Big Sound 2015 Participant Report: Hands (Tyler)

Tyler snaps a pic of me relaxing.

Editor's Note: All pictures in this post are credited to Tyler. If there isn't a pic next to a product it's just because he didn't have one. Thanks for the nice snaps, mate!

First of all, I can't thank Tyll enough for making this visit happen, along with those that voted for me in the contest. Thank you! I had an excellent time and a ton of fun hanging out with him and Mike (aka Anax) for a couple days. While I might be newer to the hobby than some of the most tenured guys around, I can still say that Tyll has been a big inspiration for me and a reliable source of information. I was always fascinated by his measurements on HeadRoom and found his transition to InnerFidelity to be an excellent place for news and reviews that combined the subjective with objective, with neither taking much priority over the other, in a way that not only resonated with me but acted as a model I hoped to follow myself. I never expected to meet him in person, let alone spend this sort of weekend with him, so it goes without saying I was incredibly excited to be a part of Big Sound 2015. Tyll was also a wonderful host and cooked up some awesome meals for us. And, of course, I've spent a decent amount of time posting back and forth with Mike over at Changstar.com, so it was a long time coming finally meeting one of the big name, California-based Pyrates. There's nothing quite like listening to gear, sharing thoughts, and generally chatting in person. You just can't capture that same feeling online. As memorable as the weekend was, I hope to see these two again before too long!

Getting Some Things Out of the Way and Clearing the Air
Now, before I get too far into describing my experiences or sharing gear impressions, I did want to share this preface. Any thoughts I share about gear is entirely my own, subjective opinion, though sometimes I do try to mix in measurements to help back up my claims—listening always comes first! When you account for physical differences in everyone's ears, heads, age, and even hair type and style (or whether or not they wear glasses!), different ways individuals mentally process information, different past experiences with various gear, tastes in music, and even good ol' fashioned personal, subjective tastes in gear, there is bound to be a spectrum in the readers in terms of how much they agree or disagree with what I'm saying. One key aspect of this hobby is finding impressions from various writers and posters that you can translate into your own experiences and what you might hear. It's great when you find commonality in what others have to say, but sometimes it just isn't there. And you know what? There's nothing wrong with that! If everything I say makes you wince, that's fine. If you find yourself nodding in agreement until your neck hurts, that's fine too. Feel free to take away what you will from what I'm about to say, be it something or nothing.

Second, I wanted to mention a quick blurb about blind testing. Yes, it can be difficult to always set blind tests up perfectly when you consider all the possible variables. Yes, one can start to get fatigued or go plain crazy during the tests. Yes, we didn't capture quite as many data points as we would have in a perfect world. But don't doubt for a second that Mike and I wouldn't have undertaken the effort of getting 40, 50, or 100 data points for each test if given the time. Unfortunately, we only had a weekend at Tyll's and much more to cover than blind testing. Take the results for what you will, and if you don't think they hold meaning, I won't be too upset. I found the blind tests fun and intriguing regardless!

With that out of the way, let's dig into my time at Tyll's!

Tyll Forces Me to Listen to Weird, Vocal Twang Noises HD800 and HE1000 Blind Amp Tests
BigSound2015_PR_Tyler_Photo_Notes

Technically, my first day in Bozeman was spent arriving, grabbing a wonderful sushi dinner with Tyll, fighting off sushi-stealing bees, and then returning to the hotel so I could mentally prep myself (not really) for the trials to come the next day. When Mike and I arrived at Tyll's on Saturday, he gave us a brief tour, explained the gear setup, and had me jump into the amplifier blind tests very shortly after. Mike and I were worried about his sample track selection, about 10 seconds long, because the female vocalist made this weird "twang" noise, if you want to call it that, near the end of the sample. It was hard not to giggle at it, and, frankly, I was worried it would be distracting. Clearly my sense of humor can be childish at times.

First, he had me familiarize myself with the amplifiers in a sighted manner on the HD800. I was relieved that the amps had a greater subjective difference than I expected. I listened to all the various cues I might be able to latch onto. Space, air, tone, thickness, clarity, detail, and all that audio mumbo jumbo. Thankfully, I was able to tune out that vocal "twang" in no time as I got into the zone.

The Moon amp was the easiest to identify. It had the most neutral, polite, and, well, least engaging sound out of the three amps. It also seemed to have the widest soundstage. The Bakoon had the most thickness and warmth and the least amount of clarity and absolute resolving power compared to the Teton. In fact, I didn't really think much about how detailed or resolving the Moon amp was. I picked it out with the traits I listed just a bit ago, eliminated that from the three, and then tried to find the Bakoon. Process of elimination. Feeling pretty confident, I went ahead with the blind tests. Tyll continued to mix up cables between each test, and, well, I don't believe I missed a single test in our short run. Could I have continued on with that streak if it weren't for a lack of time and other things to cover? I would like to think so, but I could have proven myself wrong. Subjectively, I thought I was hearing clear differences, and given the HD800's infamous trait of being amp picky along with its impedance swings, I'd like to say I was indeed hearing differences among the amps.

Tyll rolled out the HE1000 next. Not only was I worried about its flat impedance curve, I was honestly worried it might not be up to the task of being refined enough to really let various amps shine through. This was based on my past experience with a couple other HE1000 models. My worry grew stronger once I started doing the sighted tests. Maybe, just maybe, it would have been easier with material I was more familiar with, but, damn, did I have a hard time latching on to cue variations among the three amps. I knew it would be a tough test, and it certainly was.

