Big Sound 2015 Participant Report: Roy (Romaz)
Ed Note: You remember Roy (Romaz)? The guy who did best on the blind tests...yeah him. Here's his take on his visit to Big Sound, and boy is it terrific!
Last Monday, I enjoyed one of my finest Labor Days in recent memory. I spent the day in Bozeman, Montana, of all places. It was far from anything I knew but I arrived to Bozeman with a swell of enthusiasm because I knew I would be spending the day with Tyll Hertsens. This would not be some trivial encounter where we would exchange superficial pleasantries for a few minutes in the company of a large group of people. No, it would be just me and Tyll for nearly 8 hours talking about headphones and listening to good music. Now, how often does something like that ever happen?
Well, the experience with Tyll was everything I could hope for. Having followed Tyll for years, I was expecting he would be a straight shooting, plain speaking, walking headphone encyclopedia and he was all these things and much more. Tyll is also the most gracious host you could ask for and at all times, he made me feel very much at home. He asked about my background, my interests and my opinions on a variety of matters. He took the time to get to know me. Over a delectable lunch that he prepared, he shared some of his own story and expressed some of his future hopes and ambitions. Tyll is as real as it gets. For the rest of our time together, he allowed me to pick his massive brain at will as I played around with the nearly $100,000 of gear he had assembled in his evaluation room.
For nearly 6 hours, I got to listen to some of the finest headphones in the world driven by some of the finest amplifiers in the world. I would switch from one component to the next and back again hoping to experience a certain a-ha moment. For me, it wasnt as simple as finding the perfect headphone or the perfect amplifier. I was hopelessly in search of a time machine...
On a certain Christmas day as a teenager during the early 1980s, I received a gift from my parents that led to an experience that haunts me to this day. That Christmas, I received my first personal audio device, a Sony Walkman that came with a basic set of on-ear headphones. Prior to that device, I had never before experienced music in my head. I inserted the first cassette tape I could find from my dads collection. It was Elvis Presley. As I placed the headphones on my ears and hit the play button, out of a dark silence came a voice that I had heard many times before but this voice sounded so hauntingly real I was convinced Elvis had come back from the dead and was singing in my bedroom. The experience was exciting and frightening at the same time. Unfortunately, within a weeks time and due to some carelessness on my part, this Walkman met an untimely death although that transcendent experience had forever been engrained in my memory.
Despite owning much more sophisticated gear over the ensuing years, I have not been able to recreate that same sound combined with those same emotions. Not surprisingly, this experience that Ive longed to relive could not to be found at Tylls either but truth be told, I had already come to grips long ago that what I have been chasing is a ghost, an ideal that can be approached but never fully realized in the same way that ones first kiss or first taste of ice cream can never be fully re-experienced. I have to admit, however, that my attempts to climb this pedestal in search of this audio nirvana have brought certain joys and moments of enlightenment. Sometimes the journey is indeed worthwhile even if the final destination is unreachable and my time with Tyll proved to be a bright star on my audiophile journey.
Having heard a lot of gear over the years, I came to Tylls with appropriately tempered expectations especially since I had already experienced much of the gear he had on hand. What was unique about this opportunity was that I was able to go through many different permutations of headphones and amps in a short period of time and in a quiet and controlled listening room where the source and cables were kept constant. It gave me a much more confident sense of what a certain component was contributing to the music I was hearing.
Whenever I read about the impressions of others, I find it useful to know as much about a reviewers preferences to see if were even on the same page and are likely to draw the same conclusions. Having read and enjoyed the impressions of the other gentlemen that have taken part in Big Sound 2015, it is interesting to read how different our conclusions are and for the reader at large, I can imagine the confusion and even the skepticism that this Big Sound exercise has generated for some. Who do you believe?
