has wonderful imaging capabilities, but in judging the height and depth of the soundstage alone, one may wish for a bit more.

 

TREBLE: When the HE-6 is properly driven, the treble response sounds almost perfectly balanced. However, I think there is slight room for improvement here. I don't hear the HE-6 as bright, but I feel that there is a smidgen of unnaturalness with regard to the treble presentation even when the headphone is properly powered.

 

COMFORT: The HE-6 is not one of the most supremely comfortable headphones I've ever worn; the grip is a little tighter than optimal, but I don't find them to be uncomfortable by any means.

 

STORAGE: I prefer the newer zipper carrying case design over the original leatherette design. Even though the new carrying case looks less prestigious, it is far more rugged.

 

 

FOR THE PRICE

A-

At its price, I would say that the HE-6 is one of the best headphones on the market. It is not nearly as expensive as several other headphones which I feel it outperforms. However, I do feel that at this price, the headphones should look and feel a bit more high-end. Another thing to consider is how well HifiMan's own HE-500 performs at a far more affordable price-point. Regardless of these criticisms, when these headphones are properly powered, they exude high-end luxury sound.

 

 

QUICK CHECK
  • DESIGN: Full-Size
  • DRIVERS: Planar Magnetic
  • IMPEDANCE: 50 Ohms
  • ISOLATION: Little to None
  • AMPLIFICATION: Absolutely Requires Amp
  • MY PREFERRED AMP: Woo Audio 5 (K1K Output)
  • SOUNDS BEST WITH: Everything & Anything
  • CABLES USED: A Pure Sound V3 balanced / Stefan Audio Art Endorphin balanced
  • REVISIONS KNOWN: At least 1 known to me
  • FLAGSHIP STATUS: Currently Is
  • PRODUCTION STATUS AS OF 2012: In Production
  • COST: $1299 (without aftermarket cable) $1699 (with aftermarket cable)

 

 
#8 AUDEZ'E: LCD-3
 

noimageAlong with HifiMan, Audez'e appears to be the brilliant crusader in what I call "the Orthodynamic Renaissance." Audez'e first won me over with the LCD-2. However, I became a bit unenthused as the LCD-2 model started being reworked mid-production. I never did buy the LCD-2 rev. 2, not because I wasn't interested, but because it seemed that every time I checked, there was a new revision in the design. This revision process continues into recent times. It's something I'm not a huge fan of, but I do respect Audez'e for taking the time to troubleshoot known problems and improve their products.

Then seemingly out of nowhere, Audez'e unveiled the LCD-3 at Rocky Mountain Audio Fest 2011. The LCD-3 introduced the new (and extremely thin) "LOTUS diaphragm," which the manufacturer claimed offered a significant refinement with regard to fidelity. The initial reviews of this headphone were overwhelmingly positive. Head-Fi's own founder Jude Mansilla, made an interesting comment that, in his opinion, the LCD-3 was among the best values at the convention.

 

Following RMAF, many of my most trusted friends within the audio community, including Skylab and MacedonianHero, continued to praise the headphone, both proclaiming it to be the best sounding headphone they had yet heard. I was just about to pull the trigger on my own pair, when suddenly it came to forefront that many LCD-3 owners were encountering problems with their pair. Tyll of innerfidelity.com covered this debacle in extensive detail on his website. Essentially, Audez'e had a batch of defective materials in one of the early production runs and this affected the sound quality. Audez'e was able to rectify this problem rather quickly and it was shortly thereafter that I purchased my pair.


My first impression of the LCD-3 was that I had been shipped a defective pair. The main reason I assumed this to be the case was that my serial number (#2312173) appeared to be numerically-earlier than many serial numbers of pairs which had been confirmed defective. In speaking with Sankar at Audez'e, I was informed that the serial numbers of their products are given at random.

In a relatively short period of time, I have concluded that the LCD-3 is one of the best-sounding headphones on the market today. If you find that you often lean toward a dark/laid-back sound signature, the LCD-3 may be the one you've been waiting for.

 

 

STRENGTHS

KING OF DARKNESS: By "king of darkness" I do not mean to suggest that the LCD-3 is the darkest headphone in this evaluation; it certainly is far from that. What I mean to suggest is that the LCD-3 is, to my ears, the epitome of what a dark-sounding headphone should be. Its sound signature is definitely on the darker side of neutral, but it doesn't completely lose its neutrality. It also avoids smearing detail and clarity; an unfortunate byproduct of many darker-sounding headphones. For this reason, I can listen to it for hours and never shriek at the sound of bright recordings.

KING OF BASS: The LCD-3 has the deepest-extending and most natural sounding bass response I have ever heard in a headphone. It should be enough bass to please a self-proclaimed bass-head, yet not too much bass to dissuade a neutrality-seeker. I agree with Jude who expressed the opinion that the LCD-3's bass was the best of the best.

TRANSIENT RESPONSE: Like the LCD-2, the transient response here is extremely fast without harshness.

VOCALS: Even though the LCD-3 does not bring vocals extremely forward, the headphone does reveal the human voice with extraordinary depth and naturalness. Here, there is no awkward aftertaste of a nasal quality.

MIDS: I would say the upper-mids are slightly recessed here, but not in an extreme way that detracts. The tone of the LCD-3's midrange is very natural.

FORGIVING: If you like older recordings / or have a collection of poorly mastered CDs that are collecting dust, get yourself an LCD-3 (and a duster). ;)

DETAILED: One of my favorite aspects of the LCD-3's sound signature is that it is simultaneously detailed and forgiving. Not too many headphones can pull off such a feat because in theory the two attributes are opposites. However, I think this anomaly is caused by the fact that while the tonality of the headphone is on the darker side, its exceptional decay properties allow for the headphone to reveal things that most other headphones cannot.

JAZZ & ROCK MASTER: The LCD-3 is a killer headphone choice for jazz. I listened a bit to Mingus Ah Um while writing this section and I had to refrain from writing several times because the music just took over me! I also find that the LCD-3 performs extremely well with rock music.

TRANSPARENT: Even if they aren't the most transparent headphones I've ever heard, they surely are among the three or four most transparent sounding headphones being made today.

CABLE: Not only is the cable detachable, but unlike many other headphone designs, the cable connectors are positioned on an angled so that the cables will not fall directly on your chest. The LCD-3 also uses my favorite connector sockets in the business: mini XLR sockets. Audez'e includes two high quality cables here: a single-ended and a 4-pin XLR!

DECAY: The LCD-3 offers a very natural sounding decay. I feel as though the LCD-3 has a slightly wet sonic presentation.

STORAGE: My LCD-3 pair came with a beautiful black wooden case. I believe that Audez'e is leaning towards making the Travel Case the sole option here. Either way, both boxes are of very high quality.

SERIALIZED: Audez'e generates the serial numbers at random. As a result, this may ultimately lead to some uncertainty and confusion when purchasing an LCD-3 used. However, the generous frequency response report included with every individual LCD-3 definitively specifies the manufacture date. Make sure you keep this datasheet.

 

 

WEAKNESSES

NOT NEUTRAL: Neutrality-seekers should probably look elsewhere as the LCD-3 is on the darker side of neutral. While they are a great sounding pair of headphones, I don't find that they are the best match for a person who craves neutral sound.

IMAGING: I found that the headphones were not quite as good at imaging as their price tag would suggest. This could be an unfortunate side-effect of the subdued sound presentation. When using the LCD-3, I find that I am not able to discern the exact positioning of instruments as well as I as can when using the HD800 and HE-6, for instance.

TOO DARK SOMETIMES: If I want to listen to classical music, I don't reach for the LCD-3. It is a bit too dark for that, in my opinion.

THE LCD-2: In terms of overall fidelity, the LCD-2 comes very close to the LCD-3. While the price of the LCD-3 is just about double the LCD-2's, the two models are not that dissimilar in sound or appearance. However, unlike the endless HD600 / HD650 debates which never truly bring forth a unanimous victor, I do believe the LCD-3 will be seen as a near-unanimous victor over the LCD-2. It is a better headphone in every way. It just may not be better enough.

 

 

ON THE FENCE

SOUNDSTAGE: The LCD-3 has a wider soundstage than the LCD-2. The LCD-3's plusher earpads put the drivers at a steeper angle than the LCD-2. This contributes to a wider soundstage presentation. However, I find the height of the soundstage to be slightly lacking.

TREBLE: Not everyone is likely to agree on the treble presentation here. The treble of the LCD-3, while rolled off, allows the headphone to be very revealing without being analytical. Even still, the headphone's sound signature suffers from being overtly mellow as a result. I would appreciate a bit more energy up on top.

COMFORT: The plush earpads here feel much better than the LCD-2 rev. 1 pads that I have used for a while. However, the actual headband design still clamps the head with a bit too much force. As a result, some may find that the earpads actually create an uncomfortable suction-like feeling. I experience this feeling if I press the earpads against my ears, but with normal wearing, I do not experience this sensation. I am able to wear the LCD-3 for an extended period without much discomfort. In spite of the fact that the earpads are made of leather, I find that I am able to wear them for an extended period without perspiring all that much.

DESIGN: OK, to be fair, I actually like the design of the LCD-3. I just want to make a small complaint: I feel that the LCD-3 looks way too similar to the LCD-2. For nearly $1000 extra, I wish it looked considerably more refined.

AMPING: The LCD-3 is not exceedingly amp-picky. That's a great thing. But in order to get them to sound great you will probably need to fork over a bit of dough. Not really a bad thing, but I thought it would be worth mentioning.

 

 

FOR THE PRICE

B+

If you are in the market for a great orthodynamic headphone, the two models which will be at the forefront of your mind are the LCD-3 and the HE-6. In terms of ease of use and design, the LCD-3 is the winner. In terms of sound quality, the better choice will depend on what you are looking for. In my opinion, the LCD-3 is the better all-around headphone because it offers a slightly more transparent window to the music. Because the HE-6 is the more neutral choice, I find that it performs well in a wider variety of genres. The LCD-3 is most suitable for jazz, rock, r&b, reggae, hip hop and other popular genres. If you are a bass-lover with 2 grand to spend on headphones, the LCD-3 should be your next consideration (that is if you haven't already considered them). :)

 

 

QUICK CHECK
  • DESIGN: Full-Size
  • DRIVERS: Planar Magnetic
  • IMPEDANCE: 50 Ohms
  • ISOLATION: Little to None
  • AMPLIFICATION: Highly Recommended
  • MY PREFERRED AMP: TTVJ Millett 307A / Head Room Balanced Ultra Desktop Amp
  • SOUNDS BEST WITH: Jazz / Rock / Metal / Electronic / Reggae / Hip Hop / R&B / Pop
  • CABLES USED: Stock 4-Pin XLR / Stock Single-Ended / A Pure Sound V3 4-Pin XLR
  • REVISIONS KNOWN: None known to me, but many early models encountered problems
  • FLAGSHIP STATUS: Currently Is
  • STATUS AS OF 2012: In Production
  • COST: $1945 (without aftermarket cable) $2245 (with aftermarket cable)

*Back To The Index


Edited by DavidMahler - 6/4/13 at 9:59pm
post #5 of 4939
Thread Starter 
THE BATTLE OF THE FLAGSHIPS continued...
My quest to find the greatest headphone ever made!
by David Solomon
#7 HE AUDIO: Jade
 

noimagePrior to founding the HifiMan brand, Dr. Fang Bian was involved in the creation of one of the world's greatest electrostatic headphones. The headphone was to be known simply as the Jade. The Jade and was sold under the brand name of HE Audio. This product was short-lived, primarily due to the fact that many of the pairs encountered problems. In addition the public response was really quite mixed. Several people found that the Jade was one of the best sounding headphones they had ever heard while others remarked that the HE Audio Jade was the worst sounding electrostatic headphone they'd ever encountered. In less than three years the production of the HE Audio Jade was shelved. I am not sure how many units of the Jade were made. Furthermore, I am uncertain as to how many of the units made encountered problems. One thing of which I am certain is that my pair is one of the non-defective pairs; it sounds incredible!

