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A must read for us headfiers

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Read below it's a great read. Part 1

Subject: [New post] Flat Stuff Part 1

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Flat Stuff Part 1
by Andrew Benjamin
PART I

As one who will not suffer poor execution and even less hype or foolishness, I wanted to make the following as fair and balanced as my earlier comments were. I think I had covered both sides of the bipolarity inherent in the subject under test in this comprehensive two part essay that deals not only with a product of unusual excellence, but with what other reviews fail to tell their readers: how to use such products profitably.

Meaning, how to get more out of the product than even the designer had attained.

Can one argue that your loudspeakers and or headphones contribute more or less 80% to the sound you hear? That does not mean that the source and power components are not contributory to what makes the whole better, or that you can’t mismatch these parts and get away with it. It merely suggests a counter to Ivor Tiefenbrunn (Linn Sondek) who was selling turntables to the tune of millions of dollars and told us that the source is the be all and end all. What he said was only partially, not wholly, true; and my thinking is that a return to the old wisdom covering this matter, meaning the opposite of Ivor’s words, are closer to reality.

The fact is, a $100,000 quality loudspeaker driven by $20,000 worth of quality electronics/front end will sound better than a quality $2000 loudspeaker driven by $10,000 (or 20K/100K) electronics/source components…keeping the proportion the same so to speak, even if multiplied tenfold. The formula works with headphones. The proportion more or less remains the same…however the cost of personal audio may be 1-5% total of an equivalent loudspeaker based system and more or less just as satisfying once we had accepted the limitations inherent in both. For loudspeakers, the room’s influence sabotages the best efforts in placement and performance; for headphones the lack of air flapping the bottoms of your pants and the luxurious frontal imaging will be missed. Other benefits however accrue to head cans and new software solutions for out-of-the-head listening are becoming available.[2]

Noted is the report that in 2013 the headphone/in-ear-monitor market ALONE had sales ten times the size of the entire high end audio market. That fact makes our New World Order worthy of noticing.

Noted that among high end headphones taken seriously by the cognoscenti, there may be no more than seven well-known brands with three to four sitting perched on the mountaintop; and among these there are no more than 3 to 5 models for each brand…or just one.

Noted that among headphone types (and I exclude armature-driven IEMs for the sake of space and another take) there are four brands that have reached the pinnacle; only one brand makes electrostatics, the others are so-called ‘ORTHODYNAMICS.’ Using a variant of ribbon and/or Maneplanar type drivers orthos employ an etched conductive pattern bonded to a thin mylar or a similar-kind material, a membrane or “diaphragm” stretched within a rigid frame, centered between perforated headers/stators for bipolar front and back radiation/operation. The exception is the Abyss, and it pays for the poor decision to go unipolar, see the mixed reviews and comments later.

We are speaking of the STAX (ES), The Abyss, Hi-Fi Man, Fostex/Denon and Audez’e (pronounced Odyssey), the subject of this essay.

Experienced reviewers will find that there’s no such thing as FLAT frequency response for any headphone out of the box. Frequency response is but one significant component of the performance “whole”, for which characteristic other characteristics are often mistakenly attributed. Meaning that a bright can can be interpreted as possessing more detail or more transparency. In the real world some cans are flatter than others, some are flatter in just a few areas. From earlier, we know that accurate frequency response mathematically translates into accurate pulse and phase response, making whole of what was possibly fractured before. More on this theme from this writer here Freq you too! ; here Freq you too part 2 ; here Freq you too part 3; from Paul McGowan here Whole matters; and Numbers 4, 6-9 at "The State of Flagships"[3]

All models in Audez’e’s line measure flat within the bandwidth of normal human hearing, says its maker, and it provides an individual chart for each can to prove it. Yet each sounds different, one from the other, and from other brand’s “flat-measuring” headphones, some of which will sound flatter at your ears than possibly the Audez’e…yet fall flat otherwise: Fostex for example. My purpose here is not to merely provide you with my impressions about how any headphone sounds, be it any of the brands mentioned, or my personal preferences. And yes Virginia, I have them too. The purpose here is to provide you with an overview and the means for how you could make any headphone perform waaaay beyond the potential the manufacturer built into it.

