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Head-Fi Buying Guide (Over-Ear Headphones) 2

By joe, Jul 2, 2014 | |
  1. joe
    Holiday 2017 Edition
    Holiday 2017 Edition
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    Introduction Introduction
    Over-Ear Headphones Over-Ear Headphones
    Over-Ear Headphones
    In-Ear Headphones In-Ear Headphones
    In-Ear Headphones
    Desktop Amps & DACs Desktop Amps & DACs
    Desktop Amps & DACs
    Portable Amps, DACs & DAPs Portable Amps, DACs & DAPs
    Portable Amps, DACs & DAPs
    Wireless Headphones Wireless Headphones
    Wireless Headphones
    Exercise Headphones Exercise Headphones
    Exercise Headphones
    Travel Headphones Travel Headphones
    Travel Headphones
    Gaming Headphones & Headsets Gaming Headphones & Headsets
    Gaming Headphones & Headsets
    Desktop & Portable Speakers Desktop & Portable Speakers
    Desktop & Portable Speakers
    Cables & Accessories Cables & Accessories
    Cables & Accessories
    Music & Media Music & Media
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    CanJams CanJams
    Head-Fi Meets Head-Fi Meets
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ZMFheadphones Ori (formerly known as Omni)

Head-Fi’s corollary to the Infinite Monkey Theorem states: if you give enough Head-Fiers enough time with a Fostex T50RP, one of them will eventually mod you a perfect headphone. Though it hasn’t happened just yet, ZMF Headphones’s new Omni is a very solid performer that goes a long way towards reinforcing the validity of this Infinite Modder Theorem.

Zach Mehrbach, the founder of ZMF Headphones, has been a member of Head-Fi since 2008, where he is better known as @zach915m. If this is the first you’ve heard of him, you might be surprised to know that he’s been modding T50RP headphones for quite some time now - with several of his better efforts being held in fairly high regard, like the ZMF Vibro and ZMF Blackwood. But it’s his Ori model that truly sets a new benchmark for ZMF Headphones in both craftsmanship and sound.

Like other Fostex mods before it, the Ori features turned-wood earcups for both aesthetic and acoustic benefits. But true to ZMF Headphones’s vision of taking a different path, their own path, the new Ori cups are circular and semi-open, employing five ports circling the outside of the ear cup for improved bass response and wider staging.

Available wood options for the Ori include Cherry, Walnut and African Blackwood - with Blackwood being slightly more expensive due to rarity. But choose your wood wisely! ZMF points out that - in addition to cosmetic differences - there are subtle but noticeable sonic variances as well, depending on the type of wood that is selected. I asked ZMF Headphones to select for me the wood option that is most representative of the Ori’s intended signature, and Walnut is what I received.

Wow. Actually, I have something different written down in my listening notes, but that’s neither safe for work, nor family friendly. It pretty much means the same thing as wow, so wow it shall be. The ZMF Ori is one immensely enjoyable headphone! Warm down low, but not dark up top, with a fluid and detailed mid-range in between, all laid out on an expansive stage. If you’re familiar with what an Audeze LCD-3 is like, try to imagine what it would sound like if it were semi-open. and had wooden ear cups. What you just conjured up in your mind is very close to what ZMF has achieved with the Ori.

In spending time with ZMF and their main demo rig (Theta Basic IIIa and Decware Taboo MK III with stock tubes), we were able to enjoy a lush and euphonic rendition of the Ori’s signature: Terrific sub-bass that blooms into a rich and dynamic mid-bass; settling down into clean lower-mids that show little to no bass-bleed nor boomyness; a wonderfully elegant mid-range that is both detailed and fluid, delivering a very analog-like sound that is reminiscent of vinyl; upper mids are lively but never peaky or strident; and highs that dissipate smoothly without any sudden roll-off. The Ori’s staging and imaging capabilities are superb for a semi-open headphone, even being reminiscent of my Denon D7000 at times. All of that sounds pretty good doesn’t it? It certainly did to me.

Back here at home, the Ori continued to impress with my current desktop rig - a Benchmark DAC1 feeding into a Cavalli Liquid Glass with Sylvania 6SN7-GTB tubes. Though leaner and brighter than ZMF’s demo rig, the Ori’s signature still shines through: Respectable sub-bass that swells into a robust mid-bass without bleeding into the lower mids; a detailed and evocative mid-range that lifts and exalts vocals without a hint of grain; nearly flawless upper mids that convey excitement without harshness; and highs that just seem to dissipate into infinity gently and without abruptness.

I’ll be honest, I didn’t think that I would enjoy the Ori as much as I did, especially given my penchant for balance and neutrality. But the Ori presented me with a finely crafted sense of warmth, that never once dominated its ability to render detail, which it did with an elegance and refinement. The Ori plays well with a variety of gear, and is able to serve up enjoyment with almost any genre. Taken altogether, it’s easy to see that we didn’t actually give the Ori a spot in this gift guide… It earned its place here on it’s own merit.

It’s able to present a fantastic level of detail and texture while sounding really fun and enjoyable. Better yet, the Omni performs very well on all levels and fronts. ”
  Cotnijoe ,
Head-Fi Member/Contributor
Koss ESP950

There many Head-Fi'ers who don't realize that Koss' flagship headphone is actually an electrostat that's been around since the 1990's. Electrostatic headphone aficionados all know of the Koss ESP950, where it remains almost an insiders' topic. It's a headphone that most of those familiar with it seem to hold in high regard, but that few go out of their way to promote. I'd known about the ESP950 for many years, but, until recently, never really spent much time with it. When I finally did, I felt like I'd cheated myself of one of the best bargains in high-end headphone audio for way too long.

The Koss ESP950 comes with its own energizer/amp called the Koss E90 that some seasoned electrostatic headphone enthusiasts consider a virtual write-off--something that should be immediately cast aside to make way for an amp upgrade. Then there are some who appreciate the ESP950, even with the stock E90, as a crazy bargain package, and one of the best sounding headphones a thousand bucks can buy. (If you shop around, you can occasionally find it for substantially less than its $999.99 MSRP.) I'm one of the latter.

Yes, I understand that I can squeeze more performance out of it with mods and amp upgrades. But I'm perfectly happy with the ESP950/E90 system's performance, even at its MSRP, and find it a world-class headphone, and a world-class bargain. The ESP950/E90 combo also comes with a Koss carrying case that allows the system (which is very lightweight) to travel very easily. I'll probably keep the stock pairing together for the foreseeable future.

The ESP950 is perhaps the best way to introduce someone to the enchanting world of electrostatic headphones, as its sound signature is so friendly, so easy to listen to--and yet still very resolving. Bass response, to my ears, is very good, but may come off as a bit light to some (especially those used to bassier headphones). The Koss ESP950's midrange is beautiful, forward, detailed, liquid. The treble isn't quite as impressive as the mids, but still extended and detailed enough to keep me drawn in. The airy nature of the ESP950 is unmistakably electrostat. Its generally neutral bent--but with more forward than neutral mids--is very easy to listen to, very inviting. Like I said, this little system is a great welcome to the world of electrostats.

I do have some issues with the system, though: Though I haven't had any problems at all with my ESP950, I do feel that the headphone's build feels a bit too light, almost flimsy. But perhaps the headphone's light weight is a key reason why I can wear the ESP950 for hours on end--it's super comfortable. Another issue I have is that the E90's RCA jacks are recessed into holes so narrow that the only RCA cables I've got that can fit into them are the ones that came packaged with the ESP950/E90. My biggest gripe is with the concentric volume knob on the E90, the center of it turning independent of an outer ring, each of those controlling one of the two stereo channels--it's pain to turn them both in perfect unison.

Given the ESP950's performance, though, those are minor nits to pick. Again, the Koss ESP950 is, in my opinion, absolutely one of the best sounding headphones at a thousand bucks, and a wonderful entry that gets you well into Summit-Fi.

Audeze LCD-2 Fazor and LCD-3 Fazor
By Jude Mansilla

When Audeze's LCD-X and LCD-XC were released, they were the first of Audeze's headphones to incorporate a new technology by Audeze called Fazor. To be clear, Fazor is not something obscure, something you can't see, something you can barely hear--you can very much see it (and even feel the Fazor elements with your fingers), and you can definitely hear its effects.