This was the time where my brain started to latch onto differences that simply weren't there. Panic started to creep in too, as much as one can panic during an audio blind test that has no real life repercussions whatsoever. After some time, much more than I spent doing sighted tests with the HD800, I asked Tyll to give me some dry run tests. Ah well, I got my ass handed to me on the first couple dry run tests. I had to recalibrate and reevaluate, as I clearly wasn't listening to the right differences (in that I was listening to differences that didn't exist). I spent more time listening and picked up new cues. And, yes, I know some of you are crying foul right now that these dry runs should have counted against me. Perhaps, but I also felt I needed to re-do my sighted tests, and that biased part inside of me wants to say it helped me do better when we went back into the blind tests.

The Moon, thankfully, was still the least thick, most polite, most boring amp of the group. It was no longer the widest, however. I can't remember which of the three amps sounded widest. They were all very close, enough to easily trick me into double guessing myself. Oh well, I still had the polite aspect to pick out from the Moon. The Bakoon and Teton was where things got very, very tricky. After more listening, I thought I found it. The Bakoon had ever so slightly less internal air to the sound and was ever so slightly muddier and less resolving on the set of strings in the right channel. Maybe I could do this...maybe. And maybe I was still just pulling guesses out of my ass.

I didn't ace the HE1000 blind test like I did with the HD800. I did better than 50/50, somewhere around 11 or 12 out of 15 "points," if I'm remembering correctly. Yes, I know it is a small sample size. Take it for what you think it's worth, even if nothing. The way I see it, one could argue the HE1000 will never "scale" like the HD800 and isn't as transparent to the chain feeding it, in a sense that the HD800 can overcome the HE1000 when fed correctly. However, one could also argue that means the HE1000 is not amp picky and will sound good from most solid, even non-pricey amps. Both a blessing and a curse, depending on your point of view. It is a generally good-to-great sounding headphone, the HE1000, depending on your ears, track selection, and what you're listening for. More on that later.

Mike Tries the DAC Blind Test
Mike wanted to go straight for the big game. Tyll obliged, if not flat out encouraged it. They agreed on a sample track, and Mike did some sighted tests between the Yggy and Zodiac DACs. Mike did his 8 tests and got a 50/50 score. No better than guessing. That said, Mike did mention he felt he was finally starting to latch onto some cue differences towards the end of the test. I suggested he try again the next day with tracks he was more familiar with.

Fast forward to the next day, and Mike did just that. If I said he was determined to do well this time around, it would be a major understatement. I ran him through his blind tests, and he ended up getting 6 out of 9 right. Better than 50/50 this time, but we could all tell he was starting to go a bit crazy at that point. While it wasn't possible to do more tests before the end of the weekend, I have no doubt Mike would take on a lengthier test over multiple days if possible.

I didn't do any real DAC blind testing myself, but I did A/B between the two DACs with the Ragnarok and HD800. I thought I could detect some incredibly subtle differences, perhaps even more minor than the difference among amps feeding the HE1000. I'll have to see if I can arrange a multi-day DAC blind test for myself sometime down the road and see, though I don't think I'll be able to secure that expensive Zodiac DAC.

BigSound2015_PR_Tyler_Photo_WoF

Damned Pyrates! Can't keep their Hands off the gear. Tyler spent quite a bit of time raiding my Wall of Fame to have a listen to a variety of cans. (Unfortunately for him all my $200-$400 sealed cans are off to Bob Katz to evaluate. (You'll notice the big blank area center top.)

Bah, Who Cares About Your Flawed Tests? How did the Headphones and Amps Sound Subjectively?
I was almost as excited to try out the myriad of headphones on Tyll's wall as I was his collection of top-of-the-line headphones for Big Sound 2015, and I got my hands on as much gear as possible. I'll stick to the Big Sound gear for this particular article, but you can find some impressions of other gear, like the HE-400S and NightHawk, over at the Changstar forums. (Here is Tyler's thread on Changstar.) I hope you don't mind if I do a bit of copying and pasting from what I already wrote there with a few tweaks and additional commentary for this audience:

Headphones
BigSound2015_PR_Tyler_Photo_EtherEther (Open): Not bad. Not particularly offensive. Slightly rough, scratchy, and with a slight glare in a relatively narrow treble spot, but nothing too bothersome unless on harsher tracks or at high volumes. For the most part, it's easier going and more relaxed than the HE1000. My main complaint is that they sound a bit lean in a way that isn't necessarily track dependent, nor do they have the low-end impact even a modded HD800 can give with a good amp (and the HD800 already sounds a bit lean to me). The Ether's stage is a bit two-dimensional and has that hard left/right trait I hear on many other planar headphones, i.e. sound coming from left and right and lacking in center. Funny thing is, Mike brought over a stock HD650 and said, "Here, listen to this now." Ah, well, there really isn't a whole lot the Ether does better than the HD650 save for perhaps better low-end bass clarity. After looking at Tyll's measurements of the two again, the Ether does have higher distortion at 90dB throughout the midrange and lower treble when compared to the HD650. I didn't find the Ether to be incredibly clear and refined compared to the HD650 and some other headphones, and its distortion characteristics might be a clue why (not that the Ether's distortion isn't good, just to be clear). Tyll did say these should EQ pretty well, though, if you're into that. They are certainly very comfortable and look nice, but very underwhelming for the price from a pure sonic perspective. More listening on day two had me thoroughly bored with this particular Ether. Mike said he had heard other pairs sound better at meets. I'd rather take the HE400S regardless of price, if I'm being perfectly honest.

