REVIEW: STAX SRS-3030 Classic System II
Mar 27, 2002 at 11:00 PM Thread Starter Post #1 of 31

Keiso

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[size=small]REVIEW: STAX SRS-3030 Classic System II[/size]

Serial number: C 0905 (SR-303) / 3-0906 (SRM-313).
Date of purchase: March 22nd, 2002, at Lyric Hi-Fi in Norway.
Price paid: Approximately $900 US dollars.
Can be purchased worldwide from EIFL Corporation for $720 + approximately $80 in postage.

Source used: SONY SCD-XB940 SACD Player with Wire World Atlantis III+ Interconnects.
Date of Review: March 28th, 2002.
Reviewed by: Naka Keiso, keiso@online.no.

Previous headphone experiences:
I own a pair of Sennheiser HD590, and I have tried the Sennheiser HD600 for a week. (I don't have an amp for those, so I drive them right out from my SACD player, which has a very good headphone output. I recently borrowed a Creek OBH-11se amp and compared it with my SACD player's headphone output; I had a hard time figuring out if there was any audible differences, except that I got more background noise with the Creek). I have tried all the Grado Labs headphones from SR-60 to SR-325 at various audio shops with various setups. While I respect Grado headphones for having so many loyal fans, I personally found the Grados I tried to be all unbearably bright and very uncomfortable (to say the least...) Have tried some other cans as well, but nothing worth mentioning further.

Introduction:
A Japanese company founded in 1938, STAX is today a worldwide recognized manufacturer of high-end electrostatic headphone systems, or "Earspeakers" as STAX choose to call them. In the earlier years, STAX not only made high-end headphones, but they also produced a number of full size electrostatic speakers and even CD players as well. But since the 1990s, especially after the "new" STAX was established in 1996, their business seems to be more focused toward their earspeakers line-up.

The first earspeaker model was released in 1960. STAX is a specialist in electrostatic audio gear and has been using this technology in all of their earspeaker products. Since the introduction, STAX has consistently improved their earspeakers with each new model released. Today, their latest earspeakers line-up include 3 main categories: The In-Ear type of earspeakers, The Lambda System series, and the High-End SR-007 Omega II and 4070 Studio models, where you can choose between a solid state amp (SRM-717) or a tube amp (SRM-007t).

The model reviewed here is the SRS-3030 Classic System II, the middle-class of The Lambda System series, introduced to the market in 1999.

3030.jpg


This system consists of two separate units, the earspeaker SR-303 Classic, and a solid state amp SRM-313. The amps in the different systems can be mix-matched with earspeakers from other systems. You can purchase each of the units separately, so there's no stopping you in getting a SRM-007t tube amp with SR-303 earspeakers, for example. You can even use older earspeaker models with new amplifier models, as the new amps have both a "Pro" output for the new earspeakers, and a "Normal" output for the older models. (except the SRM-212 Basic amp, which has only one "Pro" output).

SR-303 Classic Earspeakers
Differently from ordinary headphones, STAX earspeakers are equipped with neither magnet or coil, but utilize electrostatic force to generate sound through a diaphragm which can be made much, much thinner than conventional membranes of dynamic headphones. In theory, electrostatic headphones should sound much more natural and transparent than ordinary headphones.

The earspeaker models in the new Lambda series (SR-202 Basic, SR-303 Classic and SR-404 Signature) are actually near identical to each other. All 3 have the same design and size. They all use plastic frame and leather earpads. The new Lambda series boasts a new diaphragm (oscillatory film) material, which is only 1.35 micrometer in thickness, and this has been applied to all 3 models.

What differs the 3 models from each other, is:
1. The electrostatic capacity (120pF for Basic/Classic, 110pF for Signature)
2. Impedance (133kohms for Basic/Classic, 145kohms for Signature)
3. Earpads (higher quality leather on Classic and Signature)
4. The cable (better quality as you move up the ranks)
5. Weight (better cable for Classic/Signature make them *slightly* heavier than the Basic)

The specifications for SR-313 Classic:
Type: Electrostatic/Open back/Push-pull driving
Frequency Range: 7-41,000Hz
Capacitance: 120pF (including cable)
Sound Pressure Level: 100dB/100V r.m.s.
Cable: Low Capacitance PC-OCC Conductor
Earpad: High quality artificial Leather
Weight: including cable 440g/without cable 300g
Colour: Brownish frame, grey earpads

Build quality and comfort:
At first sight and touch, the Classics gotta be some of the ugliest headphones you've ever seen. With that size and the dull unmodern look, they look like something from the 70s or the 80s. Actually, if you look at the really old STAX models, the design really hasn't changed a lot from the early models. The brownish colour of the frame didn't appeal to me either.

The earpads are made of artificial leather and feels high quality (unlike those of cheaper Sonys). STAX says that with normal usage, they should at least last for 2 years. Because the leather will suck up sweat, they'll have to deteriorate sooner or later. Luckily, the earpads are relatively cheap and easily replaceable.

The frame is made of plastic, except from the head strap, which is also made of leather. The head strap is self-adjusting, similar to the Sonys, except that this one you'll have to adjust manually, as it is not self-retracting (STAX has been using this design WAY before Sony, so STAX is not the copycat here!). I was worried about the quality of the plastic frame at first, as they seemed very vulnerable to me, but they are actually much stronger than I thought. Also, if you should be as unlucky as to break it, it can be easily detached and replaced.

Comfort is superb. I thought my Sennheiser HD590 and the Sony MDR-F1 were the most comfortable cans in the world, but now, I actually like wearing the STAXs more. The plastic frame puts very little force to your head, but enough to make them sit tightly. The large leather head strap fits nicely on top, with those large leather earpads fitting ergonomically to your sides (they are circumaural and are thicker on one side). Pressure and weight are very evenly distributed. I didn't like them that much at first, but now, they seem to be made specifically for my head! (note: Comfort is a highly subjective matter. I hate the HD600, they really kill me with that hard grip, but lots of other people find them unbelieveably comfortable. So even though the STAXs fit my head perfectly, they may not do so for you.) In my opinion, when it comes to headphones, comfort is at least just as important as the sound quality. A pair of uncomfortable headphones will distract you from your listening and reduce your enjoyment significantly.

