Belated thanks to GSA for organising what has to have been the biggest and best of the UK meets I’ve been at to date.
What I learned from the meet, and general observations in no specific order –
* Despite having been more speaker focussed than headphones focussed of late, the meet reaffirmed what I had been thinking – that while there are certainly things speakers can do that headphones can’t, it works the other way around too. The level of intimacy and the ease of critically analysing music through cans is something special, and I got some good food for thought from the meet as to what my next headphones might be (no firm decisions though).
* My hierarchy of personal preference is still – Electrostatic > Planar Magnetic > Dynamic. The star of the show was the table of incredible electrostatics, the phenomenal sounding KGSSHV and the Orpheus.
* I loved the Sigma – very similar FR to any lambda (perhaps a little up and down across the range in places) but a phenomenally open soundstage that made a refreshing and relaxing listen.
* The closed back Stax was a little more coloured than the average stat, but sounded to be the best closed cans I’d heard before, although they were extremely uncomfortable, with my ears in constant contact with the mesh.
* I loved the 507s, as I always have, but found my impressions of the two 007s to have softened. I always recognised these as good cans, but for some reason just didn’t take to them, this time around they spoke to me much more. I found the mkII with the KGSSHV to be a particularly excellent combination.
* The Orpheus system, while having a little extra lush-ness in the low end, was not a million miles away from the HE-60 powered by a 717. Given the difference in cost on the used market, the HE60 might be an (expensive) bargain of head-fi-dom.
* So, the Orpheus… Does anyone else feel like this world tour and its “Club Orpheus” branding is the start of a marketing campaign leading up to its re-release? Given the broader headphone hifi community seem to be collectively coming around to the superiority of electrostatic headphones, Sennheiser would be foolish to gift the entire market for this tech to Stax. They clearly have the expertise, and while it’s all down to matters of taste, the HE-90 is clearly one of the best if not the best ever made. I would put money on the re-introduction of Sennheiser stats to the market within the next two years.
* That said about stats, there is no doubting that if I am looking for a single set of cans that PMs are a cheaper and more convenient version with more choice and better value for money with regards to amp requirements, and a lot of the PMs on display (all of them really) were great.
* I loved the Fostex T50RP Mr Speakers mod. Perfect black background, surprisingly three dimensional sound stage and really rich tonality. Comfort and isolation were also both great, so with a powerful enough portable amp could even handle portable duties as well. Certainly a contender for best closed back model at the show, and a shoe in if it hadn’t been for the closed back Stax. I was hoping there would be a Paradox mod there as I’ve been mulling getting one for a while, but sadly not.
* The HE-6 on Mr Qs table – powered by the Hifiman dedicated amp (whose name I forget) – was very close to a faultless headphone. PM headphones might never have the speed, air and naturalism of sound that electrostatics offer, but when it came to identifying faults, it was impossible to come up with any. On my previous audition of the HE-6 I thought they were great, a little bright, and not quite up to the standard set by the LCD-2. Through Hifiman’s own amp they were clearly superior to any of the LCD-2 rigs I tried there, in terms of soundstage, neutrality and overall versatility and had none of the sharpness of treble I’d found in the past. Given the high price of the electrostatic models and amps that beat the HE-6 – these cans with this amp have to be one of the best high end options in the world of headphone hifi.
* The HD800 and I have a funny relationship. On first listen I really could not stand them. I listened to a couple of different pairs over a half dozen amps at the 2011 meet and thought they were seriously faulted headphones. Then I listened to a pair at Harrods and they sounded like different cans altogether and really quite excellent. At this meet it seemed to be 50/50 – on Sennheiser’s own amps they sounded like liquid butter, but any of the ones I tried on the floor had the same bastard sharp glaring treble. Was it Sennheiser’s own amps that made the difference, or the fact that they had control of the music and could carefully curate a selection of tracks that avoided the danger areas of the HD800 frequency response? Jury’s out.
* As a general observation - stepped attenuators can be quite annoying when the steps are too small in number. On quite a few amps I kept finding one step too quiet and the next too loud. Despite their advantages regarding channel balance, I don’t think I’d ever chose an amp that used a stepper unless I could try it first with the cans I intended to run on it.
* Controversy time – I’ve never been a believer in cables, but had to come away from this meet admitting I might have been wrong. A cable test between a copper and a silver cable on a Vegan bamboo LCD-2 rev 2 clearly showed two undeniably different presentations, with the silver cable having a wider sound stage, faster bass and more extended treble, and the copper having a smoother more romantic sound with slightly more weight to the softer bass and the clouded treble I previously associated with the LCD-2. Granted it was just a small listen in meet conditions, but given I was highly cynical I would hear any difference, and subsequently found the differences very hard to deny, the results were certainly interesting.
* Was nice to win something in the raffle, a little Just Audio DAC, thanks to Justin for including this. I didn’t really have a need for a few DAC but wasn’t sure what the purpose of the USB power conditioners really was, and have always respected the robust form factors of Just Audio products and have loved their amps when I have heard them so went for it. I haven’t had a chance to have a go of it yet, but reading up on the website I found that three holes in the front below the RCA jacks are actually 3.5 trs – one being stereo lineout and the other two being balanced outputs via dual 3.5 trs! Having both RCA and TRS SE stereo out is a thoughtful touch from the designer and the balanced out was a surprising feature for a small and reasonably priced model like this. Shame I don’t have a balanced amp to compare the outputs, so that’s one for the shopping list for the future. Maybe Just Audio should make a dual 3.5mm input and output balanced amp to match it, that would make an innovative and neat little microstack.
* Was generally just good to touch base with some of the guys I’d met at previous meets having missed last year’s one, and meet some new people too. I thought the Sennheiser guys played their involvement well, never coming across as sales-y and respecting the community nature of a head-fi meet. I really enjoyed Axel’s presentation on the evolution of the HD800 and while it’s not for me really as a headphone, it’s hard not to respect how much thought and theory went into their flagship. I would happily pay to hear him speak for a much longer lecture on headphones and acoustics, it was a definite highlight of the day.