BigSound2015_PR_Tyler_Photo_TetonWoo
Abyss: Amazing how much these differ depending on the level of seal you get. They actually sounded a bit thin and bright to me with a full seal. Break the seal a bit, and it's almost like an entirely different headphone. Powerful, slamming bass. Good sense of space and air and not quite as 2D or hard left/right as the Ether. Surprisingly articulate and incisive on transients. Somewhat rough and bright up top regardless of fit, and looking at measurements, I think I can see why. Keep in mind these are not modded, but I've read they do have modding potential. My main complaint is that the ergonomics are laughable. I couldn't get them to seal whatsoever below my ears without applying pressure because of how they're design (a good thing for that powerful bass, but the lack of good fit did give me some channel imbalances). So rigid and weird. Too expensive. But that leaky pad bass is addictive, and I can see why people dig these.

BigSound2015_PR_Tyler_Photo_HE1000HE1000: This is the third pair I've heard. While they've all clearly been the same type of headphone, they do have slight variances. But, again, bass and mids are good. Lovely, even, and very musical in those areas. Were it not for some other nit-picking issues, the bass and mids alone would allow me to just sink into the music. Nice sense of power, though not quite as sharp and to-the-point in the low end as a good HD800. Mids are full and pleasing. Treble has this slight rise that peaks around 7KHz, but isn't particularly out of line with the rest of the response. Overall a pleasing tone, but the treble is just a bit rough and dry without enough refinement. Actually, refinement seemed to be lacking across the board, and these didn't seem to scale as much with different amps as I expected. Weird mixture of good tone, strong presence, slight politeness, and yet rough treble. When you look at distortion, impulse response, and frequency response measurements, you can see some areas that could be a bit better. I think these all combine to create the slight lack of refinement and rough nature. I expect much more for the price. Don't care for the looks either, but they do fit nicely and are comfy. That said, this is the sort of headphone I can definitely see why some others might adore. I know some simply don't hear the HE1000 the way I do, and they do love them. I've also heard a bit of toilet paper in front of the driver helps if you do have issues with them (dead serious here).

BigSound2015_PR_Tyler_Photo_DharmaDharma: Well, this is certainly an interesting headphone. Not as hard left/right as other planars and has a decent sense of air and staging (yes, I get it isn't a full on planar). Has a pretty decent low end and mid response, but depending on the track, it can sound both lacking in low-end slam and/or can be somewhat bloated in the bass. Treble is brighter than the HE1000, which can work well for some tracks if you want something sharper and livelier sounding. Other tracks make it sound U-shaped to a slight extent. Not the most cohesive headphone I've heard from bass to treble, which I suppose isn't unexpected given the dual driver design. You might be able to hear the crossover point on some tracks. Tyll and Mike said it was the most coherent dual-driver, full-sized headphone they'd heard yet. I'll take their word for it. Overall, not too bad...just some small things here and there that are off about it. Pre-production unit, so anything could change! Certainly promising, and a cool design!

BigSound2015_PR_Tyler_Photo_AudezeLCD-3 (Fazor, I think): Overall on the polite side of things but muddy and veiled throughout the entire spectrum. Slow. It's weird, because it clearly has a shelf somewhere in the upper-mids and treble, yet there are spots in the treble that are rough and peaky. This makes them sound both dark, veiled, and rough in a way that is probably even weirder than the HE1000 quirks I mentioned. Nice sense of warmth, and good balance in bass and mids. Less bass slam than I expected. I've heard many complaints about Audeze's headphones having more production variance than some other planar headphones, backed up by independent measurements, so I had to take that into account when listening. I've read reports of marvelous units and some truly terrible units. If this was a Fazor version, I haven't heard a non-Fazor version but would be curious. LCD-X: Brighter than the LCD-3 overall, but even rougher and sharper in the treble. Shares that same weird upper-end as the LCD-3 but makes it worse. My least favorite of the LCD line. (Well, save for that horrible EL8 Closed model I heard at a recent meet, but I don't want to talk about that.)

Audio Zenith PMx2: It was really interesting getting to compare the PMx2 to a lot of other headphones in the same room. I still love the neutral, generally easy-going tone on these. Hell, these might have been the most neutral or flat sounding headphones there with the least tonal issues. They certainly don't have quite the speed, incisiveness, or power of other TOTL headphones (even compared to the HD600/650 from a good amp), which doesn't bother me near as much as it might some others. What I wish is that it had more power and air to the sound. This is what really stuck out to me compared to other headphones. Not nearly as overdamped and dead sounding as the stock PM-1 or PM-2, but it might be a tradeoff between being very neutral and slightly overdamped, which it sounds like it is to me, or having a bit of extra bass and being damped where I'd prefer. One positive, though, is that these are relatively efficient and easy to drive. Not so bad even from a phone. I do think they'd pair best with a powerful, sharp, incisive sounding amp that can liven them up a bit. If all you care about is tone and neutrality, and you are opposed to the HD600/650 line for some reason, definitely consider the PMx2.

BigSound2015_PR_Tyler_Photo_StaxStax 007 and 009: Unfortunately, my time listening to these was VERY brief. Mike said the amp wasn't doing them any favors, but the 009 was not my thing. Bright, thin, weird staging and imaging. It just did not sound right. The 007 was closer to the mark tonally but still had some weird characteristic that bothered me. I would love to try these at greater length with other amps to be sure. Perhaps they're amp picky. I was really hesitant to write anything about these but wanted to give an honest report. Take this part with a grain of salt.