Some have remarked that the Jade's design was based largely on that of the Sennheiser Orpheus. While the two headphones share several similarities, they are nowhere near similar enough for the Jade not to be recognized as entirely of its own breed.

 

 

STRENGTHS

TRANSPARENT: The Jade serves as a wonderfully transparent window into the music. In my opinion, the Jade is the most transparent of all the headphones which Fang has produced. This includes the HifiMan HE-6 and HE-500.

NEUTRALITY PRINCE: In my opinion, the Jade is one of the most tonally neutral of all headphones. There is a little extra bottom, although nothing too substantial. The Jade is neither a warm sounding headphone nor a cold sounding headphone.

BASS: I would describe the Jade's bass presentation as focused and tight, with decent extension. To my ears, the bass here is extraordinarily focused. It doesn't overtake the sound whatsoever, but it has a substantial amount of weight. At the same time, I would describe the bass as reserved with regard to impact. While the Jade is not a bass-light headphone, it does not offer the most impactful bass I've ever heard from a headphone.

MIDS: A headphone's midrange presentation tends to be the one section of the audio spectrum for which I form the quickest opinion. Though this is not always the case, a nasally or shrill sounding midrange can often make me walk away from a headphone purchase. The Jade's midrange is very good. While the Jade's midrange presentation is bested by a small handful of headphones, it is still very high up on the totem pole of the "best mids competition." I don't have any significant criticism regarding the midrange presentation except for the fact that the upper-mids are just slightly less flat-sounding than I would prefer; this is very subtle and ultimately it does not deter me from recognizing the Jade as a supremely neutral headphone.

GENRE MASTER: The Jade performs well with every style of music. It offers enough bass for percussion-heavy music, while it is reserved enough to accommodate intimate chamber music.

DECAY: The Jade utilizes an extremely thin diaphragm. It is in part because of this that the Jade offers an exceptionally quick and natural decay.

DETAILED: While the Jade provides nowhere near the degree of detail retrieval as the SR-Omega or SR-009, it still offers a very detailed sonic presentation.

COMFORT: Despite the fact that the Jade has a handmade/DIY exterior, it is quite comfortable to wear. The leather earpads are very soft and the self-adjusting headband does not exert too much pressure. While the leather can sometimes make me sweat, I still find the Jade to be quite the comfortable headphone.

TRANSIENT RESPONSE: The Jade has a very natural sounding transient response. I especially enjoy the way it renders the attack of piano passages.

STORAGE: The wooden case which shipped with the Jade is truly a looker. It is a beautiful brown hardwood case, exhibiting very fancy latches. Conversely, the interior of the case has a bit of a makeshift quality about it. Inside the case are lightweight, movable cutouts intended to conform to the shape of the headphone. These cutouts are covered by a soft yellow sheet. I feel that the movable cutouts may be under-protective.

 

 

WEAKNESSES

UNRELIABLE: According to a very high number of people who have heard multiple pairs of the HE Audio Jade, there is no uniform sound signature to which all Jade headphones subscribe. The only pair which I've heard is my own. Therefore, I cannot confirm this claim with my own ears. However, based on the fact that it is documented that several models encountered production problems, I believe this claim to be true. Consequently, it is a very difficult headphone to recommend sight-unseen, unless you are a gambler (like me).

CONSTRUCTION: Considering that this headphone was made by hand, I must say its design is impressively executed. However, when I compare it against other high-end headphones, the workmanship is slightly shoddier. I especially notice this with regard to the cable.

CABLE: I am unsure as to whether or not the cable is made of high quality materials. However, I take two issues with the cable's construction. One is that the cable is simply too stiff and rigid. The other issue is that the cable terminates to a 4-pin plug and utilizes a Stax-style 5-pin adapter. The reason this bothers me is that the adapter included is not manufactured by Stax, but rather it is built shoddily by hand. This handmade adapter is an obstacle if you wish to plug the headphone into an amp which only accepts official Stax brand plugs. For example, the Teflon headphone output sockets installed in my BHSE cannot accept most third-party Stax adapters. On the other hand, my Aristaeus features an Amphenol headphone output socket which is able to accept most third-party Stax-style adapters. Until I invest in an official Stax adapter, I can only use the Jade with my Aristaeus. Ray Samuels Audio's A-10 Thunderbolt conveniently features a 4-pin headphone output specifically intended for the Jade, allowing the user to bypass all adapters. I have not yet heard this pairing.

OUT OF PRODUCTION: HE Audio discontinued the Jade about three years ago. I am uncertain as to whether or not there are parts still available. I suspect that there may be. However, the Jade underwent at least one distinct driver alteration during the course of its production. I am not sure which of the two drivers are available, or if either of them are for that matter. As far as I know, my pair has a set of the original drivers.

 

 

ON THE FENCE

TREBLE: While the treble here is virtually grain-free, there are moments where I feel that the presentation sounds awkward. It sounds as though there are some odd dips in the upper treble region. It's not all that concerning, but I do find that it detracts slightly from the headphone's overall sound quality.

EUPHONY: The HE Jade is more euphonic sounding to my ears than the Stax models included in this evaluation. However, it doesn't quite possess the magical prowess of the Orpheus.

AMPING: I have only been able to pair the Jade with a single amp (the Aristaeus). I have no idea how it happens to perform when paired with other amplifiers. It goes without saying perhaps, but I will say it anyway -  since the Jade requires an electrostatic amp, one must be prepared for the added expense.

 

 

FOR THE PRICE

A

Since many have expressed criticism of this headphone, my overwhelmingly positive review may find a few detractors. However, as I've stated previously, it is probable that the HE Audio Jade exists in many sonic incarnations. For this reason primarily, it is very difficult for me to recommend. For the ones that HE Audio managed to get right, the Jade makes it to #7 on my list.

 

 

QUICK CHECK
  • DESIGN: Full-Size
  • DRIVERS: Electrostatic
  • ISOLATION: Little to None
  • AMPLIFICATION: Absolutely Requires
  • MY PREFERRED AMP: HeadAmp Aristaeus
  • SOUNDS BEST WITH: Everything & Anything
  • CABLES USED: Stock with Adapter
  • REVISIONS KNOWN: At least 1 known to me
  • FLAGSHIP STATUS: Once Was
  • PRODUCTION STATUS AS OF 2012: Out Of Production
  • COST: $1200 (estimated)
  •  
#6 SENNHEISER: HD800
 

noimageThe unveiling of the HD800 was one of the most highly anticipated headphone-related events of the past ten years. I remember when the HD800 finally started shipping, I literally counted the days until it arrived at my front door. However, when I finally got to try them on and take a listen, I would say I had a lukewarm reaction. After several years of using the HD800, I feel very different from my first impression.

 

Today, I would say that I consider the HD800 to be the most tonally neutral of all the headphones that I've ever had the pleasure of hearing. This attribute alone makes the HD800 one of my most often-used headphones.

I own two pairs of the HD800: serial #297 and serial #10333. Serial #297 was made during the first production run while serial #10333 was manufactured approximately two years later. Initially, I purchased a second pair because the headband of my original pair encountered a recurring squeak issue. Despite several repair attempts, this problem has never been resolved to my full satisfaction.


However, what I've found is that the two HD800s have some very noticeable sonic differences. The earlier pair (#297) has a fuller tone and is slightly more laid-back in the highs. This is, in my opinion, not a result of burn-in; I've owned the later pair for nearly two years and I still maintain this view. While many people are of the belief that there will always be differences from model to model (a belief I most certainly don't disagree with), I have had the opportunity to hear several early models and several later models of the HD800; in my opinion, the earlier ones have a slightly fuller tone. I am not certain as to when the sonic transition took place or what may have caused it.

 

Despite the earlier model's fuller tone, if I had to pick which of the two pairs was my preference, I would choose the later. I feel that the later model (#10333) offers a greater degree of transparency and puts more air around the instruments. The noted differences are not so drastic, but I have done several blind tests and I always know which headphone is which.

 

 

STRENGTHS

NEUTRALITY KING: In my opinion, the HD800 is the neutrality king. Depending on the setup, the HD800 may sound warm or bright. Because of its finicky nature with regard to amplification, many have described the HD800 as bright, but I cannot get on board with this description. I have heard the same pair of HD800's sound both dark and bright when paired with different setups. It really is a very amp-dependent headphone.

GREAT SOUNDSTAGE: While not everyone prefers a wide soundstage, I would say that for monitoring and critical listening purposes, it is beneficial. The HD800 features one of the most finely-contoured and widest soundstage presentations I've ever come across in a headphone. The height is not exceptional, but the depth and width are exemplary. This makes the HD800 an excellent choice for classical music in particular; when you listen to an 80-piece orchestra with 21 different parts all culminating at once, you really crave that width.

IMAGING: If you think of sound imaging as sort of like the degrees of protractor (left at 0 and right at 180) then the HD800 offers perhaps the most pinpoint accuracy of all headphones that I've heard. This headphone can spotlight the distances and relationships between instruments extremely well. It is also able to demonstrate phase problems better than most other headphones I've used.

MIDS: The mids here are really where it's at. I actually think the bass is superb here as well, but the mids are so fine. Pianos, acoustic guitars, trumpets etc. all sound about as uncolored as I can imagine.

ACOUSTIC MASTER: Regardless of whether I'm listening to classical, jazz or folk music, the HD800 leaves me in awe every time. Its sound signature leaves acoustic instruments completely uncolored.

DETAILED: The HD800 offers a wonderfully detailed sound signature; without sounding hyper-detailed or inauthentic.

DECAY: The HD800 offers a liquid-like decay. Some may prefer the decay here over that of the top electrostatic models because, while it is not as fast, it manages to add body to the overall sonic presentation.

COMFORT: I think the HD800 is exceptionally comfortable. Your ears do not make contact with the interior of the cup. The velour pads do not over-heat my ears. Despite being heavier than average, the HD800 rests very comfortably on the head.

BALANCED MODE: I've found that the HD800 scales particularly well in balanced mode - better than most other headphones. With the HD800 in balanced mode, I clearly notice an added sense space and dimension.

CABLE: The HD800's stock cable is a very finely-crafted cable. However, it is also user-removable. This makes installing an aftermarket cable a cinch.

SERIALIZED: Each HD800 is individually serialized with a unique frequency response chart available at request.

 

 

WEAKNESSES

AMP FINICKY: With regard to amp synergy, the HD800 has a reputation for being finicky. This means that it can sound amazing in one setup and harsh or lifeless in another setup. As a result, it can be quite the task when planning a setup around the HD800.

LACKS EUPHONY: Of all sonic attributes, the word euphonic seems the hardest to quantify and define. When a headphone is euphonic, this means that there are certain distortions in the sound reproduction that add a humanness or emotive quality. Some may refer to this as “the wow factor." I find that no matter how wonderful the HD800 sounds, it does not bless my ears with a euphonious quality.

