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
zobel's picture

Not a full moon though, a bit disappointing.

Hands's picture

[Insert lame joke about neither moon being full enough for me...something like that]

Bob Katz's picture

The headroom guy (very sorry I don't remember all your names) really liked the Moon. Hands felt the Moon was neutral but not involving. As objectively as I can, using reference material and a very accurate DAC (the Prism) I felt the Moon was utterly soft, without definition and uninvolving. I would not call the Moon neutral at all, ever. I wonder if it's a problem with those MDAC attenuators? This is a real pity because the design, look, feel and precision are very impressive. But it didn't fool me.

Different strokes.

zobel's picture

I especially appreciate your perspective on these cans in comparison to the longer lived flagships still on the market! I find your tempered, practical, and value-oriented approach in your evaluations very refreshing, and I think you have good ears. Thank you.

Hands's picture

Thanks for taking the time to read and for the kind words. :)

Eli's picture

Wow, what you said in your conclusion about the HD600/650 mirrors my feelings about them and the status of the industry to a degree that is almost scary. How did you get access to my thoughts and experiences? Do not question yourself too much Tyler, there are people who share many of your impressions and value your analyses! I also really like the way you expressed all this, detailed, truthful an yet concise (especially the last paragraphs).

Hands's picture

I've met a lot of truly wonderful guys at Changstar (you'll see similar industry comments at that site) and at the couple meets I've been to that feel the same way as you and me. Sure, some of them are more HD800 guys than I am, and some really love the HE1000. The cool thing is that we all get along and really understand where each other is coming from.

Eli's picture

Furthermore... I forgot to mention that I also appreciate that you mentioned the DT880 600. While I use mine with a lot of EQ, there are great aspects to its sound not to be underestimated, such as a quickness and some good but not too strong right-left panning (as you called it) and overall pretty smooth frequency (after EQuing out the peaks) and square responses. And you do not have to worry about damaging it or a failing driver, as its build quality is very sturdy and all parts are replaceable without too much cost or effort. It really is an audio tool for me. I also own a Akg Q 701, but when it comes to build there is no comparison between the two. Like you I consider the HD800 and Hifiman HE1000 possible upgrade paths, but with tweaking. On the other side I think, most of the TOTL headphones can be EQued and thus improved a lot, as the tonal balance seems to be the most constant weak point. The great thing about the HD600/650 is, that a newbie (or a veteran) can enjoy them without recurring to all these measures.

Eli's picture

I am also on your side when it comes to the HD600 vs HD650 discussion. I own all three of them (HD580, 600, 650), and while at first I preferred the 600 I slowly, instinctively transitioned to the HD650. I find it more coherent, in the sense that the sound seems to be made of one single piece. I am also very sensitive to the 1.5-3 khz region, an the HD650 taking a slight step back here helps with my preferences. Still it is very close and I completely understand people preferring the HD600, as I have been there myself, but I am doubting my preference for HD650 less and less as time progresses. Both are great! My HD580 I find the weakest, it is the brightest and lacks the warmth and bass of the other two. It is still good, but the overall balance ist not as strong. Tylls measurements show these tendencies between the three models, but I find them to be stronger than the measurements suggest with the HD580 (at least with my pair of HD580s).

Hands's picture

Yeah, I simply find the tonal balance on the HD650 to be more cohesive, and the drivers MIGHT be a bit more refined than on the HD600. Maybe. But I can see why some prefer one over the other.

kman1211's picture

Definitely agree about the HD 650 being more cohesive sounding. The refinement of the HD 650 drivers is quite easy to hear over the HD 600. All you have to do is use the same frame and baffle so everything is equal outside the drivers and have the HD 600 driver in one earcup and the HD 650 driver on the other, gives you a good idea of their differences without relying on aural memory. On the my personal pairs I found the HD 650 driver clearer, more spacious, and resolving. The HD 600 driver sounded a bit congested and smeared in comparison. Curious how much of it may be driver variation though.

lashto's picture

I very much agree with the last part about the hd650 and the industry, too. But since I am not as optimistic as Tyler, my quote would be "I think the industry has veered off course over the years and gone completely crazy". And lets not forget awfully greedy and dishonest.

