Big Sound 2015 Participant Report: Brian (NA Blur)
A much deserved thanks to Tyll and all of the vendors for putting on this event. In-depth listening sessions like this do not come around often and I am glad I participated.
My first introduction to headphones was back when I was 5 and my father would hook up a function generator, oscilloscope, and tone generator to a pair of headphones. I would remain distracted by the waveforms on the scope while my father conducted his electronics work. This planted the audio seed and developed a curiosity for sound beginning my lifetime journey through speakers, headphones, and headphone equipment. The Big Sound 2015 setup opened a few more doors to enlightenment.
I roll up to Tyll's in my old Pontiac, rain pouring down, and as I walk towards his front door the steam waves in the air from the hot engine. As I walk to his front door I mentally prepare for a day of intense listening. Tyll hollers a hello and shows me to the gear room. There are headphones galore and amps abound. The ultra hi-end DAC units rest atop it all along with an abundance of cables and adapters. I feel a bit like a child in a soda shop.
Luckily the day is rainy and cool which combats the inferno of audio-induced lava flowing into the test room. This made it much more comfortable to sit for hours and extract the hidden treasures in the room. I decide the best method is to systematically listen to each headphone with each amp. With adapters flossing my fingers and a plan in mind I begin my listening. I scribble a few notes, not the weighty tomb that Tyll mentioned, and move onto the next amp. I pay special attention to amp/headphone pairings that stun, move, or otherwise impress me.
If you have been following the other Big Sound 2015 reports then you understand there is some serious gear and testing involved. After orienting myself with the room I decide that because I already I am familiar with Audeze, MrSpeakers, and Sennheiser that I should focus more intensely on the heavily modified Audio Zenith PMx2, two-driver Enigmacoustics Dharma, HIFIMAN HE-1000, and the JPS Labs Abyss AB-1266.
I heard the HE-1000 and Ether at a recent San Francisco meet where I found them both unimpressive. The Ether in particular was boring, thin, and not at all fast. The Big Sound experience rapidly changed my opinion of both headphones. The HE-1000, as much as one can tell from meet to listening room, reminded me of what I heard at the meet. It was not super dynamic or revealing, but was very fast and easy on the ears. On the gear Tyll had available the HE-1000 became a quick favorite for long listening because it was easy to listen to. It was not terribly revealing, but it easily bested the STAX SR-009 in the room.
The Ether on the other hand was an absolute stunner. At the meet they sounded thin and non-resolving. Here they sounded awesome, detailed and even from bass through treble, and especially easy on the ears. I chatted with Tyll about the variation I hear between the meet and the testing room. He mentioned that a lot of the new planars have significant variations from headphone to headphone. That would explain the disparity between the SF meet and now. The Ether is not as detailed as the LCD-3, but it is also much easier on the ears and comfortable so I can listen to it for much longer.
Each headphone has its strengths and I will scope in on the headphone/amp pairings I found to be the most impressive and easy to listen to. My preferences in headphone listening is a slight up-front sound with a few dB emphasis on the bass and treble. I like a touch of bass thump and really appreciate it when that is coupled with treble clarity. I loathe poor quality and distortion. I also take note of the ergonomics because I tend to listen for hours and do not enjoy uncomfortable headphones.
Coming in third is the LCD-3 fazor paired with the Violectric V281. I noticed some noise issues using the V281's 4-pin balanced out and quickly switched to single ended. I used the single ened output on the right side of the front panel. Tyll and I are not sure if it was a setup issue because others have reported their preference for the balanced out, but at the time of my testing the single ended was noticeably less noisy. This pairing accentuated the strengths of the LCD-3. Expect punchy bass, crisp treble, and wonderful dynamics. The pairing became a detail monster.
In second place is the MrSpeakers Ether driven by the Woo WA 234. This combination impressed me because it was authoritative without fatiguing my ears. It has punch bass, clarity, and remained the easiest on the ears of all of the headphones. The Ether is very light and wonderfully comfortable. Like scoring a 29 hand in cribbage this pairing was something very special.
