Stax Lambda primer for electrostat newbies
Mar 15, 2011 at 4:02 PM Thread Starter Post #1 of 82

vrln

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Introduction:
 
This thread is my attempt at writing a small guide for getting into the world of Stax electrostatic headphones. I personally just bought my first Stax system and I´ve never been this impressed by any gear so far during my headphone hobby. The world of Stax headphones can look a bit scary: confusing codenames for products, not many reviews out there and limited availability. I was completely confused when I first got interested in electrostatic headphones and did a lot of reading all over the internet. Personally I feel Stax gear is not really getting the amount of exposure they deserve, even though they have a very dedicated (and often vocal) group of fans. So yes, I´m trying to spread the good word :) And no, I have zero financial connections to the company.
 
First, some brief history about me. I started with a NuForce Icon HDP, but then quickly caught the upgrade bug (rumour has it it´s pretty common here). After that I went through two amps: Audio-gd Phoenix and Violectric V200. I´ve also auditioned the Lehmann Black Cube Linear, Benchmark DAC-1 and the Cambridge Audio DacMagic. The headphones I went through: Sennheiser HD 800, Audeze LCD-2, Sennheiser HD 650. While I loved many features these dynamic and orthodynamic (LCD-2) headphones had, none of them were good enough. There was always a critical flaw, something that annoyed me too much. In the HD 800 it was the treble-heavy sibilant fatiguing sound, in the LCD-2 it was the small congested soundstage and lack of high frequencies. Out of these, the HD 650 was my favourite as it had nothing that annoyed me too much, but it did not match the other headphones I tried in certain other features. So long story short: I still wanted more. I wanted a lot, but at the prices these high end headphones are sold at, everything in the end was a disappointment. Some more than others, of course. My main disappointment was the Audeze LCD-2. Anyway, out of all the purchases I made, almost everything ended up sold on various hifi forums as the quest for something close enough to perfection continued. The only thing that I was completely happy with was my first DAC purchase after the Icon HDP, the Audio-gd Reference 7. It´s still my source and I feel no urge to switch.
 
After trying the leading dynamic and orthodynamic headphones, I slowly become interested in Stax. They were a pretty big question mark for me. It was much harder to find information on them. Then I had the chance to audition a used Stax system (SRM-006 and SR-404 Limited, I´ll explain those later). Even though it was far from the most expensive Stax system out there, it left me really impressed. It managed something nothing else so far could do: a neutral sound that is highly detailed, yet still musical. And no treble roll-off was needed to make it easy to listen. It was just, as Steve Jobs would say, magical!
 
 
The basics:
 
Stax calls their amplifiers energizers, and their headphones earspeakers. Their earspeakers only work with special purpose (for electrostatic) amplifiers. So if you are coming from the dynamic/orthodynamic world, you will basically have to buy a new amplifier as well. Stax are not your standard dynamic headphones (see http://wiki.faust3d.com/wiki/index.php?title=Dynamic to see the operating principle in most headphones on the market). Stax is the one of the very few companies that still make electrostatic headphones. Sennheiser used to make them too, but for unknown reasons they are no longer being sold. Most likely they weren´t profitable enough. So what is this this "electrostatic" mean? See http://wiki.faust3d.com/wiki/index.php?title=Electrostatic and http://www.stax.co.jp/Export/ABOUT_ESP1.html. The word energizer is most likely (this is my speculation) used because of the high voltages their amplifiers output. While there isn´t that much power in a HD 800 cord during playback, it´s a very different with electrostatic headphones. Some have raised safety questions, but Stax has been around for decades and have a good reputation. Just follow their security tips in the manuals.
 
There are two lines of products in the Stax world: (1) Lambda and (2) the high end research line. The Lambdas are the mainstream model, while the second option currently only includes one headphone: the SR-007MK2. In the near future, another product in this range is anticipated (rumored to cost even double of the SR-007MK2). 
 
This guide will only talk about the Lambda world. Why? Because they are not extremely expensive and are less picky when it comes to amplifiers. The more experienced Stax fans generally seem to think (not just here, on various forums) that the current amps Stax makes are not good enough to drive the high end research line products. They are ok for Lambdas though.
 