I can understand a $3K can if it uses some super-duper new tech that needed years of research. But why exactly does v2 of anything cost much more nowadays? Isn't v2 supposed to be just a slight improvement which did not require any significant investment? Shouldn't it be much cheaper?!?!

Anyway, congrats @Tyler.

castleofargh's picture

you get a subjective +1 point from me, as the HD650 is my only headphone, I loved it many years ago, ended up buying it again and I've never looked for something else since. they measure pretty well, extend fine(not planar fine, but still more than they're usually given credit for), and are very reasonably priced.
I also agree with the idea that they don't have as clear a left/right panning or overall imaging as the hd800 or some TOTL. it's obvious, but the thing is, I can't stand that on headphones as it just makes it more obvious how wrong it is to listen on something mastered for speakers on headphones. I could deal with the hd800 with some crossfeed(and massive EQ in the top end), but as they are... no way! so it really does come down to what people wish for I guess.

your comment on your fear of the he1000 not being "refined enough" to identify the amps. I just can't understand the reasoning leading that kind of idea?
the things that come to my mind when thinking about those 2HPs are damping factor, impedance over frequencies, and overall power needs. if power was a factor, the HE1000 would be the one needing more and "scaling" with more power or whatever, but all of those amps were more than enough to drive them so it could be seen as a non issue.
then comes the obvious impedance over frequencies, and damping ratio as a dynamic driver good electrical damping is rarely a casual thing. those are if we look at it objectively problems from the hd800 that the HE1000 doesn't have(or most planar/orthos for that matter). so I can't help but think that a good deal of the differences noted on the hd800 are just fancy ways of talking about the amp's impedance. and perhaps it would have been interesting to just add a resistor to get all amps with a closer impedance to see if the h800 still was as good at picking differences?
so you see my own thought process tends to lead me to the exact opposite worries you expressed. they both result in the amps being hard to pick apart with the HE1000 though.

Hands's picture

Very cool to find HD650 fans. :)

As for the points you mentioned on the HE1000, they absolutely do factor into why it was much harder to pick out various amps on that headphone. However, it's my personal opinion that you have to consider other technical traits as well. Let's start with Tyll's HE1000 measurements (and I can confirm the production measurements he hasn't published share very similar qualities).

First, the frequency response. Overall, pretty darn good on the HE1000, if not a bit rough and ragged looking. Just a bit of treble rise around 7KHz that makes them sound a bit rough in terms of timbre primarily. To me, sometimes frequency response issues get in the way of being able to pick out the chain feeding the headphone. It's actually difficult for me to hear past that timbre, though some headphones don't impede my abilities even with timbre and tone problems. That said, I think one can find counter examples to this...or perhaps we have to factor in my next points.

Next, there's distortion. The HE1000 does pretty well at 90dB. The HD650 might do slightly better beyond the 1KHz or so mark, but it's no secret the HD600/650 have higher than ideal distortion below 100Hz. The HD800 seems to do really well with distortion in the upper mids and treble and is overall quite good here. Start to crank the HE1000 further, and distortion starts to look pretty rough, and it already has a weird distortion spike at 4-5KHz even at 90dB. That might also factor into the lack of refinement I heard and perhaps impede its abilities to let the chain shine through as clearly as it could. Maybe.

How about impulse response? The HD650 kind of bounces around, but it settles after that without too much noise. The HD800 seems better controlled. The HE1000 doesn't bounce around too much, but there's just a bunch of "noise" after the impulse. I'm curious how Tyll's results would look if mapped to a CSD measurement. Another 3rd party has measured the HE1000 CSD, and they do seem to have a ridge at that same 4-5KHz spot where distortion spikes on Tyll's measurements. Possibly related? Possibly audible and adding to the lack of refinement and ability to be as transparent as it could be? Maybe. The 300Hz square wave looks a bit ragged on the HE1000, much like the FR.

