Big Sound 2015 Finale: The Headphones
Big Sound 2015 started out as the way to fulfill my equipment needs to evaluate the latest batch of high-end headphones...then it ran amok, in a good way fortunately. Even though I got pretty ill and hospitalized before the event, I found it great therapy to have enthusiast hobbyist brethren in my home as I regained my strength. Kinda like ladies from the church group bringing over hot dishes to help me through a rough patch, only with geeks and headphones. Good times; my thanks to the participants for coming to hang out with me for a spell.
On with the headphones! I actually find it harder to rank the headphones below than I did the amps in my previous post. This is not because the differences between headphones was tighter, but rather because they all departed from "perfect" by a much wider margin. Hell, we don't even have a reliable, official target frequency response curve to shoot for"flat" has been established for audio electronics...well, forever. The result is that headphones have a much broader range of sonic character than amplifiers and DACs, and many more flaws. So as I gradate my choices below, it's very much more fuzzy than my headphone amp gradationand that wasn't without difficulty.
I do believe that within ten years we're going to see headphone performance slowly narrow in on a neutral middle, much like speakers did decades ago. Please keep an open mind on what you think neutral on headphones sounds like so that when it does appear you'll be able to recognize it.
Bottom line: Every headphone below has a great deal of merit and, I believe, an audience. But every headphone listed below also falls short of ideal performance. Your individual purchase will, at present, always be a compromise. As you read about the cans below, I suggest that you always leave the compromised position of simply getting a pair of Sennheiser HD 600s on the table allowing you to wait it out for five years to see what happens. I'm not saying they sound as good as these top-of-the-line cans, but they're way closer than the dollar difference would indicate, and it'll free up a thousand dollars or more for music and the like.
If however you're interested in the highest performing headphones you can get right now, read on, there are great listening experiences to be had with the following gear if you choose carefully. As always, personal audition is highly recommended.
One of the things I asked of each participant was to rank the top three headphones they heard. I've accumulated these scores from each participant on a spreadsheet giving three points for first, two for second, and one for third. Results are as follows:
- 12 points: Sennheiser HD 800 (modified)
- 10 points: HiFiMAN HE-1000
- 7 points: Stax SR-009
- 4 points: Audeze LCD-3
- 3 points; 3-way tie: Enigmacoustics Dharma; Mr. Speakers Ether; Stax SR-007
- 1 point: Audio Zenith PMx2
- 0 points: JPS Labs Abyss
My Take on Big Sound Headphones
In order of least personally appealing to most:
JPS Labs Abyss AB-1266 ($5495)|
The Abyss has got some really good things going for it sonically. When properly positioned on the head, I find it's bass response shockingly good, and it's treble response on par with the best treble of the other cans with the exception of the HD 800which, to my ears, is in a league of its own. Unfortunately, I also find the midrange of the Abyss to be somewhat withdrawn. "U" shaped frequency response can be a blessing if you listen at low levels as it approximates the loudness contour curves, but with a headphone at this price I expect a solid mid-range experience. After all, it's where the bulk of the music lives.
The thing that really hurt the Abyss in the Big Sound process was that they are very difficult to properly adjust and position on the head. In fact, I find it impossible to get it positioned really right on my somewhat large head given the limited amount of physical adjustment available. For people walking in to Big Sound with limited time to fidget with these adjustments, the Abyss, with its very unusual looks and fit, became an unpleasant anomaly not worth the time and effort. I don't think it got a fair shake sonically in the event due to its unusual nature, but I also don't think it represents a good value at $5000.
Audio Zenith PMx2 ($1398)|
The PMx2 is a heavily modified Oppo PM-2. Much of the modification is in the pads, but there are also some changes to the driver and acoustics internally. I would characterize it as a significant improvement over the stock PM-2, and a better performer than the PM-1. It has improved extension both bottom and top, and a very neutral character. It's also the most portable-friendly headphone of this group with efficiency that allows it solid volume levels with portable gear, and folding functions and case that make it easy to transport.
But...it doesn't have the kind of treble resolution that characterizes, for me, what a great high-end headphone should have, which was readily apparent when compared head-to-head with the other headphones in the room. I would say the stock PM-2 is really the more rational choice if you're looking for this type of headphone.
Enigmacoustics Dharma (~$1200)|
Wow! This is really an interesting headphone, and an extraordinary first headphone offering from Enigmacoustics. This is a dual driver headphone with a fiber diaphragm dynamic driver for frequencies up to around 6kHz, at which point a cross-over guides the signal to an electret (permanently polarized electrostatic) driver.
Some participants noted a discontinuity in the cross-over region, but some (including myself) did not hear it as such. Measurements show (measurement .pdfs for all cans are linked to in a separate section at bottom of this page) significant distortion in bass response below 400Hz, but very few participants heard this without it being pointed out. Measurements also show that the frequency response is very close to what I consider the current best target response (Harman curve).
I think we're going to find this a very polarizing headphone in its current form: some will like it very much, while others will be irritated by the above potential flaws. I too hear it as very good sounding in generalmaybe amongst the best of the bunch in tonal response and upper-treble articulationbut now have a very hard time not hearing the bass distortion as problematic.
I've not settled in my head whether the flaw distracts from the pleasures of these cans, and will be doing more serious listening soon. You can expect a review from me; in the end I might not recommend them, but they're certainly the best dual-driver headphone I've ever heard and are worth of review on that basis. Proceed with caution.
