The Nectar Hive: Planar Bass While Retaining Estat Sound
Pros: 1) Stupendous, linear, tight bass for an electrostatic headphone;
2) Solid mids and highs; without EQ, some ranges of the mids and highs are a but sucked out, but they EQ very well; in a typical estat, the bass must be EQ'd or even modified very aggressively for a linear signature, and quality often suffers; the Hives, however, require much smaller adjustments and adapt to them excellently, with little compromise in sound quality.
3) With EQ, a suitably airy presentation in line with the Estats we all know and love.
4) The fast, detailed highs that can only really be attained with Estats.
5) Sturdy build, comfortable.
6) God-tier customer service
Cons: 1) Needs EQ (subjective), but responds well
2) Not as airy as the STAX house sound (if you like that)
3) Staging is more "headphone-like", but still better than the run-of-the-mill dynamic open-back; comparable to a good planar
4) Due to unique (and reasonable) design choices that prioritize sound quality, the diaphragms may stick if one adjusts the headphones aggressively (happens in the same situations as the "STAX fart"), but this can be fixed easily when it happens. While the Hives have (audio-transparent) dust covers, the diaphragms are not encased, so one has to be careful about dust; keep your covers on.
5) The Hives require a lot of power and (are said to) scale very well; I would not recommend powering these (or anything) with a 252S.
I bought the Hives about six months ago; I liked my STAX L300s, but wanted to branch out; I don't have the money to drop on a pair of SR-009s or SR-007s. I also did not wish to purchase a pair of L700s, as they are, from what I understand, not too terribly much better than the L300s--not worth the tripling of price, anyhow. I had heard that the Hives punch above their weight-class, so I bought them for $600 and also bought an extended warranty (at the time they were available from the manufacturer on ebay, so I decided to opt for a warranty). The manufacturer (Sajeev Rasinghe) also offers 1 year of free repairs (without an extended warranty) and a 20-day return-for-any-reason policy. I have not been paid to write this review.
I have used a fair few headphones over the years--mostly mid-fi open-back models, including the HE-400i. In 2018, I purchased a pair of STAX-L300s, which I quite enjoy (though I was plagued with reliability issues regarding the headband). I stopped purchasing headphones for a while, believing myself to have reached "endgame" . To my chagrin, I came to realize that end-game is a bedtime story, and that reality is a harsh mistress indeed. The STAX--while excellent headphones--lack in some departments. They are not perfectly faithful in the mid and high ranges (as the RAAL-requisite SR1As demonstrate--RAAL, if you want to sponsor me, I'd love a free pair...yeah that's never happening, but I can dream, right?) and they have massive (~20dB at 20HZ) rolloff in the bass range. While the Blu-tak mod and EQ help the bass, they still are not faithful and, when EQ'd, things get muddy, which, as we all know, is the worst possible term one could use to describe a sound signature. The L300s can be made to produce bass, but it is flabby and bleeds. I did not buy the Hives for their bass, to be clear; I was ok with what the L300s did, as I'm not a basshead (but was very pleasantly surprised).
So, now to the review-proper:
We'll start with some fluff:
Build & Aesthetics (4-star build, 3.5-star aesthetics): The Hives look like headphones. They are not beauty-queens, but they do not look like Cyberman helmets either. They also look less like ancient computer power converter units than the STAX models. Passable aesthetics (which is a lot in the world of budget Estats). Build-wise, the Hives are much more sturdy than STAXs L300; I suspect that they could survive (but please do not test this) a fall onto a hardwood floor, at least structurally. The headband is also of good quality--better than the headband fitted to the L500 and L700 and leagues better than the piece of $!%& fitted to the L300. On that note, an aside: The L300 (not Hive) headband broke on me four times (once when removing them from my head gently, and the other times in situations where they should not have broken). Both the yoke and the headband itself have major structural weak-points, and are made of a very brittle plastic. The L300 yokes are hollow and have square corners (any structural engineer will cringe at this) and the headband has a very sudden bend above the adjustment rail that, one might presume, is a compromise made in order to lower the loft of the headband a bit. The engineering on the L300 headband would receive a C- or D in an engineering course. They should never have shipped it. I ended up buying an L700 headband for it after two replacements and a Frankenstein-headband made with some home-built aluminum parts. /rant
The harness (connection of the wires to the diaphragm and stators) gave out on me twice, but this may have been due to mishandling. They could use a better method of securing these wires in the housing to prevent any tension from being applied to the solder joints, but if you handle them reasonably carefully, everything should be fine. I did not, until recently, have a headphone holder on my desk, which I suspect may be the cause of my troubles; when getting up from my desk, the arms of my chair would snag on the cable and jerk the cans across the desk. According to Sajeev, there have only been two pairs that have had harness issues, and mine is the only pair to have experienced the issue twice. It's worth noting that he is still experimenting with the design of the headphones, so I would not be surprised if he changes the cable/headphone junction to be more secure in future instances.
