Big Sound 2015: Biting the Bullet with Bob Katz

Woot! What a joy to have Bob Katz over for a visit! For starters, he's just a lovely guy and we got along marvelously it seems to me. Moreover, he brought a truly glorious set of reference tracks and it's been a real treat to use them in today's testing.

I was pretty sure he'd have passed the Bakoon/Teton/Simaudio test with flying colors, so I set out to try one of the more difficult blind tests on the menu: identifying the Schiit Yggdrasil R2R DAC from the Antelope delta-sigma DAC. Hooo boy, not easy.

We both did the test today. Initially we spent time switching between the two sighted; then we did a couple of passes blind as trial runs; and then set out to do the scored tests. Results...50-50. No better than a coin toss. On the other hand, after quite a bit of dialog and a little further listening we both agreed that the Antelope was slightly brighter and seemed to have a slightly larger image in both width and depth. I thought the Yggy was a tad more dynamic; Bob didn't hear that one way or the other.

I then got all the gear hooked up to play all the headphones simultaneously and Bob began to survey the field—he's a copious note taker. In the end Bob's favorite cans in order were:

  1. Stax SR-007
  2. Audeze LCD-3
  3. Enigmacoustics Dharma
  4. Sennheiser HD 800

He brought his DIY-made AMB M3 along as his go to amp, but of the amps in the Big Sound system he especially liked the Simaudio 430HA. He goes into great detail in the video.

If you can't see the video, click here.

Tomorrow, Bob and I will explore EQing headphones. This will put my ideas about where neutral is to the test; should be very interesting.

Equipment List

Front End
NAS - Synology DS414 ($479)
Renderer - Aurender W20 (~$17,600);
Digital Distribution Amps - Four ATI DMM100 Digital Matchmakers
and one DDA212-XLR digital audio distribution amp ($1450).

Power Conditioning
PS Audio, two P10 power regeneration station ($4999) and four DecTet conditioned plug strips ($499).

DAC/Amps
AURALiC Vega DAC ($3499) and Taurus MkII headphone amp ($1899)
Simaudio MOON Neo 430 HA ($4300 w/DAC).
HeadAmp GS-X Mk2 ($2800)
Schiit Ragnarok ($1699) and Yggdrasil ($2299)
Burson Audio Conductor Virtuoso ($1495 w/PCM1793; $1995 w/ESS1908)
Woo Audio WA-234 ($15,900)
Antelope Audio Zodiac Platinum DSD DAC, Voltikus Power Supply, and 10M Rubidium Atomic Clock. ($13,045)
Apex High Fi Audio (TTVJ) Teton ($5000)
Eddie Current Black Widow ($1248)
Violectric V281 ($2299)
Bakoon HPA-21 ($2995) current output headphone amplifier.
KGSSSRE (Kevin Gilmore Solid State Special Reviewer's Edition E-Stat Amp ($Unobtanium)

Headphones
Sennheiser HD 800 ($1599)
Audeze LCD-3 ($1945) and LCD-X ($1699)
JPS Labs Abyss AB-1266 ($5495)
Stax SR-009 ($4450) and SR-007 ($2350)
HIFIMAN HE-1000 ($3000)
Mr. Speakers Ether ($1499)
Enigmacoustics Dharma (~$1200)
Audio Zenith PMx2 ($1398)

Cables
Digital cables by AudioQuest.
Cable complements for wiring entire systems will be from: Nordost; JPS Labs; WyWires; Cable Pro; AudioQuest, and Cardas.

Accessories
Headphone stands by Klutz Designs

COMMENTS
detlev24's picture

Thank you guys for this video!

Unfortunately, all flagship headphones are excessively expensive regarding their sound quality – and there is not enough competition yet. My listening reference is a pair of JBL M2, well placed in an acoustically treated room. Up to date, no headphone comes close to the information the M2 deliver.

I know you cannot compare headphones to loudspeakers, but the target should be to get a similar listening experience (see HARMAN)*. I was very disappointed that even "their own" AKG K812 did miss this target by far. [The Pioneer SE-Master 1 seems better designed but shows a considerable amount of (bass) distortion, as well.]

