[This review was originally posted in 2003 on Head-Fi. Darth nut is a
psychoacoustician and his review is considered to be the most epic headphone review ever written. While the detail he goes into psycho acoustics and "headstage" are too overwhelming for most people I believe his write-up would deserve a place in Head-Fi's Hall of Fame, if we had one. I've re-formatted it so it fits in the forum better. -- Currawong.]
STAX SR-007 (OMEGA II) … A REVIEW AFTER 4 YEARS OF OWNERSHIP
A madman is one who ‘hears voices in his head’.
Headphone-user: ‘you calling me a madman?
In September 1999 I posted a review of STAX SR-007 (Omega II) headphone at HeadWize.
I wrote as detailed and exhaustive a review as I could manage at the time, with the target audience being obsessive headphone-users who had, like me, noticed the strange addictive joy of being immersed in a small cranium-bound soundfield that oddly pulsates with life; a soundfield that for all its smallness paradoxically triggers our imagination to ‘see’ large acoustic spaces.
Four Christmases have passed since that 1999 review. Pleasant and unpleasant things have happened in my personal life during these past years; the chief unpleasant thing being the sheer fact that I have aged four years, and the chief pleasant thing (so I console myself) being that I have grown four years wiser.
(Just in case you are wondering, I am 38 now.)
At the time of my 1999 review, I thought that the number of interested readers could be counted with one hand— back then I just didn’t think that there were that many people interested in high-end headphones who also frequented headphone forums. Today I am gleeful to see how many fellow headphone enthusiasts there are out there, judging from the activity here at Head-Fi. I am also quite amazed to observe how many owners of high-end headphones and high-end amps there are who are presently “visible” in the forums, compared to the scant few back in 1999.
I have disappeared for a long time from HeadWize / Head-Fi. I found that writing a post, especially a full-length review, to be quite consuming, which was another reason why I stopped posting for a long time. It’s simply far more relaxing to disappear from the forums and enjoy my headphones. But lately I came back as a forum lurker, and have enjoyed reading dozens and dozens of threads. There are many intelligent members here, and I was entertained and educated by the experiments, insights and exchanges (some heated) posted by headphone enthusiasts from all over the world. The folks who go back to HeadWize days may remember me—I suspect most people here at Head-Fi either don’t know me or know me only as a ghost from the past. I wish to say hi to everyone.
WHICH READER AM I ADDRESSING?
Because a headphone forum comprises of different people with all sorts of headphone experience levels and all sorts of listening habits, I had to be clear in my mind for whom I was targeting this write-up.
This essay is rather detailed, and unfortunately may be difficult to digest. I have tried my best to sequence the flow of this essay such that the reader is gently, gently eased into increasingly complex concepts. But what I’ve not done is to dumb down the essay. I resisted the urge to simplify the concepts because I do not want to short-change those readers who are highly curious about I have to share here.
Readers who listen predominantly to close-miked music (such as rock and pop) may find the concepts rather alien and detached. Headphone- users who listen predominantly to close-miked music are more apt to go “so what?” or worse “what ******** is this?” to a large part of this article, because the things mentioned here lie outside of their scope of experience. If this describes you, I hope you can suspend disbelief just for the duration of this article, so that the knowledge gained from this write-up would lie dormant in your memory. In some future moment when you least expect it, you hear something either at home or at the audio shop (or at a Head-Fi Meet perhaps?) that will remind you of what you read here.
Readers who habitually listen to music with a lot of ambient cues (such as live jazz, orchestral and choral) will more readily understand how the spatial subtleties mentioned in this write-up relate to headphone listening. Such readers may have less problems diving into the intricacies elaborated later on.
Readers of my review of the Omega II written 4 years ago may remember that I have used the term “headstage” before, but I did not manage to explain its meaning clearly in that review—hence some readers may have been puzzled as to the purpose of its inclusion then. I apologize for your warranted puzzlement. In this current write-up I have finally succeeded in nailing down the meaning of “headstage” in no uncertain terms. Additionally, I have found a way to explain the Four Depth Cues in a clear and communicative manner. (The Four Depth Cues first appeared in my archived essay at HeadWize’s Library, but this current write-up takes it one step further by having a headphone review structured on the Four Depth Cues.)
It has taken me years to crystallize these concepts into a consistent framework. I am happy to share with you today the fruits of my labour.
OBJECTIVES OF THIS ARTICLE
The objectives of this write-up are twofold:
Objective 1: to share my feelings of the STAX SR-007 (Omega II) after 4 years of ownership. Am I still happy with my purchase, now that the new-toy syndrome has passed? A comprehensive review of a product owned after a passage of time must surely furnish a better indication to another prospective buyer of that product’s worth (or lack thereof) than a review written during the
honeymoon period. Also, it is fiendishly difficult to accurately describe the sonic character of a headphone—any headphone. A few of my detailed observations now differ from those I made in 1999. Back when I was active in the forum, there were instances where I promoted this headphone as the best headphone in the world. But today, as a jaded forum lurker, I wonder about the fruitfulness and sensitivity of such claims. There are so many marvellous headphones out there—with a fan base for each of them—why tell others that one and only one headphone is the best? Is there such a thing as a single best headphone for everyone anyway?
