- Oct 14, 2007
[size=large]A Fixed Game?[/size]
[size=large]1. The Dawn of Can Man[/size]
Please allow me to introduce myself; yes, I tell first something about my journey here on Head-fi.
My Stax journey really began when I joined Head-fi in the fall of 2007. Browsed through these large threads containing pictures of rigs. Usually my favorite kinds of threads. Pictures of your headphones and listening places. When I saw them for the first time, I laughed. “What kind of vintage cans these are”, I thought and continued to look after the nice looking woodied Beyerdynamics and Sennheiser HD650s. It was the time I had HD595s and looked forward to get something good to try. I was really, really content with the 595s, they shone with the movie soundtracks I mostly listened to. I managed to make a borrow happen and the next thing was to own HD650s. Their strengths lied in the body: the good bass and fine, lush style of presenting the midrange. It was indeed the thick presentation that made me upgrade the cans very soon (I'd had the HD595s for less than two months). Found a buyer for the old cans and I found myself in a musical heaven with the improvements.
But then something happened. I upgraded my source to ESI Juli@ and while it made serious improvements (especially the bass settled down, the soundstage improved very much and separation got more apparent) some of the fun was lost. It was too bad to switch back on to that integrated soundcard and the new one had something wrong. Don't know what, but something it had. So, months passed and now the signature of Senns has forged into my head. I still think that the Arietta that's doing the drive is not optimal for the Senns. Quite honestly, I get very similar results without an amp (ie. I plug the Senns straightly to line outs of a DVD player) – the difference between unamped and amped HD650s is not large to my ears. There are few possibilities available: either I possess wooden ears or the amp truly is incapable to drive better than the line out power. I've heard this amp would be much source dependent, so if someone knows something about this, I'd gladly know. I'm betting at the bad synergy.
I bought Grados earlier this year – SR60 and SR80. They sounded wonderful driven by Arietta. I was quite impressed with the speed of Grados, but I preferred the soundstage and details of Sennheisers. When I found this deal on Stax 2020 Basic II system, thoughts bounced in my head: speed, accuracy, soundstage, separation, details. The HD650s are pretty detailed but extra details shouldn't harm.
My experience with gear is very limited. Grado SR60, SR80; Sennheiser HD595, HD600, HD650 are everything I've heard in detail. And only a couple of sources and an amp. This may explain how it is possible that I don't like the current combo: maybe I don't know if this is good or bad. I do hope the Staxes clear things up in that I could put note on Sennheisers good abilities, strengths. This buy will build some contrast between worlds. It is my hypothesis that the Stax sounds better than my current Sennheiser rig. But maybe a plain amp-upgrade could change the winners? They say balanced Senns are whole different beasts from the single ended equivalents. This comparison still limits to comparing the two rigs.
In case you didn't catch this up yet, my limited experience makes this review solely a battle of two rigs. I'm in no position to make conclusions about how great dynamic headphones can be and the same will go with electrostatic ones. I will compare my rigs and tell what I feel about them. To make things harder, I have terrible knowledge of instruments and musical styles. I'm just betting at something being a violin or that sound being from a synthesizer. You could correct me or just keep laughing in the back seat, whatever suits your style.
To make this review a bit more useful, I tell something about my rig and Senns. This might or might not help a reader (you) to decide which rig sounds better. If you have heard either system, the HD650 or Stax 2020 you could fit your own feelings about them and match (if possible) them with mine. In this sense this review is working in a two-way manner, but I clearly focus on the Staxes here.
1.1 Corda Arietta → Sennheiser HD650
I don't use crossfeed. The sound, to explain it with a single word, is full. About every instrument has certain feel to lower frequencies: a drum kick, a cymbal, a female voice, a bell. Their sound spreads to a large area in the sound spectrum. It doesn't sound unnatural to me, it just thickens the sound, making the body very pleasant.
The sound is full also in other way: the soundstage spreads into an arc behind me. Separation is good, but not as good as I hope it to be. Some pieces sound very lovely with this, while dynamically compressed (from this on I refer it as 'compression' and it does not mean these lossy compression methods such as MP3) songs sound like the soundstage has been collapsed and the sound is just inside my head. These two major aspects made me buy these in the first place and I'm not selling these just yet.