UNFORGIVING: Being unforgiving is really not a bad thing per se. However, in my opinion, the HD800 is just a few hairs too picky with regard to what recordings it excels with. It sounds stunning with well-recorded music (particularly acoustic instruments), but throw on an older recording or a brightly-mastered pop record, and you may find yourself reaching for an alternate headphone.

SIBILANT: In some instances, particularly with solid-state amps, I've found the HD800 to be slightly more sibilant than average.

STORAGE: For their future flagship offerings, I hope Sennheiser will do better in the storage department than they did with the HD800. The HD800's thick cardboard box with satin interior is just average for the price.

 

 

ON THE FENCE

TRANSPARENT?: The HD800 functions as a very transparent window into the music. That said, I would not say that the HD800 is the most transparent headphone on the block. It is definitely near the top tier with regard to transparency, but there can sometimes be a slight edginess in the treble that makes it fall just slightly short of ultimate perfection.

DESIGN:
It is worth mentioning here that Sennheiser has released a limited edition glossy black version of the HD800, which some find even more cosmetically appealing than the standard version. I adore the way the HD800 looks and they surely are comfortable! However, I feel that the headphone exhibits two design concerns. One is just how easily the paint chips. The other is that the earpads are not user-removable/replaceable. For clarification purposes, I want to express here that some users have attempted removing the earpads from their HD800 (some successfully, some with incurred damage). It is my suspicion that the HD800 was not designed with the intention of having the earpads removed by the user.

TREBLE: I have heard the HD800's treble sound unbelievably rounded and balanced. However, I do notice that there are moments when I wish the mids would transition more smoothly into the treble. It is extremely rare that I find myself feeling this way about the HD800, but I feel that it is worth mentioning.

 

 

FOR THE PRICE

A

Although the HD800 is not inexpensive by any means, it can, in my opinion, outperform most other offerings. I think Sennheiser really got it right with this headphone and while it is not even the top Sennheiser on my list, it is certainly one of the better values. In my opinion, the HD800 is the finest dynamic transducer headphone being manufactured today.

 

 

QUICK CHECK
  • DESIGN: Full-Size
  • DRIVERS: Dynamic
  • IMPEDANCE: 300 Ohms
  • ISOLATION: Little to None
  • AMPLIFICATION: Requires
  • MY PREFERRED AMP: Manley Labs Classic Neo 300B / TTVJ Millett 307A
  • SOUNDS BEST WITH: Classical / Acoustic / Jazz / Well-Recorded Music
  • CABLES USED: Stock / A Pure Sound V3 balanced
  • REVISIONS KNOWN: None confirmed, but I suspect at least 1
  • FLAGSHIP STATUS: Currently Is
  • PRODUCTION STATUS AS OF 2012: In Production
  • COST: $1499.95 (without aftermarket cable) $1845 (with aftermarket cable)

*Back To The Index

#5 STAX: SR-Omega
 

noimageNot to be confused with the Omega 2 (SR-007), the SR-Omega is considered by many to be the greatest headphone Stax has ever offered. I certainly can understand why. It is the most revealing headphone which I have ever heard. I remember, not too long ago, I was using the SR-Omega to listen to a song I had recorded. While listening, I noticed a weird buzz deep in the mix. I grew concerned as the buzz continued that something was wrong with the left driver of my SR-Omega. I rewound the track and listened again. There it was - a seven second buzz in the left channel which I never had noticed before. I grabbed my HD800 and listened to the same section. The buzz was inaudible using the HD800. I then proceeded to observe the track in Pro Tools; I zoomed in on the section where the buzz was, and sure enough there it was. I later discovered that the direct box I had been using on the synthesizer had been malfunctioning; this was the reason for the buzzing sound. Much to my amusement, to this day, the SR-Omega is the only headphone where I am able to hear this blemish.

More significantly, the SR-Omega is one of the best headphones ever made for listening to classical music. It is the airiest of all the headphones I've heard and achieves this airiness without the slightest ounce of treble grain. The SR-Omega achieves a slightly bright sound signature, which I feel is ideal for picking up on the hidden nuances that make hearing classical music performed live in a concert hall such a compelling experience.

 

 

STRENGTHS

SUPER REVEALING: If it is your aspiration to hear every nuance on a recording, the SR-Omega is going to be just what the doctor ordered. The SR-Omega is like a microscope in the form of a headphone. Detail! Detail! Detail!

AIR: The SR-Omega has a weightless, spacious, airy sound that makes instruments come alive.

CLASSICAL MASTER: The SR-Omega is capable of revealing complex orchestral lines with ultimate clarity. In my opinion, the SR-Omega is at the very top of the pack with regard to classical.

EXTREMELY TRANSPARENT: Electrostatic headphones seem to be capable of producing sound with a higher degree of transparency than most dynamic headphones. With the SR-Omega in particular, the sound is extremely transparent.

MIDS: While there is not much euphonic character here, the mids succeed at being extremely natural and realistic. The SR-Omega's mids are slightly sharper sounding than the R10's, yet they offer greater precision and accuracy.

TREBLE: The SR-Omega's treble response is tilted forward slightly, but it is not harsh or grainy in any way.

PRINCE OF DECAY: The SR-Omega's decay is extremely fast. While it is in the upper echelons of natural-sounding decay, I feel that it is surpassed by the SR-009's supremely natural decay.

IMAGING: The SR-Omega is very good at imaging. Part of the reason is because the earpads are designed to position the drivers at a slight angle.

TRANSIENT RESPONSE: The SR-Omega's transient response is glorious. Pianos are conveyed with extreme realism; the decay of the notes is extremely quick, allowing for dense passages to be fully discerned.

SERIALIZED: In my opinion, it is always preferable when a flagship headphone is serialized; the SR-Omega is.

 

 

WEAKNESSES

LACKS IMPACT: The bass response of the SR-Omega is extraordinarily tight and wonderfully extended. However, for many people the SR-Omega is going to sound as though it is lacking in bottom. Unless classical music is one of the primary genres you listen to, the SR-Omega may not be worth the purchase.

OUT OF PRODUCTION & EXTREMELY FRAGILE: The SR-Omega has been out of production for several years. This is particularly problematic because the SR-Omega's drivers have been known to encounter problems more often than is standard for typical headphone drivers. Stax no longer has the original drivers available. Therefore, if you happen to own a faltering pair of the SR-Omega and send it to Stax for repair, you will probably receive your pair back with Omega 2 drivers.

EXTREMELY EXPENSIVE: If you are lucky enough to find one for sale (the SR-Omega has become exceedingly rare), chances are the seller will be asking a high premium.

NO EASILY DETACHABLE PARTS: The SR-Omega doesn't have any easily detachable parts. The earpads, the headband, and the cable are all fairly difficult to service even if you are lucky enough to find these parts for sale.

EXPENSIVE TO AMP WELL: Stax produced an amp specifically to be paired with the SR-Omega. This amp is known as the SRM-T2. Unfortunately, this amp is almost impossible to find (even more so than the SR-Omega). Many DIYers have taken it upon themselves to produce a SRM-T2, using the schematics of the original amp. The Blue Hawaii Special Edition is considered to be a very good choice for those unable or unwilling to spend the time and/or money it takes to build a SRM-T2.

HEADBAND MAKES NOISE: The headband of my SR-Omega squeaks, due to age I suspect.

 

 

ON THE FENCE

SOUNDSTAGE: The soundstage presentation of the SR-Omega is fairly large, but not quite enormous. Considering that the headphone's tonal balance excels with classical music in particular, a wider soundstage presentation would have been preferable.

COMFORT: The earpads are a bit harder than I would like. I also find that during extended listening sessions with the SR-Omega, I can overheat and perspire. The headband exudes a bit too much clamping force for my larger-than-average-size head. Still overall, the SR-Omega remains a fairly comfortable headphone for me, as it doesn't feel particularly heavy while on the head.

CABLE: The SR-Omega's cable is very well constructed. Of course, as with all my other electrostatic headphones, the cable is not user-detachable.

STORAGE: The SR-Omega shipped with a wooden storage box. The box is not varnished and feels quite industrial. The box that ships with the SR-009 is certainly a nicer one.

 

 

FOR THE PRICE

C

Today, it is rare to find the SR-Omega in stellar condition. If you find it in good used condition and you can afford to amp the headphones well, then it may be worth taking the expensive plunge. Since the SR-009 (Stax's new flagship) is easily available, the SR-Omega is a tough recommendation; tough becomes tougher when one considers its known reliability issues. For classical music however, the SR-Omega is a top-level headphone. As such, I think they deserve the legendary status, which time has awarded them.

 

 

QUICK CHECK
  • DESIGN: Full-Size
  • DRIVERS: Electrostatic
  • ISOLATION: Little to None
  • AMPLIFICATION: Absolutely Requires Amp
  • MY PREFERRED AMP: HeadAmp Blue Hawaii Special Edition
  • SOUNDS BEST WITH: Classical / Acoustic / Well Recorded Music
  • CABLES USED: Stock
  • REVISIONS KNOWN: None known to me
  • FLAGSHIP STATUS: Limited Production Flagship
  • STATUS AS OF 2012: Out Of Production
  • COST: $4000-$6000 (estimated)

*Back To The Index

#4 SONY: MDR-R10 (bass-heavy)
 

noimageIn the comparison review that I did back in 2010, this headphone was my top pick. It has a special place in my heart. It was the first out-of-production legendary headphone that I ever acquired. The first time I heard it, I was so floored that I subsequently stopped collecting headphones for a time. Its sound moved me in ways which headphones haven't before or since. The R10s to me have an indefinable yet magical quality.

I presently own two pairs of the MDR-R10. One is a late production pair, made in 2003 (serial #1125); this is the bass-heavy model. The other is from the first production run (serial #49); this is the bass-light model. Both use bio-cellulose material in their driver construction, however, the sonic differences between the two models are extremely noticeable. Aside from the fact that the later pair offers noticeably more bass impact, it also has more treble extension. Furthermore, the soundstage of the later pair is slightly narrower. Over time, I've come to the conclusion that the earlier version is slightly more transparent. Despite this, the sound of the later version can sometimes be even more compelling because of its added warmth and fullness. Sony manufactured the bass-light and bass-heavy editions of the R10 simultaneously. Therefore,  purchasing an R10 on the used market can be confusing. One thing I should mention is that all the R10 units made up until approximately serial #200 are guaranteed to be bass-light while all the R10 units made after serial #1000 are guaranteed to be bass-heavy. Approximately 1300 individual units were made.

The R10 is an extraordinarily beautiful headphone. In my opinion, its physical appearance is the most expensive-looking of all the headphones I've ever seen. While the size of the wood makes the headphone appear heavy, the R10 is actually more comfortable than most. The earlier version of the R10 features small ports on the sides of the wood, while the later version does not. Either way, the R10 is most certainly a closed-back headphone; it is, in my opinion, the absolute best closed-back headphone ever made.

 

 

STRENGTHS

EUPHONIC KING: The bass-heavy R10 is the most beautiful sounding headphone I have ever heard. For me, it exemplifies the definition of euphony. The R10's sonic colorations, while not neutral, are truly glorious sounding. Nothing that I've heard comes close to sounding like an R10; it has a uniquely euphonic tonality.

TRANSPARENCY: The bass-heavy R10 may not be uncolored, but it is ultra-transparent! In my view, the R10 is in a higher class of transparency over all the previously-reviewed headphones.

SOUNDSTAGE: The soundstage presentation here is not as wide open as the HD800 or K1000. Regardless, it is wonderfully realistic. The R10's soundstage presentation is still very wide, deep and tall; it possesses an immersive quality that feels very natural.