Comfort (5-star): These are very comfortable, in my opinion. They are lighter than the HE-400i but a bit heavier than the STAX; clam is completely inoffensive (I do have a large head). The stock earpads are suitable and I have no complaints. It looks as though it ought to be easy to roll the stock earpads; they are fitted with small pieces of velcro, but are well-secured by a depressed cup, so the Velcro does little work in keeping them in place. The headband is of good quality (lovely clicky mechanism that seems very durable) and comfortable. No complaints from a standpoint of sweat or heating. I hardly notice they are there.
Box?? (??-star): I have no idea why people care about boxes, but here we go: they came in a plastic clamshell in a cardboard box. This is a boutique item made (very well) in a garage. Besides, if you're buying Estats, you're probably not the sort to get excited over a pretty box. I have no complaints. If you need a case for them, buy a case or use one that you already have (again, if you are buying Estats, you already have headphone carry cases). Not that one usually carries Estats on planes or the metro.
Customer Service (6-star): By far the best customer service I've ever had the pleasure of dealing with. Speedy, thoughtful responses, no telephone runaround, no automated answering with ads playing on hold. Just...emails that get answered quickly. Sajeev is excellent about repairs and completes said repairs very quickly. I believe the turnaround (from the day I shipped to the day they showed up in my mailbox) was about 6-7 days for both repairs. Sajeev also covered return shipping on the second repair due to the recurrence of the wire-harness issue.
Sound!! (4.5-star): The part you've all been waiting for. The frequency response of the Hives is embedded below:
The hives have a fairly flat FR (note that the numerical markings on the left-hand side are in units of 10dB, rather than the typical 5--still a reasonably flat FR, though, especially below 1kHZ. The dip at 2kHZ is audible, and is one of the things I EQd. The dips in the 9-14kHZ range are also noticeable, but the Hives respond well to EQ with minimal harmonic distortion and bleed. Harmonic measurements look serviceable and typical for an Estat (see the info about the setting in which the measurements were made at the link to the right). More info on measurements (not my post) here.
I drove the Hives and L300s with an SRM-1 Mk2/Pro unit which has been recapped. It's not the best Estat amp ever--it's no iFi Audio Pro iESL, but it's better than the lower tier of current STAX energizers. It's quite serviceable, and provides ample power (If iFi would like to send me a free iESL, please contact me...again, that'll never happen). I'm a university student, so I'll settle for what I can afford. I found that the SRM-1 Mk2/Pro was plenty powerful; I don't have to turn the knob past halfway (though I tend to listen at lower volumes than my age-cohort, who shall all suffer hearing impairment in a decade or two).
I am assigning stars relative to other true-hifi and TOTL offerings, not to mid-fi offerings. I would not compare these (with the stars I'm using) to any setup (including DAC and amp) that costs less than $1500 (so the HE-400i or a Sennheiser HD650, for instance, would not be comparable).
A FURTHER, IMPORTANT NOTE: I speak about how I prefer the Hives with EQ. They still sound very, very good without EQ, and I listened without EQ while writing this review.
Bass (5-star): I should note that my preference is for a neutral or slightly light sound signature. Bass performance is the absolute greatest strength of the Hives in comparison to other Estats. The Hives do most Estat things well, but where they really stand out from other Estats is the bass range. They are tastefully impactful; they do not exaggerate, but when you are meant to hear bass, you do, and when it's meant to punch, it does. The bass is textured; you can pick out detail...but there's really no other word for it than textured. As you can see, the bass is quite linear, with a small ~4dB hump between 20 and 50kHZ). Most other Estats fail to produce much bass, and (from what I understand about the 007s and 009s), when they do produce ample volume, it tends to come with compromises in texture/detail. The Hives do produce sub-bass. No/minimal muddiness detectable.