About the leather earpads, I didn't like those at first either. They felt sticky to my face and could get warm after a short while of usage. But I've gotten used to it, and now, I like them very much, especially since they have got such a nice ergonomic shape. But it's still Spring here in Norway. I can imagine the heat and sweat being a problem during the hottest days in Summer. But then again, who wanna stay home and listen to music by themselves when the sun is shining outside anyway? (^_^)

The cable is fixed to the earspeakers and cannot be replaced without opening the cans. It is also quite heavy. While the Classics are not heavier than other headphones, this large, heavy cable makes it much more awkward to move around when you wear them. The cable is shaped wide and flat, so be very careful not to damage it by overbending it, or God forbid, stepping on it. Also, the cable is only 2.5 m long. Actually, that's just fine for my uses, but I think some people may find it a bit short. An extension cable can be bought as an option, though. The cable has a big 5-pin connector, which fits very tightly into the amp.

Since these are not your ordinary headphones, there are a few things you need to know about them. First, avoid putting them in a place where they can collect dust easily. Usually not a big problem, but if excessive amount of dust collects inside the cans, the dust particles might come in contact with the diaphragm and short circuit the whole thing (not very likely, but better safe than sorry). Also, avoid moisture! Don't wear them right after you've come out of the shower with wet hair and water in your ears! I bet you wouldn't do that with your normal headphones anyway, but I think it's especially important to the STAXs to avoid water as much as possible (the earspeakers do have a humidity isolation diaphragm, though). When you're not using them, I strongly advice you to store them with the STAX headphone stand with the protection cover to avoid dust and other accidents.
(The HPS-1 stand and cover cost me about 50 bucks. Once you've bought a set of STAX, I consider it illegal not to buy some sort of protection for them. The stand and the cover look really nice and classy too, so please, buy them with your STAXs.)

Also, these babies need to break-in. Big time. They should be ready after 200-300 hours. When you break-in these earspeakers, do not let them sit on the table with music playing! In fact, avoid having music going through them when you're not wearing them! I was told by the STAX distributor that the earspeakers are constructed to play against load (read: your head). Leaving them playing without any kind of resistance between them is not very "healthy" (don't ask me why....). So when you burn them in, put some books between them, so the earpads are stuck closely to the books. Let them "mature" for around a week with slightly higher volume than your usual listening zone, and they should be fine by then (^_^)

SRM-313 Driver Unit - Solid State
Unlike the earspeakers, the amplifier of the Classic System II, the SRM-313, is a real beauty, in my opinion.

The specifications:
Type: All Solid State Class-A DC direct Driver Unit for Earspeakers
Maximum Output Voltage: 350V r.m.s.
Impedance: 50KOhms
Frequency Range: DC-48,000Hz
Harmonic Distortion: 0.01%/1kHz
Input Sensitivity/Gain: 100mV/60dB
Bias Voltage: PRO 580V, NORMAL 230V
Power Consumption: 29W
Operation AC Voltage: AC 120/220/240V, 50/60Hz
Dimensions: 150(W)×100(H)×370(D)mm
Weight: 2.9kgs

On the front of the SRM-313, there are two headphone outputs, one "Pro" output for newer earspeakers with 5 pins contact, one "Normal" output for older earspeakers with 6 pins contact. While you can plug a new earspeaker model into the 6 pin contact and get sound from it, you are strongly adviced not to do so, as you'll get low volume and distorted sound (as well as a chance of damaging your whole system!). Otherwise, you have a power button and a huge volume knob. The volume knob is actually made of two dials. The outer knob controls the volume for the left, and the inner, bigger knob controls the volume for the right. They sit very tightly to each other, so you have to use both hands to adjust them separately. The whole volume knob turns very smoothly and controlled, another sign of quality equipment here.....

On the back of the amp, you'll find a standard AC inlet and two sets of RCA contacts, one for input, one for output (which might come very handy for some). All the RCA contacts are gold-plated, of course.

Build quality:
Excellent. One look at it, and you can tell at once that it's a high quality product. The front has a clean gold finish, which will fit nicely with the rest of your high-end audio equipment (I guess that depends on the colour of the rest of your system, though). The body is grey, with a rugged surface. The paint, the text markings, the finish, everything is top-notch. I just can't find any flaws on it, physically. Everytime I look at it, I get this good feeling of seeing something special, and it reads STAX in the corner (Yay!). Soon, I've forgotten how ugly the earspeakers are, because when they are hooked up to this beautiful amp, it's not ugly, it's classy!

Because of the non-magnetic chassis of the SRM-313, it may generate a slight humming sound when powered up. I get this hum noise when I have it placed beside my CD player, but this humming noise is very low-pitched. While I can hear its presence, it does not bother me at all, since my Sony player actually makes more noise than it.

Here's some official information from STAX about the amp:
- There's no transformer used between the amp and the earspeakers, so there'll be no deterioration in tone quality.
- It is a simplified two-stage amp, having a low-noise dual FET in the first stage and a high dielectric strength transistor in the second stage in order to ensure natural tone quality with a great deal of sound information (read: high-resolution!).
- All the circuitry from the input to the output is DC circuitry without use of coupling capacitors.
- Non-magnetic parts are used as much as possible together with the non-magnetic chassis.
- The SRM-313 is capable of driving all STAX earspeakers.

I'm not sure myself about what all the information above means, but those of you who are more technical will no doubt understand this much more than I do (^_^)

Even after having the amp powered on for 3 days without break, it is still not very hot. With that long body and steel chassis, heat is dispatched easily, so no ventilation holes on top are needed. If you try to turn off the amp while your CD is still playing, the earspeakers actually still got about 4-5 seconds left of power to go. When this first happened, I thought the power button was broken or something. Silly me (^_^)

The freq. range of this amp goes up to 48 KHz, as stated above in the specs, so this means the Classics can handle SACDs and DVD Audio formats pretty well. That's probably the reason why the Classic system was used at the audition of "DVD audio working group" on AUDIOEXPO2000 of Japan.