Simply put, Fazor technology is designed to guide the flow of sound around the magnets. In doing this--in minimizing the interference patterns around the magnets--Audeze claims: the improved acoustic impedance-matching extends high frequency response and increases efficiency; phase response is improved by the elimination of edge-diffraction of sound saves around the magnetic structures, and other effects; and impulse response is improved due to better acoustic matching, symmetrical loading and minimized edge diffraction, as well as faster settling of the diaphragm with less ringing. To see Audeze's explanation, visit their website--it's fascinating.

Because the LCD-X and LCD-XC were the first to employ the benefits of Fazor, many (myself included) found that these models (for me, it was the LCD-X specifically)--despite being priced below the flagship LCD-3--led the Audeze pack, in terms of performance. The LCD-X not only moved past its flagship non-Fazored sibling, it became perhaps my top reference non-electrostatic headphone.

Well, finally, in 2014, Audeze righted their lineup again, adding Fazor to both the LCD-2 and the LCD-3. The LCD-3, the intended Audeze flagship, has some key advantages over its siblings, with the longest voice coil and the strongest diaphragm driving force, and so should have the fastest transient response in the LCD lineup. Perhaps that was still true even before the LCD-3 finally got Fazored, but, even if it was, the LCD-X simply sounded faster, more extended and more resolving to my ears. Not anymore. With Fazor, the LCD-3 takes everything I loved about it before, stripped away a gauzy layer I didn't even realize was there (until the LCD-X stole its pre-Fazored thunder), and simply got better, faster, clearer, instantly,withFazor.

Some of my greatest reference audio tools were gifted to me by David Chesky. I'm talking about albums with music I love, that--thanks to David's open invitation to be at his recording sessions--I was therefor the performances and recordings of. The LCD-3 is easily one of the clearest windows I've got back to the actual performances through the recordings.

So ask me now which of Audeze's headphones is my favorite. Ask me now which of Audeze's headphones gives me the most transparent window to the music in the LCD lineup. Thanks for asking--the Fazored Audeze LCD-3. And now the LCD lineup makes perfect sense to me again.

"That's great,"perhaps some of you are saying,"but I don't have nearly $2000 to spend on the LCD-3 or LCD-X."If your budget is $1000 and under, you can still get a substantial portion of the performance at half the price by buying the Fazored version of what I believe to be the single most posted-about >$500 headphone in the history of Head-Fi--the LCD-2. Yes, it has improved on its pre-Fazored self just the same.

The combination of a very neutral frequency response and an almost startling transparency are its hallmarks. The vast majority of the time I enjoyed listening to music through the LCD-3 more than I ever have with headphones. ”
  Skylab ,
Head-Fi Member/Contributor
Focal Clear
By Jude Mansilla

Last year's launch of the Focal Elear and the Focal Utopia absolutely upended not just the high-end electrodynamic headphone market, but the high-end headphone market in its entirety. While so many companies have increased the radiating size of their cones and diaphragms, Focal chose to stick with extremely rigid and low-mass solid metal domes of modest diameter, but with massive maximum linear excursion. To further reduce moving mass, they designed formerless voice coils, which is something I hadn't previously seen before. Focal's approach to headphone building is as a longtime builder of loudspeakers, and their approach to headphones is entirely informed by that. When they talk about the acoustic space within an earcup and earpads, they call it "a room" -- I dig that! The engineers at Focal think of headphones as a type of loudspeaker with very unique challenges.

Focal's first two flagship models -- the Elear and Utopia -- came in at $999 and $3999, respectively, and that's an unusually wide price chasm between two flagship models from the same company. Based not just on price, but also on differences in their sound signatures, Focal had a perfect space to fill this year, and they did that with the launch of the new Focal Clear, which I think is poised to be their most popular headphone yet, and deservedly so.

We recently shot an episode of Head-Fi TV for the launch of the Focal Clear, where we dive into what design characteristics are unique to it, what improvements they've made, what the sound signature is and how it fits in with the Elear and Utopia -- and we even show comparative measurements that were made at our audio measurement lab at Head-Fi HQ:

The audio measurements in the above video were made using:
Sony MDR-Z1R
Photo: Jude Mansilla / Head-Fi.org
By Jude Mansilla

I think Sony is at its best when it's equal parts engineering and artisan. For example, many Sony aficionados consider Sony's now-vintage MDR-R10 the best Sony headphone ever made--think of that headphone. Think of the Sony SCD-1 SACD/CD player. That's what I mean--Sony at its best, with products that sounded and felt like equal parts engineering and artisanship

Right now is a time of reemergence at Sony--a return to form, to their old ways, their best ways. Their audio push with their new Signature Series has been coordinated across multiple engineering and business units at Sony. There's the new top-tier flagship headphone with the Sony MDR-Z1R, two new very high-end Walkman models, and a new desktop headphone amp that is the most pure audio "ES"-badged product that I can recall seeing in some time.

For this section of the Guide, let's look at their new flagship full-size headphone, the Sony MDR-Z1R. We've visited (and been visited by) members of Sony's headphone engineering team, including the head of the team Naotaka "Nao" Tsunoda, and Shunsuke "Shun" Shiomi. These gentleman are always hard at work on new products, but I can't recall a time where I could sense more passion, more excitement from them than for their new flagship.

They've given members of our community sneak peeks and listens along the way, and asked for opinions and feedback, noting everything. Perhaps most instrumentally, they worked with pro audio experts in studios to help voice the product, with part of the inspiration behind its sound profile being to capture the sound of high-end studio monitors in an ideal studio environment. Of course, capturing the essence, the presence, of live instruments and voices was also a key driver, and I can't think of anyone I know in the industry who spends more time traveling to recording and mastering studios than Mr. Tsunoda. He is also one of the most passionate music aficionados I know, and will take every opportunity he can to be in the presence of live music.

During the development of this headphone, I witnessed this team's focus on the engineering of the new flagship, with Nao and his team even working to co-develop new methods of measuring headphones, including work he presented at AES about high-bandwidth headphone measurement methods. I've had many fascinating, illuminating conversations with him about headphone measurements--and he has been very supportive of our efforts, as we worked on putting together our own measurement lab here at Head-Fi's Detroit office.

Perhaps just as amazing to witness is how this team seemed to me to pay just as much mind and focus on the subjective performance and perception of their new flagship. They've done on-site adjustments at studios in response to feedback, tuning their flagship like a musician's instrument. In the past, they've brought headphone prototypes to Head-Fi HQ that allowed for testing and quickly adjusting different configurations (the details of which I'll refrain from discussing or describing here).

The Sony MDR-Z1R's build quality is incredible. The materials are top-notch, with supple genuine leather ear pads, a gorgeous contoured metal mesh that makes up the outside of the ear cups, beta titanium headband (also covered in leather), beautiful feeling headband sliding mechanism to size it. All of it is put together with a level of fit and finish befitting a true Sony flagship.

The MDR-Z1R uses an all new 70mm driver with an all-new motor with a wider voice coil, and with a liquid crystal polymer (LCP) diaphragm that has a center dome made of pure, ultra-thin magnesium. Sony claims the Sony MDR-Z1R's frequency extension reaches up to 120-kHz.

When they first brought one of the more advanced prototypes to Head-Fi HQ,, we compared it to the Sony MDR-Z7, and my first comment was that I'd never really noticed the sound of the ear cup from the Z7, until I heard the Z1R. In other words, the presence of cup resonance in the Z7 became most evident to me by the absence of it in the MDR-Z1R. Nao and Shun both smiled widely when I said this, as they said monumental effort had been made to develop a multilayer housing and ear cup to eliminate resonance and control the air resistance, so they were thrilled it was the first thing I noticed. Perhaps it's the large cups, perhaps its the angled baffle, maybe it's the control of air resistance they describe--or maybe it's all those things--but, for a closed headphone, the Sony MDR-Z1R images quite openly for a closed headphone.