The experiencing with Grados and their fun sound made me feel new things about my preferences: what do I really want from a headphone? It feels like I wanted both great soundstage and a bit more forward presentation. I do hope the Basic II set has some Gradoish elements in the sound (well it should since they both are faster than the HD650s). I can only listen to the Stax and then form an opinion about their sound.
At this point, some may wonder what or why am I talking about these things, isn't the thing of this review to show how Staxes beat Senns. No, the first part was written while the Staxes were traveling. Now we get to the part you are probably more interested to.
[size=large]2. The Stax Mission[/size]
2.1 Stax 2020 Basic II
Every Stax review mentions how bad the build quality is and I now know the reason. It is very cheap looking and feeling... and the plastic creaks in every possible way when I move my head or jaws. But, after a while it is most easy to achieve the good position on head and the quality doesn't feel that bad after all. They are relatively heavy, compared to the HD650s, but the wide band divides the pressure very evenly and in that manner they are more comfortable than the Senns. The large pads and not so tight grip on head makes these very comfortable and they are quite fine for longer sessions too.
The greater session limiter are the pleather pads that sometimes get warm very quickly, even after 30 minutes or so. In case they get sweaty too soon, I keep small pauses between side changes or albums and that helps a lot, but naturally doesn't remove the issue. The warmup is pretty random, actually. Must be more like the wearer causing the sweating. The Sennheisers are just more comfortable because of their use of velor in the pads. And because the grip on the Staxes is not too strong, you can't head bang like you could do with the Sennheisers. That's too bad, since these Staxes are bit more involving than Senns. Speaking of which, would it be the time to move on to the actual subject: how's the sound?
[size=xx-small]Staxes resting comfortably.[/size]
2.2 The Sound – warm up
Before I say a word about the sound (yes, I like long foreplays), I shall share someone else's experience and feelings about the Stax. She compared the Staxes, the Sennheisers and the Grado SR80 the other night and we played some CDs. Amplification was naturally the SRM 212 for the Staxes and Arietta for the dynamic ones. She generalized the difference of the Staxes and Sennheisers to very few words: Staxes are bass shy and the Sennheisers are less bright than Staxes. Guitars are brilliant and different kinds of drums and horns are very good with Staxes according to her. Some weirder comments include that the Grados are best cans to do opera. Her conclusion was in the end that the Grados were best – followed by Staxes and Sennheisers kept the third place. Well, can't blame her – the Grados are very seductively involving indeed. Only their evident lack of detail keeps me from using them in everyday listening.
2.3 The Sound of the Stax
I had high expectations for the pair when I bought them and waited for them vigorously. What I had read about the Staxes generally was that they are fast, detailed, accurate, brilliant. I myself expected a thin sound slightly similar to Sennheiser HD595 (mainly because I didn't know or had heard any other cans then that had small amounts of bass) – bass shyness, not so bodiful presentation. Well, I can't be but happy I was completely off the track.
First, the infamous electrostatic bass and the lack of it is something I cannot admit. There's bass of various kinds. Sometimes it slams, sometimes it is just a voice. The bass – yes, I understand some people prefer a more slammy presentation, but to me it's in an interesting way very close to the HD650. When I listened to these the first time I couldn't tell if the bass was what or not: it was good and very realistic. I wouldn't say these were bass shy, not at all. They like to bloom the bass in a HD650ish way if you get my point. What's more I feel the presentation of the bass being very non-exaggerating and it may have something to do with the fact they are very transparent. Most songs are played well in terms of bass performance but I need to inform that the only album I listened that didn't have enough bass was an LP-ripped Tubular Bells (1973). The bass aggressive sections in the first part weren't much anything with the Staxes. Surprisingly, there are no other albums or single tracks with seriously bad bass performance. The Staxes do very well, way better than people generally describe the thing.