While Stax have a reputation for being expensive, part of this is because many associate them with their flagship high end lineup. The Lambda products are not any more expensive than a standard dynamic or orthodynamic setup (for example HD 800 + amplifier, HD 650 + amplifier etc). They represent, in my experience, excellent value for money. Stax products also have a reputation for being very durable ("from father to son"). There are many vintage Lambda models in the used market these days, and many sets that are from the 80´s etc still perform well. Last but not least, the resale value in Stax products in generally quite high as they have a very dedicated fan base.
 
 
The current Lambda lineup (earspeakers):
 
All current Stax Lambda headphones require amplifiers with pro-bias output sockets. These are available in all currently produced models. Some older Stax amps in the used market might not have them though. If you are buying relatively recent gear, then you won´t have to worry about this.
 
Right now Stax manufactures these Lambda models...
 
(1) SR-507
 
http://www.stax.co.jp/Export/SR507e.html
 

 
Price: around 1050-1100 dollars in the US, around 900 dollars imported from Japan via a site like PriceJapan.com. In the EU, pretty much the US price in euros.
 
This is their current Lambda lineup flagship, released september 2010. Compared to other in production Lambda models, it has an improved headband, leather pads and an improved cord. Most importantly, it´s got a brand new driver. Why is this such a big issue? Lambdas have been around for decades, and this is the first major upgrade in a very, very long time. Thus it´s a very good time to be be on the market for these. 
 
In a way this Lambda is the return of the older SR-404 Limited model, of which only 1000 were made (it used the same premium pads and cord for example). Now it´s no longer necessary to hunt the used forums. The SR-404 Limited was considered the best Lambda so far, and the early reports on the SR-507 around the web seems to indicate the new flagship is on the same level.
 
(2) SR-407
 
http://www.stax.co.jp/Export/SR307_407-e.html
 

 
Price: around 600 dollars imported from Japan via a site like PriceJapan.com. US and EU prices unknown, as most dealers don´t seem to have these yet.
 
This is, judging by what I´ve read around the web, the best value in the range, as it supposedly performs very close to the SR-507. So it´s cheaper than a HD 800 or T1 :)
 
(3) SR-307
 
http://www.stax.co.jp/Export/SR307_407-e.html
 
Price: around 500 dollars imported from Japan via a site like PriceJapan.com. US and EU prices unknown, as most dealers don´t seem to have these yet. Also fantastic value for money, but I have no idea how much this differs from the 407.
 
(4) SR-207
 
There´s also the SR-207, which is even cheaper. It´s only sold together with the SRM-252S energizer as a package. The combo costs 700 dollars imported from Japan. Local prices vary, so ask your dealer. As usual, generally it´s around 10-15% more expensive in the US, while EU people have to pay pretty much the same in euros.
 
http://www.stax.co.jp/Export/SRS2170e.html
 

 
 
The current amplifier lineup (energizers):
 
First you´ll need to decide if you want tubes or solid state. Stax offers both. The official line from the Stax site is that the tube ones offer less listening fatigue. Is it true? No idea. In general that is what tubes are traditionally good at though. Stax offers two combo packages: SR-407+SRM-006 and SR-307+SRM-323. The first one is a tube amplifier, the second is a solid state. In trade shows Stax has recently been demoing the SR-507 with the SRM-600 tube amp.
 
While it doesn´t really matter if you import the earspeakers (they don´t care what voltage your Stax amp runs on), the issue of voltage zones has to be raised here. If you order directly from Japan, you´ll need to use a voltage converter which can be a pain (some claim it also affects the sound, I doubt that). As with all Stax products, the japanese warranty is only valid inside Japan. So if you get any problems, you´ll need to ship your gear to the website staff so they can get it repaired. The easiest way, of course, is to buy everything through a local distributor. Then you won´t have to worry about voltage zones. But you can also buy the amp from a local distributor, and then the headphones through an importer.
 
Tubes look nice, so I´ll talk about them first. You have two main choices for Lambda (assuming you want to use the official currently in production Stax amps):
 
*disclaimer: I´m ignoring the Stax SRM-007tII tube amplifier here as it´s listed in the "high end range" products on the official Stax site. It´s also very expensive, and at that cost there are many third party alternatives as well (and they are from what I´ve read more suited for running the Stax research high end line)
 
(1) SRM-600
 
http://www.stax.co.jp/Export/SRM600limited_e.html
 

 
Price: around 1400 dollars imported from Japan. Price elsewhere unknown.
 