The 3 systems in the Lambda series, Basic, Classic and Signature all use very similar earspeakers. The answer to the huge price differences between the systems lies in the amps. The Basic has a small wimpy looking amp with an external power supply. The Classic amp is already explained above. The Signature has a high-quality tube amp with balanced XLR inputs, even more RCA contacts and an extra "Pro" earspeaker output. How is this reflected in the sound quality? Read on....

[size=small]Da Sound:[/size]
Electrostatic speakers. You either love them or you don't. They sound very different from conventional speakers, which have separate drivers for different frequency range. I think the first thing people notice about electrostats, is the "lack of bass", and they dismiss them as crap because of that. But in fact, well-designed electrostats do not lack bass at all. It's just not your standard chest-slamming tactile bass, but a deep, controlled, audible bass. But full size electrostatic speakers cheat anyway by having separate bass drivers (MartinLogans....), so the lack of this tactile bass is not that obvious.

When I first audtioned the STAX Basic System at the local high-end audio shop, I said "Where's the bass?". The same thing did my brother. Since we both own a pair of Sennheiser HD590, which pack quite a punch of bass, the lack of the tactile sensation was obvious at once. I expected this to happen to a certain extent, but hearing it is a totally different thing. Bass aside, when I listened to the rest of the spectrum, another thing became very apparent to me. The music came out with much less effort. Whether I fed it with rock and pop, or slow ballads and symphony tunes, the STAXs handled the job very well.

I had my mind set for purchasing the Basic set, since the price was quite reasonable, and the next step, the Classics, were over $400 bucks more expensive. And based on my short 1st comparision of the two sets, I couldn't hear any significant difference in sonic quality. But then, Kelly went to check out the STAXs as well, and he stated that the Classics had clearly better high and low extensions of the freq. range. So maybe I had missed something???

So I went back to the audio shop to do another comparision. But this time, I meant business, bringing a whole bunch of my favourite CDs with me. The STAXs were all hooked up to a rather expensive Cary Audio D-3 DVD/CD player (the STAXs were hooked up to a Theta CD player with a Theta DAC on my first audition). After having spent little more than an hour, I came out with this conclusion. The Basics give you the sound of STAX, while the Classics give you the sound AND the magic of STAX. A casual listen to the two systems shows no significant difference, but if you really listen, the Classics have this clear, airy treble which gave my music a certain lift. This touch of magic alone made me shell out another $400 bucks for the upgrade, plus additional costs for a pair of decent interconnects and for the STAX headphone stand and cover.

Coming home with the set, I had high expectations with the rest of my CD collection. But when hooked up with my Sony player, the magic was gone! Where did that soothing airy treble go!?

But of course, as with all other high-end audio equipment, the STAXs needed time to burn-in. I hoped that was the problem, because if not, it meant that my Sony player was the weak link, and I really wasn't ready to blow my budget even more!! So I grabbed a bunch of books and let the Classics burn-in for days, occasionally checking the result meanwhile. Today, after over 100 hours of breaking-in, the sound has improved considerably!

While not as magical as with the Cary Audio CD player, the STAXs have certainly began to sing now. I think that not only did my STAXs needed time to burn in, but my new ICs needed it share of time as well. I expect the STAXs to sound even better after another hundred hours of burn-in, and I will update this review if I find any significant improvements later.

My music taste is towards J-Pop (Japanese pop music) and videogame/anime soundtracks and everything that sounds good in general. So please bear with me if you find the music I use for testing is too weird for your taste. So on with the music testing:

[size=small]First test[/size] was with Utada Hikaru's, my favourite female artist, first album, "First Love". This is the kind of music I listen to most, and if the STAXs can do a good job here, I'll be more than satisfied. The first track, "Automatic", took the Asian market by storm when it was released a few years ago. So first impression: WOW! BASS! Plenty of bass! What da hell just happened? I heard deep, powerful bass from the STAXs! After calming down a bit, I realised that the bass was still not tactile. It was just pure, powerful, audible bass unlike anything I've heard before from headphones! While tactile bass is an exciting thing, this audible bass from STAX is really something else. With the STAXs, the bass goes with the rest of the music, not sticking out by slamming it into your ears. The result is a much more comfortable listening experience, yet nothing short of exciting.

The next thing is the resolution. It definitely made a difference compared against the HD590, which I thought were already very, very detailed. But with the STAXs, I've got this feeling that they just do everything effortlessly, with one hand tied behind their back. Gone is the worry about my headphones not being good enough to bring out the best of my music, but it's rather the other way around now. No matter how complex a certain part of the track was, I could easily tell each instrument apart from each other, but yet they were still all flowing together with Utada's voice to create music, not just instruments sticking out, crying for attention.

As for the soundstage, I'm not going to claim that the STAXs sound like full size speakers. I think that's pretty much impossible for any headphones of today's technology. But I think because of the absence of tactile bass, among other reasons, the STAXs sound much more naturally to my ears than my Senns. Of course you can still hear that the drivers are located close to your ears, but it's just that you are not reminded about it everytime someone hit hard the drums or rocking that bass guitar! And yet, the bass is still there, so to me, this is a big plus in my book.

I had nothing bad to say about the midrange either, but to see how well the STAXs handle well-recorded female voices with less things going on at once, I moved on to track 4 "First Love", a slow ballad showing Utada's amazing singing skills which put about 90% of other Japanese artists to shame. The deep bass was also present in this track, working behind with the rest of the music. Gitar plucks were very well-defined and sounded sweet. But in this slower song, the background noise of the record was very noticeable. This is what you call the revealing nature of STAX. The noise was also present with my Senns, but even more so with the STAXs. Ignoring this for a while, I listened to Utada's voice. Very good, was what I thought. Her voice now sorta hangs in the air, like it's reaching out to me in a soft way. I've only heard this quality on well setup full size speakers. The fact that the STAXs could do the same thing was damn impressive to me. But my enjoyment was surpressed by the bad record quality of the song....