Overall, the Z1R's sound is full, robust. The bass is more extended and more detailed that the MDR-Z7, and incredibly realistic to me--very visceral. Again, in addition to the live presence of instruments and voices, a key inspiration behind its sound profile was the sound of high-end loudspeaker studio monitors in a studio environment. To capture that presence, and I suspect perhaps to make up for the loss of the charged acoustic of live, there is an intended low-end emphasis. As audiophile headphones go, the MDR-Z1R is on the bassier side, but I love it--and as someone who also loves to attend recording sessions whenever I can, I find the MDR-Z1R to be one of the headphones that best transports me back to the feeling and sense of actually being back in the recording sessions with the musicians.

The MDR-Z1R's lower midrange is thicker than neutral, chesty--probably owing in part to the Z1R's strong bass presence. While I enjoy the presentation of this range for a lot of my music, it doesn't breathe as freely through the lower midrange as the ETHER C Flow; and the Focal Utopia, in comparison, is much airier and free-breathing here. There are times, though, when this quality of the Z1R can impart a very physical presence to male voice, cello, piano, and other instruments in the range--at times as if your head is in the acoustic with them. From this point on up to the top of my hearing range, the MDR-Z1R has a mostly sweet, airy, sparkly presentation.

I've been using the MDR-Z1R mostly from the balanced output of the new Sony NW-WM1Z flagship Walkman, and it's a glorious portable pairing, and has been my hotel rig for the last couple of long trips I've taken. And it scales even further, with the best sound I've yet heard from the Sony MDR-Z1R coming from it when being fed and driven by the Chord Electronics DAVE DAC/amp--the sheer realism and sense of corporeal presence that pairing is capable of conveying places it near the top of the many systems we've put together here.

Here's the long story short: Sony's back with a vengeance, and playing for keeps with the Signature Series; and the MDR-Z1R is a very important pillar in this return to form.

Sennheiser HE 1 (The New Orpheus)
By Jude Mansilla

In 1991, Sennheiser crafted a headphone system thought by many to be the best sounding headphone ever made, even to this day, 25 years later. It was called the Orpheus HE90/HEV90. HE90 referred to the model number of the system's electrostatic headphone, and HEV90 was the model number of the companion electrostatic tube amp. Of course, this system became known simply as "the Orpheus," and I know many of you here are quite familiar with it, even those of you who've not yet had a chance to hear it.

300 of those Orpheus systems were made, 300 were sold, and the price back then was around $13,000. If you tried to buy one in excellent condition today, that original Orpheus system would likely set you back around $35,000, perhaps even as high as $40,000, if you could find a particularly pristine, factory-refreshed original Orpheus.

Now by 1991, Sennheiser was already one of the most well-regarded companies in the world when it came to microphones and headphones, and the Orpheus represented an all-out effort from Sennheiser (always and still a strong engineering-minded company)--using every resource at its disposal to make the best headphone in the world. And, again, it was so good that many feel it's still the best in the world today.

Now that I've had opportunities to hear fully factory-restored Orpheus HE90/HEV90 systems, I have to say that I agree. I agree that even after 25 years, the original Orpheus system was indeed the best ever--yes, was.

Just a few weeks ago, Sennheiser introduced the new Sennheiser Orpheus HE 1 system. It was designed and engineered by Sennheiser for almost a decade to be the new best headphone in the world; and it is, by a significant margin, the best headphone I've ever heard. In other words, after 25 years, to top the Orpheus, it ended up having to be Sennheiser versus itself, Orpheus versus Orpheus.

A couple of years ago, I had a chance to visit Sennheiser's headquarters to hear an earlier version of the new Orpheus, this system then being referred to internally only by a codename. After an extended tour of the amazing facilities there--including a very cool meeting with Sennheiser co-CEO Andreas Sennheiser--Sennheiser's Axel Grell (the man behind the HD 800) allowed me into a secret listening room only a few people at Sennheiser had access to, and that almost no outsiders ever see. And in there I had a chance to listen to the top-secret Orpheus successor alongside the original Orpheus system and a Stax SR-009 system. Of the many times I'd heard the original Orpheus, this time was clearly the best I'd heard it. Perhaps it's because this one belonged to Sennheiser, and this system was kept in tip-top condition by them. (Yes, they do need to be kept up--things wear out, capacitors dry out, etc.) Compared to the outstanding Stax SR-009, the original Orpheus was less clinical, but no less revealing to me, and, as such, was the more musical and enjoyable of the two. Either way, both systems were amazing. I own several Stax headphones now, including the SR-009, so I'm definitely a Stax fan--but that Orpheus kept coming out on top in the comparisons, and clearly so.

Then I switched to the Orpheus successor, and it was easily the best of the three. I was in awe. Over my two days at Sennheiser, I went back up to that room as much as I could, and they gave me many hours to do it. Amazingly, it would only get better from there. Nearly two years later, and it's now official, and pre-production prototypes of the Sennheiser Orpheus HE 1 have been touring the world.

Right away, when you first see the new Orpheus, you can't help but notice its striking, entirely unique appearance. Like the original Orpheus in its time, the new Orpheus looks like no audio component that came before it. Because we didn't have the web in 1991 to so easily gauge a public reaction, it's hard to know exactly how the world felt about the way the original Orpheus looked. The new Orpheus has what is no doubt an eye-catching design--no less unique than the original Orpheus, but definitely more understated. The marble chassis is crafted from Carrara marble, which is the same kind of marble that Michelangelo used for his sculptures.

The new Orpheus is no doubt visually stunning--absolutely extraordinary to see, especially in person. Its appearance is polarizing, which I would suspect the original Orpheus was too in its time. If you're a strict audio traditionalist, one who has a strong preference for vintage audio gear, then perhaps the thoroughly modern aesthetic of the new Orpheus won't be your cup of tea. Personally, I love it--especially the all-black version.

To me, the new Orpheus, when its turn off, looks like modern sculpture--or perhaps like a scale model of a modern art museum or opera house that's yet to be built. Turn it on, however, and it literally begins metamorphosing from a subtle modern sculpture into what it is, via a multi-stage transformation. First, the control dials emerge from the front of the marble chassis. Then the eight vacuum tubes--each within a quartz glass cylinder--rise from one of the aluminum blocks atop the marble base. Only after the tubes have risen does a cover swing open to reveal and present the headphone to the user.

This is about more than drama (though it's no doubt dramatic), this is also aboutfunction. This almost ceremonial turn-on sequence and movement allows the system to come to temperature, too. Also, the tubes within glass cylinders might also appear to be purely a stylistic choice, but those quartz bulbs around the vacuum tubes are designed to reduce or eliminate airborne noise, as vacuum tubes can be microphonic, which is a fact known to any serious tube audio enthusiast. The main chassis housing, carved from a single block of Carrara marble was chosen for its beauty, but also possessing solidity that helps prevents structure-borne noise. That marble chassis is also spring-loaded and damped.

The control dials that greet you when it's powered on, and virtually disappear when it's powered down, are connected to motorized switches and potentiometers that directly control high-grade relays in the signal path to keep it as short as possible. The calibratable volume potentiometer controls the volume via two balanced driven Muses volume control chips.

Now let's get back to those vacuum tubes: The new Orpheus' amplifier design is a very unique arrangement. You're only looking at a part of the amplifier when you see the tubes in the marble chassis. The final amplification stage is actually accomplished with something Sennheiser is calling Cool Class A MOSFET high-voltage amplifiers that are integrated directly into the ear cups! Yes, those fins on the back of each of the ear cups might look like stylish, somewhat Art Deco inspired adornments, but they're actually heatsinks for the integrated amps inside. No, don't worry, the headphones do not run hot, which is perhaps why Sennheiser is calling them Cool Class A.

There are some key advantages to a design like this, including the removal of the cable's capacitance, and thus much higher efficiency. According to Axel Grell, the approach was to amplify the alternating voltage to high voltages not at the beginning of the cable but at the point where it is really required--directly at the electrodes in the headphones. The distance between the amplifier and the diaphragm is less than one centimeter in the new Orpheus. Sennheiser says with local and no overall feedback loops, the new Orpheus's amplifier system delivers ultra-high impulse fidelity, too.