When I say that there’s no such thing as flat, I mean flat at your eardrums, not at the measurement mics. The ear cavity has enough variation between individuals to render each cavity a resonance chamber with its own peculiar characteristics, free of flatness and the possibility of measurement consistency. There’s a lot about measuring earphones we simply don’t understand and for which our designers merely guess at using trial and error means. Meanwhile, the legacy brands developed significant proprietary technologies over their history to reliably measure their products well; I speak of Shure, Sennheiser, Beyer Dynamic, Grado, Stax and a few others. The new guys on the block however, the aforementioned Audeze, HiFi Man and Abyss may have neither the capital, history, nor the equipment/lab space yet, to have matched the legacy brands’ labs infrastructure investments. What the new boys haven’t yet achieved financially, however, was balanced (pun intended) by their simple technology very astutely executed, backed by oodles of creativity, street smarts, drive and talent.

It is common knowledge that the new kids had surpassed the older brands by enough of a margin to have significantly marginalized them as of the date of writing this tome.

It should be clear at the outset that I have never heard a “flat” headphone or earbud. Or loudspeaker for that matter. I had heard flatter and flattest. Earlier I may have convinced myself I’m hearing flat; but today I know better that it’ll be up to moi to make flat what was earlier “bent” out of shape.

Every headphone, IEM and speaker system require careful ‘voicing’ for the room - and for the ear. Voicing can mean a lot of things (other than voicing at the design stage), but for our purposes it means altering frequency/phase response and crosstalk effects (for speakers positioning) or using DSP - parametric equalization and other mechanism - which, today is an absolute necessity to attain Audio Nirvana. So that one does not reinterpret my thoughts out of the context I am using them, I do not imply that ‘good sound’ cannot be obtained without DSP and/or other means, positioning, etc.; I mean that with DSP you will achieve better sound more often than not, a sonic gestalt that will be significantly clearer, more dynamic, transparent and detailed, with a closer connection to the music and the venue. Put another way, without DSP you will not even come close to mining your earphone’s potential. For more on DSP refer to i-Zotope’s Ozone Dithering Guide.[4]

Typical music playing (resampling) software includes “modules” to serving different purposes for manipulating the signal. Audivarna has them, Amarra and Pure Music too. For this review I chose Audiofile Engineering’s Fidelia (I also tried Audirvana). Because of its two easy to use features other than dither adjustments I mean, found on the interface and piggy backed onto the iZotope resampler code and its reputed top-quality sound, Fidelia was my choice. The first is its three band parametric equalizer (I wish it had more bands, but three is really enough for most purposes, so far adequate for mine.) The second is FHX, Fidelia’s proprietary adjustable phase angle and cross feed headphone module that I find indispensable for headphonista listening. To the best of my knowledge other software brands have not yet provided it its customers.[5] The last has a significant edge over other resampling software for me to stick with it for the here and now. Hopefully down the road Fidelia too will incorporate integer mode such as Audivarna’s; integer mode peels away another layer of, digging deeper into Core Audio in OSX.[6] Put it this way: you might feel excruciating withdrawal pains trying to switch away from FHX.

Crossfeed, the natural kind, occurs in reality, and arguably putting it back into the listening experience adds layers of spatial reality under normal headphone restrictions.

To understand flat better we need to have had experience with the sound of real instruments in real space….or a facsimile of, on good recordings. Accordingly, I chose recordings wherein instruments and voices familiar to most of us cover enough range to offer adequate insight into making DSP corrections by ear. Yes, the ear is good enough, perhaps better than any instrument that we now have that, if it could measure what flat might be at the eardrums at all or what we believe is flat – it can’t – it will still be subject to variable loudness levels and the masking that occurs at different/lower volume levels. As in, what we hear as ‘flat’ is connected to loudness (see Fletcher-Munson.)

You will know flat when you hear 2.31 minutes of the trombone intro into Mahler’s Third in D-minor 1B with Esa-Pekka Salonen and the LA Philharmonic …for you should hear each instrument interplay freely within the massed ensembles underpinning the full weight of this world class orchestra; the brasses shaking hands with the drawn basses as they fade out at the end of this memorable and sublime movement - one of my favorites. It’s simple: when you deviate from flat you lose information. Conversely, when you achieve flat frequency response you retain better transient, phase and dimensional response and more detail. And G-d is in the details, we all should know. The Chosen Ones:

Janos Starker cello; Gyorgy Sebok piano – Suites for cello: 24 bit download
Glen Gould – Goldberg variations: 24 bit download
Dick Hyman – From the Age of Swing: 24 bit download
Dunedin Consort – Brandenburg No. 3: 192/24
Harris-Hamilton Quintet – At Last: 24 bit download
John Sebastian/David Grisman – Satisfied: 24 bit download
Prokovief-Alexander Nevsky Op. 78, Reiner/Chicago: rip
Rutter Requiem – Turtle Creek Chorale/Dallas Symphony – Seelig: rip
Bartok –Dance of the Princess with the Wooden Doll; Dorati-LSO: fantastic rip!
10.10-300 CD rips and hi rez downloads not listed here

