Big Sound 2015 Participant Report Aaron (ab_ba)

(Ed Note:Aaron was so fast with his participant report that there's no need for a precursor summary report from me. Here's Aaron!)

I want to thank Tyll for the wonderfully generous thing he has done. The very idea of letting people come in for this is generous enough already, and then his hospitality and how much of his time he spent with me today, how much he taught me. It meant a lot.

Ed Note: You're very welcome, mate.

The big picture for the day is that there are some really great headphones available right now. You wouldn't go wrong with almost anything in that room, and at the top of the line, you're either splitting hairs, or making lateral moves, trading this for that. There's no "right answer" to the end-game headphone setup. That's either fun or utterly frustrating, depending on your perspective.

After chatting with Tyll for a while upon arriving, he ran me through some blind tests. Everybody needs to do some blind testing. It can be quite easy to set up and run, you just need a buddy to do it with you. Do it because you need to know the limits of your ability. That said, blind is not the only way to evaluate gear. It may not even be the most effective way. The objectivist in me balks at that, but my experience today bore it out. I would not want to make purchasing decisions based only on my own blind testing, let alone anybody else's.

I felt I did pretty well with guessing the three amps while listening with Tyll's Anax-modded HD800's (more on those later). I got something like six out of nine correct for all three. But here's the interesting thing: when I started making mistakes was when I started changing my judgement for which amp I liked the most.

The Apex Teton was my favorite when I was learning their sound signatures sighted. It had these wonderful dynamics, especially in the bass. The Moon was my second-favorite. It sounded so detailed, but it was a tad less involving. The Bakoon was easily recognizable since it sounded wooly to me. When I began to blow it in the blind testing was when I started preferring the Moon. I began to hear it as more natural. My mistakes felt to me like, "I like this one more, so it must be the Teton." Nope.

Tyll provided a piece of advice: "Good treble sounds simple. Which amp causes you a clearer mental visual picture of the brushes on the drums?" Once I re-calibrated myself, I think I got the last couple correct again. Moral? Your head will play games with you when you are blind-testing. Once you start searching for things, trying to rationalize your choices, you are guessing.

Then, we switched to the HE-1000s. I paused for a moment to draw my breath. Essentially, they are the reason I was there, and here I was, about to listen to them for the first time. My inner Mike Myers said "I need a moment. I'm feeling a little verklempt." And then I put them on, and, nothing happened! Music came out of them, that was all. Nothing more, nothing less than lovely, smooth, engaging music. It's not like speakers magically appeared in front of me. It's not like I was plunged into heretofore-unseen details of the music. Kind of like really fresh, clean water is still just water, these headphones just delivered music.

I would describe the HE1000s as "forgiving" of amp choice. I was not able to consistently pick out the amps, and this time I knew it. I was going after some really subtle differences, and still not getting there. I even misjudged the Bakoon for one of the other two, which just wasn't happening with the HD800s. I was making mistakes, and then my head got even more in the way. I started looking for things, trying to confirm what I thought I was hearing. "On this amp, the piano is more stable. On that amp, the cymbals are too forward." But it turned out I was guessing. Amazing. Humbling. Migraine-inducing. Time for lunch.

In a sense, this makes the HE1000s a wise purchase, even at $3000. You don't need to get the perfect amp for them, and you don't need to try out a few amps till you find that one right one. That said, amp pairing does matter, but with some headphones more than others. For HD800s you really want to get right, and that is going to be a personal choice.

Tyll and I had a wonderful wide-ranging conversation over lunch on his back porch. Cables, electronics, business models, music, why we care about sound reproduction in the first place. In fact, chatting with Tyll was the only non-fatiguing part of the whole day!

Back into the room for some more close listening. Next I targeted headphones. I took a couple of favorite tracks, and listened to each headphone, without regard for amps (for this round.) Tyll poured me some much-needed coffee, then I went back in to confirm my impressions. Here is my breakdown.

Headphones
First place: HE1000s.
At the end of the day, these were my favorites in the room. They are just so darned listenable. One thing that really stood out for me about them was the detail in the transient decay of an instrument strike. They had enough clarity that I could follow the tone as it faded back into the background.

Second place: Stax 009.
These are a rollercoaster of a headphone. When you are listening to them, you are listening to music, and that's what you are doing. After about 30 minutes, it was time to go back to something that was less attention-grabbing. But, in the meantime, what a rush! So much air around the instruments, such glorious detail. Also, I had heard these called bass-lean. I thought the bass was gorgeous, and in just the right proportion.