Two HD800s, Two Mods: Tyll's mod consisted of some adhesive foam on the HD800's outer metal driver ring and the plastic trapezoidal area in the back of the cups. He had real felt layered on top of the adhesive foam along with the stock dust cover in place. Mike's mod, which is still in the works (i.e. don't assume it will necessarily sound just like this when it's ready), was, well, not that. I can't say any more. ;) Tyll did some measurements, and we all noticed both stock pairs measured slightly differently. So, the two pairs already weren't directly comparable in some of the smallest aspects, though we're not talking planar level of product variation. Old and new units clearly still have that 6KHz peak, as evident by what Tyll measured. That said, Tyll's modded pair sounded a bit more laid back in both attack and staging. Mike's sounded more direct and incisive as if you were thrown right in front of the mix. However, when the music called for it, Mike's offered up a larger stage and air. Otherwise, Tyll's mod always seemed to impose some extra staging. Very interesting. Imaging all the way from left to right, including center, was great on Mike's pair, if not the best I've heard on a headphone. Vocals on Mike's pair sounded more forward and also more "complete," though it was also less forgiving of recording and mastering flaws. Modded measurements showed Mike did a great job, almost ideal, with the curve in the 200Hz-2KHz area vs. the stock pair, and his mods may have even slightly lowered distortion in that area. I learned a lot from the objective and subjective look and listen at the stock and modded pairs, and I'm very curious to see where Mike takes his mod. I know a lot of you are waiting for his mod, but just hang tight for now. Hell, why not try your own experiments for kicks?

Amps and DACs
BigSound2015_PR_Tyler_Photo_GSX2 GSX-Mk2: Had a good sense of power and body, though not quite what was offered from the nice tube amps, but it really just had this weird, harsh, artificial sound to it. This aspect was evident on strings. I didn't have a desire to listen to this very long.

BigSound2015_PR_Tyler_Photo_WooWoo Monoblocks (WA234): Keeping in mind we didn't do any tube rolling while visiting, the monoblocks were a bit thicker sounding than both the Teton and GSX-Mk2, yet that's not to say they were warmer. I actually found them to be a bit drier, rougher, and less clear than the Teton, though, again, I can't speak for how much of that was the amp and how much was the tubes. Slightly artificial sounding compared to the Teton.

BigSound2015_PR_Tyler_Photo_TetonTeton: Ah, now this was an amp I quite liked. Not as "tubey" as I expected, but it was clean, clear, added some oomph and sweetness to the HD800, and overall was just quite pleasing sounding. Now that I'm thinking about it, I'm kicking myself a bit for not plugging my HD650 into the amp! I was too used to using balanced headphones on everything, and there were no balanced HD600/650 cables to be found at Tyll's place. I can't say how the Teton might directly compare to other tube amps I've heard, but this was probably my top amp pick over the weekend.

BigSound2015_PR_Tyler_Photo_BlackWidowBlack Widow: Such a nice, solid state amp for the price! I preferred this to the Ragnarok, though one thing I didn't check to see was which amp had more power and slam. Ah, well, maybe some other time. The BW has a slight hint of sweetness to it, not too unlike a tube sound. It wasn't quite as large, lush, or powerful sounding as the Teton, and the treble was a bit sharper and less natural as well, but damn if this is not an awesome amp. Actually, I think some of these traits I mentioned depend on the headphone, including treble sharpness. The fact that I didn't find myself too worried going back and forth between the Teton and BW with the HD800 says something, I think. Sure, the BW sounded a touch more strained and congested than the Teton with the HD800, but when you consider the price difference and solid-state vs. tube implementation, it makes sense. I found the BW paired better with orthos and even the HD650 compared to the HD800. I should reiterate and clarify that while it was not quite as sweet sounding as the Teton, it did not have the sort of edge the Ragnarok did and was very pleasing because of this. Highly recommended.

Ragnarok: Only spent time with this on the HD800, but if I had to pick, I'd either rather have a good tube amp or the Black Widow. Don't get me wrong, it has great power, overall nice tone, and is technically quite competent. It just has a slight bit of edge or sharpness to it that made me want to go back to the Black Widow. One thing the BW can't do, though, is drive speakers. For an all-in-one amp, the Ragnarok seems great. It also makes for a great hand warmer.

BigSound2015_PR_Tyler_Photo_Bakoon Bakoon HPA-21: I only really listened to this during my blind listening tests, so, not ideal. That said, I have to say I was fairly pleased with the amp. It had a surprising sense of space and width to it, perhaps more than the Teton, but not the same level of air as the Teton. It had a bit of warmth and thickness and treated the treble quite nicely on both the HD800 and HE1000. Overall, though, it did lose out on some articulation and clarity areas compared to the Teton, even if very, very slight during blind listening tests. Given the fact the Bakoon didn't give much up at all on the HE1000 compared to the Teton was impressive.

BigSound2015_PR_Tyler_Photo_Moon Simaudio Moon 430 HA: Not particularly my amp of choice. Yes, it was airy and had a large soundstage, and it had a clean and clear sound. Well, mostly. It did not have the same thickness and heft compared to the Teton and Bakoon, nor was the treble quite as sharp and articulate. The best way I can describe it was that the amp was a bit polite from top to bottom. It didn't do anything wrong or offensive outright, but it wasn't particularly engaging for me. I had a hard time checking for detail retrieval and resolving power due to its overall polite nature, but it may have been competitive had I done some comparisons. It is solidly built and had a wonderful volume knob with maybe even too many steps to the volume (kind of cool, actually), but I just didn't get that same sort of musical involvement from it as some other amps.

