Comparing World-Class Headphones

It's not often one gets to set-up $37,000+ worth of the world's best headphone gear on the dining room table. I should do a little comparative listening test and report my findings, methinks.

Wasn't easy to write with all the good music going on in my head, though.

Splitting Hairs
I need to preface this article with the observation that these are all great headphones. In this article, I'm testing these cans in a comparative manner. If you're not careful you might walk away thinking there's more difference between these cans than I actually heard. In the end, these headphones are all very, very good, which means the differences between them are actually relatively small.

In addition, I will have just a couple of days listening to this set-up. The differences I hear will not be drawn from months of experience. All of these products deliver nuance that is simply inaccessible --- and somewhat indescribable (like dancing about architecture) --- in an article of this type. My intention here is simply to get a basic read on the general character of each headphone relative to one another, and offer it to you as a first pass sorting of the gear. From there on, you'll really need to do the listening yourself to find gear that suits your taste.

Gear List
HeadAmp Blue Hawaii ($4995); Apex Audio Pinnacle ($10,000); Wadia 861SE CD Player ($9,950); Stax Sr-009 ($5200); Stax SR-007, Mk1 late version ($2600 for current MK2); Sennheiser HD 800 ($1499); Audez'e LCD-2 late Rev 1 ($995); HiFiMAN HE-6 ($1199); HiFiMAN HE-500 ($899); Cardas Golden Reference interconnects ($840); and Audio Power Industries Power Wedge Ultra line conditioner.


Testing Proceedure
I did the listening tests one track at a time listening to each headphone, but will present the data here one headphone at a time to make it easier for you to read.

Almost all the tracks I listen to are short (10-30 seconds) snippets of music with which I am intimately familiar --- I use these tracks exclusively on all my evaluations, and have done so for approximately the last 5 years.

Pink Noise/Overall Balance - I almost always start my listening tests with pink noise. If there's such a thing as objective listening, this is it. Pink noise is broad hiss/shhh/rumble sound that has equal energy in each octave. To our ears, it should sound like static that doesn't have any particular frequency that draws attention. It should just sound like broad, smooth noise.

Listening to pink noise is especially helpful in picking out peaks in the frequency response --- dips are much harder to hear. Pink noise mainly allows me to readily identify hot spots in the treble range, and the overall balance between bass, mids, and treble.

Bass Texture and Extension - These tracks help me identify how well articulated the texture of bass notes are.

For this test I use Hans Thesink's "Late Last Night" which has a tuba playing a bass line. In it, the tuba's texture and lip smacking juiciness is groovy. Poorly reproduced it turns into a murky blur.

I also use the Ray Brown Trio's "Things Ain't What They Used To Be." During Ray's solo on the acoustic bass there's a section in which he hits a number of really low and growly notes. The masterful and raw texture of his playing are evident.

Lastly, the opening bars of Tiger Okoshi's "Color of Soil" feature some of the lowest notes I've heard on a string bass. The second low note is an Adam's Apple wobbler. Great for hearing extension.

Bass Slam - Because so many listeners these days want bass slam, and it's not easy to get low bass with impact, I have special tracks for hearing bass slam.

MC 900 Foot Jesus "If I Only Had A Brain" has plenty of percussive notes with a slammin' bass line on a synth, which has a couple of really low notes in the section I use.

Medeski Martin and Wood's "Chubb Sub" includes an unusually course sounding stand-up bass and big loose drum section. If the system doesn't have bass impact, it can sound a bit thin.

Massive Attack's "Be Thankful For What You've Got" intro is percussive and swinging. All the bits need to gel above the electric bass line or your head will not bop.

Midrange - Here, it's mostly about the human voice. If you don't get it right, you won't have the sense of the physical presence of a person standing in front of you. It's important to note the enunciation of the mouth combining with the resonance of the nasal passage and heft of the chest. Both male and female voices should be heard to complete the test as both have differing character. Things should sound natural, rich, and easy; our hearing is particularly in tune with the sound of another's voice.

The Persuasions "Oh! Darlin'" is an a cappella group of men singing this Beatles tune, and recorded with Chesky Records' famously realistic sensibilities. Completely unaccompanied, we hear a dense and rich blending of male voices; when well reproduced, they surround you with their honey rich realism.

Anna Caram "The Telephone Song" (another Chesky recording), is a lovely Brazilian lady happily serenading you and a mild Sunday morning. Her voice is rich and clear; you can almost hear the tones emitting from her neck and head along with her mouth.

Treble - Again, with the David Johansen track from the opening notes, we hear a laid-back electric guitar intro supported by the drummer using brushes on snare and cymbal. Here I listen for the naturalness and organic sound of the high frequency components of the cymbal and brush work. You should almost be able see the cymbals struck and vibrate, and feel the skin of the drum.

Tiger Okoshi's "Bootsman's Little House" has a shouting trumpet line. When poorly reproduced it can be very harsh; with high-fidelity the attack is powerful without being piercing.

Dynamics - The title track of James Carter's "J. C. on the Set" opens with a ripping sax line and amazingly dynamic drumming by Tani Tabbal. The impact can be eyeblinking when well reproduced.

Carlos Heredia's "Chachipen" (on Chesky again) is a fiery Flamenco number. Here, guitar strumming, clapping, foot stomping, and castanets are all done with great vigor and dynamism, but, because there's so much high frequency with little deep lows, it can sound quite thin when poorly reproduced This track readily separates the dynamite cans from the pop guns.