PRINCE OF MIDS: The midrange presentation has long been the R10's greatest claim to fame. The mids of the bass-heavy are only bested by its earlier sibling, the bass-light R10.

PRINCE OF BASS: The bass here is impactful, robust, and extends fairly deep, while simultaneously remaining very tight.

TREBLE: The bass-heavy R10 possesses a wonderfully-extended, yet grain-free treble presentation. This is part of what makes the R10 so beautiful sounding.

TRANSIENT RESPONSE: The R10 offers a wonderfully refined and realistic transient response.

VOCALS: When it comes to vocals, the R10 demonstrates its magic. Here, vocals come forward with the feeling authenticity and a sense of intimacy.

DECAY: The decay of the sound envelope here is not nearly as fast as that of the SR-009, but it is no less natural-sounding. I feel that the the bass-heavy R10 is not quite as wet sounding as the bass light.

GENRE MASTER: The bass-heavy R10 makes every genre sound beautiful. The key word here is beautiful. Granted its colorations, the R10 may not be the perfect choice for every listener, but I have little doubt that most who have the chance to hear the R10 will value its sound presentation for its sheer beauty.

COMFORT: It is not my preference for leather to be used as a material for earpads. This is because of the fact that they easily overheat the head. However, the elasticity of the R10's headband causes the grip of the headphone to be just loose enough to stay put without clamping my head. This fit alleviates most of the overheating typically caused by leather.

BEAUTIFUL APPEARANCE: OK, maybe the R10 looks a bit big and funny on the head, but it is a gorgeous headphone - a work of art!

ISOLATION: The MDR-R10 may not be the final word in isolation, but as it does possess a closed-back design, it provides the user with some isolation.

SERIALIZED: Each MDR-R10 is individually serialized. Unfortunately, unless the serial number precedes #200 or succeeds #1000, the serial number will not indicate whether an R10 is the bass-heavy or bass-light version. All serial numbers preceding #200 are bass-light, while all serial numbers from around #1000 onward are bass-heavy. There were approximately 1300 units made of the MDR-R10 between 1989 and 2004.

STORAGE: The MDR-R10 comes with the best carrying case I have yet seen. It is a lockable leather briefcase with a microfiber interior, perfectly fitted to the headphones. Sony also included a hard-covered manual which is personally signed by the head Sony engineer. One can tell that Sony really took pride in manufacturing the R10.

 

 

WEAKNESSES

NOT NEUTRAL: While the R10 is extraordinarily euphonic, it is not the last word in uncolored neutrality. For critical listening, many may prefer something more honest in this regard.

LACKS SOME OPENNESS: Even with the best closed-back headphones, there is an absence of that wide--open sound, which open-back headphones typically provide.

TOO SMOOTH?: Can smoothness be bad? Maybe. For me specifically, the bass-heavy R10 is the most beautiful sounding headphone. However, I do think someone could make the case that they are too pretty sounding - dishonest - a bit skin-deep.

EXTREMELY EXPENSIVE: If you are lucky enough to find one for sale (people don't part with the R10 all that often), chances are the asking price will be high, very high. When I use the R10, it's often hard for me to fully relax because it just costs so much and is quite easy to nick; I would never want to nod to sleep while wearing them.

OUT OF PRODUCTION: Sony does not service these headphones any longer and most of the parts are extremely hard (nearly impossible) to fix.

NO DETACHABLE PARTS: The R10's cable is hardwired. Removing this cable is an extremely invasive and risky procedure, as it is likely to tear the the voice-coil. The R10 was designed long before it was common for aftermarket companies to provide user-installable headphone cables. Even still, I feel it would have been preferable had the earpads been designed to be user-removable for easy replacement.

CABLE: Considering that it is an extremely risky procedure to detach the R10's cable from the voice-coil, I do not suggest removing the stock cable. However, I have seen the interior of the R10's cable, and it is just not impressive at all - mediocre shielding and unusually thin wire for a headphone of that price. The cable included with Sony's other expensive flagship, the Qualia 010, is even worse, but at least it is detachable.

 

 

ON THE FENCE

IMAGING: I never felt that imaging was the bass-heavy R10's strongest attribute. It is bested by quite a few in this regard, but nevertheless, it is very close to the top tier.

 

AMP SENSITIVE: While the R10's have a low impedance and sound impressive on just about every amp with which I've paired them, I think it's worth mentioning that they are not the easiest headphones to drive. More than most headphones I've used, the R10 seems to sound very different from amp to amp, particularly in the bass region.

 

 

FOR THE PRICE

B-

Recognizing that there are  headphones which perform comparatively well to the R10 at one third the asking price, I have to admit that the MDR-R10 is noticeably overpriced. However, the R10 is a legend - a worthy legend at that. By most accounts, the bass-heavy R10 is the preferred version of the R10. The later R10 models (#1000+) are all bass-heavy, and since they are newer, it may be easier to find one of them in good condition.

 

 

QUICK CHECK
  • DESIGN: Full-Size
  • DRIVERS: Dynamic
  • IMPEDANCE: 40 Ohms
  • ISOLATION: Some
  • AMPLIFICATION: Highly Recommended
  • MY PREFERRED AMP: TTVJ Millett 307A / SPL Phonitor
  • SOUNDS BEST WITH: Rock / Jazz / Acoustic / Electronic / Reggae
  • CABLES USED: Stock re-terminated to 4-Pin XLR with 4-pin XLR to SE adaptor
  • REVISIONS KNOWN: The R10 was revised a minimum of two times
  • FLAGSHIP STATUS: Limited Production Flagship
  • STATUS AS OF 2012: Out Of Production
  • COST: $4000-$7000 (estimated)

*Back To The Index

#3 SONY: MDR-R10 (bass-light)
 

noimageI've owned the bass-light R10s numerous times and with much regret, have sold them twice. I've heard four bass-light pairs. Despite being told by a source that there are three variations with regard the driver of the bass-light MDR-R10, I have never noticed any sonic differences between the four models.

 

I also had the incredible misfortune of purchasing an MDR-R10 literally days before it expired. This unfortunate circumstance led to much contention between the seller and me. In reality, it was really a tragic situation for both parties. This leads me to the suggestion that if you purchase a bass-light R10, be sure to have as much knowledge about its history as possible. Many of them have been misused, opened, and tampered with.

 

The bass-light R10s are in a class of their own. They do not exhibit as much of the immediate wow-factor as the bass-heavy R10. Yet the more I've gotten to know the bass-light R10, the more I recognize their superiority.

 

While the bass-light R10's soundstage presentation is neither the widest nor the tallest, it is to my ears, one of the most natural sounding of all headphones. Furthermore, the bass-light R10 boasts the most glorious midrange I have ever heard.

 

The pair of bass-light R10s which I am currently in possession of is serial #49. It was manufactured during the first production run in 1989. I see it as an entirely different headphone from the bass-heavy R10. Aside from looking nearly identical and sharing some great euphonic qualities, they sound strikingly different across the board. In fact, I am convinced that the two R10 variants are far less similar sounding to one another than the HD600 is to the HD650 or SR-007 MkII is to the SR-007 MkII.

 

 

STRENGTHS

KING OF MIDS: Mids are not the be-all and end-all of the audio spectrum, yet when a headphone possesses a gorgeous midrange, this is a special thing. In terms of well-rounded/beautifully articulated mids, the bass-light R10 is the best I have ever heard.

KILLER SOUNDSTAGE: The bass-light R10 has one of the most impressive soundstaging abilities I've come across in a headphone. It is not the widest, nor the tallest, but it offers tremendous depth and realism.

IMAGING: The bass-light R10 possesses excellent imaging capabilities, surpassing that of the bass-heavy R10s. Due to its earpad construction, the R10's drivers are pivoted at an angle. In addition, the absence of bass impact here enables the listener to zoom in on the upper-harmonics. 

CLASSICAL MASTER: The R10 sounds quite different from the SR-Omega which I've also described as a classical master. The bass-light R10 is a bit more colored and less revealing. Yet at the same time, it conveys a more moving and euphonic experience.

 

EUPHONIC: In my opinion, the bass-light R10's sound is not quite as euphonic as its bassier twin's, but it still possesses some of the most exemplary colorations in the industry.

 

GREAT RESONANCE: The sound here is wet. With the bass-light R10, reverb is fully articulated and brought to the forefront. The decay of the sound envelope here is not nearly as fast as that of the SR-009, but it is no less natural-sounding.

 

COMFORT: Leather pads can get on my nerves at times because of the fact that they typically cause me to overheat. However, the elasticity of the R10's headband allows the headphones to sit on my head without exerting too much pressure. Because of this, I don't end up perspiring all that much.

BEAUTIFUL APPEARANCE: OK, maybe they look a bit large and funny on the head, but the R10 is a gorgeous headphone - a work of art! My bass-light R10 features discrete slot-like ports in the wood at precisely where the earpads meet the ear-cup.

ISOLATION: The MDR-R10 is not the absolute last word in isolation, but they do feature a closed-back construction. It is worth reiterating that the ear-cups of my bass-light model are ported on the side, while my bass-heavy model's ear-cups are not; however, I do not notice any differences between the two pairs with regard to isolation.

SERIALIZED: Each MDR-R10 is individually serialized. Unfortunately, unless the serial number precedes #200 or succeeds #1000, the serial number will not indicate whether an R10 is the bass-heavy or bass-light version. All serial numbers preceding #200 are indicative of bass-light drivers, while all serial numbers following #1000 signify bass-heavy. There were approximately 1300 units made of the MDR-R10 between 1989 and 2004.

STORAGE: The MDR-R10 comes with the best carrying case I have yet seen. It is a lockable leather briefcase with a microfiber interior that is perfectly fitted to the headphones. Sony also included a hard-covered manual which is personally signed by the head Sony engineer. One can tell that Sony really took pride in manufacturing the R10.

 

 

WEAKNESSES

BASS IMPACT: A lot of people who have had the opportunity to hear the bass-light R10 may feel obliged to paraphrase the Wendy's franchise slogan "where's the bass?!" The bass impact of this version of the R10 is truly minimal. While the quality of bass is actually quite excellent, the lack of impact leaves much to be desired if you are listening to rock, reggae, hip hop and several other percussion-heavy genres. For this reason, the bass-light R10 is bound to be far more polarizing than its bassier twin.

LACKS SOME OPENNESS: The bass-light R10 has a more open sound than the bass-heavy R10. This may be in part due to the fact that the bass-light model is ported while the bass heavy model is fully closed. Even still, the bass-light R10 is not quite as open sounding as many open-back headphones.

EXTREMELY EXPENSIVE: If you are lucky enough to find one for sale (people don't part with the R10 all that often), chances are the asking price will be high, very high. When I use the R10, it's often hard for me to fully relax because it just costs so much and is susceptible to nicks; I would never want to nod to sleep while wearing them.

OUT OF PRODUCTION: Sony does not service these headphones any longer and most of the parts are extremely hard (nearly impossible) to fix.

 

NO DETACHABLE PARTS: The R10's cable is hardwired. Removing this cable is an extremely invasive and risky procedure, as it is likely to tear the the voice-coil. The R10 was designed long before it was common for aftermarket companies to provide user-installable headphone cables. Even still, I feel it would have been preferable had the earpads been designed to be user-removable for easy replacement.

EXPENSIVE TO AMP WELL: The bass-light R10 is a bit harder to drive than the bass-heavy R10. In order to achieve the best results, you want to have a close-to-neutral amp (preferably with lots of current), capable of the most transparency possible.