This is a limited edition (600 made) version of the SRM-006 that uses different tubes. The tubes it uses are the JJ Electronic ECC99. There are two dual triode tubes, one for each channel. It has an output max power of 340V (which is as high as the flagship SRM-007 tube amp that I´m not covering here). This amp was originally made as a 35-year anniversary product to complement the SR-404 Limited. As the SR-507 is rather similar to that, it seems to be a very good pairing judging by what I´ve read (and I have that combo at home, love it!). What pushed me to buy one of these is that I found a few pictures on the web that showed Stax demonstrating the SR-507 with this. If it´s good enough for them, it´s good enough for me. Accepts balanced input (XLR) in addition to single ended RCA.
 
Right now these are still on the market, but won´t be for long. If you want one, you might need to hurry.
 
(2) SRM-006tS
 
http://www.stax.co.jp/Export/SRM600limited_e.html
 

 
Price: around 1200 dollars imported from Japan. Ask your local dealer for their price.
 
This is a true classic. It´s based on an older design that has been around for a long time. It´s a safe choice, and the one Stax bundles with the SR-407. Runs two dual triode 6FQ7/6CG7 tubes. Accepts balanced input (XLR) in addition to single ended RCA. Output power is 300V.
 
The SR-407 + SRM-006tS combo costs around 1700 dollars imported from Japan. Local prices vary. In general US prices are around 10-15% higher than in Japan. In the EU it´s a different story (read: much more expensive).
 
If you decide to go solid state instead, Stax have a nice little gem waiting for you as well!
 
*disclaimer: I´m not covering the high end SRM-724 solid state amplifier here as it´s listed on the Stax site as belonging to the high end range. It´s also a controversial amp, as many feel it has a flawed implementation of NFB (it´s the first Stax amp that doesn´t use negative feedback). Many experienced Stax hobbyists say it sounds good after a small mod though. Anyway, it´s not a very common choice for a Lambda so I´ll skip it.
 
(1) SRM-323S
 
http://www.stax.co.jp/Export/SRM323S-e.html
 

 
Price: around 800 dollars imported from Japan. Local prices vary. Once again, ask your dealer :)
 
This is, according to many very experienced Stax enthusiasts, a real steal at the price. Actually Spritzer on these forums considers it the best amp Stax currently makes. So value is very high here. Output power is 400V. Does not have XLR inputs (single ended RCA only).
 
Together with a SR-307 the bundle price is around 1200 dollars imported from Japan. The bundles are also on sale via distrobutors.
 
The official Stax distributor contact information for different countries can be found here:
 
http://www.stax.co.jp/Export/Overseas.html
 
 
Some final words:
 
So all in all, Stax Lambda rigs don´t have to be that expensive. Sure they are not very cheap, but if you are considering 1000 dollar amplifiers for dynamic headphones, we are talking about the same price range already. The Stax gear offers a very unique sound that is very different compared to more common dynamic and these days orthodynamic headphones. The downside is obviously that you are locked into electrostatics as the amp can only run them. However, many like the Stax sound so much they wouldn´t consider anything else anymore anyway. Personally I´m one of those. I can see myself upgrading to a high end Stax research line product and amplifier someday, but not in the near future. For now, this is the first setup that I´m completely satisfied with. I by far prefer the SR-507 over the Sennheiser HD 800 or the Audeze LCD-2 (oh and I have to say I also prefered the old SR-404 Signature to those as well). As someone who used to swap gear around a lot, that says more than a long list of sound signature adjectives. Also with Stax, you don´t have to worry about the very often underestimated problem of system matching. Anyone who has tried the Sennheiser HD 800 will know that they are a pain to get right. Electrostatics, in my opinion, are a "buy and enjoy" solution. These days I´m only interested in portable gear, speaker gear and future DAC products.
 
My Stax Lambda system offers the best microdetail, clarity and instrument separation I´ve ever heard out of a headphone system. All this while not being fatiguing or sounding dull and analytical. But of course the Stax sound is not for everyone (as all things in hifi, electrostats also divide opinion), and I´m not trying to say it is. If you want to know if the Stax sound is for you, my recommendation would be to go to a meet and listen to some Lambda gear. You´ll quickly notice if you also fall in love with the effortless, delicate delivery that Stax gear excells at. 
 
 
PS: I´m NOT trying to claim I´m an expert when it comes to Stax. The point of this post is to help others out there who might be considering Stax Lambda gear, but find the whole electrostatic world too confusing. Any feedback, changes and recommendations from more experienced HeadFi´ers is very much appreciated!
 