BigSound2015_PR_Tyler_Photo_AntelopeYggdrasil vs. Antelope Zodiac Platinum DSD DAC: What I want to say is that the Yggy seemed to have a more powerful, harmonically rich sound with a better sense of 3D elements and natural decay. The Zodiac sounded a bit more strained during complex passages. After we added the clock to the Zodiac, it brought about some noticeable changes. To me, the Zodiac gained some thickness with the clocks, but I do not mean slam. The Yggy still sounded more powerful and richer. Interestingly enough, the Zodiac seemed to take a step back, sound less strained, and be slightly easier going with the clocks in place. The Yggy then became the more forward, lively sounding DAC, where as they were more similar in that regard without the clock. The Zodiac was a fine DAC, as it should be at its ridiculous price, but the Yggy still won for my tastes in the end. If you're the type that feels "measurably transparent and neutral" DACs should have no audible differences, feel free to disregard everything I just said here.

BigSound2015_PR_Tyler_Photo_BigSoundRoom

Tyler's pic of the Big Sound room.

My Take on Big Sound 2015 and the Industry Today
You might get the sense that I was a bit underwhelmed with the selection of top-of-the-line headphones at Big Sound 2015. You would also be right on the mark. While I do feel there has been a general upward trend in headphone quality since I first got into the hobby, there is still much work to be done.

What is most disappointing to me is headphones like the HD600 and HD650, costing a fraction of most top-of-the-line headphones today, just get so much right with the tiniest nitpicks here and there. They're not new, they're not in the price range of these TOTL headphones, and yet I feel they have set a type of benchmark that has yet to be beaten, let alone reached.

Sure, they don't have the largest, most three-dimensional soundstage, but they're not quite as hard left/right in the staging as some (pricey) planars. Sure, the bass can be a bit murky or slightly lack slam at the very bottom of the response, but they really aren't too bad here either. Yes, they do scale like crazy and improve on these areas greatly with the right amps, but they aren't perfect. They never will be perfect. I'm not sure there ever will be a perfect headphone. But they still sound a whole hell of a lot more balanced and refined to me when considering all sonic regards compared to, well, essentially any pricey headphone I heard over my weekend at Tyll's.

I started to chase the rabbit down the headphone hole until I stopped myself, all for a deal on the HD600. I'm a sucker for deals, and I felt like those were the quintessential headphones to hear for headphone hobbyists. And there I was, jaw on the floor, listening to the HD600. Eventually I moved to the HD650, which was more my thing, but, damn, are both of these headphones incredibly competent and competitive with the best offerings when you feed them the right DAC and amp. I've more or less stopped buying other headphones since.

A couple things to note, though, is that I'm referring to the newer production HD600/650s with the silver screens. It doesn't seem like much of a secret than Sennheiser probably made a silent revision to these headphones, and I can't speak for older models. I'm also not trying to imply the HD600/650s are the only headphones that fall into this category. Consider the DT880, another fine headphone. The tone and timbre might not be my thing, but for those that do like that sound, they are incredibly competent headphones (again, with the right amp). The HD800 is a different sort of beast, perhaps with the most technically competent driver around, that I have a ton of respect for with the right amp. There are certainly other examples I've left out, many of which are not new and not incredibly expensive. And you can still to this day find headphones even under $100 that are incredibly well rounded. Diamonds in the rough, if you will. Some of those I too find to have more balance and less problems compared to the TOTL offerings, though it's rare to find a budget headphone start to reach the same technical level and refinement as some nicer headphones. I'm thinking a bit beyond sheer technicalities so I can factor in tone, staging, and general value for your money, the latter which many TOTL, expensive headphones do not offer.

If anything, the revised HD600/650 and HD800 signaled the end of an era and moved us into a time where headphone prices continue to climb for little to no gains, or even backtracking in overall sonic balance and general refinement. I'm hesitant to even mention all the marketing buzzwords and flashy, pseudo-scientific articles published by companies trying to push their latest, overpriced, maybe even bad headphone on the consumer. Still, that doesn't mean there has been no progress, no good new headphones, and that companies are just out to swindle your money. I just want to see everyone take a step back and reevaluate the whole situation with a very critical eye for the good of the companies and the consumers.

OK, so I'm a bit of a cynic when it comes to this hobby and industry, or so I'd guess some people might consider me. Maybe not. Whatever it is, it certainly loomed over my shoulder when I was evaluating all these headphones. Thus, it was hard for me to rank them. They were all good for the most part, don't get me wrong, but disappointing in too many ways. I had to pick and choose traits from each that I liked instead of finding anything that truly made me feel like I found something great.

Considering that, I liked the PMx2 for its neutral tone and easy going nature, the HD800 for its sheer technicalities, and the HE1000 for almost being the best all-rounder out of the TOTL group. I just don't think it's as good of an all-rounder as the HD650 + a great tube amp + a great DAC, which you can fit under the HE1000's price tag with ease and then some. Think what you will about my comments, and feel free to disagree. You can throw my opinions in the trash if you'd like, as I do want to put all this aside and say that I strongly encourage everyone to find the gear that moves them the most. Hey, if the HE1000 is your favorite headphone and you just couldn't get into the HD650 or similar no matter how many setups you tried to feed it, I'm glad you found your headphone. Don't let someone dictate your tastes, nor should you get upset if someone disagrees and hears otherwise. I sure have made some audio gear decisions that do not match what most others follow or recommend, simply because I had to go with what worked best for me. Last I checked, I'm fine, everyone else is fine, and the world is not on fire because I went a different direction to suit my needs and tastes.

Maybe this is not what everyone was expecting or wanted to read, but, hey, that's my honest opinion. I think the industry has veered off course over the years and gone a bit crazy even if it is still somewhat heading in the right direction. Hopefully. Maybe.

