Summit-Fi Setup for Classical Music
Mar 2, 2020 at 6:35 AM Thread Starter Post #1 of 3


New Head-Fier
Feb 28, 2020
Milan, Italy
I'm in the process of choosing a setup for classical music listening and I'm asking for help from the forum in narrowing down the choices. The headphones shall be electrostatics but make and model are not decided upon yet, and neither is the amp. Budget is not a primary concern.

I have read through the threads that the site search returns as hits for my enquiry, and I think I have an idea where this might be going. But major questions remain as yet unanswered, and I hope someone will be kind enough to help me in directing me toward the right components for building a system to my liking. I do have the opportunity to audition Stax earspeakers where I live, but only with Stax amps. I have heard the Stax L-300, L-500 and L-700 at shows along with the SR-007 mk II and the SR--009, only the SR-009S I haven't heard at all. All my listening has been with the SRM-727 II and the SRM-007t II energisers (all phones via both amps), and more on my impressions with these earspeakers below. I am inclined to settle for a Stax pro bias setup for flexibility and might consider the Mr. Speakers Voce as an alternative. As for amplification, I'm open to any well-reputed brand and model.

I'm a conservatory-trained classical pianist myself and I've had more than 20 years expossure to high-end audio at home, though always loudspeaker-centric. In system-building I prefer a warmer over a cooler sound (in digtial front-ends, think dCS rather than Ayre), finesse over heft (in amplification, think high-powered class A and never class D or G), a lively and breathing rendition over 'slam' (in loudspeakers, think electrostatics rathter than Wilson). This is not to say that sound volume and scale aren't important, they are (no single-ended class A triode amplifiers here). A system's ability to convey the weight of a grand piano sound is vital, its ability to suggest the power of an orchestra in full cry is crucial, but sound quality always takes precedence over sheer quantity.

My priorities when choosing an audio component generally are

1) timbral rightness,
2) temporal accuracy and
3) portrayal of minuscle variations in loudness (microdynamics),

more on which below.

"If the midrange isn't right, nothing else matters". An uncoloured midrange is the first thing I listen for in an audio setup. The human voice is particularly revealing of any shortcomings in this area and since I'm listening to a fair amount of operatic recordings and song recitals, this is one of my main points of interest. Other than that, reproduction defects are easily heard with recordings of speech, and if a recording of a well-known voice doesn't sound right through a component, it will pass it by.

Real bass has heft, weight and texture, and real bass is airy and warm (think plucked double-bass or tuba in a real acoustic space rather than synthesised sound). Bass quantity I rarely find an issue even with mini-monitors with restricted low end, but bass quality is important: again, I prefer it uncoloured, well-defined and well-paced.

Timbral aberrations in the treble I find very objectionable and I would reject any setup that emphasises upper frequencies or were downright harsh, spitty, sibilllant (or the like). Generally, I find a slightly rolled-off treble response much more acceptable than a highlighted upper register. (In real space, treble response is naturally attenuated as sound waves travel through air, but I know of no natural ambiance that would accentuate higher frequencies.)

Temporal accuracy is a necessity not only for following a musical line (on a macro-level, as it were), but to appreciating the interplay between a soloist and his orchestra, between the musicians of a quartet or any other formation, between a singer and an accompanist. Even in a solo performance, the correct representation of the temporal relationships is critical to my musical enjoyment: between the different voices in a piano piece, between playing 'a tempo' and ever so slightly off, and so forth. Temporal accuracy, then, is concerned not with 'drive' or 'slam' but with the organisation of the musical development in time, with the relationship between the musical flow and an (imagined) external metre on the one hand and, even more, with the relationship of various musical elements inter se, the tiny variations that turn musical performance into interpretation. I have found that many audio components, even very costly ones, are surprisingly lacking in this domain. 'Drive' in itself is not sufficient but inevitably results from a system that is temporally accurate.

Timbral rightness and temporal accuracy, when occuring together, make possible what I perceive as a cohesive musical rendition, for lack of a better word.

Minuscle loudness variations are vastly more important to me than are major jumps: the difference in the sound from a piano hammer's attack on the stinrg depending on the pianist's touch, the bowing of a violinist, the decay of a triangle stroke are all dependent on microdynamic portrayal and they constitute the very personality of an instrument, of a voice, of an interpretation. Large loudness swings are important, I cannot deny as a Wagner enthusiast, but far less so than microdynamics.