*Well, as close as possible to what the microphones originally captured. This is why I expect that high quality amplifiers (solid-state, not talking about tubes) do not alter the signal und thus should sound all the same. Of course, one could take a similar approach to DACs.

Currently, I am happy with the HIFIMAN HE-500, since the ratio: price/sound-quality was good. Changing the ear pads (Jergpad Mod/FocusPads) brings some slight sonically improvement and greater wearing comfort.

Keep it up!

PS: Interestingly in normal living rooms (not acoustically treated) often omni-directional approaches sound more natural, although less detailed, than "conventional" loudspeakers.

detlev24's picture

High quality amps should not alter the signal audibly, since an alteration always takes place.

gevorg's picture

>Up to date, no headphone comes close to the information the M2 deliver.

And they never will, as long as we're talking about passive headphones that are fed bitperfect audio. It takes sophisticated DSPs and quite a bit of processing power to get them sound like speakers. The hard separation of L and R channels alone make them quite different listening experience.

episiarch's picture

I'm a hearing-impaired person who nonetheless really cares about audio quality, who experimentally seems to be fully as discriminating as many of the people in this hobby, and who's been spending good money on this stuff for well over a decade. As such, I found myself cringing at the tone of amused derision with which some headphones here were characterized as hi-fi for deaf people.

We're not useless as listeners. We may or may not prefer a different presentation than the one you like. But if you wouldn't mock someone for liking a different type of music than what you like, and I'm assuming you wouldn't, then could you give a little extra thought before putting down people whose ears aren't like yours?

ab_ba's picture

Of course, I don't know what Bob's intentions were, but his comments didn't strike me the way they did you. For what it's worth, I took Bob's comments about "the deaf" as metaphorical - I took him to be referring to people who do not know much about listening closely, and thus might be wow'ed by a bright headphone, rather than a comment on actual hearing impairments. I don't think he was suggesting that people with hearing impairments should buy the SR-009 over the SR-007, but just that somebody who prefers that sound signature might be (metaphorically) deaf to accurate sound reproduction. Perhaps a different choice of words would be better, but I just didn't hear his intentionality in the same way as you. In fact, I've been intrigued by the customization provided by IEM companies like Ultimate Ears that will tune headphones to the customer's liking, including presumably a high-frequency boost for those who would like that. Also with that in mind, I'm looking forward to hearing Tyll's reactions to EQ'ing tomorrow.

tony's picture

So, I felt the "deaf person" applied to me, but decided against the Buy for the reasons I mentioned in my earlier post.

I don't consider ear issues as a negative, it's what I have to work with. I must Eq., as should most folks. Not many people have superb hearing ( the Audiologists will probably agree on this ). I think Lipinski is the only known documented case of "Perfect" hearing. ( Lipinski is the guy that makes Mastering Loudspeakers)

Deaf isn't a slam, it's reality, there are levels, I'm moderate loss.

The Phonak people are our friends

Tony in Michigan

Bob Katz's picture

Dear Episiarch: I am very sorry. I did not mean to disparage anyone with a disability, especially you who have made such an effort to make headphones your hobby and to overcome your disability with compensation and careful choice of headphones, amps and perhaps equalizers. My intent in the video was to say that if someone likes the sound of the 009 or one other headphone that I disparaged for having a "hi-fi" character, then he must be hearing impaired.... or he must have wildly different tastes than what is a natural sound of the original acoustic instrument being reproduced.

What people can take away from my reviews is that I think Stax must have made their "flagship" headphone to be paired with a very euphonic tube amp. I don't think the extra transparent, solid and (I say) natural-sounding KGSS amp should be paired with a 009. And Tyll agrees with me, as do others I know.

As an audio masteirng engineer, I have to make absolute tonal judgments and make masters that are tonally correct. I absolutely cannot tolerate high frequency aberrations from accurate.... in either direction, either the missing air in the Audeze LCD-X, 2 or 3 or the extreme high frequency boost (and missing bass) in the Stax 009. Although if I have to make a choice between two evils, I prefer overly warm to overly bright. That's where I come from, that's my orientation since I was 10 years old and got started in stereos and it's still true for me decades later. This is built into my genes.

