doyouknowSBmean
Have you ever wonder why there are so many sarcastic jokes in this Hi-Fi community? The 'giant killer' nwavguy’s combo? The 'funny' audio science review (ASR) ranking? Science loses its power in the audio world? Scientists are considered to be the evilest group in the HiFi community? Some of us even claim the best headphones were made 30 years ago? Do you ever get a feeling that you live in The Matrix of audio?

Yes, you come to the right place and we are now pretty much talking. You can also send me PM, I am willing to offer you pills.

"You take the blue pill—the story ends, you wake up in your bed and believe whatever you want to believe. You take the red pill—you stay in Wonderland, and I show you how deep the rabbit hole goes. Remember: all I'm offering is the truth. Nothing more."

Premier:
⦿ Spoiler: truth sometimes can be very offensive. This is a collection of advice I have given other audiophiles and is completely my opinion. Please do not take any of this the wrong way, as some of this can tend to sound obnoxious or self-centered, but I can tell you this based on my own experience of buying and reselling tons of high-end audio stuff you might never see. But still, this is just my opinion.

⦿ I have/had uber-expensive headphone and speaker rigs (owning >100K USD worth headphones/speakers at this moment), but not by any means am I a rich people. I drive a $2K Toyota. I still use the crappy camera on my vintage iPhone 6. You can probably see from here how much I am into this hobby.

⦿ I am a science researcher, not an engineer (i.e. I am an interested in Why instead of How type of person). I spent my Ph.D. life in signal processing. I have a particular passion for exploring non-profitable things. You can check my homepage for some more details:
https://ox5bc.github.io

⦿ Over 90% of my music collections are classical music. If you focus on different genres, we might end up with drastically different conclusions for the same headphones/speaker.

⦿ Recordings from un-amped instruments and vocals (i.e. classical music) benefit much more from better transducers. Personally, I will stop at $500 (used) range headphones if I only listen to pop music (e.g. soundtrack, hard rock, EDM, metals, etc). Buying high-end playback devices for pop music is philosophically wrong because you are mostly listening to synthesized/fake notes generated from crappy computers. However, it might be the reason that people listening to pop music like to spend a crap ton of money on upstream electronics. Because they don’t have a true reference on what real instruments sound like, so they’d like to spend money as long as there is a difference (no matter good or bad).


Embodiments:

0. You can't tell the difference (in a blind test) between two devices if they have identical measured frequency responses (measured with a load like a headphone). However, the frequency response of two devices might not necessarily be the same if you can not tell the difference in a blind test.


0.5. The frequency response is a low dimensional projection from a high dimensional space based on Fourier theory. In English, that means any perceivable changes in the time domain for example sound stage/speed/detail/timbre should alter the frequency response. However, this doesn't mean you can exactly tell the sound of a system from its frequency response. You can only guess how it sounds distantly from the graph. This is because interpreting the behavior of frequency responses is simply too complicated and not very linear. Plus, the definition of speed/soundstage/timbre, etc varies from person to person.

1. Maybe more than 99% of audiophiles never experienced any true blind test session. Some of them just don't want to. But more importantly, a loudness level compensated double-blind test is impossible if you don't have proper tools. This is because level matching can never be done by anyone's ear. True story, I let one of my friends adjust the loudness level from -40.1dB to -40dB (to match another DAC) using my measurement equipment. It literally took him 5 minutes to adjust the last tiny bits of the volume knob. Just think about it, how come this can be done by human ears.

2. The only conclusions that make sense are those based on blind tests with matched loudness levels. Casual listening without strictly level matched AB comparisons will only end up with a crap load of BS. Humans perceive sound differently at different sound levels. That means for the same system, the soundstage/speed/details/transient, etc are not the same at different loudness levels. Please spend 2 minutes and check the concept of equal loudness contour: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Equal-loudness_contour