My headphone listening experience, until now, has been very limited. I have owned only a gifted pair of Beyerdynamic DT-990 and a pair of Sennheiser HD600 for many years and they have seen little use. The Beyerdynamic DT-990 I positively dislike (bright, verging on harsh and spitty and in my face and I would never have bought it myself) but the Sennheiser HD600 is satisfying and a bargain at the price, too (I chose the HD600 over the HD650 and the HD660). Only during the past year have I started listening to higher-quality headphones as I have bought a pair of Audeze LCD-X, mainly for listening in hotel rooms when traveling, driven by a Chord Mojo / Poly combination (I chose the Chord Mojo over the Chord Hugo 2 that, to my ears, is voiced on the bright side of reality and I find it much easier to live with the recessed treble of the Mojo).

As mentioned above, I have listened to the complete Stax line-up of headphones bar the SR-009S via both the SRM-727 II and SRM-007t II amps at shows. My general impressions from this are:

- that there was, genreally, surprisingly little to differentiate between the SR-009 and the SR-007 mk II given the price difference with the SR-L700 tight on their heels; I assume this is due to inadequate amplification
- that I came away impressed by the SR-009 but fearing that its treble response combined with the amount of detail conveyed could prove just too much for me in the long run
- that the SR-007 mk II has the most relaxed and listenable presentation of them all but seems sluggish and lacking in pace when driven by the SRM-007t II
- that I generally prefer the SRM-007t II over the SRM-727 II for its midrange and better rendition of microdetail as opposed to macro-swings (with its stated limitation when driving the SR-007 mk II, cf. above)
- that the SRM-727 II introduces (or exaggerates?) some flaws in the SR-009 treble (grain and sibilliance).

I am left with the impression that the higher-level Stax earspeakers were not driven appropriately by the amplification on hand and, hence, I ultimately don't find myself comfortable judging them.

The obvious thing to do now would be to audition the headphones in question, the top three Stax offerings (SR-007 mk II, SR-009 and SR-009S) and theMr. Speakers Voce as driven by high-quality amplification but, as stated above, I don't have access to auditioning other amps than Stax locally. My idea, then, was to decide on and to buy an amplifier as a starting point and work the headphones choice from there (as I do have the possibility of auditioning the complete Stax line-up of headphones locally).

I've been thinking about the HeadAmp Blue Hawaii SE and the Mjölnir KGSSHV (Carbon?) and I was wondering what would be the best 'entry point' when I cannot audition before purchasing.

Any advice on amps, headphones and combinations given my above preferences would be very much appreciated.
Mar 2, 2020 at 2:24 PM Post #2 of 3
I can't answer this since you are sold on the idea of electrostatics. For that there are STAX threads where you will probably get some good advice.

But I think for a lot less money a pair of Sennheiser 800s, maybe 800S but I don't know, would check a lot of the boxes for you at a lower price. You would still need a good amp though.
Mar 14, 2020 at 8:45 PM Post #3 of 3
There's a lot to say about this but I'm heading to bed soon so I'll try to keep it short:

At this point it's all about personal preference, individual aspects like your hearing, ear anatomics etc. and of course the performance of the whole chain ... from the original recording, all the way through the DAC, the amp and the headphones to your ears.

A lot of guys will tell you all kinds of stuff of what is best but honestly: the only way is to find out yourself.
Especially finding the right synergy between all the elements is not an easy task if you are looking for your ideal setup that fits your personal preferences.

The 007mk2, the 009 and the 009S are all really great headphones - albeit with somewhat different tuning.
A lot of people will tell you that you need a blue hawaii, a KGSSHV or some similar amp to make your stax sound best but my personal experience was somewhat different.
Many of those aftermarket stax amps were designed at the time of the 007 and are therefore (in my opinion at least) a better match with the 007 because they are compensating it's somewhat tuned town treble and have enough power improve it's somewhat less tight bass .. they are therefore however not a very good match with the 009 because they make it sound bright ... (I actually have a 009 in my chain and don't find it too bright or sibilant in the treble at all.)
You can of course compensate that again with eq, an R2R-DAC or other similar measures but I guess you get the point ... it's all about finding the right synergy that fits for you and nobody can do that for you.
My recommendation therefore is: try to listen to the 009 (or any other headphone) on different amps-DAC-combinations and try to find out what fits your personal preference. Bring some DAC's to the shop and connect them to the stax amps they have there or ask them to connect the amps to some DAC's they have in the shop. Find what you like and make it your first chain. Then you can still try to improve from there.
Otherwise buy different amps/dacs used, try what works for you and sell what you don't want to keep at the end.
I know it's not an easy way but if you are looking for audio nirvana (and it seems you do) it seems to me that this is the only way there is.

If anybody knows an easier way let me know :)

Cheers and all the best on your headphone journey :)
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