Objective 2: to persist in an even bigger project of mine, which is to attempt to advance the development of an adequate language to describe the sound of headphones. The language we use today has evolved through the decades within the context of a loudspeaker-centric audio world. A language specifically for headphones has not yet been constructed. Some Head-Fiers construct DIY amps—I construct here a DIY language. This is an ambitious project; one that I started 4 years ago, and it is heart-warming to see that a few people have begun to use the term “headstage” since its introduction back in 1999. In this write-up, I will be offering a crystal clear explanation of the term “headstage”, and then I will be adding even more words to the lexicon of headphonespeak.
This write-up is therefore not just a simple review of the Omega II—it is also about the creation of a new language, new terminologies and a new review methodology. My review of the Omega II may at first appear sporadic and strewn all over this essay, but actually there’s a structure: every time a new term has been properly defined and explained, I will subsequently proceed to review the Omega II using the newly created terminology. Then I will move on to the second terminology, define what the new word or words mean, and then describe the Omega II using the second set of new words …and so on.
BEFORE THE FOUR COMES THE ONE
First there is the One; then there are the Four.
I will be touching on the Four Depth Cues towards the middle of this essay, but from the beginning I want to say that there is one sonic mechanism that overrides the Four Depth Cues. This One is the sense of sound localization.
We acquire the sense of sound localization because our left and right ear each receives a slightly different input, and by comparing the two our brain interprets the location of the sound source. When we put on our headphones, the headphone transducers are positioned very near our ears—we can locate the source of the sound, and we are aware of this proximity of the sound source. Every time I use the word ‘locate’, I am referring to this One mechanism—the mechanism of sound localization. This One mechanism is more powerful than the Four Depth Cues.
This One mechanism gives rise to the headstage.
I am listening to a section of Beethoven’s Pastoral symphony (andante movement), and I think there are 20 musicians packed inside my head. Listening to music via headphones can be a paradoxical experience. I know that 20 people cannot fit into my head, empty as I sometimes swear it may be during my stupider moments. Yet the steadfast illusion right now is that there are 20 musicians in my head.
There are some recordings that make me go “wow, what a huge soundstage”. But here’s the rub: I happen to have a wall-sized mirror on one side of my listening chair. When I look into the mirror, the illusion of the huge soundstage is stripped away and revealed for what it truly is: a cramp head- hugging soundfield. In the mirror I can “see” all those sonic images sticking to my scalp like a bad hair-do. I look away from the mirror, close my eyes, lose all sense of scaled reference to the real world, re-invest my concentration into the music, and the huge soundstage re-appears. But when I open my eyes and look again at the reflection of my headphones in the mirror, I once again “see” the scalp-bound soundfield.
I call this soundfield that stubbornly refuses to take leave of my head the headstage.
The difference between soundstage and head-stage is illusion and reality. The soundstage is the (desired) illusion; the headstage the (unfortunate) reality.
Another way of stating the difference between headstage and soundstage: headstage is about the localization of sonic images in relation to your head. Let’s say you are listening to a piece of music that contains 3 sonic images. One image is located at the right temple of your forehead, another image is skimming the top centre of your scalp, and yet another image is located an inch beyond the left earcup. The arena within which all these sonic images are located is called the headstage. And it is a tiny arena—I estimate this arena on the Omega II to be maybe 8” wide and 5” tall (it could be bigger on your headphone—I’ve always said that the Omega II has a small headstage—but more on this later). The sound- stage is something else altogether. The sound- stage is the qualitative perception of ambient cues captured in the recorded music. The soundstage can be very big, as big as a cathedral nave, if that was what was indeed captured in the recording.
When listening to headphones we can choose between perceiving the soundstage or perceiving the headstage. Your mental concentration can swing the perception one way or the other. During moments when we are utterly absorbed in the recording, all you have to do is to tell yourself to “snap out of it”, and chances are that you will “lose sight” of the majestic soundstage. What’s so majestic when you choose to become aware that the whole violin section of a grand and majestic orchestra is only 4 inches wide across your forehead?
When listening via headphones, most of us choose to be aware of the soundstage instead of the headstage, in an effort to distract ourselves from noticing the cramp head-hugging sound field or in an effort to lose oneself in the recording—the latter is valid and is after all the whole point of listening to music. But distracting yourself from scrutinizing the head-hugging sound field will not make you a more discerning listener. You have to understand the head-hugging headstage first, cramp as it may be, before you understand the soundstage.
HEADSTAGE: ANALOGY OF A PHOTOGRAPH
What is the headstage, really? First I will put forward an analogy, then I will offer a working definition of the term “headstage”.
Analogy: imagine a 5-inch wide photograph depicting a sprawling mountain scene going on for miles and miles. A photograph is nothing more than colour pigments distributed on a flat piece of paper. There is no mountain on the piece of paper, nor inside nor behind the piece of paper. The mountain is in the eye of the beholder. Furthermore, a photograph does not need to be mountain-sized in order to depict a mountain. Additionally, a statement that the mountain in the photograph is 10 miles away does not contradict the fact that the colour pigments representing the mountain are lying flat on a piece of paper.
The two-dimensional headstage is analogous to the two-dimensional photograph. If a small photo can depict a large scenery, why can’t a small headstage portray a large soundstage? And if a flat photo can depict distance, why can’t the two- dimensional headstage depict depth?