Tied for third: LCD-3, HD800 (Anax modded).
LCD3: They are so compelling, so immediate—the bass and the treble. Compared to the HE1000s they are not as tonally even. Compared to the Stax, they are not as detailed and airy, and I'd say their treble is a little less realistic.

HD800 (Anax modded): Clinical and analytical, but even and neutral and detailed without being fatiguing. I feel like there is less music happening with the HD800s than with the headphones I ranked above them.

I directly compared my un-modded HD800s to Tyll's Anax-modded pair. I'll be modding mine. Mine sounded "wincey" in comparison. Instruments with high-pitch overtones had a bit of extra energy that wasn't noticeable till I did the comparison to the Anax modded version, but once you hear it, it's pretty immediately recognizable. I think maybe I've perceived it all along, and maybe this is why I end up listening to my LCD-3s for longer durations. Tyll gave me everything I need to do it. You're awesome, man.

Ed Note: Here is the article on how to mod your HD 800.)

Tied for fifth: Abyss, Ether
Abyss: Of all the headphones I listened to, these sounded the most like speakers in the room. Engrossing bass. And not just moar bass, but different bass notes, textured and distinct. On Led Zeppelin's Moby Dick, John Bonham's drums were a rush. Unfortunately, songs with vocals were another story altogether. On a track I know well by Feist, she sounded recessed, like she was standing behind her band. On Toto's Africa, the singer sounded nasal. This, combined with the fact that they feel like I am about to undergo neurosurgery when I put them on, is why these are not the headphone for me.

Ethers: If I had heard these anywhere other than in this room first, I would have fallen in love with them. They do everything well. First, but least important, they were the most comfortable headphones in the room. They are light, and they just click right onto your head. They are neutral, but not weighty in any dimension. Clean vocals and present bass. I have heard it said that the HE1000s combine the best of the LCD-3 and the HD800. I didn't feel that way at all about the HE1000s—they are something different entirely—but the Ethers did seem to combine the best traits of those two, although not quite nailing it in any category.

Stax 007: These were too dark for my tastes. I think Stax needs to give us an SR-008, and fast. And, for how much these cost, they felt cheap in my hands. Actually, I'd say they had the cheapest material feel of the whole bunch. Lightweight is nice, but these felt flimsy.

Tied for last.
These are headphones which I would say have flaws. Not "lateral moves" anymore, but clear areas where they could be improved. Still, though, they do have some interesting aspects, and they will be just right in certain cases, which I'll explain:

Dharma: Wow, so interesting. The bass is present, enveloping, and bass notes are distinct. The treble is crisp and clear. Each is very compelling on its own. The problem is, these elements do not cohere with each other. I feel exactly the same way about these as I do about some balanced-armature in-ear monitors, and some multichannel speaker setups. I would recommend these headphones to somebody who wanted to get a sense for what audiophile headphones are like, and who does not want to choose among tradeoffs. That said, for me, these would not be end-game. At a lower price-point, they would be interesting to own.

Audio-Zenith: "Elegant" is the word that came into my mind. These felt like a warm blanket to me. Everything was comforting, but a little bit numb and distant. I wanted to be more involved. Of the bunch, they imparted the most sonic signature. I would recommend these to a friend who wanted a luxurious pair of headphones with an assuredly pleasant sound.

I also listened to the LCD-X, but only briefly. I prefer the sound of the LCD-3 because I find them less recessed than the LCD-X.

Headphone Amplifiers
This is one of the main reasons I came to Big Sound 2015. I have begun to wonder how much of a difference an amp can make, and what fraction of the total budget the amp should consume. Amps do matter, but there is even less difference between top-of-the-line amps than there is among top-of-the-line headphones. Even tube versus solid-state was not something where I would say without question that there is a different sound signature—at least not when we're talking about top-quality gear. A good amp is a good amp: detailed, black background, dynamic impact, and holds it schiit together as the volume goes way up. For these tests I grabbed the HE1000s since they seemed to be the most forgiving of amps. In the limited time and mental focus I had, I did not want to ferret out pairings, I wanted to get as direct a window into the amps as I could.