I'd like to think these traits, while not outright offensive and rather subtle subjectively, do play into how the headphone sounds and how transparent it is or is not.

Absolutely, impedance curves and damping factor play into how headphones react to various amps. No doubt about that. I would just like to believe, based on my experience thus far with headphones and amps, we can't ignore these other traits in terms of how they all connect and impact a headphone's subjective sound and how it reacts to the chain OR its level of absolute transparency even despite the frequency response.

Just my 2 cents, and I could be talking out of my ass just to make myself feel better or smarter than I am. :)

Have you heard the HE1000, by the way? If so, what did you think? Did you hear anything I described? If not, maybe if you get a chance to try it, you'll start to understand what I'm talking about. Unfortunately, I'm in the camp that while I value objectivity, I also value subjectivity first and foremost. There is room for both with some give and take. Sometimes, I just gotta go with what I hear...and it isn't always explainable in the usual objective ways, nor do our current objective methods and measurements capture absolutely everything that could possibly be captured regarding audio gear.

Whatever works for you in your quest for audio nirvana, or whatever it is you seek, I do suggest keeping an open mind while in tandem sticking to what you know what has worked best for you historically. :)

castleofargh's picture

no I didn't get to hear the HE1000 yet, TBH I'm not a huge fan of the few hifiman I've heard, so I'm not in a hurry to try the new stuff ^_^.

my own experience really tends to make impedance a major point in telling amps apart(or not). not counting stuff degraded and colored on purpose of course.
do you think it would have been easier with any other ortho/planar with a clean flat impedance response?

my own audio adventure, TBH most of my reasons for buying new stuff are to solve practical problems(like hissing, comfort, or Hulk incidents needing replacement). I never contracted the upgradatis, probably because I wash my hands often. ^_^

Hands's picture

The HFM planars I've tried were all hit and miss. HE500 with mods was great. HE400S, surprisingly good and enjoyable! HE560 was like sticking icicles in my ears. HE1000, well, I already talked a lot about that.

You should try the HE1000 if you get a chance just to see if maybe you can hear what I'm talking about. Easier to have a good conversation that way too. :)

I WANT to say there are better orthos that would have made the blind testing easier. But, hey, I can't know for absolutely certainty unless I setup a blind test for that. And now that I'm thinking about different ortho headphones, I'm not sure what I'd pick! Maybe one of those legendary LCD-3, pre-fazor, with incredible technical abilities but a high tendency to die in a relatively short time frame. Haha. I'd really just have to try all sorts of orthos to find out.

romaz's picture

The HD600 was there and maybe I should have included it into the mix because I did spend time with it. This was my first audiophile class headphone. Dollar for dollar, compared to all the headphones there and taking into account both comfort and sound quality, it was the best value. If I had a wall of fame like Tyll, it would be tenured in permanently.

Hands's picture

The HD650 continues to impress me the more I step up in the world of DACs and amps. And, given I mod about anything I own, there is further potential to be gained from the HD600/650 with mods. Just ask some of the guys at the recent Head-Fi Denver and Changstar Boulder meets. I know one guy became a convert and modded his HD650 shortly after. So much potential! Makes me happy to see guys still rocking them at meets. Good to know not everyone has forgotten them, even if they ultimately wanted or move to something else.

Womaz's picture

I have thoroughly enjoyed this series and for a novice like me looking for a new set of cans it has been invaluable and may even cause a rethink.
I have just ordered the Auralic Taurus MK2 and this will be fed from my Devialet 200. I have the AKGQ701 at present and had a shortlist of the HD800, HE1000 or LCD-3.
After reading these reviews I now may consider others like a cheaper HiFIman maybe or the HD650, OR HD700.
Of course I may even keep the AKGs for now if they are vastly improved with the Taurus.
I will keep visiting this site as its an excellent guide as I tend to have to buy blind without audition.
Great series

Hands's picture

First, go to headphone meets if you can. That's the best way to sample all sorts of gear in person before buying.

