Reviews by WaveTheory


100+ Head-Fier
Violectric DHA V226 Review by WaveTheory
Pros: Reference caliber headphone amp for price category; sonic upgrade to old HPA V200; maintains the warm, smooth, big, punchy, but subtly detailed sound of Vio's V2xx series; effective preamp output; well built; 5 gain stages
Cons: Internal DAC lowers performance ceiling of amp considerably, raising viability questions as a true all-in-one unit; only SE analog line-level ins & outs; only USB-C digital input
In talking with the designer of the V226, it's clear Lake People (parent company of Violectric) intends the V226 to be used as an all-in-one unit. Unfortunately, it falls down in that regard due to lackluster DAC performance, IMO. However, the amplifier section continues Vio's tradition of making absolutely stellar headphone amps that handle a wide variety of headphones and headphone types very well. If you have a DAC with excellent single-ended output (I think Chords are great matches signature-wise), have limited space, and need a preamp out, this piece may still very well be worth the 1600USD asking price. More details in the video:

Really nice review!
Yes the DAC is not as good as the AMP but you can up it's performance significantly with a dedicated USB PCIE card and a high performance USB-C cable like the Wireworld Chroma USB 3.1.
The cable is made out of high purity OFC copper and has separated data and power wires which bring it to the next level, and if you got a good PSU you might want to power the USB card directly out of it.
Helped the clarity and detail a lot.


100+ Head-Fier
Garage 1217 Project Ember
Pros: Preamp output is excellent; solid headphone amp performance; lots of user customizability; small footprint; looks cool
Cons: amplifier section now a bit dated and falling slightly behind the price/performance curve; lacks a slight amount of control in the subbass with many headphones; cannot roll opamps - breaking the customizability theme found pretty much everywhere else
I picked this up recently and drove a TON of different headphones with it. I thoroughly enjoyed getting to know this amp. It has a lot of strengths. The amplifier in it has arguably fallen behind more recent competition, but the preamp performance is still excellent. It's a tinkerer's dream: support for a almost every 9-pin 6V and 12V tube type out there; jumpers to toggle 3 output impedance settings (for adjustable damping factor); jumpers to bypass input capacitor or input resistor or both; 2 gain settings. It can be bought as a kit if you're looking for a fun project or can come pre-assembled for about $100 more. More complete thoughts in the video:

when you say its falling behind the curve, what tube amps are ahead at the price point ?
In the video I talk about how the Asgard 3 is superior as a headamp at $250. Project Ember is greater than Darkvoice, as Darkvoice is a bit sloppy. Even so, an apples to apples comparison is to compare the amp to a solid state amp like an Asgard 3 as the amplifier in the Ember is solid state, it's preamp is tube. So it's not a tube amp. IMO the amp section is behind on the price/performance curve for solid state amps in 2022, just needs a refresh.
Hi, I am considering to use my Ember as preamp to add “tubey” sound to my speaker setup and came upon your post stating “excellent preamp output”. Can you help me to set up? I want to use my Ember such as Wiim Mini - Topping E50 - Ember - SMSL AO200 - Polk R200. Questions are: 1) In this new setup, should I max out Ember’s pre-out and control volume with AO200? ( in order to enjoy “excellent “ preamp performance. ) Or x% in Ember? How would you adjust? 2) Any Ember’s jumper settings you recommend? FYI, currently without Ember I have enough head room with my AO200 power to drive my speakers. Thanks in advance.


100+ Head-Fier
iFi Zen Stream Review - by WaveTheory
Pros: Streams all the filetypes most will every want or need bit-perfectly from a computer to any other audio system; provides a sonic benefit to most systems over plugging a computer in directly; support for a host of streaming protocols including Tidal, NAA, and DLNA (with more fully supported Roon coming soon); USB & coaxial SPDIF digital audio outputs; iFi's iPower power brick included
Cons: I had some difficulty getting it to connect to my WiFi network (in fairness, I think that's a problem very few will have, I'm just unlucky); setting changes apply a bit slowly; some lag when using DoP with the coaxial output


A few months ago, iFi launched their Zen Stream, a low-cost (399USD) music streamer in the form factor of their popular Zen series of audio products. I asked iFi if I could take a look. They agreed and sent me a review unit. While iFi sent me the unit, they have made no attempt to influence my opinion of it and have asked for nothing in return. They even helped me work through some technical issues. Alright, let’s go…


The Zen Stream, at 399USD is one of the lowest cost music streamers on the market right now and it comes in iFi’s small Zen form factor. There are a few usage quirks, but the connection possibilities are numerous. Most importantly, it delivers where it matters: excellent sound quality while delivering music where you want it.


My preferred genres are rock/metal and classical/orchestral music. I’m getting to know jazz more and enjoying quite a bit. I also listen to some EDM and hip-hop. My hearing quirks include a high sensitivity to midrange frequencies from just under 1KHz to around 3Khz, give or take. My ears are thus quick to perceive “shoutiness” in headphones in particular. I describe “shoutiness” as an emphasis on the ‘ou’ sound of ‘shout.’ It’s a forwardness in the neighborhood of 1KHz and/or on the first one or two harmonics above it (when I make the sound ‘ooooowwwww’ into a spectrum analyzer the dominant frequency on the vowel sound is around 930Hz, which also means harmonic spikes occur again at around 1860Hz and 2790Hz). In the extreme, it can have the tonal effect of sounding like a vocalist is speaking or singing through a toilet paper tube or cupping their hands over their mouth. It can also give instruments like piano, but especially brass instruments, an added ‘honk’ to their sound. I also get distracted by sibilance, or sharp ‘s’ and ‘t’ sounds that can make ssssingers sssssound like they’re forssssssing esssss ssssssounds aggresssssssively. Sibilance does not physically hurt my ears nearly as quickly as shout, though. It’s distracting because it’s annoying and unnatural. Finally, I’m discovering that I have a preference for more subtle detail. I like good detail retrieval and hearing what a recording has to offer, but I prefer what many would consider relaxed and subtle rather than aggressive or detail-forward. To my ear, more subtle detail-retrieval sounds more realistic and natural than aggressive, detail-forwardness. There is a balance here, though, because detail retrieval can get too relaxed and that can sound unnatural, as well, or simply leave out important aspects of the recording. Readers should keep these hearing quirks and preferences in mind as they read my descriptions of sound.


Bells & Whistles

Like many iFi products, the Zen Stream is packed with features. I won’t go into all the details here, and leave it to iFi’s website to do some of the heavy lifting ( In short, it connects to either your LAN or WiFi network and streams music from your computer or smartphone to be played in whatever hi-fi system you want. Some nifty features that should appeal to we audio nerds are a USB audio output with active noise cancellation, an RCA coaxial SPDIF output with iFi’s iPurifier tech built in, support for a plethora of digital file codecs (PCM up to 384KHz, DSD up to DSD256, full MQA compatibility), a separate USB port to plug in a music-file-loaded flash drive or external disk drive, and the inclusion of an iPower power brick. There are also dedicated modes to more fully support streaming protocols such as DLNA, NAA, Tidal streaming, and with full ROON support to be available soon. Each of these protocols has a setting where it is optimized. These settings can be selected with a rotary dial on the back panel. iFi includes a small plastic flathead-screwdriver-like tool to turn that selector dial. So, there are numerous options for connecting to your system, controlling the stream, and in general getting your music where you want it to go. As of this writing, there is no official support for Qobuz. But, it is possible to stream Qobuz through the Zen Stream through a third party app like Audirvana or ROON.

A quick note: the USB and SPDIF outputs can NOT be used simultaneously. Like most USB connections, when its in use, it locks out everything else. You have to choose one or the other. But, you can connect them both at the same time and use the software menu system to switch between the outputs.


The form factor is also the familiar Zen build with the spaceship-like chassis and small footprint. It’s built well with a fair amount of heft. There are rubber feet on the bottom which do a good job of preventing it from sliding around. The front panel is rather spartan with 2 buttons, 2 large LEDs, 2 small LEDs, and large white letters that spell out “STREAM”. The left button is for power. The left small LED is the power indicator. The left large LED indicates whether the Stream is ready to receive signal/is connected or whether and update is occurring. The right LED glows different colors depending on what type of file is being streamed (green for 96KHz PCD, yellow for DSD, etc). The right button toggles the large LEDs on/off with a quick press or puts the Zen Stream into hotspot mode on long press. The right small LED blinks when hotspot mode is searching and turns solid when hotspot is connected, otherwise it is off.


There has been lots of conversation about the aesthetics of the Stream. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder, of course. In general, I have enjoyed the uniqueness of the Zen series aesthetic and form factor. I appreciate iFi’s willingness to be different in appearance in the budget realm, rather than build more generic black or silver rectangular prisms. When the 2 big LEDs on the Stream are lit up, though, I can’t help but think of any one of a number of robot-themed products:





Or the robot image from Bad Robot Productions:


I mean, give one of those robots’ eyes heterochromia and:


Can you unsee it? Haha.

All of which I find rather entertaining. So, whatever. Let’s move on from the looks.

Setup and Use

When I first got the Zen Stream it immediately connected via hotspot to both the Spotify app on my Galaxy Note 8 smartphone and via DLNA to Audirvana 3.5 running on my Windows 10 desktop computer. This connection was wireless, and in the case of Audirvana, was able to stream all of my files bit-perfectly in PCM or DSD, as confirmed by my DAC. So, as far as I knew at the time, everything was up and running. There was one quirk that Audirvana initially did not want to stream any music to it when the Zen’s coax output was in use but worked fine when the USB output was used. The coax output worked fine when used with the Spotify app, though. A representative from iFi told me that they knew of the weird non-playback issue with Audirvana when the coax connection was used and said it would likely be fixed on the next software update. For a time, I just used the USB connection and ran with it. It was nice to be able to use DLNA and Audirvana to stream music from my Windows 10 PC to my 2-channel system via the Zen Stream, and then control it all from the Audirvana remote app on my phone. When the first system update came along, I couldn’t get the Stream to find it on the web. After much investigating and with some help from friends who are more computer savvy than I, I realized that the Stream was only working in hotspot mode and had never fully connected to my wireless network. Therefore, it had no internet connection and couldn’t find the update. After several go-rounds with iFi’s customer service, I finally ran a second ethernet cable (the first is for my desktop PC) from my router (which is on another floor in my house) down to my basement listening room and connected via hardwired LAN. The Zen Stream connected to the network from the wired connection without issue. The system update ran without a hitch, the internet radio features on the Zen Stream worked (yeah, it has those too, if you’re interested), and what’s more, the coax output worked with Audirvana.

Unfortunately, I have still not gotten the wireless connection to work in my system. Since I ran the second ethernet cable, it’s no longer an issue for me – at least not in the room where the Zen Stream currently sits. I’m not holding this against iFi, though. The Zen Stream is essentially a tiny computer in and of itself, and so is my router (which is a Netgear Nighthawk RAX50). There are tens of milliions of possible ways to combine computers, routers, and internet-capable devices these days and some combinations are bound to just not work well. I haven’t read about any others with similar issues to me on forums like Head-Fi. So, I think I’m just unlucky and don’t think this issue will affect many others.

Another minor quibble is that the Zen Stream is sometimes a bit slow. There aren’t really any lag issues when playing music (accept I did find one, which I’ll discuss shortly), but when settings are changed in its menu, it takes some time for the setting change to take effect. There were several times when I thought it didn’t save my setting change, or didn’t change the setting, only to discover that it was working fine 2 minutes later. This lag included getting my computer or smartphone to talk to the Zen Stream and get into those menus in the first place. Sometimes my browser would tell me it couldn’t load the http://ifi.local address. Wait a bit, it would work. Just one of those things, I guess. However, I found that once I got things set where I wanted I didn’t need to go back into those menus much at all.

When streaming music, at least from Audirvana via DLNA, the only issue I had was some lag when streaming DSD, using the Zen Stream’s SPDIF output, and having the Stream convert the DSD to DoP (DSD over PCM). Every 20-25 seconds the music would pause for 3-5 seconds and then resume. I didn’t mess with very many Audirvana settings to force this to work, although it’s quite possible that changing buffer size and other tricks might work. I just set Audirvana to do the conversion from DSD to PCM. Audirvana then sent the DSD files as 24-bit 176.2KHz PCM files and everything worked fine.

While they were frustrating at the time, I’m not too concerned about these issues moving forward. The fix of Audirvana and the Zen Stream’s coax output is evidence that iFi is working on sorting out these software issues and that future updates will smooth out the user experience. So, let’s see how it goes as time goes on.

Last thought here before moving on…there are dozens of combinations of things that I (or anyone else) could test with the Zen Stream. It has so many options. There are so many streaming platforms out there. There is simply no way I can test them all. This review then, at least from the description of ergonomics and use, only applies to how I used the Stream. Your results may vary depending on what you’re trying to do.


Test Gear

My Zen Stream review unit lived in my 2-channel system. That’s where I want to use a streamer, so that’s how I listened to it. The most common source was my Windows 10 desktop PC running Audirvana 3.5. The DAC was the Chord Hugo 2 connected by both USB and coaxial SPDIF. An OG Schiit Saga with 1940s era Sylvania VT-231 tube handled preamp duties. The amplifier was the Adcom GFA-555ii. Elac Uni-Fi UB52 speakers and a Polk PSW-505 subwoofer handled the transducer duties most of the time. I also used my old Definitive Technology SM55 speakers for a bit. I also had some stretches where the Adcom amp drove the RAAL requisite SR1a earfield monitors or a HiFiMan HE6Sev2. There was also a brief test with the Schiit Bifrost 2 as the DAC and the rest of the system remained as just described.

Sound Signature

Good news! There really isn’t much of a sound signature I could detect! That’s a break from iFI’s Zen line which tends to lean warmer, thicker, and smoother in its signature. Here iFi did not appear to be going for a particular sound other than simply delivering the bits to the DAC. The sonic background was also generally nice and quiet. All in all, most of the time I did not get the sense that the Zen Stream was trying to color the sound.

Spatial re-creation was also good. This is one area where if the player is holding back some microdetail there will be adverse effects on the sound. Routinely my Elac speakers were showing off their spatial prowess (which is quite good for their price), which told me the Zen Stream was at least not messing anything up.

So, yeah, I’ll leave it there. I think this is a real compliment to the Zen Stream: it mostly gets out of the way sonically.

What Sonic Advantage is There, Then?

In the vast majority of cases the Zen Stream is going to make whatever system its in sound cleaner, more detailed, and have an overall more coherent in its spatial presentation than if a computer source was plugged directly into that same system. Computers are inherently noisy devices. And the more powerful and complex they get, the more noise they tend to generate. Desktop computers tend to be noisier than laptop computers, for example. That’s especially true if that desktop computer is also home to one of the power-hungry video cards that exist these days. This background noise often bleeds into audio signals, especially if USB connections are used. Some desktop computer motherboards (and a handful of laptop models) offer Toslink optical audio outputs. Those help remove the noise, but they also tend to use very cheap optical transmitters (the gizmo that turns an electrical signal into a flashing light signal) and induce their own noise to the signal in the form of jitter and lost bits. Having a streamer like the Zen Stream helps clean a lot of that up. I found that my system sounded better when the Zen Stream handled source duties than when I plugged my Surface Pro laptop/tablet directly into my system via USB, even when I used a DAC like the Bifrost 2 that more often sounds better from its USB input. The differences were exactly as I described at the beginning of this paragraph: the Zen Stream had a quieter background, a lower noise floor, subtly more detail and microdetail, and a more coherent spatial presentation. By a ‘more coherent spatial presentation’ I mean that imaging and separation were noticeably superior and creating a more believable soundstage. To be clear, these improvements were audible in direct USB-to-USB comparison.

The qualifier “in the vast majority of cases” exists above because it is possible that there are DACs out there that have such good USB implementations in them that plugging a computer into the system directly will outperform the Stream. I’ll wager that those are situations with multi-kilobuck DACs. I’ll further wager that using a more appropriately priced streamer for that system (you know, a multi-kilobuck one) will produce a similar improvement bump that the Zen Stream does for gear for which is more price appropriate.


This question gets sticky. The more I listen the more I’m convinced the Hugo 2 sounds better from its SPDIF inputs than from its USB input. Some of that is that it lacks galvanic isolation on its USB input to make it more connection friendly to mobile devices. When the Zen Stream was connected to the Hugo 2 via USB some of the spatial presentation was a little less well defined and the noise floor was a bit higher. It still sounded good, but the sound that I got feeding the Hugo 2 with my Cayin N6ii DAP using Cayin’s USB-C-to-coaxial SPDIF cable was cleaner, clearer, and more subtly detailed, with a slightly more accurate spatial presentation. Once I was able to update the Zen Stream and use its coax output with the Hugo 2 the gap in performance between it and the N6ii essentially disappeared. I did not do as thorough a check on the Bifrost 2 on that as I could only use Spotify with the Stream’s coaxial output (this was before the system update). I heard enough to confirm what I suspected that the USB connection is better there, mostly because the Bifrost 2’s USB implementation is truly spectacular, and especially on a $700 piece.

I think the answer to whether you will want to use the Stream’s USB output or its SPDIF output will depend on what connections your DAC has, which connection type it sounds best from, and what kinds of filetypes you most commonly listen to. If you have lots of DSD files and it’s important for you to decode them natively, then you’ll likely want USB. Same for MQA. If most of your listening is PCM and not MQA, the SPDIF is probably just fine…unless your DAC just sounds better from USB or you have a nice USB interface you want to use. The key here is both the Zen Stream’s USB and coaxial outputs sound excellent. Which one you use will depend on your system and your needs.

Does That Mode Selector on the Back Make a Difference?

Yes. On the back panel there is that rotary selector so you can optimize the Stream to be used with DLNA, NAA, Tidal, ROON (pending), or generally play nice with everything (option 1, and the default option). The ‘play nice with everything’ option does just that. If you will be streaming a lot from Spotify with your phone and also via DLNA from your desktop, both will work at the same time. However, there was a subtle but noticeable increase in clarity, detail, and all-around sonic performance from my DLNA source (Audirvana) when DLNA mode (mode 5) was selected. Thus, I recommend picking a favorite setting for your system and sticking with it.


Under 500USD there are not yet a lot of options for streamers. A common one is the Pi2AES at $199US ( The Pi2AES is well regarded but requires a lot of assembly and setup by the end user, or extra money to pay someone else to do it. The Pi2AES website does not specifically say that it supports DSD or MQA, either, if those matter to you (this could be wrong, but I think it doesn’t, feel free to correct me). SMSL recently launched the SD-9 which is also $400 and feature-laden. I haven’t heard that yet, but it seems like a legitimate competitor.


For me there have been some ergonomic frustrations with the Zen Stream. But ultimately it still does what I want it to do. It streams music from my PC to my DAC in another system and does so with very good sound quality. I think most users will have less connectivity issues than I have as there don’t seem to be all that many to read about there. And, iFi has thus far been quite responsive in fixing some issues through system updates. My guess is they will get most of the kinds worked out over time. It bears repeating though that even with those kinks I’m still able to easily stream music from my PC to a second system in all of its bit-perfect glory. Given that the Zen Stream is one of very few streamer options under $500US and performs well, it presents a solid value and should be carefully considered by anyone in the market for an entry-level music streamer.

Video Version:

Thanks for reading, all. Enjoy the music!
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iFi audio
iFi audio
Many thanks for that lovely effort and cool vid material. You had many valid points and were very thorough, so thanks again! :beerchug:
Nope, can’t unsee it. Nice review as always.


100+ Head-Fier
RAAL requiste SR-1a Review - By WaveTheory
Pros: Resolution; spatial presentation; timbre; speaker-like presentation; comfort
Cons: Aggressive subbass roll-off below 60 Hz; incompatible with most headphone amplifiers; slides around on the head
A special thanks to user @sa11297 for loaning me this RAAL gear!



The RAAL Requisite SR1a “True Ribbon Earfield Monitor” is a truly interesting product. It is a pair of ribbon speakers strapped to a headband system that creates a near-field – so near it’s ear-field – listening experience, essentially putting a speaker listening experience in a form factor worn like a headphone. If you wish to own access to such an experience it will set you back a minimum of $3500US new, but there are plenty of accessories that have impact on the experience that will add to that cost. We’ll discuss some of those options through the course of this review. I had the privilege of giving this system, with a handful of those fun accessory options, a spin recently so let’s dig into what I found.


The RAAL seems to accomplish what it sets out to do: bring a high-performance, speaker-like listening experience into a headphone-like form factor. There are some ergonomic quirks that can limit its functionality some, but that doesn’t take away from the fact that its sound is amazing. The spatial performance is unlike anything I’ve ever heard from a head-based systems. The detail retrieval and timbre are also utterly fantastic. The bass and dynamic impact will be a bit too-lean for some but as a whole package and with the right music SR1a can be a phenomenal listening experience.


My preferred genres are rock/metal and classical/orchestral music. I’m getting to know jazz more and enjoying quite a bit. I also listen to some EDM and hip-hop. My hearing quirks include a high sensitivity to midrange frequencies from just under 1KHz to around 3Khz, give or take. My ears are thus quick to perceive “shoutiness” in headphones in particular. I describe “shoutiness” as an emphasis on the ‘ou’ sound of ‘shout.’ It’s a forwardness in the neighborhood of 1KHz and/or on the first one or two harmonics above it (when I make the sound ‘ooooowwwww’ into a spectrum analyzer the dominant frequency on the vowel sound is around 930Hz, which also means harmonic spikes occur again at around 1860Hz and 2790Hz). In the extreme, it can have the tonal effect of sounding like a vocalist is speaking or singing through a toilet paper tube or cupping their hands over their mouth. It can also give instruments like piano, but especially brass instruments, an added ‘honk’ to their sound. I also get distracted by sibilance, or sharp ‘s’ and ‘t’ sounds that can make ssssingers sssssound like they’re forssssssing esssss ssssssounds aggresssssssively. Sibilance does not physically hurt my ears nearly as quickly as shout, though. It’s distracting because it’s annoying and unnatural. Finally, I’m discovering that I have a preference for more subtle detail. I like good detail retrieval and hearing what a recording has to offer, but I prefer what many would consider relaxed and subtle rather than aggressive or detail-forward. To my ear, more subtle detail-retrieval sounds more realistic and natural than aggressive, detail-forwardness. There is a balance here, though, because detail retrieval can get too relaxed and that can sound unnatural, as well, or simply leave out important aspects of the recording. Readers should keep these hearing quirks and preferences in mind as they read my descriptions of sound.


There is a lot to unpack here. This section will be on the long side. I’ll break it up into smaller chanks as best as possible.

Buying Options

The SR1a, essentially being a pair of ribbon speakers held right next to the ears, is basically a low-impedance speaker. That limits the amplifier options available. RAAL offers several packages with the SR1a that take these amplification needs into consideration. The first is a speaker interface that plugs into the output of a speaker amp:


[pictured with my Adcom GFA-555ii speaker amp]

The speaker interface has a female 4-pin XLR headphone output on the front:


and also includes 4 pair of binding posts on the back panel along with a switch to select between using the SR1a or passing the signal through to a pair of speakers:


The speaker interface also comes with a set of 4 speaker jumper cables (2 pair) to go from your speaker amp into the “Amp In” terminals on the interface. Then, your regular speaker cables connect to the “Spk Out” terminals on the back of the interface. The back panel of the interface claims a nominal impedance load of 6Ω for the interface and SR1a together. RAAL offers the SR1a and speaker interface together in a 3500USD package. My review unit came with this speaker interface.

RAAL also offers the current-drive Schiit Jotunheim R headphone amp with the SR1a.


[image taken from RAAL’s website:]

The package of SR1a and Jotunheim R costs $4000US from RAAL’s website.

RAAL also makes their own high-end speaker & headphone all-in-one amp known as the HSA-1b:


This amp is rated to deliver up to 40 watts per channel from its speaker output into a 2Ω load. It also has both female and male 4-pin XLR outputs on the front panel for headphone outputs. They are designed to drive the SR1a and regular headphones, respectively. This amp lists for $4500US on its own but RAAL offers it with the SR1a in a package that costs $9000US for the two. Add in the speaker interface box and the entire package is $9500US. This amplifier was sent to me be the same person who sent the headset with amp interface. The amp is an impressive product in its own right and will get its own full review in due time. Stay tuned.

RAAL also offers a plethora of headphone cable options to use with the SR1a. I’ll leave it to their website to explain all of the options ( I was able to test with the standard 7-foot version and the $1050 “Studio Reference” 7-foot cable. I will comment on the sonic differences between the cables in the last subsection of the Sound section.


As stated in the introduction, the SR1a is pair of ribbon speakers mounted to a set of straps that allows it to be worn like a headphone. The ribbons themselves are well-made and in a machined aluminum housing:


The design does not enclose the ear. It’s a completely open-baffle system. There is a column of soft foam where the speaker rests against the head to cushion the contact point. This column of foam is meant to sit right in front of the ear. The ribbon assemblies are also on a hinged mechanism that allows them to move from being roughly parallel to the ear to essentially 90 degrees to the side of the head:


These angle adjustments have an impact on the sound, too. When completely closed, the bass has the most presence but the soundstage is the most narrow. When all the way open, the soundstage is the biggest/widest but the bass has the least presence. The swivel uses friction to keep its positioning. There is a fair amount of tightness to make the adjustments. Overall, that’s good because they hold their positions well. There were times when I over-adjusted because of that tightness and had to do some futzing to get things into the right positions.

To hold the ribbon assemblies to the head there is suspension-strap headband system that goes over the head, and a second strap the wraps around being the head:


The straps are of a quality leather and quite soft. The headsize adjustment uses a simple peg-and-hole system:


This system is simple and durable but only allows for coarse adjustments. There is roughly a centimeter between the pegs/holes. If your headsize falls between the adjustment levels, you’ll have to pick between it being just a little bit too loose, or just a little bit too tight. This is more problematic for the around-the-head strap. For my head, I either had to have that strap looping around under the curve of my skull in the back (below left), or get it really tight to hug tightly higher up on the back of my head (below right):


In either case I had a problem with headset sliding around my head a bit, particularly forward. If I were to look down at my desktop while working, the whole assembly would slide forward. It never fell off, but needed readjustment, and would often push my glasses forward as well. The fit seems best for sitting in your lounger, kicking back (but not reclining much), and enjoying the music. The sliding around on the head is just a bit too much for anything else. Because the system does not enclose around the ear like a traditional headphone, there is less friction on the sides of the head to take advantage of, which contributes to it sliding around with movement.

Provided you’re still enough to minimize the sliding, the comfort is actually quite good. The clamp isn’t very tight but also not very loose. I never noticed too much pressure on my jaw. I didn’t notice any hotspots either. The headband straps do a good job of distributing weight. It is a set you could take a nap in, so to speak.


The cable entry system is dual-entry with 3.5mm jack on each ribbon. Curiously, the RAAL cables are terminated with 3.5mm TRRS plugs at the headphone end:


Truthfully, I’m not sure why. All the cables have 4-pin XLR connectors on the amp end so there should only be a need for 2 electrical contacts per side. The amp end of each cable is also a female connection. I’m pretty sure that’s done to prevent you from plugging the SR1a into any generic balanced headphone amp and blowing things up.


Test Gear

For all testing the source was local FLAC files ranging from 16-bit/44.1-KHz up to 24-bit/192-KHz, local DSD files, and streamed FLAC (same bit rates) from Qobuz, all using Audirvana 3.5. On my desktop system the PC was connected to a Singxer SU-2 USB bridge then an AES connection to a Berkeley Alpha S2 DAC. The RAAL HSA-1b carried amp duties on this chain. The other chain used the same PC but then streamed all the same filetypes over my local network to an iFi Zen Stream. The Zen Stream was connected via an Audioquest Forest USB cable to a Chord Hugo 2. The RCA outputs of the Hugo 2 fed an original Schiit Saga preamp which in turn connected to an Adcom GFA-555ii speaker amp. RAAL’s speaker amp interface box then connected the amp to the SR1a. I also did some listening by using the Saga’s second pair of RCA outputs and feeding my Polk PSW-505 subwoofer to get a feel for what using the SR1a with a sub would be like. I used the higher quality Studio Reference cable for most of my listening tests, until I set out to see if I could hear differences between the cables.


I’m going to do a subsection just about presentation because of the unique-ness of this product. It really does sound like speakers. The imaging is mostly out-in-front as it is with speakers. However, the room reflections are essentially eliminated so the challenge of speaker placement doesn’t come along for the ride. But, over and over again, listening to the SR1a reminded me of listening to speakers that just happened to be close to my head.

Sound Signature

I ended up landing with the ribbons angled at about 45 degrees to the plane of the side of my head most of the time. Here the signature was somewhat bright with more emphasis on the treble than on the bass. The bass gains a bit more presence the closer the ribbons get to being closed, but these are never going to be bass monsters. In fact, there is a fairly aggressive roll-off in the subbass below 60Hz with very little going on in the deep subbass. This roll-off becomes particularly noticeable in a track like “Mountains” from the Interstellar soundtrack. The descending bass that happens following the large brass swells doesn’t muster much in its lowest reaches. However, above that point the bass presence seems in line with the mid-range presence, with the treble being just a little bit higher yet, although not by much. The brightness in the signature is also quite smooth. So while it’s a brighter sound, it never came across to me as sharp or piercing. There is great balance between being sparkly and being controlled in the top end.


Um, wow. The only other piece of audio gear I’ve heard that challenges the detail retrieval ability of the SR1a is the Abyss Diana Phi. I haven’t had the chance to hear those in direct comparison, but the levels of detail I heard from the 1a reminded me of the Diana Phi…EXCEPT that the 1a was much more relaxed in its detail presentation. Basically, everything is there. Room reverbs, the initial strikes on cymbals followed by the tone, texturing, the zizzy sound of bows on strings…it’s all present and never forced. The way it’s presented is very natural but still easily audible.

Spatial Presentation

Beyond being speaker-like, I flat out haven’t heard soundstaging, imaging, separation, or depth layering of this level before. For me this is the new standard. There is amazing accuracy is where instruments are placed to go with a convincingly realistic since of space between them. The listening space is also rendered well. In live recordings like classical or orchestral works where there is a stage, that sound from that stage is reproduced quite believable with excellent spatial accuracy, but there is also a convincing since of space beyond that stage. In other words, the SR1a is a strong in reproducing room sounds and transporting a listener to a concert hall or arena.


For the most part, voices and instruments sound like excellent reproductions of what they sound like in the real life. In other words, the timbre is excellent. I didn’t notice in shoutiness or honkiness in the mids – which I am prone to hearing. If I had to nitpick I would say that some bass instruments sounded a little thin because the subbass roll-off reduced the presence of some of the lower harmonics, but outside of that the timbre is another true strength of the SR1a.

Macro- and Microdynamics

Let’s first differentiate between these two terms. Macrodynamics refers to the ability to punch, slam, hit, or “slap”. It’s the physicality and impact of the sound. Microdynamics are the small changes in volume and the ability to resolve small changes in sound intensity. Resolving these small changes well help with things like texture. The SR1a is a strong performer in microdynamics. The sound is very textured. This microdynamic prowess also contributes to it sounding very high in resolution as textures are pulled out beautifully. The SR1a is not a particularly macrodynamic piece, though. There is a lot of speed to the sound. The mids and highs reach quickly and clearly. Yet to me, they aren’t impactful. If you’re a listener who enjoys the punch and physicality of brands like Abyss, Fostex, Focal, or to a slightly-lesser-extent Audeze, the SR1a is likely not the headphone for you – or at least not a candidate to be your primary headphone.

Supplementing with a Subwoofer

I mentioned running the SR1a off my speaker amp and using subwoofer with it above. I’ve heard of some people enjoying listening to headphones/earspeakers with a sub, and I’ve long been skeptical of its efficacy. Why? Phasing. It always seemed like it would be really hard to correct for the time misalignment by having transducers for the mids and highs right by the ears and then the bass transducer some number of feet or meters away. What bass the headphone produced would reach the ear earlier, and in situations where a bass tone lasted long enough that both the headphone’s low end and the sub’s delayed wavefront could be heard simultaneously, there would most likely be some wave interference changing the shape of the waveform from what was in the recording. Even with an effective crossover, there are also concerns like the higher pitched sounds of the mallet of a bass drum hitting the skin reaching the ear first and then a delay before the weight of the low tone arrived. So…I put the SR1a on and got as close to my sub driver as I possibly could. Now that became a very macrodynamic experience, hahaha. It took some tweaking to get to a subwoofer volume level that didn’t seem crazy out-of-line with the loudness of the SR1a. Once I got that done, there were a few tracks where I could hear some phasing oddities in the 80ish-100ish Hz range. Mostly, that sounded like a bit of tonal fluttering – not driver fluttering – that was likely the effect of wave interference creating to maxima in and minima in the waveform. They sounded a lot like the beats once listens for when tuning a guitar or piano. The SR1a is still giving noticeable information down at least that low, rolling off mostly below 60 Hz, it seems. I set my sub’s crossover to 60 Hz (its lowest setting) and I didn’t hear that fluttering those phasing issues were producing on the same tracks I had noticed it previously. With all that done, I settled in for some punchier, more dynamic music, and some music that needs crazy subbass reproduction. It was readily apparent that my poor Polk subwoofer (my 2 channel system is nowhere near up to the same caliber as my headphone gear…yet) is not on the same performance level as the SR1a. From high frequencies to low, the experience was like detail detail detail detail BOOM! Even so, it was an overall enjoyable experience and worked well as a proof of concept. “Gypsy” by Fleetwood Mac sounded great. Ditto on “The Less I Know the Better” by Tame Impala. The SR1a with the subwoofer became a much more dynamic, punchy, engaging experience with that kind of music. Grandiose pipe organ music also became fuller and more captivating. Toccata & Fugue in D Minor (AKA the Dracula theme) by Bach and played by Peter Hurford was nothing short of awe inspiring. It sounded enormous and the sub brought the subbass rumble and feeling the SR1a couldn’t provide on its own. Together they created a listening experience that rivaled a huge 2.1 channel system. Now, the Hugo 2 + Saga + GFA-555ii signal chain was not as resolving or spatially coherent as the Alpha S2 + HAS-1b on the desktop chain either, but I’m more comfortable saying now that with enough tweaking and a phase dial on higher quality subwoofer (rather than just a 0 or 180 phase switch) the SR1a and that subwoofer could create an amazing listening experience that many will find truly compelling.

Funny story though…after playing around with the SR1a and sub together and emerging from my basement listening room to see the rest of the family I got lots of strange looks. Eventually one of the kids said “Why just the bass this time? Where was the rest of the music?” Yeah, it needs to be said that using a subwoofer with a head-based listening system does defeat one of the advantages a head-based system brings: more privacy and less interference with the world around you.

Amp Pairings

I touched on this briefly in the preceding section. The SR1a still sounded quite awesome on my signal chain with the GFA-555ii amp. It was not quite as clear or clean and the staging wasn’t quite as cohesive and convincing as the desktop chain with the HSA-1b. Still, it was very impressive and among the best I’ve heard from a head-based system so far. The performance on this amp suggests to me that if you already have a speaker amp that you like and is reasonably powerful, the $3500 option for the headset and speaker adapter box is quite a deal. What I didn’t try as it would require a lot of reshuffling and then waiting for things to warm up again, is using my Berkeley DAC with the Adcom speaker amp. So, some of the performance loss is from the desktop chain is likely due to using the Hugo 2 as the DAC. Still, the Hugo 2 is no slouch as a DAC and it bears repeating that the speaker-amp system still sounded wonderful through the SR1a.

