FOSTEX TH-600 – initial impressions
I came upon these headphones almost by accident recently – after writing up a review on my most recent trade acquisition (the Final Audio Sonorous/Pandora Hope IV), I spotted someone on one of the forums looking for a set and having the TH-600 to offer in trade. Being a newcomer to the world of mid-range cans and never having heard the TH-series (or any Fostex headphone, in fact), I was intrigued to see what the sound would be like compared to the Final Audios and my beloved AQ Nighthawks. Needless to say, I was quite impressed…
About me: newly minted audiophile, late 30s, long time music fan and aspiring to be a reasonably inept drummer. Listen to at least 2 hours of music a day on my commute to work – prefer IEMs for out and about, and a large pair of headphones when I have the house to myself and a glass in my hand. Recently started converting my library to FLAC and 320kbps MP3, and do most of my other listening through Spotify or Tidal HiFi. I am a fan of rock, acoustic (apart from folk) and sarcasm. Oh yeah, and a small amount of electronica. Not a basshead, but I do love a sound with some body to it. My ideal tuning for most IEMs and headphones tends towards a musical and slightly dark presentation, although I am not treble sensitive in general. Please take all views expressed below with a pinch of salt – all my reviews are a work in progress based on my own perceptions and personal preferences, and your own ears may tell you a different story.
Tech specs (from the Fostex website)
Driver: 50mm dia Nd magnet / bio-dynamic diaphragm
Impedance: 25 ohm
Sensitivity: 94dB / mW
Maximum Input: 1,800 mW
Reproduction Frequency: 5 – 45k Hz
Weight: 370g (excluding the cord)
Cord: 3m Y type
Plug: 6.3mm dia gold coating stereo phone plug
Unboxing / package contents
The packaging is pretty straightforward, with a cardboard box showing a full size picture of the headphones and the name, proclaiming them to be “Premium Reference Quality”. No other specs or information is given, giving the packaging a functional but minimalist look. On opening the box, a solid black presentation case is revealed, with “Fostex TH600” emblazoned in gold print on the front. This presentation box opens in two parts, and reveals the headphones inside, nestled in a molded foam insert that fills the interior of the box and allows the headphones to sit in protected comfort when not in use. As the cables used are hard-wired into the box, there are no other accessories to speak of, just the box and the headphones. The minimalist approach is used on the headphones themselves, with the solid magnesium body being a solid dark grey/light black colour, with the Fostex logo engraved into each cup. The only splash of colour that can be seen is on the stainless steel rods that connect the headband to the cups. All in all, these are headphones at their least ostentatious – just a functional (and quite attractive) design, and an elegant box to hold them in.
Build quality and ergonomics
The headphones are made of die-cast magnesium, and look and feel solid but pretty lightweight for a fully circumaural (over-ear) headphone. The headband is lightly padded, but due to the ergonomic curve of the band itself doesn’t actually exert much pressure on the crown of the head during wear, so is fully capable of being worn for hours at a time with no tell-tale “hotspots”. The headband length is adjustable and the cups swivel and rotate on two axes, so generally allows for positioning that will give a good seal. As this is a traded model, mine came fitted with some Brainwavz HM5 memory foam pads rather than the originals, but those allow for a comfortable seal and long-term wear without heating up. Clamping force is mild, with the headphones able to move slightly rather than being superglued to your head. These are designed for at-home or studio use, so the lack of firm grip is not a dealbreaker – the extra long and thick braided cable (terminated in a studio/hi fi amp friendly 6.3mm plug rather than a more mobile 3.5mm terminator) would pose far more of an issue to using these on the go, unless you fancied using them as a very expensive skipping rope.