None of this changes how awesome the trip was as a whole, though. What an incredible, horribly fun experience. Thanks, Tyll, for making it happen, and Mike for being there as well! I won't forget it! And thank you for taking the time to read my rambling nonsense!

(Note: Anything I did not comment on means I did not get a chance to try it. I did not have time to pair headphones with each amp to see what pairings I liked best, though clearly I think this is critical given all the times I reiterated pairing headphones like the HD650 or HD800 with the right amp.)

(Editor's note: Thanks so much for your opinions, Tyler. Your enthusiasm and thoughtful writings are much appreciated. As you say:

It's great when you find commonality in what others have to say, but sometimes it just isn't there. And you know what? There's nothing wrong with that!

This is absolutely why I wanted more than just myself to report on this gear. Thank you for adding your thoughts to the pile for InnerFidelity readers.)

BigSound2015_PR_Tyler_Photo_ButtCrack

Tyll hard at work.

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)
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
Hands's picture

You know, I've heard some say the X1 sounded smoother and more balanced despite the X2 bringing some positive changes over the X1. I've heard the opposite too. I could see something like the X3, if properly refined, being quite a nice headphone.

Three Toes of Fury's picture

i realllllllllllly like your "Big Bang (for the buck)" idea. Its pretty much where i live, gear wise.

Might be worth throwing in a few of the FIIO portable amps as well? Not sure if they could hold up against stuff like O2/Magni, and are designed for portability foremost, buuut the price range would work for the competition.

Peace .n. Livin in Stereo

3Tof

lashto's picture

Excellent idea with the "Big Bang/Sound for the Buck" follow-up.
I'll also include Philips Fidelio L2/X2, Oppo PM3, HFMan 400s ... plus lots of reasonably priced DACs, DAPs and AMPs from the likes of Gustard, Oppo, FiiO, iBasso, etc.

drWho2's picture

The video with Hands was disappointing; this write-up is MUCH better.
Just a general comment on BS2015 TOTL 'cans ... what about Grado (why absent)?

Hands's picture

Well, personally, not only do I not care for Grado, I don't find them to be particularly...competent headphones at the end of the day against the best headphones. I know people disagree with me there, and some love them, but they just aren't my thing. (Again, I'm an HD650 guy, so...) Now, I wasn't the one running BS2015, so Tyll would have to speak to that in the end.

HOWEVER...I did hear a Grado HP1000 a while back. That was an awesome headphone! Totally unlike the other Grado headphones. I'd like to see more like that from them. :)

Glad you liked the write up. It's easier when you have time to write your thoughts, elaborate, make edits, and so on vs. filming a one-take video while trying to quickly discuss everything with another participant. Still fun, though!

Tyll Hertsens's picture
I just don't think Grados reach this level of performance. Not enough bass; generally ragged treble.
drWho2's picture

As far as the state of the art in top of the line gear ... well the market definitely is FLOODED with stuff ... partially blame it on iPod/iPhone ...and as the market grows, sites like IF, H-F, Changstar, Headfonia, et. al, all want a piece of the new cash cow (I'm sure these folks have profitless motives, too).
But is all this attention really helping industry to evolve as far as the BOTTOM line: better (continuously improving) sound.
Not when so many audio enthusiasts STILL compare (in same breath) the latest stuff to, say, oldies like beyer dt-990, hd600, Grado HP1000.
Then again, low-priced IEMs is probably to most-improved category, followed by mid to low-mid-priced standards.

Hands's picture

The guys at Changstar actually tend to refuse sponsors and don't like having money thrown at them. They tend to buy their own gear so they can share their thoughts with the community, and often this gear gets sent around on loaner tours in the community as well. I think they gave one vendor an ad for helping them host a meet. Ask the mods there how much money and free gear they get from vendors and companies. :) TOTALLY different environment and goal than Head-Fi, HeadFonia, and so on. One of the few places that's relatively untainted by the industry, in my opinion. You want guys that can take a critical look at the industry, that's a good place to go.

Three Toes of Fury's picture

EGADS! How has this site evaded me!?! Thanks for the overview of the site and its general philosophy. Time to bookmark that baby!

Hands's picture

Changstar is relatively small compared to some bigger audio sites and forums. One site in particular actively censors individuals from mentioning it for reasons I would rather leave for a more private discussion. It's too bad, really. Some folks at CS can be a bit gruff, and it has a somewhat edgy nature to it (a good counterbalance to some other sites and the industry in general, I think), so it can be off putting at first. But it's quite a lovely community when you get down to it, and I've learned more there than anywhere else thanks to some wonderful individuals there.

Three Toes of Fury's picture

Oh man..thats just bunk! Im sure i know the site you speak of and am beyond disappointed that this practice is applied. There's a time and place for proper forum monitoring and blocking of pure trolls but censorship of an entire site or community is just wrong.

That does explain why ive heard so little about the site thou.

Anyhoo, i'll be joining in the community and ping ya over there once and a while.

Peace .n. Livin in Stereo

3ToF

JE's picture

Could you elaborate further on the HD650 vs PMx2 topic, Hands? Thank you in advance.

Hands's picture

The PMx2 has a flatter, more neutral tone than the HD650. The HD650, and HD600 as well, have more of a mid-bass emphasis in the 100Hz area that tends to make them sound a bit thicker and powerful depending on the music.

Beyond that, the general tone is comparable in the mids and treble. The HD600 is a bit "hot" to me in the 3-5KHz range, where as the PMx2 and HD650 are more even in that spot. Both the HD600 and HD650 sound a bit smoother to me in the response beyond that point than the PMx2, though, again, the general frequency response is comparable.

