Big Sound 2015 Finale: The Headphones

Big Sound 2015 started out as the way to fulfill my equipment needs to evaluate the latest batch of high-end headphones...then it ran amok, in a good way fortunately. Even though I got pretty ill and hospitalized before the event, I found it great therapy to have enthusiast hobbyist brethren in my home as I regained my strength. Kinda like ladies from the church group bringing over hot dishes to help me through a rough patch, only with geeks and headphones. Good times; my thanks to the participants for coming to hang out with me for a spell.

On with the headphones! I actually find it harder to rank the headphones below than I did the amps in my previous post. This is not because the differences between headphones was tighter, but rather because they all departed from "perfect" by a much wider margin. Hell, we don't even have a reliable, official target frequency response curve to shoot for—"flat" has been established for audio electronics...well, forever. The result is that headphones have a much broader range of sonic character than amplifiers and DACs, and many more flaws. So as I gradate my choices below, it's very much more fuzzy than my headphone amp gradation—and that wasn't without difficulty.

I do believe that within ten years we're going to see headphone performance slowly narrow in on a neutral middle, much like speakers did decades ago. Please keep an open mind on what you think neutral on headphones sounds like so that when it does appear you'll be able to recognize it.

Bottom line: Every headphone below has a great deal of merit and, I believe, an audience. But every headphone listed below also falls short of ideal performance. Your individual purchase will, at present, always be a compromise. As you read about the cans below, I suggest that you always leave the compromised position of simply getting a pair of Sennheiser HD 600s on the table allowing you to wait it out for five years to see what happens. I'm not saying they sound as good as these top-of-the-line cans, but they're way closer than the dollar difference would indicate, and it'll free up a thousand dollars or more for music and the like.

If however you're interested in the highest performing headphones you can get right now, read on, there are great listening experiences to be had with the following gear if you choose carefully. As always, personal audition is highly recommended.

Participant Scoring
One of the things I asked of each participant was to rank the top three headphones they heard. I've accumulated these scores from each participant on a spreadsheet giving three points for first, two for second, and one for third. Results are as follows:

  1. 12 points: Sennheiser HD 800 (modified)
  2. 10 points: HiFiMAN HE-1000
  3. 7 points: Stax SR-009
  4. 4 points: Audeze LCD-3
  5. 3 points; 3-way tie: Enigmacoustics Dharma; Mr. Speakers Ether; Stax SR-007
  6. 1 point: Audio Zenith PMx2
  7. 0 points: JPS Labs Abyss

My Take on Big Sound Headphones
In order of least personally appealing to most:

JPS Labs Abyss AB-1266 ($5495)
BigSound2015_WrapFinale_Photo_AbyssThe Abyss has got some really good things going for it sonically. When properly positioned on the head, I find it's bass response shockingly good, and it's treble response on par with the best treble of the other cans with the exception of the HD 800—which, to my ears, is in a league of its own. Unfortunately, I also find the midrange of the Abyss to be somewhat withdrawn. "U" shaped frequency response can be a blessing if you listen at low levels as it approximates the loudness contour curves, but with a headphone at this price I expect a solid mid-range experience. After all, it's where the bulk of the music lives.

The thing that really hurt the Abyss in the Big Sound process was that they are very difficult to properly adjust and position on the head. In fact, I find it impossible to get it positioned really right on my somewhat large head given the limited amount of physical adjustment available. For people walking in to Big Sound with limited time to fidget with these adjustments, the Abyss, with its very unusual looks and fit, became an unpleasant anomaly not worth the time and effort. I don't think it got a fair shake sonically in the event due to its unusual nature, but I also don't think it represents a good value at $5000.

Audio Zenith PMx2 ($1398)
BigSound2015_WrapFinale_Photo_PMx2The PMx2 is a heavily modified Oppo PM-2. Much of the modification is in the pads, but there are also some changes to the driver and acoustics internally. I would characterize it as a significant improvement over the stock PM-2, and a better performer than the PM-1. It has improved extension both bottom and top, and a very neutral character. It's also the most portable-friendly headphone of this group with efficiency that allows it solid volume levels with portable gear, and folding functions and case that make it easy to transport.

But...it doesn't have the kind of treble resolution that characterizes, for me, what a great high-end headphone should have, which was readily apparent when compared head-to-head with the other headphones in the room. I would say the stock PM-2 is really the more rational choice if you're looking for this type of headphone.