Music Matches

Without a subwoofer the SR1a is at its best when playing music that doesn’t rely much on active dynamics or subbass presence. This includes a lot of classical, chamber music, smooth jazz, some folk music, etc. Where it doesn’t work as well, at least for me, is with the bigger and more bombastic classical works (think Beethoven’s 5th or 1812 Overture here) and rock, metal, hip-hop, EDM, etc. That’s mostly because it just doesn’t have the subbass presence or impact that make a lot of those genres work. It’s not that it sounds bad – the detail retrieval and staging and timbre are all there doing a great job – it’s just a case of not being able to deliver that thick, bass-heavy sound that often defines those genres. Some may still love these genres on the SR1a because the bass isn’t as important to them. I can understand that. I’ll just say that for music of that type, I prefer something else.

Add in a subwoofer and things change quite a bit, though. Even though I don’t have subwoofer that’s anywhere near the quality level of the SR1a nor was I able to get it dialed in perfectly with phasing and crossover and all that, I got enough of a glimpse into it to realize that pairing the SR1a fleshes out the missing parts of the lower regions and adds in that punchy physicality and impact that hard rock, metal, hip-hop, and EDM need.

Cables Matter

OK, venturing into controversial territory here. Does the $1050 silver Studio Reference cable make a difference? Yes. Is that difference worth the $1050? Nice try. I can’t answer that for you. I got the sense that both cables were quite good, although differences and the fact that one was clearly higher performing than the other were detectable. The Studio Reference cable had a darker sonic background, an overall cleaner sound, presented more microdetail, and enhanced the spatial presentation. The separation between sonic images within that spatial presentation was a particular point where the Studio Reference outperformed the stock cable. On the whole, the Studio Reference cable created a more convincing, lifelike sound than the stock cable. The overall sound signatures were also ever-so-slightly different. To the extent the SR1a can reproduce subbass, the Studio Reference cable had more of it and a little bit more treble extension. The stock cable had a slight emphasis on the frequencies in the warmth range which gave it a slightly warmer overall character. Some listeners might prefer that signature, but it’s quite clear, at least to my ears, that the Studio Reference cable is the all-around superior cable on a technical level.


This gets tough because the SR1a is in a very small class of products. The Mysphere 3 is the only other “floating ear-speaker” kind of thing I can think of and I haven’t had the opportunity to hear that yet. I’ve heard a number of headphones in the $3000-4000 range lately, though. Those include HiFiMan HE-1000v2, Focal Stellia, Audeze LCD-24, Abyss Diana Phi, and Meze Empyrean Elite.

The SR1a has a more speaker-like presentation than any of those headphones. The HE-1000v2 and Meze Elite are probably the next most speaker-like, but they don’t catch the SR1a in that regard. The spatial presentation on the SR1a is the most realistic and coherent of the group, to my ear, as well. The HE-1000v2 is probably the next best on this list in this category, but clearly behind SR1a. The HE-1000v2 also brings warmth and subbass presence much more than the SR1a. The Elite can do similarly with its hybrid pads but not as much with its velour pads. The Diana Phi is the only headphone I’ve heard to date that could compete with the SR1a on pure resolution. I can’t say which is more resolving as I didn’t have them at the same time. My guess is they’re very close. The Diana Phi is more detail-forward though, seemingly emphasizing its resolution prowess at times. The SR1a is smoother and more natural in its detail presentation. The SR1a also has far more natural timbre than the Diana Phi, to my ear. All of the headphones named above also have a more macrodynamic presentation than the SR1a. Some of them (Stellia, Diana Phi) are very punchy and physical. Some are more in the middle (LCD-24, HE1000v2, Elite), but they all have more dynamic impact than SR1a by some distance.


I’ve already discussed what kinds of music I think work best with the SR1a above. I’ll add brief comments here about use cases I think make sense for SR1a. If the listening goals are to have a speaker-like experience and remove the effects of the room, it’s a strong option. If you’re primarily a 2-channel listener and a fan of music that isn’t predicated on a lot of bass energy and need a family-friendly late-night listening solution or you’ve moved from a house to an apartment, the SR1a is an excellent option. That it can be driven from a speaker amplifier at the flick of a switch increases the attractiveness of this option. The SR1a is an excellent switch-up to a 2-channel system that brings with it some of the ergonomic and privacy benefits of headphones. In this case, ‘privacy’ means the sound will stay contained within an apartment unit or a room with the door closed – the completely open nature still means anyone in the room with you is going to hear pretty much everything.

The SR1a’s sound is till more speaker-like than headphone-like. Headphones have a spatial presentation that is different and that can be desirable in some situations. Also closed-back headphones offer a level of isolation that is attractive is some situations. Then, there is the lack of subbass presence with the SR1a. The only way to recover that is to use a subwoofer and that removes one of the key advantages to head-based systems. All of these factors should be weighed if you’re considering the SR1a.


Whew! That was a lot of words. But there’s a lot to talk about with a product as unusual as the SR1a. It provides a speaker-like listening experience that’s worn like a headphone. It brings exquisite resolution, excellent timbre, and price-level-leading spatial performance to the table. It’s a bit lean in the subbass and not the most macrodynamic listening experience, which makes it more suited to music genres where heavy bass presence is essential to the experience. However, if the former is the kind of music you enjoy, and you want a speaker-like presentation that removes room limitations, the SR1a is an absolute must-audition for you.

Thanks for reading all! Enjoy the music!

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100+ Head-Fier
Focal Clear MG - by WaveTheory
Pros: Macrodynamic impact; separation; comfort; build quality
Cons: Signature too mid-forward for this reviewer; some detail retrieval issues in the mid-range; stock cable is awful; amp-picky; arguably lacks a stand-out sonic feature in the $1300-1800 price range

The Focal Clear MG was another generous loan from Mr. @sa11297 – thanks for keeping my efforts going! – and was fortuitously timed as I had it in-house at the same time as it’s big sibling the Stellia. I should add the caveat that I have unfortunately never spent any meaningful time with the original Clear. So, this review will not be a comparison to the OG Clear, rather a report on the Clear MG as I see it on its own merits. Let’s do it…



The Clear MG is a good headphone that does several things well but doesn’t deliver any singular feature that stands out at the price point. It has a mid-forward signature that will likely be too much for some listeners (including this reviewer!) and that has an adverse effect on timbre through the mid-range. However, if that doesn’t bother you, it’s also a headphone that doesn’t do much of anything else wrong, either. Thus, it falls into a jack-of-all-trades-master-of-none type of territory, that when combined with its comfort, can be an attractive option for someone looking for a solid, well-rounded headphone that can be worn all day.


My preferred genres are rock/metal and classical/orchestral music. I’m getting to know jazz more and enjoying quite a bit. I also listen to some EDM and hip-hop. My hearing quirks include a high sensitivity to midrange frequencies from just under 1KHz to around 3Khz, give or take. My ears are thus quick to perceive “shoutiness” in headphones in particular. I describe “shoutiness” as an emphasis on the ‘ou’ sound of ‘shout.’ It’s a forwardness in the neighborhood of 1KHz and/or on the first one or two harmonics above it (when I make the sound ‘ooooowwwww’ into a spectrum analyzer the dominant frequency on the vowel sound is around 930Hz, which also means harmonic spikes occur again at around 1860Hz and 2790Hz). In the extreme, it can have the tonal effect of sounding like a vocalist is speaking or singing through a toilet paper tube or cupping their hands over their mouth. It can also give instruments like piano, but especially brass instruments, an added ‘honk’ to their sound. I also get distracted by sibilance, or sharp ‘s’ and ‘t’ sounds that can make ssssingers sssssound like they’re forssssssing esssss ssssssounds aggresssssssively. Sibilance does not physically hurt my ears nearly as quickly as shout, though. It’s distracting because it’s annoying and unnatural. Finally, I’m discovering that I have a preference for more subtle detail. I like good detail retrieval and hearing what a recording has to offer, but I prefer what many would consider relaxed and subtle rather than aggressive or detail-forward. To my ear, more subtle detail-retrieval sounds more realistic and natural than aggressive, detail-forwardness. There is a balance here, though, because detail retrieval can get too relaxed and that can sound unnatural, as well, or simply leave out important aspects of the recording. Readers should keep these hearing quirks and preferences in mind as they read my descriptions of sound.


The Clear MG is an open-back, around-the-ear, dynamic-driver headphone. The driver is made of magnesium (hence the name “MG”, I believe) and is cone shaped. This shape stands in contrast to other Focal models that feature their M-shaped dome. The MSRP is 1490 USD.

With the build it’s getting to be a bit of a broken record statement at this point, the Clear MG is a Focal headphone. Ergo, it’s made well. It’s rugged. It’s handsome. It’s comfortable. It’s clamp force strikes an excellent balance of keeping it on the head without sliding around yet still not being so tight that it becomes uncomfortable. The cabling is dual-entry with a 3.5mm jack recessed into each cup. Those jack recesses are rather large in diameter so that just about any aftermarket cable can be used. And that’s good because there’s another broken record statement at this point: Focal stock cables are horrid. Honestly, if you’re buying the Clear MG, just get yourself a nice cable upon placing the order and don’t even bother taking the stock cables out of the box.

A unique feature of the Clear MG in the Focal line is that there are two models. There’s a consumer edition and a professional edition. The headphones themselves only differ in color and are tuned the same. They only differ by the included cables, I believe. The consumer model (which my review unit is) is a chestnut brown with brown earpads:


The “Pro” model is black with red earpads:


Since the tuning is the same and the stock cables are butt, it’s basically just down to which color scheme you prefer for this headphone.

The MG’s different driver than other Focal models leads to a slightly higher impedance than most of their models. The MG is rated at 55Ω but with a still-efficient sensitivity of 104 dB/mW. That still makes it very friendly for DAPs, mobile amps, and other lower-powered amps. I found that it needed about one hour higher potentiometer position on my Violectric HPA-V281 than its sibling models the Stellia and the Radiance for volume matching. But, that still keeps it firmly in easy-to-drive territory.


Test Gear

I ran the Clear MG directly from my Chord Hugo 2 transportable DAC/amp and on my main desktop chain comprised of a Windows 10 PC running Audirvana 3.5, a Singxer SU-2 digital-to-digital converter and USB interface, a Berkeley Audio Designs Alpha Series 2 DAC, and a Violectric HPA-V281 headphone amp. Late in the review process a RAAL Requisite HSA-1b amp arrived for evaluation and I got a couple listening sessions in with the MG on that amp as well using the same DDC and DAC from my desktop chain. Also, for kicks, I used the SE output on the same Berkeley DAC and used the Cayin HA-1AMK2 tube amp and the Schiit Asgard 3 to see what would happen.

It’s a Focal Headphone!

Unsurprisingly, every audio equipment company ends up adopting a house sound. They typically have a common designer or design team that has opinions about how things should sound and they tweak and tune until desired traits are reached. I was able to do a Focal headphone shootout recently where I spoke about some of the features of the Focal house sound. If you missed that video, here’s a recap: Focal favors a mid-forward tuning that gives the mid-range frequencies more audible presence than the bass or treble. Even so, there is still excellent extension in both directions with a fair amount of air up top and quite excellent bass extension. Focal headphones are all very dynamic and punchy. They have effortless and huge dynamic range and they come with lots of slam. They will hit you. Their bass often has a tactile quality to it. The soundstaging on Focals is neither large nor small but creates more of a wrap-around effect than a speaker-like out-in-front staging. I describe it as being on the Maestro’s stand of a symphony rather than back in the audience of the concert hall. My experience with the 4 Focal models I’ve heard, including the MG, makes these traits pretty clear – with the notable tuning exception of the Radiance being warmer and bassier in its frequency response. Within each of these traits, there is some variation. Let’s dive into the MG’s unique twists on each of these things.

Sound Signature – Frequency Response

The MG is certainly mid-forward. Most of its mid-forwardness, at least to my ear, is in the 1KHz-ish range (which makes it not a good match for my ears – see the Know Your Reviewer section above). However, there is also a sense of warmth that other Focals (save Radiance – which has it in spades) lack. So, there is a bit extra presence in the upper bass/lower-mids that brings in that warmth, but it’s not as forward or as prominent as the mid-range. Outside of those traits the classic Focal extension – both high and low – is definitely present as there is a fair amount of air without being sibilant or piercing and some deep bass without any bloat or bleed into the mids.

That mid-range forwardness is probably the biggest detriment to the sound. Now, I’ve declared my 1KHz sensitivity and general disdain for shouty vocals and honky/hollow instruments sounds, but this headphone tickles that to level that few do. My guess is that many will not experience what I am about to describe to the same extent that I do, but there is a fair amount of criticism floating around out there about the MG’s mids, which leads me to believe there is something going on here – or something not going on, whatever the case may be. The timbre is all off through the mids. Vocals get shouty and when there are multi-part harmonies it can be very difficult to separate the vocals from each other. How many singers are there in Eagles Seven Bridges Road? The MG did not answer that question for me. Similarly, instruments can become overpowering, honky, or hollow quite quickly, and it’s not always big and bombastic brass crescendos that do it. The opening of A Spoonful Weighs a Ton by The Flaming Lips has some flutes or clarinets or…oboe? the left channel that the MG turned into a blaring mess to my ear. They’re not recorded particularly aggressively either. The Poet and Pendulum by Nightwish features an epic section from about 7:00 to 9:00 with a full metal band, backing orchestra, and a dueling electric-guitar and violin solo. MG did a pretty good job holding all that together save for separating that guitar and violin from each other.

More than one fellow audiophile has complained to me that they wish the MG had more vocal presence as sometimes vocals weren’t as featured as they would like. I don’t think the problem is a lack of mid-range presence. I think one of the problems is the mids are too present which often ends up with vocal and instrument sounds getting muddled together a bit too much.


It’s a Focal. It punches hard and has dynamic range in spades. I like the physicality here, as I generally like the physicality of Focal’s lineup. The Clear MG certainly delivers on this aspect. This is a trait that you either like or you don’t. Let’s move on.


The technical ability of the MG’s spatial presentation seems price appropriate to me. The Focal warp-around, “bubble around the head” presentation is here. The soundstage size is neither remarkably big nor small, just is. The imaging and separation are pretty good too. With well recorded symphonies and orchestras it’s fairly easy to place instruments where they are, and just as importantly, where they aren’t. I’ve heard better near the $1500 price point, but I’ve also heard worse. More on this in the comparison section to come.

Detail Retrieval

For the most part the detail retrieval is also strong and price appropriate. On the concert recording of John Williams in Vienna, things like chair creaks, music pages being turned, and the clicks of bows as they’re being set down can all be heard all over the soundfield. Now, I realize that chair creaks and page shuffles are not part of the music, but the ability to resolve those things serves as a good proxy for being able to resolve the subtleties that are in the music. Those sounds also contribute to a “you are there” kind of feeling while listening. I think that the mid-range issue mentioned above is also a detail-retrieval issue, however. There might be a small dip in resolution capability in the same range as the prominent mid-range which makes distinguishing voices and instruments from each other all the more difficult.


Of the Focals I have experience with (Stellia, Radiance, Elegia, Clear MG), the MG seems to be the most amp picky. It changes its behavior more than the others moving from amp to amp. The Stellia, Radiance, and Elegia more or less maintain their overall behavior and either become more-or-less resolving with cleaner or quieter (or the opposite) sonic background as amps change. In other words, they remain a version of themselves. The MG seems to experience some frequency response changes, however. It can vary a fair degree in the amount of bass and rumble, and that mid-range forwardness, while always there, can also vary in presence. The Hugo 2 is not a particularly powerful amp in the low end, so the bass is a bit lighter on the MG on that one, which isn’t surprising, but that combo is also one of the worst offenders in the shout/honk region. Oddly enough the Asgard 3 was probably the second least shouty/honky/hollow, but also didn’t have quite the oomph in the low end. The V281 woke the bass up quite a bit, with lots of presence and slam, and was arguably the least shouty of any amp I tried. And yes, that means that the $4500 RAAL amp was shoutier, honkier, etc. with the MG. But, the RAAL amp also had even more bass quantity that the V281, more bass punch/slam, more overall detail, cleaner background, and more accurate spatial presentation. The Cayin HA-1AMK2 tube amp gave the most bass presence of any of the amps. In fact, the bass quantity from that amp was higher even than the Radiance on any of those amps, which is a big switch. The mids were still really shouty though and the overall presentation took on a wetter and oversmoothed character. That’s likely because of the higher output impedance on the 1AMK2 (even on its lowest output impedance setting). I enjoyed the MG the most on the V281 because to my ear it struck the best balance of fullness and power in the bass with the mids being the least aggressive (but still objectionably aggressive and shouty/honky/hollow too often).


I compared the Clear MG to the Radiance and Stellia, as I shared earlier. The punchline there is it was my least favorite of the three. The Stellia is also mid-forward, but a little higher in frequency than the MG is which gets it out of shout territory for me more often. The Stellia also holds itself together more effectively when it does get shouty. MG goes off the rails more, so to speak. The Radiance, to my ear, was technically equal to or superior to the MG in just about every sonic category save maybe just the slightest of edges to the MG in spatial separation. The MG can present space between sonic images just a little bit more clearly than Radiance – but I had to strain to hear that. Because the MG is open-back and the Radiance closed-back, and with Radiance being $200 cheaper, I would expect the MG to be comfortably superior in its spatial presentation and it’s…not. I don’t think that’s because the MG is bad. I think that has more to do with the Radiance being something special, actually.

Looking at the headphone market in the $1300ish-$1800ish range, I either own or have reviewed the Focal Radiance (comments above), the Fostex TH900 (which I added Lawton chambers to), ZMF Eikon, Audeze LCD-X (maybe that one’s a little less in price, but still close), and HiFiMan Arya and Edition X V2 (now discontinued). Looking at this group it strikes me that the MG is not the best at any one single sonic technicality. Nor is it the worst, except maybe the mid-range timbre. The LCD-X (pre-2021, anyway) and the MG will likely have quite a fight over who wants to be the shoutiest in the mid-range. In this group the Eikon has the most natural timbre until the music gets very busy, where it can struggle. But when it’s in its comfort zone, that timbre is phenomenal. The Arya has the next best timbre all the time, probably with its sibling the Edition X V2 behind it. The TH900 can best the MG in physicality, punching with even more authority in the deep subbass. The LCD-X can also challenge the MG in physicality with some bass boost. The Arya is the most resolving of this set, probably followed by its sibling, the TH900, and the MG. My TH900 with Lawton chambers is more resolving than the MG, but the stock TH900 likely isn’t quite to that level. The Arya also has the biggest soundstage and the most accurate imaging, separation, and layering within that soundstage. For soundstage, bigger doesn’t mean technically better, but those other aspects point to a clear superiority for the Arya in this price range – and it’s way ahead of the rest at that. The second-best headphone in this group would be the other HiFiMan, the Edition X V2. MG comes in middle-of-the-pack here, earning its place at the price point but not standing out amongst the crowd either.

All of these headphones have some sort of critical error of flaw in them too, which you’re either willing to live with or you’re not. The LCD-X has the shouty mids and, without EQ, a quickly rolled-off subbass and somewhat incoherent spatial presentation. With EQ, the bass comes back, shoutiness diminishes, and the spatial integrity improves, but then you’re stuck dealing with EQ, which can be either very expensive to use easily or a real pain in the…I think you get it. The Arya has a hot zone in the treble which comes across as very sharp and sibilant to many and gave me vertigo-like symptoms. It can also be a bit bass-lean. The Edition X V2 was discontinued awhile ago, which is a shame because it’s really good, and can hardly be found anymore, even on the used market. The TH900 series can be too v-shaped for many listeners and is also notorious for being too sharp and sibilant in the treble. The Eikon tends to freak out a little bit with complex music, losing it resolution chops and spatial integrity, and also doesn’t sound as good as many of the others when it’s playing music of genres where it doesn’t excel ie. it falls apart more than the others when it’s not comfortable as a general rule, being much more a specialist than the rest.

Put all this together and a use case starts to emerge for the Clear MG. If you can handle its mid-range presence, and many can, you get a headphone that’s very solid in all the technical areas and does a pretty good job with most genres of music most of the time. Call it a jack-of-all-trades-master-of-none situation. There is a place for that if your taste is eclectic and you want to plug in one can while working for the day.


If it isn’t already apparent, the Clear MG isn’t for me. It’s too mid-forward too often for my ears and leads to too much shoutiness, honkiness, and hollowness in the sound, wrecking timbre and tonality through the mid-range for me. Even so, there were still multiple stretches in my time with it when I was able to enjoy the music; bob my head, tap my foot, sing along (poorly, haha). The magnitude of those mid-range difficulties might be somewhat unique to me as I seem to be 1KHz sensitive, but I don’t think they will entirely disappear for very many either. I don’t think the MG is quite the $1500 benchmark the original Clear was considered to be back when it ruled the roost, but it’s also good enough at enough things that it can earn a place by being somewhat of a generalist – provided that its mids are not too much for you. Detail retrieval is overall solid. The imaging and separation are also right where they should be for the price. The macrodynamic punch/slam is also plentiful and fun. They’re well built. They’re comfortable. And they look good. If you need a single headphone to cover a wide range of music genres for extended listens, need all-day comfort, and can handle the mid-forward presentation, the Clear MG is worth checking out.

Thanks for reading, all. Enjoy the music!

The review in video form:

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@srinis that can be a bit tricky if you have no other amp options. I love Focal Radiance for rock/metal and it could probably work off your Fiio amp well. The Arya Stealth magnet edition is probably my favorite all-arounder at its price point but you will want to get an amp for it for sure.
Maybe age has an influence, I'm in my 40's and pairing to rock these focals with the A90's and a Sony WM1A I love it, no discomfort or wheezing, pretty good impact, speed and sonic accuracy.
From your comments, probably meaning that you have a VASTLY different musical taste to mine, for me who love Chinese rock and pop songs (for the time being) with Chinese being a highly-intensive language in the highs (especially in recording), the dampened highs and mid-forward presentation of the clear MG has given me a very pleasant (and sort-of hearing protecting) experience to allow me enjoy those singing and drum hits. A Fiio K7 is enough to give an enjoyable evening.


100+ Head-Fier
Focal Stellia Review - by WaveTheory
Pros: One of the best sounding closed-backs on the market; resolution; macrodynamic punch/slam; imaging & separation; build quality; comfort; isolation
Cons: a bit too much energy in upper-mids/lower treble, timbre suffers as a result; stock cables are typical Focal cable garbage; carrying case is a bit big to just stick in most backpacks/suitcases for traveling


The Focal Stellia – a closed-back, dynamic-driver, over-the-ear, $3000US headphone – is the latest headphone loan to come across my desk. Thanks, @sa11297 for the loan! I’ve given it a good listen, and it’s time to dive in.


The Stellia is one of the best sounding closed-back headphones on the market with excellent resolution, impressive spatial presentation for closed-back, fantastic macrodynamics and physicality, and well-textured bass in a well-built, easy-to-drive, comfortable package. Its carrying case might be a bit too big for some travel situations and its biggest sonic drawback is that it can be a bit too forward in the upper-mids, breaking timbre and leading to some shout/honk. Even so, it brings a lot to the table and finds a nice niche for itself in its portion of the headphone market.


My preferred genres are rock/metal and classical/orchestral music. I’m getting to know jazz more and enjoying quite a bit. I also listen to some EDM and hip-hop. My hearing quirks include a high sensitivity to midrange frequencies from just under 1KHz to around 3Khz, give or take. My ears are thus quick to perceive “shoutiness” in headphones in particular. I describe “shoutiness” as an emphasis on the ‘ou’ sound of ‘shout.’ It’s a forwardness in the neighborhood of 1KHz and/or on the first one or two harmonics above it (when I make the sound ‘ooooowwwww’ into a spectrum analyzer the dominant frequency on the vowel sound is around 930Hz, which also means harmonic spikes occur again at around 1860Hz and 2790Hz). In the extreme, it can have the tonal effect of sounding like a vocalist is speaking or singing through a toilet paper tube or cupping their hands over their mouth. It can also give instruments like piano, but especially brass instruments, an added ‘honk’ to their sound. I also get distracted by sibilance, or sharp ‘s’ and ‘t’ sounds that can make ssssingers sssssound like they’re forssssssing esssss ssssssounds aggresssssssively. Sibilance does not physically hurt my ears nearly as quickly as shout, though. It’s distracting because it’s annoying and unnatural. Finally, I’m discovering that I have a preference for more subtle detail. I like good detail retrieval and hearing what a recording has to offer, but I prefer what many would consider relaxed and subtle rather than aggressive or detail-forward. To my ear, more subtle detail-retrieval sounds more realistic and natural than aggressive, detail-forwardness. There is a balance here, though, because detail retrieval can get too relaxed and that can sound unnatural, as well, or simply leave out important aspects of the recording. Readers should keep these hearing quirks and preferences in mind as they read my descriptions of sound.


The Stellia has the look of Focal. They all share the same chassis and mostly change in the color and quality of materials. All of the normal Focal stuff is here – the slightly wider-than-average relaxed size, the vertically-swiveling cups on spring-loaded hinges, and the geometric pattern on the back of the ear cups. The Stellia comes in a very unique and attractive cognac color.


The drivers in the Stellia are dynamic “M-shaped” domes, a uniquely Focal feature, and made of pure beryllium. They’re easy to drive with a rated impedance of 35Ω and sensitivity of 106dB/mW. Indeed, I had no trouble driving them with the E02 module on my Cayin N6ii DAP. The ability to drive the Stellia with mobile devices is clearly one of Focal’s goals, as they mention portability a number of times on their Stellia webpage ( I have a few quibbles with this, however. The Stellia’s frame and chassis are not at all collapsible, and the carrying case they ship with, while luxurious, is not particularly travel friendly. Both the headphone and the case take up some room in a bag or suitcase. The Stellia stays on the head quite well, though, so if you’re heading to coffee shop there’s very little risk they will slip off. They also isolate very well. They’re not noise-cancelling, but they do a solid job of blocking out external noise and also don’t leak a ton. This isolation bit is a trait that has trickled down into Focal’s cheaper closed-back models (Elegia, Radiance, Celestee) as they all isolate well.

The Stellia, like all of Focal’s line, uses a detachable dual-entry cable system with the very common 3.5mm jack size in each cup. The jacks are recessed into the cup some but the diameter of the recess is bigger than most other headphones that have these recesses, and will accommodate many of the larger plugs that are often found on aftermarket cables. That’s important as Focal’s stock cables have become a bit of a joke, and deservedly so. They are stiff, cumbersome, and not particularly nice to use. Stellia suffers from that same problem.


Test Gear

I split my listening time with Stellia mostly between two systems. The first is my desktop system with a Singxer SU-2 DDC connected via USB to a Windows 10 desktop PC, a Berkeley Audio Designs Alpha S2 DAC, and a Violectric HPA-V281 headphone amp. I also used the Stellia in my transportable rig with a Cayin N6ii DAP used as a digital transport and connected to a Chord Hugo 2 DAC/amp via Cayin’s USB-C-to-coaxial digital interconnect cable. I mentioned testing the Stellia directly from the E02 module output of the N6ii. That was mostly checking to make sure the Stellia are easy to drive with a mobile amp like that. They are. I didn’t do much listening beyond that on that device.

Sound Signature

The overall sound signature is mid-forward. There is a slight forwardness in the upper mid-range that stands out from what is otherwise very close to perceptually neutral. There is very good bass and treble extension. Both the bass and treble sound appropriate present without being forward or calling attention to themselves either through being too much or too little. The overall presentation is also very dynamic, being lively and snappy in the mids and treble and very punchy and physical in the bass. That’s also a Focal trait. The Stellia is now the fourth Focal headphone I’ve gotten on my head and they have all had very punchy macrodynamics and high physicality.

The bass is tight, tuneful, and extended. It’s not elevated with respect to the rest of the frequency spectrum but it digs deep and hits hard. It’s also well textured, with the slight wavers of the waves on the string being resolved in addition to rich, accurate tone. The Stellia gave me a “wow, that’s cool” moment when listening to Dvorak’s 9th Symphony with my Hugo 2. I could hear the resinousness – that ‘zizzy’ sound of bows being dragged across strings – on the string basses, which no other headphone has really pointed out to me before, at least not that I’ve noticed. Stellia also resolves the upper harmonics and overtones of bass guitars very well. Bass players like Flea, John Entwistle, and Geddy Lee, who are all vigorous players known for being violent with the strings, sound wonderful on Stellia with those aggressive plucks and strums leading to rich and realistic overtones, and sometimes fret buzz, in the midbass. Those little sounds go surprisingly far in the direction of reproducing a realistic, believable listening experience.

The upper treble is also airy and extended but rarely ever harsh or sibilant. It’s one of those somewhat cliché cases where the Stellia is only sibilant if the recording is sibilant. It doesn’t add much in on its own. There was another wow moment when listening to The Who’s Who Are You album where Keith Moon was riding a crash cymbal and it sounded startingly realistic.

The midrange is biggest area where the Stellia’s performance gets a bit dicey. There is a forwardness to the upper midrange that can make female vocals and some higher-pitched male vocals (hello, Geddy Lee again) sound shouty and some horns, strings, pianos, and guitar sounds sound hollow or honky. There’s still lots of detail and resolution in the mids, but this forwardness causes the overall sound to get a bit wonky. The extent to which this happens does vary some with signal chain. I thought the effect was less on my Alpha S2 + V281 than with the Hugo 2, but it was noticeable and timbre-breaking on each chain. That’s unfortunate because outside of that range the timbre on the Stellia is fantastic, but that range is critically important to the overall presentation of most music so it’s difficult to say the Stellia is a headphone with a natural timbre.

Detail Retrieval

I’ve mentioned the Stellia’s resolution capabilities a bit already with the bass texture. Room reverbs, echoes, the sounds of fingers rubbing across strings, are all there. What I like about its detail retrieval is that it’s not forward or aggressive. Some headphones announce how resolving they are by assaulting the listener with constant, non-stop, in-their-face detail. The Stellia is more subdued in that regard by producing the subtle details, well, subtly. There isn’t much of consequence missing, but it’s not forced either. In fact, it took me some time to realize just how resolving the Stellia is as it took quite awhile to see what it was doing better than its siblings the Clear MG and the Radiance. But, rest assured, in time its resolution chops were audible. I’ll leave a more thorough comparison with the MG and Radiance to another post.


It bears repeating that a key feature of the presentation for the Stellia is its physicality. It’s a Focal trait but the Stellia brings it with authority. There is lots of punch, hard-hitting attacks, and plenty of dynamic range. I never found the punch to be over the top, but I like the physicality, particularly in the bass, as it draws me into most of the music I listen to. However, some listeners will likely object and find it distracting.

Spatial Presentation

Here the closed-back nature of the Stellia is a bit limiting. You should not expect an expansive soundstage. The Stellia is more on the intimate side. It’s not claustrophobic at all, and not as intimate as the Sennheiser HD6?? series, but nor is it big. The Focal “bubble around the head” staging is also present, sometimes feeling like it’s placing you in the band rather than in the audience. I’ve described this elsewhere as like being at a symphony performance and the Stellia placing you on the Maestro’s stand rather than in the 3rd or 4th row of the auditorium. This trait is neither good nor bad, just different than other approaches where the music is more out in front. Within that staging though there can be some very good imaging and separation. The live recording of Eagles’ Seven Bridges Road was really fun because it sounded like I was in the crowd and could make out several individual cheers and claps all around me. Cool. That said, the spatial presentation lags behind other headphones I’ve heard around $3000. But, that’s most likely due to all of those being open back and the Stellia being closed. What the Stellia is able to accomplish with the spatial presentation while being closed is genuinely impressive, though.


Comparing the Stellia with similar products is very difficult because there simply are not very many similar products. The most closely priced closed-back is probably the ZMF Verite Closed, and unfortunately I’ve not heard that one. Dan Clark Audio just realized the Stealth. I’ve not heard that yet either but it’s also $1000 more than Stellia. Putting Lawton chambers on a Fostex TH-900 can run upward of $2200-ish. I have a TH-900 with Lawton Purpleheart chambers on it. The TH-900 Lawton is definitely more v-shaped in its signature than Stellia, having more bass and treble presence. It also punches like and has similar dynamic qualities to the Stellia. The TH-900 Lawton is not as resolving as Stellia though and can be sharp and sibilant in the treble about as often as the Stellia is shouty or honky in the mid-range. Another key difference is the Stellia isolates much better, holding sound both in and out more effectively, and also fitting on the head more securely. These traits make Stellia more mobile friendly.

I had the opportunity to compare the Stellia directly against its sibling models the Radiance and Clear MG. I’ll have a more thorough report on that in the near future. For now, suffice it to say that the Stellia is easily the most resolving of the three and presents the most realistic spatial presentation of the three. Where it can stumble a bit in comparison is in the timbre as Stellia’s upper-mid presence is just too-forward. Radiance easily has the more natural, realistic timbre through that range and the Clear MG is right there with Stellia, and may even be a bit more natural in timbre on some signal chains. But again, I’ll have a more complete report of this comparison soon.


There is a lot to like about Focal Stellia. It puts excellent resolution, punchy and fun dynamics, excellent isolation, and world-class build quality in an easy-to-drive and comfortable package. For a closed-back headphone its spatial presentation is also impressive. Its resolution is also well-presented by being present enough to be noticed but also relaxed enough to not become distracting. The one aspect of sonic performance where it gets iffy is in timbre, and that is due to the upper-midrange and lower treble region being a bit too forward. Shoutiness, honk, and hollowness are frequent results. Still, some like that sound and even for me, who is someone who perceives shoutiness and honk quite quickly, I rarely found it a deal-breaker. If you’re in the market for a high-end headphone that can be driven by your portable device, put the Stellia on your short list for audition.

Thanks for reading, all. Enjoy the music!


100+ Head-Fier
Meze Empyrean Elite Review - by WaveTheory
Pros: Generalist tuning good for a wide range of music genres; big soundstage; 2 pad types that change sound signature; world-class build quality and comfort
Cons: Both pad types come with noticeable sonic drawbacks; leather hybrid pads are too shallow for ears that stick out; technical sonic performance falls short of $4K standards

The Empyrean Elite, the new, open-back, top-of-the-line, “Isodynamic” planar-magnetic -driver headphone from Meze. It’s $4000 US and stirring up lots of conversation and buzz. It’s indeed intriguing. It has some strengths. It has some weaknesses – as all audio components do. What are they? Read on to find out…


Get comfy, though. We again have a lot of ground to cover…

I should also get out of the way that I have not heard the original Empyrean. Therefore. the thoughts that follow will not be any sort of comparison to the original Empyrean, but a review of the Elite on strictly its own merits.


The Empyrean Elite has top-notch build quality and some ergonomic features that show a high attention to detail, and world-class comfort. It comes with two pad types that give meaningfully different sound signatures but also bring their own drawbacks. Trying to solve the drawbacks of one with EQ brings back the problems of the other. In the end, for many there will be a few too many sonic compromises as the overall technical sound performance is not on par with other $4K headphones, and indeed can be had for $3K.