So once again I apologize for using bad words in regards to a disability and I hope that my explanation for where I'm coming from will clear it up. I think that between Tyll's measurements and your audiologist we could whip up a monster EQ for you that would make a state of the art system for you! Depending on the frequency ranges that need work, the Stax 009 might be good or bad for you. Most hearing infirmities start in the 3 kHz range so the 009 may prove to be a help or not. Since the KGSS has such tremendous headroom, as does the Stax earspeaker, this amp could be a great amp for you.

episiarch's picture

Mr. Katz, that's very gracious of you. Thank you.

moshen's picture

Really great video. I wished the amp AB tests weren't skipped. Perhaps we'll hear more about that tomorrrow!

money4me247's picture

Why skip the amp blind test? Even if he could pass with flying colors, it would be interesting to see if his impressions are different or the same as yours.

castleofargh's picture

oh my, this one is going to have some crazy reactions and surely not limited to innerfidelity. I was anticipating this a lot, and it went just like I expected, and then some more ^_^.
I could listen to you guys talking for days.

and thanks for the EQ part. I can never understand how people forbid themselves to use EQ for philosophical reasons. if it doesn't work, it doesn't work. but what's the price of trying? maybe something that does sound better.
I expect the future of audio to be with active systems where some DSP will be tailored for both the headphone and the dude under it. the tech is pretty much there already, but getting audiophiles to want to go for it... that might just take another 50years.

anyway, I can't wait for the next post(and to read the sure to come heated comments ^_^)

Bob Katz's picture

Definitely I agree that future headphones could be sold as systems, including a dedicated equalizer.

1 it's very difficult to make two headphones in a batch sound the same, due to manufacturing tolerances. EQ could counteract that.

2) The portion of the Harman curve that produces the torso/head/neck compensation is quite complicated to engineer into a headphone physically, and besides, it might be accomplished with a mechanical resonator that could produce artifacts. Why not do the obvious, build that into a headphone amplifier!

And add a switchable crosstalk-compensation circuit, of course.

So the future headphone system will contain this compensation in DSP. That's a no brainer.

Odin412's picture

This video was very interesting and instructive. Big thanks to Bob for his insightful comments and for pointing out that the bright 'hi-fi' sound is not the way instruments or human voices naturally sound. My favorite quote was 'brighter is not necessarily better'. I can't wait for the headphone EQ discussion!

Rillion's picture

All of the participants in your Big Sound project have made insightful observations. I'm an EQ freak, so I'll be especially looking forward to that discussion. I started out painstakingly determining equal-loudness contours of my headphones by ear, but as my headphone collection ballooned I switched over to using small microphones at the entrance to my ear canal.

Concerning non-linearity, something I've tried recently is applying the EQ (IIR) that flattens the raw headphone frequency response to recorded square waves. I find this makes interpreting square waves much easier--in the absence of noise and distortion I believe this would form a perfect square wave. I've done this both with my measurements and some of Tyll's as well (at least those that are insensitive to positioning errors). Once EQ'ed the pricey electrostatic and planar-magnetic headphones give the most accurate square waves. There are a few non-ES and non-PM that I've found fare well too, in particular the Beyer. DT880 600 ohm (both from Tyll's and my own measurements), and (from my measurements) the AKG K702 (unfortunately a very bright sounding headphone to me without EQ).

TMRaven's picture

Tyll, you need to step up your flashlight game! Is the LCD-X not being listened to? I see it on the list over and over again, but it's never mentioned in the videos. If I recall, Bob liked his LCD-X more than the 007 during his own articles.

Bob Katz's picture

There was an LCD-3 in the mix of cans. And an LCD-X available. I think they are close enough to each other and there are enough manufacturer's variations so that one or the other would be sufficient. I think it was wise of Tyll to have more manufacturers and models represented than to have two Audeze at Big sound.