[size=small]Second test[/size] goes to Ramjet Pulley's latest album, "a cup of day". It's a relatively unknown J-Pop group. The tracks on this album are the kind of soothing, a bit jazzy, yet fast-going pop style tracks. Track 4 "NEWS & bed & TRIP" is a fast, rythmic song, strongly emphasized on treble somehow when recorded, making the vocals on this track sound very sibilant on bright headphones. With my Senns, the sibilation can be too pronounced, more than what I'm comfortable with (but still listenable). I once tried this track in my livingroom with a Sony ES amp and a pair of B&Ws. The treble was emphasized so badly that the whole track became unlistenable. So this is a track I use to check how bright a system is. As for the STAXs, they just breezed through the track somehow. Sibilation was still there, but much less pronounced than the Senns. I could actually hear Akiko's voice clearly without stress. There goes another plus for the STAXs in my book.

Another thing I would like to cram in here, is that the STAXs are *really* open. My brother could hear me playing my music outside my room in the corridor, even with my door closed! And if you place your hand about 1-2 inches away from the cans, you can clearly hear them distort. These babies need air to breath! (about 3-4 inches maybe? Can't imagine that will be a problem for anyone....)

[size=small]Third test[/size] is the soundtrack of "Metal Gear Solid 2" , composed by Harry Gregson-Williams. The main theme of the original Metal Gear was not composed by him, but he did one hell of a remix for the sequel. Maybe those of you who have seen the intro for the game would know what I mean. The remix of the theme is grand, exciting and very heroic. This track has become another of my favourite test tunes, because it's so cinematic. There are many parts in this track that will give you big impacts, like the ones that will wake you up from a deep, cozy sleep and make you go "Wow"! With my previous mentioned Sony and B&W setup, there was no life in it. But when I heard it at my friend's place with a quite powerful Vincent SV 233 amp, my jaw was hanging on the floor after the track was over. It sounded like thunder and the power just blew me back to the couch. I'm not talking about bass, bass had nothing to do with it. This track needs clear power! So how did the STAXs fare in this test?

No. No big impacts here. Maybe I was expecting way too much. After all, these are headphones. Getting such power straight into my ears would probably mean hearing damage anyway. But make no mistake, while I was not "blown away", the STAX did demonstrate that they had the power to give life to this track. So I tried again, this time on a higher volume setting.

And yes, it certainly sounded even more impressive. I also learned two things about the STAXs. First thing, they just sound so damn natural! I can turn the volume way up and still be very comfortable with it! Hard to describe it, but it's like I can go really high and still listen to the track without distortion or any discomfort! Yay! The more I turned on the knob, the more life I gave to the track, not just more noise. And then came the second thing.... I looked at the volume knob and I didn't realise that it was pointing nearly at 6,5. The volume knob goes from 0 to 10, where 4 is my usual comfortable listening level. I took the STAXs off from my head, and I could that feel my ears were hurting. Oh ****, I think I just did some damage to my hearing....

So the summary of this test: 1st, the STAXs showed that they have more than enough power to impress the hell out of me. 2nd, the electrostatic sound is so natural that you can crank it up significantly and still find it very listenable. 3rd, you have to resist doing what I described in 2nd, or prepare to hurt your hearing (it was real fun, though.... but don't do it!).

[size=small]Fourth test.[/size] Since I didn't get fully satisfactory result in my first test because of the bad recording, I chosed 2 other albums to test out vocal performance of the STAXs. Matsu Takako's "Ai no tobira" and The Corrs' "Unplugged". Takako's album has one of my top favourite ballads, "20 candles". This album had clearly better recording. "Sweet, airy and soothing" was noted in my book. "Almost speaker performance" was another phrase I wrote down.

Moving on to Corrs' album. I love testing audio equipment with unplugged music. Because with a good system, well-recorded unplugged music should not sound digitally. The Senns HD590 and HD600 both do amazingly well in this area, giving me all the details and clarity I want (but also some flaws...). But the STAXs, they offered me a different experience again. The vocals were clearly improved, sounding much sweeter than the Senns. Like on the other tracks, the STAXs sounded much more natural too. But I have to mention one thing about the vocals here. While they sounded sweet and airy, I couldn't help but feel a certain colouring, I think... it's like they're somehow "etched"? I don't know if it's a colouring by the STAXs, or if this is the way the CD was recorded. But to me, it's a sweet sound. My Senns can also sometime produce a sound like this, but much more seldom and apparent. So I guess it's not a colouring??? Either way, it wasn't a negative thing in my book, just a question mark.

[size=small]Fifth test[/size] I used Depeche Mode's "ULTRA" album, another reference CD I use. This album is very well recorded, and DM's music style is so distinct that it won't sound good on all systems. First, lots of bass is used in this album. Here, the bass pressure is actually a part of the music experience. You really need the slam, or this album will sound too tamed.

As I thought, the STAXs would not be my first choice for this album. It sounded too flat to engage me. But neither would I use my Senns to listen to this album. This type of music needs full size speakers, with powerful tactile bass you can feel with your whole body! Even though my Senns gave me real punchy bass, I just didn't want the headphones to slam concentrated bass into my ears, as I find that more annoying that engaging (although impressive at first).

So the STAXs didn't perform so well in this test, as I more or less expected. Let's see how they perform with some heavier rock tunes:

[size=small]Sixth test - Final[/size]. LUNA SEA's "PERIOD" album, my number 1 favourite album. It includes my number 1 favourite song "Storm", a very catchy, heavy, rocking track that everyone in Japan must have heard before (was insanely popular in its days...). It's not especially bass-heavy, just lots of plain, good electric guitar sounds. I didn't know what to expect from the STAXs in this type of music, so I pressed the Play button with the worst expectations.....

Man, it rocked! Big time! Clean, powered electric guitar sounds were streaming through the STAXs. And yet, it sounded so natural, that for a split second, I really forgot that I was wearing headphones! I really wanted to start banging my head to the beat, if I wasn't afraid of the earspeakers go flying to the floor. I picked up my pen and wrote "Sensational" in my book. Who da hell said that STAXs are only suited for classical, jazz or whatever they now said.... These earspeakers are the most versatile listening tool ever! I forgot about the review and just sat down and went through the whole album. It was good! I didn't notice the time flying by, as I was really enjoying the music. OK, it wasn't any heavenly experience, but I sure had a good time with the STAXs on this album. "A" was the grade on this test!