My preferred genres are rock/metal and classical/orchestral music. I’m getting to know jazz more and enjoying quite a bit. I also listen to some EDM and hip-hop. My hearing quirks include a high sensitivity to midrange frequencies from just under 1KHz to around 3Khz, give or take. My ears are thus quick to perceive “shoutiness” in headphones in particular. I describe “shoutiness” as an emphasis on the ‘ou’ sound of ‘shout.’ It’s a forwardness in the neighborhood of 1KHz and/or on the first one or two harmonics above it (when I make the sound ‘ooooowwwww’ into a spectrum analyzer the dominant frequency on the vowel sound is around 930Hz, which also means harmonic spikes occur again at around 1860Hz and 2790Hz). In the extreme, it can have the tonal effect of sounding like a vocalist is speaking or singing through a toilet paper tube or cupping their hands over their mouth. It can also give instruments like piano, but especially brass instruments, an added ‘honk’ to their sound. I also get distracted by sibilance, or sharp ‘s’ and ‘t’ sounds that can make ssssingers sssssound like they’re forssssssing esssss ssssssounds aggresssssssively. Sibilance does not physically hurt my ears nearly as quickly as shout, though. It’s distracting because it’s annoying and unnatural. Finally, I’m discovering that I have a preference for more subtle detail. I like good detail retrieval and hearing what a recording has to offer, but I prefer what many would consider relaxed and subtle rather than aggressive or detail-forward. To my ear, more subtle detail-retrieval sounds more realistic and natural than aggressive, detail-forwardness. There is a balance here, though, because detail retrieval can get too relaxed and that can sound unnatural, as well, or simply leave out important aspects of the recording. Readers should keep these hearing quirks and preferences in mind as they read my descriptions of sound.



Let’s start off with the build quality and visual stuff. It’s of course subjective, but if you can’t at least respect the build quality and the attention to detail put into the fit ‘n finish of the Elite, then you’re wrong ;p. The aesthetic design is unique and bold. It works for me – I think it’s gorgeous – but the overall beauty is definitely a matter of perspective. However, from a visual standpoint it looks – and I’ll add feels – every bit the part of a $4K headphone.

Some of the aesthetic design is also a result of form following function. The oddly shaped suspension strap allows the strap to conform to the head and alleviates common headphone pressure points. For my head it works. It’s one of the most comfortable headphones I’ve worn.

The earcups are attached to the headband with a friction-based rod and sleeve system that strikes a great balance between being tight enough to stay in place but also loose enough to adjust for larger heads. There isn’t a locking mechanism but I never had issue with the headband elongating when I didn’t want it to:


The earcups can also rotate 360 degrees:


This ability to rotate does not feel sloppy at all. You have to be intentional to move it to that position, but the balance between resisting that motion and moving it there feels wonderful.

There is dual cable entry with mini XLR jacks on each earcup. I mostly used the stock cable, which is of reasonable quality but a bit on the stiff side. It doesn’t tangle, but is prone to kinking, and a little long for desktop use. It’s probably fine for stretching from an equipment rack to an easy chair.

And then there’s the pads! The Elite ships with 2 pair of earpads. One pair is a leather hybrid and the other velour:


The velour pads are much deeper:


Those listeners with ears that stick out may have some issues with their earlobes touching the inside of the driver housing. The velour pads have slightly less ear area but much more ear depth. Both sets of pads are soft and feel nice against the side of the head. The pad mounting system is very simple and very elegant. The pads are simply held on by magnets:


Along the theme of excellent overall build quality, the strength with which the pads affix to the frame strikes a great balance between being easy to change and holding firmly in place. This is the quickest and easiest pad swapping I’ve ever been able to do on any headphone. The Abyss Diana Phi has a magnetic pad-mounting system but that one is far more difficult to get the pad off the cup – almost having to pry it off – but the Elite lacks the Diana’s ability to rotate the pads for different sound signatures. That said, the Elite’s different pads come with sonic differences as well, which will be discussed at length in the Sound section.

What Is This Isodynamic Driver Business?

The drivers in the Elite are made by a company called Rinaro. Meze/Rinaro calls the driver a “Isodynamic Hybrid Array”. It’s a planar magnetic driver that has the wire trace built in 2 different geometric patterns in different regions of the membrane:


[Image from Meze’s website:]

The top part of the trace (blue) is called the “switchback” and the bottom part (orange) is called the “spiral”. The switchback is optimized for bass frequencies and the spiral is optimized for mids and highs and is also positioned to be aligned with the opening of the ear canal. In reading their website, Meze/Rinaro did not say exactly why they did this (at least on the Elite’s homepage, it may be written elsewhere), but I suspect this is done for much the same reason that loudspeakers often have multiple drivers. The laws of physics being what they are, it is very difficult to optimize one transducer to reproduce the whole audible frequency spectrum of 20 Hz to 20 KHz. So, multiple drivers are employed, each built and tuned to optimize a portion of the audible frequency spectrum. In a loudspeaker, most multi-driver speakers will have a crossover network to filter out unwanted frequencies from each driver. Here in the Meze Elite, I see no crossover (at least not that Meze is willing to show). It’s the geometry of each trace that does the optimizing. It also means that the Isodynamic driver is NOT a two-way driver in the same way that a two-way speaker is. There is one vibrating diaphragm that has the two trace geometries (again, that I can tell from pictures, I haven’t taken this unit apart because it’s a loan!). The whole driver will produce the whole frequency range, but the spiral will handle the mids and highs better and the switchback will handle the lows better. This dual-trace-geometry system functions something like a 2-way driver design but without having to have multiple drivers. This approach also brings in a new batch of problems to solve beyond what already exist with a planar-magnetic driver. With different areas of the membrane optimized for different frequencies and built different distances from the ear, phasing, time alignment, and wave superposition all become factors in ways that aren’t present in more traditional designs. Here’s a quick reminder on what wave superposition is:

Multi-driver designs are rare in headphones because the inherently limited space makes it very difficult to correct for those things. With loudspeakers and the listener sitting feet/meters from the speaker, it’s much easier. How well did Meze/Rinaro solve those issues? Well, that’s where we get to talk about…


Test Gear

My high-end signal chain, and where the Elite spent the most time with me, is a Berkeley Audio Designs Alpha S2 DAC and a Violectric HPA-V281 headphone amp. The Alpha S2 is connected via AES to a Singxer SU-2 DDC and USB interface, which is in turn connected to a Windows 10 desktop computer. Audirvana 3.5 is my primary music app for critical listening, playing lossless and hi-rez local FLAC and DSD files, and streaming lossless/hi-rez FLAC from Qobuz. The Elite spent some time being driven directly by my Chord Hugo 2 transportable DAC/amp connected to my Cayin N6ii DAP via Cayin’s USB-C-to-coaxial digital interconnect cable.

Sonic Traits Regardless of Pads

Regardless of which pad type you choose, the Elite gives a sonic presentation that is more relaxed and smooth. There is reasonably good detail retrieval but the resolution and detail is not forward. The intent seems to be listenability over long periods of time. The soundstage is also big. The soundstage is reminiscent of HiFiMan’s line of egg-shaped planar-magnetic headphones where there is a grandiosity to the since of scale. The Elite isn’t quite as extreme as an Arya in that regard, but it’s on the bigger-than average side, with most of the staging happening out in front, as opposed to a Focal or Audeze-like bubble around the head. The treble is also sparkly and clean with good detail and timbre regardless of pad type. It’s in the overall frequency response, the qualitative aspects of the mid-range and bass, and imaging-separation where the differences in pads become audible. Let’s explore each pad type.

Leather Pads

The overall sound signature with the leather pads leans warm. There is good bass extension and punch/slam and good low-end pitch definition. The bass doesn’t seem to roll off, being nearly as present at 30Hz as 100Hz. The mid-range is also pleasantly present. The FR is overall neutral, but with that warmer tilt. Overall, I prefer the frequency response tuning of the leather pads over the velour. But there are some issues here…

The first issue with the leather hybrid pads is that there is a noticeable veil. When I first put the Elites on, I was struck but the pleasantness of the tuning, the warmth, the soundstage size, and general smoothness, but there was also something missing. It took me awhile to figure out what it was but there was a veil in the lower half of the mid-range, that gave the lowest registers of female vocals and the lower half of male vocal frequencies an odd muddiness. That impression usually faded after 30 seconds or so but would again become noticeable after returning from every listening break, and became nearly impossible to hear around or through when I started A/B-in the Elite with other hi-end headphones.

This veil also appears to affect the imaging. Sonic images are placed well but the separation between them is not what I would expect for $4K. The depth also appears to be somewhat compressed with the leather pads.

Velour Pads

With the velour pads the lower-mid-range veil almost entirely fades. If I ear-squint, I sometimes think I hear it, but I have to work really hard to do so. The sound signature with the velour pads tilts neutral-bright with very crisp and airy treble. They also dramatically improve the imaging and separation, creating a much more convincing and believable spatial presentation than the leather pads. Problem solved, right? Not quite. The bass aggressively rolls off below around 100Hz. It’s not quite a brickwall roll-off but it’s close enough to that that it made me think of the term. Furthermore, the bass that is present sounds one-note-y, lacking in some pitch definition.

A Band of Excellence

Oddly, with each pad type there was a narrow range of frequencies where the technicalities of the Elite were amazing, it just wasn’t the same range for each pad. For the leather hybrids the frequencies around the attack sound of a kick-drum and around the upper bass sounded amazing. A track that showed this off was The Chain by Fleetwood Mac. Mick Fleetwood’s bass drum had a punchy, dynamic attack followed by a satisfying and deep whump after the initial hit of mallet to drumhead. John McVie’s bass line also had lots of great impact, pitch definition, and texture. But, of course, there was the veil in the lower half of the vocal range. Switching to the velours and the bass drum and bass line become less dynamic and punchy and the whump of the kickdrum’s body receded significantly but Fleetwood’s snare and the vocals had lots of snap, texture, and detail. Outside of each pad’s “optimal range” the performance was usually good but there were those veils for leathers and bass roll-off for the velours.

But What About Equalization?

Yeah, so I figured it was worth a shot a try a bass boost with the velour pads. That should bring the bass back in and keep the veil at bay. That way I could have my cake and eat it too – it is $4000 cake, after all. I’m not a huge fan of EQ, but I wondered if it would help here. I first tried the Sonimus Free EQ VST 3.0 plugin ( for Audirvana 3.5 and added in about a 4dB boost at 30Hz. The bass boost worked! The punch and rumble came back, still not a lot of subbass texture, but the presence and slam returned. But, hello veil! Yeah, that veil in the lower half of the vocal range came back. Now, the Sonimus EQ is the free version and it introduced some midrange grain before when I used it with the Audeze LCD-24 several months ago so I thought maybe the veil returning was mostly because you get what you pay for and it was free. So, I busted out my Schiit Loki and gave it a quick listen with it in between my Alpha S2 and V281’s SE connection without any EQ active to make sure it didn’t introduce any artifacts of its own. As best I could tell, the Loki was clean as can be. I then tried an additive EQ by boosting the bass knob to around 2:00 (its 12:00 position is the +/- 0 position) and left the other knobs at 12:00. The bass started to come back, but that veil also started to come back. Turning that knob to 3 and then 4 and the bass got fuller and punchier, but then so did the veil! Past 4:00 and the bass just went sloppy altogether as the driver was being overdriven. OK, next I tried a subtractive EQ by leaving the bass knob at 12:00 and turning all the other knobs down to 9:00. VEIL! Even stronger than the additive EQ!

A Thinly Veiled Hypothesis

There are two issues coming together to create this veil, I think. It seems to be correlated with the relative levels of bass frequencies to the rest of the frequency spectrum. Then, the Rinaro Isodynamic driver in the Elite places the regions that emphasize different ranges of the audible frequency spectrum at different distance from the ear opening. The bass-emphasizing region is farther away. This creates a time alignment issue in getting all of the sounds to reach the ear at the same time, which can create some phasing oddities. I think what’s happening with this veil is that bass frequencies are interfering with mid-range frequencies in such a way that it’s creating an audible loss of clarity in the lower mids. There is a combination of constructive and destructive wave interference that’s happening because the time alignment of the two driver regions are off and the resultant waveform that reaches the ear is a bit dodgy in the lower-mids. And the more bass there is in relation to the rest of the frequency range, the worse the effect gets until the driver just flat bottoms out and can’t produce any more bass without distorting on its own. Similar effects can be heard – although not always in the lower mids – when you sit too close to a 2-way speaker that isn’t designed for near-field listening. Back up, where the makers intended the listener to be, and the design of the speaker takes into account that time alignment and the speaker sounds normal again. I’m sure Meze is aware of this issue and attempted to do something about it but hasn’t yet succeeded. Doing so in the limited space of a headphone is certainly a challenge. I am very interested to see if they can solve this going forward.


My other hi-end planar headphone on hand is the HiFiMan HE1000v2, or HekV2 for short. It costs $3000US new and can often be found used as low as $1500. Its signature is more v-shaped than the Elite with either pad type but it is also a more warm, relaxed, smooth-presentation headphone.

The Elite definitely has more mid-range presence than the HekV2, with either pad type, but I give the edge to the HekV2 in mid-range timbre. The Elite has slightly better treble timbre, I think, but not any noticeably better detail retrieval in the treble. The HekV2 has more present subbass than the Elite with either pad type, but that was doubly or triply true when the Elite had the velour pads on. With the leather pads the Elite punched harder than the HekV2 did between 100 and 200 Hz, but the HekV2 punched harder below 100Hz. The HekV2 also had noticeably superior subbass texture where the Elite with leathers had better texture in that same 100Hz-200Hz range.

As far as detail retrieval goes, it was in the comparison with the HekV2 that I noticed the Elite’s tendency to have a narrow band of frequencies where it was amazing but then fall off outside of that range. Two tracks really brought this out. The first is Afraid of Time from the Interstellar Soundtrack and the other is Pain by The War On Drugs. In Afraid of Time there is a piano played one key at a time. However, there is also something else happening simultaneously with each key strike. There is a muted xylophone or a plucked and muted string-based instrument of some sort that’s striking/plucking right with the piano key hits. In my initial A/B I had the leather pads on the Elite. I was actually listening to Mountains, the track immediately preceding Afraid of Time to check for dynamic range differences (none that I could tell on that, btw) and then this track came on. I was wearing the HekV2 when I went to jot down my notes. The HekV2 showcased the wooden sounds of the piano’s mechanical action, resolved the reverb, and that simultaneous low-level striking/plucking sound. The Elite with leather pads comparatively struggled. It was not nearly as clear or clean on those sounds. Switching to the velours though and that resolution and clarity were arguably just slightly better than HekV2, but only just barely.

On the track Pain, which has a very active bassline, the Elite would have that great bass texture above 100Hz, but as soon as that bassline walked below that level, the tone would still be present but the texture would all but vanish. The HekV2 maintained the same level of texture it had above 100Hz all the way down as deep as that bassline would go. It was also this track that helped me figure out that the veil on the Elite was happening in the lower half of the male vocal range as the lead singer’s voice was definitely veiled on the leather pads and with the bass boost EQ until he would hit higher notes, where suddenly it would become clearer again.

Here’s the takeaway here: the Elite, at $4000, is not clearly technically superior to the HekV2 at $3000, throughout the entire 20 Hz to 20 KHz audible range. There are some brief windows where it is superior, but they are small and infrequent. On the whole range of technicalities – resolution, extension, dynamics, timbre, soundstaging, imaging & separation – the HekV2 actually outperforms or is dead even with the Elite more than the Elite outperforms the HekV2, and I can’t think of an example where the margin by which the Elite is the better performer is larger than the margin by which the HekV2 is the better performer. There are signature differences, notably in midrange presence, where some listeners will simply prefer the tuning of the Elite, but that doesn’t make the Elite better.


The Empyrean Elite has a driver that has an interesting twist on how to reproduce the entire audible frequency spectrum. That driver tech introduces its own set of challenges, and to my ear, the Elite has not overcome all of those challenges. With the included pads one has to choose between a veil in the lower mids or an aggressive bass rolloff below 100Hz. That veil appears to come back if the levels of bass are adjusted higher, either with a boost or by attenuating everything else. Furthermore, the overall technical performance doesn’t decisively better, and in many cases lags behind, a well-known headphone that cost 75% of the Elite’s asking price. That aside, the build quality and fit ‘n finish are spectacular. There is a pleasing and generalist sound signature that plays nice with a wide variety of musical genres and many will still find much to like about the elite. I’m hoping that Meze is able to sell enough of these that they can take another meaningful crack at solving what I think are some phasing issues creating that lower mid-veil.

Thanks for reading all! Enjoy the Music!

Check out my video review of the Elite here:

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Great review
up late
up late
thorough and insightful review. i enjoy your youtube channel btw.
Great review, thanks !


100+ Head-Fier
Beyerdynamic DT880 600 Ohm Review - by WaveTheory
Pros: Neutral-bright signature which can have stunningly natural treble timbre; class-leading spatial presentation; great frequency extension in both directions; above-average mid-range timbre for price point; class-leading detail retrieval in bass and treble; drivers can comfortably handle 3-5dB bass boost; very physically comfortable
Cons: treble is brutally revealing and amp-picky going sharp, piercing, and shrill quickly and aggressively with poor recordings and/or inadequate source gear; bass is too-lean at times; attached stock cable is heavy and cumbersome
I recently launched a YouTube review channel and used this oldie-but-goodie to establish a baseline with a new YouTube audience. Please check it out.

DT880 YT Thumbnail.jpg

Enjoy the music, everyone!
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100+ Head-Fier
Massdrop + Sennheiser HD6XX Review - by WaveTheory
Pros: Stellar mid-range timbre for price point - excellent mid-range timbre at any price point; warm; smooth; relaxed; intimate; decent albeit relaxed detail retrieval, particularly in mid-range; reasonably comfortable with appropriate break-in; non-fatiguing for long listening sessions; takes on new life with many tube amps
Cons: Only fair-to-middlin' bass and treble extension; 3-blob-y imaging; warm; smooth; relaxed; intimate (yep, same list as pros); clamp force is initially high; uses proprietary connector at cup cable entry
An oldie but goodie. I reviewed this on my brand new YouTube channel to hopefully establish common points between my listening and a new audience's listening. Enjoy:

HD6XX Thumbnail YT.jpg

Enjoy the music, everyone!


100+ Head-Fier
Audeze LCD-R + Schiit Jotunheim A - by WaveTheory
Pros: Resolution; imaging & separation; macrodynamics; and resolution. Seriously, the resolving power here is ridiculous. Wood cup rings are gorgeous.
Cons: Timbre is a mixed bag, not bad but not on the same level as resolution, spatial presentation, or dynamics. LCD series comfort issues still apply. Too few of them exist.
EDIT - 10 Sept. 2021: I've launched a YouTube review channel. The LCD-R was my first ever video review. Here it is:


A fellow audiophile very generously extended me the opportunity to give the new limited edition Audeze LCD-R “ribbon” headphone with the Schiit Jotunheim A headphone amp a thorough spin. I was on the fence on how fully to go into this review given that there were something like 67 total units on sale with no immediate plans to make more, plus they have already sold out by the time I write this. But, I decided to give it the full WaveTheory treatment for 3 reasons: 1) inevitably a few units will hit the resale market and a potential buyers will want to be as informed as possible; 2) most people interested in this headphone will never be able to hear it, but it’s still good to try to educate our hobby on the pros and cons of this new approach; and 3) hopefully this will add to a positive pressure campaign on Audeze to either make more of these and/or continue to develop and launch new products with this driver technology. This third reason lets the cat out of the bag a bit because it suggests that the LCD-R + Jot A combo is something worth having more of. And that suggestion is spot on. This combo is a remarkable value and IMHO should either become a regularly produced part of Audeze’s LCD line or serve as the basis of a (hopefully soon) new model based on this tech that is more widely produced.

Given the sheer size of the 3 stated goals above, this review is LONG. So, strap-in and get comfortable, fellow audiophiles. There is a lot to talk about with this headphone.


Bravo, Audeze and Schiit! The LCD-R + Jot A combo brings technical performance and enjoyability on par with headphone and amp pairings that easily cost $4000+ in some areas of technical performance and does it for $2500. In particular, the resolution-per-dollar value here is insanely high. The frequency response is well balanced, the dynamics are fast and impactful, and the imaging and separation are strongpoints to boot. The timbre is a bit of a mixed bag, sometimes being excellent, other times being a bit too mid-forward and/or slightly peakier in the treble than I’ve heard from some other hi-end headphone and amp combos, and the physical fit and comfort comes with all of the Audeze LCD baggage, but the bottom line here bears repeating: from a technical standpoint, particularly in the resolution and dynamics, the LCD-R + Jot A combo punches way above its price point. Audeze should strongly consider furthering the production of this model or taking the next step with this technology sometime soon.


My preferred genres are rock/metal and classical/orchestral music. I’m getting to know jazz more and enjoying quite a bit. I also listen to some EDM and hip-hop. My hearing quirks include a high sensitivity to midrange frequencies from just under 1KHz to around 3Khz, give or take. My ears are thus quick to perceive “shoutiness” in headphones in particular. I describe “shoutiness” as an emphasis on the ‘ou’ sound of ‘shout.’ It’s a forwardness in the neighborhood of 1KHz and/or on the first one or two harmonics above it (when I make the sound ‘ooooowwwww’ into a spectrum analyzer the dominant frequency on the vowel sound is around 930Hz, which also means harmonic spikes occur again at around 1860Hz and 2790Hz). In the extreme, it can have the tonal effect of sounding like a vocalist is speaking or singing through a toilet paper tube or cupping their hands over their mouth. It can also give instruments like piano, but especially brass instruments, an added ‘honk’ to their sound. I also get distracted by sibilance, or sharp ‘s’ and ‘t’ sounds that can make ssssingers sssssound like they’re forssssssing esssss ssssssounds aggresssssssively. Sibilance does not physically hurt my ears nearly as quickly as shout, though. It’s distracting because it’s annoying and unnatural. Finally, I’m discovering that I have a preference for more subtle detail. I like good detail retrieval and hearing what a recording has to offer, but I prefer what many would consider relaxed and subtle rather than aggressive or detail-forward. To my ear, more subtle detail-retrieval sounds more realistic and natural than aggressive, detail-forwardness. There is a balance here, though, because detail retrieval can get too relaxed and that can sound unnatural, as well, or simply leave out important aspects of the recording. Readers should keep these hearing quirks and preferences in mind as they read my descriptions of sound.


The big story here is the driver tech. Audeze calls the driver a ribbon, but it might be more accurate to refer to it as a planar driver where they figured out how to make almost the entire diaphragm area the electrical trace thus creating an ultra-low-impedance planar membrane. We can quibble about appropriate terminology all day, but the important part is that this is a new twist on headphone driver tech and that alone is exciting, especially when it’s a headphone maker as established and well-regarded as Audeze doing it. I won’t go into any more detail about that driver tech here, leaving it to Audeze’s website to do the explaining. However, a key aspect of this driver design is that it is very low impedance…2 ohms! That requires careful headphone-amp matching. Fortunately, Audeze covered that by bundling the LCD-R with the Schiit Jotunheim A current-drive headphone amp. Let’s dig into the features of each unit a little bit more.

LCD-R Build

The LCD-R is an Audeze LCD model, and that means it comes with the typical LCD series aesthetic; big, round earcups with a black metal grille over the back that has that vaguely “A” shaped pattern breaking up the horizontal slats. The typical forward angled earpads are here, and they are a very soft leather with memory foam cushioning. The earcup housings are made of cedar with Lichtenburg Fractal styling burned into them. They look fantastic. The headband is Audeze’s carbon fiber suspension-strap type. The comfort is typical LCD. They are a bit on the heavy side, but the comfort is solid if the weight isn’t a problem. The pads compress a bit more than other LCD models I’ve used, but are really soft and supple.

Did I mention they look great? Enoy these couple pics I took in a sunlit room:


The gold-colored screen behind the grille adds a very attractive contrast.


And yeah, that laser-burned pattern on the wood rings is absolutely gorgeous.

Returning to the softness of the pads for a moment, one complaint that has surfaced is that some listeners’ ears touch the fazors inside the cups. Here’s why:


Unlike previous LCD models I’ve used that have fazors, there is no cover on these fazors. They just stick out into space in their full, naked glory. From a more oblique angle, you can see how far they stick out:


I’m the second user of this set of LCD-R. When I first got them, my ears made no contact with the fazors. After a few days of listening, I could at times fell my earlobes just brushing against one of the fazors on each side. My ears don’t stick out much either. I didn’t notice any sonic differences that I can remember with the pads compressing just slightly more, but this ear contact may be an issue for some. I had these on hand for two weeks and after that initial ear contact it at least didn’t get any worse. It’s possible the pads broke in to roughly the level they are going to.

Finally, the included cable uses the traditional mini-XLR dual entry into the cups that Audeze favors. But, the interesting part is on the headphone amp end. The connector is a female XLR 4-pin jack. This matches the Jot A and is likely done to limit the chances of plugging the LCD-R into a headphone amp that isn’t made to handle its load type and blowing things up.


The cable itself is…ok. It’s braided with plastic insulation. It’s a little too stiff and too prone to tangling for my liking. It doesn’t lay very well on a table top. But, it also isn’t like a Focal headphone cable that holds its shape like it’s a frozen garden hose. Sonically, the cable is fine, but ergonomically I’d like something a little softer and more flexible. However, obtaining such a thing would likely be costly as there are unlikely to be very many third-party cables made for this headphone given there were only 67 units sold. If you have an LCD-R and wish to keep it long term, budget for a custom cable from a custom cable maker of your choice.

Jotunheim A Build

The Jotunheim A is a modified version of Schiit’s Jotunheim, specifically modified to be a current-drive amp to use with ultra-low-impedance headphones. It has the typical Schiit aesthetic with a black chassis that is familiar to anyone who owns a Jot, Bifrost, Lyr, or Asgard. What differentiates the Jot A from other Jot models, other than being current-drive, is there is only a balanced headphone output (which is a male 4-pin XLR to match the included headphone cable), instead of a gain stage switch there is an EQ switch, and the name Audeze is emblazoned on the top panel. Outside of those traits, it’s a Jotunheim amplifier in appearance and connections. There is the full complement of balanced XLR and single-ended RCA inputs and preouts on the back panel, just like any other Jot. And of course, there is the ever-Schiity rear panel power switch. There is also a slot on the back labeled as the space for one of Schiit’s DAC modules. However, if you’re considering one of these sets, I strongly suggest an outboard DAC of a higher caliber than one of those DAC modules.

Let’s talk more about that EQ switch. According to Schiit:


My ears confirm this pretty well. With the switch off the treble and midrange is much more forward and the overall loudness is higher. With the switch on the bass is more prominent, the mids and treble are attenuated, and the overall SPL drops a bit. Effectively the combo provides 2 sound signatures because of this switch.

Now let’s talk about gain. There is no gain switch on the Jot A but the amp’s gain is already high. When paired with a DAC that has a standard, fixed output level, I don’t think I ever turned the potentiometer up past about 10:30 or 11:00. Depending on how hot a track is mastered, that range is already getting into my normal listening level in the 72-75dB average range. There just is not much play in the potentiometer. This can be mitigated by using a DAC with variable output level, but that does limit options somewhat. I didn’t find it to be a problem, but some listeners might want more control.


Test Gear

Since the LCD-R and Jot A are a combo unit meant to work together, the only gear to pair it with is DACs and source gear. I used my Windows 10 desktop PC running Audirvana as the primary source, playing either local FLAC files of 16-24 bits and 44.1-192KHz sampling rates, or streaming from Qobuz at similar rates. I tried Schiit’s Bifrost 2 DAC but did the vast majority of my listening using the Berkeley Audio Designs Alpha S2 DAC paired with the Singxer SU-2 USB interface and digital-to-digital converter.

Based on Bass

I did the vast majority of my listening with the EQ switch set to ‘on’ as well. To my ear this was the more natural and more comfortable sound signature. Without the EQ the LCD-R are aggressively mid-forward and bright and very thin in the bass. If you’re familiar with the signature of the LCD-X, the signature of the LCD-R without this EQ is a more extreme version of that sound; more mid-range and treble focused but very shouty, very harsh, very thin. With the switch engaged the sound signature warms, the bass becomes more prominent and punchier without being overemphasized or too-thick. The mids and highs relax quite a bit and have a much more natural timbre. With the EQ on, the overall signature of the LCD-R is reminiscent of the LCD-2 prefazor, although still unique on its own, with a bit more refinement. To my liking the LCD-R goes from “hard pass” without EQ to “Hello! We might have something here!” with the EQ. So, I left the EQ on and ran with it for the rest of my listening.

Sound Signature

Without the EQ switch the signature is best described as bright, mid-forward, and bass-light. But, as I said above, I didn’t do much listening there. With the EQ switch engaged, the sound signature is probably best described as neutral-warm. There isn’t a lot of emphasis on particular frequency ranges – mostly, which we’ll get to – but there is just a bit of an increase in midbass presence that gives it a hint of warmth. I wasn’t a part of Audeze’s design team, but it strikes me that the switch engaged is the LCD-R’s “correct” or “intended” sound. That certainly doesn’t stop anyone from preferring the switch off.

That said, the LCD-R is an Audeze headphone, and the Audeze house sound is very much present. For context, the LCD-R is the fifth headphone I’ve had and extended audition with from the Audeze LCD line. The others are the LCD-2 (prefazor, revision 1), LCD-3 (prefazor), LCD-X, and LCD-24. All of them have some similar characteristics in some qualitative aspects of sound like timbre, and all of them have a midrange presence that hangs out pretty close to the “shout” line. And most of the models have excellent, essentially linear bass extension all the way down to 20Hz, with the exception of the X (which is pretty well fixed by Audeze’s Reveal EQ). The timbral similarities are in that they all sound like they’re related in how the reproduce the sounds of instruments and voices, all have similar tonal qualities. It’s analogous to how human siblings often look unique, but also look like each other to varying extents. Now, the midrange presence hanging out around the “shout” line…yeah, that probably needs some explanation. As it says in the Know Your Reviewer section above, too much energy in the 1Khz range can impart a tonal quality that emphasizes frequencies near the ‘ow’ range. To my ear, all the LCDs have a mid-range frequency response that keeps them hanging out around the shout line – an imaginary line where vocals become shouty and instruments become honky. Depending on model, the LCDs either usually stay below the point where their midrange becomes shouty or honky, or they cross it with some regularity. None of them never shout/honk to my ear, but they certainly vary in how prone they are to doing so. In my listening and prior to the LCD-R, I find that the frequency and severity of shout, from least to greatest, goes LCD-2PF, LCD-24, LCD-3PF, LCD-X. Let’s look at each the major frequency areas of the LCD-R individually.


To my ear the bass extension sounds quite linear, with essentially no discernible roll-off in presence all the way down to the lowest audible regions and without much emphasis either; classic Audeze LCD, that. The bass also is quite dynamic and punchy, bringing an amount of physicality that is fun and engaging, but rarely distracting. Pitch definition is also solid, and I can’t remember ever thinking that the bass is one-notey in any way. There is also an excellent amount of texture, particularly at the $2500 price point.


For many listeners, the mids likely have an appropriate amount of presence, never sounding recessed. They also can have a reasonably natural timbre. Yet, there is a key question: how loud do you listen? Below about a 70dB average SPL, the mids sound quite wonderful; natural, very detailed, smooth, and generally quite convincing. Above 70dB average and shoutiness and honkiness start to appear, at least for me. [I’m going to remind everyone of the 1KHz sensitivity I have as described in the Know Your Reviewer section.] Vocals can become aggressively shouty at these generously loud – but not overwhelming – sound pressure levels. That’s not always bad, but it is often bad. For music where there are lots of shouted vocals, this shoutiness can actually enhance the experience. But for the majority of music where vocals are not shouted, this can break the timbre and be distracting. The effect isn’t limited to vocals, either. As I wrote this review it was on the day that news of Charlie Watts’s death broke. So of course I did some listening to The Rolling Stones. With an average volume around 72dB, Keith Richards’s twangy guitar licks could become too intense and it got fatiguing at the volume level more quickly than the volume alone usually does for me. Brass-heavy tracks can also become very overwhelming for the same reason.


On the whole, the treble is also lovely and natural sounding. The timbre is strong, the detail is great, and the tonal balance is usually excellent. I say usually here because there are some recordings where the treble can get a bit peaky and come across as a bit shimmery. However, I think that has more to do with recording quality than the LCD-R’s technical ability. That’s a good reminder to drop the obligatory ‘the LCD-R will tell you if a recording is bad’ type of comment, because it’s true.

Spatial Performance

The LCD-R is classic Audeze LCD in that it puts your head in a bubble of sound. The soundfield is not particularly wide or large, but there is a somewhat 360 degree effect going on. To me, it’s like standing on the maestro’s stand of a symphony, where you’re almost in the middle of things, rather than sitting in the audience where almost everything is out in front of you. This bubble is neither good nor bad on its own. It is its own thing that comes down to preference and can be beneficial or not depending on music selection. Within that bubble, however, the LCD-R does a stunningly good job of imaging, layering, and separation. Instruments and voices are all given their own, well-defined location both laterally and vertically, and also in terms of depth to the level I have not previously heard at $2500 or less. Unlike previous LCD models too, when it goes shouty for me, the LCD-R does a better job of maintaining its spatial integrity than even the more expensive LCD-24. Bottom line here, the spatial performance is one of the areas where the LCD-R and Jotunheim A punch above their weight.

Resolution & Detail

Let’s keep the accolades rolling and talk about resolution. I’ll use the term resolution as a catch-all for detail retrieval and micro-detail retrieval. In a word “wow.” The sheer resolving power of the LCD-R + Jot A is another area where the combo punches well above its weight. In a bit of a comparison section spoiler, I spent several hours comparing the LCD-R + Jot A with my most resolving chain, Vioelectric HPA-V281 driving a HiFiMan HE1000v2. On the question of resolution, I eventually threw up my hands and said there is no clear winner…almost. I thought the HE1000v2 had slightly more texture to its sound, which is probably a form of micro-detail retrieval, and at that mostly in the bass. The rest of the frequency range was a tossup. That one aspect aside, I spent hours trying to see if there was anything either chain was presenting that the other one wasn’t and…no, not that I could tell. However, there was a difference in how they emphasized the details. The LCD-R is a little more forward than the HE1000v2 in its presentation of detail. More often than not I’d hear something on the LCD-R and think, “wait, did I hear that echo on the HiFiMan?” And the answer was always yes, the V281 + HE1000v2 chain always resolved it too, but the LCD-R did it in a way that made it more noticeable. Even though I am listener that prefers my detail retrieval more subtle and relaxed – it’s more natural that way – the LCD-R’s forwardness in the detail retrieval was rarely objectionable, not making itself a story the way some aggressive detail-retrievers can. And it does all of this at lower volumes, too. Have you ever had a headphone that you needed to really crank up before you felt like it was giving you all the stuff in the recording? That’s usually an indicator of lacking micro-detail retrieval. No such worry here, all the good stuff is as present at 60dB as it is at 70+ dB.


Here’s another strength of the LCD-R. It has a very dynamic, fast presentation. I mentioned the bass slam earlier, which is notable, but throughout the entire audible frequency spectrum there is a respectable snappiness to the sound. The attacks and decays of drum and cymbal strikes, string plucks, etc. are always quick and taut. It doesn’t sound dry, still maintaining an enjoyable smoothness, but still, especially with the leading edges of wavefronts, presents energetically.

Summing Up Sound

To sum up this section, my ears tell me there are three major aspects of sound reproduction where this combo performs at a level significantly higher than that price would indicate: resolution, spatial reproduction, and dynamics. The resolution, including micro-detail retrieval is essentially in a dead heat with my Vio V281 + HiFiMan HE1000v2 combination – a duo that is no slouch in the detail-retrieval department – and even with used prices, good luck landing that combo for less than $3000. At new prices, it’s more like $5500 (or at least would have been if the V281 was still available new). The spatial performance, at least in terms of imaging and separation, also sets a new standard at $2500. To beat it, yeah, you’re easily looking at an amp and headphone combo costing $4000+. Similarly with the dynamics. The overall punchiness and snappiness is probably second only to the chain of HeadAmp GS-X Mini + Abyss Diana Phi – a $6000 combo – in my hearing. I mean, wow. Those are 3 really important aspects of sound reproduction where the LCD-R is an absolute stunner.

