Big Sound 2015 Participant Report: Alek JK-47

(Editor's Note: Alek (JK-47) the first visitor to Big Sound 2015 (report here) has graciously submitted his own participant report on the experience. How cool is that? Read on for his thoughts!)

After hearing of Tyll's illness, I wished him well in a thread on Changstar, and wrote off my visit to the "BIG Sound 2015". His health and well being is more important than any event, and I wasn't about to contact him asking if I was still welcome to come over. To my surprise I received an email from him on the morning of August 31st, asking if I was still on for the 2nd of September. I replied, Geez yah, as long as you're up to it. He said he felt much better and he would like to have me over as the first visitor.

September 2nd, I drove the 150 miles over to Tyll's, and was greeted by the man himself. After a brief introduction, I told him to let me know if he wasn't feeling well, and I would be on my way. He assured me he would be OK, and warned me of the impending heat that would be building as the day wore on. Due to the six figures worth of Hi-End headphone gear in "The Room." Once I caught site and entered the "BIG Sound 2015" room, I was awestruck, and the first of many "I'm overwhelmed" exclamations slipped out of my mouth.

BigSound2015_PR_Alek_Photo_LeftRigs

Tyll went on to explain the first test as he readied the gear. It would be to identify which amp out of three possibilities was playing through the Sennheiser HD800's. The solid state Simaudio Moon Neo, the current driven Bakoon HPA-21, or the Apex HiFi Teton tube amp. I was told which amp was at each position on the 3 way switch, and given time to listen and familiarize myself with their sound character. I was expecting more of a drastic difference in sound between each of the amps and their unique topologies. Then we did a few practice runs I soon told Tyll, "this is a lot harder than I thought." He gave me a hint, and said "listen to the bass of the Bakoon." He explained how the current driven Bakoon interacted with the HD800's higher resistance at lower frequencies and gave the low end a more pronounced sound. He also kept encouraging me to relax and just listen. With this nudge in the right direction I started to try and eliminate the Bakoon first, and it did help. Then I had trouble between the Moon and Teton, when suddenly Tyll chimed in with another easter egg. "Listen for the clean treble of the Moon," real life treble is pure and clean, and that tube amps leave a little extra something that some people enjoy, but isn't a true representation of the original sound. It felt great to have a few mini lessons thrown in during the testing, and bolstered my confidence and understanding.

Next up was the same test with the HiFi Man's HE1000's. Right off the bat Tyll said this test was going to be tougher, and talked about nature of the impedance curve relative to the HD800. The HE1000 had an almost constant resistance across the entire frequency range, while the HD800's had a considerable bump in the lower frequencies before settling down a bit. This meant that the Bakoon wouldn't affect the HE1000's in the low end like it did the HD800's. After some testing I found that the Teton's richer midrange, helped my identify it by listening to the piano portion of the test track. Through the Teton the piano sounded less precise, and that the notes were blending into each other. The Bakoon and Moon made the piano notes very distinct and separate in comparison. Even with only the Moon and Bakoon left, It was difficult for me to differentiate the two. Then another clue from Tyll, "listen for the smoooothness of the Bakoon's treble." By this time, the test was winding down and I was starting to feel mentally fatigued. I learned blind testing takes considerable concentration, and effort.

I found during both the HD800 and HE1000 tests, that when I correctly chose the amp on the middle #2 postion with my first attempt. I had trouble A/B ing the two remaining amps in position #1 and #3. Tyll picked up on this and asked if leaving the correctly chosen #2 amp powered off would help. I said yes, and it did help, but still found the brief pause switching between #1 and #3 throwing me off a little. I had a much easier time A/B ing amps when they were at the #1 and #2 or #2 and #3 positions.

After a lunch break in the fresh air on Tyll's deck, we went back into the test room. I was set up with the Yggdrasil and Antelope DAC's fed into the inputs of the Ragnorok. While I was getting familiar with both DAC's, Tyll went out of his way to test a set of Fostex T50RP's that I had modded. By this time the test room was getting very hot, but the occasional breeze snuck in through the window for some much needed relief. Tyll checked in on me when he was almost done testing the T50RP's, and I flat out told him I didn't think I wouldn't be able to differentiate between the two DAC's. He gave me some words of wisdom "listen to how natural the voice sounds, specifically the detail rising up from the throat and into the mouth." I was left to continue listening, but to quickly A/B test with the Ragnorok was easy, B/A not so much. To get from B back to A, I had to cycle through several inputs before returning to A. It was slightly frustrating not being able to quickly compare back and forth, and I threw in the towel. Any further testing would have been just random guessing. Tyll said the cables produced an even smaller difference in sound, and suggested we skip it altogether. I heartily agreed, and we moved on.

Now it was given free reign to listen to headphones and amps, with the music of my choice streamed via Tidal. I tried a few different combinations, but concentrated mainly on the different headphones. Generally I find "bright" headphones fatiguing and not very fun for me. I will say my top three picks delivered treble in a way that was truly outstanding. The order of my picks may have changed if I was given the opportunity to listen for days and weeks, rather than minutes and hours