Enough of bass. The other sections of sound. Midrange? The sweet spot of any decent can? Yes, it might be. Quickly jumped from Sennheisers, the Staxes' midrange seems slightly recessed. Especially the female vocals feel too quiet. They seem overpowered by the rest of the spectrum. But, after the accustomization it's not that bad. Yes, the midrange has body. The feel of it, the grip of music the Staxes make is great. Male vocals sound very great. All kinds of instruments sound fine and feel well defined. The post-echoes and similar things are refined and add up with the Staxian style. Electric guitars sound cool, although the Gradoish crunch is missing. I did expect something like that because I associated the crunchy and edgy sound to speed. Maybe a good spot to describe the speed of the Stax?
The general consensus is that Sennheisers are slow, the Grados are fast and the Stax are the fastest devils on earth. Well, just maybe... A comparison between the HD650 and SR80 does show the difference of speed very quickly and it's easy to spot and perceive. Not so easy task when I change the SR80 to the Stax. The Staxes are indeed fast sounding, but the speed is not highlighted. They may be faster than they sound. There's no edge to guitars like Grados have. They perform at different style. It could be described like this: Grados may be fast as a car or a motorcycle is. You feel the speed and when you accelerate, it's felt and experienced. Staxes may be faster than Grados: Staxes are an airplane. Damn these go fast but does it feel like a fast machine to travel by? Some clever could say Sennheisers being a bicycle in this comparison but they aren't that slow.
Back to the frequencies. The treble. Straightly said, they sound recessed on treble. Or Sennheiser is exaggerating the highs. Even a few well known track clear things up: Angelo Badalamenti's Diane and Camilla from the soundtrack of Mulholland Dr (2001) sounds not as high as with Sennheisers. Nothing wrong, actually, but I did expect something else. After all these are said to go to 35 kHz. Of course there's a roll-off but I'm surprised to see how Sennheiser HD650s beat these when the sheer presence is being measured. Other than that, the more important things, such as the separation and detail on the treble section is good. After the accustomization the treble is not bad in any way.
The details and separation. Another surprise here: Sennheisers just might do some kinds of detailing better than Staxes. It is said that perceived detailing of a headphone associates with the emphasizion of upper mids and treble. What I hear here is pretty accurate to the claim: I feel the mids are slightly recessed and the details aren't as apparent as they are with Sennheisers. This was the immediate reaction a week ago, now I elaborate that: it seems like the HD650 highlights them. The layered instruments and how they are handled, for instance, seem very apparent and clear with the Sennheisers. Staxes don't really bother emphasizing them, they are kept background and subtle there. Claim your own conclusions here, but I prefer the more apparent presentation here. The other thing is separation and it's very pared with the HD650. Staxes do better job here. There are again some notes that clear things up: the Staxes exaggerate the channel pans while Sennheisers somehow can soften it and make it more enjoyable. Like a cross feed but not physically one. Maybe Arietta leaks too much? I don't know. If something is hard panned left, then Stax shows it without shame. Sennheisers do it too, sure, but it's not that obvious. This fact alone makes the Staxes better monitor headphones. The more aggressive panning and separation does make the sound involving: I've listened the new Twin Peaks Season 2 Music (2007) album numerous times and the starting track that's a mixture of everything (synths, piano, different winds) is way too hard for Sennheisers to handle. It simply sounds like cold porridge tastes. Staxes layer out everything nicely and neatly. The result is involving and exciting. I rediscovered the whole album from that sitting!
Then the soundstage. It's quite amazing to say at least. Sennheisers' style doesn't feel right for me. The Staxes make it very coolly, there are good separation and placement of instruments all around in songs. It affects any styles of music, even ambient or otherwise passive instrumental passages: Madrigal Meridian by Tangerine Dream on Cyclone (1978) got many times better because the style is more involved with the Staxes. The soundstage works good with different sources. What's interesting, I find heavily compressed albums more listenable with Staxes than Senns. Again a proof the Senns may be better at highs. Surely the superiority doesn't limit to the brick walls of the 00s – the highly dynamic albums and masters are very involving and extremely well performed. Pink Floyd's Meddle (1971) and The Wall (1979) for instances sound absolutely stunning with the Stax. Instrument placement, involved style of staging is very fine. Not to mention Division Bell (1994) – one night I listened to it and lowered the volume – the cans faded completely away. Only thing I heard was the music, how the synths came in and the voice of Rick Wright was about seven, eight feet from me. But yes, this is not entirely Staxes' monopoly; Sennheisers do brilliant job with good, non hot masters, but the amazement of the fact how good Blood Mountain (2006) by Mastodon sounds is beyond my understanding. Sennheisers exaggerate the flaws too well with these brick wall mixes.