CABLE: Considering that it is an extremely risky procedure to detach the R10's cable from the voice-coil, I do not suggest removing the stock cable. However, I have seen the interior of the R10's cable, and it is just not impressive at all - mediocre shielding and unusually thin wire for a headphone of that price. The cable included with Sony's other expensive flagship, the Qualia 010, is even worse, but at least it is detachable.

 

 

ON THE FENCE

TREBLE: The bass-light R10 isn't quite as extended in the treble region as its bassier twin. That said, I don't ever find myself aching for more treble. It is a very good treble presentation - grain free - not harsh.

NEUTRAL?: The bass-light R10 is neutral, sort of. Nothing sticks out to me as being un-neutral, but because of its mid-centric character, I am obliged to not consider its sound to be wholly neutral.

 

 

FOR THE PRICE

B-

The bass-light version of the R10 is probably too bass shy for some tastes. But with repeated critical listening, I have little doubt that even a bass-head would be won over by what it is able to do brilliantly. I'm only guessing here, but I would surmise that at an audio meet, the bass-light R10 is rarely preferred to the bass-heavy. Why? It has a more restrained and candid sound which can easily be overshadowed by its more extroverted twin. Also, it is worth specifying that the bass-light R10's sound is not the same sound signature as the bass-heavy R10's minus some bass. With the bass-light R10, the highs are definitely brought down in addition to the bass; it is an extremely mid-centric headphone. For those who like their mids brought forward, this is the best sounding headphone there ever may be.

 

 

QUICK CHECK
  • DESIGN: Full-Size
  • DRIVERS: Dynamic
  • IMPEDANCE: 40 Ohms
  • ISOLATION: Some
  • AMPLIFICATION: Highly Recommended
  • MY PREFERRED AMP: TTVJ Millett 307A / SPL Phonitor
  • SOUNDS BEST WITH: Classical / Acoustic / Jazz
  • CABLES USED: Stock
  • REVISIONS KNOWN: The R10 was revised a minimum of two times
  • FLAGSHIP STATUS: Limited Production Flagship
  • STATUS AS OF 2012: Out Of Production
  • COST: $3000-$7000 (estimated)

 

 
#2 STAX: SR-009
 

noimageHere's where it gets somewhat complicated. I've already said just about every good thing possible about other headphones, yet there's still two left in the ranking. What can be better than "perfectly neutral" (which was a characteristic I awarded the HD800) or "most euphonic" (which I awarded the bass-heavy R10)? The answer: Transparency. Everything else is secondary to transparency. If I feel like I'm at one with the music, then everything else is secondary (i.e., whether the headphone is completely neutral or if it offers the most euphonic character possible or if it has the widest soundstage etc). With the final two headphones on my list, there is a much higher degree of transparency achieved than with all the aforementioned headphones.

The SR-009 was Stax's first flagship since the release of the SR-007 (Omega 2) several years ago. The SR-007 is still in production today. My opinion of the SR-007 is very different from that of many. Some have long revered the SR-007 as their favorite headphone, acclaiming its transparency and neutrality. For me, while the SR-007 is an excellent sounding headphone, it is plagued by a slight sense of dullness. There are times that I find the SR-007's sound to be a bit subdued and boring. It lacks air and liveliness. Aside from this, I find it to be one of the greatest headphones ever made. The SR-007 is an exceptionally detailed and transparent headphone, but the SR-009 takes it a few notches up.

The humorous side of me had always hoped that the SR-009 would become known as the Omega 3 (fish anybody?):). The SR-009 is a serious contender for the title “World's Best Headphone." It definitely one of the most transparent headphones that I've ever heard. Albeit, the SR-009 is just a pinch brighter than neutral. Its sound possesses a bit more weight than the SR-Omega's. Of all the Stax headphones that I've had the pleasure of hearing, the SR-009 is my favorite.

However, this awesomeness carries with it an extraordinarily high price tag. When one considers the included costs of amplification and source, one is looking at 12000 USD minimum for an ideal setup. That is easily three times the amount one has to spend to get a great sound from an LCD-3, HD800 or HE-6. It becomes very hard to recommend the SR-009 when those three headphones can get quite close to its performance-level at a fraction of the cost. Even still, the three aforementioned headphones do not quite stand on equal footing with the SR-009; the SR-009 is clearly of a higher caliber. Therefore, I have concluded that of all the headphones I have heard, the SR-009 is the single best headphone currently in production at the time that I write this review.

 

 

STRENGTHS

PRINCE OF TRANSPARENCY: Some may take aim at me for saying that the SR-009 is less transparent than the more-colored HE90, which (spoiler alert) is my top pick for the best sounding headphone of all time. However, I do consider the SR-009 to be the second most transparent sounding headphone I have ever heard. In fact, the SR-009 is so transparent, that while I am using it, I don't consider it second to any headphone. It allows you to hear every nuance in the music without being overly analytical. To my ears, the SR-009 is even more transparent than Stax's highly-praised SR-Omega.

 

TRANSIENT RESPONSE KING: If you haven't heard the SR-009, then you may not be entirely convinced of the significance of a great transient response. When a speaker/headphone has a great transient response, music instantly becomes more real. Clarity is not only defined by treble extension, but also by the articulation of the sound envelope. The SR-009 has the most realistic transient response I have ever heard.

 

EXTREMELY NEUTRAL: I feel that the SR-009 is the second most neutral headphone I have ever heard; the first being the HD800. The SR-009 is just a hair brighter than the HD800. On the other hand, the SR-009's sound signature is void of the slight harshness in the treble that diminishes the HD800's transparency. I have only heard the SR-009 with two amplifiers - HeadAmp's BHSE and Aristaeus. It is very possible that when paired with the Woo Audio's WES, Ray Samuel Audio's A10 Thunderbolt, Eddie Current's Electra or Cavalli's Liquid Lightning, that the headphone's sound signature would perhaps tilt to one's personal preference. For me, the sound of the SR-009 when paired with the BHSE is everything I could ever have hoped for and more!

 

AWESOME SOUNDSTAGE: The SR-009 possesses one of the most natural soundstaging abilities I have ever come across in a headphone. In some ways, I prefer the soundstage presentation here to that of the HD800 (which offers a far more angled and even wider soundstage). What the SR-009 offers instead is a more evenly-blended view of the sound. While not quite as wide, the SR-009's soundstage provides a very realistic portrayal of the sound. The SR-009's soundstage is more forward than that of the SR-Omega, though at the same time, is quite similar.

 

CLARITY & DETAIL: To my ears, the SR-009 is not quite as revealing as the SR-Omega. As a matter of fact, the SR-Omega is capable of being so revealing that sometimes I even wish it would hold back. The SR-009 is just a hair or two less revealing. I prefer this for most listening.

 

MIDS: No specific region within the frequency spectrum stands out here. This is because all the regions of the frequency spectrum are extremely well integrated with one another! The SR-009's entire tonal balance is a marvel. At the same time, the SR-009's midrange presentation is not as gorgeous as the R10's. Compared to the R10's mids, the SR-009 reveals a slight absence of emotion. Nevertheless, the SR-009's midrange response happens to be flatter and is further enhanced by an extremely natural decay.

 

BASS: The bass presentation here demonstrates wonderful extension, precision, and impact. The SR-009 may not be your ideal choice if you prefer a tilted bass response for more impact. Still, one must marvel at how tight and focused the bass of the SR-009 is.

 

KING OF DECAY: Four out of five audiophiles agree that listening to the SR-009 between meals does nothing for tooth decay ;). However, when it comes to the quick, natural decay of the sound envelope, the SR-009 is undeniably impressive.

 

TREBLE: The treble here is grain-free, wonderfully extended and airy with a hint of added presence.

 

AMAZING CONSTRUCTION: I don't know if I would call the SR-009 the most attractive headphone I've ever seen, although it's certainly among the most impressive, both in its appearance and substantiality. It looks and feels as though it was designed with the utmost attention to detail.

 

STORAGE: The wooden case that ships with the SR-009 is among the best looking that I've seen. The interior features an open-cell foam interlay which is perfectly fitted to the headphone's unique shape. This case is definitely a step up from both the SR-Omega's and Omega 2's storage cases.

 

SERIALIZED: In my opinion, it is always a plus when a headphone is individually serialized. At the time that I write this review, there are no variations of the SR-009 known to me. However, should variations of this model arise in the future, the serial number may be helpful in determining the specifications of each pair.

 

 

WEAKNESSES

LACKS EUPHONY: Well you can't have everything in a single headphone I suppose. If I had even one criticism about the sound quality of the SR-009, it would be that there is an absence of euphony. That is to say, I feel there is a slight absence of emotion here. The SR-009's sonic presentation may just be on the verge of being too technically perfect, though I don't know that this problem can really exist.

EXTREMELY EXPENSIVE: In order to get the most out of the SR-009, you're looking to spend a minimum of 12 grand. This includes the headphone, amplification and source.

 

 

ON THE FENCE

AMPLIFICATION: I have not heard the SR-009 paired with a less expensive amp than the two electrostatic amps that I own (both of which are pricey). Therefore, please know that the following comment is merely conjecture based on others' opinions as well as my own experience with Stax headphones: The SR-009 is not considered to be as difficult to drive as the SR-007. It requires less voltage swing and therefore is a bit more amplifier-friendly. At the same time, one will probably want to spend a sizeable amount on amplification in order to get the most out of the SR-009.

IMAGING: The SR-009 exhibits very good imaging capabilities. Yet it doesn't image with quite the same pinpoint accuracy as the HD800, which costs a fraction of the price.

CABLE: The SR-009's cable is very well constructed. Of course, as with all the other electrostatic headphones reviewed in this evaluation, the cable is not user-detachable.

 

 

FOR THE PRICE

C+

At the time which I write this review, I feel confident in saying that the SR-009 is the finest headphone that is currently in production. In some ways, I would even go as far as to suggest that the SR-009 is the best headphone ever made; it is for me, the most technically perfect of all headphones. While just a hair brighter than neutral, the SR-009 outperforms the majority of headphones in almost every way.

For me, transparency is the most important attribute when evaluating sound reproduction. Everything else is secondary because when the transducer is transparent, the music is literally there with you; when this happens, one can stop evaluating the technical excellence or flaws of the transducer.

However, at its price - approximately 5,000 USD - it seems silly to suggest that the SR-009 is a bargain. For about a quarter of the price, you can purchase an HE-6/EF6 combo and get fairly close to the fidelity offered by a well-powered SR-009. On the other hand, if you are seeking technical-perfection at any cost, the SR-009 is going to be the one you want.

 

 

QUICK CHECK
  • DESIGN: Full-Size
  • DRIVERS: Electrostatic
  • ISOLATION: Little to None
  • AMPLIFICATION: Absolutely Requires Amp
  • MY PREFERRED AMP: HeadAmp Blue Hawaii Special Edition
  • SOUNDS BEST WITH: Classical / Jazz/ Acoustic / Rock / Electronic
  • CABLES USED: Stock
  • REVISIONS KNOWN: None known to me
  • FLAGSHIP STATUS: Currently Is
  • STATUS AS OF 2012: In Production
  • COST: $5000 (estimated)

*Back To The Index

#1 SENNHEISER: HE90 (ORPHEUS)
 

noimageIn order to avoid confusion, let me first express that the HE90 is more commonly known as the Orpheus. I will use both names interchangeably. The HE90 has long been known as the king of headphones. I think that this designation still fits today, even after a handful of newer flagships have attempted to steal that title. The Orpheus may not be technically perfect - the SR-009 certainly trumps it in terms of technical excellence - but it provides the most transparent and emotive listening experience I have ever come across. It handles every genre with ease and possesses the ideal balance of technical excellence and euphonic character. The Orpheus is a revealing yet soulful headphone, with the ability to stir my emotions and involve me in the music like no other.


