I’ve previously referred to the Linum Super Balanced as the Linum SuperBax, but Estron had to change the name to Super Balanced to avoid confusion. I apologize for the wall of text. I intended for this to be a couple of quick words about my favorite cable, but then I wanted to explain exactly why it was my favorite cable and one word lead to the next and… well, see below.
A Rambling Introduction
When I tried the original Linum Bax, I was very impressed by the ergonomic aspects of that cable - it felt like my headphones were suddenly wireless. The Linum Bax is so ludicrously thin that you don’t even feel it, even after several hours. This has made it quite popular with stage performers, recording professionals and sleep-deprived keyboard jockey coding monkeys IT specialists such as myself. You see, for me, like professionals in the music industry, wearing headphones for 6-8 hours straight is not “an epic marathon session” but more like “an average Tuesday”. This is also why we (yes, I’m grouping myself with music pros now, I hope some of their coolness and social skills will rub off) tend to favor custom in-ear monitors (CIEMs). An on-ear, closed headphone like the legendary Sennheiser HD25-1 II is great for blocking out ambient noise and feeding you a pretty good idea of what a recording will sound like. They can also take a beating like no other headphone and that’s why they are the de-facto standard for ENG use - news crews in the field are more worried about whether their audio is clipping or not than they are about the subtle nuances in the sound stage that might be affected by changing the veneer on the walls. And they need something that will stay on their ears as they chase a corrupt politician down a hallway or try to keep up with Steve Irwin (R.I.P., you lovable nutjob) when he spots a beautiful, deadly animal in the undergrowth. Comfort, you ask for? Not a priority. The cable? Stainless steel, in a robust plastic jacket. At the other end of the spectrum we find headphones like the Sennheiser HD800, Stax SR-007/009 and the top-end Beyerdynamic and Audio-Technica models. These were made for dedicated listening sessions in your favorite, most comfortable chair. Tons of research went into designing headphones that would present the music in the most appealing way, with tons of details and perfect soundstage. For this, the headphones needed to be comfortable and with the R&D driving up the price tag, they had to feel somewhat luxurious too. Cable? Long (so you could lean back and relax), thick and often with a cloth jacket (for that premium feel). These headphones are great for just getting completely lost in the works of Mahler and Berlioz, the impossibly perfect vocals of Rebecca Pidgeon or the amazing sense of ambience from The Köln Concert - for an hour or two. Then the continuous pressure of the ear pads starts hurting, the headband padding starts digging into your skull and your ears might even start to get warm. When long-term comfort is a top priority for you, nothing beats CIEMs. It may seem counter-intuitive that lumps of hard acrylic are more comfortable over time than luxurious pads of ethiopian sheepskin, but they are. Once you get a perfect fit with a CIEM, there is no single point of pressure in your ear. They seal your ear canal, but without exerting outward pressure like the rubber/silicone/foam tips of universal IEMs do. Where universal IEMs have one-size-fits-most body shells, CIEMs are expertly crafted to fit exactly in your concha, so that there is no single point rubbing against your ear. With the weight of the CIEM perfectly distributed over such a relatively large area, you will barely be able to feel them in your ears. Think of it as a 100-pound woman stepping barefoot on your toes vs. the same woman wearing stilettos. Pressure distribution really matters. The cable? Usually something that looks exactly like the cheap cable that comes with just about any other IEM, but it’s thin and it gets the job done. However, with CIEMs often being somewhat expensive, many CIEM owners want them to look and feel as expensive as they are, so they start looking for a big, expensive and flashy looking cable. Big mistake. (I should know, I’ve been there)
“But what the hell does barefeet ENG crews in comfortable chairs have to do with IEM cables?”, I hear you asking. “Everything”, I answer.
Sorry about the wall of text, but I had to explain why cable ergonomics can matter quite a bit to some of us. You see, I’ve been so fortunate for the past 5 years that my job has allowed me to wear headphones all day. They serve the deceptively simple purpose of blocking out the office noise and feeding me music, while I do my best to make IT-related problems go away. At first, I went through a number of full-size headphones, but they all got too heavy or too warm or just too annoying after a couple of hours. Then I switched to IEMs and found them to be more comfortable, but still painful after 2-4 hours. I finally saw the light and made the jump to CIEMs. It took a few tries to get a perfect fit with the first set, then I moved on to the next and now I find myself with a set of Noble Kaiser 10, giving me perfect sound and perfect fit. Ahh, perfection! Now I could finally focus on the music and/or my job. Well, if it wasn’t for that hellish torture device known as “memory wire” digging into my skull. Chopping it off helped, but the cable was still a bit stiff and microphonic. Not bad at all, but when you wear something for 8 hours straight, you tend to notice every single little tiny thing. Like the tag in your shirt that you might not notice when you try it on, but after wearing it for an entire day, you’re ready to try gnawing it off. This is why I was so excited when I saw…
The Original Linum Bax (1,5Ω)
Here was a cable unlike anything else. Unlike every single other aftermarket cable, this was incredibly thin and light, instead of big, flashy and stiff. Noticing that it was made by a company not 30 minutes away from where I live, I got in touch with Linum and somehow managed to talk myself into a loaner sample which I promptly re-terminated for use with the Ibasso PB2 balanced amp I was using at the time:
I was completely blown away by how impossibly thin, light and soft this cable was. The final annoyance was gone, no more flies in my ointment: I could no longer feel that I was wearing headphones, even after 8 hours. There was actually only one, single downside to this cable: The sound. Like my comfort issues, this might only be something you notice over time, but the Linum Bax has an internal resistance of 1.5 ohm. Not that much, but with the PB2 it was enough to make a tiny difference. Others reported no audible differences and may have generally considered me to be crazy. This isn’t because I have super-human hearing or the K10 is particularly demanding, but most likely because of physics and a bit of math (sorry). I posted this as a reply to someone worrying about the large number of negative comments about the Linum Bax when used with the Shure SE846:
The SE846 has a 9 ohm impedance, doesn't it? This means that the maximum output impedance at which it can maintain the correct dampening factor is (9/8 = 1.125) 1.125 ohm. The regular Linum Bax by itself has an impedance of 1.5 Ohm which you must add to the output impedance of your source. This means that anything with an output impedance of more than minus 0.375 ohm will mess with the sound of your SE846 using a Linum Bax. For instance - using my PB2 with my (~40ohm) K10, the Linum Bax had a small, but audible impact on the sound, suggesting that the added 1,5 ohms of resistance pushed it past a certain point. With the AK120II, I don't hear this change, leading me to believe that the total output impedance of my PB2 (Topkit, other buffers, etc) and Linum Bax was >5 ohm.