For the listening impressions go to Part II

Andrew Benjamin | January 28, 2014 at 5:05 pm | URL: http://wp.me/p1zeHt-3pl
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post #2 of 2
Thread Starter 
Part 2 a must read.
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Flat Stuff Part 2
by Andrew Benjamin
Listening Impressions - Audez’e LCD-X

For all practical purposes, flat refers to a condition in which there is neither a perceptible emphasis nor a de-emphasis between the loudness of the notes across the scale an instrument plays; corresponding to the same loudness (forces) one would hear recorded. There are other definitions. This condition can be independent of the amount of detail and resolution a system conveys. Given the range of the saxophones and other wind instruments on the Hyman; the cello and piano on the Starker; the mandolin and guitar on the Grisman, or the brass ensembles for orchestras referenced in Part 1, there shall be an evenness in the response top to bottom and of tone across the spectrum that allows one to hear with equal clarity and volume all the instruments standing individually and/or massed. Put another way, unless the solo musician deliberately exceeds in volume the ensemble, each instrument shall otherwise be the same volume level regardless of frequency. This condition will be repeatable for other recordings as well (given the usual differences the recording engineer captured – what makes one recording sound different from the other.)

My impressions accordingly depended on leveling the playing field for the headphones I would be assessing. In other words we’ll be dealing with the same currency and the same standards…giving each its due, not leaving to chance equipment-impedance related differences, characteristics of we would otherwise attribute to the DUT (device under test) that it does not actually possess. The equipment referenced here was broken in over time by leaving them on permanently playing music for weeks on end 24 hours.

For example, while I left the upper end energy of the imminently and objectively flat Shure 535SE IEM intact and boosted bass below 80Hz peaking at +4dB at 48Hz sloping almost an octave above and below; I found that the Audez’e LCD-Xes response was almost the corresponding opposite. In fact, the LF/midbass output of the LCD-X is so strong – typical of magneplanar drivers I had experience with earlier speakers such as the Tympani 1D, that I adjusted -5dB at 48 Hz with half octave sloping curves above and below the center frequency; and boosted +3.12dB at 1600Hz and +4.4dB at 4900Hz to add back “sparkle” (the two bands slope into each other) using parametric EQ – these specifically with Audez’e-supplied balanced cable. Most astonishing once I had pulled the EQ down -5dB at 48 Hz, how the top end got extended, transients became explosively tacked on, instrument and voice are now far more focused in space, the mids flattened and the soundscape became more transparent with a “look into” quality…meaning, it’s not just the low bass that got improved! One can however posit that without the low frequencies being in balance, details the rest up range too, will be skewed or sonically “invisible.”

NOTE: another wire will surely have caused different EQ, that’s the way it is, and do expect to deal with a moving target as your cans and wires break in and the voluptuous morphs more toward the lanky and lithe. Or not.

The adjustments I had made rid the bass of any hint of boominess and congealing of one instrument into the space of the other; and the LCD-Xes lows w/o DSP mask these same details. The bass adjustments improved the entire range upstream and the definition within the whole FR range; the“slam” and projection of kick drums for example, now clearly heard on low and midbass transient material – moog synthesizer for example - and one’s ability to differentiate each instrument in the orchestra and individual voices in a choir, in space, location, and body – and differentiate among massed horns, basses and cellos in the string section. The upper energy boost restored the presence, visibility and transparency and dynamics making rim shots, gently brushed cymbals, and the audience clapping all the more audible to the back of the venue, while all together became camera lens-like focused for each element in position and their distance from the mikes.

A singular achievement among the Audez’e headphone line: they are almost impossible to make spit, rasp, frazzle and sizzle, even with dramatic HF boosting – although my boosting is not dramatic by any means. These cans stay composed and lithe on their feet, they never come un-tethered from the message, the partials from the fundamental tones, and they never compress or blunt hard transients (using DSP) – but without DSP the upper transients may sound blunted. I think, believe, that this feature is a sign of very low distortion and exceptional diaphragm control under dynamic conditions. It is a sign of both linearity at low and high levels and of structural/materials and design integrity.