In 1994, Sennheiser introduced the HE90/HEV90 electrostatic headphone/amp system as an attempt to compete with Stax's SR-Omega/T2 combo flagship. Over the course of a few years, some 300 units were made of the HE90 and its partner amplifier/DAC, the HEV90. The DAC section of the HEV90 has since been deemed obsolete by today's digital standards, but the amplification section is thought to still be ideally-suited for the headphone. The amp which I use, the Aristaeus, was essentially designed to be an improved clone of the HEV90. HeadAmp has manufactured close to twenty units of this amp. I use the Aristaeus with my HE90 and I could not be more pleased. Other manufacturers such as Ray Samuels Audio have also created an amp intended to be used with HE90. I have heard wonderful things about Ray Samuels Audio's A10 Thunderbolt, but I have not yet heard the pairing myself. Long before Single Power was known to the audio community as a fraudulent dealer and incompetent amp builder, they produced two incredibly expensive amplifiers intended to be used with the HE90 - the ES1 and ES2. I mention these models because, to my knowledge, the amplifiers listed in this section comprise a list of the only non-DIY amplifiers specifically designed to power the HE90.

As far as I know, there was at least one confirmed variation made to the HE90's deisgn during the course of production. At or around serial #300, Sennheiser began producing the small remaining balance of the HE90 headphone without the amp. A
s this version of the headphone was intended to be paired with third party amplifiers, the manufacturer altered the design of the stators. 


The serial # of the pair that I own precedes this change in design and was originally sold with an HEV90 of the same serial number. Unfortunately, I do not have the original amplifier.

 

 

STRENGTHS

TRANSPARENCY KING: While most people around these parts know me simply as a headphone collector, I am first and foremost a musician and lover of music. I love to feel fully connected with the music. I think the majority of people prefer a headphone based on how connected they feel with the music when using it. The Orpheus is the most musical sounding headphone I have ever heard. It is so involving - so realistic sounding - so pathos-filled, but most of all - it is transparent.

 

EUPHONIC GREATNESS: The HE90 exhibits the most euphonic sound-signature of any headphone that I've heard, other than the R10. I wouldn't call the HE90 a colored headphone per se, but it does feature colorations that, in my opinion, succeed in enhancing the music. I don't perceive the HE90 as a highly-colored headphone, but it does possess a bit of warmth and character.

 

NEUTRAL: The HE90 possesses a close-to-neutral tone despite its minor colorations.

 

MIDS: The mids here are not as rounded or pretty as the R10's, but they do have a greater sense of dimension and depth. The mids of the SR-009 and SR-Omega are flatter sounding to my ears - more technically correct. In a way, I would describe the midrange presentation as an amalgam of the beautiful R10 mids and the extremely accurate Stax mids.

TREBLE: The treble here is completely free of grain. There is a wonderful amount of air surrounding the instruments without the added feeling of brightness.

 

BASS: The HE90's bass presentation is wonderfully extended, offering a balance of impact and restraint.

TRANSIENT RESPONSE: The transient response here is exemplary. Pianos and percussion sound as natural as possible. The HE90 is surpassed in this regard only by the SR-009, which features a transient response that is slightly quicker and perhaps more accurate.

 

SOUNDSTAGE: The HE90's soundstage presentation is nowhere nearly as wide as the K1000's or HD800's, but it is wide enough to provide a spacious sound picture - wide and tall with a focused center. Some users may in fact prefer the Orpheus's soundstage characteristics to the HD800's, which by contrast can sometimes feel exaggerated.

 

DECAY: As is the case with all of the electrostatic headphones that I have heard, the HE90's decay is fast and extremely natural sounding.

 

IMAGING: In spite of the fact that its drivers are not angled, the HE90 possesses superb imaging capabilities. In terms of instrument placement accuracy, it is surpassed by very few.

GENRE MASTER: No matter what I throw at it - good quality recordings, bad quality recordings, classical, hip hop, rock, jazz, acoustic, blues, electronic, house, metal, r&b, reggae, country, world, etc - the HE90 excels. I seem to enjoy the HE90's sound signature the most with well recorded classical and jazz music.

 

COMFORTABLE: The HE90 is an extremely comfortable pair of headphones - one which I can wear for hours and hours without sweating or feeling any clamping force on my head. The earpads are designed to have a leathery exterior, yet the part which touches your ears is velour. This is a very thoughtful design as velour does not heat up the head as much as leather (or in this case faux leather).

 

EASILY REPLACEABLE PARTS: The Earpads and headband are fairly easy to remove and reinstall. At the time that I write this review, I believe that Sennheiser still has an abundance of extra parts available for this headphone; this includes driver replacements!

 

STORAGE: The wooden case which ships with the HE90 is very fine. It is perhaps outclassed by the SR-009's, MDR-R10's, LCD-3's, Edition 10's and Edition 8 LE's cases.

 

SERIALIZED: The HE90 is, of course, a serialized headphone. At approximately the 300 mark, Sennheiser altered the design of the headphone. Only a small handful of these altered HE90s were made. These models supposedly sound different as the stators were manipulated to be better-suited for third-party amplifiers.

 

 

WEAKNESSES

ATROCIOUS DESIGN FLAWS: I remember, after using the HE90 for the first time, I removed the headphones from my head only to find little black particles near my ear and on my fingers. This was the result of the faux-leather used in constructing headband and earpads. I thought that there was something wrong with my pair, but I quickly learned that this was a typical occurrence with the Orpheus. How could Sennheiser design what was intended to be the world's most supreme flagship headphone and not use better materials than this? In some ways it does take away from the joy of owning an Orpheus. Every time one uses it, the quality of the headband deteriorates to some degree. If Sennheiser objects to using real leather for animal rights reasons, I fully respect this, but the materials used here are clearly cheap and inadequate. A third party would be wise to create a real leather replacement for this headphone. I remember that the manufacturer JMoney had proposed the idea of creating a leather headband replacement for the HE90, but I don't recall what came of this proposition.

COLORATIONS: I love the sound the HE90, but it is not a technically perfect sound. It is colored and as such, the quality of sound won't be universally agreed upon. The SR-009's sound signature is much more technically “correct” and many will in fact prefer it. On a Monday, I may prefer the HE90, while on a Tuesday I may find that the SR-009 sounds better to me. My opinion is not as black and white as my ranking may make it seem. However, I do reach for the HE90 more often and thus I have concluded that I prefer the sound of the HE90 to the SR-009

EXTREMELY EXPENSIVE: To my knowledge, the HE90 and its required amplifier is the most expensive headphone system of all time. Depending on the condition, expect to pay somewhere between 7 and 11 grand for the headphone alone. If the amp and headphone are sold together, the asking price may be more than your car's. It is hard to put a price on something that is perceived by many as the best in the world. While I do perceive the sound quality of the HE90 to be the best in the world, I cannot justify the price and I do not recommend purchasing it. If you intend on purchasing the HE90, make sure you can accept that a well-driven HD800, LCD-3 or HE-6 (all currently in production) can get close to the resolution of the HE90 at an extreme fraction of the price.

PREFERS A SPECIFIC AMPLIFIER: Despite the fact that a third-party manufacturer can make an HE90 to Stax amp adaptor, I have found that most HE90 owners prefer the sound of the headphone out of an amp which was designed specifically for it.

THE HE60 (BABY ORPHEUS): The HE60 was intended by Sennheiser to be a more affordable alternative to the HE90. Being as such, it was considered by the manufacturer to be an inferior model to the more expensive flagship. Like the HE90, the HE60 is no longer in production. Today, the HE60 fetches a far lower price tag on the used market than the HE90. However, some users claim that the differences are not as enormous as their respective price tags would suggest. What's even more interesting is that a small percentage of users who have spent time with both models actually prefer the sound of the HE60 to that of the HE90. This is an extremely small minority, but I have seen a few people publicly voice this preference. Conversely, I have seen many express the opinion that the HE90 is far superior sounding to the HE60. Unfortunately, I have not heard the HE60 and therefore cannot comment from firsthand experience. Either way, the fact that the HE60 can be had at a fraction of the cost may make the HE90 a less appealing purchase for some.

 

 

ON THE FENCE

APPEARANCE: The HE90 is not a bad looking headphone by any means, but it does not look anywhere nearly as luxurious as its price would suggest. It essentially looks like an HD650 made with wood and faux leather instead of plastic and velour. Whereas the SR-009 and MDR-R10s look as though they were designed to cost thousands of dollars, the HE90 just doesn't please my eye in the same way. This is of course quite subjective.

CLARITY: The HE90 is surely one of the most detailed sounding headphones I've come across, though the SR-009 outclasses it here by a significant margin. Even the HD800 wins in this regard. Not every single nuance is right in your face to the same degree. That being said, the blend of sounds is extremely lifelike to my ears. I would use the SR-009, SR-Omega or HD800 for monitoring purposes before I would use the Orpheus. But again, the clarity offered here is still close to top level.

CABLE: The HE90's cable is of a very high quality, but I wish it was easily detachable for durability purposes.

 

 

FOR THE PRICE

C-

The Orpheus is a collector's item. Is it the best sounding headphone ever made? Based on the substantial sum of headphones that I have heard, I think it is. Is it worth its standard asking price? Let me give a big resounding “NO!” Not to me. An HD600 when paired with a decent amp, at a total cost of approximately one grand total, is not 15 times worse than an Orpheus setup. In terms of value, I don't see the HE90 as a contender.

With several manufacturers creating new innovations seemingly every year, I wonder if the Orpheus will maintain its status as the greatest headphone ever made. Some would say it has already lost that status to Stax. I don't agree with this opinion, but it seems likely that one day there will be a headphone that will outclass the HE90 in every conceivable way. Maybe I'm wrong. In some ways I can only hope to be wrong since it would devalue the HE90. But for less selfish reasons, I hope that there will one day be a headphone which will make the HE90 seem “so 20th Century." :D

 

 

QUICK CHECK
  • DESIGN: Full-Size
  • DRIVERS: Electrostatic
  • ISOLATION: Little to None
  • AMPLIFICATION: Absolutely Requires Amp
  • MY PREFERRED AMP: HeadAmp Aristaeus
  • SOUNDS BEST WITH: Everything & Anything
  • CABLES USED: Stock
  • REVISIONS KNOWN: At least one known to me
  • FLAGSHIP STATUS: Limited Production Flagship
  • STATUS AS OF 2012: Out Of Production
  • COST: $7000-$11000 (estimated)

 

 
TL;DR
 

Out of the 57 headphones compared, the Sennheiser Orpheus was deemed my favorite. Stax has some really killer offerings, including three which ended up in my top 10. Sennheiser's HD800 is presently my favorite in-production dynamic headphone. Audez'e and HifiMan have turned the industry upside down with their orthodynamic flagships. Both manufacturers offer two headphones to make it into my top 20. The HE Audio Jade was an awesome though inconsistently produced headphone. While Sony's MDR-R10 is one of my favorite headphones, their Qualia 010 is my most- regretted purchase. AKG has several good offerings, but unfortunately their legendary K1000 is problematic. Audio-Technica succeeded with the ATH-W3000ANV, but failed (IMO) with the W5000. My favorite offering from Grado is the HP2 (unfortunately not in production). However, Grado currently offers several good models and supplies the housings for Alessandro's equally-impressive headphone line.  Beyerdynamic offers a variety of formidable headphones at various price-points. Sennheiser's relatively new HD700 is not quite up to the level of transparency of their more affordable HD600 and HD650. Ultrasone prices their flagships very high and this may result in criticism. Shure is preparing to conquer both the in-ear and over-ear markets, but they haven't done so just yet. Denon's discontinued D7000 is a great closed-back headphone, but its dirty little secret is that it was made by Fostex. The JH13 is my favorite IEM for home use, while the ES5 is my preferred on-the-go IEM. The Audio-Technica ATH-AD900, the Beyerdynamic DT 880, the Sennheiser HD600 and the HifiMan HE-500 & HE-400 are my five picks for best value in the headphone market.