Audeze LCD-3 ($1945) and LCD-X ($1699)|
I'm sure most InnerFidelity readers are quite familiar with the Audeze brand and their offerings. These cans are practically legend in the headphone world for their bottomless, distortion-free bass and even mid-range. They're also rightly well known for their somewhat excessive weight, and somewhat unfairly known for their product variability due to inconsistent diaphragm tensioning. I say unfairly not because there isn't some variability, but because I feel the magnitude of the variability overly reported, and because it appears planar magnetic headphones from most makers may suffer from this problem. Tensioning the diaphragm repeatably is very, very difficult.
There has also been significant forum chatter about the reduction of bass and other treble issues with the introduction of the Fazor last year. I did hear a small reduction of bass in the newer versions from Audeze, but I did not hear other treble problems. In fact, measurements show an improved leading edge in square wave response.
I continue to feel these headphones are a solid offering in their category (my full review here). I prefer the LCD-3 over the LCD-X due to its more articulate mid- and upper-treble response, but both are quite good. However, I also think some of the more recent headphones in the Big Sound group have passed them by in some regards. And we'll get to that shortly.
Stax SR-009 ($4450) and SR-007 ($2350)|
I could have easily switched the Stax and Audeze positions; they're very different, but about equally good choices with price factored (special dedicated e-stat amps are needed for them). But on sonics alone, I'd take the Stax over the Audeze.
The problem I have with the SR-007 and SR-009 is that the 009 is too bright, and the 007 is too rolled offfireworks or murky water seems the choice. I previously gushed over the 009, but having had the opportunity to listen to them side by side has me preferring the more subdued character of the 007. Even though it's a bit too low in level, I find the 007 treble response more articulate and smooth than the 009.
Such were my thoughts untill Bob showed up.
Bob Katz, world renown mastering engineer, came to Big Sound armed withamong many other thingshis personal pair of modified Stax SR-007 headphones. When I plugged them in my jaw droppedthis is what I want to hear from an electrostatic can. Brilliantly articulate and fast, but smooth as a baby's buttocks. The modification he used is fairly simple to implement; instructions can be found in this HeadCase thread. Yes please, I'll take the modified SR-007 all day long.
Mr. Speakers Ether ($1499)|
Boy is there a lot to like about this headphone! It's got the solid good looks of a premium headphonenothing audacious, just, "Hi, I'm a quality headphone." In terms of comfort, it might be the best of the bunchand that's saying a lot because the HE-1000 and HD 800 are both amazingly comfortable. But they're also a bit too large to feel secure on the head. The Ether very nicely hugs your head and ears.
Like the following HD 800, Mr. Speakers' Ether is a bit too brightless so than the 800, but it's still the first impression I got from these headphones. Continued listening, however, had me slowly but surely gaining appreciation for the Ether. Apart from the cool tilt, they have outstandingly tight bass, precise treble articulation, and are very even sounding mid-through-treble.
With the new-found appreciation and curiosity I have for equalizing headphones with Bob Katz, and the observation that the Ether has very good distortion measurements, I'd say these are the bargain headphone of the Big Sound group if you're primarily using a computer as a front end and have a good parametric equalizer plug-in for your playback software. I'm definitely going to have fun reviewing these.
Sennheiser HD 800 ($1599)|
In it's stock form, the HD 800 can be brutally bright and a troublesome listening partner. Once modified it becomes a superstar high-end headphone, delivering the best transient response and imaging of all headphones, in my opinion. It still retains its lean character, and choosing an headphone amp to pair with it remains a hot topic of discussion, but for most the HD 800's strengths outweigh its weaknesses by a solid margin. Note that it placed first among Big Sound contestants in the scoring table at the top of this article.
The HD 800 is the only headphones I've personally bought in the last 20 years. When I left HeadRoom and bought their headphone measurement system, I also bought some 800s as my reference headphones. They work spectacularly as an audio tool for me and as a reference for what really good treble response sounds like. Which leads me nicely into the problem with the HD 800: while they are a great tool for analyzing the fine detail of a recordingan audio microscope, if you willthey can become quite tiresome when it comes to listening for pleasure. With the mod, however, and very careful amp selection, they remain a pinnacle headphone.
HIFIMAN HE-1000 ($3000)|
In many ways I'm in agreement with the Big Sound participant who, as a whole, voted the HD 800 as the best headphone. It is technically extraordinarily good...but Big Sound participants weren't listening to each headphone for hours on end. I have to give the nod in importance to the pleasure derived from the listening experience and report that I found the HiFiMAN HE-1000 the stand-out headphone of the group. Remember that commercial with the little stuffed bear falling into the cloud of toilet paper? The HE-1000 is like that: they deliver the most relaxing and pleasant listening experience I've ever had.
I tend to hear the HE-1000 as having a "soft" sound. Initially I thought they must lack dynamic impact, but, while they're not the last word in slam, they do have plenty. I'm truly puzzled by the sound of the HE-1000; I don't know how they can sound so nicely detailed and properly impactive while sounding so soft and cuddly at the same time. Fortunately, I'm absolutely going to do a full review on these headphones and dig deeper. Until then, if you've got the dough, go ahead and by themthey're lovely.
It took far too much time away from regular headphone reviews to do this on a yearly basis, but should a similar situation arrise with a bunch of new high-end headphones some time in the future it might be fun to do again.
I did mention a few things in the video that aren't in the article, and I cover the amps there as well. Might be worth a look.
AURALiC Vega DAC ($3499)
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)
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)
Headphone stands by Klutz Designs