LG G Flex 2 (via Neutron Player)
iBasso DX90 (with Cayin C5)
Sansa Clip+ (Rockboxed)
Microsoft Surface Pro 2 (straight from the output jack)
Main test tracks (mainly 320kbps MP3 or FLAC/Tidal HiFi):
Nathaniel Rateliff & The Night Sweats – S.O.B. / Wasting Time
Blackberry Smoke – The Whipporwill (album)
Slash – Shadow Life / Bad Rain (my reference tracks for bass impact and attack, guitar “crunch”)
Slash & Beth Hart – Mother Maria (vocal tone)
Sister Hazel – Hello, It’s Me (bass quantity and quality)
Richie Kotzen – Come On Free (bass tone)
Elvis – various
Leon Bridges – Coming Home (album)
Daft Punk – Random Access Memories (album) / Tron (various versions)
Rodrigo y Gabriela – various
Mavis Staples – Livin’ On A High Note
Don Broco – Automatic
Foy Vance – The Wild Swan
General impressions on the sound signature
One of my favourite things to do when I have a little time to myself at home for some “casual” listening is to plug in some music via my headphones, plop myself on the sofa and flick through the sports channels on satellite TV with the volume off (mainly to avoid the inane commentary from people who used to be paid to play a game, which doesn’t always qualify them to talk about it). Running through one of these early morning listening sessions with the TH600, I came across some gymnastics on one of the more obscure channels, which provided me with a perfect (and perfectly obscure) analogy for the way these headphones sound. Like a male gymnast, the sound is muscular and very well-defined, while still being light and extremely dextrous. Notes shimmer and turn on a sixpence, flicking about with precision and control. The body of the music is there, without any excess fat or flab flying around as it does its rounds through the confines of your eardrums, drawing your attention to the technicalities it is trying to execute well rather than its shortcomings. According to the description on the packaging, these are “reference class” headphones, and that is a good descriptor – the sound (in the main) is full bodied without being lush or bloated, technically impressive without being bland, and neutral enough not to colour the music too much without being ruler-flat across all frequencies. The tuning does very well extracting the micro-details from guitar based music, and separating the voices in gospel choruses without destroying the body of the music in the process.
Treble on the TH600 is clear and defined, with a nice sense of space and air for a closed-back headphone. Notes are clean and sharp, with a nice sense of crunch and crispiness to more aggressive treble. Detail is excellent, with the famous Fostex bio-dynamic diaphragm keeping the information flowing into your ears no matter how quiet or peripheral. Despite being sharp, the TH600 steers clear of sibilance issues on all but the most spiky of tracks, drawing the line just shy of overcooking the treble while still giving these a reasonable splash of sparkle. To be clear, my preference for treble is firmly in the clear and smooth/rolled off category, so there may still be too little high end pizzazz for the true treble-hounds out there, but to my ears they draw a very good line between the detail and rounding of each note to satisfy most listeners.
The mid-range feels slightly further back in the landscape compared to the highs or lows, giving a feeling of the singer projecting from mid-stage rather than leaning over the front row of the crowd. Texture is good, with guitar tones ringing clear and authentic, and a nice sound and bite to string instruments in general. The mid-range is close to neutral in tuning, with neither an abundance of warmth or leanness, treading the line between body and definition well. Chords (both electric and acoustic) jangle when strummed and crunch when chopped out, with the more recessed tuning allowing plenty of space for the instruments to spread out in all three dimensions. “Kashmir” by Escala drives along with great dynamics, the symphonic violins buzzing with energy and seeming to float slightly above the chugging guitar riff underpinning the track without muddying either. This tuning is slightly less forgiving of my badly mixed or lower quality tracks, with the lighter mid-range volume making some vocalists seem a little lifeless compared to the bass and highs – not exactly surprising for a “reference class” headphone, but still worth noting if you haven’t gone totally down the lossless/320kbps route yet with your electronic music collection. Like the highs, detail levels are very high, with the space between the instruments allowing each strand of music enough room to fully unload all the associated harmonics and studio noise into the background hum. Listening to Rodrigo y Gabriela provides a great example of the beauty and beast of the driver in the same track: fingers slide over nylon strings with great authenticity, notes shimmer just far enough forward in the soundscape not to disappear, but the body of the note can sometimes feel just a little out of reach.
The bio-dynamic driver delivers a quick, solid bass performance, with more emphasis on sub-bass rumble than mid-bass “slam”. The excellent placement of instruments and underlying rumble represents drum fills very well, and electronica sounds suitably full and pulsating when the volume is pumped up. Listening to tracks from “The Wild Swan”, the well-mastered sub bass on a few of the middle tracks like “She Burns” add a fullness to the lower end that is very enjoyable. Feeding the TH600s a diet of recent Prodigy tracks, the bumping basslines are there in full effect, driving the sound forward with authority and no little enjoyment. For more traditional bass driven tracks that live a little further up the frequency charts, the bass is more towards neutral than full, with a good substance to the notes and controlled presentation that never intrudes into the mid-range. In truth, a little bass bleed would probably add a little warmth and body to the analytical slant of the mids, but being proper reference headphones, the accuracy is to be expected. The texture of the bass is also to be applauded, with a nice authentic rasp and grain to bass guitar and a realistic sound to drum-head impacts.