 

CHARTS

ORDER OF SOUND QUALITY ORDER OF VALUE

SENNHEISER
HE90 (Orpheus)

HIFIMAN
HE-500 [A+]

STAX
SR-009

SENNHEISER
HD600 [A+]

SONY
MDR-R10 (bass-light)

HIFIMAN
HE-400 [A+]

SONY
MDR-R10 (bass-heavy)

BEYERDYNAMIC
DT 880 (600 Ohm) [A+]

STAX
SR-Omega

AUDIO-TECHNICA
ATH-AD900 [A+]

SENNHEISER
HD800

SENNHEISER
HD800 [A]

HE AUDIO
JADE

HE AUDIO
Jade [A]

AUDEZ'E
LCD-3

AUDEZ'E
LCD-2 (Revision 2) [A]

HIFIMAN
HE-6

AUDEZ'E
LCD-2 (Revision 1) [A]

STAX
SR-007 MkI

STAX
SR-Sigma [A]

AUDE'ZE
LCD-2 (Revision 2)

SENNHEISER
HD650 [A]

GRADO
HP2

HIFIMAN
HE-6 [A-]

AUDEZ'E
LCD-2 (Revision 1)

BEYERDYNAMIC
T1 [A-]

BEYERDYNAMIC
T1

STAX
SR-507 [A-]

STAX
SR-007 MkII

AKG
K501 [A-]

STAX
SR-Sigma

BEYERDYNAMIC
DT 660 [A-]

HIFIMAN
HE-500

AUDEZ'E
LCD-3 [B+]

STAX
SR-507

JH AUDIO
JH13 [B+]

ULTRASONE
Edition 10

ULTIMATE EARS
UERM [B+]

AKG
K1000

AKG
K701 [B+]

SENNHEISER
HD650

KAM
HP1 [B+]

SENNHEISER
HD600

SHURE
SRH1840 [B]

JH AUDIO
JH13

DENON
AH-D7000 [B]

FOSTEX
TH900

ALESSANDRO
MS Pro [B]

ULTIMATE EARS
UERM

JH AUDIO
JH16 [B]

HIFIMAN
HE-400

WESTONE

ES5 [B]

AUDIO-TECHNICA
ATH-W3000ANV

GRADO
RS2i [B]

BEYERDYNAMIC
DT 880 (600 Ohm)

BEYERDYNAMIC
DT 770 (250 Ohm) [B]

SHURE
SRH1840

DENON
AH-D950 [B]

GRADO
PS1000

SONY
MDR-R10 (bass-light) [B-]

SENNHEISER
HD700

SONY
MDR-R10 (bass-heavy) [B-]

AUDIO-TECHNICA
ATH-AD900

STAX
SR-007 MkI [B-]

DENON
AH-D7000

GRADO
HP2 [B-]

ULTRASONE
Edition 8 Limited

AUDIO-TECHNICA
ATH-W3000ANV [B-]

ALESSANDRO
MS Pro

GRADO
RS1i [B-]

JH AUDIO
JH16

WESTONE
Westone 4 [B-]

WESTONE

ES5

WESTONE
UM3X [B-]

SONY
Q010-MDR1

WESTONE
Westone 3 [B-]

AKG
K501

STAX
SR-009 [C+]

AKG
K702

STAX
SR-007 Mk II [C+]

GRADO
RS1i

AKG
K1000 [C+]

BEYERDYNAMIC
DT 660

FOSTEX
TH900 [C+]

GRADO
RS2i

SENNHEISER
HD700 [C+]

SONY
MDR-SA5000

SONY
MDR-SA5000 [C+]

WESTONE
Westone 4

AUDÉO
PFE-232 [C+]

BEYERDYNAMIC
DT 770 (250 Ohm)

STAX
SR-Omega [C]

DENON
AH-D950

ULTRASONE
Edition 10 [C]

KAM
HP1

GRADO
PS1000 [C]

AUDÉO
PFE-232

ULTRASONE
Edition 8 [C]

WESTONE
UM3X

SHURE
SE535 [C]

WESTONE
Westone 3

SHURE
SE530 [C]

SHURE
SE535

ULTRASONE
HFI-700 [C]

SHURE
SE530

SONY
XBA-4 [C]

ULTRASONE
HFI-700

SENNHEISER
HE90 (Orpheus) [C-]

SONY
XBA-4

SENNHEISER
IE 8 [D]

SENNHEISER
IE 8

SENSAPHONICS
2X-S [D]

SENSAPHONICS
2X-S

SONY
Q010-MDR1 [F]

AUDIO-TECHNICA
ATH-W5000

AUDIO-TECHNICA
ATH-W5000 [F]
 
 
EPILOGUE
 

There was a lot of consideration and planning that went into the preservation of the headphones and gear. For one, the cabinet/shelf system pictured in the photos is one that I designed in order to store the headphones as securely as possible. The entire interior is lined with closed-cell foam, while the shelves are lined with an added layer of open-cell foam. I store the IEMs in the small drawers that are located at the bottom of the cabinet. This is also where I store several of the cables. I attempt to keep the cables in good condition by winding them up using Velcro cable-ties.

 

I store the boxes and storage cases to the left of the cabinet. I'm not quite satisfied with this presentation, but I don't have a better solution at this time.

 

The six headphones in the display section of my cabinet sit on the following stands: from left to right: Stax HPS-2; Edition 10 Stand; Stax HPS-2; Woo Audio HPS-R Silver; Qualia Stand; Sieveking Sound Omega Headphone Stand in zebrano wood.

 

And of course, keeping the dust out is essential to the well-being of the amps. For this I use a combination of an electronic vacuum, an electronic air blower, a duster and a number of cleaning cloths. I also use an air purifier as an extra precaution.

 

 

OTHER HEADPHONES


The following list is one of other notable headphones that I have owned and/or evaluated. Please note that this is NOT a list of those which did not make the cut; this is simply a list of headphones which I have owned or have tried, but do not own at the moment and as a result, could not compare them fairly to the others)...

 

AKG: K601 SENNHEISER: HD555
AKG: K701 SENNHEISER: HD580
AUDIO-TECHNICA: ATH-A700 SENNHEISER: HD595
AUDIO-TECHINCA: ATH-A900 SENNHEISER: HD598
AUDIO-TECHINCA: ATH-AD700 SHURE: SE425
AUDIO-TECHINCA: ATH-W1000x SHURE: SRH1440
BEYERDYNAMIC: DT 990 SHURE: SRH840
BEYERDYNAMIC: T5P SHURE: SRH940
BEYERDYNAMIC: T70 SONY: MDR-EX700LP
CREATIVE: Aurvana In-Ear 3 SONY: XBA-2
CREATIVE: Aurvana Live SONY: XBA-3
DENON: AH-D1100 STAX: SR-404 LE
DENON: AH-D2000 STAX: SR-407
DENON: AH-D5000 ULTIMATE EARS: Triple Fi
GRADO: SR325is 10 Pro
GRADO: SR225i ULTRASONE: Edition 9
GRADO: SR125i ULTRASONE: HFI-550
GRADO: SR60i ULTRASONE: HFI-780
GRADO: SR80i ULTRASONE: Pro 750
HIFIMAN: HE-5 ULTRASONE: Pro 900
KOSS: Porta Pros ULTRASONE: Proline 650
MONSTER: Miles Davis Trumpet ULTRASONE: Proline 750
SENNHEISER: HD280 WESTONE: UM2
SENNHEISER: HD380 WESTONE: Westone 2
SENNHEISER: HD449  

 

 
MUSIC: CDs Used For The Evaluation
 

noimage

Perhaps the most difficult thing about evaluating headphones (especially so many) is recognizing when you are over-analyzing the technical performance rather than its ability to convey the music. After all, I got into the hobby because I live for music.

 

Here is a list of many of the CDs I used in evaluating the headphones' performance...


 

  • AC/DC: Back In Black
  • ADAMS, JOHN: John's Book of Alleged Dances; Gnarly Buttons (Kronos Quartet & London Sinfonietta)
  • ADELE: 21
  • ALICE IN CHAINS: Unplugged
  • APPLE, FIONA: Extraordinary Machine
  • ARCADE FIRE: Neon Bible
  • ARMSTRONG, LOUIS: The Complete Hot Fives & Hot Sevens (Columbia Edition)
  • BACH, J.S.: Brandenburg Concertos (Tafelmusik)
  • BACH, J.S.: Mass in B Minor (Gardiner; English Baroque Soloists)
  • BADU, ERYKAH: Baduizm
  • BEACH BOYS: Pet Sounds (Stereo)

 

Fig13downwardview.jpg

 

  • BEATLES: Sgt Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band (Mono)
  • BEATLES: Abbey Road
  • BECK: Sea Change
  • BEETHOVEN: Piano Concertos (Brendel; Rattle; Berlin Philharmonic)
  • BEETHOVEN: Symphony 5 & 7 (Kleiber; Vienna Philharmonic)
  • BEYONCE: Dangerously In Love
  • BERLIOZ: Harold en Italie; Rob Roy Overture; Le Corsaire (Zukerman; Dutoit; Montreal Symphony)
  • BIZET: Carmen (Solti; London Philharmonic)
  • BJORK: Debut
  • BLEY, PAUL: Sankt Gerold Variations
  • BON IVER: For Emma Forever Ago
  • BRAHMS: Piano Concertos 1 & 2 (Freire; Chailly; Gewandhaus)
  • BRAHMS: String Sextets (Raphael Ensemble)
  • BRUCKNER: Symphony 7 (Karajan; Vienna Philharmonic)
  • BUCKLEY, JEFF: Grace
  • BURIAL: Untrue
  • BUSH, KATE: 50 Words For Snow
  • BYRD: Harpsichord Music (Leonhardt)
  • CASSIDY, EVA: Songbird
  • CHEVELLE: Hats Off To The Bull
  • CHOPIN: Nocturnes (Rubinstein)
  • CLAPTON, ERIC: Unplugged
  • CLASH: London Calling
  • COLTRANE, JOHN: A Love Supreme
  • COREA, CHICK: Continents
  • CORIGLIANO: Symphony 2; The Mannheim Rocket (Stotgards; Helsinki Philharmonic)
  • DAVIS, MILES: Kind Of Blue
  • DEBUSSY: Preludes Volume 2 (Michelangeli)
  • DJ SHADOW: Entroducing....
  • DOLPHY, ERIC: Out To Lunch
  • DRAKE, NICK: Pink Moon
  • DREAM THEATER: Images And Words
  • DURAN DURAN: Rio
  • DVORAK: Cello Concerto (Bailey; Markl; Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra)
  • DYLAN, BOB: “Love & Theft”
  • EAGLES: Hotel California
  • ELLINGTON, DUKE: Far East Suite
  • ELLINGTON, DUKE: Never No Lament
  • EMINEM: The Slim Shady LP
  • ENO, BRIAN: Another Green World
  • EVANS, BILL: Waltz For Debby
  • FAGEN, DONALD: The Nightfly
  • FAURE: Requiem (Ensemble Musique Oblique)
  • FLAMING LIPS: The Soft Bulletin
  • FLEET FOXES: Fleet Foxes
  • FLEETWOOD MAC: Rumours
  • FOO FIGHTERS: Greatest Hits
  • FRANKLIN, ARETHA: I Never Loved A Man The Way I Love You
  • FUNKADELIC: One Nation Under A Groove
  • GABRIEL, PETER: Scratch My Back
  • GARBAGE: Garbage
  • GAYE, MARVIN: What's Going On
  • GENESIS: The Lamb Lies Down On Broadway
  • GENESIS: Wind & Wuthering
  • GENTLE GIANT: In A Glass House
  • GODSPEED YOU BLACK EMPEROR: Lift Your Skinny Fists Like Antennas To Heaven
  • GOODMAN, BENNY: Carnegie Hall Concert
  • GREEN DAY: American Idiot
  • GRIEG: Piano Concerto with Schumann Piano Concerto (Lupu; Previn; London Symphony)
  • HANDEL: Messiah (Pinnock; English Baroque Soloists)
  • HAYDN: Piano Sonatas Vol. 1 (Bavouzet)
  • HENDERSON, JOE: Big Band

noimage

 