While some headphone designs have resorted to sub-micron diaphragm thickness, according to Axel, Sennheiser's extensive research for the new Orpheus HE1060 electrostatic headphones showed that with regard to the ratio of the diaphragm thickness to the coupled air mass, 2.4 micrometers was found to be optimal for allowing controlled vibration of the diaphragm. Axel said that "In this case, it's not a matter of 'the thinner the better,' but of finding the absolute optimum."

Sennheiser rates the new Orpheus' frequency response at 8 Hz to >100 kilohertz (though I'm not sure what the plus-minus deviation is on that). Total harmonic distortion (THD) at 1 kHz at 100 decibels SPL is rated at a very low 0.01%, which Sennheiser claims is the lowest distortion rating than has ever been measured in sound reproduction equipment of this type.

Of course, all of this was designed ultimately to result in one primary thing: The ultimate sound. To be the NEW best headphone system in the world. The early version of the new Orpheus I heard nearly two years ago was the best headphone I'd ever heard, by a substantial margin--even directly compared to the original Orpheus next to it. It was so amazing that I've followed this new Orpheus to several places in the world like a stalker, just for any chance to hear it again, and in London (at their first teaser event) I heard theproduction prototype version of the new Orpheus for the very first time. I was absolutely floored, and was practically fighting back tears. Why? You have to understand that Head-Fi has become a very big part of my life, every day, pretty much all the time. And in terms of that seemingly endless pursuit of perfect sound, I felt that maybe this was as close as I'd ever get to perfect from a headphone. It took 25 years to get from the first Orpheus to that. And if it would take 25 more years to top what I was hearing, then I'd be at (or past) retirement age then.

In Paris, the day before the official first full unveiling and listening sessions, Sennheiser let me keep and use the new Orpheus in my hotel room. Having had that day alone with the production-voiced Orpheus HE 1 was a privilege, and an opportunity to get to know it a little more.

What does it sound like? It sounds like music unencumbered by all but the most obvious limits that a headphone system will inevitably have. Every voice, every instrument, even the acoustic of the venue on some recordings, simply jumps out of the headphone, and into a place between the realm of electronics and reality--and much closer to the realitypart of that continuum than any other headphone system before it. It's something that goes beyond detailed as we normally describe it. To my ears, it's simply too corporeal to sound merely reproduced, because it constantly excites those parts of my auditory senses that tell me I'm not just listening to an event, but there with it.

To my ears, the new Orpheus is not dark; it's not bright; it's not neutral...it's just the music and you. How did they arrive at this, after still having had the best headphone under their belt? In a recent conversation with Axel, he was telling me how jazz singer Gregory Porter broke into song during one of their meetings, and how it was an amazing moment, an amazing thing to hear and experience--and how he realized, right after hearing that powerful voice he'd heard on recordings many times actually singing right next to him, that there was still more to chase. That's how.

I have absolutely no regrets about chasing the new Orpheus--this masterpiece--around the world. I can assure you it hasn't seen the last of me. The new Sennheiser Orpheus HE 1 is the best sounding headphone system ever made, plain and simple. In a sense, for me, it is what Head-Fi is all about.

Abyss Headphones AB-1266
Photo: Jude Mansilla / Head-Fi.org
By Jude Mansilla

One look at the Abyss AB-1266 tells you it's an unusual headphone. "Elegant" isn't what immediately comes to mind when first laying eyes on it. Actually, it's kind of medieval looking--as in something-you'd-find-in-the-basement-of-the-Tower-of-London-to-torture-with medieval.

It's bulky. It's heavy. It's overbuilt, with the use of a lot of metal--a lot of metal. See that foam just inside each earcup? That's foam all right--foamed aluminum! The round chassis that forms the main structure of each of those earpieces is made of billet aluminum, and looks tough enough to be a suspension component from an unlimited-class off-road truck. Instead of using several bar magnets, each earpiece contains a single whopping magnet, slotted and cut to shape. I was told one of the goals of the AB-1266 design was an inert chassis--mission very much accomplished.

Yet somehow, some way, Joe Skubinski (also of JPS Labs) has managed to massage this beast of a headphone into something that is unexpectedly comfortable--and unexpectedly (to me anyway) one of the best sounding headphones currently made. A few years ago, Abyss brought a prototype to CanJam @ RMAF, and it was good, but it didn't give a clear indication (to me anyway) that the final version was going to sound like this.

The Abyss AB-1266 is a world-class headphone, capable of revealing everything, from the most abyssal bass (c'mon, I had to) to the highest highs. The thing is that you have to really play with the fit--adjust the headband, rotate the pads--until you get the sound you want. For example, for me, a complete earpad seal results in rather subdued bass, and a touch of treble brightness. Rotate the pads a bit to break the seal a touch, and the bass fills in, and the Abyss AB-1266's tonal balance balances out, and, then...wow.

Characterizing the Abyss headphone's sound signature is challenging, given its ability to be seasoned to taste. One thing it always is, though, is astonishingly revealing. Does the Abyss compete with other world class headphones?? To my ears, absolutely. Is it worth the price of nearly three Audeze LCD-3's or more than four HiFiMAN HE-6's? That's a tough call, but I know there's a hungry market for the best, even at this price.

Keep in mind that the Abyss AB-1266 is a power-hungry headphone. I've had excellent results at low listening levels with a wide variety of amps, but the HiFiMAN EF-6 and Schiit Audio Mjolnir--both Class A beasts--really open up the dynamism of the Abyss AB-1266.

Simply put, the AB-1266 is an amazing first headphone from Abyss Headphones, and, to my ears, one of the best sounding headphones currently made.

Sennheiser HD 600 and HD 650
By Jude Mansilla

Is there a more widely owned and lauded pair of headphones than the Sennheiser HD 6XX series in the world of high-end audio? And all the acclaim for these headphones is absolutely deserved, earned over many years on the market. The Sennheiser HD 600 and HD 650 both have sonic performance that can scale so far up in world-class rigs that I struggled with whether or not to include them in the Summit-Fi (high-end audio) section instead.

Though detailed, both the HD 600 and HD 650 do not have the hyper detail that some of the newer breed of high-end dynamic and planar magnetic headphones have. Still, when I'm listening to them, I don't find myself longing for more (even though I know headphones like its successor flagship HD 800 can certainly give me more).

I think the magic of these headphones is that, in terms of detail and tonality, they can be like listening to good loudspeakers, and there's instant comfort in that. Some find this overly laid-back, but I'm not one of them.

As for what differentiates these two headphones, the HD 650 is the slightly warmer of the two, and yet I personally find it more refined than the HD 600, especially in the upper registers. There's no question that there are more similarities than differences, so if you're already straining your budget, you can feel comfortable choosing the HD 600 to save some dough.

In my experience, getting the best out of the HD 600 and HD 650 absolutely requires the use of good headphone amplification, so make sure to feed 'em right. And if you do feed 'em real right, you can feel confident you're listening to headphones that are still, in my opinion, absolutely world class.

Ultrasone Edition 8 EX
By Jude Mansilla

Ultrasone's headphones are quite popular with the premium headphone audio community in Japan, and Japanese audio enthusiasts are among the most dedicated, discerning audiophiles in the world. In Japan, fine craftsmanship is tremendously appreciated, and some of Ultrasone's higher-end models have fit-and-finish that rivals or exceeds the very best I've seen in the headphone world. The quality of the materials Ultrasone chooses for their top models is also top-shelf. At the 2017 Fall Tokyo Headphone Festival, I was with a gentleman from another headphone manufacturer and he couldn't stop talking to me about the leather on Ultrasone's earpads (made of Ethiopian longhair sheep skin) -- he'd never felt leather like that, with such a soft, perfectly uniform hand. He even approached Ultrasone CEO Michael Zirkel to ask about it, which kicked off a spirited conversation about leather quality.