Conclusion:
I've done many more tests than the above mentioned six, but those are the ones I did with the most significant findings. I've almost gone through my entire CD collection now with the STAXs, and I've more or less been constantly impressed by what they can perform. My Shenmue soundtrack has never sounded so good before....

Like I said, my STAXs have only gone through around 100 hours of burn-in. But the results, as you can see, have been utterly impressive already. While I said that I'm not going to claim they sound like full-size speakers, they sure are the closest thing I've heard when it comes to headphones. This is because they sound so natural, so transparent, so flat and so unintrusive. But yet, they manage to deliver such amazing clean, sonic power....

I'm sure that those of you who are used to Grados or Senns will find the missing tactile bass a bit disturbing. And if this tactile bass is essential for you, I can surely understand that you don't like STAX earspeakers. I too, enjoy the tactile sensation of bass coming out from my Sennheiser HD590. But that excitement only goes so far...... After a while, my ears will get tired and I wish my cans would stop slamming air into me. What the STAX do, is to give you deep, tight, controlled and very present bass to your music that will not tire you out, and with a high resolution sound that is the signature of electrostats. This is why I'm now a loyal customer of STAX, and I can hardly find myself purchasing another pair of dynamic headphones ever again.

I was warned before my purchase of the STAXs, that electrostats tend to be too revealing of bad recordings, so much that it will probably render half of your CD collection unlistenable. Also, electrostats are supposedly not suited for all kinds of music, but excel in classical, jazz, well recorded vocals, etc. As for the first statement, I can agree to it to a certain extent. As I experienced in my first test, my Utada album was actually much worse recorded than I thought. The same thing can be said to many of my other albums. But NO WAY is this a reason to stay away from STAXs! That's just ridiculous. I would never prefer my headphones to smooth things out so I can't tell what's badly recorded or not. I'm a big boy, I don't need that kind of censorship. In fact, I found that even with my worst recorded CD, it was still more enjoyable on the STAXs. As for the second statement about electrostats not being suited to all kind of music.... Any music that can be enjoyed through headphones, the STAXs will excel. No matter if it's symphony, modern pop, heavy rock, well recorded vocal or videogame soundtracks from 1994, the STAXs performed the tasks more than satisfactory. The only type of music I found not to suit the STAXs so well, is the type of music I described for my fifth music test. I can also imagine that trance and other party music will not sound too exciting on the STAXs, but those are the music that require huge speakers with 20 inch bass drivers at night clubs that rock your whole body! I'm talking about music that you listen to at home by yourself, and for that purpose, I know I can rely on my STAXs.

The STAX SRS-3030 Classic System II is definitely one of best purchases I've ever made. At first, I was really worried about shelling out over $1000 bucks in total for a set of headphones, especially when the Basic System II was just half as expensive. But now, I have to say that it was worth every single penny. This is one expensive hobby, but it sure is rewarding when you find the right gear. Given the proper care, there's no doubt in my mind that the STAXs will give me audiophile music enjoyment for many years. The only thing I feel like upgrading now is my CD player. Clearly, it is the weak link of my setup. It is a pretty decent CD player, but the STAXs are meant to be matched with high-end sources. The better source you use, the better sound you'll get from the STAXs. Because of the revealing nature of STAXs, the improvement is easily noticeable. (don't forget to use high quality interconnects as well!)

In the end, what was initially an attempt to an objective review has now become more like a commercial campaign and hype for STAX. But I seriously mean that I've tried to be as objective as possible in this review. What's left to say, is that STAX earspeakers can't come highly recommended enough. Those with a thicker wallet might go for the tube sound quality of the Signature System II or maybe even the King himself, Omega II. And if money is no object at all, get yourself an Accuphase CD player as your source! Otherwise, for around $900 bucks, the Classic System II is a really excellent choice. - Naka Keiso

[size=medium]+[/size] Very comfortable headphones. Fit perfectly on my head. Ergonomic high quality leather earpads (might get a bit hot, though)
[size=medium]+[/size] High quality, good-looking amp that seems to me will last for many, many years....
[size=medium]+[/size] Incredibly natural sounding, very comfortable to listen to.
[size=medium]+[/size] High resolution sound. Nothing escapes from the STAXs.
[size=medium]+[/size] Even emphasize on treble, midrange and bass, which contributes to the overall natural and transparent sound.
[size=medium]+[/size] Deep, powerful audible bass that goes seamlessly with the music, instead of distracting you from it.
[size=medium]+[/size] Airy, soothing treble that reminds me of much more expensive high-end equipment.
[size=medium]+[/size] Reasonable price for such high-end equipment. Any comparable dynamic headphones and a quality amp can end up even more expensive.
[size=medium]+[/size] Good compatibility with other STAX products (so you can just upgrade by getting a higher class amp!)
[size=medium]+[/size] Excel in all kinds of music that can be enjoyed through headphones.
[size=medium]+[/size] You need more!?

[size=medium]?[/size] Maybe a slight colouration?

[size=medium]-[/size] You tell me.....


Official STAX Homepage: http://www.stax.co.jp/
____________________________________________



Here are some pictures of my STAX/Sony setup:

stax01.jpg


Here, my Classics are hanging on the HPS-1 heaphone stand with the protection cover, standing proudly beside my Sennheiser HD590, both upon my Sony SCD-XB940 SACD player.

stax02.jpg


The same stuff from a different angle.

stax03.jpg


My STAXs alone on the headphone stand with the cover taken off.

[size=xx-small](Pictures were taken with my Canon IXY Digital 300.)[/size]
 
Mar 27, 2002 at 11:44 PM Post #3 of 31

Vertigo-1

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Keiso, thank you for the absolutely marvelous review! I'm glad that it's turning out that you can live with all your recordings still.

