Having heard some old-time goodies like Sennheiser HE-90, Stax Omega II and Sony R10, and owning 5 pairs of AKG K1000 currently, I have not been particularly impressed with the previous generation of flagship headphones (HD650, K702, DT880, some woody Audio Technicas) for playing classical and jazz recordings. But in the past few years I have been out of touch with the new generation of flagship headphones, especially the orthodynamic breed, and hence I decided to drop by a very nice headphone store in Taipei to do a quick comparison between Hifiman HE-560, Audez LCD-3, Sennheiser HD800, and AKG K812.
The Music Hi-Fi Co. store in Taipei is incredibly freindly and well-stocked (all kinds of goodies there), probably the leading retail store in Taiwan for hi-end headphone products. I did my listening on an Eddie Current Balancing Act (PX4 version) and Burson Conductor (solid state). Both amps were very nice and showed me the same thing--I now believe orthodynamic drivers have surpassed dynamic drivers in full-size headphones. To make the story short, I would rank them in this order: LCD-3 > HE560 > HD800 > K812.
Within 1-hour listening session, I relied on a violin sonata recording to check tonal balance, treble smoothness, and airy details. A Japanese drum (huge ones) album was used to evaluate bass extension and impact. I have often read that the greatest strength of orthodynamic drivers is in the bass department, and I totally agree, although this is only the first time I have heard them. I would rate LCD-3 > HE560 >HD800 >K812 in terms of bass extension and impact, and that was rather obvious to my ears.
But I don't really listen to bass-heavy music that much, and what I really cherish is tonal purity in classical recordings. Again, I am really surprised that LCD-3 > HE560 > HD800 > K812 when it comes to the correct portrayal of fine violins, to achieve brilliance without being dry or edgy.
Nevertheless, HD800 is the most comfortable (HD800 > K812 > HE560 > LCD-3) and open sounding of these four, and K812 is the easiest to drive (K812 > HD800 > HE560 > LCD-3). So dynamic drivers still have their advantages in some departments. But in terms of tone quality, I have to say that even HE560, which is kind of engineering for speed and pop music, is still a more refined classical headphone than HD800. Although HD800 has a more open sound and amazing comfort, it is more expensive than HE560, and I ended up buying a pair of HE560 on the spot. In all fairness, K812 is also fine sounding and has the AKG house sound (yes I am a fan), but I am not sure if its ease of drive is so important for hi-end open headphones and its price tag seems kind of high compared to HD800.
Having been out of touch with the headphone market for a few years, I am glad to discover that orthodynamic drivers have been developed to amazing new heights. Still, this is just my personal preference, and I was never a big fan of electrostatic headphones, except for the HE-90 Orpheus. I can't compare from memory to say if LCD-3 is better than HE-90, but I am really glad to see that orthodynamics have joined the battle for hi-end headphone sound. This will help push dynamic and electrostatic headphone manufacturers to invest in better designs. And I also miss the electrostatic-dynamic hybrid, AKG K340, and perhaps there is some room for technical development there.