Big Sound 2015 Participant Report Aaron (ab_ba)
I want to thank Tyll for the wonderfully generous thing he has done. The very idea of letting people come in for this is generous enough already, and then his hospitality and how much of his time he spent with me today, how much he taught me. It meant a lot.
Ed Note: You're very welcome, mate.
The big picture for the day is that there are some really great headphones available right now. You wouldn't go wrong with almost anything in that room, and at the top of the line, you're either splitting hairs, or making lateral moves, trading this for that. There's no "right answer" to the end-game headphone setup. That's either fun or utterly frustrating, depending on your perspective.
After chatting with Tyll for a while upon arriving, he ran me through some blind tests. Everybody needs to do some blind testing. It can be quite easy to set up and run, you just need a buddy to do it with you. Do it because you need to know the limits of your ability. That said, blind is not the only way to evaluate gear. It may not even be the most effective way. The objectivist in me balks at that, but my experience today bore it out. I would not want to make purchasing decisions based only on my own blind testing, let alone anybody else's.
I felt I did pretty well with guessing the three amps while listening with Tyll's Anax-modded HD800's (more on those later). I got something like six out of nine correct for all three. But here's the interesting thing: when I started making mistakes was when I started changing my judgement for which amp I liked the most.
The Apex Teton was my favorite when I was learning their sound signatures sighted. It had these wonderful dynamics, especially in the bass. The Moon was my second-favorite. It sounded so detailed, but it was a tad less involving. The Bakoon was easily recognizable since it sounded wooly to me. When I began to blow it in the blind testing was when I started preferring the Moon. I began to hear it as more natural. My mistakes felt to me like, "I like this one more, so it must be the Teton." Nope.
Tyll provided a piece of advice: "Good treble sounds simple. Which amp causes you a clearer mental visual picture of the brushes on the drums?" Once I re-calibrated myself, I think I got the last couple correct again. Moral? Your head will play games with you when you are blind-testing. Once you start searching for things, trying to rationalize your choices, you are guessing.
Then, we switched to the HE-1000s. I paused for a moment to draw my breath. Essentially, they are the reason I was there, and here I was, about to listen to them for the first time. My inner Mike Myers said "I need a moment. I'm feeling a little verklempt." And then I put them on, and, nothing happened! Music came out of them, that was all. Nothing more, nothing less than lovely, smooth, engaging music. It's not like speakers magically appeared in front of me. It's not like I was plunged into heretofore-unseen details of the music. Kind of like really fresh, clean water is still just water, these headphones just delivered music.
I would describe the HE1000s as "forgiving" of amp choice. I was not able to consistently pick out the amps, and this time I knew it. I was going after some really subtle differences, and still not getting there. I even misjudged the Bakoon for one of the other two, which just wasn't happening with the HD800s. I was making mistakes, and then my head got even more in the way. I started looking for things, trying to confirm what I thought I was hearing. "On this amp, the piano is more stable. On that amp, the cymbals are too forward." But it turned out I was guessing. Amazing. Humbling. Migraine-inducing. Time for lunch.
In a sense, this makes the HE1000s a wise purchase, even at $3000. You don't need to get the perfect amp for them, and you don't need to try out a few amps till you find that one right one. That said, amp pairing does matter, but with some headphones more than others. For HD800s you really want to get right, and that is going to be a personal choice.
Tyll and I had a wonderful wide-ranging conversation over lunch on his back porch. Cables, electronics, business models, music, why we care about sound reproduction in the first place. In fact, chatting with Tyll was the only non-fatiguing part of the whole day!
Back into the room for some more close listening. Next I targeted headphones. I took a couple of favorite tracks, and listened to each headphone, without regard for amps (for this round.) Tyll poured me some much-needed coffee, then I went back in to confirm my impressions. Here is my breakdown.
First place: HE1000s.
At the end of the day, these were my favorites in the room. They are just so darned listenable. One thing that really stood out for me about them was the detail in the transient decay of an instrument strike. They had enough clarity that I could follow the tone as it faded back into the background.
Second place: Stax 009.
These are a rollercoaster of a headphone. When you are listening to them, you are listening to music, and that's what you are doing. After about 30 minutes, it was time to go back to something that was less attention-grabbing. But, in the meantime, what a rush! So much air around the instruments, such glorious detail. Also, I had heard these called bass-lean. I thought the bass was gorgeous, and in just the right proportion.
Tied for third: LCD-3, HD800 (Anax modded).
LCD3: They are so compelling, so immediatethe bass and the treble. Compared to the HE1000s they are not as tonally even. Compared to the Stax, they are not as detailed and airy, and I'd say their treble is a little less realistic.