Note: Apparently the tension on the Hive's diaphragm is much lower than the tension on other Estat offerings, which allows for the fantastic performance in this regard, and explains why other Estats don't EQ well in the bass range. This is also why the diaphragm sticks to the stators if adjusted forcefully or put on one's head carelessly. If they do stick, simply remove the plug and short your thumb across the leads; you should hear a slight crackling as the diaphragm becomes uncharged and peels back off the stator grids. This will not damage the headphone. The diaphragm is also a bit thicker (thus the need for higher power output to suitably drive them).
Mids (4..25-star without EQ, 4.75-star with EQ): The hives do well in the mids, especially with EQ of the 2kHZ dip. They don't have the slightly nasal tonality of Stax headphones, nor do they sound anemic in this region. I would not describe the sound as shouty either. I'd say they sound, well, just right, and render vocals faithfully.
Highs (4-star without EQ, 4.5-star with EQ): In the high range, the Hives sound noticeably less airy than the STAX. With EQ, they sound just fine, and can still produce a very "open", "roomy" sound. They have the fabled Estat detail. It is my impression that their detail-retrieval is somewhat better than that of the L300s,. At first, I thought they were a bit less detailed, but I did a further comparison, and I think it's due to the warmer sound of the Hives; they still have just as much detail, probably more, but I subconsciously associate detail with airyness; being mindful of this, I think that they do, indeed, out-perform the STAX.
Imaging: Imaging is more distinct than the L300 imaging. It's not the best headphone ever in terms of imaging, but it is by no means a wall of sound, either; I'd say it's well within the realm of what one expects in truely high-end audio. They perform well in the department, and I have no complaints.
Soundstage: Soundstage is smaller than the L300s (mostly in the vertical axis, owing to the circular drivers). These feel less like being in a concert venue, but do not feel like being in a studio either (unless one listens to a track mastered to sound like it was produced in an anechoic chamber). It's a bit more intimate, but still an open-back sound for sure. I would put the soundstage above the HE-400i, but below STAX in terms of spaciousness. Again, I have no complaints, and I think the Hives more than compensate for an average (for true-hifi or near-TOTL) soundstage in other departments.
General impression: The Hives are a bit of a holy grail so far as Estat sound signatures go; for those who cannot stomach the bassless sound of the typical Estat offerings, the Hives are perfect. They are excellent in most departments, with ample detail, solid imaging, serviceable soundstage and a very versatile frequency response. They sound both natural and musical without sounding dark/warm.
Classical: The Hives have the linear presentation often favored by Classical enthusiasts. Instruments are well-separated and distinct even in the very most complex of crescendos. The cellos and bass-frequency brass come across with a pleasant warmth (comparable to the "warm" sound one hears when actually watching a concert in person). Higher-pitched instruments (violin, flute, glockenspiel, percussion etc.) are rendered faithfully, and, indeed, very pleasantly. They also handle smaller orchestral arrangements and solos well, without feeling boring. Detail is very much present. Does well with the complexity of Mozart's Symphony 41. Vivaldi's quartets sound excellent, with perfect clarity and texture in the strings; the harpsichord is well-rendered, with its...uh...unique...sound. Beethoven's repetitious but somehow lovely music sounds better than ever; Sonata 17, Tempest (one of my favorite classical compositions ever) rolls through my ears like a spring day; the small amount of texture in piano notes is captured very nicely. All around, I would say that the hives perform beautifully.
Jazz: Again, the Hives perform admirably. The separation and imaging is very good (again, only average for TOTL). The sound is quite lifelike. The saxophone is textured and voice-like. The guitar has the humm of a real guitar (it's hard to place, but I've always found [many tones of, anyhow] guitar to have a bit of a sawtooth-wave buzz that many cans don't quite get right). Hi-hat and symbol percussion is sharp (in a lifelike, inoffensive way) with stupendous transients. Bass guitar and drums are present and well-spoken-for in the mix (where other Estats fail). Piano sounds excellent, and you can easily pick out the slight buzz when the hammers hit, the difference between a rolling note and a real whack on the keys. Perfect. Sounds (in a well-mastered track) like one is there in the bar with a cigar in the corner of one's mouth and an old-fashioned in hand.