My number one pairing is the HD 800 and Violectic V281 (single ended). This was entirely unexpected. I like the stock HD 800, but prefer the Anaxilus modded pair used in Big Sound. What surprised me is that the HD 800 has not been my favorite headphone in the past because it is either too bright or too up-front sounding to enjoy for more than a few minutes. Having a highly frequency dependent impedance the HD 800 is one of the most amp picky headphones I know. The V281 made the HD 800 even more resolving and it expanded on its dynamic sound signature. Perhaps not as fast as the planars, but what it lacks in speed it easily makes up with dynamic involvement. The large drivers and completely open back of the HD 800 make it ideal for critical listening and this amp pairing will make it a pleasure to listen to for hours even if you just want to relax and enjoy the music!
You may have noticed that I did not list a STAX headphone as any of my favorites. I was surprised by this as well because when I last listened to the SR-009 driven by the Blue Hawaii SE there was no doubt it bested the other gear in the room. I am not sure if it was the headphones or the amp, but they were not my favorite for a couple of reasons. First the SR-009 sounded too laid back and lacked any dynamics. It would not draw me into tracks like the LCD-3, Ether, and HD 800. The SR-007 MK2 was preferred over the SR-009, another shocker. It has obviously better extension in both frequency directions. It is also the less expensive of the two STAX headphones tested. Tyll did mention that STAX headphones are often optimized with some modifications.
The Enigmacoustics Dharma was a very selective headphone and frankly did not sound well with any amp besides the GS-X-MK2. The speed and barreling train power of the amp paired with the very odd sounding Dharma proved bold, dynamic, solid from bass to treble, with only mildy attenuation in the mids. I guess you can put a square peg into a round hole. Considering that the Dharma sounded odd at best with all of the other amps this successful pairing was one of the big surprises. Hopefully Enigmaacoustics will not be discouraged in the future to try some more esoteric and clever designs.
After several hours of listening, comparing, and amp swapping my ears needed a break. Tyll and I stepped out to eat some grub and talk about the experience thus far. Initially overwhelmed I now found myself able to hunker down and make some conclusions. STAX was no longer my favorite headphone which speaks volumes for the other headphones in the room. I also noted that there are still hi-end headphones that I would rather not own because of one flaw or another. I have noticed, like many of you, that the cost of hi-end headphones is going up and the build quality going down. On average the price to sound ratio is very high. I think the sweet spot is below $500 for headphones and $1000 for an amp. This is something manufacturers need to address. A little education and caution on the consumer end will help too. Keeping away from the hype and bandwagon is a good thing.
Ultimately I found it very fascinating how many preferential amp/headphone pairings there are in the room. I was excited to discover the most contemporary headphones in the room were very competent. A few even surpass much of the gear of past. A few remain king. Any pair of headphones used in Big Sound, paired with the right amp, can sound amazing!
With the whipping sound of a headphone cable Tyll directed me back into the test room for the A/B testing. Out came the switch box, the randomization of connectors, and my closed eyes and head down posture. After a 10 minute ear and brain training session I was ready for the first test. I did not expect to do as well as I did because in my experience well designed topologies, especially in solid state amps, sound so similar that one could argue that it could take weeks to find significant differences. In the first test this was not the case. The differences were obvious. The Bakoon, using the HD 800, was particularly obvious to spot. The bass was muddy, boomy, and overwhelming. The Teton and Moon where much harder to discern, but the Teton, which is actually a tube amp, retained a clarity that the Moon just could not muster. In the end I could easily identify each amp. With this test complete Tyll grinned maniacally and escorted me out of the room for his second barrage.
After a just a few minutes Tyll lashed his headphone cable once more and called me back in for a second A/B test. This one I knew would be more difficult. He handed me a pair of HE-1000 headphones. After spending 15 minutes educating my ears and brain again I was ready. I tested myself a few times before calling Tyll for discussion. What I found is that there was no need to move onto the blind test because I could not discern between the amps and when I honed in on what I thought was something, with the flick of a switch, I learned I was incorrect. Tyll and I concluded that I would do no better than a coin flip and quickly moved on.
I would like to note that I did hear differences between the amps, but it was exceedingly difficult differentiating between them using the three-toggle switchbox. Upon a switch from one amp to another my brain would begin to cling to the sound signature of the amp in between. In retrospect I should concluded this phase of testing an LCD-3 and a few of my personal test tracks, but the conclusion was very evident using the HE-1000. It is the fault of the HE-1000 I wonder?
I think testing is a must to understanding anything. If a piece of gear is more expensive compared to what we already own, how else will we know if it is an improvement without a comparison? I cannot emphasize comparing gear enough. I see too often on the forums where people blindly purchase new gear in hopes that it bests their current setup. They sell their old gear, and voila, the new gear is suddenly leagues better than their old stuff. More expensive does not equal better thanremember this please.