A fourth area where the LCD-R + Jot A aren’t bad but don’t reach the same standard it sets for itself with resolution, spatial performance, and dynamics is timbre. With the volume under 70dB where mid shout becomes less of an issue, the timbre is what I would consider price appropriate. I was not as bowled over by the quality of the timbre as I was when I had the ZMF Eikon in house. I drove the Eikon with a Monolith Liquid Platinum, which for new prices and tube rolling is a combo that can easily reach the same $2500 price point, and I was completely enamored by its timbre. Similarly, I was impressed with the timbre of the HiFiMan Arya. It’s been a good while since I listened to either the Eikon or the Arya, but I remember them having excellent timbre. The point here is that timbre on the level the LCD-R and Jot A bring is more accessible by other systems at this price point than what the LCD-R and Jot A bring for resolution, spatial performance, and dynamics.


Cleary I’ve already compared the LCD-R + Jot A with some other headphones in the sound section. I think that’s important because how the combo compares with other headphones is a big part of the story here. But, I need to say a few more words to fully contextualize the LCD-R and Jot A.

Vs Violectric HPA-V281 + HiFiMan HE1000v2

As mentioned above, the V281 and HE1000v2 is my current highest resolution chain, and the LCD-R + Jot A compare quite favorably for their price in terms of resolution. The LCD-R + Jot A is not a replacement, however, at least not for me. I got the general sense in my listening that the LCD-R + Jot A presented as more technical than the V281 + HE1000v2 while the V281 + HE1000v2 presented as more natural. The key differences were in the timbre, the HE1000v2 in particular simply has a more natural timbre to its tones than the LCD-2. I never have to worry about shout or honk with the HE1000v2. I also think the treble is more natural on the HE1000v2. My comment in the Treble subsection above about the LCD-2’s treble being a tad peaky and shimmery at times came in direct comparisons to the HE1000v2 and another headphone I’ll mention in a bit. Some may point out that the HE1000v2 can be a bit hot in the treble, and that’s a fair comment. It’s a headphone that is quite source-chain sensitive and will go sharp in the treble quickly with the wrong source gear. I heard this myself when I powered the HE1000v2 with the GS-X Mini. With my Berkeley DAC and Vio amp, this is not an issue. The other aspect for me is the spatial presentation. While the subtle wrap-around staging effect that Audeze has can be interesting and fun for some music, there is other music where it doesn’t sound as natural or real. I say that because in most real-life live music situations, the music is being performed in front of the listener. It’s quite rare that a listener sits inside the band. The HE1000v2 presents a large soundfield that’s mostly out in front. It can pull off seemingly surround-like effects in live recordings with crowd noise and room reverb, but generally speaking the music is out front with a stage that is wide, tall, and deep with very good depth and layering, plus imaging and separation that are every bit as good as LCD-R’s. To my ear the HiFiMan approach is more convincing and real. However, I cannot discount that some may prefer the Audeze approach, and even on some tracks I will agree the Audeze approach adds something fun and engaging.

Finally for this combo, the HE1000v2 has more presence in the deep subbass. It has a boost in the 20-50Hz range which gives it a little fuller presence on material where there is content in that range – which isn’t especially common. The biggest contrast I heard was on The Dark Knight soundtrack by Hans Zimmer. The subbass rumble on the opening track Why So Serious? was impressive on the LCD-R and the LCD-R provides more dynamic punch, but didn’t touch the tactile quality that the HE1000v2 was bringing. On the LCD-2 the subbass sounds good. On the HE1000v2 the subbass sounds good and is genuinely, physically felt, literally vibrating the head. Is this good or bad? Your call.

Vs Audeze LCD-2 Prefazor (Rev 1)

My resident Audeze can is the LCD-2 prefazor, revision 1 – the one with the jack mounts molded into the wood cup rings. The LCD-2 and LCD-R share a warmer-tilted signature. The LCD-2 is more relaxed overall but also has slightly more mid-range presence than the LCD-R (with EQ on), which really surprised me. I’m used to the LCD-2PF being the most relaxed Audeze in the mids, but the LCD-R pulls it back slightly more. What about shout? That gets interesting. The LCD-2’s slightly higher mid-range presence means that it wanders into shouty territory more frequently (only slightly), but its increased presence through that frequency range masks the effect some. The shout is there, but it’s not usually very distracting or overpowering. With the LCD-R, when it shouts, it feels more intense. It’s more noticeable. Some of that may be because some of the other things – resolution, imaging, separation – are so good, when something goes awry it stands out more. In the treble, the LCD-2 seems to have a lower ‘mean’ frequency, for lack of better term. It’s like the ‘anchoring’ frequency in the treble range is a little lower pitch. This makes the mids on the LCD-2 sound a little fuller than the LCD-R. With the LCD-2, cymbal and hi-hat hits have more of a “shoosh” timbral quality to them where the LCD-R has more of a “shish” quality to them. Which is better? That’s up to you. The LCD-R overall separates itself from the LCD-2 in overall resolution, spatial presentation, and dynamics, though. The LCD-R possesses an overall more refined, more technically proficient sound.


Let’s do a thing I don’t like to do because it’s very subjective and talk value. The LCD-R and Jotunheim A package costs $2500. I don’t know what it will go for on the retail market – hopefully owners don’t get too big for their britches and jack the resale price up. I cannot think of another headphone and amp combination that comes in at a total of $2500 that can match the LCD-R + Jot A in resolution. I don’t think it exists. I remember the spatial performance of the HiFiMan Arya ($1600) driven by the Monolith Liquid Platinum ($400-800 depending on when you check the website) to be excellent in terms of soundstaging, imaging, and separation, but from memory I would be surprised if it hangs with the LCD-R + Jot A in that regard. A Focal Clear ($1500) or Fostex TH-900 ($1600) + Vioelectric HPA-V200 amp ($1200) challenges the LCD-R + Jot A in dynamics but won’t match on resolution or spatial performance. The only major performance area I can readily think of where the LCD-2 + Jot A isn’t probably or clearly ahead of its similarly-priced competition is timbre. There it is at least price-appropriate, but not as convincingly real as the ZMF Eikon on the Liquid Platinum, for example. OK, still, put all that together and for $2500 you get a package that competes with chains double the price in resolution, and punches above its weight in spatial performance and dynamics. So yes, the value proposition here is outstanding!

We’re close to 4500 words into this review for a model that was sold out within a few minutes and that a small proportion of audiophiles will get a chance to hear. I’ll repeat that one of my goals here was to further inform you if you happen to see one of these units come up for sale on the used market, because you’ll have to move fast. A second goal was to inform the wider range of audiophiles who won’t get the opportunity to hear this headphone about what this driver tech offers. Hopefully I’ve done that. The third goal is to put positive pressure on Audeze. So, Audeze, if you’re reading, please do one or more of the following: 1) make more of these babies; 2) take the next step with this driver tech and introduce a new model that has wider production. What Audeze accomplished for the price here really is remarkable and bodes well for the future. It’s a good thing for the market to have an established and respected headphone maker come along with something new that really has the potential to disrupt the market for the better. We all win in that scenario.

If the LCD-2 + Jot A combo had landed on my desk before my V281 + HekV2 combo, I likely would have been saying to its owner


in hopes that it would stay in my collection. The mid-range is still a bit too-forward for me for long term listening, as is the detail retrieval, but for those moments when I really want to get lost in some songs, there is something special here. It not being a replacement for anything in my system still doesn’t change the fact that this headphone and amp combo is a very impressive accomplishment at the price point, that the underlying tech is very promising, or that Audeze needs to either make more of these or take the next step with the core technology.

OK, that’s enough of my rambling. Thanks for reading all, and enjoy the music!
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I’ve got mine plugged into a Holo May L2 and a Pass Labs Aleph P preamp.
Using 50% gain on L and R on the pre, and bass boost turned on on the jot. Timbre is much much better this way (the best out of all my headphones). It sounds a bit dull without this.


100+ Head-Fier
Focal Radiance - by WaveTheory
Pros: Macrodynamics and overall physicality; will satisfy most bassheads; less trouble with metallic timbre than other Focal models; isolates well; very easy to drive and mobile/transportable friendly
Cons: Bass may be too much and treble/mid presence too little for some listeners; earpads show dust quickly; Focal stock cables continue to be a joke

The Focal Radiance, or more technically the Focal + Bentley Radiance, is a closed-back, dynamic-driver, around the ear headphone designed and built by Focal but with Bentley styling and name plastered on the headband. I’ve been sitting on this one for awhile because I’ve been loaded up on review material. To let the cat out of the bag a little, this one was loaned to me and I bought it…I liked it that much and found a space for it in my already crowded headphone collection. Read on to find out why…


In this reviewer’s humble opinion, the Radiance is a triumph. It has a warm sound signature with punchy dynamics and very healthy bass presence without the bass bleeding into the mids and while maintaining very good clarity and detail retrieval throughout the audible spectrum. Add to that that it’s efficient, easy to drive, isolates well, and is quite comfortable and you have an excellent overall package whether at a desk or on the go. Highly recommended.


My preferred genres are rock/metal and classical/orchestral music. I’m getting to know jazz more and enjoying quite a bit. I also listen to some EDM and hip-hop. My hearing quirks include a high sensitivity to midrange frequencies from just under 1KHz to around 3Khz, give or take. My ears are thus quick to perceive “shoutiness” in headphones in particular. I describe “shoutiness” as an emphasis on the ‘ou’ sound of ‘shout.’ It’s a forwardness in the neighborhood of 1KHz and/or on the first one or two harmonics above it (when I make the sound ‘ooooowwwww’ into a spectrum analyzer the dominant frequency on the vowel sound is around 930Hz, which also means harmonic spikes occur again at around 1860Hz and 2790Hz). In the extreme, it can have the tonal effect of sounding like a vocalist is speaking or singing through a toilet paper tube or cupping their hands over their mouth. It can also give instruments like piano, but especially brass instruments, an added ‘honk’ to their sound. I also get distracted by sibilance, or sharp ‘s’ and ‘t’ sounds that can make ssssingers sssssound like they’re forssssssing esssss ssssssounds aggresssssssively. Sibilance does not physically hurt my ears nearly as quickly as shout, though. It’s distracting because it’s annoying and unnatural. Finally, I’m discovering that I have a preference for more subtle detail. I like good detail retrieval and hearing what a recording has to offer, but I prefer what many would consider relaxed and subtle rather than aggressive or detail-forward. To my ear, more subtle detail-retrieval sounds more realistic and natural than aggressive, detail-forwardness. There is a balance here, though, because detail retrieval can get too relaxed and that can sound unnatural, as well, or simply leave out important aspects of the recording. Readers should keep these hearing quirks and preferences in mind as they read my descriptions of sound.


Subjectively the styling of the Radiance is excellent, IMO. The black with bronze accents is tasteful and attractive without being overstated. Outside of that the aesthetics and build are quintessential Focal. The basic look is there from the shape of the earcups, the pattern on the back of the earcups, the yokes, etc. The one possible downside is that the earcups don’t squeeze together when not in use like many headphones do, causing them to take up a larger amount of real estate than many models:


Focal headphones: always canspreading.

The comfort is solid. I don’t notice any hotspots on the top of my head from the headband. The clamp force is snug but not too tight. I’m also a glasses wearer and did not have any comfort issues as a result. The one comfort downside is that the pads are a leather or faux leather as opposed to the fabric covered pads Focal often uses. These trap heat in a bit more and on occasion they could get warm. This didn’t happen enough to me to be a deal-breaker, though. The pads also give excellent isolation. There is very little sound leakage inward, and it’s not bad outward either, depending on volume, of course.

I think unique to the Radiance and its pad material is its inability to hide dust. If ever they sit out, either on a stand or on a tabletop, and aren’t used for awhile, the amount of dust that collects will remind you that you haven’t used them. Here’s a pic I took after not using them for about 48 hours:


I managed to get that in direct sunlight and made a mark with my finger to wipe the dust off one spot. I frequently have to wipe the pads down with a paper towel or cloth before putting them on.

The stock cable is as bad as it is on any other Focal headphone. It’s thick, stiff, and generally unmanageable. In a departure from other Focal cans the cover of the cable is vinyl as opposed to nylon or cloth. Fortunately, my set came used with a nice Plussound cable (which the seller couldn’t remember the name of). I used either the Plussound or Hart cables for this review. I think Focal’s motto for their cables is “At least they aren’t HiFiMan cables.” And that’s about all that can be said.

Finally, the driver is the typical M-shaped, formless voice coil, dynamic driver that is common in Focal headphones. In this case the driver material is aluminum/magnesium. The rated impedance is 35Ω and the rated sensitivity is 105dB/mW. Those numbers are quite believable as I found them to be very easy to drive, even for DAPs and other mobile devices.


Test Gear

The bulk of my listening was with the Chord Hugo 2 transportable DAC/amp fed by a Cayin N6ii connected via either USB or with Cayin’s USB-C-to-coaxial spdif cable. I also tried the N6ii’s E02 module 4.4mm balanced headphone output to drive the Radiance directly. Desktop gear included the Berkeley Audio Designs Alpha S2 and Schiit Modius and Bifrost 2 DACs with Violectric HPA-V281, Monolith Liquid Platinum amps, as well as 3 amps from Schiit: IEMagni, Magnius, and Asgard 3.

Quick Editorial

It’s not very often that I put a headphone on and am immediately grabbed by it. I was immediately captivated by the Radiance. My first impression with it came while sitting out in my sunroom with the Hugo 2. I had been looking for a headphone that isolated well and sounded great off the Hugo 2 for a transportable solution, as the Hugo 2 is quite picky as an “amplifier.” The Radiance immediately made me sit up straight and pay attention. Bass. Detail. Clarity. An almost tactile dynamic punchiness. I knew right away this one was a serious contender. HiFiMan did this to me with the Edition X V2 and then again with the HE1000V2. The transformation the HD6XX makes on a tube amp did it the first time, too. But usually, even with cans I end up liking a lot, the initial impression isn’t the raw “WHOA!” that Radiance gave me. With that said, on with the details…

Sound Signature

By ear the signature of the Radiance presents as having an elevated bass shelf of 2-4 dB above neutral until about 100ish hertz. There is a slight dip in the midbass, but not very audible with most listening material, and then seemingly neutral and nearly flat frequency response starting in the lower mids and going all the way through the air frequencies. This comes across as almost an “L” shaped signature, which is a very odd term but is how many audiophiles communicate an elevated bass shelf into a more flat remainder of the frequency spectrum. The resulting presentation is warm and bassy without being bloated and maintaining excellent clarity and resolution in the mids and treble. The presentation is both aggressive and relaxed overall, as well. It’s aggressive in the macrodynamics, punching very hard in the bass, but also having a lot of pop and snap in the transients throughout the frequency range. At the same time it’s relaxed and laid back in terms of details, not forcing itself in that regard, and maintaining a smoothness despite the physicality.


As a self-professed basshead, the Radiance leaves me satisfied. The bass is extended, plentiful, punchy, detailed, and pulls this off without being boomy or bleeding into the vocals. There isn’t quite as much texture as my HE1000V2 can pull off, but that’s also more than twice the price. For a dynamic driver headphone under $1500 the bass texture here is noticeable and impressive. I love it, but I must also caution many a reader. Many listeners are not as much into the bass as I am. If you’re bass-sensitive this headphone could very well be too over-the-top for you. There also can be a bit of an adjustment if listening to my HE1000V2 for awhile before going out to a transportable situation and listening to Radiance. In comparison the bass on the Radiance can be a bit one-notey. I don’t think most listeners will call its bass one-notey in an absolute sense, but it’s not as tonally accurate as the more expensive model.

I’m just going to say one more time this headphone punches hard. It is very dynamic, almost to the point of being able to feel it.


My previous experience with Focal was the Elegia. The Elegia had very detailed mids but at times could sound too mid-forward and shouty. I did not notice any shoutiness with the Radiance that I can recall. The mids are clear and detailed, with good instrument and voice separation, and a generally natural timbre. The timbre doesn’t quite rise to the level of organicness that the Senn HD600/650 reach, but it’s quite solid in its own right.


The treble is clear, sparkly, and extended but will strike some as recessed. To my ear it isn’t recessed, it’s more in line with the same level as the mids, but some will want a bit more top-end presence. The detail and separation are good here too, with the ability to separate rapid cymbal crashes reasonably well and present the attack and decay of each strike. Sibilance is also never added, just presented if it’s in the recording. The balance here between being laid-back yet sparkly, detailed yet relaxed, at $1300, is remarkable. I can listen to it for hours without getting fatigued or feeling like I am missing too much.

Resolution & Detail Retrieval

The Radiance is not the most detailed headphone I have ever heard, but for a $1300 closed-back it is excellent. Classic signs of excellent detail retrieval like room reverb and ‘hearing the room’ are appropriately present without coming across too aggressively.

In what will certainly be a controversial statement, the Radiance also has the resolution chops to distinguish between DAC and amp signatures as well as slight differences in the sounds of headphone and signal cables. The Plussound cable that came with my set definitely sounded better than the Harts I used, with a little cleaner overall sound, slightly wider staging, and better tonal balance in the treble. Cymbal hits sounded more natural and less tizzy, for example. The Cayin usb-to-spdif cable I mentioned earlier showed up after I had been connecting my N6ii and Hugo 2 via el-cheapo USB cable. The Radiance showed me that the Cayin cable was cleaner, smoother, and separated sounds better. The Radiance showed me that the Magnius is what it is, rather flat and dull sounding (a curse of these high feedback op-amp designs, I’m afraid). It showed me that the Asgard 3 and V281 have very similar overall signatures (warmer, thicker, and highly dynamic) but that the V281 is several tiers higher in overall technical performance. I make this point because this stands in contrast to what the Elegia was able to do. The Elegia’s biggest party trick was to sound fantastic when powered by budget-tier source gear at the expense of it being able to scale up and truly resolve differences between higher quality source gear. The Radiance also does a good job of sounding excellent on budget gear – I thoroughly enjoyed it from the IEMagni and Asgard 3 – but still having something left to resolve differences in higher level source gear. Its scalability is not on the legendary level of the Senn HD600/650 or Beyer DT880 – which all keep finding new ways to surprise you as you go up in source gear quality – but it also does not seemingly approach an asymptote in its scaling like the Elegia does.

Spatial Presentation

The soundstage is Focal-like in creating that 360-degree bubble around the head. Audeze and Focal are similar in how they stage by wrapping your head in sound rather than presenting it out front like many others do. For orchestral recordings it’s often like standing on the Maestro’s box rather than sitting in the audience. It’s a different effect that has its merits. The size of this bubble is neither Sennheiser HD600/650/6XX narrow nor HiFiman egg-shaped line HUGE. It’s in the middle. Within that staging, imaging and separation don’t call attention to themselves for either good or ill. I wasn’t wowed by the placement and separation, but I was also never distracted by the lack of them. In my classical recordings the instruments seem realistically placed, but I also wasn’t as wowed by their placement as I was with the HiFiMan Arya’s placements, for example.

You’re Mostly Fawning Over This Headphone…


What’s Not to Like?

If anyone is going to object to Radiance’s sound I think it will be because it’s just too bassy for some. Some may find it chunky sounding as a result. I don’t get that, but I loves mah bass. Some may find it not bright enough. My subjective impression is that the audiophile industry is moving slowly toward a more bright, leaning-to-analytical signature as the proverbial “audiophile signature.” At least, more and more stuff is seeming to tilt that way. Radiance goes the other way. That may bother some. If spatial chops are your number one priority, even though the Radiance is pretty good, it may not satisfy that itch. However, I can’t name another full-sized closed-back headphone that matches it for the price right off the top of my head.


Naturally, we all want to know how the Radiance fits in with Focal’s other closed-back models, Elegia, Celestee, and Stellia. I have not heard them all. My understanding is that the Radiance is the bassiest of the set. The Stellia has higher quality bass, but the bass isn’t as present. I honestly don’t know much about the Celestee, other than that blue-green color is SWEET! I owned the Elegia for awhile (review here) and spoke a little bit about the scalability comparison between Radiance and Elegia above. I’ll compare these two a bit more.

The Elegia and Radiance are both easy to drive and are closed-back with good isolation. This makes them both excellent candidates for mobile/transportable use. The Radiance is the more complete headphone from a sonic performance perspective. It’s more resolving, has more natural timbre, and improves upon Elegia’s already impressive macrodynamic punch. The Radiance’s signature is warm and bassy where the Elegia is slightly mid-forward. The Elegia also at times suffers from the metallic timbre that Focal headphones are known for among some listeners. The Elegia ends up having a bite to it that is almost entirely absent from the Radiance. Another key difference is the Radiance is nearly $1300 where the Elegia frequently goes on sale for $399, thanks to Adorama.

The other high-end closed-back I have on hand is a Fostex TH900 with Lawton purpleheart chambers and tune-up mod. Strengths of the Lawton’d TH900 are bass presence, impact, detail, timbre, and frequency extension in both directions. The TH900 is also more V-shaped, with elevated bass and treble. I would say the TH900 and the Lawton are roughly equals in terms of bass presence and macrodynamic punch/overall physicality. The TH900 has more treble energy and can come across as sounding overall brighter as a result. The TH900 is also not very forgiving of source gear. It exposes warts and is also quite picky. If not paired with the right source gear, it will sound any or all of very harsh, sharp, shouty, honky, boomy, you name it. When it’s matched to electronics well, though, it easily surpasses the Radiance in resolution and detail and timbre, sounding like it costs a few hundred dollars more…because it does (by the time you put the whole Lawton package together). The Radiance is not nearly as aggressive in the high frequencies and is also much more source-gear independent. Yes, it sounds better with better source gear, but it also still sounds good with source gear that isn’t great or is more budget-oriented. The TH900 is therefore somewhat of a specialist that can create magic with the right source gear and music selections. The Radiance is much more of a generalist with a lower performance ceiling but a much higher performance floor. This is another reason why the Radiance is mobile/transportable friendly. It’s generalist nature means it can be used with a lot of gear combinations for a wide variety of music, making it a friendly travel companion. Last point here, the TH900 is technically more of a semi-closed or semi-open design. It does not give anywhere near the amount of isolation that Radiance offers.


Yeah, I’m keeping this one. I may not have it for long, but to paraphrase a quote from the cult sci-fi movie Starship Troopers “this is it until it’s dead or I find something better.” I love the warm, bassy signature, the dynamic punch, and the ability to do all of that without seeming to sacrifice much, if anything, in clarity and detail everywhere else. Most importantly to me, it sounds wonderful through the Hugo 2, which combined with its comfort and isolation, make it a great travel companion. I could rehash all of the glowing things I said above but I don’t think I need to. For me this is a great headphone. If your tastes are similar to mine, try to get your hands on this one. Someday it might be tough. It’s a limited edition…

Thanks for reading! Enjoy the music!

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John Massaria
John Massaria
this hobby is a great one thanks for your take on Radiance :wink:
Great write up. I'm going to try and find your Edition X V2 review now.
Thank you for the great information.


100+ Head-Fier
Schiit IEMagni - by WaveTheory
Pros: A true do-it-all entry-level headphone amp! A negative gain stage designed for silent background with IEMs - and it succeeds! Plenty of power for most full-range headphones
Cons: Power and gain switches on back
NOTE: This review was originally published on HiFiGuides forum on 19 Jul 2021.


I was loaned another piece of Schiit for review, this time the IEMagni. The IEMagni is one of three models in Schiit’s latest generation of Magni headphone amps. The Magnis represent Schiit’s entry point in headphone amps with the 3+ and Heresy being $99 each and the IEMagni being $119. The IEMagni is more closely related to the Heresy and includes a negative gain stage that is designed to make it the go-to entry-level amp for IEMs, yet maintain the guts of the Magni line that give it the power to drive almost all full-sized headphones. Did Schiit succeed? Let’s find out!


Schiit succeeded. They really did create a do-it-all entry-level headphone amp. The IEMagni handles IEMs and full-sized headphones with equal aplomb. The sonic background on IEMs is silent. Eerily. Dead. Silent. There are a couple of ergonomic quirks – like if that gain stage is such a big deal why is the gain switch on the back? Even so, it’s a rock-solid power plant that won’t break the bank and gives a pretty honest evaluation of most headphones and IEMs up to $500, and some beyond.


My preferred genres are rock/metal and classical/orchestral music. I’m getting to know jazz more and enjoying quite a bit. I also listen to some EDM and hip-hop. My hearing quirks include a high sensitivity to midrange frequencies from just under 1KHz to around 3Khz, give or take. My ears are thus quick to perceive “shoutiness” in headphones in particular. I describe “shoutiness” as an emphasis on the ‘ou’ sound of ‘shout.’ It’s a forwardness in the neighborhood of 1KHz and/or on the first one or two harmonics above it (when I make the sound ‘ooooowwwww’ into a spectrum analyzer the dominant frequency on the vowel sound is around 930Hz, which also means harmonic spikes occur again at around 1860Hz and 2790Hz). In the extreme, it can have the tonal effect of sounding like a vocalist is speaking or singing through a toilet paper tube or cupping their hands over their mouth. It can also give instruments like piano, but especially brass instruments, an added ‘honk’ to their sound. I also get distracted by sibilance, or sharp ‘s’ and ‘t’ sounds that can make ssssingers sssssound like they’re forssssssing esssss ssssssounds aggresssssssively. Sibilance does not physically hurt my ears nearly as quickly as shout, though. It’s distracting because it’s annoying and unnatural. Finally, I’m discovering that I have a preference for more subtle detail. I like good detail retrieval and hearing what a recording has to offer, but I prefer what many would consider relaxed and subtle rather than aggressive or detail-forward. To my ear, more subtle detail-retrieval sounds more realistic and natural than aggressive, detail-forwardness. There is a balance here, though, because detail retrieval can get too relaxed and that can sound unnatural, as well, or simply leave out important aspects of the recording. Readers should keep these hearing quirks and preferences in mind as they read my descriptions of sound.


The Magni line is well known at this point, with the IEMagni being basically generation 4.5. You get the classic Schiit aesthetic – in only black and gray – with an aluminum chassis. The back panel has one set each of RCA analog inputs and preamp outputs. The back panel sports both the power switch and gain switch. The power switch on the back is a quintessentially Schiity move. Basically every reviewer under the Sun, myself included, bemoans the fact that turning a Schiit on/off is a reacharound affair. I think at this point Moffat and Stoddard are just laughing at us. But, it is what it is. The gain switch on the back is arguably the more irritating one as it’s the gain stages on this amp that are the big draw. Anyway, the front panel has the ¼” (6.3mm) headphone output, volume knob, and Schiit logo. That’s it.

Like it’s Magni brethren, the IEMagni is rated for 2.4 watts of output power at 32Ω. It’s got quite a bit of oomph for the price and for its size. Even with 600Ω cans and big planars the IEMagni delivered an impressive amount of power.

The big selling point of the IEMagni over it’s $20 cheaper siblings is that negative gain stage. The 3+ and Heresy each have the standard Hi and Lo gain. The negative gain stage on the IEMagni is designed to make it dead silent with IEMs, which are often sensitive and will show you the noise floor of your amp. Does this negative gain stage do what it’s supposed to do? Yes. Very well. More will be said in the section where I talk about…


Test Gear

For serious testing I fed the IEMagni with the Schiit Modius DAC that was connected via RCA coaxial SPDIF to a Singxer SU-2 digital-to-digital converter. I also used the Cayin N6ii DAP with the E02 module set to lineout mode and used a 4.4mm pentacon – to – 3.5mm TRS adapter and 3.5mm TRS to RCA ‘y’ cable. I used the Tin T3 and Jomo Flamenco as IEMs and the Beyerdynamic DT880 (600Ω), Massdrop + Sennheiser HD6XX, Audeze LCD-2 prefazor (rev 1), and Focal Radiance as the full-sized headphones.

Sound Signature

If you’re familiar with Schiit’s Asgard 3, the sound signature of the IEMagni is quite similar – just slightly warmer and thicker than neutral with a smooth, somewhat relaxed, but dynamic presentation – but not quite to the extent the A3 does it. I’m not going to spill too many words here other than to say that detail retrieval, timbre, soundstage, etc. are all appropriate for a product in the price range. More will be said about some individual aspects of sound in the comparison section below.

IEM Performance

How about that negative gain stage? I can confirm that with the Tin T3 and the Jomo Flamenco there is virtually no audible noise through the IEMagni. On the negative gain setting and the pot maxed out, there is silence. The negative gain setting also allowed both IEMs to play around my customary 72-75dB average SPLs with the potentiometer at about 12:00, give or a take an hour depending on track level. As far as I can tell, Schiit succeeded in their goal of making a Magni that is IEM friendly.


The budget headphone amp market is a bit flooded right now. Where does the IEMagni fit in? To find out I compared the IEMagni to the JDS Labs Atom amp, the Monolith Liquid Spark amp, the Schiit Asgard 3 headphone amp, and the amp section of the Cayin N6ii DAP with E02 module. Let’s start with the Schiity comparison.

Making Scents of Two Schiits

As mentioned above the IEMagni and the Asgard 3 sound fairly similar in overall signature. The Asgard 3 is overall more refined, more dynamic, has greater detail retrieval, and more dynamic punch. None of this should be surprising given that the Asgard is twice the price of the Magni line ($80 more than IEMagni), and more importantly, has a more capable power supply. Most of the differences I heard can be traced back to the fact that the Asgard has more power coming in and circuitry that can deliver that power more effectively. The subbass rumble is more present and powerful with the Asgard 3. Kick drums kick harder. The overall presentation is more dynamic and yet also more refined. The DT880 brought these differences out the most. The Asgard 3 can summon the power to make the DT880’s bass reach deep and rumble. In contrast, the IEMagni ran out of juice.

IEMagni vs Atom vs Liquid Spark

This is a more fair comparison as all of these amps fall between $99 and $119. Signature-wise the Atom is studio-neutral, the Spark is warm, smooth, and dynamic, the IEMagni falls in between, being closer to the Spark than the Atom. Consistently I found the Atom to be the most forward sounding of the three. It’s not necessarily aggressive, but it’s more in-your-face than either of the other two. It’s also wider in soundstage, but a bit more wall-of-sound-y in its presentation. The Spark was consistently the warmest, bassiest, and punchiest of the three. It rumbled the most in the subbass and hit hardest with kick drums and bass guitar. The IEMagni was the most overall refined and detailed. I did not have a consistent favorite among these three. It varied by headphone, if it varied. I thought the DT880 did the most right out of the IEMagni and the 6XX did the most right out of the Spark, at least as far as full-sized headphones go.

I also found the IEMagni, despite it being ever-so-slightly more resolving than the other two, to be more forgiving. Playing a couple of bad recordings – The Wallflower’s cover of Heroes by David Bowie and You Oughta Know by Alanis Morissette, which are both harsh and sibilant, and in the case of Heroes just kind of veiled and lacking space – the IEMagni handled the sharpness with less freaking out. These tracks were not as sharp or uncomfortable as they were with Atom of Spark. However, the Spark was closer to the IEMagni than the Atom in these regards for both tracks.

If you’re an IEM user then I think there is a clear winner here, and no surprise it’s the IEMagni. The Liquid Spark is the noisiest of the three. It has a fair amount of background noise with IEMs and also, even on low gain, has to have its potentiometer turned way down where it’s often in the channel imbalance range. The channel imbalance stops around 8:00 but by that time the volume is going to be getting pretty crazy loud. The Atom is not a bad choice for IEMs. It’s not perfectly dead silent like the IEMagni is, but its noise is still quite low. However, there is less play in the potentiometer. The Flamenco was starting to blow up my head already around the 9:00 range. The Atom also has a bit more treble bite than the IEMagni. I think that could be important if the plan is to pair one of these amps with a more budget-level IEM. In my experience, budget IEMs tend to be quick to go sharp and harsh in the treble and the Atom’s signature is not going to do that any favors. With the two IEMs I have on hand to test with, the IEMagni is the best ergonomic match – in terms of volume control – and also the best sonic match.

IEMagni vs Cayin N6ii + E02

The N6ii is the only other product I have on hand for which it could be argued that IEMs are one of the target products it can work with. I set it to line-out mode to use its internal DAC and the IEMagni as an amp, and then also used the E02 as an amp. The idea was to evaluate the two amps – the IEMagni and the internal E02 amp – and compare them. These results were more consistent regardless of whether I used an IEM (I used Flamenco mostly) or a full-sized headphone (mostly Radiance – it’s low impedance and easy to drive). The IEMagni had an advantage in dynamics, being punchier, more lively, and also had more subbass presence and rumble. The E02 had the advantage almost everywhere else. The title track on Hiromi’s Alive album illustrates the differences within the first 90 seconds. With either the Flamenco or the Radiance the IEMagni was able to give the very active bass line more heft and impact. The snare drum also had just a little bit more snap to it. But the E02 was overall more resolving, capturing the subtleties of the differences in tone of the toms and cymbals more clearly and resolving piano notes in a more natural way. The track opens with a lot of cymbal crashes. The IEMagni had some difficulty resolving the different cymbal sounds from each other creating a presentation that was overall more hashy and monolithic. The E02 wasn’t exactly stellar either but did a noticeably better job of separating individual cymbal sounds from each other and presenting the attack and decay of each strike.

Where Does the IEMagni Rank Among <$200 Amps

I have that big under $200 amp comparison. A missing piece at the time was the newest Magni line. The question is IEMs or headphones? If IEMs, the IEMagni shoots right to the top of the list. I love the Asgard 3 but it’s not particularly IEM friendly, suffering from some noise and not a lot of potentiometer control with IEMs. Schiit’s Magnius is probably the closest challenger to the IEMagni for IEMs. I briefly connected the Flamenco to the balanced output of the Magnius, it’s quite silent on low gain with the pot turned all the way, too. However, the volume takes a BIG jump around 10:00 on the potentiometer so there is less play in the volume. This volume jump can be mitigated if paired with a DAC that has volume control. In the brief testing I did in this comparison, I found the sound quality to be quite close between the IEMagni and the Magnius. IMO the Magnius’s extra $80 is a tough sell to use with IEMs given the extra hoops needing to be jumped and not a large gap in performance.

If the plan is to use full-sized headphones then the Asgard 3 is still the under $200 winner hands down. I’d still like to see someone beat the Asgard 3 at its price because that will be genuinely impressive and a very exciting product. However, arguably the Magni line is the most technically proficient at $99. And since the IEMagni is a Magni with a negative gain stage, then we can call the new Magnis the “Lightweight Champion” of under $200 amps and place it on my diagram here:

Budget Amp Scale with IEMagni.jpg

For full-sized headphones it’s really very close to its $99-109 competition. I like it slightly better but not enough to go through the effort of selling off either the Atom and/or Spark and keeping this one. Truth is, you can buy any of Atom, Liquid Spark, or the new Magnis and have an excellent power amp to explore <$500 headphones.


Who should buy the IEMagni? If you’re new to audio and don’t know yet whether you like headphones or IEMs, grab this one. It’s signature is neutral enough and its performance good enough to help you determine what your preferences are. It has the grace to handle sensitive IEMs and the power to handle both high impedance dynamic headphones and large planar magnetic headphones.

