On Friday, May 2nd, M2man, AtomicBob and Barra had an opportunity to do a mini meet to listen to and compare a wide selection of the highest quality headphones on m2man’s very high end desktop rig. The main point of the meet was to listen to a borrowed OPPO PM-1. However, since we had a significant TOTL HP lineup between us, we decided to pool the headphones for comparison.
This was a very casual listening session without any level matching, song matching, nor anything else to make it anything more than just a subjective listening experience - but that is what made it fun. For what it is worth, in an effort to fight the hype - we thought we would share our notes from the experience.
NOTE: Please note that while we all three participated and contributed, the report has been spearheaded by Barra and may show some of Barra’s bias in the general text. The named notes are more representative of each reviewer’s individual views.
This was the lineup:
High Res Music > Mac Mini > USB > OffRamp 5 > HDMI > PWDmkII > Eddie Current Zana Deux / Violectric HPA V200 > Single Ended > Headphones
OPPO PM-1, HD800, LCD2.2, T1, HE500, Fostex TH900, HD650, HD600
- Music: The music was the weakest link in the chain as everything else sounded so great. However, nothing was below 16/44 lossless so there was nothing wrong with file quality. We mainly listened to jazz and easy listening with a little Metal for contrast.
- Barra: This made me appreciate the well recorded pieces and despise the horribly mastered music as it became very obvious.
- Mac Mini: M2man was using a Mac Mini as a music server with an iPad as the controller using a remote application. This was a very enjoyable way to serve up music for our meet as it was very easy to pass around the iPad for control with a graphically pleasing display of music options including an indexed search.
- OffRamp 5: As obnoxiously priced as this device is for a USB to HDMI converter, it does make an audible difference that you can hear – even in this very high quality source chain. However, it is an example of the cost associated with going that last few percentage points in sound quality.
- Barra: I don’t have a golden ear like m2man or AtomicBob, but even I could hear the difference.
- PWDmkII: Doing what it is supposed to do, it just gets out of the way of the music and presents smoothly and trasparently it as is. That makes the PWD hard to describe as most DACs have a failing of sorts that give it an obvious character. What we can say is that this DAC does everything and has every imaginable connection making it easy to have two AMPs hooked up side by side for comparison.
- Barra: This is the most beautiful DAC I have ever seen. I think it is a steal at its current price.
- Mjolnir: Not included in the lineup but mentioned for comparative purposes.
- Barra: Even though we didn’t include my Mjolnir in the lineup, I thought we should mention it as a basis for my comparison. The Mjolnir is very in your face and exciting compared to the other two AMPs so this listening session is in stark contrast to what I normally hear. As the Mjolnir is a balanced amp, I am normally listening to my LCD2s in balanced mode so this also changes the character of my LCD2s as well. That being said, even single ended, my preference in the end was for the LCD2s and the HD800s.
- Eddie Current Zana Deux: We all preferred the Zana Deux to the V200 even though the V200 excels for what it does.
- Barra: It has a very rich euphonic character to its presentation that makes me want to go back to it after hearing the other options. As a person afraid of tubes, the Zana Deux is making me a believer. I would have to say that there may be a Zana Deux in my future when my kids grow up a little to minimize risk.
- AtomicBob: The ZDSE is a magical combination of nearly straight wire with gain, euphonic presentation and no residual noise, hum, hiss, microphonics or other mechanical tube noises.
- Violectric HPA V200: We primarily used the V200 in the comparisons given the two headphone outs provided in the front allowing for convenient comparisons. The Zana Deux changed the characteristics of the headphones too much to compare between the V200 and the Zana Deux.
- Barra: While the V200 excels as an amp, I felt it was the underdog sitting next to the Zana Deux IMO. The nature of the V200 compared to my Mjolnir is very laid back and transparent again getting out of the way of the music. I could sleep to the V200, but I would be up on the desk playing air guitar with the Mjolnir. My preference would be to have the Mjolnir for exciting music and to have the Zana Deux for laid back sleepy music or calm rich euphonic listening occasions.
- AtomicBob: I hear the V200 as the lack of any sound coloration whatsoever. It is my go to for headphone check mix work and to hear the absolute differences between headphones. It has exemplary low distortion, low noise floor, low impedance (can drive anything really) and excellent frequency response characteristics.
- M2man: I found the V200 to be pretty close to the Mjolnir.
- Subjective Headphone Preference:
- Barra: LCD2 / HD800 >> OPPO PM-1 > T1/Fostex TH900 > HE500 >>> HD650 > HD600
IMO, the LCD2 and HD800 made the rest sound like ordinary headphones making it hard to want to listen to anything else. They just stood out like the two hot chicks in the room. So my listening was back and forth comparing each to the LCD2 and HD800 which probably wasn’t fair to the rest. I spent most of my time with the HD800 as it wasn’t mine, and the OPPO PM-1 as it was on loan and the focal point of our meet. However, I still feel that I got my subjective SQ preferences in the correct order.