Flat, I put the Audeze X and the Stax 007 very very close to one another because each one has a fundamental issue, one of them at the top and the other at the bottom, and I said that personal preferences would determine which. But equalized, I like my X better than my 007, very slightly. With EQ and the M3 amp my Xs now have it all and a bit more bass punch and slam than even the eq'ed 007's. But this is only after I built my AMB M3 amp. Until then I didn't have an amp worthy of driving the X's.

And having heard yet two more samples of the X's and 3s at Big Sound I'm pretty convinced now that differences in manufacturer's tolerances are greater than even the model differences! My X's that I bought sounded inferior to the first set of X's that I auditioned. There is also a matter of break-in. I believe that the bass response of my X's got a bit better (it needed to come up) after break in. Thank goodness.

Technically speaking I believe the X's are a little bit smoother in general and a hair more neutral in the lower treble than the 3's. And the 3's that I first auditioned had too much deep bass. But that was with a Burson amp which is a bit big, warm and fat in character. But anyway, I would not kick a good specimen of either X or 3 out of bed!

If I had compared a different pair before buying I might have preferred the 3's to the X! So in my opinion, anyone with real critical ears deciding to buy an Audeze should either go to a dealer and choose from the exact headphone that he wants, or buy in some way where he can audition and return the one he doesn't want. That's a little of an issue for a dealer, who has to sell "new" as "new" and I do not know how to deal with that dilemma. Perhaps he will let you audition two stock pieces there at the store so you can choose which is best for you and then buy the exact unit that you auditioned.

tony's picture

Somehow, my questions are being asked and answered!

These are the very things I hoped to understand 4 years ago, while I was searching for an starting point in headphones. ( back then Tyll recommended Schiit & Sennheiser)

Bob doesn't seem bashful or cautious with comments. Glossy Mag.Staff Reviewers could never be strongly negative about anything, it's fresh and a "stun" to hear. ( I applaud )

I'd suspect that dis-here Part (1) sold a bunch of Gear that folks have been sitting on the fence pondering about. I'm itching to own the HD800 just to have a basis of understanding for what's being discussed and revealed.

tony's picture

I kind-of feel like I'm right there,

Somehow, my questions are being asked and answered!

These are the very things I hoped to understand 4 years ago, while I was searching for an starting point in headphones and thru the years to today. ( back then Tyll recommended Schiit & Sennheiser )

Bob doesn't seem bashful or cautious with comments. Glossy Mag.Staff Reviewers could never be strongly negative about anything, it's fresh and a "stun" to hear. ( I applaud ) Obviously, Bob is not a "True Believer" but rather : an Analytical.

I'd suspect that dis-here Part (1) jus sold a bunch of Gear that folks have been sitting on the fence pondering about.

I'm itching to own the HD800 just to have a basis of understanding for what's being discussed and revealed.

Unique Amp requirements and lack of Travel-ability hold me back from owning another Stax System.

The Audeze, I've owned, but can't live with for it's weight and heft, (but) it does have that extra baritone ability we Americans love ( which I get from Eq.ing my HD580s )

As for Schiit : Looks like Stoddard and Mofat strike again. $2,500 gets a person a 50 Yard Line seat at the headphone Superbowl.

Phew, These Schiit guys seem to hit Home Runs at every at-bat.

Of course a person could spend the $13,000 for Igor Levin's Antelope with the Atomic Clock in case they decide to run Visuals & Sound for somebody's next A-National Road Tour.

Tyll & Bob don't seem like they're quite in agreement on things. Cordial but a bit reserved. Reminds me of one of our older life's wisdoms : "When two people agree on everything, only One is doing the thinking" . I think this applies here. I think I'm seeing a developing debate, supported with further testing and discussions.
We get to see it unfold, it's gold for me and probably everyone else.

Big Sound 2015 is taking on the look of the Tyll & Bob Series. I hope the Publisher notices this and runs with it, this could be his "tie-in" to the 8 Billion Dollar Headphone Industry, it'll keep Stereophile on the very Top of the Audio Industry for the next Decade! ( Absolute Sound doesn't yet realize headphones exist )

Geez, what a coup!