No magic, no golden ears or snake oil, just a wee bit of math. You see, for a headphone to behave as intended, the dampening factor needs to be right. For the dampening factor to be right, as a rule of thumb you need an output impedance no higher than ⅛ of the impedance of your headphone. As I explained above, adding 1.5ohms to the effective output impedance is a recipe for disaster when using an extremely low-impedance headphone like the SE846 or can be the proverbial straw on the camel’s back when using an amp with a somewhat higher output impedance like my topkit’ed PB2. I voiced these concerns with Estron, the makers of the Linum cable, and instead of telling me that I was wrong, that my headphones had to be defective or in any other way trying to shift the blame or downplay my issues, they asked me to come by for a chat and perhaps try out some new things they were working on. I won’t bore you with details from that visit, I already did that here. They let me try out a new prototype cable - something thicker than the regular Linum Bax, but still supremely comfortable. Turns out it was the prototype for the
Linum Super Balanced (0,75Ω)
Could this be it? Could it be the perfect cable for Goldilocks me? After two months with this cable as my “daily driver”, the answer is a resounding “YES, finally!”. Like the original Linum Bax, it is very flexible and the jacket is much softer and nicer to the touch than any regular plastic could ever hope to be. It’s thicker than the other Linum cables, but not too thick. It’s light, but not too light. The Bax could be somewhat flimsy due to its extremely low weight, but the Super Balanced has enough heft to stay where you put it, without ever feeling stiff or heavy.
The sound of the Super Balanced? It isn’t there. When used with the Noble Kaiser 10 CIEM and the Astell & Kern AK120II, the Super Balanced just gets out of the way sonically. The original Bax could add an ever so slightly warmer tone to the music, while shrinking the soundstage just a bit - The Super Balanced does no such things. Airy and spacious recordings sound airy and spacious, bad recordings sound bad and the fantastic voice of Rebecca Pidgeon is still the most impressively well-recorded boring thing I have ever heard. The Super Balanced is like an open, unrestricted autobahn for the music to travel along freely without being held back in any way. Nothing added, nothing lost; the ideal transmission.
Verdict - Is this the right cable for you?
Estron have been in business for a long time, but not in the business of aftermarket headphone cables. They’ve been making hyper-specialised wires primarily for use in hearing aids, supplying some of the very biggest names in the industry. You don’t rise to the top of that market by claiming that your proprietary silver/gold/platinum/unobtainum alloy has been cryogenically treated and then braided by virgin nuns under the light of the full moon while in a vacuum, as some aftermarket cable vendors tend to do. Instead, the full technical specs and measurements are freely available on their website.
If you’re looking for a Magic Bullet cable that promises to give you blacker backgrounds, sparklier treble and a sound stage the size of Brazil while looking like a piece of jewelry that you stole from a very successful gangsta rapper, this is not the cable for you. If, however, you want a cable free from snake oil, one that strikes a perfect balance between weight, size and flexibility to give you unsurpassed long-term wearing comfort AND sonically getting out of the way - look no further. There’s just one thing keeping me from recommending this for every IEM user out there: Cost. The Super Balanced is not yet in mass production, meaning that each cable is being built by hand by some very, very skilled, very, very expensive Danish engineers. Where the Linum Bax (R&D in Denmark, mass production in Asia) is selling for ~$99, the Super Balanced is somewhat more expensive. You can sign up for a handmade pre-production special edition, but it will cost you $400. Ouch. I really like this cable (otherwise I wouldn’t be wearing out a keyboard writing about it), but if I didn’t have this review sample, I’d most certainly wait for the cheaper mass-produced version of it. If you don’t balk at spending $400 on a cable, however, I highly recommend contacting Estron and signing up for a handmade piece of superb engineering.
Edited by Sorensiim - 4/15/15 at 3:11am