- M2man: TH-900 > 650 / LCD2 > 600 > OPPO PM-1> T1
I would have to listen to the LCD2 for a week or more to have a better idea where to put it. I love my 650's though. I won't attempt to place the HD-800, it always sounds so different depending on the phase of the moon etc. It's just not my kind of HP.
- AtomicBob: LCD2 / HD800 > T1 / Fostex TH900 > HD600 > HD650 > OPPO PM-1 > HE-500
I am always hesitant to rank headphones as it somewhat reminiscent of which is better, wide angle or zoom lenses, as a very loose analogy. However, this would be my personal order of preference for recreational listening. Others will have different priorities based on their personal preferences. The HE-500 are decent planars, but for some reason they don't get along with my ears. Another set of cans, the T90, which has a love it or hate it following, sound excellent to my ears.
- Desktop vs. DAPs: Unfortunately, m2man's exotic desktop setup blew the DAPs out of the water - not unexpectedly - so we still have a way to go with portable.
- Barra: I have to say that my DAPs have never sounded so good with all of the wonderful HPs in the lineup. My LCD2 and the HD800 paired the best IMO.
- AtomicBob: Barra, your DX90 sucked me in. I have a DX90 on the way arriving this week. First DAP (well third if you consider iPxx.)
- Sound on the Go: It may be a mistake to not use the TOTL HPs on a DAP simply because they can scale further on a desktop. The desktop can be too limited in use for some chaining them to a desk or an easy chair. A DAP allows listeners to go outside under a tree on a sunny day or under the stars on a beautiful night or even to a Starbucks while enjoying a coffee. You cannot do this with a desktop setup without a major hassle. While the LCD2 and HD800 can scale further on the desktop, they produce better sound than anything else that can be plugged into the DAPs providing high value for limited portable use.
- Barra: Now for extended portable use, my NT6pro CIEM brings me a few steps closer with greater sound isolation and TOTL sound that doesn’t require a full desktop. But I still prefer the rich organic and euphonic sound of the LCD2 or the transparent 3D openness of the HD800 when not truly on the go.
- DX90 vs. X5: Having been blown out of the water by the expensive desktops, our opinions are jaded, bringing the performance closer together to give them a tie.
- Barra: Forgetting about the desktop setup, I can say that the X5 is stronger, blacker, and more intimate making the music sound like it was perfected in a sound studio using separate sound booths, but very organic. The DX90 sounds more open organic as if in a concert with wider more open 3D and layered sound stage. Both are very detailed but present the detail differently. The X5’s detail comes from a very black background and the intimacy. The DX90’s detail come from the intense layering and wider presentation. While both provide very nice texturing, I believe that the X5s has the better texturing to my taste coming from the extra power and intimacy. I use both equally. They are both extraordinary for DAPs and very detailed providing different presentations so take your pick or have both for variety – you can’t lose.
- Barra: The LCD2 is the most euphoric headphone that I have ever heard making me instantly happy while drawing me into an almost psychedelic trance or turning me into an air guitar enthusiast depending to what source and music is playing. Well… I guess the LCD2 is third with the LCD3 slightly better with better treble extension and the LCD-X much better being even more euphoric. Yes, I do use music like a drug to instantly alter my mood to fit the occasion. The euphonic sound is tied to the LCD2s bottom end which makes up the bulk of any headphones sound. The LCD3 are a little more euphonic and have better treble extension. However, the LCD-X provides a little more neutral signature with better extension both directions but its secret sauce is its rich euphonic quality throughout the frequency range. There was nothing in the lineup at the meet that was similar to the Audeze sound and it made there others sound like mere headphones with the exception of the HD800.
- AtomicBob: I have never liked the sound of the LCD2.x until I heard them both on the V200 and ZDSE. My opinion has changed substantially. For planar magnetic cans I rank the LCD2.2 far above the PM-1 for both details and spectral balance, and the PM-1 considerably above the HE-500 which seemed somewhat bright in this shootout.
- Barra: Having heard the HD800 before, I had not been impressed until this meeting so it may have been the magic that this high end setup provided that made me sit up and take notice. But in contradiction to that, the HD800 sounded outstanding with both the X5 and DX90 DAPs as well. The HD800 stood out from the crowd during the meeting for all the sound stage reasons that everyone has always talked about previously in the forums. However, the complaint I often hear about the HD800 not sounding natural was unfounded here as it was by far the most natural – being there – sounding headphone in the crowd. If the LCD2 is my fun headphone, the HD800 would be the serious listening headphone and this opinion scaled down to the DAPs as well. Playing the Chesky Binaural recordings with the HD800 was just unreal. In fact, the only other headphone that could do the Binaural walk around correctly was the LCD2. The rest of the headphones sounded oddly shaped in sound stage with the walk around. But the HD800 was the best.