HD800 (Anax modded): Clinical and analytical, but even and neutral and detailed without being fatiguing. I feel like there is less music happening with the HD800s than with the headphones I ranked above them.
I directly compared my un-modded HD800s to Tyll's Anax-modded pair. I'll be modding mine. Mine sounded "wincey" in comparison. Instruments with high-pitch overtones had a bit of extra energy that wasn't noticeable till I did the comparison to the Anax modded version, but once you hear it, it's pretty immediately recognizable. I think maybe I've perceived it all along, and maybe this is why I end up listening to my LCD-3s for longer durations. Tyll gave me everything I need to do it. You're awesome, man.
Ed Note: Here is the article on how to mod your HD 800.)
Tied for fifth: Abyss, Ether
Abyss: Of all the headphones I listened to, these sounded the most like speakers in the room. Engrossing bass. And not just moar bass, but different bass notes, textured and distinct. On Led Zeppelin's Moby Dick, John Bonham's drums were a rush. Unfortunately, songs with vocals were another story altogether. On a track I know well by Feist, she sounded recessed, like she was standing behind her band. On Toto's Africa, the singer sounded nasal. This, combined with the fact that they feel like I am about to undergo neurosurgery when I put them on, is why these are not the headphone for me.
Ethers: If I had heard these anywhere other than in this room first, I would have fallen in love with them. They do everything well. First, but least important, they were the most comfortable headphones in the room. They are light, and they just click right onto your head. They are neutral, but not weighty in any dimension. Clean vocals and present bass. I have heard it said that the HE1000s combine the best of the LCD-3 and the HD800. I didn't feel that way at all about the HE1000sthey are something different entirelybut the Ethers did seem to combine the best traits of those two, although not quite nailing it in any category.
Stax 007: These were too dark for my tastes. I think Stax needs to give us an SR-008, and fast. And, for how much these cost, they felt cheap in my hands. Actually, I'd say they had the cheapest material feel of the whole bunch. Lightweight is nice, but these felt flimsy.
Tied for last.
These are headphones which I would say have flaws. Not "lateral moves" anymore, but clear areas where they could be improved. Still, though, they do have some interesting aspects, and they will be just right in certain cases, which I'll explain:
Dharma: Wow, so interesting. The bass is present, enveloping, and bass notes are distinct. The treble is crisp and clear. Each is very compelling on its own. The problem is, these elements do not cohere with each other. I feel exactly the same way about these as I do about some balanced-armature in-ear monitors, and some multichannel speaker setups. I would recommend these headphones to somebody who wanted to get a sense for what audiophile headphones are like, and who does not want to choose among tradeoffs. That said, for me, these would not be end-game. At a lower price-point, they would be interesting to own.
Audio-Zenith: "Elegant" is the word that came into my mind. These felt like a warm blanket to me. Everything was comforting, but a little bit numb and distant. I wanted to be more involved. Of the bunch, they imparted the most sonic signature. I would recommend these to a friend who wanted a luxurious pair of headphones with an assuredly pleasant sound.
I also listened to the LCD-X, but only briefly. I prefer the sound of the LCD-3 because I find them less recessed than the LCD-X.
This is one of the main reasons I came to Big Sound 2015. I have begun to wonder how much of a difference an amp can make, and what fraction of the total budget the amp should consume. Amps do matter, but there is even less difference between top-of-the-line amps than there is among top-of-the-line headphones. Even tube versus solid-state was not something where I would say without question that there is a different sound signatureat least not when we're talking about top-quality gear. A good amp is a good amp: detailed, black background, dynamic impact, and holds it schiit together as the volume goes way up. For these tests I grabbed the HE1000s since they seemed to be the most forgiving of amps. In the limited time and mental focus I had, I did not want to ferret out pairings, I wanted to get as direct a window into the amps as I could.
In first place were the Woo monoblocks.
Airy and clear. Impactful. Microdetail. Black background. Luckily, many other amps sounded nearly identical. I felt I might have noticed a difference within the first three seconds after switching, but then my brain adjusted and I was pretty sure I would not be able to pick out the Woo from these others in a blind test. The Moon, the Teton, and the Ragnarok all sounded pretty much just like the Wooreally, really good. I would own the Woo if I could, but since I can't it is nice to know I will be perfectly happy with more affordable gear.
I found myself switching between amps as quickly as possible, unplugging and plugging-in with one motion. I found that going from one amp to another, within a few seconds, my brain accommodated, and I lost confidence in any differences I thought I was hearing.