Enigmacoustics Dharma (~$1200)
BigSound2015_WrapFinale_Photo_DharmaWow! This is really an interesting headphone, and an extraordinary first headphone offering from Enigmacoustics. This is a dual driver headphone with a fiber diaphragm dynamic driver for frequencies up to around 6kHz, at which point a cross-over guides the signal to an electret (permanently polarized electrostatic) driver.

Some participants noted a discontinuity in the cross-over region, but some (including myself) did not hear it as such. Measurements show (measurement .pdfs for all cans are linked to in a separate section at bottom of this page) significant distortion in bass response below 400Hz, but very few participants heard this without it being pointed out. Measurements also show that the frequency response is very close to what I consider the current best target response (Harman curve).

I think we're going to find this a very polarizing headphone in its current form: some will like it very much, while others will be irritated by the above potential flaws. I too hear it as very good sounding in general—maybe amongst the best of the bunch in tonal response and upper-treble articulation—but now have a very hard time not hearing the bass distortion as problematic.

I've not settled in my head whether the flaw distracts from the pleasures of these cans, and will be doing more serious listening soon. You can expect a review from me; in the end I might not recommend them, but they're certainly the best dual-driver headphone I've ever heard and are worth of review on that basis. Proceed with caution.

Audeze LCD-3 ($1945) and LCD-X ($1699)
BigSound2015_WrapFinale_Photo_AudezeI'm sure most InnerFidelity readers are quite familiar with the Audeze brand and their offerings. These cans are practically legend in the headphone world for their bottomless, distortion-free bass and even mid-range. They're also rightly well known for their somewhat excessive weight, and somewhat unfairly known for their product variability due to inconsistent diaphragm tensioning. I say unfairly not because there isn't some variability, but because I feel the magnitude of the variability overly reported, and because it appears planar magnetic headphones from most makers may suffer from this problem. Tensioning the diaphragm repeatably is very, very difficult.

There has also been significant forum chatter about the reduction of bass and other treble issues with the introduction of the Fazor last year. I did hear a small reduction of bass in the newer versions from Audeze, but I did not hear other treble problems. In fact, measurements show an improved leading edge in square wave response.

I continue to feel these headphones are a solid offering in their category (my full review here). I prefer the LCD-3 over the LCD-X due to its more articulate mid- and upper-treble response, but both are quite good. However, I also think some of the more recent headphones in the Big Sound group have passed them by in some regards. And we'll get to that shortly.

Stax SR-009 ($4450) and SR-007 ($2350)
BigSound2015_WrapFinale_Photo_Stax2I could have easily switched the Stax and Audeze positions; they're very different, but about equally good choices with price factored (special dedicated e-stat amps are needed for them). But on sonics alone, I'd take the Stax over the Audeze.

The problem I have with the SR-007 and SR-009 is that the 009 is too bright, and the 007 is too rolled off—fireworks or murky water seems the choice. I previously gushed over the 009, but having had the opportunity to listen to them side by side has me preferring the more subdued character of the 007. Even though it's a bit too low in level, I find the 007 treble response more articulate and smooth than the 009.

Such were my thoughts untill Bob showed up.

Bob Katz, world renown mastering engineer, came to Big Sound armed with—among many other things—his personal pair of modified Stax SR-007 headphones. When I plugged them in my jaw dropped—this is what I want to hear from an electrostatic can. Brilliantly articulate and fast, but smooth as a baby's buttocks. The modification he used is fairly simple to implement; instructions can be found in this HeadCase thread. Yes please, I'll take the modified SR-007 all day long.

Mr. Speakers Ether ($1499)
BigSound2015_WrapFinale_Photo_EtherBoy is there a lot to like about this headphone! It's got the solid good looks of a premium headphone—nothing audacious, just, "Hi, I'm a quality headphone." In terms of comfort, it might be the best of the bunch—and that's saying a lot because the HE-1000 and HD 800 are both amazingly comfortable. But they're also a bit too large to feel secure on the head. The Ether very nicely hugs your head and ears.

Like the following HD 800, Mr. Speakers' Ether is a bit too bright—less so than the 800, but it's still the first impression I got from these headphones. Continued listening, however, had me slowly but surely gaining appreciation for the Ether. Apart from the cool tilt, they have outstandingly tight bass, precise treble articulation, and are very even sounding mid-through-treble.