The assets of Stax could be summarized as follows:
- Instrument separation makes music very involving (*
- Soundstage does the similar
- Full sound that is quite balanced although it seems worse than HD650
But there is one thing I haven't checked yet! Stax and the magic of vinyl, how they mate and how's the sound. I have small but energetic bunch of good records (although in bad shape), a mediocre (or even low-fi) turntable and bad preamp:
[size=xx-small]Technics SA-120 and SL-B210[/size]
In theory, the pops and clicks should be less annoying with Staxes since the treble is not that emphasized. Well, I tested Stairway to Heaven with Staxes and the noise is pretty high. The turntable's motor keeps very high noise that breaks into background very effectively. I should separate them but there's simply no space. Playing Dark Side of The Moon (1973) and the first thing that I can hear is magnificent layering and bright and relaxed hi-hats. It's more like a property of analog sound but there's nothing Stax cannot do wrong. On the Run sounds amazingly lively and involving – there's no overbrightness like one of my DSoTM CD presses has. You read this as a CD vs. LP comparison but the point is that Staxes, said to be too cruel to scratches and pops, are perfectly fine for LP. My rig does have problems for the needle is probably worn and the motor is noisy and uneven. Still it sounds good, in some points better than CD. So, concluded, you shouldn't be afraid of buying Staxes for vinyl.
A direct comparison between the worlds could be in order. I've done the review this far in parts: in the first part I waited for my Staxes to arrive and listened to the Senns. In the second part I listened to Staxes only, telling how it is, how they sound. The comparisons made there are completely based on memory, how I consider the sound changing after 8 months of exclusive Sennheiser listening. And now follows the third part, in which we do direct compares, changing cans and I describe something. Although I went somewhat specific in the chapter before, now I'm going to do compares track-based. Take a tight grip, fasten your seatbelt. Kansas is going bye bye. What's that monolith again?
[size=large]3. Stax and Sennheiser Beyond the Infinite[/size]
A track-by-track comparison between Stax and Sennheiser, light and heavy, electrostat and dynamic. I write the descriptions in the order I switch and hear the headphones and I play the song on repeat if it's not too long.
[size=xx-small]Fellows hanging out.[/size]
Diane and Camilla by Angelo Badalamenti with the City of Prague Philharmonic on Mulholland Dr. Soundtrack (2001)
Staxes do highs somehow in a recessed way, but the separation is great. You can focus on more instruments at once there.
Sennheisers' way to do highs is interesting, actually. The separation seems to be even greater and the overall feel seems to be very high, but there are some things, factors that make Senns sound a bit muffled. The detailing is superb, I didn't hear any kind of little noises with Staxes, but with Sennheisers there was instantly heard various kinds of noises the conductor seems to make. Little noises, wood on wood and others. Staxes played nothing of these sounds. Boy these sound full and plump, everything sounds so filled in and pumped up. Only the soundstage seems bit odd, the first sounds in the middle and some back up instruments in the fringe.
This song was so interesting I switched back on Stax and let's see how it is. The violin(?!*) is more accurately placed. It's not playing as high as Sennheisers present it. I notice some bumps in the violin, but perhaps not caused by Stax: it might be the recording. The lower notes play fine on Stax, actually they seem bit absent with Sennheisers, but it may be because they present notes with deep voice. It's not as easily heard as the Stax way of bass.