Ultrasone's Edition 8EX is one of Ultrasone's newest flagship models, and it represents an excellent example of everything I just said about the quality of fit-and-finish and material choices. The Ultrasone Edition 8 EX’s outside surfaces are HIGHLY polished and then chrome plated, and then coated with a wear-resistant PVD (physical vapor deposition) hard coat. The Ultrasone logos are engraved into polished ceramic inlays set into solid metal yokes that look and feel like miniaturized suspension parts from a competitive off-road race truck. The earcups have metal trim rings finished in matte chrome, which is something I didn't previously know was a thing, but now that I do I'd like to see more matte chrome. And then there's that leather. I couldn't pick an Ethiopian longhair sheep out of a mob of mixed sheep, but I can tell you with some authority now that they have very soft skin. Even the magnetic earpad mounts feels more precise, more secure than others of this type I've used. In my opinion, the Ultrasone Edition 8EX is one of the most gorgeous and beautifully-built headphones we've had at Head-Fi HQ.

The Ultrasone Edition 8EX comes with a high-quality aluminum carry case, a microfiber cloth, and two gorgeous, wonderfully flexible four-core cables with LEMO connectors (on the earcup sides). One of the cables is 1.2 meters long, and the other three meters long.

In terms of sound, the Ultrasone Edition 8 EX uses a newer version of Ultrasone's S-LOGIC technology called S-LOGIC EX. In addition to the decentralized driver positioning of S-LOGIC, S-LOGIC EX also incorporates a funnel-shaped arrangement oriented downwards to the front. This funnel-shaped structure places the transducer farther from the ear. I believe the attempt is to engage more of the outer ear -- as opposed to firing into the ear directly -- to give greater three-dimensionality and sense of space. Upon first listen, you notice the space and distance, and it takes an adjustment period. After listening to the Edition 8 EX for an extended period of time, going back to a more typical headphone design does seem for a moment very closed-in, especially with other closed-backs. These just arrived, so I want to spend some extended listening time with this very interesting S-LOGIC EX design.

After listening to the Edition 8 EX for an extended period of time, going back to a more typical closed-back headphone design can seem very closed-in. This new design, for me, reduces some of the in-your-head very-close-to-you presentation of some closed-back headphones, and instead creates a more diffuse headstage. It’s somewhat akin to going from a more sound-deadened room to one that’s a bit more lively. At first I wasn’t sure I liked it, but then one day I just kept them on all day, and found myself rather subconsciously seeking music in my collection that played particularly well with S-LOGIC EX and what it does. I find that several of jazz pianist Tord Gustavsen’s recordings have a very intimate presentation — rich in tonality, dense in image. The way Gustavsen’s recordings play through the Edition 8 EX gives an intriguing new take on albums I’ve enjoyed for years, with more space between the players and their instruments than I’m used to.

I’ve also found the effect of S-LOGIC EX to be similarly fun to explore with when playing classical (from the most austere chamber recordings to all-out full symphony orchestra and choral Mahler 8). In fact, almost any performance that’s primarily acoustic seems to play best with S-LOGIC EX to my ears. Electronic music can exhibit the similar effects via S-LOGIC EX, but it’s not quite as impactful (in terms of imaging) as it is with music that has substantial and well-recorded acoustic instrument presence. While some of Ultrasone’s previous S-LOGIC configurations haven’t always played well with my ears, S-LOGIC EX —- as implemented in the Edition 8EX (and in a quick preview I had of the Edition 15 in Japan) —- is the S-LOGIC implementation I’ve found to work best with me.

The Edition 8EX's tonal balance is bass-emphasized, its bass having deep extension and a mild mid-bass kick that I've found plays particularly well with pop and rock music, while still also presenting well with classical and jazz. If you tend to prefer a leaner sound, or are seeking a sense of perfect linearity on the low end, you may find the Edition 8EX's bass a bit too robust. I've been enjoying it, but, as audiophiles go, I do admit my tastes tend to run on the bassier side of the audiophile spectrum. The Edition 8EX's midrange is where I hear much of the S-LOGIC EX effect, and it gives a diffuse, ethereal quality to what sounds to me like an underlying full midrange. The Edition 8EX's treble sounds very extended to me, stopping just short of what I'd find bright, and with a nice sparkly quality.

In terms of overall resolution, the Edition 8EX is quite good for a closed-back headphone, but don't expect the kind of resolution that you'd get from an open-back reference like the Focal Utopia or the Sennheiser HD800S. I think the Edition 8EX's sound signature is more about its unique brand of wider, airy imaging from a very uniquely engineered closed-back design.

Priced at $2199.99, the Ultrasone Edition 8EX is an expensive headphone, but a fine closed-back semi-portable high-end headphone with sonic qualities I find intoxicating and unique to it. It's also one of the most beautifully crafted headphones we've had here. I wasn't sure I'd ever find an Ultrasone model I'd like as much as the very classic, very rare Ultrasone Edition 7 (revived a couple of years ago as the very limited edition Ultrasone Tribute 7). With the Ultrasone Edition 8EX and the Ultrasone Edition 15 (review coming soon), that's just what's happened, and I'm quickly coming to understand why Ultrasone has been so big in Japan.

Sennheiser x Massdrop HD 6XX
Photo: Brian Murphy / Head-Fi.org
By Jude Mansilla

In the 15 years since we started Head-Fi.org, there have come many watershed headphones, but none more than the Sennheiser HD600 family of headphones: The Sennheiser HD600 and HD650.

Okay, here's a brief history lesson for those who may not have been into premium headphones long enough to know how these immensely important headphones came about: What some may not know or remember is that the HD600 series--the HD600 and HD650--actually started with the Sennheiser HD580 back in 1993. (Yes, you Head-Fi old-timers, that's already 23 years ago.) The HD580 looked rather like an all-plastic version of the HD600 and HD650 we all know today, because that's essentially what it was. In 1995, to celebrate Sennheiser's 50th anniversary, Sennheiser released the Sennheiser HD580 Jubilee--a special edition of the HD580--the most immediately noticeable difference being metal grilles (versus the normal HD580's plastic grilles). While the normal, all-plastic HD580 continued past the limited release HD580 Jubilee, that metal-grilled HD580 Jubilee model was the clear forerunner of the Sennheiser HD600 that was released in 1997.

In 2003, what would become the last refinement of this series of headphones was unveiled with the Sennheiser HD650. While some did (and perhaps still do) prefer the Sennheiser HD600 to the slightly warmer HD650, many of us over the 13 years since (myself included) recognized the HD650 as the better of the two models--the most refined, accurate representation of what the HD580 had begun around 10 years before it.

Even after Sennheiser finally released an all-new flagship with its ring-driver Sennheiser HD800 in 2009, there are some who still prefer the more laid-back HD650 to the HD800. While I do prefer the HD800--and even more the latest HD800S--to the Sennheiser HD650, I find it amazing that this headphone that the HD650 (which essentially had its roots planted well over 20 years ago) can still be regarded by so many (again, myself included) as a world-class headphone. This is an example of what makes Sennheiser perhaps the single most respected brand in the world of premium headphones.

Okay, so why the big headphone history lesson? Because Massdrop and Sennheiser very recently unveiled their first product collaboration with the Sennheiser x Massdrop HD6XX, which has already proven Massdrop's biggest such collaboration to date. I daresay it is also their most important such collaboration, and here's why: This HD6XX is a Sennheiser HD650. And it's $199.99. That level of world-class performance has been available for that kind of price, shy of stealing.

Okay, there are some differences between the HD650 and the HD6XX. For one, the HD6XX is colored matte midnight blue instead of glossy metallic gray. While I personally prefer the stock HD650's finish, I'll gladly sacrifice it for matte midnight blue to get one for 200 bucks. Also, the HD6XX comes with a shorter six-foot cable, versus the HD650's 10-foot cable, and the HD6XX's cable is terminated with a mini plug instead of a 1/4" plug. That's it, as far as I can tell--the HD6XX is a matte-midnight-blue-colored HD650 with a shorter cable. For $199.99.

There's one big problem, though: The first batch of 5000 units was sold out in minutes, only after crashing the living daylights out of Massdrop's ordering system, even after they'd girded their servers for a traffic surge. Yes, not surprisingly, the demand for HD650 performance for two hundred bucks was insanely high. While I expect they will have additional drops in the future, I don't know for sure that they will. If they do, I suggest you jump on it (or at least try).