Classic Rock (various subgenres): Vocals are excellent, various misc. instruments (see: Steely Dan and their maracas) come across well, with excellent detail (very fast transients). Again, excellent imaging and separation. Guitar tones come across beautifully, with superb texture and detail. Shredding sounds fantastic. Early electronic elements (e.g. the synths in President Gas by the Psychedelic Furs) come across very well. Extremely natural, lifelike presentation. Money by Pink Floyd has that "giant open-air venue" feel, the instruments sound exactly as they should--very clear, sharply rendered, in the Pink Floyd style--and the register sounds at the start of the track come across in true stereo glory. So much texture. The brass in Money also comes across very nicely. On Steely Dan's So Far Away From Me, the sound is pleasantly airy; sounds like a band playing on a stage in an open field. Good detail, again, and everything I've said before. The Hives will handle most any classic rock track you throw at them in stellar fashion.
Blues: Suitably warm, musical. Blues, obviously, have a lot more bass-focus than other genres of similar antiquity. The Hives capture this bass well; it is textured where appropriate, present, and you can feel the sub-bass. In this regard, the STAX sound...quite...bad, really. The Hives will almost certainly please any who have decided against Estats after trying them because of the weak bass range. Vocals are very detailed; the gravelliness of typical blues voices is eloquently expressed. Harmonica sounds true-to-life (I had a few growing up, I know my harmonica sound). Guitar comes across well, both electronic and acoustic. Acoustic guitar sounds soothing and, again, lifelike, with great texture and clarity; the somewhat ineffable timbre of the string sound is well-rendered, better than the STAX can do. I keep saying it, but it sounds for all the world like you're there on the lawn or in a bar and there's a live band performing.
Metal: A venn diagram of headphones that sound TOTL for metal and those that sound TOTL for classical/jazz/blues is almost two separate circles. The Hives bridge that gap. They don't sound like a wall of sound even with power metal playing. Imaging and separation are very good, allowing one to place individual instruments even in complex arrangements. The bass is not overwhelming (though is present at tasteful levels when bass-frequency percussion is present). Vocals are less forward than might be considered perfect (but close enough that mastering is much more important than the cans), but are by no means sucked out. Death metal (not really my speed, but not something I hate either) also sounds good. Guitar tones are well-rendered, harmonics come across just like they would in person, imaging blah blah, you've heard this before. Vocals are very textured, and they definitely sound like someone screaming their soul out. They handle death metal well. In black metal, again, even extremely complex sections, the sound is well-stratified and one can pick out instruments with ease. Fast transients make for excellent detail, and the bass is, as one would hope, low in the mix in earlier black metal (e.g. Mayhem). They capture the airy, atmospheric sound of Opeth and Mayhem well. Some of Opeth's newer tracks have too much bass, but that's a mastering problem. The Hives also handle very atmospheric metal (e.g. Gothic Doom Metal) excellently, and have a "giant concert venue" sound, with ample reverb and air. Even in these tracks, separation and imaging keep up.
Punk: We all know that 97% of punk producers were dropped on their heads as children and produced their music with TIG welders (not the best choice for a mixing interface) in their mothers' basements. We love punk anyway. The mastering in most punk tracks is barely better than the quality of mastering provided by a mid-80s tape recorder. And still we love punk. The Hives do improve on the lo-fi feel of punk music, opening up the sound-stage and giving a less-compressed sound. The descendents come across almost like Bauhaus (in atmosphere/reverb/soundstage), which is an improvement. Rites of Spring...well...I guess it sounds like something you'd listen to on a car stereo going 90 with a pal-mal in your mouth. But the Hives do actually retrieve some detail that one would not hear on lower-end cans. The soundstage is excellent, punk "mastering" considered. Anti-Flag sounds fairly compressed, but...why am I writing this? No true punk cares about sound quality, as long as the sound isn't too bassy. I'll wrap this section up, go gel my hair and do a keg stand under an overpass. Green Day sounds pretty decent, aside from loudness wars tragedy; sound has (realistic) color, human voice is captured pretty well, instruments are distinct. Screeching Weasel is still 100% unlistenable.
Misc. Alt: I think you get the gist of it--the Hives are not to be sneezed at in the context of harder rock genres. Nonetheless, the vocals in Unravel by TK from Ling Tosite Sigure come across really very well. The technical sections are, unfortunately, still compressed, but I have not met a can that is capable of making them sound very clear; I think this was a case of poor mastering, unfortunately. She's In Parties by Bauhaus sounds like it was performed in a catacomb somewhere, loads of reverb. Good texture in the guitar, well-rendered vocals, verrry airy and reverb-heavy (in a good, goth way). On the track Superstition by the Birthday Massacre, the sound is extremely open...so incredibly ethereal. Individual instruments are mostly distinct; though the song does have some very wall-of-sound-ish sections where the synths cover the entire arc of one's surroundings, guitar, drums and vocals can still be placed well. Detail is superb.