For a closed headphone, the soundstage is excellent, expanding outwards in a bubble that feels like a larger version of the hemispherical speaker cups you are wearing. Separation is outstanding, with multiple voices in large choral numbers sounding clear and distinct without divorcing themselves from the chorus. Spatial cues can be a little wider than on other closed-back headphones I have heard, with a reasonable height but more width. “Better Man” by Leon Bridges sounds sublime through these headphones, with the sounds coming from either side and sounding “fleshed out” and three dimensional as the saxophone and Hammond organ fills roll through different areas of the stage, easily painting a picture in your mind of where the music is coming from in the room. Due to the way this song is recorded, the “room noise” can sometimes overpower the chorus lines, but the TH600 takes it all in stride, preserving the live feeling of the track and the clarity of the individual pieces at the same time. The high detail level helps with the separation as well, bringing clarity to the faintest of noises in the soundscape without blurring any of them together.
For a closed back headphone, these have only average isolation, and suffer from quite pronounced leakage. In a normal room, it is possible to hear what is going on (in a muffled manner) and for other people to hear what you are listening to without too much effort, so these are definitely cans for quiet listening or studio environments only – librarians need not apply.
The low impedance does allow the TH600s to be driven adequately from a volume perspective from a phone or low-power DAP setup, but to get the best out of the “reference class” sound these are capable of, then a good amp or powerful standalone player is required. Pushing these through the high-gain setting or the DX90, the skull-crushing power of the Cayin C5 or the refined but punchy output of the Opus #1 all give a marked improvement in tightness and overall soundstage, bringing a little more substance to the music and smoothing out some of the rough edges on lower-res tracks.
Audioquest Nighthawk – I have written a review of these headphones recently where I pointed out that they are more or less perfect for my tuning preferences, and while the TH600 are a technically impressive headphone, they don’t quite reach the same heights of enjoyment. Sub-bass is deeper and more pronounced on the TH600 (making them better overall bets for electronic music like dubstep), but the Nighthawk pull ahead in the mid-bass, with a warmer and fuller sound. Mids are more recessed and dry on the TH600, sticking closer to analytical, with the Nighthawks pouring out some beautiful, liquid midrange that is packed with feeling. Treble is a draw, with the smoothly detailed take used by the Nighthawks contrasting well with the sharper and more extended feeling TH600. Detail levels are similar on both, with the TH600 having a slightly sharper tuning so greater perception of detailing on initial listen, the Nighthawks keeping the detail present but a little less obvious in the overall tuning. Soundstage is won by the TH600, with a greater sense of width and distance between both sides of the stage. Separation is similar, with both excelling at keeping the instruments separate but still cohesive. Isolation is won by the Nighthawk, with both headphones suffering a similar amount of leakage. Comfort is a slam dunk by the Audioquest flagship, feeling like a pair of fluffy clouds on your head compared to the comfortable but still large-headphone-feeling TH600s.
Final Audio Sonorous/Pandora Hope IV – I acquired the TH600s in a direct swap for the Sonorous, so a direct A/B was not possible. Therefore these comparisons are from recent memory only, so please treat them as such. On initial listen, the Fostex presents a sound that is a little more detailed than the Sonorous, with better instrument separation and placement. Peripheral sounds and micro details are easier to pick out of the overall soundscape, without overpowering the main music, leading to an impression of more going on in some tracks I know well. The extra detail also helps to avoid a feeling of congestion, with the soundstage still feeling distinct and not overcrowded on the Fostex no matter how much instrumentation is on it. Width of soundstage is similar, with both outperforming the “standard” closed can expectations and sliding sound outside the imaginary confines of your head. Bass is slightly more pronounced on the Fostex – it is close, but seems to just have the extra pinch of volume that is occasionally lacking from the Sonorous for me. Mids are a little more dry and lean on the Fostex, with a similar presentation in terms of distance from the listener. The Sonorous tuning provides a bit more “soul” to vocals and string instruments, with the Fostex presenting a more clinical but still enjoyable sound. Treble is on the sharper end on both of these headphones, with the Fostex having a slightly more laid back treble presentation than the more in-your-face Sonorous, but detail levels and air are similar for both. Overall it is a close comparison between both, with the Fostex leaving an impression of being slightly more technically capable in terms of detail and resolution, but the tunings not being a million miles away from each other.
The TH600s are my first proper foray into the world of reference over-ear headphones, and as such present a slightly different take on tracks that I have listened to previously. While staying true to the music, the slight V-shape apparent in the sounds adds just enough flavour to make most types of music enjoyable, with the excellent sub-bass and light but detailed treble bringing out the details in the music in a great way. As a pair of at-home cans, these would be an excellent choice for those who aren’t looking for a musical and emotive mid-range, but want accuracy and detail packaged up with just enough sparkle and rumble at either end to bring it to life. People who need portability or “soul” in their mids are better off looking at other options in the same price range, but these make an excellent listening companion to a more musical headphone if you have the luxury of keeping more than one.