For more information, we shot an episode of Head-Fi TV about the Sennheiser x Massdrop HD6XX, which you can see below:


So let me get this straight: This is an active-only headphone that optimizes its sound for my individual ears using some electronic wizardry they're calling TruNote? Oh, and it's $1500? I don't think most here would blame me for thinking "Gimmick!" at first blush. The fact that it's packaged in such an opulent bundle put me even deeper into the style-over-substance assumptions.

Boy, was I was wrong.

The AKGN90Q is definitely unusual, and comes lavishly package and equipped, but it's also a surprisingly excellent headphone. The inventor of the N90Q's core technology is Harman's Dr. Ulrich Horbach, who published AES Convention Paper 9274 (Characterizing the Frequency Response of Headphones – a new Paradigm) that explains what's behind the N90Q. I won't go into detail (though AES members should log in and read it here), but here's a short summary of what's going on: The AKG N90Q shoots short logarithmic sweeps into the wearer's ears to perform in situ frequency response measurements (using two microphones in each ear that also do double-duty as noise-canceling mics), the data from which it uses to equalize the headphones to optimize the frequency response for the user's specific ears.

If you're wondering if Horbach's TrueNote actually does something, the answer is yes, it actually does. I'll soon be posting some measurements of the AKG N90Q as calibrated for my ears, and then (without moving the headphones) as calibrated on our G.R.A.S. measurement dummy head's ears. Simply put, calibrating for the dummy's ears (and then measuring on the dummy's head) resulted in some reduction of peaks and troughs--a smoothing of the frequency response--from the mids on up. (The bass seemed unaffected.) Interesting!

The N90Q has 52mm drivers that use "a special Japanese paper membrane." Its nominal impedance is 32Ω, with maximum input power of 100mW. Sensitivity is listed as"110dB SPL @ 1kHz/100mV." The AKG N90Q is a fairly heavy headphone at 460g, but it feels comfortable on my head, even for long-term use. The N90Q is definitely on the larger side, so don't expect to be able to wear this headphone in public and go unnoticed. It's available in black, or in a black and gold color scheme (and I'm surprised to find myself saying I prefer the black and gold version). Again, it comes with a slew of accessories, including a metal storage box, a very nice leather carrying case, a 2400mAh power bank (I'll get to that in a minute), a sueded microfiber cloth, a 3-meter plain cable, a 1.2m Android 3-button/mic cable, a 1.2m iOS 3-button/mic cable, and a lightweight micro-USB cable.

As for its sound, the N90Q is the best sounding active-only headphone I've yet heard. It has excellent bass presentation--neutral, fast, and with excellent extension. When thedeep notes hit, they come on big--those who listen to a lot of electronic music or hip hop and want a more audiophile-friendly presentation that doesn't give up impactful low bass will likely love this about the N90Q. (However, if you need more low-end grunt, it's available--I'll get to that later.) As with its bass, the N90Q's midrange has nice presence, too--not recessed, well-balanced, even a nice touch of richness at times. The N90Q's treble is also very good--revealing, with mild tilt above neutral, but thankfully not in the dreaded sibilance region--and completes the N90Q's largely even-keeled presentation.

Again, it's important to note that the AKG N90Q is an active-only headphone--it has no passive mode. If your N90Q's battery dies, you're out of luck until you charge its internal rechargeable battery. The N90Q's battery life is rated at 12 hours--remember, though, that AKG includes that fancy little rechargeable USB power bank, which helps buy you a lot more listening time on-the-go. (You can use the power bank to charge other USB devices, too.)

The AKG N90Q is also a full-time active noise-canceling headphone, and in this regard it works very well, probably helped along by its effective passive noise attenuation. The AKG N90Q is very good at blocking out a lot of ambient noise. I now often turn to the N90Q as a work headphone, when I want excellent sound and a shield between me and the noise and distractions around me. It's such a large headphone that I haven't yet ventured to tote it with me on an airplane, but I expect it would work very well to keep the din of air travel at bay. Of the active noise-cancelers we have here, the N90Q's noise-canceling circuit has among the lowest levels of self-noise.

By the way, the USB cable that comes with the N90Q is not only for charging the AKG N90Q--it's also used to employ its DAC functionality. Yes, the N90Q has a built-in 24/96-capable USB DAC that is compatible with PC, Mac, and Android. Plugging it into my Mac shows 44.1kHz, 48kHz, 88.2kHz and 96kHz supported, and apps like Roon and Amarra have no problem auto-selecting sample rates on the N90Q, which is nice. I've been using both the standard analog input and the built-in USB DAC, and the N90Q sounds exceptional either way.

I also want to quickly mention that the N90Q has a few different preset equalizer settings. The instructions don't explain them well, but the default setting sounds to me like the most neutral setting, and the other few settings rotate through varying degrees of more U-shaped curves, with a bit more deep bass and toned-down midrange. My favorite setting has been the default setting so far.

Also, the N90Q also offers three different soundstage settings that AKG calls "Stage Control." The "Standard" setting is normal stereo sound, with the N90Q's DSP spatial processing disabled. The "Studio" setting is designed to provide a "more natural listening experience," with AKG's description of this setting reminding us that producers will use monitor loudspeakers (not headphones) to produce their content. The "Studio" setting sounds to me like crossfeed with other DSP processing effects for a fuller soundstage. The "Studio" setting is actually one I use from time to time, just as I do with crossfeed on my amps and DACs that have it. The third setting is the "Surround Sound" setting. This setting has the most pronounced effect, adding a lot of space and distance to the sound, and it can be interestingly enveloping (in terms of imaging). I don't use the "Surround Sound" setting for music, as its effect is rather severe. I may, however, experiment with that setting for movies and games, to see if there's any worthwhile effect with that kind of content.

Despite its many bells and whistles, it's become very clear to me that this headphone is no gimmick. The AKG N90Q is a seriously capable, technology-packed flagship closed headphone from AKG. It's expensive at $1500, but, in my opinion, AKG's daring new flagship employs all of its tech wizardry to intriguing effect, making the AKG N90Q one of the most compelling new products we've seen.

MrSpeakers ETHER Flow and ETHER C Flow

The evolution of MrSpeakers has been one of the more compelling company stories in our community of the past several years. Dan Clark of MrSpeakers started with his extensively modified T50rp model called the Mad Dog, working tirelessly to get it into the community. No matter where in the world I'd go for a meet or event--Head-Fi Meets all over the U.S., the Tokyo Headphone Festival, etc.--there was Dan, smiling, showing off the Mad Dog. I've met people in the industry who work as hard as Dan, but none harder.

When Dan felt he'd reached the limitations of the T50rp's enclosure, he decided to 3D-print his own enclosure; and the resulting MrSpeakers Alpha Dog became the world's first 3D-printed production headphone. At the time, the Alpha Dog was, in my opinion, one of the best closed-back headphones available.

When Dan felt he'd reached the T50rp driver's limits, he decided to modify the diaphragm by knurling it, which he called V-Planar technology--and the MrSpeakers Alpha Prime was born. When he felt he'd reached the limitations of the Alpha enclosure, as well as the extent to which he could modify the T50rp's driver (often experimenting to the point of diaphragm failure), Dan decided to develop an all-new headphone, including an independently designed all-new planar magnetic driver--and thus were born the MrSpeakers ETHER and ETHER C flagships.

The ETHER was MrSpeakers' first open-back headphone, with the ETHER C as its closed-back fraternal twin. They were, in my opinion, two of the finer headphones available for those looking for a flatter, neutral monitor type sound. With these headphones, MrSpeakers had achieved exceptional measured performance, with extremely low distortion, as evidenced by MrSpeakers measurements, as well as our own measurement systems here at Head-Fi HQ. And MrSpeakers sold heaps of both the ETHER and ETHER C globally. It was a success story, but, as you can tell from how I've described him so far, Dan Clark is constantly trying to improve and push--he's not one to sit still.

Last year, while Dan and his team were developing an upcoming electrostatic ETHER, they arrived at some interesting conclusions that would end up impacting and improving his planar magnetic headphones. Listening to his electrostatic ETHER prototypes, Dan and his team felt that a lower-mass diaphragm couldn't fully account for the electrostatic performance advantages they were hearing--that there had to be other advantages with electrostatic driver assemblies.