The Sound of Muzak by Porcupine Tree on In Absentia (2003)
Staxes first. A heavily compressed and quite bad on Sennheisers, I recall. A friend of mine recommend the album and while it has neat tricks and good content, the master is bad. Yes, the sound is a bit flat with Staxes, but every instrument has its place in the soundstage. Guitar, drums, back synths all are neatly arranged and they do not conflict each other. All the instruments are sharp, accurate and have impact and they feel when they hit.
Then the Sennheisers. I matched the volume somewhat closely (based on heard impressions) using the earlier piece. And this sounds a lot louder with Senns than with Staxes. While the Staxes sound slightly thin with compressed material, the Senns do nothing but sound too loud and the soundstage has collapsed. The separation is worse, I need to focus pretty much to follow individual instruments from the background. Everything seems to be placed in the center, only the harder pans are on the edges, near the ears and that's quite normal with earbuds. The frequency 'peaks' and boosts do things here. I have even problems with the vocals because the bright shrilly mastered guitars overtake the sound scene. I do not want such effects with full sized quality cans! Staxes win this round all too easily. They both sound thinner than they would with proper material.
The Wolf is Loose by Mastodon on Blood Mountain (2006)
A complete brickwall master. This time Sennheisers start. The sound is actually better than with the Porcupine Tree song. Drums and guitars are clearly emphasized in the master process. With Senns, the drums sound round, they are like plops in water. Otherwise this song in its compressed glory shares the same attributes with the song above: soundstage's bad, problems with separation and there's no depth.
And how Staxes do it: Yes, the drums sound round (as if they were circular in the sound). Unlike the Sennheisers, the song has depth now. Drums are in more background than with Senns. Guitars aren't that emphasized (the treble!) and the overall presentation is more accurate and detailed: the hi-hats and other similar little sounds are present better. The Sennheiser interpretation is more aggressive and I quite like it, but the Stax edition sounds better quality wise.
Comfortably Numb (live) by Pink Floyd on PULSE (1995)
Some guitar! Staxes first. This is said to be the definite edition of guitar solos by Gilmour and indeed it has some serious riffing! The first part of the live song sounds superb: there's body, the bass hits well and the vocals shine. And now that the second part, the four-and-a-half minute guitaring starts, it sounds phenomenal with Staxes: the the presentation is true and the guitar has some edge to it. It was more clearly heard with the first, shorter solo. The layering works as the bass and drums behind the guitar do not smudge the work in any way. The sound could be more involving (à la Grado) but I'm not unsatisfied. Not at all :very big grin:.
Considering how Sennheisers do the mids and highs they should be good with guitars in theory. This particular song sounds by the way veiled. The synth sound with the bass sounds much more bodiful. Gilmour's voice is about to drown in because of the high synth sounds on the side. The drums are muffled. Now with the second part, the guitaring. It has some texture, but the sound is so … so not layered. It has to be Staxes' win. But darn does it sound good. The little that's heard from the drums, sound fine as the cymbals crash and there's metal in the air.
Something else now...
Questions in a World of Blue by Julee Cruise on The Voice of Love (1992)
My favorite lady singer. Staxes are on. The sound scale is so balanced with these. The slow and long bass along with a synthesizer and a jazzy drum hits by brushes. Staxes show it all. The soft and ethereal voice of Cruise blends with the sound that is full and surrounding makes the Staxes shine! This kind of blending of instruments done in the mastering really pleases the ear, no matter what the transducer is.
And Sennheisers should do this good? Let's see. Wow! I actually thought the Staxes make the female vocals recessed and stuff, but it is Sennheiser that seems to do that alright. The drum is slightly more emphasized (but also softer and rounder; not so impactful) and makes the track sound detailed. This is pretty much up to mastering: both cans do the soundstage pretty similarly and there's no notable differences in general. Julee's voice is closer to listener here. The horns sound very similar with both cans. Like a great thinker once said, “Our similarities are different.”
Hergest Ridge by Mike Oldfield on Hergest Ridge (1974)
Long compositions such as this and many other of Oldfield's works are hard material to compare, but I'm restricting to the second part's later half. The lovely guitar show-off with multiple layers sounds involving, wonderful and deep with Staxes. Indeed, it is as good as it gets, although I believe that an extra treble wouldn't harm with this particular piece. It is so easy for me to follow patterns with Staxes as they separate and place things very tidy. Yes, truly great.