Without the upper range boost however the X may be somewhat reticent in the presence region…but not nearly as much as the LCD-2. Again, my notes may or may not have been equipment dependent, however past experience with MOON Audio’s Silver Dragon wires suggest that they ameliorate some or all of my negligible reservations. In any case, once you’ve achieved what is “flat” at your ears and accept that the device you had just taken out of its package is far from, you’ll know it. When you get it right everything falls into place: detail, clarity, dimensionality, focus, slam, as it would for your SLR’s camera lens. As I had suggested, as the headphones break in, they become flatter and you may need to reduce the DSP levels you’ve been using.

I do expect criticism of my reasoning for using DSP adjustments - perhaps condemning my hearing acuity – which BTW was tested very good a few weeks ago by both an audiologist and the ENT in charge; and molds were taken for custom and other IEMs I may want to test later. Note that the Shure 535SE which has been criticized for reticence at the same frequencies the LCD-X is also somewhat reticent at, just more so, actually do not have the characteristics it has been indicted for, meaning it is flat, and certainly does not have these deficiencies using BALANCED Moon Silver Dragon wire with my current CEntrance M8 DAC/amp! Hmmm. From the grapewine I understand Shure’s 846SE’s resolve some of the issues with the 535, with btw, is a match made in heaven with the current DAC.

The 535 measures and sound flat with the exceptions noted – a credit to Shure’s advanced measurement techniques. In any event under no circumstances should you tolerate hot-sounding anything, especially not something connected almost directly to your brains. Pay no attention to the gaggle of juveniles at Head-Fi, many of whom lost their high frequency hearing a long time ago never to return…ergo their preference for hot sounding IEMs. Jude, the head headfier and Macedonian excepted here - two smart boys with good hearing acuity. But take it from moi: everyone’s opinions do not hold the same value. Not here, not elsewhere. Not ever! Experience matters, for doctors, lawyers, Indian chiefs, ballerinas and audio reviewers. That is why Itzhak Perlman gives master classes to students and it’s not the other way ‘round.

Accordingly, here I head off the criticism I expect for this review. It won’t hold water. The two cans/IEM’s I referred to here can be adjusted for frequency response resembling one another, if not exactly. Both can satisfy on their own terms and within their respective price ranges.

In this context then, the Audez’e LCD-X is not the best headphone in the world, but has the potential to be when one makes the adjustments I had recommended here…and more. The LCD-X has significant advantages over the others even within its own league and without DSP that play out in the pleasures of long term listening sessions and long term ownership pride, musical always, to become possibly a keeper, something you can live with for a long time. Moreover the X-cans can play louder, their distortion will be so low that one will be really unaware of it. This characteristic separates the X from other top-enders. No, I won’t recommend very high sound levels for long term listening with any transducer firing directly into you ear, so don’t do it! I do recommend sane levels. And I recommend that you use BALANCED wires! Balanced makes a major improvement over the unbalanced kind, the higher performance is clearly audible, desirable, and at this level, a necessity.

Do the Audez’es have a distinct character? Indeed this character is recognizable and always audible; leaning toward the lukewarm and lush over our typical “accurate” can. The first noticed is the eminently “musical,” non-gritty and liquid character - as in tubes are liquid, smooth and detailed.

Once the DSP has been adjusted for the LCD-X (and other IEMs and conventional headphones if you intend to do them right), the X has the obvious edge over the others I had heard to date: an unfractured ease and lucidity of presentation. This is true even over other similar technology headphones, a wholeness recreating the body and gestalt of instrument, voice and space as a solid presence with three dimensional facets (as opposed to stringent and dry and flat paper cutouts), combined with a believable largeness of soundspace, instrument scale and size, with the inner details wholly intact that express the character and suppleness of voice filled with a myriad of textures so hypnotizing that I have not heard a similar exactness pictured with my other headsets. The negatives? Alike other headphones, just not as severe, many sounds and spaces will be existing inside one’s head.

In addition to its subterranean and detailed low frequency ability possessing the lowest distortion you will not hear, but will aware of all the time with the others, it’s solidity and focus of tone is its greatest strength. Once the DSP/parametric EQ has been set correctly for your combo of electronics, wire and transducer (yes, they do inter-relate and each combo is an individual thing), one cannot expect a more relaxed, untiring yet vivid musical experience using today’s available technology – the caveat being - provided that the Xes are connected to a decent DAC/headphone amp fitted with balanced outputs.