3. I am not a cable believer. Don't get me wrong. Cables can make a difference. But most of those hi-end cables won't make your signal cleaner. In fact, I am not even a believer in those fancy flamboyant super high-end upstream electronics (DACs/AMPS/Players/Turntables, etc). IMHO, good upstream electronics would only contribute to less than 1% (can be as small as inaudible) of the sound quality. Moreover, an integrated chip-set as small as your fingernail from any of those big tech companies, like TI and ADI, can produce literally identical sound as some $30000 DACs (please refer to my equipment inventory and you know what I am talking about). If you happen to have one of them, don't worry, these are the best DACs because they reveal everything from your digital files, nothing more, nothing less. I honor them as 'standard DAC' (the same applies to amplifiers, cables, servers, and any upstream electronics. I simply call them 'standard gears'). I have a lot of them from $40 to $4000. My place is always open for blind tests, send me a PM and you are always welcome. I actually made a lot of new friends by opening my place for blind listening. Here are some statistics, I have tested 53 audiophiles (as of 12/31/2020). None of them can tell the difference between my $40 standard DAC and $4000 Standard DAC. Most of them came to my place with absolute confidence (that they can tell the difference). This number simply means it will be a medical miracle if you can tell my $40 standard DAC and $4000 standard DAC. Well, not saying you can’t buy them, paying a premium sometimes makes us more like men, after all.

4. If you find two upstream electronic devices (like DACs/amps/players) sound very different in blind test sessions even if you matched their levels, it means at least one of them is poorly designed, no matter if it is R2R, Multibit or Delta Sigma whatsoever.

5. There is a very simple way to own yourself a bullshiiiit-detector. Buy a cheap dummy head like Mini-DSP E.A.R.S. and measure frequency responses. They are not industry standard, but they can help you to test if your amp/DAC/cables made any difference. Swap any upstream device (e.g. from amp A to amp B) while keeping the headphone not moving and adjust the SPL to the same level. According to my experience, 99% (actually 100%) of the time, if the frequency responses look identical, then you won't hear any difference in blind tests.

6. Amplifiers for electrostatic headphones sound slightly different from one and another (they have measurable differences in frequency response). Probably it is because ES headphones are not popular enough to draw attention from those really serious people (like TI, ADI, NI, etc). Small market, after all.

7. What determines 99% of the sound quality are the two transducers. The first one is the microphone which does the recording job, another is your headphone/speaker. You have no access to the former transducer in most cases. So spend your money on the latter one.

8. Earpads, damping, and enclosures (or anything related to the physical driver) changes the sound drastically for headphones. They lead to measurable frequency response alternations. They are far more important than cables, amplifiers, or DACs (whereas the frequency responses are usually identical). For speakers, the enclosure, damping, and room environment are as important. Again, they are far more important than cables, amplifiers, or DACs.

9. The headphone transducer technology stopped advancing around 30 years ago. The speaker technology matured even earlier. Every industry insider knows this (check what speakers Nelson Pass has in his home on YouTube). Just like cars, they are yesterday's technologies. Yeah, there is a glorious time for the audio industry. There were some super-smart people working on audio while dinosaurs still walk around on earth (probably in 1920 - 1940, audio at that time is the AI as in 2021). For a more concrete example, headphones like HD580 beat some $3000-$5000 headphones nowadays. Don't be fooled by the market!

10. Different from the upstream electronics, there is no 'right' or 'standard' sound for headphones and speakers, absolutely no! I know audio manufacturers are trying their asses out to make you think they are working on some 'true to the source' sound. For example, they call them 'flat response' or 'Harman target curve' or whatsoever.

It's simply because there is a wireless channel between your ears and the transducers. Anyone who works in wireless industries (audio/radio) should understand the wireless channel could only be modeled stochastically (whereas the upstream electronics can be described deterministically without any problem). The only reasons a manufacturer wants to advertise his 'target curve' is either because he wants to brainwash you and sell his taste or he is just innocent and doesn't understand how a wireless signal works.

11. The sound of the best headphones in the market is always based on the music preference of the crowd (of course the primary goal for a company is to make money, not to be a saint), not the so-called 'flat response' or 'target curve'. Therefore, designing headphones/speakers in my opinion is an art instead of engineering. The 'target curve' for headphones or speakers are not the same at different times.

Today’s music like EDM, hard rock and Electronics targets strong bass and they basically don’t care about timbre that much. Today's hi-end headphones are designed for this type of music. They outperform any headphones made in the past when playing recently produced music. However, the major music lovers back in the 80s like un-amped acoustic/classical music. This music is more about timbre/transient/air. That's why the best headphones (as in 2021) for classical music are still those made 30 years ago. So a person (like me) might find the best headphones are made in the 80s if she likes the music produced in the 80s.


A list of my favorite headphones:
1. Sony MDR-R10 (bass light version). The best all-rounder, sweet sweet fresh harmonious sound (not as sweet as live concert though). Fast. Best bass department among all headphones. Playing stringed music is sublime!

2. Sennheiser HE90. The most dynamic headphone. Lightning-fast. 'Everything comes back to life' sound. Silky smooth and glorious treble at the same time, bravo!