PPS: I intentionally posted this in the headphone forum, not the high end one as a Lambda rig is not any more expensive than a HD650 with a good amplifier. If the mods feel this should still rather be in another forum, feel free to move it :)
 
Updates list:
 
Edit 1: fixed some typos... I´ll fix more later (15.3.2011)
 
Edit 2: fixed some small stuff, added pictures and uploaded the article to the wiki in case anyone wants to help me out and for example write a vintage Stax buyers guide section I could add here (16.3.2011). The url for the wiki version is http://www.head-fi.org/wiki.php?title=stax-lambda-primer-for-electrostat-newbies
 
Mar 15, 2011 at 5:17 PM Post #2 of 82

svyr

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>PPS: I intentionally posted this in the headphone forum, not the high end one as a Lambda rig is not any more expensive than a HD650 with a good amplifier.

considering you only posted about new gear, not used or vintage, a new Lambda rig is at least 500+800 imported (+ a decent voltage converter) :D . And a HD650 can be had for what, 350, + 250 for schiit asgaard, or something similar? (sure, the 307 or 407 + 323s would be a lot better, but it would cost nearly 2x. )

I suppose, you also missed the SRS-2050 and their new brother. 500-800 all up new.
and the used Lamba (or SR-x0x) + SRM1 series or other newer driver units (600-1000 for 15-30 year old gear :D )
and as annoying people would point out - transformer rigs, if you already own a power amp. (I'm just annoyed to see the W word on every page... but It looks like they succeeded with pricing and marketing, while probably making a very decent profit on it
 
Mar 15, 2011 at 5:37 PM Post #3 of 82

vrln

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Depends on what you mean by good :) It´s such a relative word. Mostly meant amps in the 1k dollar range people often use with HD 650. Then it´s around 1350 dollars + potentially more if the amp is a balanced needing a new cable, pretty much the same as an entry level new Stax Lambda setup. I guess I meant the word "good" as in "previous generation high end". These days the word seems to be reserved for LCD-2, HD 800, T1 and HE-6.
 
I mentioned the SRS-200 range, but didn´t write anything else about it. Same with used gear. Used Stax is great, but for people new to the whole electrostat world it can feel a bit too difficult to go that way. I wanted to concentrate on the "classic" Lambda setups that are currently in production. But yeah, maybe this should be moved to the high end forum instead...
 
Mar 15, 2011 at 5:51 PM Post #4 of 82

cswann1

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Quote:
But yeah, maybe this should be moved to the high end forum instead...



I disagree, for exactly the reason you mentioned.  Lambdas are not terribly expensive and even if new Lambda owners must spend a grand or so on electronics that still does not automatically fall into the realm of "high-end" imo.  Great post btw :)
 
Mar 15, 2011 at 6:09 PM Post #5 of 82

vrln

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Hm... When I think about it more, agreed. And I think it´s the fairest to talk about all products at the "new" price level. Pretty much any balanced HD 650, K701, HD 600, or Beyer DT 880 rig will cost just as much as a Stax Lambda one. Especially considering how expensive custom cables are (and let´s face it, most people do know have the soldering skills or interest to do it themselves). Stax unfairly has the reputation of being just a very exclusive high end brand. Sure, they are far from mid-fi, but not really that much more expensive than the direct competition. Lambdas are a better buy now than ever before thanks to the new driver update last september. And these days they are a profitable stable company too.
 
If someone is going for a dynamic rig like the ones I mentioned, I think it´s definately worth it to at least give Stax Lambdas a try at a meet or a dealer. 
 
Mar 15, 2011 at 7:20 PM Post #6 of 82

jeycam

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I've just bought 2050s as my first Staxes and as I liked your guide, there are few things that miss, like: what's the thing with normal and pro bias or how do the energizers that let you connect Staxes to power amp (like SRD-7) work. :)
 
Mar 15, 2011 at 8:01 PM Post #7 of 82

xaval

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Quote:
I've just bought 2050s as my first Staxes and as I liked your guide, there are few things that miss, like: what's the thing with normal and pro bias or how do the energizers that let you connect Staxes to power amp (like SRD-7) work. :)


There's nothing reall relevant about the Pro and Normal bias models, just the fact the Normal bias are long out of production and there's a 1 pin difference between them.
As for the energizers, you just plug them to the speaker outs of your amp and that's it - you feed the amp sound - up to some point - to he Staxes. I really love my Jadis through my Lambdas :)
Energizers with both Pro and Normal bias outputs get higher demand on the used market because of flexibility.
 