If you've ever heard a stock PM-1 or PM-2, you might have found them to be a bit...dead sounding. Very hard left/right staging. Very little air. The PM-2, with its slightly different internal damping configuration and new pads, sounded simultaneously rougher and darker to me in the treble than the PM-1. Otherwise, generally good tone, just SO BORING.

The PMx2 tends to fix that for the most part. It's not NEARLY as dead sounding, has more air, more articulation, more energy, and has a generally more neutral response. Nice! Personally, I think they could use a bit more bass and are slightly overdamped, but it's a nit picking complaint at that point.

However, when you start feeding the HD600/650 really nice DACs and amps, the technicalities pull them away from the PMx2. Sharper treble (in a good way), more articulation, more air, more power and slam, better clarity, better separation, better texture, better imaging, better resolving power...just better technicalities and more accurate tone and timbre across the board. Then when you consider slight mods to the Sennheisers? Just takes them up another notch. The only weakness of the HD600/650 is that they start to sound a tad murky in the lowest registers when compared to a lot of planars. I can live with that, because the bass is still "good" despite that.

One big plus about the PMx2 is that A) they look nice and B) they sound good from about anything. GOOD LUCK plugging your HD650 into a cell phone and hoping they sound good. The PMx2 will sound noticeably better in that case. Alex, the guy that puts out the PMx2, also puts a TON of effort into making sure each PMx2 matches his high standards. He negates any product variation with his work, which is nice.

To be fair, some guys that tried the PMx2 at the Denver meet thought it had better technicalities than the HD600, 650, or 800. I can't say I agreed, but I don't doubt they heard what they said they heard. Some understood they weren't as technically capable but loved how neutral and generally easy-going they were. They do indeed excel at neutrality and an ability to just make for a pleasant listen without being boring (to me).

Hope that helps! I'd be happy to expand on that if you have further questions.

JK's picture

Another HD650 convert here. Listened to them for almost 100hrs, before I did the coin mod and removed the rear dampening. Brings out the treble very nicely, while remaining smooth and nicely balanced.

JK's picture

My Dad says he hasn't listened to any of his other cans since the HD650 Tyll signature edition's I sent him showed up a few weeks ago. He's still thanking Tyll for the Cardas cable !!!

Tyll Hertsens's picture
Where's the like button?
poleepkwa's picture

I was in contact with Sennheiser about the "revisions" with the black vs white screens and this was the response I received from them:
"Hi

There has been no changes in at least 10 years except the screen color. If there was any change before this it has been very small. "Huge" changes would be a result of damaged drivers or something else causing abnormal response. Of course if you compare HD 600 and HD 650 they sound different and they should do so."

This was from and email conversation in 2014.

Hands's picture

On one hand, I want to believe Sennheiser, but A) that's exactly the sort of thing they would say in this case (typical PR speak) and B) there are too many cases of people having had old pairs and gone to newer pairs and heard large subjective differences. Some even have both pairs on hand to compare.

I say someone get me an old pair so I can check it out myself. ;)

Womaz's picture

I will try and explain in my own words. I am not really an audiophile I doubt as I have difficulty with all the terminology and what it means to be honest, but I do love my music and I do spend a bit of cash on my hifi gear, so lets say a partial audiophile ;-)
Unfortunately headphone meets are virtually non existent in the NE of England so I have to rely on forums like this and helpful dealers.
My AKGQ701s are pretty decent in my opinion but I have heard so few HPs that I have very limited knowledge. I used to own a pair of Grado 80si and when I got the AKGs they absolutely blew them out of the water for me. I like the detail and the clarity, decent Airy sound if that makes any sense. Vocals sound great too. I listen to nearly all types of music and I do mean that. Last night an example was Royal Blood, Lana Del Ray and some EDM. The only genres I dont do are Classical or Jazz, I do also sometimes wonder that are expensive cans necessary if classical is not my thing.
I auditioned some HD800 a few years ago and tbh I found them very similar to the AKGs, I am 52 and maybe my ears are not that good either. They were better but at the time I just thought they were not worth the extra outlay. Money is now more available so that might not be what i think this time. I also have a new set up now. The New Auralic Taurus amp is on its way and this will be fed from the Devialet 200 which streams my FLAC files from my NAS drive.
The HE1000 and the HD800 are top of my shortlist with the LCD-3 there too, although read a lot about them not being comfortable. this is essential for a HP, surely.
Hope this helps

Hands's picture

If you like detail, clarity, and air, I can't recommend any of the Audezes I heard. The HE1000, you might like that, but it'll be less bright, warmer, thicker, and easier going than the Q701. Maybe you'd appreciate it! However, if you've heard the HD800 and found it similar, that might be a good option to pursue. Sounds like you know you'd already enjoy it.

Here's the thing about the HD800, though. They are amp picky and often do best with top-of-the-line tube amps. My favorite amp I've used with an HD800 so far is the Eddie Current Super 7 with all sorts of mods and upgrades. Turned the HD800 into a whole different beast!

wink's picture

I found the Grado HF2 a great companion for the HD600.

It's the only low priced Grado I like.

I also think the HD800 is streets ahead of the HD650/600, AKG K701/702, Beyer DT880 etc.

And, as usual YMMV (usually very much so).

wink's picture

btw, Tyll, you need to cut back on the bleach when washing those once splendiferous shirts.

Tyll Hertsens's picture
I Never use bleach. It seems Hawaiian shirts have a pretty short half life.
JE's picture

Reading your extended comparison, it really seems to me that the headphone may not be worth the price of 1400USD when compared sonically to some great price/performance headphones like HD600/HD650, HE500, HE-400i/400S or ESP950. These belong to my all-time favourites.