  • HENDRIX, JIMI: Electric Ladyland
  • HOLLAND, DAVE: Prime Directive
  • HOLIDAY, BILLIE: Commodore Master Takes
  • IVES: Violin Sonatas (Hahn)
  • JACKSON, MICHAEL: Thriller
  • JANACEK: String Quartets (Emerson String Quartet)
  • JARRETT, KEITH: Sun Bear Concerts
  • JARRETT, KEITH: Tokyo 96
  • JARRETT, KEITH: Whisper Not
  • JAY-Z: The Hits Collection, Vol. 1
  • JETHRO TULL: Aqualung (40th Anniversary Remix)
  • JOHNSON, ROBERT: Complete Recordings (RCA Edition)
  • KING CRIMSON: Larks Tongues In Aspic
  • LADY ANTEBELLUM: Own The Night
  • LED ZEPPELIN: Physical Graffiti
  • LIGETI: Works For Piano (Aimard)
  • LOVANO, JOE: Rush Hour
  • LOVE: Forever Changes
  • MAHLER: Symphony 2 (Mehta; Vienna Philharmonic)
  • MAHLER: Symphony 3 (Chailly; Concertgebouw)
  • MAHLER: Symphony 9 (Karajan; Berlin Philharmonic)
  • MARLEY, BOB: Exodus
  • MARSALLIS, BRANFORD: Requiem
  • MARSALIS, WYNTON: Blood On The Fields
  • MARTINO, PAT: Live At Yoshi's
  • MASSIVE ATTACK: Blue Lines
  • MAYS, LYLE: Lyle Mays
  • McLAUGHLIN, JOHN: The Heart Of Things
  • MENDELSSOHN: Violin Concerto; Piano Trios (Kavakos; Camerata Salzburg)
  • MESSIAEN: Quartet For The End Of Time (Chung)
  • METHENY, PAT: Secret Story
  • METHENY, PAT: The Way Up
  • METALLICA: Master Of Puppets
  • MINGUS, CHARLES: Mingus Ah Um
  • MORRISON, VAN: Astral Weeks
  • MOZART: Piano Concertos 20 & 24 (Brendel; Mackerras; Scottish Chamber Orchestra)
  • MOZART: Violin Concertos (Fischer; Kreizberg; Netherlands Chamber Orchestra)
  • NAS: Illmatic
  • NICHOLS, HERBIE: The Complete Blue Note Recordings
  • NIRVANA: Nevermind
  • NOTORIOUS BIG: Ready To Die
  • OLDFIELD, MIKE: Tubular Bells
  • OPETH: Watershed
  • OUTKAST: Stankonia
  • PANTERA: Vulgar Display Of Power
  • PARKER, CHARLIE: Savoy & Dial Master Takes
  • PART: Alina
  • PETERSON TRIO, OSCAR: At The Stratford Shakespearean Festival
  • PINK FLOYD: The Dark Side Of The Moon
  • PINK FLOYD: Wish You Were Here
  • PORCUPINE TREE: In Absentia
  • PRIMUS: Frizzle Fry
  • PRINCE: Sign O' The Times
  • QUEEN: Greatest Hits
  • RACHMANINOV: Piano Concerto 3 (Argerich; Chailly; Berlin Radio Symphony)
  • RADIOHEAD: Kid A
  • RADIOHEAD: OK Computer
  • RAVEL: Daphnis et Chloe (Boulez; Cleveland Orchestra)
  • RED HOT CHILI PEPPERS: Californication
  • REICH: Different Trains; Electric Counterpoint (Kronos Quartet; Metheny)
  • REPLACEMENTS: Let It Be
  • RETURN TO FOREVER: Romantic Warrior
  • ROLLING STONES: Exile On Main St
  • ROXY MUSIC: Avalon
  • RUSH: Permanent Waves
  • SAINT-SAENS: Complete Works For Piano & Orchestra (Hough; Orama; Birmingham Symphony)
  • SCHOENBERG: Gurrelieder (Chailly; Concertgebouw)
  • SCHUBERT: String Quintet (Emerson String Quartet; Rostropovich)
  • SCHUBERT: Winterreise (Quasthoff)
  • SCHUMANN: Piano Concerto w Grieg Piano Concerto (Lupu; Previn; London Symphony)
  • SHANKAR, RAVI: Sounds Of India
  • SHINS: Port of Morrow
  • SHOSTAKOVICH: Symphony 8 (Gergiev; Kirov Orchestra)
  • SIBELIUS: Complete Symphonies (Vanska; Lahti Symphony Orchestra)
  • SIMON, PAUL: Graceland
  • SINATRA, FRANK: The Best Of The Capitol Years
  • soundtrack: Phantom Of The Opera
  • soundtrack: Rent

Fig15classicalbox.jpg

  • SMITH, ELLIOTT: Either/Or
  • SMITH, ELLIOTT: XO
  • SPRINGSTEEN, BRUCE: Nebraska
  • STEELY DAN: Aja
  • STEELY DAN: Two Against Nature
  • STEREOLAB: Emperor Tomato Ketchup
  • STEVENS, SUFJAN: Age of Adz
  • STING: Dream Of The Blue Turtles
  • STRAVINSKY: L'oiseau de feu; La sacre du printemps (Jansons; Concertgebouw)
  • TATUM, ART: The Complete Pablo Solo Masterpieces
  • TCHAIKOVSKY: Symphony 6 (Jansons; Oslo Philharmonic)
  • TELEVISION: Marquee Moon
  • TRIBAL TECH: Rocket Science
  • TRIBE CALLED QUEST: Low End Theory
  • U2: Achtung Baby
  • USHER: Raymond Versus Raymond
  • VELVET UNDERGROUND: Velvet Underground & Nico
  • VERDI: La Traviatta (Kleiber; Bayerisches Staastochester)
  • VIVALDI: The Four Seasons (Fabio Biondi)
  • WAGNER: Tristan und Isolde (Bohm; Bayreuth Festival Orchestra)
  • WAITS, TOM: Bone Machine
  • WEATHER REPORT: Heavy Weather
  • WEST, KANYE: My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy
  • WHO: Quadrophenia
  • WILCO: Yankee Hotel Foxtrot
  • WINEHOUSE, AMY: Frank
  • WONDER, STEVIE: Innervisions
  • XENAKIS: Complete String Quartets (JACK Quartet)
  • YES: Close To The Edge
  • YOUNG, NEIL: On The Beach
  • ZAPPA, FRANK: One Size Fits All
  • ZAWINUL, JOE: World Tour
  • ZOMBIES: Odyssey & Oracle
 

 

 
FINAL THOUGHTS & THANK-YOU'S
 

Well here I am at the end. Writing this review has been an extremely rewarding experience. And I must say, after 16 months of working on it, I can't help but feel slightly anticlimactic that I'm finished. I will most probably update this review in the future at some point should another headphone or amplifier pique my curiosity.

 

It's a very exciting time to be a headphone enthusiast as it seems that nearly every manufacturer is in the process of releasing new and improved models. However, I do worry that the never-before-seen interest in new flagships, as well as the ever-increasing number of consumers who are willing to fork out a grand or more on a new headphone, might cause a rush for manufactures to meet the market demands. I would rather see manufacturers spend more time and money on research and development than to see them release semi-beta versions of headphones which fail and/or go through a revision process. I also implore high-end manufacturers to avoid crossing marketing paths with celebrity-sponsored consumer brands. Other than these concerns, I am ecstatic about the direction in which headphone development is headed.

Finally, I'd like to personally thank everyone who took the time to read this evaluation. I'd also like to express my deepest sympathy to anyone who spent a similarly-high premium as I did on a Qualia 010:) (kidding)... I'd also like to take the time to thank a few people who contributed (some unknowingly) immensely to the creation of this thread:

 

Jude, for this forum alone, I consider you the Mark Zuckerberg of headphones ;)

 

DaveDerek, my headphone chat buddy, thank you for introducing me to several headphones. :)

 

Dannyb, thank you for your generosity and continued friendship.

 

Skylab, your reviews have been a wonderful source of information.

 

Tyll Hertsens, the impact you've had on the headphone community cannot be overstated.

 

MacedonianHero, thank you for your insight and friendship.

 

Kevin Gilmore, you are one knowledgeable veteran of the audio world!

 

Purrin, your research is always interesting and insightful.

 

lJokerl, your reviews are monumental. Fantastic work!

 

Much thanks to my friend Barry Reinschreiber for his assistance throughout this project.

 

A special thanks to my team at headphones.com who have become as much friends as they are coworkers.

 

A heartfelt thanks to my supportive parents Beth & Jeff Solomon, without whom this hobby may not have started. And a further thank you to my dad who, drew the opening illustration. To inquire with Jeff about illustration, feel free to email jeff.solomon.designs@gmail.com.

Much thanks to my brother, Jonathan, who helped me edit this monstrosity. :)

 

With much love and gratitude, I'd like to give a shout out to my grandmother Rose:)

 

Lastly, thank you to Clarissa Carmona who took all the photos included in this evaluation.

 

....well that's just about all I have...

 

oh

 

...and of course...

 

"sorry about your wallet" ;)

Fig16daytimefullshot.jpg

 

Edited by DavidMahler - 7/18/13 at 9:40am
post #6 of 4939

Don't mind me, just posting in what will probably be an epic thread...

post #7 of 4939

I didn't know there was 50 flagships, I  thought much less.

post #8 of 4939

Amazing review. I really enjoyed the read. This will really help people decide on their top end purchase. I still want those darn TH900's and LCD3s ^_^

 

cheers!


Edited by KCxSmacker - 11/1/12 at 1:14am
post #9 of 4939
This is gonna be good...
post #10 of 4939

This thread needs a drum roll for sure! Looking forward to this very much!

post #11 of 4939
How can I NOT subscribe to this?
post #12 of 4939
This thread is going to be great, can't wait!
post #13 of 4939

This is certainly shaping up to be a Herculean effort. Thanks for dedicating what must have been an inordinately large amount of time to such a pursuit!

post #14 of 4939

Subscribed
 

post #15 of 4939

Whoa, I must have missed something.  Was not aware you had MSB's new 50K DAC.

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