- Oct 1, 2003
Audeze CRBN powered by the Mjolnir Carbon
Joseph Grado Hp-2 "improved" balanced powered by the Mjolnir Pure Bipolar
Denafrips Pontus II DAC
The headphone community has changed tremendously since when I first joined in 2003. I exited the hobby for nearly a decade, then had a rekindling, then off again, only to come back once more during the start of the pandemic. I've had a similar run-up to the summit-fi of sorts in each phase, only to jump off, exiting with nothing.
In the early days, the community was heavily involved with the DYI projects. It seemed everyone had built an amp in an Altoids tin. While I do miss the community's creative aspect, the firms that have evolved into full-fledged enterprises (such as Audeze) have positively changed the landscape. Unquestionably, the other most substantial improvement since twenty years ago is the technological advancement of DACs & amps. There is so much more flexibility in what is available and outstanding progress captured with sources. TOTL offerings pale in comparison to most of today's entry-level. One example is how the KGSS amp was hailed as an end-game SS amp and is now about three rungs from the top (Kgss > Kgsshv > Kgsshv Carbon).
At the same time, I've observed a funny thing… I've become skeptical if the headphones themselves have improved. So that's where this review begins.
The Joseph Grado Hp-1000 series (released in 1989) was already well out of production for going on 13+ years, depending on when you count, when I got into the hobby. At that time John Grado had firmly took over the business, and the RS-1 was his only flagship. The Hp-1000 was recognized as the superior unit to the Rs-1, and sold for about $600-700 on the second-hand market. The legend of the Hp-1000 would show up in debates here and there. It was not an entirely overlooked headphone (often on top 10 lists), but always too vintage to be a contender. Hp-1000's value increased continuously to where it now holds at about $1,600-3,000 depending on condition.
An extraordinary thing occurred in 2009. Twenty years after the release of the Hp-1000, 84-year-old Joseph decided to offer an upgrade to owners. Units were sent directly to his house in South Carolina at an additional $1500~ charge. Cans were mailed back with an unknown magical recipe concocted. Superficially there were a few changes: a brighter chrome polish, the cable swapped out for a dual piece tethered together, and if you shined a flashlight into the cup you'd notice some "black goop" lining the steel. Given the limited time frame between these offerings, it is estimated less than 100 units have become "improved" hp-1000s. A used Hp-2i sells for about $2,500-$4,000. Sadly, Joseph passed in 2015 at 90. A true legendary pioneer in audio world who invented many technologies, including the moving-coil cartridge.
For those of you that don't know the Hp-1000 well, its design was the blueprint for every other Grado successor, yet sonically, it is a comprehensive 180. The Hp-1000 is relaxed/full bass extension/ soft highs/ and a "cool" liquid midrange. The only meeting point to modern units, due to the driver size, in the soundstage. The Hp-1000 was calibrated for flat pads, and it feels sacrilegious to use anything else. The attention to detail within the minimalism is like Michelin Star sushi. Drivers are held in a steel bottom-driver casing, using hex screws instead of glue. All modern Grados either have a wood or plastic bottom half of the cup; even units like the PS-2000 with a chrome top half, are glued into a wooden shell underneath the pad. The quality of the cabling (both on stock hp-1000 and hp-2i) is stronger and yet more flexible than current offerings. The headband is held on a steel rod with screws to tighten the position. Buy-it-once-for -life level craftmanship.
Unlike the other Grado brethren, the Hp-1000 is genuinely a professional recording tool. Its creation was to scrutinize differences between new equipment pieces. Forthcoming Grado headphone models instead were with purpose to reach a broader audience (both economically & in terms of sonic presentation) – thus the polarizing difference of tuning and build quality.