The IEMagni really is an excellent product at its price point. It sounds as good as it can rightly be expected to and powers just about everything not named HE6 or Susvara. Schiit accomplished a valuable goal of creating an entry-level head amp that can truly do it all. If you’re new to the game and don’t know what you like yet, grab this one. It will get you started nicely.

Thanks for reading! Enjoy the music!
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I loved your Sonic Preferences Scale graph. Nothing like a little scientific data to help explain how something something sounds. :). Great review!
I enjoyed that value line you uploaded. It was gloriously low-tech, (intentionally?) humorous, and summarised your review. Bravo, eh. :) :flag_ca:
What about the schitt HEL? Would that be good for IEMs and since it is a DAC and AMP, not just an amp?


100+ Head-Fier
Bottlehead Crack + Speedball by WaveTheory
Pros: A warm, smooth, relaxed, yet still reasonably detailed signature; a fun DIY project (for some); transforms Sennheiser HD600/650/6XX and also makes Beyerdynamic DT series cans more fun; easy tube rolling with common tube types; an overall excellent entry point into tube headphone amps; great fodder for those of us stuck with middle-school level senses of humor
Cons: OTL design works with very limited range of headphones; the DIY quality never goes away and adds some ergonomic quirks; not the most resolving sound signature for the price; requires user assembly or paying someone to assemble; great fodder for those of us stuck with middle-school level senses of humor
NOTE: This review was originally published on HiFiGuides forum on 15 Jul 2021.


There’s just something about tubes, right? By my count I either currently own or have owned 7 vacuum tubed audio products; a Douk branded tube buffer, Loxjie P20, Darkvoice 336SE, Monolith Liquid Platinum, Eddie Current ZDT Jr., Cayin HA-1AMK2, and Schiit Saga. Those second order harmonics can be oh-so-sweet at times. So, when a HiFiGuides Forum member messaged me and said – and I’m paraphrasing here – “Hey, you wanna hear the sounds that come out of my Crack?” I thought that sounds like a gas! and immediately agreed. I am referring, of course, to the Bottlehead Crack tube headphone amplifier kit; this unit including the Speedball upgrade. I gave the Crack a thorough listen and what follows are my thoughts, and of course the best collection of Crack cracks I can muster.


The Bottlehead Crack is not the most technically proficient headphone amplifier in its price range, but for this reviewer it is among the most enjoyable. It’s usable with a narrow range of headphones, but for those that it works well with the listening experience is warm, smooth, fun, and very enjoyable. “Tube goodness” can be a thing and the Crack has it in spades.


My preferred genres are rock/metal and classical/orchestral music. I’m getting to know jazz more and enjoying quite a bit. I also listen to some EDM and hip-hop. My hearing quirks include a high sensitivity to midrange frequencies from just under 1KHz to around 3Khz, give or take. My ears are thus quick to perceive “shoutiness” in headphones in particular. I describe “shoutiness” as an emphasis on the ‘ou’ sound of ‘shout.’ It’s a forwardness in the neighborhood of 1KHz and/or on the first one or two harmonics above it (when I make the sound ‘ooooowwwww’ into a spectrum analyzer the dominant frequency on the vowel sound is around 930Hz, which also means harmonic spikes occur again at around 1860Hz and 2790Hz). In the extreme, it can have the tonal effect of sounding like a vocalist is speaking or singing through a toilet paper tube or cupping their hands over their mouth. It can also give instruments like piano, but especially brass instruments, an added ‘honk’ to their sound. I also get distracted by sibilance, or sharp ‘s’ and ‘t’ sounds that can make ssssingers sssssound like they’re forssssssing esssss ssssssounds aggresssssssively. Sibilance does not physically hurt my ears nearly as quickly as shout, though. It’s distracting because it’s annoying and unnatural. Finally, I’m discovering that I have a preference for more subtle detail. I like good detail retrieval and hearing what a recording has to offer, but I prefer what many would consider relaxed and subtle rather than aggressive or detail-forward. To my ear, more subtle detail-retrieval sounds more realistic and natural than aggressive, detail-forwardness. There is a balance here, though, because detail retrieval can get too relaxed and that can sound unnatural, as well, or simply leave out important aspects of the recording. Readers should keep these hearing quirks and preferences in mind as they read my descriptions of sound.


What is a Bottlehead Crack?

If you’re not aware, the Crack is sold as a kit and you assemble it yourself. This approach keeps the initial cost down somewhat with an entry cost of $349. The Speedball upgrade is highly regarded and runs the cost of the kit up to $464. If you want one prebuilt – and quite well at that – you can hire James at TheHeadAmpBuilder ( to build it. From his website it looks like he charges somewhere in the $200-400 range for that service depending on what options you want. James was the builder of the unit loaned to me. This loaner unit also includes the Speedball upgrade.

Sum up the above paragraph and you get an output-transformerless (OTL) vacuum tube headphone amplifier for comfortably under $1000. Other similar options at the budget level are the Darkvoice 336SE and the Little Dot mk II. I have experience with the Darkvoice. It is also an OTL headphone amp with a very similar design to the Crack. I found it to be a bit too wet and sloppy sounding for my liking and its sloppiness and overall thickness has unfortunately been the representation of “the tube sound” to many budding audiophiles. I dare say that the Crack probably is the best entry point into tube headphone amps that aren’t technically lacking.

What is OTL and Why Does it Matter?

What’s the OTL business about? Vacuum tube amplifiers are voltage amplifiers which naturally have a high output impedance. Many tube amps (especially speaker amps but also headphone amps) will therefore be built with an output transformer. This transformer steps down some of that voltage, increases the current output, and thus also reduces the output impedance. Output impedance is important in determining the damping factor. The damping factor is the ratio of the load impedance (the number of ohms of the speaker/headphone + the resistance of the speaker/headphone cable) and the output impedance. The higher that ratio, the larger the damping factor. The damping factor gives an indication of how well the amplifier is able to control driver motion. The higher the damping factor, the more control, and often the tighter or quicker the sound. These output transformers are difficult to make well and often become one of the most expensive parts of tube amps. Eliminating the output transformer lowers the cost of a tube amp both in terms of part cost and design and build time, but brings back that high output impedance. The consequence of that is that only certain kinds of headphones work well with OTL amps, namely high impedance (hi-Z) dynamic-driver headphones. Once a headphone’s impedance gets to about 150Ω or higher, the damping factor falls into a range that strikes a nice balance between well controlled and smooth. This also means that buying the Crack means using only select headphones. Many Sennheisers are 300Ω and are great candidates. Beyerdynamic has several models that are 250Ω or 600Ω. Most ZMF headphones are also 300Ω. AKG and Audio Technica each have a model or two that are also 600Ω and good candidates to use with an OTL. And that’s it. Most headphones these days have quite low impedance. That’s because most solid-state amps have very low output impedance so damping factor is not a concern most of the time (there are exceptions, be careful). So keep in mind, if you’re looking to buy the Crack, or any other OTL amp, you’re headphone options are going to be limited. Make sure you like what any of those headphones can bring to the table before pulling the trigger.

Exploring One’s Crack

Once built the Crack is a metal plate with all the amplifier components mounted to that plate and the plate resting on a wooden box finished to your liking. Everything you need to access is mounted on the top plate; the power switch, AC power input, RCA stereo input, tube sockets, potentiometer, and ¼” (6.3mm) headphone jack:



That metal top plate seems designed to rest on top of the wooden box; gravity holding it in place. There are no screw holes or snaps to hold it in place. That means that when you need to remove something from your Crack, you need to apply some downward force on it or you will spread your Crack to an uncomfortable degree:


The downside of that is that with use the finish on that plate around the headphone jack dulls. Here is a zoomed-in version of the first pic above:


where a fingerprint-shaped area is worn a bit. I don’t see any way to avoid that, unfortunately. You could glue the metal plate to the wooden box, but I don’t recommend it for 2 reasons: 1) the wooden box isn’t very heavy and you’ll probably just lift up the whole amp when you unplug a cable and 2) all the circuit components are mounted to the underside of the metal plate. If you ever need to reach one to resolder a connection or the like, the box will likely be in the way.

There is no bottom to the box either. There are rubber feet on the bottom of the wood side panels but there is no bottom piece. The ventilation is good, but don’t flip your Crack over to look too much or you’ll dump everything out.

Tube Rolling

The Crack uses very common tube types; a 12AU7 for the driver or pre tube, and 6080 or 6AS7 for the larger power tube. These tube types are very easy to find and you can roll them to your heart’s content. My loaner unit came with a plethora of tubes. I swapped out a few. There are some sonic differences so some slight tuning to preference is certainly a thing you can do. I won’t go into huge detail about each tube I tried. Thankfully, HiFiGuides own @Hazi59 did a very thorough summary of things you can stick in your Crack: power tubes (, driver tubes (


Tube amps are sensitive to microphonics, or noises induced when the components vibrate as the result of bumping the desk or the like. I remarked how the Cayin HA-1AMK2 was very susceptible to this. The Crack doesn’t make quite as much noise when handled roughly, but with no music playing and headphones on, I can hear slight hums modulating as I hit the keys on my keyboard while typing this review. It’s noticeable between tracks, during quiet tracks, etc.


Test Gear

I have two headphones that handle OTL tube amps well: Massdrop + Sennheiser HD6XX (300Ω), and the 600Ω version of the Beyerdynamic DT880. Those are the two cans I used to hear sounds from the Crack. Sources included the single-ended outputs of a Berkeley Audio Designs Alpha Series 2 DAC and a Schiit Modius. Both DACs were fed by a Singxer SU-2 digital-to-digital converter; AES to the Alpha S2 and RCA coaxial to the Modius. The reasoning here is the Alpha would be bottlenecked by the Crack so I’d get a sense of the Crack’s true capabilities. The Modius was used as an example of a more price-appropriate piece to get more of a ‘real-world’ sound from the Crack. Arguably the Modius alone is too inexpensive to give such a representation, but its performance is much higher through the SU-2 than using the Unison USB. Arguably that puts the Modius performance more in line with mid-fi DACs. Also I think it goes without saying that a Crack is a natural way to deliver Schiit.

As I mentioned above, I didn’t do much tube rolling. Most of these impressions were formed with a Telefunken 12AU7 smooth plate or CEI 12AU7 for the driver tubes. For the power tube I briefly tried the RCA 6080 that is included in the stock kit, but mostly listened with a Mullard 6080 or Sylvania 12AS7. I eventually landed on the Telefunken + Mullard as the pair I used for the most listening. As you read my sound impressions below, keep in mind that they are general. I found that tube rolling changed the degree of what is described below slightly, but I did my best to describe the general patterns of what I was hearing.

Sound Signature

The Crack has elements of the stereotypical “tube sound” associated with tube amps by many unfamiliar with tube amps; warm, smooth, and slightly wet. In this context, ‘wet’ means a sound that is somewhat blended together, not having as distinct a differentiation between sounds as most solid-state amps – particularly the very analytical leaning models proliferating the market right now – have. However, this is not to say that the Crack ever sounds slurred or sloppy. It still maintains very good detail and resolution for its price point, but with smoother edges to the individual sounds. The Crack also tilts ‘fun’ in its presentation, particularly in the low-end where there is a healthy, but not-overpowering, sense of punch and slam with solid sub-bass presence. I consider myself a basshead. The 6XX and the DT880 are not bass monsters, but both had an authoritative, usually satisfying punch with kick drums and bass guitar string plucks. The mid-range and treble are both a bit relaxed. The sound is generally very enjoyable and listenable for long periods of time.

Detail Retrieval

Let’s set the stage here a bit: prior to listening to the Crack I was using the Alpha S2 with the Vioelectric HPA-V281 amp while reviewing the Heddphone and comparing that to my HiFiMan HE-1000V2. There is a lot of detail and resolution going on in those chains. To the credit of the Crack + HD6XX/DT880, they weren’t as detailed, but they also didn’t leave me immediately clamoring for more detail. I quickly got to toe-tapping and head-bobbing and just enjoying the music. Classic signs of good detail retrieval were all present: room reverb, audible breaths from vocalists, and even hints of bass texture.

Spatial Performance

The spatial performance is a bit tougher to evaluate because of the headphone options on hand. The 6XX is not a master of spatial reproduction, to say the least. The Crack, to a limited extent, was able to make the 6XX sound a little less 3-blob-y in its imaging than I’ve heard from solid-state amps in the price range. There was more hint of sounds happening in the left-center and right-center images, for example. The overall soundstage is still somewhat intimate and flat, however. That said, the Crack still opens up the 6XX moreso than similarly priced solid-state amps, from my experience. The DT880 gives a little clearer picture. For my money, the DT880 is the spatial performance reference at its price point. The Crack makes the 880 sound big with nice width and some height. There is a hint of soundstage depth, but not a ton. Real soundstage depth is usually an aspect of performance that requires significantly more money to achieve, it seems. With the 880, the Crack also did a solid job placing instruments in the soundfield and separated them well enough that I didn’t get distracted by a lack thereof.

Awake! Ye Headphones!

Both the 6XX and DT880 benefit from being driven by an OTL tube amp, and the Crack provides a crystal-clear example of this. The 6XX especially transforms over its performance with solid-state amps in a similar price range. The subbass and upper treble become less recessed and the 6XX sounds like an overall more complete, fully fleshed-out headphone, while maintaining that lush, organic mid-range for which it is known. The Crack + 6XX were very enjoyable on a lot of rock and metal…which is right up my alley. The DT880 does not transform as much as the 6XX but the Crack gives it more subbass grunt and a bit sweeter treble than most solid-state amps in the price range can give it. Either way, I think the Crack is an excellent pairing for both cans.

At times I found it helpful to lower the volume on my DAC, especially with the 6XX. With the 6XX the Crack can present as surprisingly powerful. I usually keep my Alpha S2 at about 50% volume so that I can keep my Vioelectric HPA-V281’s potentiometer around 12:00 with many of my headphones. That worked well with the 6XX but the DT880 needed more DAC volume to be pushed to the same level without maxing out the Crack’s pot. When I switched from Alpha to Modius, which has a fixed output level, I first used the 6XX and about blew my head up. With some louder rock tracks the pot barely got beyond 9:00 or 10:00 with the 6XX, but that allowed the DT880 to be comfortably driven in the 12:00-3:00 range.


There are three amps I’ll compare with the Crack. The first is the Darkvoice 336SE as they are very similar designs. The second is the Cayin HA-1AMK2, which is transformer coupled tube amp that can be found used in the same price range as a new, fully assembled Crack. Also, with tube rolling, the Crack can easily cost as much as a brand-new stock 1AMK2. The third is the Monolith Liquid Platinum, which is not a pure tube amp, it is a hybrid tube amp with a tube preamp section and solid-state amp section. It’s a little harder to pin down the price of the MLP. It initially sold for $799US but has been a roller-coaster for a while. If you’re watching closely you can get one for $500 or less new with some regularity. If you score one there, even with upgraded tubes, the price is close to what a fully-assembled, brand-new Crack with upgraded tubes would be. Let’s start with the Darkvoice.

Crack vs Darkvoice 336SE

I no longer have the Darkvoice on hand but listened to it for several months with a 6XX and DT880 several months ago. Sound memory fades but one thing that stands out is the Crack sounds much more in-control. The Darkvoice is thicker and gooey-er and wandered into sibilant territory more frequently than the Crack. The Darkvoice brought the bass and treble to more life on the 6XX like the Crack does, but did so with less control, generally sounding sloppier. That’s the biggest difference between the two. Both the Darkvoice and the Crack are more fun-leaning in their tuning with warm, thick sound signatures. The Crack just does it with overall superior technical performance in terms of detail and general cleanliness.

Crack vs Cayin HA-1AMK2

The comparison with the Cayin was done using the Telefunken and Mullard tubes in the Crack. I reasoned that the prices for which the Telefunken and Mullard pushes a new, fully assembled Crack with these tubes into the same price territory as the 1AMK2 with its stock tubes. I used the Cayin’s stock tubes for this comparison. I gave the Cayin HA-1AMK2 a glowing review a few months ago. I rediscovered this amp as I was playing around with this Crack. One of the biggest differences is the power. The Crack really needs to be cranked to drive the DT880. It drives the DT880 to ear-splitting levels with lots of control, but the 1AMK2 is just a brute, plain and simple. It’s rated at 2.2 watts per channel at 600Ω. I don’t need to move its pot past 11:00 and the DT880 is playing loud enough for OSHA compliance to come kicking the door down. The biggest area this power manifested itself was in the bass, and mostly with the DT880. The DT880’s subbass rumbled deeply and powerfully with the 1AMK2 where the Crack didn’t have quite enough juice to match. Interestingly, the Crack can create the perception of more bass punch/slam, though. I think that’s a psychoacoustic effect due to perceived frequency response. Let’s compare the perceived frequency responses in a bit more detail.

The Cayin has an overall more even frequency response with bass, mid-range, and treble all sounding like they are presented at a similar level whereas the Crack leans warm with more laid-back mids and treble. The 1AMK2 may still strike many listeners as somewhat warm as compared to true neutral, or certainly as compared to the very bright-and-analytical leaning solid-state amps proliferating the market right now, but the Crack is noticeably warmer yet than the 1AMK2. These different tunings make the Cayin sound a little brighter and generally more forward than the Crack, and the Crack sound darker and more relaxed. I think this creates the illusion that the Crack is the bassier amp, especially with the 6XX. The Crack can really slap in the low end with that headphone. The Cayin does too, arguably even moreso, it’s just harder to tell because the mids and treble are more present, creating a psychoacoustic effect of lesser bass.

The Cayin is just a hair more overall resolving. I worked hard to make sure that I was actually hearing more resolution rather than being fooled by the increased mid-range and treble presence, and with lots of work, yeah, it’s definitely real. It’s very subtle – both amps resolve quite well for their price – but the Cayin draws out a last bit of detail the Crack does not. When fingers slide along guitar strings, for example, the Cayin was just slightly more convincing. It also was a little more distinct in the way it presented room reverb and gave individual instrument and voice sounds just ever-so-much more definition. That said, when listening to the Crack I never thought it lacked for detail. As I mentioned above, moving to Crack + 6XX after listening to V281 + Heddphone or HE1000V2 was a far less abrupt change in detail retrieval than I expected.

The Cayin also puts out a bigger, more coherent soundstage. It sounds wider and taller and fills in left-center and right-center more completely and convincingly than the Crack. This bigger stage also translates to some music, like symphonies or other epic tracks like Bohemian Rhapsody, sounding more grandiose and larger-than-life like they’re often meant to. The Crack may have slightly more soundstage depth, however. With the DT880 on certain tracks I thought I detected the faintest hint of the Cayin presenting a little bit more of a wall of sound where the Crack was creating the illusion of a three-dimensional listening space slightly more effectively. This is definitely splitting hairs, though. At times the Cayin’s width can get in its own way. It can sound like it’s artificially stretching the stage horizontally and that can move sonic images just off of where they’re expected to be. An example that stands out is “Trouble Coming” by Royal Blood. The Cayin was placing the snare drum slightly right of center, which is normal. But it was placing the lead vocal slightly left of center, and I’m used to it being centered. The Crack centered the lead vocal and put the snare just slightly to the right. Which one got it correct? I check with V281 and HE1000V2. That combo agreed with the Crack.

Crack vs Monolith Liquid Platinum

This comparison was also done using the Telefunken and Mullard tubes in the Crack, and with new-old-stock Amperex PQ Gold Pin 6922 tubes in the MLP. The Crack was connected to the SE output of the Modius and the MLP was connected to the balanced output of the Modius. Did this bias the test in favor of the MLP? Possibly, but very minimally. The difference between balanced and SE performance from the Modius isn’t huge, nor is the difference in MLP’s performance from its balanced or SE inputs. Either way, those shopping for an amp in this price range will want to know how the best performance of one piece compares to the same in the other. Also of note, I used both the 6XX and DT880 in this comparison. My DT880 is modded to accept a dual-entry cabling system so that the balanced output of the MLP can be used to power it. The SE headphone output of the MLP is not great so if you have a Beyer DT series headphone you have not modded, this comparison may not be all that interesting to you.

With the 6XX the Crack has an advantage in the subbass. The truly deep bass is more present, more full, and punches harder than the with the MLP. Kick drums, for example, sound punchier, weightier, and generally fuller through the 6XX. The MLP opens up the soundstage more and has more coherent imaging, however, and generally sounds cleaner. The MLP is also slightly mid-forward in signature which brings the mids, and to a lesser extent the treble, more forward, similar to what the HA-1AMK2 does but not to the same extent. To my ear the already excellent mid-range timbre of the 6XX is improved just a bit by MLP over the Crack. The MLP is also more resolving. I again listened very closely to make sure I was hearing more actual resolution and not being fooled by a more forward presentation in the mids and treble. The detail is there and its real. A tell-tale sign is that after volume matching, I always wanted to turn up the Crack just a bit more because it sounded like it was missing something; the micro-detail just wasn’t quite there.

With the DT880 the picture was less clear. The subbass leader flipped to the MLP. The Crack again ran out of steam to drive the deep bass on the DT880 where the MLP had plenty of power. The MLP again sounded bigger, cleaner, and more detailed. However, the mid-forwardness of the MLP thinned out the mid-range timbre of the DT880 as opposed to the Crack’s mid-timbre. Vocals, strings, and pianos sounded more natural to me through the Crack + DT880 than the MLP + DT880. Both amps also controlled the sometimes too-hot treble of the DT880 very well, rarely being sibilant. But the Crack had just a bit more glare to it that would lead to fatigue more quickly.

Comparisons Take Away

To me there isn’t a clearly superior amp out of Crack, 1AMK2, or MLP. The 1AMK2 and MLP are more technically proficient more often. But, the Crack has an undeniable enjoyability to it and its more relaxed nature can give it an advantage over long listening periods. The decision will come down to personal preference and whether the end user has headphones to use with the Crack or plans to get them.


Sometimes reviewing sound gear is just plain work. This was not one of those times. I thoroughly enjoyed getting to know the Crack and listening to what it has to offer. It really is an engaging, fun listen through both the HD6XX and DT880. No, it was not the most technically proficient listening experience I’ve had, but that did not detract much from the enjoyment. The bottom line is I enjoyed listening to most of my music through the Crack and doing so for long periods of time. That’s really what matters. If you are interested in seeing what tubes are all about, this is an excellent starting point. Grab a Senn HD600 or HD650/6XX and order a shipment of Crack and see what all the fuss is about. You will be glad you did.

Apologies if all the Crack jokes came across as a bit two cheeky.

Thanks for reading and enjoy the music!
Last edited:
“A Crack is an ideal way of delivering Schitt.” That’s level 1000 wordplay right there. Great review!


100+ Head-Fier
Drop THX Panda by WaveTheory
Pros: Good detail and timbre for the product category; a more audiophile oriented sound signature than other mainstream wireless cans; good battery life; good comfort
Cons: SoundID app requires some hoop-jumping and has highly variable effectiveness; not nearly as isolating as ANC cans can be; technical sonic improvement over Bose or Sony ANCs arguably not enough to justify the lack of features and higher price
NOTE: This review was originally published on HiFiGuides forum on 2 Jul 2021.


I’ve had the opportunity to take the Drop Panda Bluetooth wireless headphone for a test run these past few weeks. I moved recently and they got some listening time in as I was packing and unpacking boxes or just sitting down to rest with all my main gear packed away. Now that I’m more settled, I have some time to sit down and write up some thoughts. So let’s get to it…

I’m going to focus a lot on the sound in this review. I’m not going to go into detail about the ergonomics of the buttons, or the phone call quality, etc. I don’t feel very qualified to comment on those aspects, anyway. But, hopefully I’ve earned a modicum of credibility in sound descriptions.


The Panda is good for what it is, a wireless, full sized headphone. For a Bluetooth headphone it brings reasonably good detail and timbre while breaking from other products in this category by providing a more audiophile targeted neutral sound signature. Using the SoundID app improves some aspects of the sonic performance at the expense of some others...once I got it to work, that is. The Panda still suffers from some of the same limitations of being a wireless headphone, though, and arguably its sonic performance isn’t a big enough improvement over some other Bluetooth cans that also have active noise cancelling and other convenience features to justify its cost.


My preferred genres are rock/metal and classical/orchestral music. I’m getting to know jazz more and enjoying quite a bit. I also listen to some EDM and hip-hop. My hearing quirks include a high sensitivity to midrange frequencies from just under 1KHz to around 3Khz, give or take. My ears are thus quick to perceive “shoutiness” in headphones in particular. I describe “shoutiness” as an emphasis on the ‘ou’ sound of ‘shout.’ It’s a forwardness in the neighborhood of 1KHz and/or on the first one or two harmonics above it (when I make the sound ‘ooooowwwww’ into a spectrum analyzer the dominant frequency on the vowel sound is around 930Hz, which also means harmonic spikes occur again at around 1860Hz and 2790Hz). In the extreme, it can have the tonal effect of sounding like a vocalist is speaking or singing through a toilet paper tube or cupping their hands over their mouth. It can also give instruments like piano, but especially brass instruments, an added ‘honk’ to their sound. I also get distracted by sibilance, or sharp ‘s’ and ‘t’ sounds that can make ssssingers sssssound like they’re forssssssing esssss ssssssounds aggresssssssively. Sibilance does not physically hurt my ears nearly as quickly as shout, though. It’s distracting because it’s annoying and unnatural. Finally, I’m discovering that I have a preference for more subtle detail. I like good detail retrieval and hearing what a recording has to offer, but I prefer what many would consider relaxed and subtle rather than aggressive or detail-forward. To my ear, more subtle detail-retrieval sounds more realistic and natural than aggressive, detail-forwardness. There is a balance here, though, because detail retrieval can get too relaxed and that can sound unnatural, as well, or simply leave out important aspects of the recording. Readers should keep these hearing quirks and preferences in mind as they read my descriptions of sound.


The Panda is a Bluetooth headset with built-in THX amplification. It includes all the latest fancy BT specs and ran on LDAC off my Galaxy Note 8 smartphone without issue. It’s light and fits snuggly without feeling tight. In fact, I could wear it around for extended time periods without many comfort issues. If I had one complaint on fit it would be the earcups aren’t very big and my average sized ears weren’t always completely enclosed. There were times where I could feel my earlobe slip a bit underneath the earpad on the inside, but there was enough room for it in there that I would forget about that happening until I took them off and they gently flopped my ear. They also feel reasonably rugged in their construction. It’s mostly plastic but still feels solid and will likely survive several drops (no pun intended!) or living in a gym bag.

Sound isolation is also good. For many OTG applications it will be reasonable. I was able to use it with an electric lawn mower and not hear the mower very much. A gas mower might be a bit of a problem, though. An airplane may also be too loud. However, walks, most bus rides, general out-and-about-ness, the Panda should do a reasonably good job of blocking the world out and holding your music in.

I didn’t have any issues with battery life. I didn’t time it, but Drop’s claimed battery life feels realistic. They also do a good job of holding their charge. I let them sit for about 10 days for a stretch and picked them up again and at least according to my phone, their charge hadn’t decreased at all.

Pairing was also easy to figure out without having to look up instructions. Some Bluetooth devices need a certain set of steps. This one was easy, just hold the button down until it blinks at you rapidly and then tell your phone to find it. Done.

A fun bonus is the power on/off sounds sound like old Nintendo game sound effects. This is not an important or necessary feature but makes me chuckle every time.

There is an app for updating and with EQ features kinda-sorta found here:

It’s not really a phone app, at least initially. On that website is an app to download a firmware updater for the Panda. It is downloaded to a Mac or Windows computer. I downloaded this app to install it. The install went fine, except Windows Defender (I’m running Win 10) didn’t want it to run. After 2 rounds of telling Windows I was sure I wanted to install it, it did so. However, when I plugged in the Panda via USB-C to update it, the update hung on this screen:


for several minutes. I closed that screen and restarted the Drop app. The app immediately recognized the Panda was still plugged in, informed me an update was available, and asked if I wanted to update. I said yes. The app then launched the update for about 5 seconds, then quit and said “Update not finish [sic]. Try Again?” I clicked try again and it finally ran the complete update. Once that’s done, the SoundID app, which can be downloaded at the Google or Apple app stores, will work with the Panda and any future firmware updates can be handled through it – the downloadable Windows/Mac updater is a one-and-done process.

But we’re not done yet. Because now you must download the SoundID app and if you don’t have an account create one and then navigate a list of possible headphones the SoundID folks have programmed things for and then go through the process of connecting your headphones to the app itself instead of just to your phone and cross your fingers to hope it works but for me it didn’t and I had to restart my phone and that didn’t help and then I had to unpair the Panda from my phone and re-pair it and then relaunch the SoundID app and tell it to connect to the Pandas again and then it finally did and [DEEP BREATH]…ok, yes, sorry English teachers for the epic run-on. I did it on purpose. Because the process of getting this update done, SoundID app installed, and then get that app to talk to the Panda was a pain in the [pick your favorite body part for things to be a pain in], and was a frustrating slog. Once everything is talking to everything else, you still have to go through a setup program within SoundID to get your sound signature preferences set up. I set it up and tried it with the Panda. It made an audible difference, which I will report on further when I talk about…


This sound review was done almost exclusively using LDAC Bluetooth connection between the Panda and my Galaxy smartphone or Cayin N6ii DAP, mostly using Spotify, but briefly using the Cayin’s stock player with local FLACs. I did this because I figured wireless will be the most likely use case and the reason that someone is buying this headphone, so let’s evaluate it as it’s likely to be used.

Sound Signature – With Stock Tuning

In a departure from most wireless headphones $400 and less, the Panda tuning is more neutral in its tuning. The bass isn’t nearly as elevated to the point of boom as some more mainstream tuned wireless pieces. There might be the shallowest of v signatures to it, but it’s not prominent. The bass has decent extension and the treble is sparkly without seeming forward or emphasized. The mids are nicely present too, not pushed to the background like many headphones of this type.

When I first put on the Pandas I had just finished reviewing a number of really high-end headgear pieces like the Audeze LCD-24, Abyss Diana Phi, HiFiMan HE1000V2,…well, you get the idea. Putting on a $400 wireless piece was a changeup. However, one thing I can say for the Panda is I didn’t cringe as hard as I thought I would. After listening for a few minutes, I was struck by the pleasantly realistic timbre in the mids and treble. For the most part, that mid and treble timbre continued to impress me with future listening sessions, too. However, if a recording is already sibilant, the Panda doesn’t do much for it and probably adds a little bit of its own. This added sibilance is less than I’m used to for THX amps, but it’s also not zero. The resolution is also good with some of my initial notes also noting the mid-bass detail. No, it’s not going to show you all the warts in your music, but it’s also not going to leave out too much to enjoy.

Now, I’m a basshead and most of the time there was enough bass for me. It wouldn’t be the first piece I reach for if I really wanted to rumble while on the go, but it’s good reasonably good extension and enough bass presence to satisfy most.

Where the Bluetooth nature really comes out is with the spatial presentation. There isn’t much in the way of staging with a narrow and flat stage, 3-blob imaging, and a general in-the-head presentation. However, this is common for the product type and I mention it only as a sonic aspect Drop did not solve with this product.

With SoundID EQ Enabled

OK…BIG waving flag here…I’m about to talk about a preference-based EQ…YMMV!

The SoundID setup program plays about 8 different clips with different EQ presents in them and asks you select whether you prefer clip A, clip B, or can’t tell a difference. It then puts all your selections through an algorithm and spits out an EQ profile supposedly optimized to your preferences for the headphone you’re using. My preferences for the Panda gave a slight boost to the subbass (surprise! Lol), smoothed out the transition from bass to midbass, brought up the upper mids just a hair, and perhaps most noticeably widened the soundstage and filled in the spaces between center, and left and right, making the spatial presentation just a bit less 3-blob-y. Less 3-blob-y though, and still very much with an in-the-head presentation, just slightly bigger and more laterally coherent.

Overall clarity improved, the sound was overall just a hair less veiled than the stock tuning. However, even thought the bass-to-mid transition smoothed out from a frequency-response perspective, a bit of grain was added in the same range. This grain was more detectable with male vocalists than female vocalists. I first noticed it when I enabled the EQ and “The Distance” by Cake came on in my shuffle. Turn off the EQ and the grain went away, but the soundstage narrowed and became more 3-blob-y. With female vocals the the EQ could introduce a hint of shout that was not there without the EQ, probably from that lift of the upper mids. How did that get in there? Well, I selected the distorted guitars test track in the SoundID setup thinking “I like to rock!”. Had I picked a vocal based test track, my own mileage very well could have varied. So, it’s a tradeoff. The EQ makes a difference, but it isn’t a cure-all. Some things improve, some things don’t.


I have two points of comparison for the Panda. I’ll comment on one below. First, the other headphone I have to compare to in a similar product category is the Sony WH-1000XM3, which costs about $350 and includes amazing active noise cancelling. Feature-wise the Sony has more controls on the headset itself, but most of them are touch controls where the Panda has a physical button. Truthfully, I don’t like either can’s control implementation and end up controlling everything on my phone. Physical comfort is pretty even although I thought the XM3 got a little bit warmer and started the ear sweat a little earlier…although they both did it. Both models also have battery life that is among the best in class.

FWIW, I had to update the firmware on my XM3 to also do a fair comparison here and check that my statements about dropping connection quality when EQ is active still apply (they do). It took about 35 minutes to do that update. It worked the first time, but was still slow and tedious. So neither the XM3 or the Panda gets high marks from me on the ergonomics of app side.

Sonically I’ll compare the stock tunings. The SoundID process is a bit of pain, tbh, and the results are…eh. The Sony comes with an app that has extensive EQ options, but that also drops the Bluetooth connection quality, so let’s compare the stock tunings with the best connection type. The XM3’s tuning is a bit closer to the mainstream with a definitely elevated bass shelf. Its treble isn’t necessarily recessed but is rolled off a bit and clearly tuned to avoid ear-fatigue over long listening sessions. That decision is defensible as it’s a headphone designed to make music a listenable experience on 12-hour flights and the like. The Panda’s tuning is more audiophile neutral. The Panda also has slightly more detail throughout the frequency range, I emphasize slightly, though. The timbre of the Panda is also a touch more natural than the XM3. Same here, the difference in timbre is a very slight advantage to the Panda. The XM3 also hits harder in the bass than the Panda, which can be more engaging for some music genres – namely mainstream ones. Both cans are essentially dead even in their ability to reproduce space, which means not well. It’s a very flat, narrow stage with an in-the-head feel either way.

Unfortunately, I have not heard the Sony XM4 and understand that they tuned that one even more mainstream with a more aggressive bass shelf. I can’t confirm that, but since the XM4 is the latest model it might change what I’m about to say…

If I didn’t already own the XM3 and had both it and the Drop Panda on loan to pick one…which would it be? XM3. Yes, the Panda sounds just a wink better in detail retrieval and timbre and has a tuning which probably means it’s more technically accurate. That might be all some audiophiles need and I will not give anyone grief over that decision. For me it comes down to 1) I like bass and the Sony delivers in the low end in important ways the Panda does not and 2) the Sony is the better value. On point 2, the XM3 is only slightly off the sound quality pace set by Panda in the mids and treble. The difference between the two is audible but I’ve heard bigger sound changes between DACs and amps that are close to each other in price. The XM3 also has more features, the big one being world class ANC. The presence of that ANC makes it more useful in a wider range of mobile situations than the Panda. When you throw in that it costs $50 less, it becomes an easy decision for me.