These amps were all a close second to the Woo, and all really close to each other, with some differences.
Ragnarok: I found myself playing this one loudly. I felt it held its schiit together the best as the volume went up. However, I also felt that it was less involving at quieter volumes. I almost wonder if something is a bit off with the volume knob on the unit Tyll has. I found the sound to be absolutely lovely, but sound aside, it had some disadvantages. It would not be my top choice for a purchase.
Moon: I loved the feel of the interface on this one. The volume knob is fantastic. It moves so smoothly and without any audible artifacts. The increments are so tiny, you can really dial in. I felt this amp was neutral and commanding, but it was also slightly uninvolving. It seems to get the most out of the way, imparting the least to the music, but at least at louder volumes, I preferred the Ragnarok. (I listened to the Moon with its built-in DAC, and the Rag was fed by the Yggy, so that may account for some of the differences.)
GS-X: I expected to love this amp. I love my Pico portable amp, and this struck me as the mama pico. The problem I had with it was the volume knob. Not enough increments. The sound was great, though. I felt it had great impact. The Moon struck me as more laid-back, and that would probably be my preference.
Violectric: I own this amp. I came in wanting to feel good about my purchase, but afraid I would not. Sigh of relief: this amp is barely distinguishable in sound to the others including the ones which cost more, with some notable exceptions. First, the Violectric only sounds top-tier in balanced mode. I kinda wish they didn't even have the single-ended jacks on it; I think people assessing it based on that sound are only getting half the story. Second, it sounded a tad dry during that first three-second switchover from the Ragnarok. A smaller difference than the difference between the HD800s and the LCD3, but the same type of difference. The Ragnarok sounded both more lush and more detailed than the V281, but that sense of dryness faded fast as my brain acclimated. Third, the Ragnarok was more controlled at high volumes. The Violectric's sound began to fray at louder volumes. (I definitely listen louder when evaluating gear than I do for a sustained listening session.)
I'd be (and am!) perfectly happy with any of the above amps. Each has its strengths, but trading one for another is making lateral moves. The following amps I felt had problems.
I found the Eddy Current Black Widow and the Burson to be a bit shouty sounding. (Sorry if that's not much of a technical term. Let me try again: strident and somewhat harsh.) I see that they are cheaper than the others, and so I would say they are quite excellent for their prices. I wasn't delighted with the Bakoon either, which surprises me, since current-mode strikes me an interesting design. Maybe it has potential.
Another goal I had coming in was to see if a really great amp would do much to improve the sound of my JH-13's. You need to know that I love my JH-13's. I've had them for about four years now, and they still get more head-time than all my other headphones put together, just because they are so dang portable. I have them in all the time. If you are in the market for top-of-the-line headphones, start here. Maybe end here too. Plug them into your iPhone, and just go enjoy your music.
That said, most of the headphones in Big Sound 2015 sound better than my JH-13's. Headphones are more cohesive, more neutral, they convey more space and separation. I wonder if some future CIEM with some digital-signal processing may get us all the way there. For end-game sound, it isn't going to be in-ear monitors, at least not for a while. Again, it's only once you hear all this wonderful gear that you even notice something is missing.
So, amps. To my delight, the JH-13's sounded best with the Violectric V281. The noise floor was silent. The low end of the volume knob gave me the control I needed. The sound was smooth and cohesive. The noise floor on the Ragnarok was too loud, and it was still audible while music played. Unfortunately, this takes it off my "buy" list. If I have headphones I use all the time, I'd want them to work well with my amps. Also, the volume knob made them too loud almost immediately. The marketing for the Ragnarok focuses on its versatility: from IEMs to speakers. But, I don't agree. There was also a noise floor on the Moon, but it went away once the music played. IEMs don't really need a big amp, and they don't improve the sound all that much compared to a good battery-powered amp.
This leads to my final remark about the gear in Big Sound 2015. The whole package Tyll has assembled is just phenomenal. My Violectric at home has a louder noise floor with my JH-13's than did the same amp at Tyll's place. From the moment I first donned HD-800s for the first blind test, they sounded better to me than my own pair. More full and engrossing. Here's what I think is going on: I think it all adds up. Things like the dac, the server, the power regeneration, and the cables all work together to a wonderfully satisfying musical experience. The Aurender in particular really stood out for me; the interface was just a delight to use. Another item I wish I could afford.
After all my critical listening was wrapped up, and I was too fatigued to continue anyway, I hooked up the HE1000s to the Woo monoblocks, fed by the Antelope DAC. I put my feet up, closed my eyes, and just listened to a few of my favorite songs. No judgement, no comparison, just music.
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)
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