Similarly, the hp-2i improvements transpired when Joseph couldn't hear the difference between modifications to a microphone. As a result, the hp-2i has enhanced detail retrieval, even better timber with acoustical instruments (including voices), and about 2x the bass of the stock. Those who have or have heard the hp-1000 and are curious how different the two are, they are similar but different enough that you can easily A/B. One slight downside to the hp-2i is it seems to have a slightly less open soundstage - in trade for its superior imaging - which I found using a more powerful amp (I.E. Pure BiPolar) solved.
I've owned about six pairs of the HP-1000. The first time back in 2004 I remember completely disliking them and questioning why anyone liked them. I probably sold them inside a month. There was no honeymoon. I thought they were boring and was frustrated I had spent what at the time felt like a lot of money. I didn't have the right ear for the hobby yet... It wasn't until 2012 after buying the HD800 and painfully learned the definition of ear fatigue, that I had the urge to try them again. Each of the hp-1000s I've had sounded a little different, and each time I've come back to the Hp-1000, I learned to appreciate what they do more but find some reason to sell. They are undoubtedly the benchmark, yet, I have always reached for something more eventually.
That something is typically electrostatics. They're fast, they create diffused ethereal sound stages, most have wonderful detail and also … are the anti-thesis to everything that will inevitability kill our hobby in the way we see it (aka a wireless headphones with perfect sonic capabilities and no need for amp/DAC etc). Not only do they require tremendous power, but they're prickly to climates or head positioning seal (CRBN especially). No damp hair. A dust jacket is a must. Occasionally they make loud fart noises. Sometimes (frequently with the CRBN), you need to de-charge them by unplugging and placing the jack on your finger. Drivers get stuck, and you have to slap the earcups to snap them into place again… Plus of course, if you want them to sound right, you can't trust the manufactures amps, instead, another 5-10k down the hole to a certified crazy amp builder for high-voltage bespoke option, typically which come in the tube fashion.
For all that work, they dial you into something deliberately shoddier. Like Vinyl … or shaving with a single blade … or using a typewriter… The irony is how e-stats are often thought of as the bleeding edge of technological innovation. Perhaps some see it more akin to a F1 car that can reach 230mph, but crumbles from even the lightest of friction with a track barrier? Either way, it is a niche within a niche. I like that about it.
The CRBN is worth the work. It has a great diffused soundstage that can project in ways no other headphone has ever done for me outside of the He90 Orpheus. Instruments can show up flat out in front of you, or woosh in like a ghost from behind and disappears into the ether. There is a harmony to the CRBN that the modern Stax units, especially the SR-009S, cannot match. It's not the detail powerhouse e-stats are known for, but that's why they're so charming. A hammer wrapped in velvet. Listening to the CRBN isn't about sitting around and analyzing music - the CRBN is about sitting around in an unrealistic feeling of emotional well-being. It's the kind of high only music can give you. They're almost sonically seamless.
Almost. The revelation is disturbing. The finding is that the hp-2i is still the superior headphone. The hp-2i has a small soundstage, it's not as fast, and it doesn't do any innately captivating e-state like possessions. The hp-2i doesn't have the authority that other dynamic headphones have either, nor does it have the gorgeous thick sound the planars have. In trade of all that, the Hp-2i is pitch-perfect. This is THE neutral headphone. As good as the Audeze will sound on a track, the moment you switch over to the hp-2i, you realize that the timbre was wildly off. And it's not just the Audeze. In comparison, the tonal color of every other modern TOTL headphone I've heard is incorrect.
Two things happen when a headphone is directly on the money with timber: There is an instant musical experience, and in the long-listening experience, the headphone seemingly disappears- the "am I wearing headphones?" epiphany. Other headphones are trying to replicate a better presentation but that does not inherently produce a truthful musical experience. Something has been lost in translation, more companies should be striving to find this again.
In the end, I'm keeping both and welcoming the Stax Sr-x9000 whenever it decides to arrive.
Some nights I look at the CRBN and think, “Do you want to get lost for a little while?”
Other times, I reach for the Hp-2i because I want to know the truth.