In first place were the Woo monoblocks.
Airy and clear. Impactful. Microdetail. Black background. Luckily, many other amps sounded nearly identical. I felt I might have noticed a difference within the first three seconds after switching, but then my brain adjusted and I was pretty sure I would not be able to pick out the Woo from these others in a blind test. The Moon, the Teton, and the Ragnarok all sounded pretty much just like the Woo—really, really good. I would own the Woo if I could, but since I can't it is nice to know I will be perfectly happy with more affordable gear.

I found myself switching between amps as quickly as possible, unplugging and plugging-in with one motion. I found that going from one amp to another, within a few seconds, my brain accommodated, and I lost confidence in any differences I thought I was hearing.

These amps were all a close second to the Woo, and all really close to each other, with some differences.
Ragnarok: I found myself playing this one loudly. I felt it held its schiit together the best as the volume went up. However, I also felt that it was less involving at quieter volumes. I almost wonder if something is a bit off with the volume knob on the unit Tyll has. I found the sound to be absolutely lovely, but sound aside, it had some disadvantages. It would not be my top choice for a purchase.

Moon: I loved the feel of the interface on this one. The volume knob is fantastic. It moves so smoothly and without any audible artifacts. The increments are so tiny, you can really dial in. I felt this amp was neutral and commanding, but it was also slightly uninvolving. It seems to get the most out of the way, imparting the least to the music, but at least at louder volumes, I preferred the Ragnarok. (I listened to the Moon with its built-in DAC, and the Rag was fed by the Yggy, so that may account for some of the differences.)

GS-X: I expected to love this amp. I love my Pico portable amp, and this struck me as the mama pico. The problem I had with it was the volume knob. Not enough increments. The sound was great, though. I felt it had great impact. The Moon struck me as more laid-back, and that would probably be my preference.

Violectric: I own this amp. I came in wanting to feel good about my purchase, but afraid I would not. Sigh of relief: this amp is barely distinguishable in sound to the others including the ones which cost more, with some notable exceptions. First, the Violectric only sounds top-tier in balanced mode. I kinda wish they didn't even have the single-ended jacks on it; I think people assessing it based on that sound are only getting half the story. Second, it sounded a tad dry during that first three-second switchover from the Ragnarok. A smaller difference than the difference between the HD800s and the LCD3, but the same type of difference. The Ragnarok sounded both more lush and more detailed than the V281, but that sense of dryness faded fast as my brain acclimated. Third, the Ragnarok was more controlled at high volumes. The Violectric's sound began to fray at louder volumes. (I definitely listen louder when evaluating gear than I do for a sustained listening session.)

I'd be (and am!) perfectly happy with any of the above amps. Each has its strengths, but trading one for another is making lateral moves. The following amps I felt had problems.

I found the Eddy Current Black Widow and the Burson to be a bit shouty sounding. (Sorry if that's not much of a technical term. Let me try again: strident and somewhat harsh.) I see that they are cheaper than the others, and so I would say they are quite excellent for their prices. I wasn't delighted with the Bakoon either, which surprises me, since current-mode strikes me an interesting design. Maybe it has potential.

Another goal I had coming in was to see if a really great amp would do much to improve the sound of my JH-13's. You need to know that I love my JH-13's. I've had them for about four years now, and they still get more head-time than all my other headphones put together, just because they are so dang portable. I have them in all the time. If you are in the market for top-of-the-line headphones, start here. Maybe end here too. Plug them into your iPhone, and just go enjoy your music.

That said, most of the headphones in Big Sound 2015 sound better than my JH-13's. Headphones are more cohesive, more neutral, they convey more space and separation. I wonder if some future CIEM with some digital-signal processing may get us all the way there. For end-game sound, it isn't going to be in-ear monitors, at least not for a while. Again, it's only once you hear all this wonderful gear that you even notice something is missing.

So, amps. To my delight, the JH-13's sounded best with the Violectric V281. The noise floor was silent. The low end of the volume knob gave me the control I needed. The sound was smooth and cohesive. The noise floor on the Ragnarok was too loud, and it was still audible while music played. Unfortunately, this takes it off my "buy" list. If I have headphones I use all the time, I'd want them to work well with my amps. Also, the volume knob made them too loud almost immediately. The marketing for the Ragnarok focuses on its versatility: from IEMs to speakers. But, I don't agree. There was also a noise floor on the Moon, but it went away once the music played. IEMs don't really need a big amp, and they don't improve the sound all that much compared to a good battery-powered amp.