The other point of comparison I can make is in a bit different category…sorta. My workout setup is a Radsone ES100 bluetooth dac/amp and V-MODA Crossfade M-100 headphone with WC Wicked XL ear pads ( The pads give both a big sonic and comfort upgrade to the stock M-100. The M-100 is a fairly easy-driving closed-back and these pads make it isolate pretty well, too. Crunching the numbers here, the M-100 sells for $250. The ES100 mk 2 is $90 on Amazon as of this writing, normally about $100. The pads are $20. A short, 3.5mm to 3.5mm cable (I use a 12” Cable Creations) goes for under $10. We’re looking at $380 for the package. I clip the ES100 to my shirt collar and off I go. The M-100 stays on my head exceptionally well, even when laying on a horizontal bench and while sweating. I don’t hear much of the outside world, and no one has ever told me to turn my music down because they could hear it…or maybe I just look unapproachable. Either way, the reason I always leaned that way instead of using my XM3’s was because the M-100 stayed on better in active situations and this setup sounds better. With the WC XL pads, the M-100 is a little less mid-forward and has a warmer signature than stock and while it’s not going to compete with my desktop gear in resolution, it’s no slouch. I didn’t try the Panda in a full gym workout because I don’t own it and didn’t want to sweat that much on it (you’re welcome, owner). But, it will slide off my head backward if lying horizontally. The ergonomic drawbacks of the ES100 + M-100 setup are that a wire is still required to go from the ES100 to the M-100. It’s also an overall more complicated setup as it requires a total of 4 pieces – phone/dap/tablet, BT dac/amp, wire, headphone – as opposed to just 2 for the Panda – phone/dap/tablet and headphone. However, the performance is quite good.

Again comparing the stock tunings, the ES100 + M-100 is warmer, bassier, has more thump and rumble in the low end, and a generally smoother presentation throughout the frequency spectrum. The Panda sounds more crisp and more forward in the mids and treble. The treble especially sounds a bit more shimmery than the ES100 + M-100. Despite this crispness, the ES100 + M-100 was more resolving. It didn’t initially come across that way because it sounded smoother overall but it was pulling out more room reverb, resolving string plucks a little more clearly, etc. The ES100 + M-100 also had a bigger, wider soundstage and more coherent lateral imaging. It was far less 3-blob-y than Panda. The ES100 + M-100 still can’t quite lick that in-the-head feel, but it’s less than feeling from Panda. Still, the overall technical performance gap here is slight and I can’t fault anyone for preferring Panda because of the more neutral signature or liking that crisper presentation. Still, anyone looking around in this price category should know what the options are.


The Panda is still a good product. If the goal is straight up to find the best sound quality for a wireless headphone under $500 and it’s not going to be used in contexts with noisy backgrounds, here it is. In my personal opinion the value isn’t great at $399. I suspect that the utility of the Panda decreases dramatically if you want to listen to music on planes, while mowing the lawn, or doing other activities with noisy backgrounds. The other Bluetooth cans out there in the price range that have ANC still sound pretty good too, and often represent a more complete overall value package. However, I’ve seen used models listed in the $250 price range and there it starts to make a lot more sense. Despite my reservations on the overall value, there were times the Panda brought me music that I really appreciated. During my move with all my other sound gear boxed up and strewn about in different rooms and sometimes in different houses, it was nice to grab a lawn chair, set it up on the deck of the new house, grab the Pandas, and sneak in a few songs at reasonably good quality. So, a product like the Panda absolutely has its place. It will be a question of what your use cases are and what the right price is for you.

Thanks once again for reading, all. Enjoy the music!
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100+ Head-Fier
Hedd Heddphone by WaveTheory
Pros: A pleasant and inoffensive presentation; detail retrieval; excellent for smaller scale classical music or other mellow acoustic music
Cons: physical comfort; a bit bass-lean; not very dynamic; physical comfort (yes, I said that twice)
NOTE: This review was originally published on HiFiGuides forum on 30 Jun 2021.


It’s been some time since I was able to do a review. I moved! And moving is exhausting. But, the HiFiGuides community had my back as always and had plenty of gear stacked up for me to check out once I got settled. One piece of that gear is the Hedd Heddphone. The Heddphone is an exciting product because it brings a new driver technology to the headphone market, namely AMT drivers. Before Heddphone, AMT drivers had been mostly relegated to high-frequency reproduction in speakers. I know that as of this writing in late June 2021 the Heddphone isn’t the newest kid on the block, but it’s still one of the only AMT-based headphones out there (Goldplanar GL850 being the only other one that I know of), which makes it exciting to check out! Let’s dive in…


Sonically the Heddphone is an intriguing entry into the headphone world with its AMT drivers. Those drivers bring lots of detail and good timbre. Heddphone pulls off excellent detail retrieval without sounding forward or aggressive in its presentation, as well. The tuning of the Heddphone is likely best suited for mellow, acoustic music, with piano music being a real strength. It has a very pleasant, polite presentation that does little wrong, but isn’t very dynamic and does little to excite. Still, the future could be fun with AMT driver headphones. The physical comfort is poor, though, and will likely be a dealbreaker for many.


My preferred genres are rock/metal and classical/orchestral music. I’m getting to know jazz more and enjoying quite a bit. I also listen to some EDM and hip-hop. My hearing quirks include a high sensitivity to midrange frequencies from just under 1KHz to around 3Khz, give or take. My ears are thus quick to perceive “shoutiness” in headphones in particular. I describe “shoutiness” as an emphasis on the ‘ou’ sound of ‘shout.’ It’s a forwardness in the neighborhood of 1KHz and/or on the first one or two harmonics above it (when I make the sound ‘ooooowwwww’ into a spectrum analyzer the dominant frequency on the vowel sound is around 930Hz, which also means harmonic spikes occur again at around 1860Hz and 2790Hz). In the extreme, it can have the tonal effect of sounding like a vocalist is speaking or singing through a toilet paper tube or cupping their hands over their mouth. It can also give instruments like piano, but especially brass instruments, an added ‘honk’ to their sound. I also get distracted by sibilance, or sharp ‘s’ and ‘t’ sounds that can make ssssingers sssssound like they’re forssssssing esssss ssssssounds aggresssssssively. Sibilance does not physically hurt my ears nearly as quickly as shout, though. It’s distracting because it’s annoying and unnatural. Finally, I’m discovering that I have a preference for more subtle detail. I like good detail retrieval and hearing what a recording has to offer, but I prefer what many would consider relaxed and subtle rather than aggressive or detail-forward. To my ear, more subtle detail-retrieval sounds more realistic and natural than aggressive, detail-forwardness. There is a balance here, though, because detail retrieval can get too relaxed and that can sound unnatural, as well, or simply leave out important aspects of the recording. Readers should keep these hearing quirks and preferences in mind as they read my descriptions of sound.


I’m not going to go into much depth on the driver tech as that’s been done already in many places around the internet. Those drivers are housed in a mostly rectangular, open-back earcup. The Heddphone is big and heavy. The earcups and pads have a lot of depth to them, and they stick way out off the sides of the head. They are open-back so there isn’t much isolation. On the other hand, they are not as leaky as something like HiFiMan’s egg-shaped series of headphones. Still, don’t plan to use them in a cubicle because everyone will still hear your music.

Cable entry is dual-entry with mini 4-pin XLR connectors in the same style as ZMF or Audeze headphones. The cable entry points are flush mounted so it should be very easy to buy aftermarket cables.

I have to talk about the comfort. It’s…less than stellar. That’s a nice way of saying that for my head the comfort – specifically lack thereof – is a dealbreaker. This review was difficult because wearing the Heddphone for more than 4 or 5 songs at a time became really uncomfortable. It’s not so much the weight. Heavy headphones usually don’t bother me. It’s the clamp force, the way the pads rest on the side of the head, and how warm they get for me. Comfort is very much a YMMV type of thing. It may work for you, but it doesn’t for me and I’ve heard several other audiophiles say similarly. I advise purchasing Heddphone from somewhere where you can easily return them if the comfort is also a miss for you. I understand that there is a second revision out there (quite sure I have V1) that offers a headband extension to alleviate some of that. I don’t need to extend headphone headbands very much so I’m sot sure if that would help me. Either way, readers should know that such a thing exists too and that I was not able to evaluate it.

Finally for features and build, POWAH! The Heddphone is not an easy drive. It’s rated at 42Ω impedance and 87dB/mW sensitivity. You’ll need an amp with some juice to get it to sound its best.


Test Gear

I mostly ran Heddphone off a chain of Singxer SU-2 DDC -> Berkeley Audio Designs Alpha Series 2 DAC -> Violectric HPA-V281 headphone amp. I also spent some time with a Cayin N6ii DAP -> Schiit Bifrost 2 DAC -> Monolith Liquid Platinum amp with Amperex PQ Gold Pin 6922 tubes.

Sound Signature

Heddphone strikes me as having an overall neutral-bright signature. To my ear the treble has just a bit of emphasis to it. It’s reminiscent of the Beyerdynamic DT880 in this regard, though not quite to that magnitude. The bass is extended but lean. The mids are smooth yet well-detailed. The overall presentation is quite inoffensive. The treble is crisp and clear but almost never introduces any sibilance beyond what’s in the recording. The mids are smooth, present, detailed, and I can’t recall a single instance where I thought it sounded shouty when it shouldn’t have. Overall, the sound just doesn’t really do anything obviously wrong, and it’s fairly forgiving of electronics and recordings once properly powered.

As mentioned, the bass has good extension and also brings with it some decent detail and texture. It is lean and lacks slam, though. The bass that is there is good. I have nothing to complain about in regards to what is there. Personally, I would like more bass presence and more slam. Bassheads should probably spend their money elsewhere.

The midrange and treble are both excellent. They are smooth while being detailed, and crisp and clear without being sharp, shrill, or shouty. Detail retrieval was excellent. Room reverb, drum ghost notes, any kind of tuning dissonance, all resolved well. Heddphone does this resolving without it ever feeling forced, too-forward, or analytical. It retains a pleasant smoothness and musicality with that high level of detail retrieval.

The timbre is also quite good. In general, voices and instruments sound much like they are supposed to sound. In the price range the timbre from Hedd is among the best I’ve heard.


This is where the Hedd doesn’t necessarily fall short, but isn’t for everyone. The sound isn’t the most dynamic or lively. There is a pleasantness and politeness to it – still detailed! – that translates to not much in the way of impact, slam, or physicality. The bass-lean-ness means there isn’t much in the way of rumble, either. For me, this meant there wasn’t much involvement with music like rock, metal, hip-hop, or EDM that benefits from some punch or slam. Heddphone also wasn’t particularly engaging to me on music that isn’t punchy but has lots of rumble – think of things like Hans Zimmer’s OSTs here. However, for piano music, or mellow acoustic music Heddphone is fantastic. There the timbre and the detail retrieval become the focus and the physical too-polite-ness fades away.


From a comfort standpoint…there isn’t much comparison. Heddphone is the most physically uncomfortable full-size headphone I’ve used to this point. I’m having trouble coming up with a close second, to be honest.

Sonically the Heddphone feels rather appropriately priced at around $1900. Its timbre is very good – perhaps only being edged out in this price range by the ZMF line. I didn’t get quite the timbral magic out of Heddphone that I experienced with the ZMF Eikon, but it wasn’t far behind either. The detail retrieval also seems appropriate, being around, and perhaps just a hair ahead of, the HiFiMan Arya. I’m going from memory on that though as it’s been awhile since I’ve heard the Arya. Still, from memory, the two are close. I think Heddphone is more forgiving of poor recordings than Arya even though it maintains that excellent detail retrieval. Arya has a bit more punch in the low-end however. For me the tricky part with Heddphone at its new price is that the HiFiMan HE1000V2 can be found new for as low as $2200 at times, and when it’s used it’s frequently around $1500. To my ear that is a significant technical step up almost across the board for a similar price, plus its much more comfortable. The only advantage I can give to Hedd there is that it’s still more forgiving than the HE1000V2, especially in regard to sibilance. The HE1000V2 doesn’t hit very hard either, but it hits harder than Heddphone.


The Heddphone is a good all-around sounding headphone if you’re ok with lean bass and not much slam. The timbre and detail are very good. Piano music and other mellow acoustic music sound excellent on the Heddphone. However, I didn’t find myself reaching for it very often. First, it’s not very comfortable and I know when I put it on that it won’t be on for long. Second, it’s not the best sonic fit for my preferred music genres. I mostly listen to music that benefits from more bass presence and more physicality than Heddphone brings to the table. Even so, there are enough good qualities here to give me hope that a future AMT-based headphone could be very intriguing for me. If Hedd can fix the comfort issues and offer a more bass-present signature with a more dynamic presentation, I’d be very interested.

Thanks for reading, all. Enjoy the music!


100+ Head-Fier
Sennheiser HD660s by WaveTheory
Pros: a well-balanced and enjoyable sound signature; soundstage height; maintains Senn 6?? series comfort
Cons: The technical improvement over HD6XX or DT880 is not proportional to the $300 price difference; Using a tube amp doesn’t do much

It’s time to come back down to reality after a brief (but fun!) foray into high-end headphone systems. The Sennheiser HD660S headphone crossed my desk recently and I had a good listen. Let’s see what I found…


The Senn HD660S is a very good ~$200-250 headphone that unfortunately sells for $500 from most retailers. It has its strengths and offers a slightly different signature than its popular sibling model the HD6XX from Massdrop. It’s more forgiving than its 6XX sibling of entry-level DACs and amps. But, in this reviewer’s humble opinion it does not offer a signature that is different enough or a technical performance improvement over the 6XX, or another budget heavyweight Beyerdynamic DT880 600Ω, large enough to justify its ~$300 price difference over those models. However, if you can find it used around $250 or less, it can be a compelling option.


My preferred genres are rock/metal and classical/orchestral music. I’m getting to know jazz more and enjoying quite a bit. I also listen to some EDM and hip-hop. My hearing quirks include a high sensitivity to midrange frequencies from just under 1KHz to around 3Khz, give or take. My ears are thus quick to perceive “shoutiness” in headphones in particular. I describe “shoutiness” as an emphasis on the ‘ou’ sound of ‘shout.’ It’s a forwardness in the neighborhood of 1KHz and/or on the first one or two harmonics above it (when I make the sound ‘ooooowwwww’ into a spectrum analyzer the dominant frequency on the vowel sound is around 930Hz, which also means harmonic spikes occur again at around 1860Hz and 2790Hz). In the extreme, it can have the tonal effect of sounding like a vocalist is speaking or singing through a toilet paper tube or cupping their hands over their mouth. It can also give instruments like piano, but especially brass instruments, an added ‘honk’ to their sound. I also get distracted by sibilance, or sharp ‘s’ and ‘t’ sounds that can make ssssingers sssssound like they’re forssssssing esssss ssssssounds aggresssssssively. Sibilance does not physically hurt my ears nearly as quickly as shout, though. It’s distracting because it’s annoying and unnatural. Finally, I’m discovering that I have a preference for more subtle detail. I like good detail retrieval and hearing what a recording has to offer, but I prefer what many would consider relaxed and subtle rather than aggressive or detail-forward. To my ear, more subtle detail-retrieval sounds more realistic and natural than aggressive, detail-forwardness. There is a balance here, though, because detail retrieval can get too relaxed and that can sound unnatural, as well, or simply leave out important aspects of the recording. Readers should keep these hearing quirks and preferences in mind as they read my descriptions of sound.


The HD660S is an open-back, dynamic-driver, over-the-ear headphone. It has a rated impedance of 150Ω and rated sensitivity of 104 dB/mW. On paper, it’s an easier-to-drive load than most of the Sennheiser HD6?? series, which have impedances of 300Ω. As far as build quality goes, there’s not much to say here that hasn’t already been said. If you’re familiar with the Senn 600 series build, that’s what you get. I’m not going to spend too much time here because descriptions of the build are all over the internet. The time here will be better spent on the…


Test Gear

There were 3.5ish different signal chains I listened to the 660s with most. To acclimate, I used the Chord Hugo 2 DAC/amp (as DAC only) and the Cayin HA-1AMK2 tube amp on its lowest output impedance setting. That’s a source chain that’s probably a bit unrealistic for most users who may be considering the 660s, so I also did a fair amount of critical listening with the Schiit Modius + Asgard 3 stack, and a Topping D10 + JDS Labs Atom and Monolith Liquid Spark amp. Read about some of my thoughts on Asgard 3, Atom, and Liquid Spark amps here.

Sound Signature

To my ear the signature of the 660s is a gentle ‘v’…kinda. Why kinda? There’s not much subbass. The middbass is a bit forward, the mids are slightly recessed, and the lower treble is a bit forward. It’s kind like a radical symbol: √ - sorta, but the treble isn’t noticeably forward of the bass. If you’re familiar with the HD6XX, pull back the mids a touch and bring the lower treble up just a hair. The result is not as mid-focused or overall neutral-warm like the 6XX is, it’s a bit closer to a more mainstream tuning, but not nearly as extreme. It’s bass and treble extension are both somewhat mediocre, not going very deep or having much air, but that’s par for the course for Senn 6?? series cans. And like the other Senn 6?? cans, the 660s is generally smooth, relaxed, and easy to listen to for long periods of time without getting fatigued.

Detail Retrieval

Have you heard the phrase “Sennheiser veil”? Senns are not detail-forward so to many they can sound veiled when they are first put on. It took me awhile to drop this feeling after doing weeks of listening to the likes of the Audeze LCD-24, HiFiMan HE1000V2, and Abyss Diana Phi. However, Senns are actually quite detailed at their price points; they’re just subtle about it. Once that veiled feeling wears off, there’s a fair amount going on. The 660s is no exception here. It’s reasonably resolving in the mids and lower treble in particular. Room reverb, many vocal subtleties, etc. are presented well.

Spatial Presentation

The spatial presentation is still very Senn HD6??-like. It’s not particularly wide, its imaging tends toward the “3-blob” presentation (stuff left, stuff center, stuff right, not as much in between as some others), and there’s not a ton of depth. None of those things are deal breakers for most, so they won’t be here either. The 660s does a nice job of creating some more vertical space than some other headphones I’ve heard in the price range, though.

But If You Tube It

Yeah, it’s a Senn 6?? series, so we gotta talk about tube amps. At 150Ω, the 660S is basically the minimum impedance that makes sense to use on an OTL (output transformer-less) tube amp. Unfortunately, I don’t have a true OTL tube amp, I have the transformer-coupled Cayin HA-1AMK2. The 660s did indeed sound better on the 1AMK2 than it did on the Atom, Liquid Spark, or Asgard 3, but I don’t think that had much to do with it being a tube amp and the 660s taking well to tubes. If anything, it’s because the 1AMK2 is on a much higher performance tier than any of those amps. The truth is, the 660s did not change its sound much. Yes, there was slightly more detail and an improvement in overall technical performance, but there wasn’t the transformation that happens when the 6XX is put on a tube. So, you can use the 660s with a tube. It does change a bit. But, it’s not a completely different headphone on a tube in the way that its 600 and 650/6XX brethren are.

The 660s is a fine-sounding headphone. I can listen to it and enjoy it for extended periods of time. Nonetheless, this sound section is a bit shorter than I often do because I think the big story with the 660s is found in the…


I keep a Massdrop + Sennheiser HD6XX (which is essentially a Massdrop-branded HD650) and a Beyerdynamic DT-880 600Ω around as references pieces. Both of these cans are near $200 USD in MSRP and both are well-known, popular cans. They make excellent references for review work. I’ll go ahead and drop the punchline of this section here: the 660s has its own sound signature that may attract some listeners but it also is not a marked technical improvement over the 6XX or the DT880 – if it’s even an improvement at all. It also doesn’t scale up nearly as well. Both the 6XX and DT880 have something new to give when they’re driven by $1000+ amps and DACs. The 660s hits its performance ceiling much earlier. On the flip side, I found the 660s to be slightly – and I emphasize slightly – more forgiving with entry-level gear than either 6XX or DT880. I interpret this to mean it is a little less source-picky than these other two. Alright, let’s unpack all of this…

Sound Signatures

As stated before, the 660s has a very mild and somewhat rolled-off-at-either-end v-signature. The 6XX has a neutral-warm signature that is also somewhat rolled-off with mediocre extension both high and low. The DT880 is neutral-bright with excellent bass and treble extension but also somewhat lean bass. The amount of treble in the 660s is between the 6XX and DT880, but closer to the 6XX than the 880. The 660s and DT880 are quite similar in midrange quantity. The 6XX and 660s have similar amounts of midbass, being slightly more than the DT880, but the DT880 has the extension advantage and more subbass presence overall, despite it being somewhat lean in the lows (at least compared to its treble). I think the DT880 also has more bass punch/slam. It’s more dynamic. I wouldn’t say it has great punch/slam because of the lean-ness of its bass, but it is overall more energetic and aggressive throughout the frequency range than either Senn.

Spatial Presentations

The DT880 is the spatial king at its price point and its abilities in this area keep it competitive way beyond its price point. It’s well ahead of either Senn model in soundstage size, imaging, separation, and depth. After that, and in a somewhat shocking discovery for me given the intimate nature of the 6XX’s spatial presentation, the 660 is more horizontally narrow than the 6XX. It’s not a huge difference, but it’s noticeable. The 660s is also actually more 3-blob-y than the 6XX – another shocker. However, as mentioned before, the 660s handles vertical space much better than 6XX, creating a much more convincing sense of soundstage height.

Detail Retrieval

The DT880 initially comes across as the most detailed of the three because of its brightness and more aggressive presentation. Upon closer listening, it maintains a slight edge over either Senn in detail retrieval in the bass and the treble. The 6XX and the 660s are slightly more detailed in the midrange than the DT880. The 6XX probably is the one with more resolution in the mids, and the 660s is the one that’s smoother and more forgiving. Both of these qualities have advantages in certain situations.

When To Use These Headphones

The 6XX and DT880 both are a bit on the picky side. The 6XX is very transparent in the midrange and will wander into shouty/honky territory if its source chain (amp and DAC) aren’t strong in the mids. I learned this the hard way the first time I owned a 6XX. I was using a DAC that didn’t do so well in the mids from its single-ended output and that translated into shouty and honky mids, and was not particularly enjoyable. The DT880 has similar challenges in the treble. On a source chain that doesn’t handle treble very well, it will get sharp and shrill to the point of piercing sometimes. I did not notice such issues with the 660s. It sounds pretty good – probably the best of these 3 headphones – on the ~$75ish (and ESS-based!) Topping D10 DAC, and Atom ($99) or Liquid Spark ($109) amps. The midrange is smoother and more natural on that stack with 660s than the 6XX and the treble is pleasant and reasonably detailed where the DT880 can get over-the-top sharp (especially on Atom).

Moving up to the Modius + Asgard 3 pile of Schiit, the 3 headphones are on a roughly equal technical level across the board and signature preference will make the determination as to which one is the favorite. On this stack, the DT880’s sharpness is largely tempered and the 6XX’s mid-shout is virtually absent. IMO, the Asgard 3 in particular is the entry-point for when the 6XX and DT880 should be reasonably considered. The DT880 can sound pretty good on the Liquid Spark most of the time, but still gets a bit shrill even on that warmer amp. With the Asgard 3 its treble sharpness will be a non-issue for all but the most treble sensitive listeners. The 6XX’s mids really need the warm, steady hand of the Asgard 3, though. The 660s is quite enjoyable and competent. It has its own signature that some will find appealing. But, at $500 it’s not yet separating itself in technical proficiency from either of the other $200 headphones.

It's when the source chain moves into the (multi)kilobuck range where it becomes difficult to justify the 660s costing $300 more than 6XX or DT880. On the Hugo 2 + HA-1AMK2 combo, the 6XX’s mids sound very detailed and organic, with stunningly natural timbre considering the price point. The DT880 musters hints of meaningful bass texture and has treble timbre every bit as good as what the 6XX delivers in the midrange. The 660s sounds better than it did on the $400 Schiit-pile but does not sound as technically proficient as the 6XX or DT880 at this level. It lacks a standout feature that the other two bring.

What does this mean? It’s tricky. My read on this is the 660s is a mid-fi-priced headphone that should be priced more in the $200-250 range. It would be a solid headphone at that price and wow many audiophile newbies. While I’ve not heard it, my understanding is the Massdrop + Sennheiser HD58X kinda is the 660s…almost…at $185. The prices of the 6XX and DT880 are also misleading. They are priced as entry points into the headphone-enthusiast game, but they require a healthy investment in the electronics that drive them to hear what makes them so special. They are mid-fi headphones priced at the entry-fi (for enthusiasts, anyway) level. Some of that pricing is because they’ve been around for a long time and so paying for development cost is no longer necessary. The Senn HD650 was $500ish once upon a time, and so was the DT880 long ago. [The core DT880 design has been around since 1980!] Nonetheless, the 660s is a fine-sounding headphone that seems to be struggling for a true place in the market. Yes, it’s signature is different, but not that different. It’s a fine headphone that doesn’t really have a niche, IMO.

And then there’s tubing. A great party trick the 6XX has is that it’s essentially 2 headphones. It has one signature for solid state amps – which is pretty good – and then really wakes up on a tube amp with more alive bass and treble. The DT880 isn’t quite as dramatic but also changes its behavior significantly between solid state and tube amplification. The 660s doesn’t change as much as either of these other two. Does it sound good on tube amps? Yes. It does. It sounds good on solid state amps too. It just doesn’t transform to the degrees that other Senn 6?? do and doesn’t match the difference the DT880 gives either.


The above probably makes it sound like I don’t like the HD660s. That’s not true. I genuinely enjoyed its sound when I listened to it on its own merits. I spent several dozen hours with it before comparing it against the HD6XX or the DT880. I enjoyed that time. I really did. I was pleasantly surprised. But then I did put on the HD6XX and DT880. And every time I go back to one of those two I think “why don’t I listen to these more?” The effect is not the same with the 660s because it doesn’t scale up like 6XX or 880. At that point I started looking at prices and numbers. It’s a total of approximately $675 for the HD660s, Topping D10 (now D10s), and JDS Labs Atom. It’s $620 for Schiit Modius, Schiit Asgard 3, and HD6XX or $600 if you swap the DT880 for the 6XX. The experience with the Schiit stack and 6XX/880 is better than 660s + D10 + Atom. The experience with the 660s + Schiit stack is about the same in overall quality as with Schiit stack + 6XX/880 but is also now $900 instead of $600ish. At that point it’s more cost-effective to get the Schiit stack + 6XX/880 and another complementary headphone for $300. And then either the 6XX or 880 will stay relevant in your collection several upgrades down the road when this hobby inevitably leads you to thousand-dollar or more amps and DACs. The 660s will run out of tricks up its sleeve.

For me the bottom line is the 660s is an enjoyable headphone that makes more sense if you can land it for ~$250. Even $300 is pushing it, IMO. It has a different signature than DT880 or its HD6XX sibiling, but not different enough in my view to justify $300 more for it. It’s an enjoyable headphone that appears to struggle to make its own unique mark on the market and justify its $500 price tag.

Thanks for reading another long review, all. Enjoy the music!
If u preferring m40x then i bealive none of these audiophile open backs are for u.
Other than that agree 660s sound better than many 1.000 euro headphones. 6XX is a good option if u can get them at low price but to me 660s are better in every way. U have to know that Headphones doesnt work like the more u give the more u get... To some point u pay 3 times the price for 5% more.
If i understand correct u want bass and energy closed back... Get the pioneer HDj series or V moda series search something from those line ups.
Ehy Tripokaridos, yep i like my energetic closed back, but thats why now i am thinking on getting something different! So maybe hd6xx because hd660 just seems ovepriced
For the price yeah 6xx. For the best 660s.


100+ Head-Fier
Chord Hugo 2 Review - By WaveTheory
Pros: Excellent overall DAC performance. Resolution. Timbre. Imaging & Separation. Transportable! Can power many headphones/IEMs very well. Also works great on a desk or in a 2-channel system.
Cons: Detail retrieval can be overemphasized on some content and with some amps. Very picky about matching with headphones from direct output. Light brightness settings. USB implementation now a bit dated.

The Chord Hugo 2 is a transportable DAC/amp built around an FPGA DAC using digital filters designed by Rob Watts. At the time of this writing, most US retailers were listing it for $2495. One landed in my possession a couple of months ago and now it’s time to give it a rundown. A word of warning, though: this review is LONG. The Hugo 2 is loaded with features and thing to talk about, so get comfortable.


The Hugo 2 is loaded with handy features that make it useful as a transportable unit, even though its size prevents it from being a realistic on-the-go solution. The sound quality from its DAC is outstanding with excellent resolution, strong timbre, and excellent dynamics. The amp section is quite picky about what headphones/IEMs it pairs with, but when it matches well is capable and provides plenty of power with all the strengths that the DAC provides. If you’re looking for hi-end audio that you can put in a suitcase or backpack and use to listen at a travel destination, or just want a solid desktop or 2-channel DAC with the option of moving elsewhere to listen, the Hugo 2 is a compelling product.


My preferred genres are rock/metal and classical/orchestral music. I’m getting to know jazz more and enjoying quite a bit. I also listen to some EDM and hip-hop. My hearing quirks include a high sensitivity to midrange frequencies from just under 1KHz to around 3Khz, give or take. My ears are thus quick to perceive “shoutiness” in headphones in particular. I describe “shoutiness” as an emphasis on the ‘ou’ sound of ‘shout.’ It’s a forwardness in the neighborhood of 1KHz and/or on the first one or two harmonics above it (when I make the sound ‘ooooowwwww’ into a spectrum analyzer the dominant frequency on the vowel sound is around 930Hz, which also means harmonic spikes occur again at around 1860Hz and 2790Hz). In the extreme, it can have the tonal effect of sounding like a vocalist is speaking or singing through a toilet paper tube or cupping their hands over their mouth. It can also give instruments like piano, but especially brass instruments, an added ‘honk’ to their sound. I also get distracted by sibilance, or sharp ‘s’ and ‘t’ sounds that can make ssssingers sssssound like they’re forssssssing esssss ssssssounds aggresssssssively. Sibilance does not physically hurt my ears nearly as quickly as shout, though. It’s distracting because it’s annoying and unnatural. Finally, in a new clause in this section, I’m discovering that I have a preference for more subtle detail. I like good detail retrieval and hearing what a recording has to offer, but I prefer that presentation to what many would consider relaxed and subtle rather than aggressive of detail-forward. To my ear, more subtle detail-retrieval sounds more realistic and natural than aggressive, detail-forwardness. There is a balance here, though, because detail retrieval can get too relaxed and that can sound unnatural, as well. Readers should keep these hearing quirks and preferences in mind as they read my descriptions of sound.


The Hugo 2 is a high-quality DAC, headphone amp, and Bluetooth receiver packaged with a decent battery and stuffed into a rather compact aluminum box. It’s a little too big to fit in a normal pants pocket or coat pocket to be carried around on-the-go. The design is transportable, seemingly meant to be used while stationary but basically anywhere it can be carried to. Let’s first talk about all of these features in a little bit more detail, and include some discussion on inputs and outputs.

DAC Section

Chord has been a champion of the FPGA – Field Programmable Gate Array – method of digital-to-analog conversion. I’m not an expert on the ins and outs of how that works, so here’s Paul McGowan of PS Audio explaining the basics of it. Rob Watts has designed some excellent digital filters to upsample incoming signals and get them ready for the gate array to handle. The Hugo 2 can process PCM signals up to 32 bit and 768 KHz and up to DSD512. An interesting feature is its ability to accept a dual-coaxial input signal. Chord’s M Scaler can upscale incoming signals to 768 KHz and then output that signal over two coaxial cables, with each cable carrying 384 KHz signals. The Hugo 2 has a 3.5mm phono TRS phono input that can accept that dual cable signal. I did not get a chance to use this as I didn’t have access to an M Scaler. But, it’s an interesting feature I’d like to explore someday.

There are 4 digital filter presets. The first is called “incisive neutral” which has a very neutral signature and excellent detail retrieval. The second is incisive neutral with a high frequency roll-off. The third is “warm” and the fourth is warm with a high frequency roll-off. The warm filters use a lower upsampling rate and sacrifice a touch of detail. Chord says that the incisive filter with high frequency roll-off is optimized for DSD playback.

Amp Section

The amplifier section, as I understand it, is more like the output stage of the DAC. Chord’s website states that this output stage is Class A. The rated power output is 94mW at 300Ω. There is both 6.3mm (1/4 inch) and 3.5mm (1/8 inch) TRS, single-ended headphone outputs. There is also a pair of single-ended RCA stereo outputs for connection to an external amp. The headphone and RCA outputs are all wired together, in this case meaning that their outputs are identical. The Hugo 2 has a “line-out” mode, but that is just setting the output level to the voltage of a standard SE output. This warrants a couple words of caution. First, if you have headphones or IEMs plugged in, particularly sensitive ones, don’t enable line-out mode as you’ll likely overdrive the headphones. Second, the Hugo 2 can output much more voltage than most amps can handle via their SE inputs, leading to a lot of distortion.

Chassis and Connections

The Hugo 2 is a good-looking unit, IMO, with its aluminum shell. There’s also a bubble window with a magnifying lens in the top showing off some of the innards. There are 4 buttons for filter selection, input selection, crossfeed setting (yes! There are crossfeed filters!), and power. There’s also a rotating wheel for volume control. All of these buttons and the looking window are on the top panel and are backlit:


There is also a window for IR sensor for the remote control. This window wraps around on three sides, giving quite range of ability to receive remote control signals.

Let’s talk more about this backlighting. It can light up like Vegas with lots of different colors, but the colors all have meanings. All four of the toggle buttons are capable of glowing different colors, each with their own meaning. For example, the filter button is white for filter 1, green for filter 2, orange for filter 3, and red for filter 4. The light inside the window changes color with PCM sampling rate or DSD signals. The volume wheel moves through the colors of the rainbow with red for quiet through violet for loud. It takes some time to get used to what all the colors mean, but in time it becomes a very quick and intuitive way to tell what’s going on with the unit with just a glance. It can look cool. Here’s a picture I took when I first got it in a dark room:


DAC or deep-sea submarine? Lol.

My one complaint is how bright the lights can be, and also how dim. There are only 2 brightness settings and they are both a bit on the extreme side. Here’s normal brightness:


Yes, that is as blinding in real life as the photo suggests. The dim setting works well in a darkened room:


But can be very difficult to see in a daylit room, or just with my desk lamp on with just its lowest setting:


The three lower buttons on the left are the same color as they were in the dark photos above, but it’s not easy to tell with the desk lamp on, is it? If anyone from Chord reads this review, a brightness setting in the middle of these two would be great on an eventual Hugo 3, please.

Another thing those photos show is that the inputs and outputs are on either end of the case. In the above photos, the USB inputs are on the left. They are micro-B. Some may complain that they should be USB-C connections. I imagine a future Hugo 3 they will be. But, let’s remember the Hugo 2 launched nearly 4 years ago when micro-B was far more common. Even so, those micro-B ports are quite snug. Even though I bought this unit used, the USB cables fit in tightly and never accidentally pulled out. There are two ports because one is for charging the battery and the other is for audio signal. The right side contains the headphone outputs, analog RCA stereo outputs, 3.5mm coaxial input(s), and a Toslink optical input. Having wires sticking out of both ends made it a challenge to fit on my desk with the way it’s arranged. However, I discovered this smartphone stand on Amazon (you see it pictured here) that props it up nicely and makes it much more desk friendly.