You will experience little if any listener’s fatigue with Audez’e headphones. This may not be the case with most of the others I remind you. You can have “accurate” that will tire you out in an hour or two – proving that mere flat is not necessarily “accurate.” Flat is snot a be all. The weight on one’s noggin’ with the X, substantial to say the least, may discomfit a few. Not moi. One gets used to it fast. Moreover, Audez’es will appeal especially to those still in doubt about digital recordings and digital sound – or what headphones can accomplish. It’ll make a believer of you even if we agree that headphones are not for everyone. They aren’t. Remember, many of us also own high quality and sophisticated conventional systems. But if you return to listening to your headphones more often than the alternative you have available at your fingertips, what does that tell you?

Really, it is hard to imagine a seemingly more direct connect to the event or the recording venue than you will experience with these headphones as both an analytical tool and as a music-making device. After breaking them in that is. Don’t expect the out of the box can to sound its best! In this context then, the universal acclaim the Audez’e LCD-X received is fully warranted, proving that the new kids on the block have the cujones and the talent to take on the legacy champions of yore and clean their sinks for good. The LCD-X is a knockout. A champ.

Caveats. My first impressions were written using the capable balanced wire to 4pin XLR supplied by the manufacturer. Once I had installed by previously broken in Moon Silver Dragon the changes wrought were again substantial and dramatic; and since I’ve had experience with two custom Moon wires before, expected. What made me sit up was Afrocubism, Joseito Fernandez’ Guantanamera, already an excellent recording, but this time the instruments, close-miked, came literally alive! Choral recordings leap forward in resolution whereby one can hear the back walls of the hall and the slap echo of sibilants – ultra definition in other words without a hint of grain and brittle. You’ll hear these improvements on every recording.

The DSP adjustments for the Moon SD for the here and now, subject to change with further breaking in that may be ongoing for months, are as follows: -5.4db octave wide at 50 Hz; +3dB at 1.5K; and +3.4dB at 4k. Consider that a 3dB boost across the FR spectrum overall is barely perceptible by many listeners, representing a power level of two. Limited to a narrow octave, the peaks at the maximum, sloping off to less than half at a half octave above and below is a small EQ by any measure…but the audibility overall is dramatic…all representing improvements in transient reproduction, dimensionality and transparency top to bottom.

Another caveat: My current DAC-headphone amp, an expertly-designed and highly-regarded portable/desktop unit, has headphone impedance and “loudness” switches cutting the output – yes headphones have different impedances and efficiencies, so pay attention to them; and the DAC’s three position loudness switch allows for the variable volume control to be set at maximum (almost bypass) 1-5 o’clock to take advantage of every bit of resolution recorded. If you can avail yourself of features similar, do so for the best results. I found the mid setting good.

The results with the Silver Dragons? No-compromise natural and sweet tone, pristine clarity without sand or edginess, yet lots of presence and directness, an unobstructed view into the soundscape and beyond…with an ease of passage and faithful fidelity to the music. Don’t expect listening fatigue, do expect an addiction that keeps you awake into the late nights. It can be said that the Audez’e line beautifies just about everything thrown at them, not with gooey, sweet colorations or masking and added flavors, but with an eyebrow-raising subterranean solidity and transparency to the source made possible only with such a low distortion design; achieving what it has by bypassing ‘stuff’ that it doesn’t add; stuff that you were aware of subconsciously with other cans that did, but were not entirely conscious of enough to verbalize the problems. Each tune ends in satisfaction and possibly in surprise, as in: “I’ve never heard that before!” Well, you never have.

The bottom line, the Audez’e LCD-X may be the truest “reference” headphone available today, arguably surpassing the Abyss, certainly, but as I tried to convey, every headphone will improve on perfection with equalization to reach the heights for which they were designed.

Andrew G. Benjamin

All Rights Reserved ©

Greg Brown with Bo Ramsey “FLAT STUFF.”

[1] Greg Brown: http://www.pandora.com/greg-brown/freak-flag/flat-stuff

Click on PLAY SAMPLE

[2] https://fongaudio.com/out-of-your-head-software/
[3] http://www.innerfidelity.com/content/one-enthusiasts-take-top-line-headphones-state-flagships
[4] Download PDF (3.2 MB) | -- Download sample audio files (4.14 MB ZIP file of WAV files)

[5] http://www.audiofile-engineering.com/fidelia/

[6] http://audirvana.com/

[7] Greg Brown: http://www.pandora.com/greg-brown/freak-flag/flat-stuff

Click on PLAY SAMPLE

Andrew Benjamin | January 28, 2014 at 5:09 pm | URL: http://wp.me/p1zeHt-3pp
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