Second, if you think you'd prefer a neutral or brighter sound signature, start with the HD600. Just note that it can be amp picky (or, hell, even balanced vs. single ended picky on some amps), but when you find the right amp for it and you...oh boy. If you think you might like a slightly darker (neutral-dark) sound signature, try the HD650. Both clamp a bit out of the box, so you may need to stretch them out over something (pads removed so they aren't compressed!) or bend the exposed metal in the headband when you extend the cups all the way down.

Can't say I cared for the HD700...it took the worst sound signature traits of the HD800 and sacrificed the sheer technicalities. I know some guys love it, though, so don't feel like you have to listen to me.

What do you like about the Q701? What don't you like? I've heard it a bit, so if I can get an idea what you're looking for based on what you think of that, I can better tailor my suggestions.

Jazz Casual's picture

I agree with your pragmatic (I don't regard it as cynical at all) appraisal of TOTL headphones.

Three Toes of Fury's picture

Tyler,

Thank you soooo much for taking the time to write such a great review and overview of your experiences. You possess an outstanding writing style and attention to detail.

I also appreciate that you raided Tylls wall-o-fame and provide thoughts on items out of scope (on changestar) from big sound!!

Most of all I am really pleased to see some of your final thoughts on the "big" picture. Clearly most of we regulars on this site and in this hobby are on a kinda/sorta never-ending path of looking for the next great gear. Its costly. Its fun. But its also something that warrants perspective now and again. Perspective..and maybe moreso...a better appreciation of the gear we already have rather than trying to find something better. I certainly am striving to embrace these thoughts.

Does this mean no more new gear? heck no! Its still a hoot to find new audio stuff!

Thanks dude!

Peace .n. Living in Stereo,

3ToF

PS: May i ask if you have any favorite closed headphones? I really respect your thoughts on the HD600/650 and was wondering if you have a favorite closed pair or two to be used when open are not an option?

zobel's picture

I would like to share a recommendation for a closed headphone. I have really been enjoying the Senheiser HD380 Pro. I have an HD 600 (and an O2), to compare it to. In a nutshell, the general features associated with closed vs open style cans are present here as you would expect. The tonal signature of the HD380 is similar to the HD600 with the exception of a much better bottom end with this sealed can, more open textures and harmonic definition with the open HD600 through the upper frequencies. The HD380 is much more dynamic while the HD600 is more polite, and ultimately, somewhat more resolving in textures and spatial information.
The HD380 is 54 ohm, and easy to drive from portable players. It sounds a bit better when using the O2 to power it in most cases, especially if listening at higher volume.
The HD600 really scales up with an amp, and for best performance, I have found the O2 to be a necessity with it.

Rather than going on and on here about the HD380 Pro, I'll just stick in some reviews I found on it and maybe you will want to check it out with your ears sometime.

http://www.techradar.com/us/reviews/audio-visual/hi-fi-and-audio/headpho...

http://www.marco.org/2012/01/27/sennheiser-hd-380-pro-headphones-review

http://www.theaudiophileworld.net/2012/04/sennheiser-hd380-professional-...

Hope this helps bring this contender to light.

Hands's picture

Favorite closed headphone...that's tough. I guess I'm just more an open headphone guy these days! I don't really run into scenarios where open isn't an option. I guess my modded PM-2 is a hybrid closed/open headphone, so it's sorta there and tonally similar to the HD650, but a bit softer sounding for when I really, really need to relax (or pair it with crappy sounding portable gear, like my phone). But that doesn't help you, I know!

Plus, my experience with closed headphones is not up there with some folks. But what I can suggest:

- LFF's Paradox or Slant. Paradox is relatively neutral, Slant is bassier, larger sounding stage-wise, and a bit more easy-going. About as good as you can get for a T50RP mod, though maybe a hint too wooly or upper-bass, low-mid emphasized for me (you get used to it quickly). LFF mastered the T50RP mod early on and is incredibly picky about his level of quality and consistency.