Sennheisers: Starting from 7:48 mark and the first thing is that them Sennheisers sound veiled again. The veil lifts as the guitars start moments after. The first notable thing is that the guitars are farther in the stage.. like the wall of guitaring is 20 feet from me and the front is in half way from that. There's something in the sound that makes it somewhat passive. It doesn't want me to join the notes. It forbids me to tap my foot. That's rather nasty if you ask me. But, there's a certain bassy feel when notes change, making edge and relaxing the wall feeling. Interesting! But Staxes win this no matter what. Generally I have felt Sennheisers doing very good job with Mike's long compositions and yes they do. It's just... Staxes work brilliantly with these more or less passive sections but Sennheisers might use the infamous bass card with these. Not shown in Hergest Ridge, but in Tubular Bells where's some serious bass booming around. Staxes can't handle that but Senns can. And they will. It's very even with Mike, I'm saying. I'm not going to do verbal comparisons with other Mike's works but as I've listened Tubular Bells, Ommadawn, Hergest Ridge, Platinum, Five Miles Out, Crises, Discovery, and Amarok with both cans all I can say that these two headphones with their amplification are very close to each other.
Neodämmerung by Don Davis on The Matrix Revolutions (2003)
Some choir! This is actually the first time I listen to this with Staxes. Eargasms aren't far away. The instrument separation is magnificent and detailing below the obvious parts are quite nice. It is indeed the orchestrated pieces that do well with promoting Staxes. Low horns drone angrily into ears, channels switch like swap on a witch's watch's Window. Brilliant, nice!
Sennheisers begin the match on their end. The first note reveals something revolutionizing: it's slightly flat in dynamics. Is this compressed and I failed to hear it with Staxes? I have to say that the choir sounds bit more clearly and it has coherence as it is kept in priority with Senns. The choir has more body to it in later phase and generally the bass makes the overall presentation very pompous.
3.1. Conclusion / End Credits
I don't want to prolong this comparison any more with these track compares because they all reveal the flaws and excels of these two headphones. I could do some summary here: Staxes are better phones for compressed (and inevitably new) music. Sennheisers do fine job with Mike Oldfield's style but even then I would choose Staxes for most of albums of his. The female vocals could be something I'd choose Sennheiser, but I'm not very keen on switching headphones between albums. There should be more space and more RCA splitters. Maybe later.
It's surprising how I first raised Sennheisers for details, but it seems to apply only with certain orchestrated pieces. The soundtrack of Mulholland Dr. is the prime example: there are these different sounds, sticks clonking against each other and random cough-like human noises that are not heard with Staxes. Also, in many pieces the extra treble Sennheisers provide makes the performance more lovely. Staxes don't do badly after you get customized to its habits.
It is even more surprising how the reality strikes in. See the title? I wrote it as the first thing in my review. Before I even had the Staxes I presumed they have to better than Sennheisers. Irrationally at least. The electrostatic drive has so much pros but that's not realistic that an entry-level Stax system beats the highish Sennheiser system (that still seems underpowered now that I've gained important perspective in the matter). The match wasn't fixed at all. But I keep the title for it's pretty fancy in my opinion.
As for the price, the Sennheiser rig of mine can be had for less than €500/$640 (source is not included) and the Stax rig 2050 (no 2020 more) seems to cost whopping €890/$1130. Although I did buy mine used with a truly great value, the gap is largish. And I think, with initial experience with some DVDs, that Sennheisers do movies and TV better. But that's not any kind of greatly tested fact. I just watched mere one gig (Gilmour's Remember That Night (2007)) with Staxes and the general presentation was too weird. I guess if I played more DVDs and movies with Staxes I could get into their way to present the directors' view on things.
These two rigs, if I was to choose only one to play with, I'd go with... *flips coin*. Seriously, Staxes may be better with general things but the price difference between them and Senns is great and that difference makes them even. Disregarding price factors, Stax is a clear winner and you can only go up from here.