This leads to my final remark about the gear in Big Sound 2015. The whole package Tyll has assembled is just phenomenal. My Violectric at home has a louder noise floor with my JH-13's than did the same amp at Tyll's place. From the moment I first donned HD-800s for the first blind test, they sounded better to me than my own pair. More full and engrossing. Here's what I think is going on: I think it all adds up. Things like the dac, the server, the power regeneration, and the cables all work together to a wonderfully satisfying musical experience. The Aurender in particular really stood out for me; the interface was just a delight to use. Another item I wish I could afford.

After all my critical listening was wrapped up, and I was too fatigued to continue anyway, I hooked up the HE1000s to the Woo monoblocks, fed by the Antelope DAC. I put my feet up, closed my eyes, and just listened to a few of my favorite songs. No judgement, no comparison, just music.

Video

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) and Taurus MkII headphone amp ($1899)
Simaudio MOON Neo 430 HA ($4300 w/DAC).
HeadAmp GS-X Mk2 ($2800)
Schiit Ragnarok ($1699) and Yggdrasil ($2299)
Burson Audio Conductor Virtuoso ($1495 w/PCM1793; $1995 w/ESS1908)
Woo Audio WA-234 ($15,900)
Antelope Audio Zodiac Platinum DSD DAC, Voltikus Power Supply, and 10M Rubidium Atomic Clock. ($13,045)
Apex High Fi Audio (TTVJ) Teton ($5000)
Eddie Current Black Widow ($1248)
Violectric V281 ($2299)
Bakoon HPA-21 ($2995) current output headphone amplifier.
KGSSSRE (Kevin Gilmore Solid State Special Reviewer's Edition E-Stat Amp ($Unobtanium)

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
musiconic's picture

Thanks Aaron. I'm beginning to think the $3k for the HE1000 may not be so insanely crazy after all, as they've been mostly getting high or highest marks. Great opinions and great presentation on video (the whole strange feet thing on the last video did no service to the myth of the socially deficit audiophile whose too inept to fully present himself - it's comical).

I didn't expect this but I've been learning much more from those that don't present themselves as opinionated experts online. Perhaps there's something about the more you think you know the less you actually do. Really great job Aaron and a very nice guy to boot!

24bitbob's picture

I was hoping for the exact opposite, or maybe it's the same thing? (Perhaps Aaron could clarify). But if the HE1000's were just the tiniest, little bit of a smidgen better than the HD800's, and only in a very few aspects, then I could save myself the trauma of wondering how on Earth I could afford them. Aaron, please tell us that you're talking about tiniest little bits of difference?

For me personally, out of this wonderful series of articles I'm finding out all sorts of great stuff. No post would be complete without seconding Aaron's heartfelt thanks to Tyll for making all of this possible.

ab_ba's picture

Yeah, on the flight home, I thought about this exact question. Which headphones do I want to own? And what would I recommend somebody buy if they wanted to just get one top-of-the-line pair?

I can’t say the HE1000s are only a hair better than the HD800s, because they are just really different. “Which is better?” just isn’t really the right question. Insofar as accurately reproducing music, I am not even sure the HE1000s are better than the HD800s. That said, I did enjoy listening to music more with the HE1000s. I wish I could be more definitive, but when you’re talking gear this good, the bottom line is that they both allow you to get completely engrossed in your music, and that’s the important thing. They don't have flaws which detract from the music. Of course, if they were both perfect, they would sound exactly the same…

I left Big Sound completely happy with the headphone setup I currently have. I usually suffer from a chronic case of upgrade-itis, so I was pleasantly surprised by my reaction. I’d say there are two equally-good routes you could go to an end-game headphone rig. First route: Get yourself some HD800s. Mod them. (I have yet to do it, but if mine turn out as good as Tyll’s did, then it’s well worth doing.) Also get yourself a pair of planars. The sound signature of a planar is just plain different, and you will delight in experiencing your music differently through two different transducers. I have LCD-3F’s, but I’d say the “planar sound” is present in more-affordable options too. The HE1000s have that planar sound. Get a decent amp. I am delighted with my Violectric V281. The HD800 will be more picky about amp selection than probably any planars you choose. OK, second route: Get yourself some HE1000s, and pretty much any amp. Grab a used one, it’s just not going to matter as much with these. (That said, I didn’t try balanced-versus-single-ended, so I can’t say if it matters for the HE1000s.) Either route will be a complete delight, and the total cost is about the same, especially since you can buy used HD800s and LCD-3s now (though perhaps not 3F’s), and I don’t think there are many used HE1000s showing up yet.