This presumes that Bob could accept the extra earnings and free test gear, he may be quite wealthy and not appreciate all the publicity he'd have to endure, not to mention all the kissing-up from manufacturers.

This is way better that the Stoddard Series which is also a must read.

Anyway, Great Stuff here,

Thank you, ( especially to the Publisher )

Tony in Michigan

tony's picture

I've been watching Katz Videos, geez he looks much more youthful back then.

Hmm, why do people go to Florida?,

Is Bob Katz a Semi-Retired Old Geezer?, like me!!!

Like him even more now.

Tony in Michigan

Bob Katz's picture

guess what?

tony's picture

Gotta hand it to him, he's at least trying.

See the full report in Stereophile's pages.

I think Art Dudley is a Died-in-the-Wool, Turntable Vinyl Twidler.

Tony in Michigan

ps. the dcs DAC is a stripped down version of the dcs $150,000 DAC ( for those interested in a DAC the price of a House & Car combined )

veggieboy2001's picture

a couple of quick thoughts... (if anyone give a Schiit)

Surprise (to me) that there was no comment on the Abyss...did Bob not listen? I'd be curious...

Many of the disagreements (is the anomaly at 10K? etc) I'm guessing may be due to simple (maybe not simple) Biology... the shape of the ear and all that.

Either way, fascinating stuff!! I'm very much looking forward to the EQ discussion.

If anyone is interested, Brent Butterworth just wrote an ineresting article in favor of EQing...I think it's worth a read.

http://www.soundstagexperience.com/index.php/features-menu/pulse-menu/66...

tony's picture

Floyd describes Eq being useful for "On-Axis" but not "Off-Axis" or Room corrections.

Headphones are On-Axis, this suggests to me that Eq is in fact useful for Headphone.

I am having Hearing Evaluations by my University of Michigan medical people, they rely on Eq. for human hearing solutions.

I'm thinking that All Audio, from it's inception, has been Eq'd. Certainly all Vinyl features the Riaa Equalization curve.

In summary: Eq is a constant (given) in Recorded Audio, Music Venues are designed with Mechanical Eq.

High-End Purist Audio is the only place where Eq is denied ( but still exists ). This is the Neurosis of Tweekdom that lives and controls High-End Audio, it's Manufacturers and it's Press.

The same folks that proclaim the beauty of Vinyl are also anti-Eq., a Psychotic 2+2=17 type of logic.

One further point is revealed by the Medical folks : the Human Brain can and does Eq everything heard.

I'll postulate that Beethoven whilst considered deaf was able to successfully work in the Highest of all HighEnd Audio. ( I suppose deaf equates to hearing deficient, not totally deaf )

I've needed 4 diopters (+2 to read) for eyeglasses, I have corrected vision, I can fly an Airplane legally!, I can detect One Minute of an Angle at 100 Yards ( a one inch black square on white paper ). Yet I'm nearly blind!, I have blind spots that my brain corrects so that I never notice them.

The Bob & Tyll team are about to shine some light of truth on a part of Audio that has been a Taboo to even mention.

It's long overdue and it's about time.

I'm hoping the Publisher and JA nod in approval.

This Eq. business will be something all of Audio will be in a rush to understand ( and for some to deny ).

Tony in Michigan

money4me247's picture

Mentioned that there is scientific reasoning and measurement differences between well-implemented between r2r vs DS. Would love to hear more in-depth discussion or see source links on this discussion.

Also, think it is a bit interesting that the blind testing was 50/50. If there is a perceivable difference in depth and soundstage or brightness, I would have thought a short back & forth comparison of a short 10 second portion of a track with only a high frequency sound moving in depth and side-to-side around the edges of the soundstage allow for consistent identification of the dac? In much more complex music, the additional elements can often make it harder for the brain to focus on that one differing aspect. If those differences cannot be reliably detected when blinded, then it is hard to say that there is truly any difference at all (besides the listener's own personal subconscious biases that cause them focus differently when doing sighted evals).