It's now time to educate you on some of the finer aspects of the Stax sound to further heighten your level of enjoyment.
very_evil_smiley.gif


1. The soundstage. Staxs are probably the most elusive as far as just how exactly their soundstage works. But once you can start adjusting to some various aspects of it, it can easily become one of the most impressive things, if not the most impressive, about owning and listening to a Stax. You may or may not notice it, but does that soundstage ever just feel somewhat small and constrained sometimes? Keep a look out for this feeling the next time you listen to them. And yet at the same time, try this. Take your hands, cup them, and slowly bring them towards the back of the earspeakers. You should literally hear the soundstage collapsing slowly...which in turn should give you an idea of just how huge of a soundstage the Staxs are really portraying. This feat of portraying a soundstage so wide out beyond the earcups that you can actually physically influence it with your hands is a feat that no other dynamic headphone can duplicate. At yet the same time, this conflicts somewhat with that earlier, tight, smallish soundstage I mentioned, because they both happen simultaneously. This is really one of the more mystifying things about Staxs! A great Headwizer told me this was the Staxs being so incredibly revealing that they were even reproducing the ambient information that were a part of the recording. To this day I find that hard to believe, and yet nothing else could really explain that out of the earspeaker phenomenon. The tighter soundstage that happens at the same time is perhaps a feat done on purpose by the Stax engineers...it creates a tightly focused area for the playing field, thereby making it that much easier to hear everything.

2. I am glad you have no problem recognizing heightened transient responses that the Staxs can produce, i.e. the ability of Staxs to literally seperate all instruments into their own little playing space, and that each instrument has a start and stop point. A great Headwizer once told me that if I couldn't recognize the greater transient response of Staxs after buying a pair, I had just wasted my money.

3. Have you heard any "treble etch" with the 303 Lambdas yet? When I heard the 3030 system, there was quite a bit of prominence placed on the lower treble area, thus leading to a lot of hissing during sibilants.

I'll try to think of any more interesting aspects of the Staxs for you to observe over your course of ownership with them, but the above should give you plenty to check out already.
cool.gif
 
Mar 28, 2002 at 12:07 AM Post #4 of 31
Quote:

Originally posted by Vertigo-1
You may or may not notice it, but does that soundstage ever just feel somewhat small and constrained sometimes? Keep a look out for this feeling the next time you listen to them. And yet at the same time, try this. Take your hands, cup them, and slowly bring them towards the back of the earspeakers. You should literally hear the soundstage collapsing slowly...which in turn should give you an idea of just how huge of a soundstage the Staxs are really portraying. This feat of portraying a soundstage so wide out beyond the earcups that you can actually physically influence it with your hands is a feat that no other dynamic headphone can duplicate. At yet the same time, this conflicts somewhat with that earlier, tight, smallish soundstage I mentioned, because they both happen simultaneously.


I'm not sure about the significance of the cupping the hands action as it pertains to the soundstage as it's heard by the listener with the headphones on. That is, how is that a feat? I just did that with my HD-600s, and, though it may not reach out as far as the Stax (I'm not sure, as I don't have the Stax phones) in terms of recreating this particular effect with the hands, it does start to effect it at quite a distance. But I'm still not sure how that has significance when it comes to the soundstage I'm hearing in my phones when listening without my hands cupped and held outside my earcups. Wouldn't the fact that you're hearing the tight, smallish soundstage without the hands cupped indicate that maybe they're unrelated? By cupping your hands and placing them across the axes of the sound coming out of the back of the Stax earcups, aren't you simply placing an acoustically reflective surface close enough to send it back? I'm a bit confused.
 
Mar 28, 2002 at 12:09 AM Post #5 of 31

Keiso

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Vertigo, thank you. I'm very glad you liked the review. Being a newbie, I'm prepared to take a beating for the mistakes I've made in it, so if anyone sees anything "wrong", please do let me know about it
smily_headphones1.gif


Take your hands, cup them, and slowly bring them towards the back of the earspeakers. You should literally hear the soundstage collapsing slowly...which in turn should give you an idea of just how huge of a soundstage the Staxs are really portraying. This feat of portraying a soundstage so wide out beyond the earcups that you can actually physically influence it with your hands is a feat that no other dynamic headphone can duplicate.

Actually, I noticed this phenomenon on day 1. You kinda automatically learn this when you try to adjust the earspeakers to your head while the music is playing. That's why I wrote "And if you place your hand about 1-2 inches away from the cans, you can clearly hear them distort. These babies need air to breath!". But I shall examine this further now that you've mentioned it, and see how it actually affects my feeling of the soundstage....
(can't do it now, I just came out of the shower after posting the review....)

I am glad you have no problem recognizing heightened transient responses that the Staxs can produce, i.e. the ability of Staxs to literally seperate all instruments into their own little playing space, and that each instrument has a start and stop point.

Yes, that's one of the things which impressed me the most about the STAXs before I bought them, the way the instruments are easily separable, but yet they flow so nicely together to create music....
smily_headphones1.gif


Have you heard any "treble etch" with the 303 Lambdas yet? When I heard the 3030 system, there was quite a bit of prominence placed on the lower treble area, thus leading to a lot of hissing during sibilants.

Sibilation, yes. But a lot? Not at all. This improved dramatically after burning in the ICs and the earspeakers themselves. At least they are much less prominent than on the Sennheiser HD590s. Really, this wasn't a problem at all for me. ICs and source have a lot to say in this area, I think.
 
Mar 28, 2002 at 12:15 AM Post #6 of 31

Keiso

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Quote:

Originally posted by jude


I'm not sure about the significance of the cupping the hands action as it pertains to the soundstage as it's heard by the listener with the headphones on. That is, how is that a feat? I just did that with my HD-600s, and, though it may not reach out as far (I'm not sure, as I don't have the Stax phones) in terms of recreating this particular effect with the hands, it does start to effect it at quite a distance.


Jude, I've used the HD600 before. Believe me, this is WAY more prominent on the STAX. You can change the sound of the STAXs by putting your hand 6-7 inches away from them, and at that distance you can clearly tell that something is blocking your sound. At 3-4 inches, the sound is clearly compressed to an unlistenable level. Clearly, the STAXs need much more space to breathe than other headphones. How this is related to the soundstage, I have yet to find out....
 