I think Tyll will also agree that generally speaking a better design and measuring piece of gear will tend to sound better than other less thought out options. I appreciate companies like Schiit that try to keep costs down and quality up. HeadAmp also does an amazing job at keeping sonics and aesthetic in check with design topology. It really warms me to meet the owners and employees of companies who are extremely proud of their exceptional quality. Keep it up all!
If there is one thing we all have in common is that we love listening. Headphones keep coming our way and equipment is always there to optimize the listening experience. Quality, attention to detail, and cost are all things we weigh. Some of the headphone and amp pairings here are very expensive and frankly not of the highest quality.
The Dharma is a headphone I cannot recommend because it does not sound natural, the cable entry system scratches the outer housing, and the dual-driver system fell way short of my expectations. It was a very comfortable headphone which is a huge plus. Hopefully we see some improvements in the future.
The Burson Audio Conductor Virtuoso, named just the Burson in this review, consistently sounded poor with almost every headphone. The Ether on the Burson did sound very dynamic, smooth, and the treble in particular was a highlight. The volume pot. on this amp was terrible feeling wobbly and cheap. I cannot blame the manufacturer without knowing how this amp was handled and where where it has been, but this was an immediate deal breaker for me.
The V281 amp had some issues too. The volume pot. on this amp would cause grinding noises, distortion, when moved during playback. This coupled with the poor-sounding 4-pin balanced output made me question the entire topology and quality of this amp. The single ended output sounded great and with a fix to the pot. I can easily recommend this amp. If you are looking into this amp be sure to understand how it differs from the V200 as you can save some cash.
With all of the hype around Schiit's new gear I wanted the Ragnarok to be something special. Tied with the Burson for my least favorite amp the Ragnarok falls really short on sonics. The volume does not go down to zero ( i.e. silent ) with the pot at zero. The LCD-3 and LCD-X sounded punchy and detailed from the Rag, but these were the only headphones I enjoyed with this amp. It is a huge amp and spits out heat like an angry dragon. I feel that Schiit either made some serious compromises or design mistakes releasing this amp. I do highly recommend some of the other Schiit stacks in particular the Bifrost and Valhalla 2 which is dynamic, fun, bassy, and especially easy on the ears.
The aspects of the Woo I did not like are the fact that it has a long warm up time, each channel needs to be adjusted independently, and even after the amp warms it took 15 minutes to completely remove the severe distortion. It is also a very large amp taking up as more space than a mid-sized PC tower. Oh, and the fact that you have to surgically remove a kidney to afford it may prove a problem. The Ether synergized well with the Woo making sonically it a favorite amp of mine, but the Ether also sounds terrific with the GS-X-MK2 so if the Woo is out of your price range know there is a much less expensive option that delivers 90% of the benefits.
The Eddie Current Black Widow and Violectric V281 amps, paired with the Ether and LCD-3, are less expensive options compared to the venerable Woo and HE-1000. If you are in the market for some serious high-end gear, but want to save a few bucks then rest assured that the Black Widow and V281 are great sounding amps. Even with the problems I found with the V281 I still recommend it and the V200 as a less expensive option.
I do not think we will ever adequately approach or surpass the speaker-headphone boundary. The physics is just too different and the current method for designing headphones falls short of combining the sound from an in-room speaker experience with an on-the-head device. The boom in planars is taking headphones to an all new level of sound quality injecting some clever ideas into the industry. Perhaps new techniques and technologies are coming out, like the use of the 3-D printer along with some creative designs will move the industry even further to the speaker-headphone boundary. Without some seriously new techniques the quest for the perfect on-head experience will remain elusive. Perhaps a point-source array of speakers combined with earcup reflectors that mimic how sound couples to our ears or some sort of mesh Fourier filters will move headphones ever closer to the ideal, but for now it is about finding a synergy that fills a void. Find the headphone and gear that compliments your purpose and enjoy it. Learn a few things along the way and meet some awesome people. If you and I bump into each other, wearing some futuristic ear arrays, just keep walking down to your hover car knowing that music is still the heart of audio!
(Ed Note: Thanks for your report, Brian. Good stuff. And make sure you look me up next time you're through town...I've always got new toys to play with!