Of greatest interest to me were the opinions generated by Bob Katz, in part because of his professional audio background but more because it seems our preferences couldnt be more polar opposites but as I look at his needs versus my needs, it becomes easier to see why we like what we like. As a highly acclaimed professional recording mixer, Bob uses his headphone gear as a tool to accomplish an implicit task against the pressure of a deadline whereas I look for my gear to bring me unrushed pleasure and a carefree escape. Bob seeks neutrality and transparency above all else while I am willing to tolerate some editorializing if it leads to liquidity and tonal richness. Given his line of work, I would guess Bob prefers a straight up presentation so that he can do his job. Having already shared with you my Sony Walkman experience, it should come as no surprise that I am looking for gear that will move me emotionally.
Having perhaps viewed my video with Tyll, you might already be aware of the preferences that I voiced. At the time the video was shot, with the headphones I hadnt heard before, I really didnt have enough time to develop a confident grasp of those headphones character. After the video was shot, I had an opportunity to listen for a few more hours and some of my preferences changed which is why there is some discrepancy between what I said on camera and what was printed. While at the airport waiting for my flight home, I had a chance to review my notes and reflect further on what I had heard. I also asked myself a different question. Instead of listing which headphones and amps I liked best, perhaps the better question was to list which headphones and amps I would actually buy? As I now factored value into the equation, my preferences changed again.
Without further ado, I have listed my top 5 headphones after factoring in value:
#1) HifiMan HE-1000. To be fair, I knew quite a bit about this headphone already having spent nearly a month with a borrowed unit before actually purchasing a set in early August and so this headphone at #1 is not an impulsive choice. In the case of the HE-1000, I have put my money where my mouth is. Compared to what I paid for my SR-009 and given that this headphone does much of what the SR-009s did so well, at $3,000, I consider it a good value. This headphone both physically and sonically is supremely comfortable for long periods of listening. It is detailed and airy in a very 3-dimensional sense. There is an ethereal quality to its treble that undoubtedly colors it but I happen to prefer it because it lends itself to prolonged listening without fatigue. The midrange is rich, perhaps not LCD-3 rich, but it is textured and nuanced better than the LCD-3. The bass extends low with sub bass that matches the Abyss. The Abyss has better bass slam but the HE-1000 has better bass definition. Some have suggested this headphone doesnt need a special amp, that it sounds the same regardless of amplifier. My time at Big Sound taught me differently. The criticism against the HE-1000 is that it can sound too soft with details that can be too rounded and a leading edge that can be too polite. I dont completely disagree with this assessment and so I prefer this headphone paired with a more forward sounding amp with commanding authority and grip. While I generally prefer tubes over transistors, with the HE-1000, transistor amps can potentially sound better. Of the amps at Big Sound, nothing embodied these traits better than the HeadAmp GS-X Mk2.
#2) HD800 with mod. Yes, this headphone went from zero to hero for me. As I mentioned in my video, I once owned a pair of these headphones and returned them because they were too bright and sounded too thin and so I had low expectations for this headphone going in. As I shared on the video, I was surprised by what I heard and made the HD800 my #4 pick. Upon further reflection, it has risen to #2. Again, I have put my money where my mouth is and I have one on order with the mod. It remains the most comfortable headphone I have ever worn. It has the widest soundstage of the group and has the ability to present even the most subtle detail and so for live orchestral recordings with huge dynamic range, this surpasses the HE-1000 and approaches the SR-009. With the mod, I believe it is now suitable for long-duration listening (well see). With the wrong amp, this headphone still can sound too dry and clinical for my tastes. I actually didnt enjoy the HD800 as much on the GS-X Mk2. The Bakoon added a euphonic warmth and fullness to the midrange that benefited the HD800 greatly. The Teton and Woo WA234 sounded wonderful also but for considerably more money. In the video, the Bakoon was my top pick for the HD800. After factoring in value, my new pick is the Eddie Current Black Widow. It has most of the midrange qualities of the Bakoon at less than half the price.