For EQ, I was always under the impression that it is more generally advisable to cut rather than boost?

Also, comparing headphones with difference external components (different dacs/amplifiers) will make the final results a lot harder to interpret. Adds another confounding variable that really should definitely have been eliminated, especially when doing extensive direct comparisons like this. Lack of volume-matching for the headphone impressions was also pretty concerning as that can easily make a really big difference in impressions. Not sure if the same reference source tracks were used on all the headphones or if different tracks were used with different headphones.

Love to hear about blind testing of the amplifiers. Amp shoot-out needs to be blinded.

Great job with the video & the thoughts! Very enjoyable to read & watch. Totally agree that the hesitation employing EQ seems a bit silly when people in this hobby go towards such intense (and often extremely expensive) lengths to adjust the sound in other ways.

rjbat's picture

What I'm really curious about is how well something like an O2+ODAC , Magni2+Modi2 or even a Benchmark DAC1/DAC2 fair against the expensive amps/DACs in blind testing, especially with trained ears.

avens's picture

Could you ask Bob to EQ the HD600 (open) and the PM-3 (closed)? Thanks.

avens's picture

I'd love to see a Bob Katz's Wall of Fame section.

chlyhne's picture

Question for Bob if he is reading the comments: Do you have any recommendations regarding EQ programs on a PC? And secondly, can you provide us with your EQ curve for yout LCD-X? It will be very usefull as a starting point for me since i have a pair of LCD-X with a O2/ODAC. For example i fell that there should probably be a 3db shelve from around 200hz and down.

Bob Katz's picture

I am reading the comments, tanks. For PC or Mac I would recommend an EQ plugin such as a VST plugin using a player program that can take plugins. For example, a player like JRiver combined with a plugin like DMG's Equilibrium.

Can you wait a little while till I implement a modified Harman curve for my X's. The curve we developed was with my pair of X's but using measurements from another pair. Then Tyll measured mine and we discovered mine are much flatter and more neutral in the range from 2 khz to 10 kHz. I did do some of that in my 1/2 hour or so of customization but I'd rather get to the art starting from better science.

I'll send you presets for the Equilibrium if you like as well as a description of each band. And I'll include two presets, one for a sample LCDX that's got a lot of extra uppermidrange/lower treble and one which is a lot smoother. At that point you should listen to each of those two curves, decide which is closest to your own sample of X and then tweak from there. You'll get there faster starting from the curve which is most right for your own phones.

I doubt that you need a bass boost starting at 200. In my opinion it needs to start around 110 Hz and downward.

What amp are you using?

iAmback's picture

The point Katz made near the beginning of the video is worth repeating and clarifying... that the Yiggy (or any other high-end DAC using *any* D/A architecture (R2R, D-S, even Bitstream)) has got so much OTHER goodness out into it (i.e., premium/boutique parts, better PS/reg, etc) that trying to nail a DAC chip architecture to a charac. sound (smooth for D-S, dynamic for R2R) is moot.
I.e., the other non-DAC-chip components of the D/A processor (Yiggy, Antelope) may as well give it "expected" R2R/D-S/etc. sound signature.
Did Schiit "roll" DAC chips -- be they R2R, D-S, etc -- into their new high-enders before settling in on that $$$ Analog Devices instrument-grade R2R DAC?
I gotta hand it to Schiit, the MARKETING LANGUAGE of their R2R devices is impressive:
===
21 Bits, No Guessing: Mission-Critical D/A Technology:

When doctors are trying to diagnose whether you have gas or cancer from MRI results, or when the military is trying to ensure a missile hits an ammo dump and not a nunnery next door, they don’t use “24 bit” or “32 bit” delta-sigma D/A converters. Instead, they rely on precision, multibit ladder DACs, like the Analog Devices AD5791. This allows them the bit-perfect precision they need for critical applications, rather than the guesswork of a delta-sigma. We chose this same critical technology for Yggdrasil. Following these unique D/A converters are sophisticated discrete JFET buffers and summers.
===

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