3. (Tied) Stax-Omega. Godlike soundstage. Simply out-of-head floating imaging. The best of all headphones (include K1000, Myshpere, SR1A) in the soundstage department. Super fast response like your supercharged Shelby GT500. Pure and unsweetened sound, lovely!

3. (Tied) Stax - 007mk1 with ECL-02 earpads. They sound like a mix between R10 and HE90. The timbre reproduction from these variants is spot on! The ECL-02 earpads completely remove the last bit of smear and boomy from the notorious bass find in the entire 007 series. Unfortunately, these magical sounds could not be found in 007MK2s even replaced with the same ECL-02 earpads.

5. Hifiman Susvara

6. Kennerton Thror

7. Stax SR-009

8. RAAL SR1A

9. Sennheiser HE60

10. Sennheiser HD580 (early printed logo version)

11. (Tied) AKG K1000

11. (Tied) Sennheiser HD800

Headphones I do not like:
1. Sonoma M1 Electrostatic Headphones

2. Abyss AB1266/Diana

3. Focal Utopia

4. Stax SR-007mk2

5. Mr. Speaker Voce

I am not saying above headphones are bad. They might be perfect for some pop music. I don't like them because the tonality of these headphones imo got some serious issues. For example, I found the stringed instruments on Utopia sound ok, but the piano sound is too wooly. The problem for Abyss is exactly on the opposite, the stringed instrument lacks texture and sweetness on the Abyss.

My headphone colormap, some examples (based on my years of experience dealing with un-amped instruments):

Dark: LCD2, LCD3, 007MK2, HD650
Slightly dark: Focal Utopia, 007MK1, Abyss 1266, Voce, Ether/Ether Flow
Neutral: HD600, HD800, HE60, HE90, SR - Ω, Susvara
Slightly bright: HD580, R10, Thror, SR - 009, K1000, SR1a
Bright: Lambda Signature, TH900, RS1, SR325i

-Thanks for reading! Last updated - 12/31/2020
Website
https://ox5bc.github.io
Location
California, Irvine
Interests
Dog
Headphone Inventory
I got crap loads of headphones (>50) and electronics. Plugging them into my profile is too labor-intensive. Sorry, I will stop updating here.


Right now:
Sony MDR-R10 (SN# 4xx)
Stax SR-Ω (SN# 2xx)
Stax SR-007mk1 (SN# 71xxx) with ECL-02 pads
AKG K812 (SN# 1xxx)
Sennheiser HD800 (SN# 18xxx)
Sennheiser HD580 (Printed logo version)
Beyer Dynamic T1 (SN# 2xxxx)
x2 AKG K701 (Austria version)
Dan Clark Audio Ether 2(SN# 8xx)


etc...

Speakers:
AN-E SEC Signature
Charney Audio Companion with AER BD3 Drivers


Auditioned at Home (Longer than 1 Week):
Stax L700
SR1a by RAAL-requisite
Ultrasone Signature PRO
Ultrasone ED11
JPS 1266 Phi CC

Gone:
Perun Voice Electrostatic Headphone
Omega Super Alnico XRS HO
Beyer T1
Voxativ AC2.6 + Customized Omega Loud Speaker Cabinet (Thanks to Louis)
Focal Chorus 707
Fostex TH610
Perun Voice Electrostatic Headphone
Lowther Medallion II + DX4 driver
Dynaudio C1 Signature
Magnepan 3.7i
Stax SR-009
Abyss 1266 OG Deluxe
Phenomenon Libratum (V4 Driver)
Hifiman Shangri-la JR
Stax SR-Ω (#4xx)
Kennerton Thror
MrSpeaker Voce
Stax L300LTD
AKG K1000 (#4xxx, Black Box)
Stax SR009S (#12xx)
HIFIMAN SUSVARA
Phenomenon Libratum (V3 Driver)
Koss ESP950
Omega Speaker System Super Alnico XRS
Senn HD800
Stax Sigma pro
Stax Lambda Signature
Stax SR007MK1 (#71xxx)
HD600
Stax SR009S (#13xx)
Omega Super Alnico XRS
Stax SR007MK1 (#70xxx)
AKG k872
Stax SR009
Sennheiser HE90 (#15x)
Stax SR-Ω (#2xx)
Sony MDR-R10 (#9xx)
Sony MDR-R10 (#1xx)
Stax SR007 MK2.9 (SZ3xxx)
Stax SR007mk1 (#70xxx)
HD800
Stax Lambda Signature Pro
Sony MDR-R10 (#6xx)
Omega Speaker System SAM
Omega Speaker System 3XRS
Omega Speaker System Junior 8XRS
Focal Utopia
Sony MDR-R10 (#10xx)
Sony MDR-R10 (#8xx)
Sony MDR-R10 (#engineer model, no SN)
Hifiman HE6
Orpheus HE90 (#18x)
Stax SR407
JPS abyss 1266 Lite
Stax SR-Ω (#4xx)
Sony MDR-R10 (#10xx)
Sennheiser HD800
Stax SR009
Stax SR007mki (#71xxx)
Senn HD580 (made in Germany version)
Senn HD560 I Ovation
LCD 3F
Senn HD580 (later version)
Senn HD600 (the very first version)
Fostex TH900
Hifiman HE1000
ATC SCM11
Beyer T90
Audeze LCD3F
JPS Abyss AB1266
Magnepan 1.7
MDR-Z7
LCD-3F
Hd800
Stax SR-009
Hifiman HE6
Beyer T5P
HD800
HD650
HD600
HD580 (early version)
HD560ii
HD540G (300ohm)
Sony Z1000
Grado SR325is
Grado PS1000is
Headphone Amp Inventory
Right now:
Triode Labs 2a3 EVO
Headamp BHSE
Eddie Current Studio Tribute
Arcam rHead
Cavalli Liquid Carbon X
Melody AN211 MK3