Shoegaze: I've got somewhere to be, so I really do have to wrap up. I may expand on the last few sections later. Shoegaze generally comes across very nicely. When instruments should be "localized", they can be placed well. The airy, ethereal, reverb-drenched sound is just right, and the colorful guitar tones just drip and flow. Detail is, again, very good on tracks that are not lo-fi. My favorite cans for this genre (and, really, most genres). Nausea by Crat Spells sounds magical and prismatic. Dizzy on the Comedown by Turnover just sounds...like a very pretty sunset in a wheatfield; detail is phenomenal and lifelike.
Electronic: Chillstep and ambient tracks are well-rendered; the bass is present, impactful when relevant, and textured. In fact, the bass is the best I've ever heard by a large margin. Higher-frequency sounds also come across perfectly, in crystal-clear, scalpel-like precision. The thud of the bass in Phantomsage's Holystone is there, in your face, but extremely tight and punchy. The colorful, foreboding synth sounds of Escape Plan by F.O.O.L. sound expansive, defined and fast. Tonality is just right, to my taste, for EDM--not muddy, overwhelming, Beats-like bass-slam, but refined and balanced.
Indie: These also do well with indie! Shiver by Lucy Rose (in my opinion one of the best indie tracks ever) soundslike you are right there. The vocals (the focus of the track) are an excellent rendition of a human voice. The acoustic guitar is, again, well-rendered, as covered in other portions. Instrument placement is good. The tonality of the headphones does very well on indie tracks, not compromising fidelity to the "real sound" at almost any juncture (with EQ, any juncture). On faster, denser tracks, like Keane's Snowed Under, (arguably britpop), the guitar and piano are accurate. Vocals sound very studio-like (in a good way), and percussion is fast, controlled. Staging/separation/imaging are all top-notch, considering the quality of mastering. In Death With Dignity by Sufjan Stevens, the vocals are very, very lifelike, and extremely detailed. The Hives capture the air in his voice well.
Rap: I don't listen to much (well, almost any) rap, but given that the Hives capture vocals and electronic high-ranges well without sacrificing bass, I imagine they would perform well enough in this genre.
Pop: Again, not my forte; similar to rap, the versatility of the headphones in other genres would lead me to believe that they would perform quite well, though. See: Snowed Under by Keane (in the indie section), as it's somewhere on the pop/indie boundary.
Conclusion: The Hives are an incredibly versatile headphone from a sound standpoint, and are more than serviceable in terms of build and comfort. While the packaging is lacking (really, what does it matter?), the customer service more than makes up for it. They may not have the absolute best soundstage and imaging ever, but they are still within the margins of TOTL in these departments (i.e. are comparable to other TOTL cans--not to say that their soundstage or imagine is among the very best available), and cannot be said to be lacking, either. In terms of tonality, they are very nicely balanced--more linear than most other Estats, and could even be used as very high-quality monitors, provided one has anechoic foam. The detail that they capture is, again, not the absolute best (currently, I believe all Estats are trounced by the SR1a, but have not demoed it myself), but exceeds the L300 in this department. I imagine the detail also improves a bit if one has a TOTL amp, e.g. the iFi ESL. I have heard that the Hives are almost as detailed as the best STAX offerings, and that, further, they are comparable to or better than the best STAX offerings so far as general assessment goes. I cannot, however, verify this as I do not presently own any of the STAX flagship models.
For $600, you absolutely cannot go wrong with the Hives. They are, in my opinion, more versatile than the STAX and offer a more natural presentation without any sacrifice except in breadth and height of soundstage and the stator-sticking quirk. These are, very likely, giant-killers.
(Note that I rate these 4.5 stars; I give them a 4.5-star rather than 5-star rating because I have not heard many other TOTL headphones so cannot, in good conscience, pretend to rank them relative to the flagships, e.g. the SR-007 Mk1 and the RAAL-Requisite SR1a.)
Yes, they haven't gotten anything like the attention they deserve. I think they could offer a way for many more conventional headphone enthusiasts to get into estats... hopefully this will help bring them into the fore!