With the new-found appreciation and curiosity I have for equalizing headphones with Bob Katz, and the observation that the Ether has very good distortion measurements, I'd say these are the bargain headphone of the Big Sound group if you're primarily using a computer as a front end and have a good parametric equalizer plug-in for your playback software. I'm definitely going to have fun reviewing these.

Sennheiser HD 800 ($1599)

BigSound2015_WrapFinale_Photo_HD800In it's stock form, the HD 800 can be brutally bright and a troublesome listening partner. Once modified it becomes a superstar high-end headphone, delivering the best transient response and imaging of all headphones, in my opinion. It still retains its lean character, and choosing an headphone amp to pair with it remains a hot topic of discussion, but for most the HD 800's strengths outweigh its weaknesses by a solid margin. Note that it placed first among Big Sound contestants in the scoring table at the top of this article.

The HD 800 is the only headphones I've personally bought in the last 20 years. When I left HeadRoom and bought their headphone measurement system, I also bought some 800s as my reference headphones. They work spectacularly as an audio tool for me and as a reference for what really good treble response sounds like. Which leads me nicely into the problem with the HD 800: while they are a great tool for analyzing the fine detail of a recording—an audio microscope, if you will—they can become quite tiresome when it comes to listening for pleasure. With the mod, however, and very careful amp selection, they remain a pinnacle headphone.

HIFIMAN HE-1000 ($3000)
BigSound2015_WrapFinale_Photo_HE1000In many ways I'm in agreement with the Big Sound participant who, as a whole, voted the HD 800 as the best headphone. It is technically extraordinarily good...but Big Sound participants weren't listening to each headphone for hours on end. I have to give the nod in importance to the pleasure derived from the listening experience and report that I found the HiFiMAN HE-1000 the stand-out headphone of the group. Remember that commercial with the little stuffed bear falling into the cloud of toilet paper? The HE-1000 is like that: they deliver the most relaxing and pleasant listening experience I've ever had.

I tend to hear the HE-1000 as having a "soft" sound. Initially I thought they must lack dynamic impact, but, while they're not the last word in slam, they do have plenty. I'm truly puzzled by the sound of the HE-1000; I don't know how they can sound so nicely detailed and properly impactive while sounding so soft and cuddly at the same time. Fortunately, I'm absolutely going to do a full review on these headphones and dig deeper. Until then, if you've got the dough, go ahead and by them—they're lovely.

And scene....
Thanks for coming along with me on this Big Sound adventure. I had no idea what it would turn into, but I'm pleased with the results. I do now feel I've got a handle on the context in which the new high-end cans find themselves, and I just plain old had a good time with folks coming up to Montana for a good listening session.

It took far too much time away from regular headphone reviews to do this on a yearly basis, but should a similar situation arrise with a bunch of new high-end headphones some time in the future it might be fun to do again.

I did mention a few things in the video that aren't in the article, and I cover the amps there as well. Might be worth a look.

Video

Headphone Measurements
Audeze LCD-3
Audeze LCD-X
Audio Zenith PMx2
Enigmacoustics Dharma
HiFiMAN HE-1000
JPS Labs Abyss AB1266
Mr. Speakers Ether
Sennheiser HD 800
Stax SR-007
Stax SR-009

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
Alamei's picture

This was a very nice wrap up to the whole Big Sound experience, but it looks like you accidentally pointed the LCD-3 Measurements link back to the HD800 Anax mod page. You might want to tweak that before it causes any confusion.

Tyll Hertsens's picture
Got it. Thanks!
purk's picture

Thank you for your write up Tyll. Will a better electrostatic amplifier change the outcome of the headphones ranking? Couple of years back, you did not find anything wrong with the SR009 when paring with Justin Wilson's Headamp BHSE. I recalled that you thought it was near perfect. Thoughts? I personally don't have any issues with brightness especially with the like of KGSSHV (full-size) or BHSE. As the owner of the HE-1000 & SR009, I actually like the sound SR009 better.

Tyll Hertsens's picture
I think there are better estate amps out there than my KGSS, but I don't think it would change much about my current opinion. Having the opportunity to hear them side-by-side with some of the other new cans changed my mind somewhat. Bob's modded SR-007 was an ear opener.
romaz's picture

As a participant of Big Sound 2015 and as a follower of Inner Fidelity, thank you for taking us along on this journey of discovery. It was both a privilege and a pleasure. As expected, your perspective on all of this gear is invaluable. It's a shame the LCD-4 wasn't released sooner but it's great to have something new to look forward to listening to!