What they eventually determined was that one very significant advantage that electrostatic drivers have, versus planar magnetic ones, was air flow. Though both planar magnetic and electrostatic motor assemblies use planar diaphragms, electrostatic drivers do not use magnets at all. The only things, then, between an electrostatic's planar diaphragm and air on either side of it are typically very thin, flat, perforated stators.

Planar magnetic headphones (as the name suggests) do require magnets on at least one side of the diaphragm (sometimes both sides, depending on the design). The magnets used are typically bar magnets or magnets in trays that in either case are far thicker than an electrostat's stators, and that present a slew of thick- and flat-walled channels and right-angles for air to move past and around. What Dan and his team determined was that the diffraction and reflection of air as it moved around these magnet assemblies was a likely cause of distortion and lost resolution (especially low-level detail), so they set out to fix that. They aimed to make the their planar magnetic motor structure look more like an electrostat's stators to the audio waveform passing through it.

To accomplish this, the team at MrSpeakers developed waveguides to sculpt and smooth not just the areas immediately outside the magnets (something that others have also worked on), but also to sculpt and smooth the spaces between them, on both sides of the diaphragm. What MrSpeakers developed they're calling TrueFlow, and MrSpeakers has now incorporated TrueFlow technologies into the ETHER and ETHER C platforms. The resulting ETHER Flow and ETHER C Flow models are now the flagships in the MrSpeakers line, and they are incredible headphones.

NOTE: To help you understand TrueFlow, we posted MrSpeakers' illustrations in the forums, which you can view by clicking here.

So, after all this, does it work? While it all seems to make perfect sense to me, I have to admit that I'm not qualified to answer the question. What I do have is a pair of my own ears, as well as a couple of pairs of artificial ears on two different G.R.A.S. hearing simulator systems hooked up to an Audio Precision APx555 audio analyzer. In terms of measurements, if TrueFlow was supposed to result in lower distortion, then mission accomplished. (You can also see our measurements in the link above.)

More important to me than what I've measured is what I hear from both the ETHER Flow and ETHER C Flow, versus their predecessors. What I hear with the ETHER Flow and ETHER C Flow is substantial improvement in low-level detail retrieval versus the previous non-Flow ETHER and non-Flow ETHER C. While I cannot say TrueFlow brings the ETHER planar magnetic platform to the level of effortless sonic scanning electron microscopy that the highest-tier electrostatic headphones capable of, it does bring the ETHER Flow into the top tier of the non-electrostatic world in this regard--that I can say very

Also, the ETHER Flow and ETHER C Flow bring greater dynamism and presence to the bass (versus the first-generation ETHER and ETHER C)--something I expected would be easily visible in the frequency response measurements, but wasn't. I asked Dan about this, and he said it was part of a new tuning, and also that perhaps reduced turbulence due to TrueFlow results in less back pressure, which could improve dynamics. Bass from both the ETHER Flow and ETHER C Flow sounds more impactful than their predecessors, as well as faster, whatever the reasons.

Simply put, the ETHER Flow and ETHER C Flow both possess a certain effortlessness with how they go about their business--they heap resolution at you, but never punish you with it. They have slam, but never overcook it past reference levels. I immediately had my personal ETHER updated to the ETHER Flow. And the ETHER C Flow is one of my current reference closed-back headphones--one of the very best closed-back headphones of any type I've ever heard.

With the performance gains MrSpeakers has given its planar magnetic ETHER platform with TrueFlow, their upcoming electrostatic ETHER has its work cut out for it. The ETHER Flow and ETHER C Flow bring extraordinary clarity while still being impactful and smooth. That such substantial improvement to MrSpeaker's planar magnetic technology came from their work on their upcoming electrostatic headphone is a very cool story, but not at all surprising from a team that pushes so hard to constantly improve.

NOTE: According to MrSpeakers' website, you can still order the non-Flow ETHER and ETHER C models, with prices still at $1499.99. It is my opinion, though, that the FLOW models provide substantial enough improvements that I strongly recommend you go with the FLOW models if you can stretch your budget to reach $1799.99. Also, there is an upgrade program for existing ETHER and ETHER C owners--see MrSpeakers' website for details.

Sennheiser HD 630VB

The last time Sennheiser released a new headphone with the "HD" designation--with a number in the 600's behind it--it was the Sennheiser HD 650, nearly 12 years ago (in 2003). Whereas the HD 650 was rather a lot like the HD 600 (and the HD 580 before that), the new HD 630VB has no outward familial ties to anything from Sennheiser's modern era, its design instead inspired by a long-ago Sennheiser infrared wireless model called the HDI 434. (Go ahead and look it up, as I wasn't familiar with it either.)

Beginning with its obscure design inspiration, the HD630VB definitely marches to the beat of its own drummer. Like Sennheiser's HD 25-1 II, the HD 630VB has rather atypical right-side cable entry. The HD 630VB's ear cups, yokes, and sliders are made of aluminum. The right ear cup's flat surface is dominated by a dark circle that houses the volume and music/call control buttons (which I'll get to shortly). (The HDI 434 also had controls on its right ear cup.) The left ear cup has no controls (also like the HDI 434), and Sennheiser did not elect to put a decorative dark circle in its center to match the HD 630VB's right ear cup--they left its beveled silver-colored aluminum to dominate that left side, sans any logos or emblems. The contrast between the two cups is certainly unique.

The HD 630VB is a large headphone, with full-size ear cups that are rather thick. Fortunately, the HD630VB has a couple of tricks up its sleeve that most closed headphones this large do not have: first, the earpieces rotate to fold flat; and, also, the headband has sturdy-feeling hinges—with very nice, very positive detents—that allow the HD 630VB to fold flat, and to stack the flat-rotated ear cups one on top of the other. While it's not ultra-compact no matter how you fold it up, the HD 630VB's flat-folding design and hinged headband make it far more stowable than most headphones of similar size.

The "VB" in this headphone's name stands for "Variable Bass." This, and perhaps a few other things, are likely to give some audiophile's pause. What other things? The Sennheiser HD630VB's headphone cable is captive (non-removable), and has an inline microphone for headset use. The controls on the right ear cup include music/call controls, and an iOS / Android switch to optimize its control compatibility with most popular mobile phones. To further optimize the HD 630VB's drivability from most mobile devices, it was designed with low nominal impedance (23Ω) and high sensitivity (114dB).

While some of the above features/specs are not typical of the audiophile headphones we usually discuss on Head-Fi, do not cross the HD630VB off your list of candidate headphones if you're looking for a headphone with impressive sound that's both full-size and closed-back. With an expected retail price of $549.95, the Sennheiser HD 630VB is priced to compete with the likes of the Fostex TH600, and, to my ears, it's in league with the big, black Fostex. I actually think many will find the new Sennheiser more versatile with its well-implemented passive bass control (which I'll get to in a minute), not to mention being better suited to be packed up and toted along. Also, unlike the semi-closed Fostex TH-600, the Sennheiser HD 630VB is a fully closed design, meaning it's better at keeping the music from leaking out, and has solid passive isolation.

As for its sound, the HD 630VB is very versatile, helped by the fact that its bass control (rated by Sennheiser for +/- 5dB at 50Hz) is, to my ears, very well implemented. It actually has a more pronounced effect the further down you go below 50Hz, but little effect in the direction of the midband (until you really crank it up).

The bass control dial is continuously adjustable, but marked by several index points, starting with MIN, and then five primary marks between, before hitting MAX (for a total of seven major index points, each sub-divided into quarters). No matter how you set the bass control, the HD 630VB has some upper-bass emphasis, but I find it very well voiced there, and not at all intrusive. Between the MIN and the first major index point, I can discern little change in tonal balance. However, when I keep turning past there, the changes become more evident. What I love is that there's minimal effect on the lower midrange, until you get into its highest settings, at which point the lower mids do thicken noticeably--fortunately, the onset of this happens somewhat quick, and so it's rather easy to avoid. I'm impressed with the bass control's execution, and, so far, most of those I've let listen to the HD630VB have been similarly impressed.