Preamp: Triode Labs AuPre Grande

Gone:
Dignity audio 300B mono block
Schiit Ragnarok 2
Stax SRD7 PRO
Vista Audio Spark
Stax SRM 353X
Stax SRM T8000
Headamp Aristaeus
Pass Labs INT 150
KGSSHV (Built by Geoff Clarke)
Headamp BHSE (Black)
Stax 007TA
SRX+ ES Amp
Firstwatt J2
KGSSHV Carbon (Built by Birgir, #44)
Schiit Ragnarok
Firstwatt SIT2
Koss E90
ECBA
SRM727
KGSSHV Carbon (built by Endless lab)
Stax T1W
BHSE
Woo Audio WES Maxed
Stax SRM 600LTD
Triode Labs 2a3 Monoblock
Rupert Neve Designs RNHP (I really like this little crap)
Stax SRM T2 (Original #65)
Apex Pinnacle
Headamp BHSE (Silver)
Stax T1s
Sennheiser HEV90
Stax SRM 007T
WOO Audio WA5
Eddie Current 2a3MKIV
Luxman P1U
Grado RA1
ECP-L2
ECBA
DNA Stratus 2a3
Stax SRM 006TS
Manley Labs Stingray II
Orpheus HEV90
Woo Audio GES
Eddie Current Zana Deux Super
A-GD Master 11
Schiit Ragnarok
Headamp Aristaeus
Schiit Modi2 über
Eddie Current 2a3MKIV
Eddie Current 4-45
Megatron (DIY by me)
KGSSHV (DIY by myself)
SRM 600LTD
A-GD Master 9
A-GD NFB 6
Source Inventory
Right now:
Esoteric K01x
Marantz SA11S3
SMSL Sanskrit 10th
Marantz SA8005
SMSL M3
Schiit Fulla1
Schiit Fulla2
AudioQuest Dragonfly Red
Oppo BDP-103

Gone:
Schiit GMB
Esoteric K01
Esoteric K03
Marantz SA10
dCS Paganini stack (DAC/Upsampler/Clock)
Marantz sa8005
Marantz cd6005
Marantz SA8005
Marantz SA1
Orpheus HEV90 built-in DAC
Schiit Gungir Multibit
Marantz SA11S3
TEAC TN300
Off-Ramp 5
Sonic Frontier SFD-1 MK2 SE
A-GD Master 11
A-GD Master 7
Marantz CD6005
Schiit Yggdrasil
Schiit Modi 2 über.
dCS Verdi/dCS Elgar Plus/dCS Purcell Stack
Woo Audio WTP-1
Esoteric K01
Mark Levinson No31.5
Mark Levinson No30.6
Schiit wyrd
Bricasti M1
Off-Ramp 5
A-GD Master 7
A-GD NFB 15.32
A-GD NFB 1.32
DA&T U2
Audiolab M-Dac
Music Preferences
Classical and Metal
Gender
Male
Occupation
Research scientist

Signature

Proud owner of the MDR-R10, HE90, and SR-Ω.

I am a scientist at Google hearable research.

Please check my research at my personal website.
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