  1. Sennehiser HD800: I really enjoyed these!!! There was just something special in the way they presented their sound to me, clear, concise, and accurate. They left a smile on my mug every time I listened to them, and kept calling me back for more. I didn't learn until late in the day that they were actually modded using one of Anaxilus's mods. Tyll also told me a new Anaxilus mod was going to revealed soon (hopefully when Anaxilus visits Tyll at the BIG Sound 2015). It would be cool to see the test results for his new mod vs. the older.
  2. Stax 009: If the HD800's were like a finely honed knife, the 009's were like a scalpel carving out the soundscape!!! Each voice, instrument, and sound seemed to have it's own distinct place out in front or to the sides of me, at varying distances and heights. The music effortlessly flowed, and to my untrained ears sounded the most life like. The only knocks in my book against the 009's, were the need for an amp that powers electrostatic headphones, and the slight lack of low end presence. Other than that I thought they were magnificent!!!
  3. HiFi Man HE1000: They reminded me of the all-star athlete that had a 4.0 grade average. Absolutely superb all around, and has the ability to make those around them better. Why did I rate them third ??? Maybe, because they were a little too good at everything and lacked a little bit of character. I'm sure their revealing, transparent, and smooth sound will appeal to many, and become the stuff of legend.
  4. Mr. Speakers Ether: They were a very easy going headphone, light, comfortable, and had a well rounded sound. I thought the mid range sounded ever so slightly congested, but overall a nice piece of gear.

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My Dad is also a big fan of Tylls and Innerfidelity, so I brought along a new pair of Sennehiser HD650's that I bought for him as a surprise gift. I asked Tyll if he could "autograph" the box for my Dad. Not only did he write a little something, he threw in a Cardas cable for the Sennheiser's!!! That was unexpectedly awesome of Tyll, and when my Dad received the HD650's and Cardas cable by way of UPS last Friday, he was simply blown away. A BIG thanks from both of us, to you Tyll!!! After that we wrapped things up and I thanked Tyll for the experience and hospitality.

I think it would be great to see blind testing similar to this on a regular basis at some of the headphone events around the world. It would be nice to see industry heavyweights go head to head. Voting by the community could determine the contestants, that is if they were up to the challenge. Who knows, maybe even contests with prizes and sponsorships could be in the future. It would help sort out the Pro's from the Pretenders, help validate actual facts, and slow down the hype.

I have no desire or ambition to become a Professional writer, reviewer, or critic. I do have a new found appreciation and respect for the Professional's in the sound industry, and their ability to detect the slightest change, or subtle nuance, and analyze what they are hearing. It truly is a skill that many simply do not have or have not taken the time to develop.

Near the end of my day at the "BIG Sound 2015," I started to realize that a person doesn't need to spend a massive amount of money to have a system that sounds fantastic to them. The latest and greatest do not always translate into the best. With a little time and research, a person can put together an awesome sounding, modest, and affordable system for not much more than the cost of the latest limited edition Beats headphones. This visit to Tylls, has without question saved me money in the future. Newer purchases if any will be thought out and planned with much greater care, weighing the gains against dollar spent more than ever. With my current gear, I am confident I'm in great shape for many, many years to come..

In closing, I would like to thank Tyll for putting this all together and helping me with a few basic tips on how to begin building not only my critical listening skills, but also my critical thinking skills. Of course, thanks to all the suppliers who made the effort to get their gear to Tyll, and make this a reality. My hat's off to all of you !!!

HUGE THANKS TO THE "BIG SOUND 2015" PAST, PRESENT, AND FUTURE PARTICIPANTS (victims) !!!

Happy Listening,

JK47

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
tony's picture

I feel your take on this whole experience.

You did well.

You'll be a celebrity at the meets, from now on.

Tony in Michigan

ps. I'll send your story to my children, maybe they'll buy me some Sennheisers too. 800s in Black would keep them in My Will, plus I'd like to have Tyll test em and Autograph em.( I'd put an envelope, for Tyll, in the Box )

JK's picture

Celebrity is definitely not what I'm after. Not to mention my work schedule makes it very difficult for me to attend meets... I may have the chance to attend RMAF.

Glad you enjoyed the write up.

ashutoshp's picture

thanks Alek...long may your pragmatism continue.
its funny to think that i started out in the hobby with bluetooth headphones....i loved them for what they did but curiosity got the better of me and here i am.

maelob's picture

Just wanted to say great job for the report. Totally agree with the comments about value and performance. Based on how hard is to detect differences in systems really put in perspective the amount of money that sometimes people put into their systems and probably a lot of those people can't even hear the difference. I am just a regular joe that just want to listen to hear good music in a nice system and this confirms that I don't need to spend tens of thousands to achieve a great sounding system.

Edwardsean's picture

Hi Tyll,
I've been following the Big Sound project with great interest. I've noticed that the HD800 is consistently finding its way to everyone's top 4, whether its home audiophiles or industry pros. It's not surprising given how good it is, but it nevertheless did surprise me because the HD800 was virtually the starting point so long ago for the new wave of price-no-object headphones that came after. I still think it images in an unsurpassed way. I wanted to ask, given your experience now with Big Sound, is there an amp that is also emerging as the best pairing with the HD800, esp. in regard to lush emotionality, soundstage dimensions, and realism of imaging? I'm currently looking esp. at the Bakoon and Moon offerings.

Bob Katz's picture

Nice story, JK! You are sensitive to Tyll who we all wish well in his recovery. Let's keep in mind the HD800 which we all reviewed at Big Sound was a modified model which has alleviated much of the nasty edge which these headphones have from the factory.

romaz's picture

I completely relate to everything you said.

Dr.Phil's picture

You should let us readers know what kind of music you listen/prefer so we can make some assessments.

I for example only listen rock and electro, if Alek listens to Classic music his preference doesn't say much to me.

JK's picture

70's and 80's Rock, tons of cheezy 80's, old school electro,and EDM are my bread and butter. I'll listen to pretty much anything though...

Catherine87's picture

You did a great job writing this. Both informative and easy to read, truly interesting.

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