Mar 28, 2002 at 12:20 AM Post #7 of 31
Quote:

Originally posted by Keiso


Jude, I've used the HD600 before. Believe me, this is WAY more prominent on the STAX. You can change the sound of the STAXs by putting your hand 6-7 inches away from them, and at that distance you can clearly tell that something is blocking your sound. At 3-4 inches, the sound is clearly compressed to an unlistenable level. Clearly, the STAXs need much more space to breathe than other headphones. How this is related to the soundstage, I have yet to find out....


First of all, Keiso, very nice review.

Now, regarding what I'm asking -- I do believe that the effect of cupping your hands and holding them across the outside axes of sound emitted by the Stax is something the Stax is more sensitive to. My question is, How is that significant to the soundstage that's heard by the listener when the hands aren't cupped?

It would seem to me that doing the hand-cupping thing simply creates a reflection. And if the soundstage is smaller and constrained (as described by Vertigo) when listening without the hands, isn't that then the effective soundstage (for him at least)?

Neil's Grado SR-80's seem to be more sensitive to this hand-cupping thing than my Sennheisers (I have his Grados right here). But yet my Sennheisers cast a wider, fuller soundstage. It would seem to me that a headphone that emits a lot of sound from the back sides of the driver would be more sensitive to this, and that this would necessarily be an indicator of soundstage during normal listening.

Isn't the electrostatic driver of this headphone planar (as opposed to conical)? If so, that would make it a more effective dipole radiator, and so back waves would be stronger at equivalent amplitude than a typical dynamic headphone driver, wouldn't it? I'm asking.
 
Mar 28, 2002 at 12:26 AM Post #8 of 31

shivohum

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Quote:

Have you heard any "treble etch" with the 303 Lambdas yet? When I heard the 3030 system, there was quite a bit of prominence placed on the lower treble area, thus leading to a lot of hissing during sibilants.


With respect, Vertigo, I don't think that's what Darth Nut meant.

In the Headwize thread entitled STAX SRS-4040 (Signature II) Review (the link takes you directly to the right page), he says this about the infamous Stax "treble etch":

Quote:

Treble etch isn't treble prominence. Treble etch is a very fine metallic texture overlaid on the sound of instruments. The first time I heard it, I thought "Wow! So much detail!" But actually it wasn't real detail, it was some kind of added texture."


Wes Philips heard this, too, with the Stax Lambda Nova Signature:

Quote:

At first I thought the Staxes revealed more texture, but the longer I listened, the more I came to feel that that texture lacked specificity—it was more like a slightly grainy overlay that simulated texture, reminding me of the textured anti-glare glass sometimes used to frame photographs: While it gives the appearance of increased clarity, it comes at the expense of fine detail.


I certainly heard this on my pair of Stax Lambda Pros, along with perhaps a slightly shouty quality at high levels on many poor recordings. Darth recognized this too.

Do you hear any of these things, Keiso?
 
Mar 28, 2002 at 12:35 AM Post #9 of 31

Keiso

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Quote:

Originally posted by shivohum
I certainly heard this on my pair of Stax Lambda Pros, along with perhaps a slightly shouty quality at high levels on many poor recordings. Darth recognized this too.

Do you hear any of these things, Keiso?


Not the last part about shouty quality.

But that treble etch you just described, I think so. I wrote that in the review. But I wasn't sure what it was, so I gave it a big question mark with this comment "Maybe a slight colouration?"

But to me, this wasn't noticeable with instruments at all, but rather on clean, well-recorded female vocals. I'm not sure if I should hold this against the STAXs or not, because I've heard this on high-end speakers as well, and on my Sennheisers (much more seldom, though). And it wasn't disturbing to me at all, and I embraced it as part of the sweet STAX sound.
 
Mar 28, 2002 at 5:24 AM Post #11 of 31

PC Corp

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WOW, great review.
Now I'll be happier if you can help me to finish my paper, which is due on Monday, with your unmatched writting skills.

First Sony 3000, then AKG 501, then AT W2002, will the STAX be the next wave of heahphone consumption??
 
Mar 28, 2002 at 5:39 AM Post #12 of 31

Vertigo-1

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Sorry, maybe I shouldn't have quoted darth nut's usage of the word "treble etch". Quite simply, I was asking Keiso what he thought of sibilance on his 303 Lambdas, since darth nut pointed out that the Lambdas tended to be rather hot right around the lower treble area, which is where most sibilance takes place.

As for jude's question...I can't even begin to describe anything going on there. It'd really require darth nut's presence here since he was the original person that discovered and mentioned the out of headstage phenomenon of the Staxs. When I first listened to the Stax 3030s, I certainly didn't think much about cupping my hands over the Staxs to check out what would happen to the soundstage. Darth nut passed that knowledge onto me, and I'm just simply passing that knowledge to Keiso now for him to check out. I can offer no further true info on the hows or whys, it is beyond English as far as I'm concerned.

Then again, you do need to have used a pair of Staxs for a while to understand what's going on. From jude's questions, I get the impression that he believes there's one single soundstage going on with the Staxs, and that the hand cupping soundstage is somehow related to the tighter, inner soundstage. What I'm trying to say is that there's actually two seperate soundstages going on with the Staxs.

To better understand this phenomenon, here are some quotes from darth nut:

Do the following experiment: place your open palms 1 inch from the open-back of your Stax. Don't completely cup the open-back (i.e. don't let your palms touch the open-back) of your 'phones. If you were to completely cup the open-backs, the headstage will collapse completely into your head.

But if you were to place your palms 1 inch from the open-backs of your 303s, the 'headstage' will shrink (without collapsing). Compare the apparent size of this shrunken 'headstage' with the 'headstages' of your other headphones.

You will find that moving-coil headphones portray headstages the size of your Stax's headstage with your palms placed 1 inch behind the open-backs of your Stax.