Some astute readers will notice I have an AmazonBasics Toslink cable plugged in. A subset of those astute readers will likely scoff at such a low-quality optical cable, or even at the use of an optical cable at all. I sorta agree. It’s not a great cable and the Hugo 2 is getting into the range of gear quality where you can tell. For serious music listening I either use a direct USB connection to the PC or a coaxial connection from a Singxer SU-2 digital-to-digital converter. Why is optical plugged in? That opens the door to talk about a feature I really appreciate about the Hugo 2, and it’s a similar comment to the Unison USB connection I talked about in my Schiit Bifrost 2 review. The Hugo 2 never breaks its USB connection to the PC. Once it’s plugged into the PC (or DAP) via USB its connected. If you switch inputs, the connection remains. This makes navigating exclusive modes and other sound-producing apps much easier. My computer’s motherboard has an optical output. I have Windows 10 set to use the optical output as the default. I use that connection for web browsing and general system sounds. I use USB, or the connection through the DDC, for the exclusive mode on Audirvana for serious music listening. That way I can listen to music through exclusive mode, get bit-perfect sound, and then switch over to the optical input if I need to hear something from a different app briefly. The Hugo 2 allows that to happen seamlessly without having to end the exclusive session and break the USB connection. The Bifrost 2 also did this, even Schiit’s Modius at $199 does this. Thank you, Chord, for getting this feature right. Many DACs are not this far along with their USB implementations in this simple ergonomic regard yet.

The USB isn’t perfect, though. There’s no galvanic isolation. I think this was done to facilitate connections with mobile devices like DAPs and smartphones. But, if you have a noisy PC – and I do, unfortunately – ground loop noise and the like will pass right through. The red and white plugs you see in the photos above are for an RCA ground-loop isolator. That helped a lot. There is no ground loop noise when I connect my Cayin N6ii DAP via USB, though. It’s definitely a computer problem on my that I haven’t been able to chase down yet.

Finally, there is Apt X capable Bluetooth on board. I didn’t use it much. What little I did suggests it’s solid, but it’s certainly not on the level of a good wired connection.

Deep Breath…That’s a lot of features. But, I think we hit the highlights. Onto the…



Test Gear

As a DAC I used the Hugo 2 to feed a HeadAmp GS-X Mini, Violectric HPA-V200 and HPA-V281, and Cayin HA-1AMK2. Those amps powered a Beyerdynamic DT-880 600Ω, Sennheiser HD-6XX, Audeze LCD-2 prefazor (revision 1) and LCD-24, Abyss Diana Phi, Fostex TH900 with Lawton purpleheart chambers, and HiFiMan HE1000v2 (aka HekV2). Sources included a Windows 10 PC running Audirvana playing local FLAC files or Qobuz streams. I also used a Cayin N6ii DAP connected with a USB-C to micro-USB cable.

Sound Signature

Chord’s language refers to the Hugo 2 as ‘neutral’ and ‘incisive’. I largely agree. From a perceived frequency response standpoint ‘neutral’ is fair. From the DAC I don’t hear any noticeable emphases or recesses in the audible frequency spectrum. Some might quibble that the upper treble is a bit too forward, but I think that is largely recording and gear dependent. I found that the treble could get a little too hot with some amps and/or headphones. Thankfully, filters 2 and 4 roll-off the highs just gently enough to bring that treble back into a more comfortable, dare I say ‘neutral’, range most of the time. With my HekV2 I used filter 2 a majority of the time. At the opposite end, the bass is quick, detailed, and punchy. The only thing the Hugo 2’s bass arguably lacks is some rumble or grunt. This lack of rumble won’t show up in a frequency response chart and generally doesn’t show up while listening. I only noticed this when directly comparing to other DACs (see comparison section below). ‘Incisive’ is also a fair term as there is a fair amount of emphasis on detail retrieval. At times, and with some music, this detail retrieval can be a bit artificial. Other times it sounds wonderful. It’s tricky here…the detail retrieval is very good – I don’t want anyone to think it’s poor – but I’ve heard better resolution at the price point. The Hugo 2 puts a little bit of emphasis on the fine details it pulls out which can and does work well in certain settings, and not so well in others.

Spatial Presentation

The sense of space is another challenging aspect for which to find words. With most material and playback gear, the Hugo 2’s spatial presentation is quite good. Sounds are placed accurately and believably, there is good depth and height, good layering, and good separation. Within the presented soundfield things sound like they are about where they should be and differentiated from other sounds well. I say ‘within the presented soundfield’ because there is an oddity that pops up sometimes; to my ear it sounds like the music is happening in a smaller area of a much bigger space. In some sense, particularly with more intimate live recordings like chamber music, string quartets, etc., the space where the sounds are coming from is appropriately intimate but the space surrounding the instruments/players sounds artificially large. It’s like hearing that you’re in a cavernously large space but not getting all of the echo and reverb that typically happens in real life in such spaces. It’s an odd sensation to feel like your listening space is enormous but the music is being presented in a much smaller space. This sensation is not universal, though, at least not for me. It happens with live, small scale acoustical music mostly. With Rock, metal, hip-hop, EDM I don’t notice it. With bigger acoustic music like symphonies or pipe organ music, the sonic space filled in that perceived space quite well.


The timbre is a strength of the Hugo 2. Voices sound like voices. Pianos sound like pianos. Guitars sound like guitars…and so forth…to an excellent degree. I’ll keep this subsection short because there’s little more to say on this point other than “bravo, Chord.”


The Hugo 2’s DAC provides a very active, punchy perception of dynamics; there is a fair amount of physicality here. The leading edges of sounds are well defined, and in the low end, can hit hard. In this case I don’t hear any overemphasis as can sometimes happen with the detail retrieval. I don’t notice the physicality showing up when it’s not needed or desired. However, when a bass guitar strung is plucked aggressively, you can tell. Kick drum hits are quick and punchy. The macrodynamic capability is another highlight of Hugo 2’s DAC performance. It is appropriately punchy when it needs to be, but this aspect does not get in the way when it’s not needed.

Amp Pairings

Because of the at-times artificial sounding detail retrieval, some care needs to be taken in matching the Hugo 2 with an external amp. For my preferences, the Hugo 2 matches best with a warmer, smoother, big-staging amp. I had really good results with the Vioelectric HPA-V200 and HPA-V281, for example. I also really like using the Hugo 2 as a DAC when there are tubes somewhere in the chain. Going direct to my Cayin HA-1AMk2 tube amp was a treat. The detail-emphasis of the Hugo 2’s sound was balanced out by the euphonic glory of tubes and created a listening experience that was both convincingly resolving and pleasant. I’ve also used a Schiit Saga preamp connected to a Parasound Zamp V3 and Definitive Technology SM45 speakers in nearfield listening. That too is an excellent combination. I think for most listeners caution is warranted when plugging the Hugo 2 into brighter, more analytic amp. When I had the HeadAmp GS-X Mini in for review, I thought the Hugo 2 sounded ok with it – very dynamic and punchy – but it lacked a bit of smoothness and some of that detail over-emphasis came through moreso than with the warmer, smoother Vios or tubes. All of these comments are subjective, though. There are certainly audiophiles out there who will love the double-dipping on the incisive, detail-oriented sound. If that’s what you like, then the Hugo 2 will do it for you. I tend to be a listener who pairs analytic/incisive/neutral DACs with warm & smooth amps or vice versa, not both on top of each other.

General Comments on DAC

I don’t want the above criticisms to be misconstrued. More often than not, I find the Hugo 2’s DAC performance to be very engaging and enjoyable. When paired with a warm, smooth, big-staging amp, I really enjoy the Hugo’s incisiveness, timbre, and spatial presentation – outside of the narrow range of genres I already mentioned. The good news for me is that intimate acoustical music is something I listen to quite rarely. I’m more of a rocker who also takes his classical big, bombastic, and 1812 Overture-y, so to speak. Even then, I recognize that many listeners will like that “big space/small stage” sound, or maybe not hear it at all. If that’s you, then this product could be unreservedly amazing for you.


The word ‘amp’ is in quotes because the amp section of the Hugo 2 isn’t an amplifier as we would typically think of one. It’s a more robust output stage of the DAC. I don’t know all the details, but the output stage is an extension of the FPGA voltage switching implementation. Because the ‘amp’ is the output stage of the DAC, you can never not hear it when you’re listening to the Hugo 2. Setting the Hugo 2 to ‘line out’ mode only changes the output stage’s voltage output to a preset value that works with most preamp inputs. Because you’re never not hearing the ‘amp’, all of the sound observations I made about the DAC section apply here as well. That same incisiveness and detail-retrieval comes though. Those same excellent timbral characteristics and spatial presentations also come through. The difference is whether that neutral signature or the macrodynamic punch comes through, and that I found to be VERY headphone dependent.

Amp Test Gear

The collection of headphones I had on hand to test the Hugo 2’s amp capabilities include a subset from the above list: LCD-2 PF, DT-880, HD6XX, TH900 w/ Lawton purplehearts, and HekV2. For most of my headphone testing I used my Cayin N6ii DAP with a USB connection between the DAP and Hugo 2 and the DAP set to output bit-perfect streams. This testing was done mostly while laying on my couch…life is rough sometimes. Absent are IEMS. This happened for 2 reasons: 1) I don’t particularly like IEMs as I have extreme difficulty getting good fits and appear to have some irritation in response to silicon tips, and closely related is 2) I don’t own any IEMs right now.

Synergy Matters

While directly driving headphones the Hugo 2 can exhibit a wide range of behavior. Its character changes more dramatically with headphone pairing than any other amp with which I’ve had experience, but this change in behavior seems to be somewhat binary. The Hugo 2 sounds either very full, powerful, and in-control with all of the sonic benefits I described about the DAC; or it sounds thin, bright, and (IMO) overly aggressive and harsh. With my LCD-2PF, the sound was stunning. All of the strengths of the LCD-2 were preserved (warmth, timbre, relaxed yet still resolving, deep and punchy bass) and the Hugo 2’s detail-forwardness brought a welcome (for me) increase in perceived resolution. I can see Hugo 2 + LCD-2 being my on-the-couch listening setup for the foreseeable future. The HD6XX is also surprisingly good with Hugo 2. Even though the Hugo 2 is rated at 94mW of power output at 300Ω it sounded very full and robust with 6XX. I dare say it sounded nearly as full, rounded-out, and rich as the 6XX does on a good tube amp. I must say nearly though because there was a last bit of bass extension and lateral imaging coherence that my Cayin HA-1AMK2 tube amp and Monolith Liquid Platinum hybrid amp can deliver through 6XX that the Hugo 2 couldn’t quite get to. But, for a transportable, listen anywhere setup? Oh, yeah. Good stuff. My DT-880 also sounded wonderful at lower listening levels. That fullness and detail were present. The downside here is that the 600Ω load certainly reveals the limitations of the Hugo 2’s ability to power a headphone. Once the volume gets to a generous-but-still-modest approximately 70dB average, the DT-880 starts to go sharp and sibilant in the treble, as Beyer cans often do with many amps. Even so, I think it’s a reasonable hypothesis to say that however Chord does their amplifying through the Hugo 2, high impedance dynamic loads are a good match. My TH900 Lawton is a mixed bag on Hugo 2. It seems to be quite track-dependent. There were some tracks – “Elk Hunt” from the film score of the 1992 The Last of the Mohicans being an example – where everything sounded full, powerful, etc. Then there were others, a lot of rock and metal tracks (where a thick midbass presence is essential to the ‘heavy’ sound) started to get into thin and bright territory. My HekV2 was simply not a good match. Regardless of track, it sounded thin and bright and very sharp in the treble. That stands in stark contrast to when the Hugo 2 is used as a DAC and my Vio V281 is used to power the HekV2. That chain, to be quite frank, is the one that made me absolutely fall in love with the HekV2.

These changes in sound are mostly relegated to the frequency response domain, with a little bit of macrodynamic punch change. Even with the headphones where the Hugo 2 sounded thin and bright to my ear, all of the resolution was present. When the Hugo 2 sounded full and rich, the resolution was still present. It seems to be in roughly the 100-500Hz range where the ‘issue’ crops up with some headphones. I do of course recognize that this is a sound that some will prefer. If that’s you then the Hugo 2 is really easy to recommend. If you prefer more midbass/lower-mid presence (me!), the Hugo 2 can still be a good option as a transportable amp if care is taken with headphone pairing.


I’ll quickly compare the DAC performance of Hugo 2 with a similarly priced desktop/rack DAC in the Holo Audio Spring 2 Level 2, which I reviewed here:, and the Berkeley Audio Designs Alpha Series 2 DAC.

Comparing the Spring 2 L2 and the Hugo 2 happened early on in my time with Hugo 2. In my S2L2 review I said:

“The Hugo 2 has a more intimate soundstage, more akin to the [Soekris] dac1321 than the Spring 2. Both the Spring 2 and Hugo 2 image and separate sounds very well. It was hard to pick out any differences there. The Hugo 2 has a more analytical signature and a more energetic sound, emphasizing transients more than the Spring 2. I think the Spring 2 Level 2 may be slightly more resolving, but the Hugo 2 comes across as more detailed initially because of that emphasis on the transients. That same emphasis also gives the Hugo 2 noticeably punchier, at times almost tactile, macrodynamics, particularly in the bass. That also leads to more bass texture from the Hugo 2 than the Spring 2. The Spring 2 extends into the lower regions more than the Hugo 2, however, consistently having more rumble in the low end. Kick drums illustrate the differences in the low end quite well. With the Hugo 2 the initial punch of the kickdrum can almost be felt, but the weight of the bass tones that vibrating drum skin creates is pulled out more by the Spring 2. The Spring 2 also has a smoother, more relaxed presentation throughout the entire frequency spectrum. At times, the Hugo 2 could sound like it was announcing its detail retrieval, whereas the Spring 2 was just quietly going about retrieving details, doing the job without having to be noticed.

My preference between these two DACs comes down to musical genre. For classical/acoustic music, I prefer the Spring 2. It’s smoother nature, more expansive staging, more natural-sounding detail retrieval, and the slightest edge in vocal and instrument timbre, work together to create a more realistic and believable soundscape for those genres. For more energetic or aggressive genres, like rock, metal, EDM, or hip-hop, the almost tactile attack and overall transient response of the Hugo 2, while still having excellent imaging and timbre, are more engaging and connect me to the music more.

With both at roughly the same price level, I’m comfortable saying that the Spring 2 and the Hugo 2 sound different but neither is clearly across-the-board better than the other. The choice of Hugo 2 over Spring 2 will come down to sound preferences, preferred genres, and matches to use cases.”

After more listening I think that is still an accurate assessment.

The Alpha S2 and Hugo 2 DACs sound remarkably similar in terms of signature and overall presentation. They are both “incisive neutral” and have excellent timbre. The Alpha S2, at $5000 MSRP plus the cost of a good DDC if you want to use USB connection, is clearly superior in its detail retrieval, spatial accuracy, timbre, macrodynamic impact…basically everything…as it should be for the price difference. However, to my ear the Hugo 2 still acquitted itself well in comparison. Flipping back and forth between the two with my V281 amp the most noticeable differences are that the Hugo 2 is not as resolving in microdetails and that it pushes the center image forward. To the former, there can be a slight veil at first that fades with listening but is present every time I switch. To the latter, the center image feels a bit closer to my face with Hugo 2 than with Alpha S2, and that creates a slightly disjointed overall spatial presentation as the rest of the soundfield is further back. These are things that I never noticed with Hugo 2 until the much more expensive Alpha came along. Also, the performance gap between the two DACs decreases some when the same DDC I use to feed the Alpha also feeds the Hugo 2. The gap doesn’t disappear, but it does get smaller. You can read more about that here. To me the comparisons with Spring 2 and Alpha S2 suggest to me that as a DAC alone, the Hugo 2 is competitive at its price point. Throw in that it’s transportable and also a capable headphone amp for some headphones, and it becomes quite the package.


I rather quickly developed a strong like for the Chord Hugo 2, and even though I have a higher end DAC in my main setup now, I’m happy the Hugo 2 is still around. It has earned its place in my collection because of its transportability, and to have as an option to build an entire second system around. I have plans to slowly build a dedicated 2-channel system and having an extra DAC of this caliber around is a definite plus.

The Hugo 2 is excellent as a DAC and it comes with the ability to amplify some headphones and IEMs extremely well in a package that can be picked up and moved about and not tethered to a wall power outlet. There is excellent timbre, overall fantastic spatial presentation, great detail-retrieval, and a healthy dose of fun, macrodynamic punch in this sonic package. It’s not perfect, as no audio product is. Sometimes that incisiveness can get in its own way and not all headphones sound their best when powered directly from the Hugo 2.

Still, the Hugo 2 is an all-around excellent product that offers a quite unique feature set. Even at nearly $2500 I can argue that it’s a bargain given its combination of performance and features.

Thanks for reading another book of a review all. Enjoy the music!
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After I've heard: Mojo, Hugo2 and TT2 I'm surprised that Spring 2 is preferred for string instruments but at the same time I haven't heard Spring 2. I definitively have to listen to it eventually.

Thank you for a great review :)
Actually i had the same feeling bout 'sharpness' with my HD800 and H2 comparing to my AK120 4 years ago.. yet i went later for the Qutest which with the same FPGA en programming sounds more refined and less emphasizing even directly driving my HP out of its RCA's using volume control on F2K
dB Cooper
dB Cooper
Well put together review. This DAC is not the DAC for me since I don't do mobile and it's not the signature I lean towards, but I've come to realise that given the popularity of this unit seems like it's had a long lifespan with no end in sight.


100+ Head-Fier
GoldPlanar GL2000 Review - By WaveTheory
Pros: It comes in a nice case. Big soundstage. Comfort.
Cons: Sound quality. Build Quality.
NOTE: This review was originally posted on HiFiGuides Forum on 15 April, 2021.


A generous forum member sent me a pair of GoldPlanar GL2000 headphones for review. The GL2000 is an open-back, around the ear, planar magnetic headphone that lists for 639USD. The model loaned to me was the double-sided magnet version (aka double-magnet version), which Linsoul (the distributor for GoldPlanar) refers to as their flagship planar. It’s exciting because there is A LOT of hype surrounding this headphone. Does it stack up?


On the good side, the GL2000 does some things that many will find initially impressive. On the less good side, many of those good things are illusory. All is not lost, though, as the case that the GL2000 is of high quality and will do a good job protecting any other headphones you may have.


My preferred genres are rock/metal and classical/orchestral music. I’m getting to know jazz more and enjoying quite a bit. I also listen to some EDM and hip-hop. My hearing quirks include a high sensitivity to midrange frequencies from just under 1KHz to around 3Khz, give or take. My ears are thus quick to perceive “shoutiness” in headphones in particular. I describe “shoutiness” as an emphasis on the ‘ou’ sound of ‘shout.’ It’s a forwardness in the neighborhood of 1KHz and/or on the first one or two harmonics above it (when I make the sound ‘ooooowwwww’ into a spectrum analyzer the dominant frequency on the vowel sound is around 930Hz, which also means harmonic spikes occur again at around 1860Hz and 2790Hz). In the extreme, it can have the tonal effect of sounding like a vocalist is speaking or singing through a toilet paper tube or cupping their hands over their mouth. It can also give instruments like piano, but especially brass instruments, an added ‘honk’ to their sound. I also get distracted by sibilance, or sharp ‘s’ and ‘t’ sounds that can make ssssingers sssssound like they’re forssssssing esssss ssssssounds aggresssssssively. Sibilance does not physically hurt my ears nearly as quickly as shout, though. It’s distracting because it’s annoying and unnatural. Finally, in a new clause in this section, I’m discovering that I have a preference for more subtle detail. I like good detail retrieval and hearing what a recording has to offer, but I prefer that presentation to what many would consider relaxed and subtle rather than aggressive of detail-forward. To my ear, more subtle detail-retrieval sounds more realistic and natural than aggressive, detail-forwardness. There is a balance here, though, because detail retrieval can get too relaxed and that can sound unnatural, as well. Readers should keep these hearing quirks and preferences in mind as they read my descriptions of sound.


The GL2000 is big and physically comfortable, a touch on the heavy side, but not heavy like some Audeze models or a Lawton’d Fostex. There’s lots of room in the pads for even large ears. The construction is mostly metal. It’s overall a fine-looking headphone. I believe Andrew at The Headphone Show commented about the meeting of the yoke and gimbal being a point where a screw comes loose. My loaner set had the same issue:


Here’s the other side for comparison:


The cable-entry uses 3.5mm connector on each cup. I didn’t use the stock cables; opting instead to go right for my Hart cables for easy switching.

There are 2 sets of pads included, a micro-perforated pair and a leather pair. As far as comfort goes, they are both good. I’ll discuss their sound in the Sound section.

Is the build worth $639? Honestly, it doesn’t feel any chintzier than the HiFiMan Edition XX I had for awhile. That loose screw on the yoke is a little bit troubling, though, especially since there are multiple reports of it out there.


Test Gear

I ran the GL2K on 3 setups: 1) Cayin N6ii DAP as source > Schiit Bifrost 2 > Monolith Liquid Platinum (with Amperex PQ Gold Pin tubes); 2) N6ii > Schiit Modius > Schiit Asgard 3; 3) Chord Hugo 2 > Violectric HPA-V281.


I’m about to strongly – and hopefully respectfully – disagree with many reviewers on this review. I think there is very little going for the GL2K. My goal here is to be informative, not controversial. If you enjoy the GL2K, then by all means continue to enjoy it. Also, I know there has been a lot of talk about modding the GL2K. I did not do any mods because I don’t own this headphone. These impressions come from the stock configuration.

Sound Signature

There is a fairly neutral presentation but the bass – with both sets of pads – rolls off aggressively below 60 Hz. It almost sounds like a brickwall filter is in place. I could detect no meaningful subbass. Yes, I tried moving them around to get an ear seal (although many planars actually get a bass boost when seal is broken). I tried both sets of pads. There’s just not much happening below something in the 50-60Hz range. Let me provide a little bit of context here. Before listening to the GL2K, I spent several days listening to Sennheiser HD660s and HD6XX and Beyerdynamic DT880 as I was working on the 660s review. Those three cans are in no way bass monsters. The DT880 has some pretty good extension, but its bass quantity can be a bit lean. The first thought I had when I put on the GL2K after listening to those Senns and Beyer was where is the bass? And sadly, I never found it. Were my amps underpowered? Possible, but I strongly doubt it. The Asgard 3, MLP, and V281 may be many things, but underpowered is not one of them.

The overall sound of the GL2K is compressed. That’s where the midrange and treble descriptions come in . Let’s talk about this term ‘compressed’. There are many ways to refer to ‘compressed’ in sound. It can refer to decreasing the dynamic range, ie. decreasing the difference in intensity between quiet and loud. It can refer to data compression, such as taking a lossless digital audio file and removing information to create a smaller file, ie. going from a .wav file to an mp3 or aac file or similar. To my ear, the GL2K exhibits both of these qualities. I realize that a headphone cannot remove data from the electrical signal (although it can fail resolve that information), but there is a timbral quality that comes out of the GL2K, particularly in the treble, that reminds me of the sound of a heavily compressed mp3 file. OK, let’s unpack these comments a bit further in separate subsections.

Midrange Presentation and the Illusion of Detail

The midrange sounds neither emphasized nor recessed from a frequency-response standpoint. The presentation is very odd, though. First of all, there is a lot of shout/honk going on. There is definitely an emphasis around 1KHz that gives a very strong sense of everything sounding like its being played through a toilet paper tube. The dynamics are also compressed. Sounds that should be quiet are emphasized. Things like room reverb or other elements that are softer in the mix are elevated above the relative levels I get from other headphones. This effect was particularly noticeable with Peter Hurford’s organ work on Bach’s Toccata & Fugue in D Minor (the Dracula theme!). That piece was recorded in a cathedral. There’s lots of room reverb. I’ve listened to this track dozens of times with lots of headphones to test for bass extension, dynamic range, spatial performance, the ability to resolve that room reverb, and just generally see if the headphone can let it rip when it has too. The GL2K, more than any other headphone I can remember, came across as “Hey! Check out this room reverb! You like room reverb, right? I have lots of room reverb!” That room reverb is far less forward on pretty much everything else I’ve ever used to listen to this track, from speakers to headphones and IEMs. On track after track, that quality came through. In a sense, the GL2K is a headphone that says the quiet part out loud. This is the first type of compression I’m talking about; reducing the difference in intensity between quiet and loud. An effect this can have on a listener is creating the illusion that they are hearing more. When stuff that is normally quiet is brought forward it can initially come across as added detail retrieval. Listen closer, though, and the GL2K misses things that similarly priced headphones, even cheaper headphones, can resolve. The Jurassic Park theme performed by John Williams and Anne-Sophie Mutter in Vienna with the Wiener Philharmonic Orchestra is another great test track. Can you hear all the seats creaking and pages turning in the orchestra? On the GL2K, yes you can! They’re emphasized, but it’s cool! Now, when the music starts going, can you hear the resinous sound of the bows being dragged across strings? The GL2K asks ‘what’s that?’. I’m not trying to be flip – well, maybe I am a little – but straight up my 600Ω Beyer DT880 resolved the full orchestra in that Jurassic Park track much more clearly and naturally than the GL2K. The GL2K’s mids were muddy, peaky, and compressed. The instrument separation was poor and everything sounded like a blended blob of sound. The detail the GL2K initially presents is an illusion.

Treble Presentation and the MP3-ification of Sound

Have you ever listened to an mp3 file that’s too compressed? There are YouTube videos all over that have very compressed audio. Have you noticed how the treble gets brittle, harsh, and has a general shishishishy quality to it? That’s the GL2K’s treble all the time, regardless of source quality. It’s not to the extreme of bad YouTube audio, but it’s always present to a degree. Cymbal crashes sound thin and brittle. Even 24/96 FLAC files of well recorded music – Rumours by Fleetwood Mac, the 2019 remaster of the Beatles’ white album, A Deeper Understanding by The War on Drugs (awesome album, great recording, check it out! Oh, it’s actually 24/44.1) – sound like they’ve been run through an mp3 encoder somewhere between the amplifier and the GL2K. Did the pads matter? Not much. Both the microperf pads and the leather pads have this timbral quality in the treble. My loaner unit arrived with the microperf pads installed. I very quickly thought the treble sounded like everything got compressed to a 128kbps mp3 file. Then I swapped to the leather pads and got the same effect, but with sibilance!

My Mama Says If You Don’t Have Anything Nice to Say Don’t Say Anything At All

(Spatial Presentation)

OK, I’ll say something nice. The GL2K sounds big. Really big. It’s able to throw out a soundstage that rivals the egg-shaped HiFiMan line in sheer size and scale. I’m not aware of any other headphones at the price point that can do that…except for those made by HiFiMan. The Edition XX could sound big. The Ananda – I haven’t heard – is in that same family where the staging is enormous and only about $150 more. The GL2K’s imaging is…ok. It gets a bit difficult to pull out the imaging prowess when the resolution, particularly in the mids, is such that instrument and vocal separation is lacking to point where things get muddied. But, there is enough sense of positional effect that when combined with the enormous soundstage, the spatial presentation can be fun for the right music.


It’s been said that the GL2K at $639 sounds like the best planar headphone. I cannot endorse that claim. I’ve heard some nice planars lately (see: here, here, here, here). The GL2K was not one of them. I mentioned the Beyer DT880 above with the Jurassic Park theme. The GL2K could not compete with the Beyer’s resolution, imaging, or timbre. The DT880 also had much more bass extension. The GL2K had a bit more bass quantity from about 60-120Hz, but musters virtually nothing below that. Even the Sennheiser HD6XX and HD660s bettered the GL2K in bass extension, and they certainly crushed it in midrange resolution and overall timbre. The DT880 costs $200. The 6XX is $220. The 660s is $500 but should probably be $250. The GL2K sounded bigger, but it’s imaging wasn’t as crisp or as accurate as these others. What about my other planars...Audeze LCD-2 prefazor, HiFiMan Edition X V2? I’m not going to say much more here because I think the picture is clear. The GL2K cannot keep up.



Did I allow the GL2K enough time to burn in or break in? Let’s define these terms, first. I use the term break-in to refer to the change – specifically the loosening – of the physical materials of a speaker or headphone that must move to reproduce sound. A brand-new piece of material or assembly comprised of multiple materials/parts will be initially stiff and with use become more flexible at the points of flexure. This phenomenon is real and science based. If you’ve ever bent a paper clip at the same spot multiple times you’ve felt its resistance to that bending decrease…and yes…eventually that paperclip breaks at the point of maximum flexure. Generally speaking, planar-magnetic drivers don’t need much break-in time. There’s usually not a specific point(s) of flexure like there is in the surround material of a dynamic driver. Even if the GL2K needs an above-average number of hours of physical break-in, I’m at least the 3rd user to listen to this particular set of headphones. It’s had dozens, if not hundreds, of hours on it before it got to me. The longest break-in period I have experienced with a headphone are the 1.5T biodynamic drivers in my TH900. That’s also critical because the GL2K would have to experience a bigger improvement in sound than that notable outlier to approach anything that sounds like it’s worth $639.

What about brain burn-in? To me this is the mental adjustment period that happens as the brain familiarizes itself with the new pattern of sound it’s hearing. If the sound being presented is much different than what the brain is used to, it can take considerable time for it to acclimate. In many ways, this hearing phenomena is analogous to saying things like coffee, beer, or sushi are “acquired tastes”; different sense, same type of thing. Did I give the GL2K enough time to get used to it? It could be argued I did not. However, in both quick switch settings and longer listening settings, I can tell its technical ability falls off the pace for the price point. I’ve also listened to enough different pieces now to know when there’s at least a chance I’m going to eventually like a thing. Usually there is something there that’s worth holding on to and seeing if the rest of presentation sweetens – see my reviews of the Audeze LCD-24 and Abyss Diana Phi as examples where I had to push through some aspects I didn’t find appealing but ultimately began to understand what makes those headphones excellent pieces. The GL2K is not one of those things. And, some people never acquire a taste for sushi either. [I like sushi…it’s just an example]

Unit Variation?

Unit variation happens because there is always some nonzero tolerance level built into material quality, manufacturing processes, and many other factors. That means that there is going to be a range of performance that happens on any given product line for any type of product. “Unit variation” is a phrase being thrown around a lot to explain the wide differences in opinions of the GL2K. First, I’ll argue that unit variation is only a hypothesis at this point. To know if unit variation is the cause would require that multiple reviewers listen to multiple sets of GL2K and report on any differences they hear set-to-set. To my knowledge, that has yet to happen. But, if we accept the hypothetical as true, does unit variation alone explain the apparent gulf in opinions on the GL2K that exists between even long-established reviewers? [btw, I do not yet count myself among long-established reviewers, still very much learning the ropes here] I argue that it is very unlikely unit variation alone accounts for the magnitude of these differences. The difference between “more competitive with Sundara” and “the best-sounding planar” is larger than unit variation can account for. A difference that size is more likely explained by a change in materials used or manufacturing processes. However, if we accept that even such a large performance difference – if that performance difference is indeed real – is the result of unit variation, then IMO it is incumbent upon reviewers like myself to say: don’t buy this product, the risk of a lemon model is too high. Wait for GoldPlanar to work through the issue before pulling the trigger. I would also add that responsible manufacturers and retailers should pull such a product from the salesfloor until they can provide a more uniform experience for all who buy it.

We All Hear Differently

Yes! And also, no. We all have slightly different shaped outer ears, ear canals of different size and shape, etc. (Unit variation?) These variations can lead to increased or decreased sensitivities in certain frequency ranges. I’m quite certain I am more sensitive at 1KHz than most people. That’s why I put the Know Your Reviewer section in my reviews. OTOH, we are all also of the same species. Our auditory systems work in pretty much the same way person-to-person. For a variety of experiential reasons, our brains may latch onto different aspects of sound defining what’s “right” or “wrong”, but physiologically our ears are likely picking up things in more similar than more different ways. I think it is probably more accurate to say “we all appreciate things differently.” This is where I’ll make the turn and remind readers that if you like the GL2K (and are still reading, which thanks!), that’s ok. It may be presenting things in a way that resonates with you. That’s great. Enjoy it. My suspicion is that the group that truly appreciates the GL2K is going to be relatively small. The difference between what I hear from the GL2K and what I hear in real life with things like human voices, pianos, etc. seems quite large. Since my goal is to inform readers about the strengths and weaknesses of audio products, I feel that needs to be said about the GL2K.

Keeping the Door Open

I’ll say this…the unit variation thing has me curious. What if some reviewers really did get golden sets? I’d like to hear that. If you have a set you think is a golden set and you’re willing to share, let me know.

Howeva…that would just put more evidence on my claim that GoldPlanar really should take the GL2000 off shelves until they can give everyone that same high-quality experience for their hard-earned money.


I’m not going to belabor the point any further. IMO the GL2K is not worth $639. In fact, to my ear it’s outperformed in every area but soundstage size by $200 headphones, and soundstage size is more about preference than actual technical ability. I recommend skipping this headphone until at least GoldPlanar gets a handle on why reports on this headphone are so different.

Thanks for reading all. Enjoy the music!
John Massaria
John Massaria
thanks man- I wound up refusing the delivery of second pair for review/ quality test... I documented everything to paypal - they sided with the consumer - consumers unite when a product shines and when it fails - I am convinced if they just owned up to the fact that over worked employees probably released really bad copies and accepted that to resolve the issue for choice of refund or exchange - they would redeem themselves. I will say I covet my GL2000 and my new GL1200 but here again the silver ribbons on the GL1200 and the gold ribbons sound totally different- but you can at least change them out for what you like and they did wind up supplying me with both ribbons from Linsoul and even offered to cover my "wine induced ribbon damage" I did (I took it out and mishandled one ribbon on the GL1200) for the cost of shipping on a set of ribbons... thats customer service I think
Glad that worked out for you. I've had an offer to borrow another set of GL2K that has been modded. I'll probably do so and report back later in the summer. Until then, happy listening!
John Massaria
John Massaria
you should- it would be a gr8 read- I can tell you my daily driver is GL1200 since I got the gold ribbons - they are truly remarkable and blow away the GL2000 by more than quadruple the price - but the GL2000 are still ez to use portably where the GL1200 are not. My favorite hp of all time is the GH50JME and the mk2 I tuned recently to as good as it gets


100+ Head-Fier
HiFiMan HE1000v2 Review - By WaveTheory
Pros: Warm, smooth, and relaxed but still highly resolving. Treble is bright and sparkly without being sharp or sibilant (with right recordings and gear). Good timbre. Resolution and separation holds up when music gets busy. Staging can be enormous and grandiose when needed, but also intimate when needed. Comfort is excellent.
Cons: The stock cables. Treble can get too hot with brighter source gear and/or poor recordings. Mid presence might be lacking for some. Bass slam isn’t poor but isn’t a strength. The stock cables.
NOTE: This review was originally posted on HiFiGuides Forum on 19 April, 2021.


If you’ve followed my writing on this forum, you know it’s no secret that I adored the HiFiMan Edition X V2 (HexV2). It was my go-to headphone for most of the Fall of 2020 and early 2021. Then, I heard the HiFiMan Arya. While I didn’t love the Ayra’s signature, its spatial abilities and detail retrieval were another step up from the HexV2 and got me longing for a headphone that could combine the warmth and smoothness of the HexV2 with the staging, imaging, detail, and texturing of the Arya. Well, from what I was told that was the HE1000V2 (HekV2). When a deal for a used model came along, I sold my favorite son (lol) HexV2 and made the jump the HekV2. Was it worth it? Read on to find out…


The HE1000V2 is an accomplishment. Its sound is BIG, but also can be intimate. The sound is detailed, but also smooth and relaxed. The signature is warm but also airy and sparkly. The timbre is wonderful. It’s comfortable. It looks good. It has become the first headphone I reach for. Is it perfect? No. It’s not the last word in detail retrieval in its tier, the treble can be a bit hot with poor recordings, and it can be a little amp picky. Some will object to a slight dip in the 1KHz range of its frequency response. The stock cables also are an embarrassment to cable-kind…and it’s not cheap to find replacements. Nonetheless, the HekV2 lists for $2999 from most retailers, it’s worth it. But, it also can be found new in the $2200-2300 range, and can go used for as low as $1300. At those prices, it’s a no-brainer if you’re looking for a headphone in this performance tier.


