I have been fortunate to have had on home dem, the Burson Soloist and Fostex Th-900 headphones from Mark @: Item Audio for the last week. It has been quite a revelatory experience.
Firstly, a massive thanks to Mark/Item. They don't know me from Adam, I have never bought anything form them before and they happily sent me £3k worth of kit to home dem. I also had a Violectric V200 sent as well, but more on that later.
Secondly, I should declare that I am a long time (30 yrs) headphone user and have owned pretty much everything in that time. These are my views, and how I see it - so those who want to chip and and say that an HD650 beats everything, please don't!
Over the years I have owned (that means bought and paid for with my own dosh - not demo'd or borrowed, or listened to at a friends, dealers, or HeadFi meet) plenty of high end headphone set up's. Whether dynamic headphones, planar magnetic's, electrostatics - driven by tube or solid state amplification.
Previous things I have owned are the Woo WA5, Luxman P1-u, Ray Samuels Apache, Headroom Max Balanced, Sennheiser HD800 (3 pairs), Stax Omega 2 and 727 energiser, Beyer T1, Audeze LCD2, Ultrasone Editon 8 and 9.... you get the gist - plenty of reference components have graced my listening sofa in addition to many lesser products. I stopped counting at 25 or so different headphones and amplifiers I have owned.
Headphone listening is a very different beast to loudspeaker. Sometimes you miss the scale and power of speakers, other times, prefer the intimacy of cans. Yin and yang. Sometimes with cans, the open sound, transparency and soundstage of a reference open headphone is amazing, but then so can the bass and scale of a goods closed can. There is no perfect headphone or amplifier.
In a perfect world, I'd be looking at a collection of Stax SR-009, LCD-3 , HD800 + now the Fostex TH900. But it isn't a perfect world financially that allows the enthusiast to have ALL of these, and in the words of a certain time travelling Scotsman, 'there can be only one....'.
So maybe, (and another name drop) instead of looking for best, perhaps "least worst" is more apt? They all do things brilliantly, but what does the least amount of things that irritate you? Headphone listening always draws your attention to deficiencies.
Headphone listening has two keep criteria. 1. Sound quality and 2. Comfort.
It is the only bit of hi-fi that you "wear" and have fixed to you - so point 2 is very important. Sat on the sofa listening to speakers allows you to constantly move about whilst no interrupting the experience, constantly fiddling with headphones on your head is a massive distraction. So better they are comfortable in the first place - Ultrasone take note....
The Fostex TH-900
This is related to the Denon D2/5/7000 series. Plenty of info on this relationship on Headfi on t'interweb. Fostex made the Denon's for Denon and then due to the success fancied a bit of the action themselves - the TH-900 being the fruits of their labour. Different to look at cup wise, lighter, less clamp, lacquered Urushi cups all show what they got up to. However, it is what has gone on inside the cups that is where the real magic happened.
I have owned D5000, D7000 and a heavily modified D500 by Lawton Audio with the fabled markl mods. They all sound similar, a bassy, ballsy closed can that I enjoyed massively. I had my modded D5000 with balanced recabling for 3-4 years and racked up thousands of hours. So I'm familiar with the history, sound and background.
The TH-900 has a familiar feel and sound but is also different. Lighter to wear, when I got them from Mark I put them on around 7.30 last Friday evening to have a quick blast. I took them off at 2.30 am - 7 hours solid listening, totally fatigue free and enjoyable. They tick the comfort box and to my head, even surpassed the HD800, which was very comfy.
The sound is quite something. A closed back headphone is usually a massive design compromise. But, somehow, they are almost as airy, wide and offer a transparency and midrange close to the Omega 2 and HD800 - both of which i am very familiar with. Whilst on their day the O2 and HD800 would no doubt be top of the pile on their particular strengths, the TH-900 was very , very close behind. Close enough to live with. Then you throw in the TH-900's ace cards, of bass, slam, scale, authority and this is simply the top of the pile for these attributes. Listen to Inception OST and "feel" it. Amazing - but all done with real subtlety and a deft touch. They are a classy headphone.
So, the two things that I value more than all others, sound quality and comfort, top notch.