When you remove your palms suddenly away from your Staxes, the sudden increase in headstage size is what I mean by the Stax's out-of-head sound. The sudden increase in size is unmistakable. In absolute terms, the soundfield is not out-of-the-head, But in comparative terms, this phrase just seems appropriate.

It is not exactly an increase in air. It is as if there were a state of matter that lies in between air and liquid, and this 50%air/50%liquid 'stuff' suddenly expands in size when your palms are removed from behind the open-backs of your Staxes.

I have no name for this 'stuff' that lies in between the states of air and liquid. If you have a good word for it, the audio world will be grateful to you, I think, because I don't think it has been named before. I have simply referred to this 'stuff' as 'transparent textures' in my previous texts at HeadWize.

It is not enough to call this 'stuff' as 'sonic images'. This 'stuff' has qualities of a light viscosity, like a light liquid, and also has qualities of 'floatation', like air. This 'stuff' is also multi-hued, imbued with tonal colors.

And the funny thing is, when you place your palms next to the open-backs of the Stax, not only does the headstage shrink, but this 'stuff' disappears! Where does it go?

The ability to paint this 'stuff' around your head and just outside your head is peculiar only to Stax electrostatics. You pay a lot of money for a Stax for the privilege of enjoying 'transient speed' and this 'stuff' around your head.

If a person does not know how to recognise, discern and savor this out-of-the-head 'stuff', then his purchase of a Stax is also a waste of money.


I then replied back saying that I had indeed picked up a soundstage going on outside of the cups themselves, and that this was a bigger soundstage that's taking place outside of the headphones that I could not hear within the headphones themselves.

This "bigger soundstage that's taking place outside of the headphones" is the reverberant field you are hearing. The Stax is capable of reproducing low-level detail, and the lowest level detail is ambient information. Almost no other headphones except Stax and Sennheiser electrostatics can uncover so much ambient information.

Now, with all that being said, here's part two of the soundstage:

The new Omega2, as you would have guessed by now if you followed the thread of my argument, locates all of its images completely inside the head¡ªfirmly inside the head. The Omega2¡¯s ¡®headstage¡¯ is quite small, similar to the average headphone, even on recordings with a lot of reverberation. There is no more ¡®shimmering watercolor-like washes¡¯ coming from outside the head that the Omega1 was capable of, on the appropriate material. But what fantastic images the Omega2 creates within this small ¡®headstage¡¯!

A recent conversation I had with kelly after he auditioned the 3030 system said as much the same thing, alongside my own experience with the 303 Lambdas...that sometimes, the Stax soundstage feels unnaturally small, and very tightly focused.

So what exactly is the real soundstage...the one going on outside, or the one going on inside? Or just an incredible combo of both? This is the big mystery.

Like I said, this is not something you want to think too much on without having owned a pair of Staxs before. It's just an extra little something for already happy Stax owners to muse and munch on.
 
Mar 28, 2002 at 6:31 AM Post #13 of 31

kelly

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Keiso

That was truly an awesome review. I'll probably have to read it several more times just to get me through until I can afford Stax myself. I'll be living vicariously through your experiences.
smily_headphones1.gif


I very much hope that this is not actually your last headphone system because I'd like to look forward to your other reviews in the future.

You mentioned EISL but said you bought yours locally in Norway? So you didn't nuy from EISL but still got them for $900US? I thought it was only in Japan that you could get Stax affordably.

Do you find that your soundstage is obstructed/collapsed when you sit in a chair with a high back? It seems like that might be akward.

Thanks for taking the time to write this.
 
Mar 28, 2002 at 6:32 AM Post #14 of 31
Quote:

Originally posted by Vertigo-1
As for jude's question...I can't even begin to describe anything going on there. It'd really require darth nut's presence here since he was the original person that discovered and mentioned the out of headstage phenomenon of the Staxs. When I first listened to the Stax 3030s, I certainly didn't think much about cupping my hands over the Staxs to check out what would happen to the soundstage. Darth nut passed that knowledge onto me, and I'm just simply passing that knowledge to Keiso now for him to check out. I can offer no further true info on the hows or whys, it is beyond English as far as I'm concerned.

Then again, you do need to have used a pair of Staxs for a while to understand what's going on. From jude's questions, I get the impression that he believes there's one single soundstage going on with the Staxs, and that the hand cupping soundstage is somehow related to the tighter, inner soundstage. What I'm trying to say is that there's actually two seperate soundstages going on with the Staxs.


I used to sell Stax headphones several years ago at a hi-fi store (where I worked through part of college to earn some dough).

My point about the cupped hands is that I don't think that cupping one's hands outside of the earpieces is a demonstration of a headphone's soundstage as it pertains to the listening experience sans cupped hands. I would guess it's merely an indicator of how open the back of the headphone is to the ear, and how loud the sound is coming out of the backside of the earpiece. Cupping the hands on any loud, open-backed headphone would have the same effect. Again, I tried it with Neil's Grado SR-80s, and the effect of the hand-cupping and moving toward the earpieces was more pronounced with those than my HD-600s; yet my HD-600s have broader soundstage during normal listening. That was my only point -- that the cupped hands thingie doesn't demonstrate headphone soundstage ability to my mind.
 
Mar 28, 2002 at 10:04 AM Post #15 of 31

Vertigo-1

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Quote:

I used to sell Stax headphones several years ago at a hi-fi store (where I worked through part of college to earn some dough).


Ugg, I always forget about that very strong Stax experience in your life.
biggrin.gif


I do understand your point though...what you hear is what you hear, and cupping hands shouldn't change that in any way. You normally wouldn't be cupping your hands behind the earspeakers while listening anyways (although I did have tons of fun pushing the soundstage/stuff in and out with my hands when I had a pair of 303s.
biggrin.gif
) It could very well just be a part of the electrostatic design that it exudes an equally loud playback on the outside as well as the inside, aka Grado/AKG style. However, in this case, Staxs by far spread the sound farther out beyond the cups than any dynamic headphone out there (which doesn't matter really if you don't believe it does anything to what's going on inside), and I guess that was just the point I was trying to make.

BTW, this review should definitely go up into the archives, noh?
wink.gif
 

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