 
Mar 15, 2011 at 11:12 PM Post #9 of 82

purrin

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@vrln: Nice summary.
 
The SRM-323 ->SR507 combo is roughly on the same level (probably better) than a Apex/Woo6SE/b22/LebenCX300 -> HD800 combo.
And it costs less too. Something folks should keep in mind if like the STAX sound. As you said, the STAX is definitely worth consideration.
 
Mar 15, 2011 at 11:46 PM Post #10 of 82

crumpler

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I've just gotten into stats as well and it was only after i've gotten my grubby paws on a vintage SRM-1/Mk2 PP that i decided it was time for me to explore the exciting new world of stats. Does anyone have any idea where the vintage amps like the SRM-1s stand in comparison to the current amps in production?
 
All i've managed to compare was my SRM-1/Mk2 PP against the SRM-007tII but i guess i was too new to the world of stats at the time to make any useful conclusions. All i had to offer was both were awesome, and i promptly made me sell my HE-6s for some SR-507s.
 
I would say some mini-comparisons between the vintage and current stat amps would be really helpful to head-fiers like myself who are just on the edge between dynamics/orthos and stats. And these vintage amps can be had for a lot less in the FS forum than the current production amps just because they are somewhat older and used. I'm sure any budding stats explorers would be mighty pleased if they can land a mint example of these vintages and work their way up.
 
Mar 16, 2011 at 1:41 AM Post #11 of 82

dukja

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I really appreciate a thread like this.  A summarized must-read for stax newbies!
 
After reading so many posts about the current top of the line headphones, I was still not able to find a next step and started to wonder into the Stax line.  However, I was intimidated by the existing super long Stax thread and feel no where to start.  I pmed vrln and got several page-long replies.  What a nice and informative guy!  This thread not only educates people who are totally newbie to Stax but may have already established their preference with dynamic phones but also let newbie like me to ask some trivial questions.
 
Mar 16, 2011 at 2:45 AM Post #12 of 82

cswann1

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Quote:
I really appreciate a thread like this.  A summarized must-read for stax newbies!
 
After reading so many posts about the current top of the line headphones, I was still not able to find a next step and started to wonder into the Stax line.  However, I was intimidated by the existing super long Stax thread and feel no where to start.  I pmed vrln and got several page-long replies.  What a nice and informative guy!  This thread not only educates people who are totally newbie to Stax but may have already established their preference with dynamic phones but also let newbie like me to ask some trivial questions.


Agreed, the current Stax thread(s) in the High-end forum are a bit daunting.  It is my hope that threads like this will spur new interest in electrostatics and hopefully encourage new products from not only Stax but other major headphone manufactureres.
 
 
Mar 16, 2011 at 4:31 AM Post #13 of 82

vrln

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Purrin, Crumpler, MrGreen and others:
 
Great idea @ vintage buyers guide section! That´s something that should definately be added. Any chance you guys might want to help? We could turn this into a Head-Fi.org wiki article (and keep the current version of the article on the first post on this thread along with all the writer credits of course) 
o2smile.gif
 Stax deserves the extra exposure! A similar guide covering the high end Stax lineup would be awesome too... Something talking about KGSS, Blue Hawaii, Stax-007/724 etc. Plenty of people here  have a HD 800 with amps like the Woo22. Same price level as the high end Stax research line. I at least when I got my HD 800 couldn´t even imagine going Stax as there was so little material out there and all the usual Stax threads can be really scary for people new to electrostats.
 
Mar 16, 2011 at 4:47 AM Post #14 of 82

MrGreen

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I've got no real expertise on vintage lambdas. Merely that people seem to offer around about $200 average for a vintage normal bias, and the price for a lambda signature varies from 350 to 500 depending on condition. I also know that the signature has the thinnest driver ever made by stax (the sigma pro shares the driver).
 
I think it's also important to make sure newbies stay clear of electrets, as there can be problems with the charge they have (which is dissipates over time and can cause problems).

Another thing is the SR-5s which i think are electrostats and earlier models than the lambdas.
 
Mar 16, 2011 at 4:51 AM Post #15 of 82

TIMITS

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Thanks vrln,
 
Very much appreciate the information in this thread with all of the links.  Interesting read and easy to understand.  I'm new to headphones and particularly Stax - made my first ear speaker purchase this week and waiting for delivery.  Reading up on amp / energizer choices while saving for the next purchase.
 
 
 

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