Going by all the measurements and impressions over the internet so far, these AZs seem to be quite too much similar to HD650 - neutral mids, well behaved quite neutralish treble and ultimately not deep enough bass to substitute those hardhitting planars like LCD-2 or HE-500. At least this is the general impression I am getting. If you say that HD650 can sound thicker and more powerful than PMx2, it is another thing I am concerned about. I would love to try PMx2... But for 700-900USD, not 1400USD. :-/ Ideally, headphones with tonal balance in mids and treble of HD650 mixed with bass response and timbre of quality planar magnetic headphones (HE-500, LCD-2 rev2) would be something I would love to own.

If you are reading this, could please compare pads dimensions of PMx2 to some other headphones you know? Oppo headphones are known for rather smaller earpads... Would love to know if this is the case here as well.

Anyway, I do really find your previous answer helpful. Thank you again and take care!

Hands's picture

I think it's up to each individual on whether they're worth the asking price at $1400. Some guys at the recent Denver meet thought it was more than reasonable. Some less so. All came down to personal taste and needs.

On the HD650, there are a couple really simple mods you can make to it that should make them sound more lively, open, and in my experience, harder hitting. Honestly, with the right tube amp (and I don't mean the overly thick, super tubey stuff), the HD650s can hit HARD without any sort of lacking bass extension. Even without a good amp, the PMx2 seems to have less slam and power than even a stock HD650. PMx2 is more neutral down low. They don't have bass like the planars with huge drivers.

PMx2 uses modified velour pads from OPPO. Size is exactly the same, so dimensions should be floating around out there.

AZ's picture

Ok Tyler, you know how much I appreciate your honesty but this simply blew my mind: "...just better technicalities and more accurate tone and timbre across the board".
You heard what you heard and this opinion is certainly valuable to say the least but I would still want to outline a few things.

In my view when headphone is properly designed to sound right it shouldn't need a special something to sound great, simple as that! Properly designed source and amplifier is all it would take. When a given set has technical/design issues is where you have to "jump over the moon" to make it "scale". Just look at HD-800 vs HE-1000 in your own blind testing, even though latter also isn't ideal it still made way more difficult distinguishing different amps.

Beyond that, technicalities are a very complicated question especially when two different types of drivers are being compared. The easiest way of figuring this out could be equalizing both to perfection followed by comparison of the resulting sound qualities. Equalizing on the other hand could itself be very tricky. Check how HD-800 EQd by Harman wasn't overwhelmingly preferred over a regular set of LCD-2s in their blind testing experiments. But let's hope one day someone, maybe even Tyll would come up with compensation curve that really works.

Damping issue is fairly simple though, PM-2 membrane is fairly thick and heavy (which by the way could be both good and bad) and to be properly controlled requires different kind of attention than most other orthos. Add knurling into the mix and it's easy to see why heavier dampening may just not be the answer but instead some sort of clever distribution of different and unconventional materials both in front and back could do the trick? Maybe what is being used in PMx2 still isn't ideal? Experienced listeners and time would surely be the ultimate judge.

FR difference between the two is a bit easier to explain/understand. Anyone can download "Sonarworks" correction software and verify HD-650 sounds better with EQ and according to my experiments it's +/-3 db covering quite a broad ranges within FR (not +/-6db as for HD-800 but still ..... ;-).

I actually looked into adding just a 1db tilt towards the top to make PMx2 a bit more lively and indeed it was, but instead it became less organic and lost some of its liquid smooth and natural tonality. Everything, especially human voice started to sound more artificial and mechanical. Suppose Tyll could try applying Harman or another target curve to see if something can be improved but to me personally anything added or subtracted anywhere above 65Hz was only hurting the tone.

Another way of checking true tonality of a given set and how correctly music would actually sound to your own ears using it would be through the following link:
http://newt.phys.unsw.edu.au/jw/hearing.html

This little tool can be a great help in choosing headphone that sounds most tonally accurate for anyone's own ears. Bearing in mind that proper tonality is a cornerstone and essence of quality sound reproduction I wholeheartedly recommend it to anyone seriously interested in a quality sound.

Womaz's picture

Thanks for the reply, really appreciate it, trouble is I am now considering cheaper alternatives like the HD650 after doing a lot of reading ....... ;-)
I will keep an open mind and thanks again

Womaz's picture

Just to add I have just bought the Auralic Taurus amp and it's a huge improvement on my old one. It takes the 701s to a new level of enjoyment for me so maybe there is no hurry.........but we all know the opposite will occur

Bob Katz's picture

Hands thinks it has a weird, artificial quality to it. Curious what sources or DACs were used. With my reference sources and Prism DAC, the GS-X had the most open and natural quality of all the amps there except for the KGSSS. However, I can see what might lean Hands in the direction of thinking it's a bit artificial as with gritty reference material or the wrong DAC I could see someone thinking the GS-X is a bit zippy. Not the case with the right pairing and with the right headphone. LCD-X or 3 is definitely a good pairing with the GS-X. I would pair the HD800 with the Moon, for example.

Audioaddict's picture

Had a pair of these a year or two ago and drove them with a fiio e11... lol. Not surprisingly i didnt enjoy them. I recently got an Adocm GCD-575 CD player from 89'. stereophile did a review on it. In short it's good and has really good bass for a solid state. Want to get another HD 650 and use it on that thing and i'm sure i'd like it. If not my Flare Audio R2 pro's will keep making me happy.

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