#3) Enigmacoustics Dharma. Stax with bassthat was my first impression. Because the comparison against the Stax SR-009 is inevitable, the first thing I noticed was the presence of what was missing with my SR-009. The treble was clear and fast and the midrange was detailed, typical of electrostats. Im not sure it was exactly Stax level but the better tonal balance made up for some of these shortcomings. I looked at some of Tylls measurements and was concerned to see the high distortion tracings in the upper bass region but I didnt seem to be bothered by it. Im not sure if my opinion will change after more time with this headphone but I would be very open to exploring this further. I was also concerned about potential coherence issues given the combination of an electrostatic driver and a dynamic woofer but I didnt notice any issues here either. I was impressed by its comfort. Its high sensitivity allows it to be driven loudly by almost any amp, even an iPhone, but this headphone sounded especially sublime on the Woo WA234. From a value standpoint, however, I would probably go with the Black Widow once again. At $1,200, this headphone easily presents the best bang for the buck of the group.
#4) Mr. Speakers Ether. On the video, I actually stated this headphone wasnt one of my top picks. It seemed to do many things well but nothing exceptionally. The more time I spent with it, however, the more it reminded me of a mini HE-1000. It didnt have the resolving ability or the bass extension of the HE-1000 but it played all genres well and was very comfortable to wear, easily suitable for long-duration listening. After looking at its frequency measurements, Tyll suggested that this headphone lent itself well to EQing and properly equalized, it has the potential to sound very close to the HE-1000 at half the price. We had no way to test Tylls theory but I am intrigued by this possibility. This headphone played well on all the amps but from a value perspective, I would once again pair it with the Eddie Current Black Widow.
#5) Audio Zenith PMx2. I really like this headphone and it could have placed in front of the Ether if it was a little less expensive. At nearly $1,400, it is only slightly less expensive than the Ether and while they share similar characteristics as planar magnetic headphones, to my ears, the Ether presented a wider, more spacious soundstage and better instrument separation. If the PMx2s were $200 less, this headphone would have supplanted the Ether as my #4 pick. If I was on the go more than I was at home, this could be my #1 pick. As with the Ether, this headphone was very comfortable and played well with all the amps but from a value perspective, I would once again pair it with the Eddie Current Black Widow.
Stax SR-009 - I continue to like this headphone very much even though I sold it. Despite the issue I had with it, for certain types of music (especially complex orchestral classical) and with the right amplifier, this headphone is second to none. While Tyll's KGSSHV sounded good, the Blue Hawaii SE still sounds better. To my ears, the two should not be considered separately making the SR-009 an expensive proposition.
Abyss 1266 - This headphone didnt make my top 5 but this is an exceptional headphone in many ways. If it werent for an issue I have with a brightness in its treble region, I would have bought this headphone long ago. It was actually the first headphone good enough to tempt me to leave my Stax SR-009 and was the initial object of my desire when I first began looking. Upon first presentation, nothing sounds grander. With crisp details, expansive soundstage and thunderous bass, it is the only headphone here that can sound like a pair of speakers when properly driven. It is with long-duration listening where problems show up for me. I have no problems with its physical appearance or size as it actually balances well on my head but this is a fatiguing headphone for me because of its treble. If you dont share my personal issues with it (and most probably wouldnt) and you can accept its high asking price, I would recommend these highly with either the Woo WA234 or Moon Neo 430HA. One final comment to take note of earlier this year, upon hearing of my issues with this headphone, Joe Skubinski, the owner of Abyss, reached out to me to see if he could help me resolve my problems. He was ultimately unable to do so but I was impressed by his gesture. How many owners of companies reach out to their end users like this to try and help out? A class act.
Audezes - My main issue with the Audezes is comfort. They are heavy and the clamping pressure is too high for my larger than average head. The Abyss is also very large but its suspension system somehow works well to distribute its weight. With long-duration listening, invariably, fatigue becomes an issue. As I mentioned in the video, the Audeze house sound is a bit too laid back for my tastes. In comparison to other headphones, they seem to always sound veiled. The LCD-X plays more neutral than the LCD-3 and the midrange sounds clearer and less veiled but the LCD-3 scales better, seems to resolve a little better and holds its integrity better at high volumes.