The only negative things I can say about the TH-900 are: -
1. It costs £1500. An HD800 without discount is a lot less. Some will prefer the HD800 I'm sure, the price advantage not doing any harm!
2. The cups may be beautiful lacquered urushi, etc etc but the rest of the construction is pure Denon D7000, which wasn't the last word in luxury. See point 1.
3. The stand that you get with it a bent coat hanger. Not really becoming of a £1500 headphone.
So essentially it's a price gripe. The annoying thing is though, I don't care, still worth every penny due to exceptional SQ and comfort.
Burson Soloist & Violectric V200
Disclaimer. I have owned the Burson HA-160 (the old model, the Soloist being it's 'replacement' price wise) and I also owned a Violectric V200. Neither stayed in my collection for long. The Burson I found tinny and shrill, the Violectric was owned at the time I had a Luxman P1-u. Probably no reflection on the Violectric, which I remember being a decent amp, but was totally floored by the Luxman.
When I decided the Fostex TH-900 was a must listen and got in touch with Mark @ Item, I figured that a sensible priced amp was the best way to justify the possible expenditure for the TH-900 if I liked them. I could always upgrade at a later date. Headphone first I thought. As Item do Violectric and I was very familiar with the V200 it seemed a natural pairing to borrow the V200 with the TH-900.
However, Mark, whilst happy to loan the V200 also suggested (actually he more like insisted) I also listen to the Burson Soloist, despite my comments that I had owned an HA-160 and hated it. He did say it was my choice, but, in his opinion the Soloist / TH-900 was a great combo. He left it at that, I got both amps shipped and then once here all was connected up.
I listened exclusively to CD from my Lindemann 820 player. I used cheap cables. A normal kettle lead and some freebie RCA interconnects that came free with something from years back. My thought process was again, if this impressed, it could only get better if I then introduced better quality cable at a later date.
As I knew the Violectric, I started with this first. I had already decided I was going to hate the Burson, so I figured I'd confirm that later - but for now I'd enjoy the V200 as this was my likely choice had I liked the TH-900. It was a joyous sound - for all the reasons why I liked the TH-900 as stated, the V200 just allowed the music to come though. It is a smooth amp, bags of grunt, but polite and an all round nice bit of kit. So I was happy - I liked what I heard , but the world was not ablaze. It was nice, pleasant - enjoyable.
After an hour or so, curiosity got the better of me, so a quick cable swap was done and the "told you so" tuts were at the ready. How wrong could I be.
One of those "bloody hell" moments. Same tracks, same headphones, same cables, same volume level. Burson running instead of Violectric. Night and day difference. Where the V200 was polite, the Burson was electric, alive, utterly spellbinding. The difference between the weekly missionary with 'er indoors to the office party and the office secretary in the stationary room!
The high notes went higher, the bass deeper, the soundstage wider. The detail was immense and the whole listening experience was amplified (!) from being 'ok' and enjoyable became manadatory and, well 6 hours later I was still listening to the Burson and TH-900. You have to view this pairing as a system.
I tried the Burson with other headphones and the results where nowhere near as impressive. I also tried the Violectric with other cans and my respect for this grew - it definitely handles HD800's better IMHO. Which brings me to a few summary points to being this rambling review to some sort of conclusion.
1. At £2300 for the pair, this listener has not heard a better headphone and amp paring. not even close.
2. You have to view can and amp as a system, Synergy rules. Swap amp or headphone and you might not get the same result.
3. Get a good dealer - listen to them, their advice. There was no hard sell here. Some dealers are very clued up and knowledgeable.
4. The Soloist and TH-900 now provides a proper comparable listening experience to my speakers - not just for late nights, etc. It is a 'proper' system.
I will be buying a new TH-900 and Soloist. Item's demo stuff has gone onto the next customer. He/she may feels the same way I did, he/she might think i have cloth ears and can't see what all the fuss is about. In my 30+ years of headphone listening which all started in the 80's via Beyer DT220's, this is the set up I most covet. End of.
A huge thanks to Mark at Item for loaning the 3 items to me and for the benefit of his advice and counsel.
Edited by sumofallparts - 3/6/13 at 2:06am