- Zach from ZMF - He does nice things with the T50RP too. I found the Vibro to have the closest tonality to the HD600/650 out of the lineup, and he's more than willing to custom tune them for you based on your tastes. He puts a lot of effort into each pair. The Omni is looking promising too.

- Mad Dog 3.2 or Pro - Toy around with some front damping mods on this one, and they can be pretty damn nice too.

- OPPO PM-3 - I'm worried about product variability on these. If you get a good pair, they're great. Very powerful sounding, slightly bright, but smooth. Even ignoring variability, they are incredibly sensitive to fit and seal. Weird shaped head? Big ears? Lots of thick, long, or curly hair? Glasses? Anything that might remotely break the seal, and the bass can go out the window. These run fine from portable sources.

Other than that, I'll have to let guys with more exposure to closed headphones put in their 2 cents!

Three Toes of Fury's picture

...you rock dude!

Thanks for taking the time to respond to my closed cans question and offer up such great information. I really appreciate it.

And, as said before, you have an outstanding way of communicating your thoughts, analysis, and experience in writing. Its not an easy thing to do, and you do it well. Keep it up! This hobby benefits substantially when folks like you share their experiences.

Peace n Living in Stereo

3ToF

PS: I was really pleased to see your thoughts on the PM3. Its the one pair that has really caught my eye over the last year and is relatively unique in its cost/closed/planar config. If i end up going down that road, i'll pay close attention to your notes on seal...finding the right bass "feel" is always a toughie.

Hands's picture

Always happy to help any way I can, or at least try to help. :)

Just don't forget possible planar variance if you get a PM3. There have been a few cases were individuals did not care for the sound and were definitely getting a good fit/seal. Their impressions sounded quite different than the pair I've heard too.

Three Toes of Fury's picture

Thanks bunches for your recommendation! You dont need to sell me to hard on Sennheiser, they make up a huge portion of my collection and i find their headphones, time and time again, provide really great sound-for-value across their lines.

Somehow the HD380 Pro has escaped my radar until now...thanks bunches for the heads up and tip on these cans...you can bet i'll be checking them out*.

Peace .n. Living in Stereo,

3ToF

(*hahahaha...not one post ago i was talking about the importance of enjoying the gear we have, and now im off to track down a new pair...is their a Headphones Anonymous group for we addicts? he he he)

TheFox's picture

Thumbs way up, Tyler, that is one excellent write-up - especially your observation about the state of the industry and where the most bang for the buck lies.

I've never been able to try any headphones more expensive than the Grado RS-2e, but comparing that to a Fidelio X2 for almost half the price already showed the "law of diminishing returns" in full force.

How about "Big Bang (for the buck)" as follow-up to "Big Sound" with gear like HD600/650, X2, HE400i, Objective2, Magni, Modi, Aries Mini, etc. ? ;)

Hands's picture

Sounds like a cool idea to me! I know Changstar did a cheap headphone shootout a while back.

I can't say I'm much of a Grado fan (yeah, coming from the HD650 guy, I know). The Fidelio X2 was pretty fun sounding. A bit too much bass for me and a sharpness in the treble that fatigued me long-term, but they were certainly engaging! I had to be in the mood for those. I'd definitely take it over a Grado. ;) Just my opinion!

TheFox's picture

Yeah, I've read a lot from people who either love the Grados or don't like them at all - I'm not really in either camp but don't that much experience with them.

The X2s are clearly the more fun and musical headphones, though the RS-2e did a bit better on songs that highlight the X2's tendency to sound a bit gritty and unrefined.

I think a good description for the X2 is "diamond in the rough" - if they polish the sound a bit more in a X3 while keeping all its' predecessor's virtues, that would be an amazing set of cans.
Until that happens... I'm a pretty happy X2 owner. :)

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