In terms of how I set the HD 630VB's bass adjustment, I've found myself using the third notch above MIN (the red line in the graph above), and the fourth notch (the purple line), and moving in between those. For my tastes, I've found this range the most even-handed with the HD 630VB, while still giving me some extra oomph down low for a little heightened drive. @joe tends to prefer a thicker sound than me, and he's been using it at around the second from highest setting (the one just below MAX), and sometimes backs off a little bit from there.

While I don't often go beyond the fourth notch--and very rarely venture anywhere near MAX--I do find the latitude to thicken the sound at or near the HD630VB's highest bass settings a blessing for some of my ultra-tinny 80's pop and new wave music. It can also add a sense of welcome tonal depth to some of my thinner, reedier old jazz and cabaret recordings, by the likes of Django Reinhardt and Edith Piaf, for example.

One of the HD630VB's strongest points is its imaging, especially for a closed headphone. I know a lot of tuning went into this aspect of the headphone, and it's with great effect--never reaching out like the super-open flagship Sennheiser HD 800, but often casting well beyond what I'd expect of a headphone that is as closed as the HD630VB is.

I think one headphone a lot of shoppers will inevitably compare the HD 630VB to is the Fostex TH-600, given that they're both closed (well, the Fostex is semi-closed), and that their prices are within striking distance of each other (the Fostex's street price is currently around $50 higher). Again, I think the HD 630VB is a worthy contender for the venerable Fostex, and I'd compare them thusly: The Fostex--perhaps owing to its semi-open design--has tonal characteristics to me that are, in some ways, rather less like a closed headphone (than, say, the Shure SRH1540, or this HD 630VB), being a bit more even-handed from bass to mids, with more open-sounding, more soaring treble, too.

If the TH600 is closed enough for you and your environment, and you don't desire greater versatility from it, I'd say you might end up preferring the TH-600 to the HD 630VB. If, however, you've found the TH-600 too open (in terms of leakage in or out), and/or you've found the TH-600's treble a bit too tipped-up for your tastes, then the Sennheiser HD630VB is a must-audition headphone.

Is the Sennheiser HD630VB capable of being adjusted (via its bass adjustment knob) to the type of neutral presentation of something like a Focal Spirit Professional? No. However, if you've found the Focal Spirit Professional a bit lean or cold for your tastes, then the spunkier Sennheiser HD 630VB might be more to your liking.

What quibbles do I have with the HD 630VB? Though it has a certain charm about its appearance, it is a very noticeable headphone on the head. While this doesn't bother me (I've been known to wear the Fostex TH-600 and Audeze LCD-XC out and about on rare occasion), some might find it a bit too obvious, in all its large silver glory. As for sound, I've found its adjustability suits its purpose for me for on-the-go use. When I've used it at my desk, though, I've had occasion to wish for a little more richness in the mids (low-mids to mid-mids), but not to any degree greater than other minor wishes I have for just about every headphone I use.

Don't let the bass adjustment dial, inline microphone, or song/call controls fool you into thinking the Sennheiser HD 630VB isn't a serious closed headphone at the price, as it very much is. As with any other headphone, it won't be to everyone's taste, but its versatility may broaden its appeal. If you're currently shopping for a good closed headphone in the $500 price range, make sure to put the Sennheiser HD630VB on your list of candidates to audition. In my opinion, it's a serious closed headphone candidate at the price, that just happens to have some unusual (but useful) features thrown in.

Audeze LCD-X and LCD-XC

Immensely popular in the high-end of the Head-Fi community already, it seems that Audeze gained still more strength with the release of two headphones that are Summit-Fi all the way. The open-back Audeze LCD-X and closed-back Audeze LCD-XC use Audeze's Fazor Technology, the very visible Fazor elements helping to guide and manage the flow of sound in the headphones, which Audeze claims helps improve phase response, frequency extension, and imaging.

The two Audezes are also quite a bit more efficient than the LCD-2 (90 dB/1 mW), LCD-3 (91 dB/1 mW), with the LCD-X able to crank out 96 dB/1 mW, and the LCD-XC 95 dB /1 mW. Both of the newer Audezes also have low 22Ω nominal impedance, which, combined with their high efficiency, make for headphones that I'll occasionally plug directly into my iPhone and iPods and get surprisingly good results from.

So far, my time with the LCD-XC (the closed one) has been limited to a pre-production version that I believe was close to production voicing, but not quite there yet. Because of that, I'll be brief with my comments about LCD-XC today, and will update my comments here once I've heard a production version. I can say, though, that if the model I heard was short of the production voicing, then I'm dying to hear the final cut. The pre-production model I heard had very well controlled bass, and was closer to neutral than I expected an Audeze closed headphone to be. Voicing seemed closer to the LCD-X (the production version of which I do have, and which I cover below) than to the LCD-3. Soundstaging was spacious for a closed headphone. And that's all I'll say about the LCD-XC until I've spent some time with a production unit.

For now, then, the gem--not just of the two Fazor-equipped models, but the entire Audeze line--is the open-back Audeze LCD-X. As I hear it, the Audeze LCD-X is like a potent combination of many of the best aspects of every other Audeze headphone. Its tonal balance is also most even-handed of the bunch to me, and what I'd expect from Audeze if they were developing a studio monitor--regardless of whether or not that's what they set out to do, I have a feeling the LCD-X is going to find itself in the employ of many in the pro audio world.

One thing that neither of the new Audezes have improved upon is weight--both are heavier (the LCD-XC at 650 grams being the heaviest) than the two more senior models. Both the LCD-X and LCD-XC also have aluminum housings versus the older Audezes' wood housings, which opinions seem split on--I prefer the aluminum myself (especially the gunmetal color). (The LCD-XC does have wood outer cups.)

As for things to grouse about, my key criticism of both the Audeze LCD-XC and LCD-X is their pricing, which puts them awfully close to Audeze's flagship LCD-3, which I think may make the higher-end Audeze selection process a bit daunting.

For me personally, the answer is simple: X marks the spot. Though the LCD-3 is ranked above it in price and line position, the LCD-X is, in my opinion, the best Audeze headphone yet, and one of the finest headphones on the market right now, regardless of price.

“— “— 
Of all the high end headphones out there the LCD-X is the easiest for me to recommend. It sounds brilliant with any material you throw at them, and they’re easy to drive. It’s hard for me to imagine anyone being disappointed with them... ”
  The Manko ,
Head-Fi Member/Contributor
I feel that Audeze has brought to market a wonderful pair of closed headphones that no longer has me having to sacrifice either sound quality or a natural sound for a more coloured one... Yet another winner by Audeze. ”
  Peter Pialis (MacedonianHero) ,
Head-Fi Member/Contributor
beyerdynamic DT 1350

On sound alone, the beyerdynamic DT 1350 is still one of my favorite closed, portable on-the-ear headphones. Sonically, I simply couldn't expect much more from something this compact, as the DT 1350 sounds to me like a very good full-sized, closed around-the-ear headphone, with its tight bass, detailed mids, and very good treble extension.

This little beyerdynamic has also been durable enough to easily withstand the physical abuse of being crammed into my backpacks and messenger bags over the last couple of years.

The DT 1350 is part of beyerdynamic's flagship Tesla line. Though it was designed as a pro audio headphone, it is still one of the most audiophile-friendly closed, portable on-ears I've heard.

For portable use, it's important to note that the DT 1350's plug housing is rather large (more like a full-size headphone's plug); and that it does not come with portable-use accoutrements like an inline remote/mic. Still, its sound quality currently still puts the DT 1350 in my on-the-go bag very frequently.

...the Beyerdynamic DT1350 is a high-end portable headphone done right. Superb build quality and unprecedented isolation meet sound quality that can rival the best portable headphones I’ve heard and many full-size sets. The construction is nothing short of bulletproof and - soundstage size aside - the DT1350 is technically the best truly portable headphone I’ve come across, boasting superb detail and clarity, excellent bass control, and a level signature. ”
  ljokerl ,
Head-Fi Member/Contributor

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