Jazz Casual's picture

I've heard the Abyss, SR-007, HD800 and HE-1000. My impressions of these headphones align with yours but I'm not as enamoured with the HD-1000 as you because of the softness in presentation that you describe. The leading edge of notes are too blunted for my taste. I also agree that the HD800 remains a pinnacle transducer, which speaks volumes for Sennheiser's R&D efforts that led to its development. This headphone continues to be a class leader in the high-end headphone market segment, despite being challenged by far more recent and expensive rivals.

logscool's picture

Wondering if you would be willing to post the measurements of Bob Katz's modded 007's assuming you measured them while he was there. I would love to see them.

Tyll Hertsens's picture
Sorry, I didn't measure them.
zobel's picture

You are to be commended for sticking to your mission! You provide fair, honest, helpful, and trustworthy advice offered with a sincere desire to inform your readers with useful information regarding all things headphone. Your integrity shines through these reviews in your quest to steer us to the best musical experience available in the real world of audio.
One word of warning though, keep your doors closed, or there may be bears to contend with there ^_^ !!
Thank You, Fun reading!
zobel

TMRaven's picture

Is the measurement link for the HD800 for the modded one? It looks very similar to the original HD800 measurements.

Tyll Hertsens's picture
No, sorry, it's not for the modded one. Looks like I need to add that to the graph page. Hm.
wink's picture

A few little comments.
I have heard piano and flute live, and they can be piercing. Like WOW, man.
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OXuJsjXbEoE

High end needs to have a high end.

Hi-fi has almost nothing to do with music - that's just a side benefit.
Hi-fi is about accurate reproduction of the source material.
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Xxz6_utUsZo

So, there you have it...... Enjoy your gear for what it's worth.

24bitbob's picture

Thank you Tyll for a wonderful series of posts.

Thanks to Bob Katz and his involvement in Big Sound 2015, I've been inspired to check out the EQing of headphones. In terms of bang for the buck, that has to be the best value ever. A few tweaks using EQ has transformed my HD 800's into instruments of constant joy.

I was wondering about the HE-1000's, and how they would compare with the HD 800's. Now I know; one costs $3,000 the other costs half that. That's a big chuck of money for a preference that might not exist (and in which any difference is rendered meaningless by virtually cost free EQing). Likewise, justifying big price differences in amplifiers is a hard call, the message being to check out the headphone / amplifier combination and go with the one that pleases you best, and trust your ears (and good fortune) if that means that the cheapest sounds best.

Too often we can be lulled into believing that some other combination offers marked improvements over what you have when Big Sound points to the differences being much smaller than many would have you believe.

I'm a lot happier with my current set up now, and very much inclined to leave well alone.

Thanks to all contributors to Big Sound.

Bob

Hjelmevold's picture

It's surprising to see how similar the impulse and frequency response is, when you bring up the data sheets for Mr. Speakers Ether and Sennheiser HD 650 next to each other. Could this be one reason why the Ether has received a warm welcome? Too bad that there is a sharp notch at 8kHz - those kinds of deviations are too risky trying to EQ compensate for, in my opinion.

potterpastor's picture

Tyll, I thought you guys did a tremendous job. It was very interesting reading.

I also think it's neat that even after listening to the most accomplished headphones in the world, you can still give a shout out to the terrific HD 600.

here's a question. Is it possible for a 32 ohm headphone coupled with just an iphone 6+ to approach the sound quality and finesse and refinement of a 300 ohm headphone like the HD 600?

Tyll Hertsens's picture
The HD 600 driven by what?

The short answer is: Yes, it get's you about 85% there; but no, that last 15% makes a meaningful difference to an aficionado.

Three Toes of Fury's picture

..the Starship EnTyllerprise...its ongoing mission, to explore awesome new headphones, to seek out new and improved bang-for-the-buck cans, to boldly go where few hobbyist's have gone before....{cue the trippy theme music}

Once again sir you have done an outstanding job. You've peeled back the curtain of the cream-of-the-crop and found that there's a lot of good, but there isnt alot of perfect. Sound, its reproduction, and the individual experience of interpreting it is one part science, one part feeling, and one part mystery. And maybe that's just the way it should be.