My preferred genres are rock/metal and classical/orchestral music. I’m getting to know jazz more and enjoying quite a bit. I also listen to some EDM and hip-hop. My hearing quirks include a high sensitivity to midrange frequencies from just under 1KHz to around 3Khz, give or take. My ears are thus quick to perceive “shoutiness” in headphones in particular. I describe “shoutiness” as an emphasis on the ‘ou’ sound of ‘shout.’ It’s a forwardness in the neighborhood of 1KHz and/or on the first one or two harmonics above it (when I make the sound ‘ooooowwwww’ into a spectrum analyzer the dominant frequency on the vowel sound is around 930Hz, which also means harmonic spikes occur again at around 1860Hz and 2790Hz). In the extreme, it can have the tonal effect of sounding like a vocalist is speaking or singing through a toilet paper tube or cupping their hands over their mouth. It can also give instruments like piano, but especially brass instruments, an added ‘honk’ to their sound. I also get distracted by sibilance, or sharp ‘s’ and ‘t’ sounds that can make ssssingers sssssound like they’re forssssssing esssss ssssssounds aggresssssssively. Sibilance does not physically hurt my ears nearly as quickly as shout, though. It’s distracting because it’s annoying and unnatural. Finally, in a new clause in this section, I’m discovering that I have a preference for more subtle detail. I like good detail retrieval and hearing what a recording has to offer, but I prefer that presentation to what many would consider relaxed and subtle rather than aggressive of detail-forward. To my ear, more subtle detail-retrieval sounds more realistic and natural than aggressive, detail-forwardness. There is a balance here, though, because detail retrieval can get too relaxed and that can sound unnatural, as well. Readers should keep these hearing quirks and preferences in mind as they read my descriptions of sound.


The Patriarch of its Line

The HE1000 was launched by HiFiMan in 2015. It’s a little unclear when the V2 was launched. The HE1000se was launched in 2018, so I’m guessing the V2 was somewhere in between 2015 and 2018. Regardless, the HE1000 is a critical model in HiFiMan’s line of headphones with egg-shaped ear cups ( The HE1000 technology served as the base tech for my beloved Edition X V2, Arya, Ananda, HE1000se, and the current planar-magnetic flagship Susvara. I won’t go into a lot of detail about the magnet structure and all of the features of the HE1000 that make it special. But, if you’re interested, you can read about it on HiFiMan’s website (

The HekV2 is a large, open-back planar-magnetic heaphone. It has a rated impedance of 35Ω and sensitivity of 90dB/mW. That makes it fairly power hungry. It drives more like Arya than HexV2. It’s not going to be a mobile solution.

Aesthetics & Comfort

The HekV2, being a part of HiFiMan’s egg-shaped line, is large and comfortable. The earcups have room for very large ears. The suspension-strap headband system is very comfortable and the metal tension bend has enough clamp to keep the headphone firmly on the head but not become uncomfortable. The headstrap is leather, and becomes a bit floppy with age and use:


The aesthetic is really nice. I know beauty is in the eye of the beholder, but in IMO these are nice looking cans. The metal chassis has a matte silver finish and there is a nice wood veneer around the outside of the earcups. Yes, it is just a veneer on top of the metal chassis:


The ear pads are big and comfortable with a slight forward angle. The part of the pad that makes contact with the head is a soft polyester. Most of the time it’s comfortable, but sometimes the hair of my sideburns gets caught in the threading and pulls…first world problems.

As Open Back as They Come

Yeah, these egg-shaped HiFiMan cans – all of them – are completely open back. To say the ‘leak’ sound isn’t accurate because they make absolutely no attempt to hold sound in…or out. They are not good cubicle cans or walking around cans. Everyone else will hear your music and you’ll hear the world around you just as much (unless the music is rockin’ enough).

Cables Matter

Most HE1000 models floating around out there use dual 2.5mm cable entry. The cable jacks on the cups are mounted flush so that pretty much any 2.5mm terminations will fit. Recently produced models of HekV2 (and HE1000se?) have moved to 3.5mm jacks on the cups. That’s probably a good move seeing as how 3.5mm are a bit more durable and a bit more common. My unit has 2.5mm connections.

HiFiMan takes a lot of heat for the ridiculous ergonomics of their stock cables. I’m not going to be any different. From an ergonomic perspective, they suck. I think they use medical tubing around the conductors. They look and feel like catheter tubes. The plastic outer tubing is stiff, noisy, and keeps the cable from ever lying the way you want it to. The conductive wires inside it aren’t braided together either. They’re just run parallel to each other through the tubing. This pic is not the greatest, but it shows two conductive wires next to each other inside the tubing:


Now that wouldn’t be such a big deal if those individual wires – which I think are also covered in plastic tubing themselves – didn’t slide past and rub on each other. When they start rubbing on and sliding past one another it just feels squicky. It’s a hard feeling to convey unless you’ve experienced it, but it’s just nasty.

That returns us to the fact that it’s good news that the cable entry system uses flush mounted 2.5mm or 3.5mm jacks. You can buy whatever kind of aftermarket cable you want and it will fit. But, it’s gonna cost you. As ergonomically terrible as the stock cables are, whatever conductive material the wiring itself is made of is top-notch stuff; they sound great. When I first got my HekV2, I used the Hart Audio Cable that I had been using with me HexV2 – same cabling system. Hart Cables are ergonomic gold with their modular system. But with HekV2, I kept having issues with the sonic center image being slightly to one side or the other and also drifting slightly side-to-side as a singer changed pitch. It was weird, unsettling, and I was worried I’d gotten burned by buying used. The seller I got my set from bundled a Plussound Poetic GPH cable as part of the deal. I switched to that cable and WOW. The center image locked and stabilized. The soundstage opened up even more with better separation to go with it. And the sound smoothed out in general; cymbal crashes sounded more natural and less harsh, vocals sounded more natural, and a host of other things. If you read my Abyss Diana Phi review, you read I had to use HiFiMan stock cables on the Diana because I was having the same sonic issue with Hart cables on that one too, and the Plussound cable didn’t fit the Diana’s recessed jacks. The stock HiFiMan cables solved the issue there and would on the HekV2 if they weren’t so gross to use that I only touch them when I absolutely have to. This cabling situation is one of the biggest cons of the HekV2. The stock cables are terrible but of high sonic quality. HiFiMan sells replacement cables in the $350-500 range. The Plussound cable that came bundled with my set costs $500 new. If you’re looking to pick up an HE1000 model, you should plan on sinking multiple 100s of dollars into quality cables.

[for the skeptics, here is some recent measurement data showing how different speaker cables can affect sound Headphone cables are basically speaker cables for smaller speakers…]


Test Gear

I used the HekV2 with an assortment of amps and dacs. Amps included Cayin HA-1AMK2 tube amp, Monolith Liquid Platinum, Vioelectric HPA-V200 and HPA-V281, and HeadAmp GS-X Mini. DACs included Schiit Bifrost 2, Soekris dac1321, Holo Audio Spring 2 Level 2, and Chord Hugo 2 (as DAC only).


The HekV2 is both warm and bright – ie ‘v’ in signature. There is a subbass boost that sounds like its centered around 40 Hz that gently rolls back into the ‘flat’ range somewhere in the 120-140Hz range. The upper bass and midrange stays relatively constant through much of the vocal region. Then, there is another upward trend in frequency response somewhere in the 1.5-1.7KHz range up to some noticeably above-neutral energy in the treble.

The bass is extended and plentiful but also detailed, textured, and never bloated. Individual plucks of a electric bass guitar strings are resolved well. The HekV2 showed me Jason Newsted’s bass work on Metallica’s Enter Sandman was far more galloping and active than I had ever realized, for example. The HekV2’s bass is also well balanced between impact and weight. It doesn’t slam hard, but it slams enough to be fun most of the time, and then there’s lots of rumble and weight to go with the slam. Coincidently, I was writing this very point as the drum intro to Aerosmith’s Walk This Way was playing and Joey Kramer’s kick drum was punching pretty good and then the texture of Tom Hamilton’s bass guitar was resolved beautifully (Hugo 2 and V281 as the source chain in this instance). The most impressive aspect to me of the bass is that many headphones – even planar-magnetics – tend to roll off quickly below 50 or 60 Hz. The HekV2 remarkably goes UP in frequency response until somewhere around 40 Hz and doesn’t return to neutral until below the audible range. The HekV2’s bass presentation would likely be technically the overall best had I not heard the Diana Phi recently. More on this in the comparison section.

The midrange is detailed and has wonderful timbre. To my ear this headphone nails most instrument sounds and vocals the best I’ve heard to date. The ability to hold it together in the mids as music gets very busy is also remarkable. My midrange acid tests are The Poet and the Pendulum by Nightwish and the 1812 Overture by Erich Kunzel and the Cincinnati Pops Orchestra. Both recordings just flood the mid-range frequencies with information with huge numbers of vocals, instruments, and effects. The HekV2 sailed through these tests unlike any other headphone I’ve heard before, rendering each voice and instrument sound with seemingly no interference from the rest of the sounds. I think I’ve only heard these tracks separated better by one other headphone (Diana Phi) but the HekV2 maintained that wonderfully natural mid timbre in the process moreso. Some listeners may object to a perceived lack of presence in the treble, though. Since the subbass and treble are both elevated some the mids come across as less forward. HekV2 matches my hearing quite well because I can’t remember a single incidence of shoutiness or honkiness in the mids – and those are things I’m sensitive too. If mid-forward sound is your jam, this may not be the best way to spend your $3K.

The treble is bright, prominent, and sparkly. There is lots of detail and excellent timbre up top. Cymbals and their room reverb are resolved beautifully. However, the treble can be a bit too hot with some lesser quality recordings. This part of the frequency response is the most amp/dac sensitive, too. I recommend warmer, smoother electronics (amps especially). Amps that are aggressive, bright, or analytical can cause the HekV2’s treble to wander into sharp and shrill territory. When the HekV2 does go sharp and shrill, it’s less strident and piercing than when less expensive models do so, but it’s still not particularly enjoyable.

Detail Retrieval

The HekV2 is very resolving and detailed but takes a more subtle approach to detail retrieval than the other hi-end headphones I’ve listened to of late. This gives it an overall more relaxed and smooth presentation. However, it’s not at all lacking in detail. Room reverb, instrument key clicks, the sound of drumstick-to-metal that happens on the attack of a cymbal crash, are all presented naturally and effectively. The texture in the bass is such that it’s possible to hear the pluck of a bass guitar string and the string noise that happens on top of the bass tone. I know some listeners who prefer aggressive detail. If that’s you, this headphone probably isn’t your jam. But, if you’re like me and think that subtle detail sounds more lifelike, than this headphone might be for you.


I really can’t complain here. We’re talking about a true high-end headphone hear and timbre – the ability for things to sound like what they really sound like; ie voices sound like voices, pianos sound like pianos, drums sound like drums, horns sound like horns, etc. – is outstanding. To my ear, things sound very right. I have heard the timbre bettered by Audeze LCD-24 for individual instruments. The LCD-24 has an amazing ability to squeeze seemingly every last drop of detail and timbre of an individual instrument played by itself. But, the HekV2’s already excellent timbre does not fall off as the 24’s does as more and more information is added to the music. When things get busy, the HekV2’s timbre is better and seems remarkably musical-complexity invariant.

Spatial Presentation

One thing I loved most about the HexV2 when I had it was how BIG it sounded. The soundstage was wide, tall, and deep. Everything sounded like I was sitting in the first row of a concert – just immense. Then along came the Arya, which said “hold my beer” and took it to another level. Both of those headphones also had pinpoint imaging and excellent separation and layering within that immense soundstage. Well, they got those abilities handed down to them from their big brother HekV2. The HekV2 can sound just as big and grand as either HexV2 or Arya, and it takes their already excellent imaging, separation, and layering to another level…maybe even 2 or 3 levels better. But HekV2 has another spatial trick up its sleeve. Where everything is grandiose through HexV2 or Arya, HekV2 can bring it in and sound more intimate when it needs to. It’s not going to be a Sennheiser HD600 series kind of intimate, but with a string quartet it has the ability to put the performers right in front of the listener and create an intimate, for-you-alone presentation. I found this Deutsche Grammophon record of Mozart’s string quintets to be intimate in presentation but still present the size of the performance hall surrounding the players.

The soundstage of the HekV2 is more out in front, not pulling off the wrap-around effect that some higher-end Audezes and Focals can. This is a matter of preference. By-in-large most music is performed in front of the listener so this approach sounds more natural to me. But, I can’t deny that being in the performance can be fun at times.


I’ve dropped a couple hints here and there that HekV2 gets a little sensitive to amps in the treble. My Violectric amps did a much better job with HekV2 than the HeadAmp GS-X Mini. The Monolith Liquid Platinum also drove it pretty well too, but didn’t have the detail that the V281 could deliver (nor should it be expected to). My Cayin tube amp is transformer-coupled and can sound ok with the HekV2. The detail takes a slight hit and the soundstage flattens, maintaining the height and width but losing much of the depth. Plan on spending a good chunk if you want to use the HekV2 with a tube amp.


The 2 headphones I’ve heard that make the most sense to compare to from a cost standpoint, Audeze LCD-24 and Abyss Diana Phi, I’ve already done at some length in those respective reviews. The points I wish to reiterate here involve the bass and midrange. The HekV2 has more bass quantity than LCD-24 and not as much as the Diana Phi is capable of (depending on pad position). The LCD-24 might slam slightly harder, and the Diana Phi definitely slams harder in the right pad position. For the mids, to my ear, it’s no competition. The HekV2 has the best overall midrange presentation of the three. The LCD-24 can wring more out of an individual instrument – the resinous sound of bows being dragged across strings, for example – until there are more than just a handful of instruments and voices happening at once. When that occurs, the LCD-24 loses its ability to resolve as well and timbre and separation suffers. The Diana Phi has more resolution than either 24 or HekV2 across the entire frequency spectrum but is so mid-forward that it gets shouty or cupped sounding often, whereupon the HekV2 pulls ahead of it in timbre. With the HekV2, it doesn’t seem to matter how much is going on in the signal, it stays calm and delivers.

What happens if you’re sitting with an Arya – a popular headphone right now – and are considering moving up? What do you gain? More bass quantity for sure, but overall more resolution and more natural timbre. Plus, you gain the ability to have a more intimate presentation when you want it, while still sounding huge when you want that too. The Arya might be right there with HekV2, maybe just a hair ahead, on dynamics and punch, but it’s noticeably behind on everything else.


The HekV2 is my headphone for the time being. I bought this one and I’m keeping it for awhile. The shallow v-signature suits my hearing and preferences well. The timbre, detail, and spatial presentation are all very impressive and enjoyable. The bass slam is arguably the only thing ‘lacking’ and that’s more in that it’s just not quite as impressive as the rest of the sonic package. The HekV2 is also quite physically comfortable and can be worn for long periods of time. The stock cables are horrendous. If you’re shopping for the HekV2 plan to sink some considerable money into high quality aftermarket cables, you’ll be glad you did.

That’s it. Thanks for reading all! Enjoy the music!
Nice writeup. Thank you for sharing what you found in comparison with the LCD-24 and Diana Phi. Those are both phones that I unfortunately am not able to audition in person currently or in the perceivable near future. Even though I already purchased a new HE1000v2, it is nice to see what the other phones may have to offer.

Also, regarding aftermarket cables. I am a recent convert to the "Believer" camp. Even to my stainless steal ears there was a difference when moving to a quality vs. budget oriented aftermarket cable. I am using a Forza Noir Hybrid and I like it very much with the HEKv2.

Not attempting to steer you in any particular direction, but if you get an opportunity to get an HE1000se to review, I for one would really like to see your take on that phone vs. the v2.


100+ Head-Fier
Abyss Diana Phi Review - By WaveTheory
Pros: A prodigiously detailed and textured sound. Fantastic macrodynamics and low-end punch, slam, and detail. A small, light, but very rugged build. Ingenious pad mounting system that also provides multiple sound signatures from the stock pads.
Cons: Mid-range can be too forward. Detail retrieval is relentlessly aggressive. No cup swivel could create comfort issues for some. Cable entry system limits aftermarket cable options. The glue on the earpad mounts is a fail point.
NOTE: This review was originally published on HiFiGuides Forum on 1 April, 2021 - No Foolin'!


Fellow audiophiles, there’s a lot of ground to cover here. Get yourself a tasty beverage and get comfortable. We may be here awhile…

It’s been quite a stretch for yours truly. A very generous forum member loaded me up with high-end gear to play with and review. One such piece was the JPS Labs Abyss Diana Phi ( planar magnetic headphone. Henceforth, I shall refer to the Diana Phi as the DiPhi, both for brevity and because it’s a riff on ‘hi-fi’. These headphones are definitely getting into the high-end range of things with an MSRP of $3995 USD. I’ve seen a couple of used units from the Diana series going in the $2500-2800 range as well. Either way, what do you get for your four grand? Read on to find out.

Unrelated comment, it took me about three weeks to stop playing this song in my head every time I so much as thought about the Diana Phi, just because the first lyric sounds exactly like “please, Diana.” But I digress…


The Diana Phi is the most resolving headphone I’ve had the pleasure of hearing to date. To beat its shear resolution likely requires going HiFiMan Susvara, Abyss’s own 1266 series, or getting into high-end electrostats. There’s so much in the sound – room reverbs, the impacts of fingers on strings or keys, and textures that might themselves have textures, etc. – that it can re-introduce you to some of your favorite music, but also at times be overwhelming. The sound is also very impactful and fast. It puts the listener in the middle of it all. It seems more suited to more intimate styles of music, lacking that grandiosity that makes bigger, epic-sounding music sound big and epic. There are times I really enjoyed the DiPhi, and there are other times it was too much, and my monkey on my back – on my ears? – of my 1KHz sensitivity bit me again with this headphone (see “Know Your Reviewer” section). Yet, there are listeners out there though for whom this headphone will scratch that deep itch to hear as much as they possibly can and revel in its midrange presence.


My preferred genres are rock/metal and classical/orchestral music. I’m getting to know jazz more and enjoying quite a bit. I also listen to some EDM and hip-hop. My hearing quirks include a high sensitivity to midrange frequencies from just under 1KHz to around 3Khz, give or take. My ears are thus quick to perceive “shoutiness” in headphones in particular. I describe “shoutiness” as an emphasis on the ‘ou’ sound of ‘shout.’ It’s a forwardness in the neighborhood of 1KHz and/or on the first one or two harmonics above it (when I make the sound ‘ooooowwwww’ into a spectrum analyzer the dominant frequency on the vowel sound is around 930Hz, which also means harmonic spikes occur again at around 1860Hz and 2790Hz). In the extreme, it can have the tonal effect of sounding like a vocalist is speaking or singing through a toilet paper tube or cupping their hands over their mouth. It can also give instruments like piano, but especially brass instruments, an added ‘honk’ to their sound. I also get distracted by sibilance, or sharp ‘s’ and ‘t’ sounds that can make ssssingers sssssound like they’re forssssssing esssss ssssssounds aggresssssssively. Sibilance does not physically hurt my ears nearly as quickly as shout, though. It’s distracting because it’s annoying and unnatural. Readers should keep these hearing quirks in mind as they read my descriptions of sound.


As far as quality of construction goes, the DiPhi’s frame/chassis is what you would expect from a $4K headphone. The cups are rugged and made of machined aluminum. The headband is what Abyss calls “Emotion” that, in their words, “magnetically adjusts and contours your head for a comfortable fit”, which is a confusing combination of words. I think there’s a thin and highly flexible metal band encased in some quality leather for the headband. There is no swivel where the headband meets the cups. Perhaps Abyss is talking about the magnetic pad-mounting system that does change the feel and fit of the headphone. More on this in a bit. Despite the rugged build, the DiPhi is fairly light. It’s easy to hold on the head for a long time. The Fibonacci pattern of the holes on the back of the cup is also visually striking, and according to Abyss also helps with the tuning of the headphone. Also, the earcups are thin, like really thin. Look at this:


I put that ¼” plug there for scale. So yeah, skinny.

Let’s talk about that pad-mounting system. Abyss has a really good design concept here that is not only ergonomically easy and cool, it allows the listener a fair amount of tuning of the sound. Yet, there is one big weakness in the execution of this design.

Let’s start with the good part. The magnetic field the DiPhi’s drivers put out is STRONG. So strong in fact that it will pick up random things from your desktop:



Abyss leverages this magnetic field strength and makes the pads magnetically mount to the chassis. They snap on quite firmly, yet are not overly difficult to remove. There are 4 pegs on the outer edge of the DiPhi’s cup on the listener side:


There are 4 corresponding notches on the back of the earpads:


Line up the pegs with the peg holes, and the pad snaps right into place. But we’re not done! The pads and the cups are symmetric in plane parallel to the driver, being mostly square, and can be rotated in 90 degree increments for 4 different fits and yes, 4 different sound profiles. The cushion part of the pads has variable thickness (height) all the way around. Each pad has a seam along its thickest portion:


The seam is useful in orienting the pads to be symmetric with each other on each side, and also remember where the seam should be for the sound you like, eg. ‘up and forward’ or ‘down and back’. This pad mounting system is genius and IMO, sets a standard for how pads should be mounted and swappable. Even if the pads don’t rotate like they do on the DiPhi (and other Abyss models), I want pads to pop on and off magnetically like this. It’s very convenient.

OK, what’s that weakness in this pad mount design I mentioned? It’s the glue. The leather cushion portion of the pad is glued onto the frame with those notches, and it’s a fail point:


That’s a particular weakness in this design concept because the pad assembly has to be pulled away from the cup with a good amount of force. There aren’t any good finger holes in the construction to use just fingers to pry up the pad by that notched mounting frame, either. That means that pressure is put on that glue joint every time the pads are rotated or swapped, and eventually that’s going to fail. I would like to see Abyss address this because the basic concept behind the pad design is truly brilliant.

There are 2 version of pads available for the DiPhi. There are the stock pads that are the same color as the DiPhi itself, and there are the DMS pads that are black:


The DMS pads are a little thinner and a little softer, with just a bit more give. The leather is also a bit softer in feel on the DMS pads. I listened to both sets of pads in all four of the pad positions. So yes, I’ll talk about how all that sounds in the Sound section.

Fortunately, the DiPhi’s lack of cup swivel where the cup meets the headband has relatively little effect on overall comfort. The pads are soft enough that even though their asymmetric shape puts pressure on different parts of the head depending on how they’re mounted, I never had major comfort issues. With the pad seam down-and-back, the pads seal around my ear and the Abyss feels like a small headphone conforming to my head. With the pad seam up-and-back or up-and-forward the seal is broken, there’s a slight bit of pressure on the temple or right behind the ear, and it can feel like the drivers are just floating next to the ear, almost like an ear-speaker concept. It’s a different feeling that’s weird at first, but I did adjust to it rather quickly.

Finally…cables matter. And that’s true here for both sonic reason and ergonomic reasons. Unfortunately, I did not have the JPS Labs stock cable included with the set that was sent to me. I’ve been told it’s a really good cable, but I can’t confirm that. The cable jacks on the DiPhi are 2.5mm – which make sense given its thin profile – and are recessed way into the cup. However, that recess is limited in real-estate:


A very nice Plussound Poetic GPH cable came with my HiFiMan HE1000V2. That cable is terminated in 2.5mm connectors, but the barrels of the plugs prevent it from going all the way in on the DiPhi:


Hart cables fit, but I had some sonic issues with them. The imaging got a little wonky with Hart cables. I tried 2 of them because I have 2 of them with 2.5mm connectors, the problem persisted, so it’s not a bad cable. “Wonky” means there was a somewhat fuzzy center image that would drift subtly but spend most of its time slightly right of center. So…I ended up having to use the stock cables that come with the HE1000V2…yeah…those nasty-feeling ones that look like catheter tubes. They fit and worked just fine sonically, although I still wish I could have tried the stock JPS Labs cables or gotten the Plussound to fit. If you’re the type to buy custom cables, and if you’re spending $4000 on a headphone you probably are, keep this cable connection issue in mind.


Test Equipment

Most of my DiPhi listening took place with the Holo Audio Spring 2 Level 2 DAC, Chord Hugo 2 DAC/amp (as a DAC only), and HeadAmp GS-X Mini amp . The Mini is recognized by Abyss as a good match to their Diana headphones. I also briefly tried the Violectric HPA V200 amp and Cayin HA-1AMK2 tube amp.

Sound Signature

The pad mounting and rotating system means there isn’t a set sound signature for this headphone. There are audible changes, some of large magnitude and others of lesser magnitude. A constant throughout is a very forward mid-range. The mid-forwardness changes some depending on pad position but is always front-and-center. When the pads are mounted seams down-and-back, the pads seal around the ear and the signature is overall mid-forward. With the seams up-and-back the signature is more w-shaped, but with slightly less mid-prominence than the former. To my ear, these were the two extremes. These are also the two positions I spent the most time with. The DMS pads didn’t change the overall signature but did relax the mid-forwardness a hair in both positions and generally presented a more relaxed overall sound; not a big difference, but a noticeable one.

For me personally, the mids are too forward. I have that 1KHz sensitivity and at times this headphone can simply overwhelm me at the same volume levels at which I listen to other headphones without issue. I found the DMS pads with seams up-and-back to be the least mid-forward and my most comfortable combination for listening, though not physical comfort. Here the mids are still forward but are mostly tolerable. For me, ‘tolerable’ is not a word I want to use if I were thinking about buying a $4K piece of kit. Other pad positions would get shouty and throw the timbre off for me. To my ear, the DiPhi frequently sounded like it does when someone cups their hands over their mouth and speaks or sings or sounds like the sound system of your local Cineplex where they pump up the vocal frequencies to enhance intelligibility – or so they say. This issue is a me problem, though. I’ve spoken with several other audiophiles about their experiences with DiPhi’s mids and they are completely dumfounded by my assertions here. For many, the midrange presence of this headphone will be a major selling point.

The bass and treble are excellent, though. There is excellent timbre high and low. The treble is present and sparkly without being harsh, sibilant, or piercing. Changing the pad position changes treble presence slightly, but the technical performance stays more-or-less constant. The bass is always well textured, quick, and extends very deep. The bass presence is one of the biggest pad-position changes, and its quickness and detail change some too. With a seal around the ear (seams down-and-back), the bass is lean. This pad position is also where the bass sounds quickest, most textured, and most detailed. The seams up-and-back is less physically comfortable than the sealed position (though not uncomfortable) but also makes the bass the most present. Here the DiPhi hits like a truck, rumbles with the best of them, and all but the most ardent of bassheads will be satisfied with the bass quantity. The trade off is just a touch of speed and detail is lost in comparison with the sealed pad position and – in comparison – sounds a bit bloated. I want to emphasize the in comparison bit here, because even here the bass still sounds excellently detailed, textured, and quick, just not quite as much so as the sealed pad position.


The DiPhi’s resolution is its most standout feature. It pulls more out of the signal than any other headphone I’ve had on my head. Subtle things like room reverb, lip and tongue smacks from a vocalist, the clicking of instrument keys, you name it, DiPhi says “here it is.” And then there are the textures. Oh! The textures! Those qualitative aspects of sound that aren’t just the tone but the instrument or voice behaving the way it does to create that tone? Yeah…it’s here. Up and down the whole audible frequency spectrum, it’s here. At times it can be amazingly organic. Does that contradict my timbre comment above? No. There were still moments when an instrument hit outside of the midrange frequencies that are problematic for me and in those moments…yes…organic, and very much so.

The resolution also holds itself together when music gets busy. The DiPhi seems to suffer very little in its ability to resolve individual instrument sounds even when there are dozens of instruments going at the same time – like in a symphony. From a detail and resolution standpoint, I never heard it lose its cool. Even though they are too-forward and unnatural in timbre for me a fair amount of the time, complex vocal harmonies are also very well resolved. There is excellent balance between resolving individual voices and also blending the voices to create a soundscape. Think of the harmonies in Seven Bridges Road by Eagles here.

The resolution is also very forward. The DiPhi is highly resolving and comes across as being proud of it and wanting to announce it from the rooftops. Listener preference matters here. Some listeners will be enthralled in the level of aggressive detail being fired down their ear canals. Others will find it too much. I am somewhere in the middle. There were times when I loved the detail. There were times when it got fatiguing.

Spatial Presentation

Imaging and separation are on point with a good sense of depth. There is a fair amount of holographicity (I’m making that a word!) to the spatial presentation. It’s not big, though. The stage is a bit more on the intimate side. While instruments and voices are placed well and differentiated from each other within the soundfield, the overall sense of space is a little on the small side, even when a track demands to be big. Bohemian Rhapsody, 1812 Overture, Toccata & Fugue in D Minor on a pipe organ, Mountains by Hans Zimmer, etc. all benefit from sounding HUGE. The DiPhi doesn’t do huge. To be honest, though, the only time I ever really noticed the soundstage and imaging, for good or ill, was when I expected/wanted a track to sound bigger and grander. When the limited size isn’t an issue, the spatial presentation does little to call attention to itself. IMO, that’s a compliment. The imaging and separation are good enough to be non-distracting. They’re also not distracting in the opposite direction…until that last bit of size is needed.


I had the distinct privilege of having the DiPhi, the Audeze LCD-24 ($3495), and the HiFiMan HE1000V2 ($2995 – HekV2) all in-house at the same time. What a treat! All three of these headphones are fantastic in their own ways. They all have their own place in the high-end headphone market too. I also own a Fostex TH900 with Lawton purpleheart cups and driver-side tuneup (~$2000 when all is said and done) that I will comment on here briefly as well.

I compared the HekV2 and the LCD-24 a bit more to each other in my LCD-24 review (a HE1000V2 review is pending, I promise). This comparison will be tailored more to how those stack up with the DiPhi.

The DiPhi is the most resolving of the three. The LCD-24 and HekV2 are no slouches in the resolution department either, but the DiPhi is simply on another level. After that the 24 resolves individual instrument sounds better than HekV2 but HekV2 resolves really busy, complex music better. The DiPhi doesn’t care if music is simple or extremely busy, it’s resolution is absurdly good in either case. This resolution can also make the DiPhi hard to relax with, whereas the more subtle resolving approaches of the 24 and HekV2 make them more kick-back-and-relax types of headphones.

All three headphones image and separate very well. To my ear, the HekV2 has the most natural imaging, which is connected to it having the most natural soundstage of the three. The HekV2 has that HiFiMan egg-shaped line enormity to its soundstaging and then places sounds in that soundfield very well horizontally, vertically, and with depth. The 24 and DiPhi are also very good here but the 24’s 1KHz energy can tend to collapse the soundstage and imaging. The DiPhi’s mid-forwardness doesn’t do any similar collapsing but it also just doesn’t sound very big as a general rule.

The treble timbre on the LCD-24 is stellar and leads the pack in that category. The DiPhi’s bass timbre is equally stellar and it easily leads in that category. For my ears, the mid-range timbre on the HekV2 is the best of the three, and it’s not close. Some of that is the HekV2 having a dip around 1KHz in its frequency response which matches my ears’ sensitivity almost perfectly. Some of that is that it is more subtly detailed and doesn’t announce how detailed it is in that range; sounding more natural to me.

In terms of bass presence, the DiPhi leads when the pad seams are up-and-back and might actually come in third when the pads are down-and-back to create a complete seal around the ear. The HekV2 is close behind the DiPhi in the up-and-back position though and both are noticeably ahead of the 24. The DiPhi easily has the most bass texture and slam of the three (again, with seams up-and-back). The 24’s bass initially presents as being slightly more textured than HekV2’s but I think the HekV2’s increased presence in the bass makes that texture a little less readily noticeable, but upon further listening it’s definitely there. I’ll bring the TH9000 Lawton back in here, because perhaps the TH900 is more accessible comparison point for many. I think the TH900 and the DiPhi can have similar bass presence and punch when the DiPhi pads are in the up-and-back position. The DiPhi has more detail and texture, but the quantity of bass is more similar to a TH900. It may not come across that way initially because the TH900 has a pronounced V signature where the DiPhi’s mid-forwardness might decrease the perception of bass presence in comparison.

When I first put on the DiPhi, 24, or HevV2, I notice certain things about them right away. For the DiPhi the resolution and detail are always the most attention grabbing, followed closely by how forward the mids are. For the 24 the first things I notice are how natural and lush it can sound with exquisite treble timbre…until its shoutiness comes in. With the HekV2 it’s the huge and believable spatial presentation along with being warm and relaxed. The weaknesses of the three are the relentless to the point of fatiguing detail and resolution and mid-forwardness that messes up midrange timbre for the DiPhi, the shoutiness and limited ability to resolve complex music of the 24, and the at-times inappropriate soundstage size along with rare but nonzero treble sharpness/sibilance with the HekV2. In fairness, many listeners will find the HekV2’s mid-range presence lacking as well.

If I were to spend $3K+ of my own money on one of these three headphones, it would be the HekV2. It’s frequency response and more subtle approach to detail retrieval – it’s still very resolving just not DiPhi resolving and DiPhi proud of it – are better matches to my hearing and music tastes than the other two. If I were to buy 2 of these 3 – dreams! – the second would be the DiPhi, although in fairness I’d probably look elsewhere first. The DiPhi has genuine strengths that make it even better suited for some music that I listen to more than HekV2. But, I also don’t listen to that music nearly as much.


The DiPhi taught me some things, both about what is possible in sound reproduction and about my own tastes. It’s hard to believe how much detail can exist in a recording – good or bad recording really – until you hear one of these headphones. It has also painted the clearest sonic pictures of the concept of ‘texture’ for me to date. I am now able to hear textures more effectively in less resolving equipment because I know what to listen for after hearing this ‘pure form’ – for lack of better term. However, I also learned that this hyper-detailed presentation sounds unnatural to me on most material. I prefer more subtle detail. To my ear, real-world sounds aren’t detail-forward. The details are naturally occurring and more subtle than what the DiPhi presents. What the DiPhi does in detail retrieval is absolutely impressive and can at times be fun in its own way, but it also can be too over-the-top and reduce the realism for me. However, many listeners will think that I’m nuts here and love the DiPhi for how much it can extract from the signal.

The Abyss Diana Phi is truly a technical marvel of a headphone. They packed prodigious detail retrieval, outstanding bass quantity and quality, and the coolest and probably most ergonomically genius pad mounting system I’ve ever seen into a very robust but small package. It will present you almost all there is in your music – good or bad. Personally, I wish for a little bit more soundstage size from this headphone, and at least one pad setting that would chill the midrange even more than the current options. Unfortunately, I just could not get the midrange timbre to sound right with this headphone because it is so mid-forward; everything had a hollow sound to it. Still, many listeners will not hear that issue or just plain like that approach. And to those listeners, the DiPhi should be on your audition list, no question.

Thanks for reading. Enjoy the music!
Impressive review, thank you so much !
I'm very curious about the Diana V2, obviously, the V2 is more "forgiving" regading the source, and less details retreiving at the same time...
I should try both next week, I can't wait !
Have you ever heard hte V2 ?
Another thing, do you know the DMS mod for pads ?
Thank you! I have not heard the V2. I would like to as I understand that its signature would be more to my liking. I'm not familiar with a DMS pad mod other than the pads of his design.