- M2man: I don't think I paid as much attention to the HD-800 detail wise. However, it tonally sounded normal for once using the Zana Deux.
- AtomicBob: The HD800 and T1 are very much complimentary to each other. HD800 has phenomenal sound stage, detail, spectral balance with a great sense of space. T1 is a more intimate presentation, a little less sound stage, a little more quantity of bass (not necessarily quality of bass), and decent level of detail retrieval.
- OPPO PM-1:
- Barra: While the LCD2 and HD800 stood out as special, the rest of the lineup including the PM-1 sounded like headphones. This is not to poop on the outstanding sound quality that these headphones put out, but they were definitely not at the level of the LCD2 or HD800 where you get lost in the music getting out of the way of the sound. AtomicBob and m2man would be better at describing the frequency response on these headphones, but I can say subjectively that they sounded great. However, at their price tag, there is no reason to own them at a higher price than a LCD2. I appreciated the build quality, comfort, size, the nice cable, the design, and everything else, but at that price, it all comes down to sound quality and they are easily beat by the LCD2 and HD800 IMO. FYI, the PM-1 did not have any of the Audeze euphoric quality that I cherish, so this may be a difference in signature preference that others may disagree with. But the PM-1 signature did not stand out from the crowd in any special way other than a very organic bass response.
- M2man: My biggest problem with the PM-1 was a lack of detail. But to be fair, it only had about 60 hours on it. The LCD had better extension and detail. The PM-1 is very mid happy, especially next to the 650. I like the presentation/FR better on the LCD.
- AtomicBob: I think the PM1 has a lot to offer but it is not for my ears any more than the HE-500 at this time with the amps on which I have heard it.
- Barra: The T1 and PM-1 seemed similar in neutral signature depending on the song with the T1 having a little better treble extension and the PM-1 maybe being a tad warmer given the treble roll off. However, I liked the PM-1 organic bass response better making it better than the T1 IMO.
- M2man: The T1 probably had the most texture on the V200. The T1 just has a totally different FR compared to any of the others. It didn't do anything for me. Needs more bass for sure.
- Fostex TH900: Being the only closed HP, the TH900 was a bit different than the others and a little warmer. However, given the outstanding lineup, it did not stand out as something special and was mostly ignored.
- HE500: The HE500 was a bit of a disappointment in comparison. I believe that AtomicBob may be selling his if anyone is interested. It was a clear step down from the other planars. Again, with a few passes, this headphone was quickly ignored.
- AtomicBob: There is something about the upper bass, lower mids of the HE-500 which seems a bit murky. I will be hanging on to the HE-500 for one last chance to hear them on the Eddie Current 2A3. If I don't find anything to tickle my ears, they go.
- HD650 vs. HD600:
- Barra: While it was fun to get a chance to compare the 600 with the 650 directly, these headphones were both greatly outclassed by the others so they were put away reasonably quickly as well. IMO, the HD650 clearly stood out as the better headphone of the two providing a much better bass response. It made the HD600 sound as if it had a blown driver or something. However, to my ear, both had trouble producing a full bass note clearly with some clipping or distortion spoiling the bass notes. The bass just came across flat and without character in comparison to the TOTL headphones in the lineup, but now I am just being spoiled. Otherwise, they both sound very nice and full ranged.
- M2man: I like the HD-650 better than the PM-1. More extension and lots of detail. I listened to them with the PM-1 sitting there.
- AtomicBob: To me the HD650 has more quantity of bass, but the HD600 has tighter quality of bass. If the reader has a preference for one of these over the other, they should listen more carefully to opinions of those who have the same 650 vs 600 preference. I use the HD600 in work related situations as I can trust its spectral balance to give me accurate information.
- Barra: In the end, I am very happy with my LCD2, but would love to add the HD800 to my lineup. However, my Mjolnir is not supposed to be the best pairing for the HD800 so I may have to get them after a Zana Deux. The PWDmkII is on my buy list as well to round out my desktop. While all the other headphones sounded outstanding, I cannot see them getting any play time if I had the LCD2 and the HD800. If anything happens to my LCD2s, I would seriously consider upgrading to the LCD-X - although hampered by double the cost.
- M2man: I really like the Fostex even though we ignored them to listen to the planers. I'm glad AtomicBob had so many headphones to try. I think the LCD-X is next on my list though. Barra brought a pair over a month or so ago that sounded great.
- AtomicBob: I have a new impression of the LCD2.2 having heard it for the first time with a ZDSE in a situation where there were less distractions. HD800 remains the top choice for my listening habits, with multiple amps in my collection. Having heard it with the DX90 I have added a DX90 for very portable listening with the HD800.