How about the third option, of Stax, or Abyss, or a really expensive amp, like monoblocks, for your planars/dynamics? At that point I think you have to seriously ask about your commitment to headphones, versus a decent stereo. At that price point, you can probably build a wonderful two-channel speaker system. At that price, I think you are choosing headphones over speakers based on lifestyle considerations rather than sheer musical experience.

Tyll Hertsens's picture
Great comments, Aaron. I'll add for folks at a more introductory level this sage advice:

Get a pair of Koss Porta Pros. Relax and listen for a couple of months.

Then get a pair of Sennheiser HD 600 (or 650) second hand. (Replace pads if worn.) Get a Bottlehead Crack, hopefully with Speedball upgrade. You can probably pick up both second hand for less than $500. As an alternative, get an O2 from JDS Labs. Live with this for a year or two and go to as many meets as you can listening for stuff that sounds clearly better to you.

Then think about upgrading.

donunus's picture

This is really awesome advice. People should follow this. portapro, sportapro, grado sr60e... all good starter cans. The Hd600? Great cans period. I wouldn't even care that much if I never get to the flagships once I already have one of these paired with a good amp. But like Tyll said, you may find something you really love at a meet later on.

zobel's picture

Aren't there any ladies who would like to listen to those cans?

zobel's picture

New HD 600 are $355 at amazon. New O2 is $139 at amazon. Total bliss = $494 New. I really like the HD 600's with my O2.

soundmix's picture

"the more you think you know the less you actually do"

I was thinking the same thing. All of the videos have been great and informative and hits the very high bar I expect from InnerFidelity. However the Pyrates & Katz ones were just the least coherent of the bunch. I appreciate their time. However, the bit of humbless and ability to articulate their opinions cleanly (and I might say on camera) goes to the rest of the guys, including Aaron here.

After this series, I have a very good picture of the equipment even without having heard many of it myself. I consider that a huge success and hopes it achieves what it's meant to do. I really hope Tyll keeps improving on this series for many years to come1

anaxilus's picture

I'm sorry you found our commentary confusing or incoherent. If there is anything specifically you'd like me to clarify, please let me know and I'll due my best to elaborate in a more succinct or incisive manner. In the meantime, we have a glossary that might help shed light on some of the commentary.

http://www.changstar.com/index.php/topic,2468.msg68724.html#msg68724

TMRaven's picture

Hey Tyll, what material do you use specifically in that HD800 you have modded? The article you linked has all sorts of different materials with different effects, I'm interested in the line currently used, since it seems to be so favorable.

Tyll Hertsens's picture
I believe it's Creatology foam board covered by real wool felt.
poleepkwa's picture

Have the HD600 been used at all in these test for comparison purposes? I have noticed that no one has mentioned it...

drWho2's picture

Aaron was the best participant of bunch, thus far.
Reason: follows KISS practice.
For your YouTube vids, TH, you need to close windows/doors (one can hear so much background noise!!) ... makes one wonder how the participants were able to concentrate on test.
In fact, the distracting bg noise is audible in almost all the BS2015 vids, but the Aaron episode is esp. bad ...
Hint ... PSSSTTT ... read:

ab_ba's picture

Ha! Yeah. It's hysterical that book is even a real thing. The problem was, with eight amps all turned on and running all day, that room was HOT! Turning on a fan or the A/C is not an option, because that would be too noisy. The window's just gotta stay open.

DaveHD800's picture

Hey Tyll, Really enjoying the series. Just wondering if the vega and Taurus have been getting rated in this series. They seemed to be one of your favourites so I was wondering if the others also had impressions on this combination.

-Dave

Tyll Hertsens's picture
I really like the AURALiC Taurus Mk2, but found some of the amps in this group a clear step up for me. I'll be picking a new reference amp for my work from the group here.
DaveHD800's picture

Thanks for the reply Tyll, Interesting indeed! Will be looking out for your writeup and thoughts for the new choice from the group.

zobel's picture

I too was wondering how these cans compare to the HD600 you have hooked up there.

ab_ba's picture

For funnies, I did poke my head into the HD600 a couple of times. It serves as a reminder of just how far the high-end in headphones has come over the past decade or two.

I know that some people prefer that sound signature to the HD800. I think I can see why, but I think the HD600 has more "character" than the HD800s and other modern headphones. To me, the HD600 is perhaps more visceral, more engaging, but it is more thick and wooly, and less accurate. I want to hear my music, not the headphones.

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