Great stuff...great guests....and great insights. Your efforts are appreciated. Now kick back, relax, enjoy the fruits of your labors, and pull out a pair or two of cans that you've been itching to review and check out some fun tunes.

Peace .n. Living in Stereo

Three Toes of Tyberius Fury

TMoney's picture

Fantastic work, Tyll. Thank you so much for everything that has gone in to making the "Big Sound" project.

I have two questions I was hoping you might be able to answer.

1. Do you think any of the decision-makers at Sennheiser are aware of the HD800 modding being done by the enthusiast community? I'm recently on the "mod" bandwagon and I really do wonder what Sennheiser's internal reaction to the modding is. Have you had any "on the record" conversations with them about modding the HD800 that you would be able to share? I'd love to know what they think.

2. You've mentioned through the "Big Sound" project that it is much easier to identify amplifiers using the dynamic HD800s than it is to do so with the planar HE-1000s. Would you maybe be interested in writing an article at some point explaining why this is the case? You mentioned in the videos that it has to do with the impedance curves of the two headphones, but I'm sure there are many of us who would love to learn more about what exactly happens when headphone drivers interact with amplifiers.

Once again, thanks again for all you do for this hobby.

Best,
-Adam

Tyll Hertsens's picture
1) I'm pretty sure they're aware of the mods. Their problem is that they have to build headphones that they can warranty for years. The felt in the ear cup will be exposed to sweat and humidity they may cause it to degrade over time, or maybe start smelling. Sennheiser, quite understandably, probably doesn't want to deal with those kinds of issues.

None the less, I do mention this mod whenever I talk about the HD 800, mainly for the reader, but I am quite aware of my words potentially reaching the era of Sennheiser engineers in hopes of influencing them to continue to work hard solving issues like this. Wouldn't it be cool to see Sennheiser come out with their own mod for the HD 800!? Never happen, but fun to think about.

Audiognome's picture

Tyll have you had a chance to listen to the Audeze LCD4 and how does it compare to these headphones mentioned in big sound 2015.

Tyll Hertsens's picture
Just briefly at RMAF...no comment yet.
ab_ba's picture

... who's knockin on Tyll's door this time? The difference between the headphone geeks and the church ladies is that it was Tyll making the food for us.

For me, the greatest lingering value of my trip out to Big Sound is getting calibrated to Tyll. When he writes, I know firsthand that I can trust what he's hearing will be close to what I'd hear. In any pastime it's so helpful to know which reviewers you can rely on - for movies and wine it's much easier to check if a reviewer is on the same page as you, but for headphones, there are so few opportunities to audition gear, that it's really rare to know whose experiences will be a pretty close indicator of your own.

Imusicman's picture

Thank you Tyll for a very informative and interesting set of results. Regrettably All these HF are out of my price league. Still it was a great comparison. I would also like to thank you for helping me to decide on my current set of cans the Focal Spirit Classics which I purchased some time ago now on the back of your review when they along with the Pro made it on to the wall of fame. I have been extremely happy with my classics especially as I was lucky enough to buy them heavily reduced on Amazon. Glad to see you back on your feet. Keep up the great work

Imusicman's picture

Hi Tyll, Do you have any recommendations for an upgrade on my Focal Spirit Classics? My budget would be a max of £600-£800.
I would mainly be listening at home or the office using an iPhone 6 or Questyle QP1R as the main device. My head and ears are on the smaller side of average. So much so that my Focals only fit me with a fully retracted headband.

johnjen's picture

A huge undertaking, expertly implemented, and presented to all of us to vicariously live thru…

IMPRESSIVE

JJ

gertost's picture

Wrong site i guess,but whats the best sounding high end headphone for a family man with noisy enviroment (kids and wife watching tv,lol). i like spacious sound,punchy bass,and lots of crispy details...

gertost's picture

headphones is my time to take and break from a4 life,and just lay back and dream :) but want an high end headphone that last for years.open headphones are not an alternative :(

Seth195208's picture

..really dropped the ball on the dynamic driver. It would be interesting to see how a well designed, planar magnetic for the low frequencies would work in this design.

TMoney's picture

Thanks for responding to my question about the HD800 mod.

My line of thinking is that if Senn knows what we like and don't like about the HD800 they might be able take that feedback in to account to tailor the sound of any potential HD850/1000 down the road.

I'm glad to hear that they were intrigued and are aware of the modding that is being done in the community.

TMoney's picture

Well, well. Speak of the devil.

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