Woo WA234 - Of all the equipment at Big Sound (headphones, amps, DACs, digital front end, cables), the WA234 was the piece I was most curious to hear. In any of my hobbies, I am always interested to know just how high the ceiling is and I imagined that this headphone amp might be the best in production today. It was outfitted with Takatsuki 300b output tubes and Takatsuki 274b rectifiers, argued by some as the best production tubes available today. This combination of amp and tubes elevates the price of the Woo to just north of $20,000 so you can imagine my expectations were very high. With the Abyss, this amp played splendidly and its smooth romantic character balanced the forward nature of the Abyss well. Combined, however, this pairing will set you back more than $25,000 which is a tough pill for most to swallow. While this amp sounded very good with other headphones including the Dharma, the Ethers, Audio-Zenith and both Audezes, this amp is overkill for those headphones as those headphones can sound nearly as good with far less expensive amps amps. I was hoping for better synergy with the HE-1000 but a soft headphone on a soft amp wasnt to my liking, especially at this price point.
SimAudio Moon Neo 430 HA - I had spent some time previously with this amplifier and coming into Big Sound, I was expecting this amp to compete well against anything. From a design standpoint, the 430 HA ticks off all the boxes for me. It is attractive, runs very cool despite its high power output, has a nice remote and full complement of headphone outputs and should you order the model with a built-in DAC, this could be one of the best all-in-one DAC/preamp/headphone amps available today. During the blind testing, Tyll asked me how I was able to single out this amp so easily and my response was that it had the most air and indeed this is one of its strengths. At 8 watts output at 50 ohms, this is one of a few amps that can drive the Abyss to full glory. In truth, it drove everything well. In comparison to the GS-X Mk2, however, for most of the headphones present with the exception of the Abyss and the HD800, it sounded soft and lacking in authority.
Eddie Current Black Widow - This is the spoiler of the lot. It was very dynamic yet with tube-like midrange warmth and it played all of the non-electrostatic headphones well. Best value, bar none and yet competitive with any of the other amps regardless of price. Paired with the Dharma, you could have a top-of-the-line combo for well under $2,500, a combination I could easily be happy owning.
HiFiMan (the company) - I owned a HiFiMan HE-500 once upon a time. It failed shortly after the warranty expired and I chalked it up to suspect quality control after hearing of similar production issues from other owners. This made me leery of buying a HiFiMan product again but I went ahead and took the chance with the HE-1000. While listening to my HE-1000 shortly after returning from Tylls last week, inexplicably, the leather headband detached from its metal base rendering the headphone unwearable. My dealer was kind enough to contact HiFiMan on my behalf which was a good move because had I been the one to initiate contact, it would not have been a kind exchange of words. To HiFiMans credit, I was contacted via e-mail within 24 hours with an apology and an offer to replace (not just fix) my headphone immediately. They acknowledged my issue as something they were aware of and promised my replacement headphone would have no such problem. I will withhold final judgment until I receive my replacement but thus far, their customer service gets an A+.
I won't soon forget this experience as it reaffirmed a few headphone setup principles for me:
- Find the headphone that you love first, everything else comes second.
- Equipment synergy cannot be overstated. Learn the strengths and weaknesses of your headphone and find an amp (and DAC) that optimizes its strengths and minimizes its weaknesses.
- You don't have to spend a lot of money to get great sound. The headphones, amps, DACs and players being produced today are more consistently of a high standard and the best technologies of just a few years ago have trickled down to even entry level gear. My experience at Big Sound 2015 has reaffirmed for me that from the greatest to the least, differences are more often subtle than stark.
As for my closing remarks to my host, the best that I can think to say is "Thanks, mate!" It was a privilege to have lived in your shoes and sat in your chair for a day. I hope to catch you in Costa Rica one day lounging in your tricked out RV!
Editor's Note: Wow. Now I don't have to do my final write-upI think you are dead-on with many things. Thank you, very much.
I especially loved your comment about enthusiasts listening for pleasure and audio professionals using them for work and needing different gear as a result. I know my choices are going to different than both you and Bob because I have very particular needs for work. The amp and headphones I'll choose won't be for everyone. It's sort of true for all intent headphone listenerswe all have our particular set of desires (values) when evaluating gear. Good times, eh!?
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