Imaging - Imaging is a contentious subject with headphones. I'd argue there really isn't a legitimate audio image there unless some form of crossfeed or HRTF is involved. But I know what we're talking about here: a sense of breadth and depth, with tightly focused placements of the instruments in the soundstage. With very good fidelity, and ample listening experience to accustom your brain to the sound, a good sense of space can be achieved with headphones.

Todd Garfinkle at M•A Recording produces not only some of the best quality, audiophile-grade recordings I've heard, but also has one of the most eclectic mixes of music on the planet. Peter Epstines "Crowd Theory" on "Staring at the Sun" by M•A Recordinds is a stunningly spacious modern jazz recording. The sense of space and place is palpable; the layering superb. You are there when reproduced well.

Not surprising that another M•A Recording is in my imaging test tracks: Santiago Vazquez' track "Quejas de Bandoneon" is a beautifully layered and exquisitely arranged tango on the album "Sera Una Noche." Penny whistle, tablas, accordion, guitar, cello, and goodness knows what else populates this marvelously recorded track. Recorded in a church 100 miles from Buenos Aires, the sense of space is spectacular.

Let's have a listen to the headphones.

arnaud's picture

... not about the efficiency of the drivers your tested but that of the reviewer... Pretty amazing you managed all that over a couple of days including a write up! The video did show signs of someone ready to crash to bed though ;). Very concise yet informative, I like it!

JAD's picture

Perhaps the Rev. 2 would have been a more fair comparison, specially in the highs (top octave) department.

Anyway, terrific article. Just a pair of Sony MDR-R10's, Beyer T1, HE90 and the Ergo AMT + Ergo AMP 2 to the table and the meeting of the world's best beasts had been completed. Not an easy task, hehe.

wink's picture

Add Qualia O10 and Taket H2.

I like my Ergo AMT powered by my Class A amp.

JAD's picture

That's true. TakeT is a new contender.

donunus's picture

Beautiful! I would really love to see what senn does next to perfect the hd800s sound.

I don't think I will have the budget for the 009 anytime soon though but it sure sounds tempting!

dalethorn's picture

Me too. I'd love to have the emails and recording of the discussions behind closed doors at Sennheiser. i.e....

Joe: "It's too damn bright, don't you guys get it? C'mon, the whole world's leaving you behind."
Sally: "Well, Joe, there is such a thing as accuracy, don't you think?"
Miguel: "Yeah, Sally, let's build an altar to accuracy and sacrifice the firstborn thousand or so 801's to the god of accuracy."
Jeff, the Practical Project Manager: "All right team players, Jeff has got your solution. We'll produce a better sounding headphone and we'll say it's the most accurate, and if any of those Grado/Beyer fanboys give us a hard time, we'll post reams of data from our own tests to prove it."

That's my optimistic view.

Jazz Casual's picture

Thanks Tyll for this enlightening comparative review. I hope that it finds its way to Head-Fi where it will undoubtedly ignite skirmishes between the tribes.

khaos's picture

You probably meant white noise instead of pink noise. The power spectral density of pink noise follows a 1/f rule (equal power given any octave regardless of bandwidth) while white noise shows a flat power spectral density (equal power for a frequency band of the same bandwidth).

Tyll Hertsens's picture
You're right, of course. I changed it back to what I had initially. It may be a little more comfusing to non-enthusiast readers, but it's more technically correct. Thanks.
arnaud's picture

Humm, while I can take pink noise, white noise is pretty awful to listen to, regardless of headphone. Reason it that - although flat in lin scale - this turns into increasing loudness as frequency goes up make it very unbalanced. Conversely, pink noise does sound more balanced... So, Tyll, maybe you're using pink noise after all...?

Tyll Hertsens's picture
It was pink noise ... stereo pink noise (each channel different) so that you don't get any bass build-up. I changed it back to "equal energy per octave", for pink noise. White noise is un-listenable. Brown noise ... well I get that in the morning.
JAD's picture

What I too see is that the dynamic ones ran in SE with the stock cables. Stax phones go obviously balanced. That is a disadvantage for the dynamic ones, probably worse for the HE6's if the 1/4 jack adapter were used.

Tyll Hertsens's picture
Both amps were driven by the same unbalanced signal. Certainly can't take out the variable that the two amps were different...not much I can do about that.
Voltron's picture

Fantastic job, Tyll. No comparative headphone review I have read before (and I admit to having given up on them on other sites) has ever delivered so much information, so concisely, and so objectively. Plus, we get your trademark humor! You have a unique ability in this regard, and the objectivity of the InnerFidelity Lab has put you into a unique position. Thanks for being here! :)

Tyll Hertsens's picture
Thanks ... I'm humbled, kind sir.
drn's picture

Thank you for the comparison Tyll. Would you mind giving us catalog numbers for the CDs of the non-Chesky albums? The reason I ask is there could be different masterings of the other CDs, and I would like to hear these same version.


Lunatique's picture

Very enjoyable and informative review. I had always secretly cheered the fact you are no longer focused on selling headphones as in your previous job, because I always felt you were being limited in what you can say or do by your position for various reasons. Now without those limitations, I'm enjoying your unfiltered and more ambitious explorations much more.

I was hoping you'd do the Rev.2 of LCD-2 too, as well as the 007mk2.5, but this is already far more than what anyone else has ever done. The Sony R10 and T1 would've been welcome in the group too I think?

LFF's picture

As others have said...enjoyable and informative...but I have come to expect that from you Tyll!

Awesome write up and I agree with your listening impressions as far as the headphones I have actually had time to listen to and demo carefully. Keep up the awesome work.

Can't wait to hear to the 009!

Tyll Hertsens's picture

Dude, I'd be careful. You listen to the 009 and you'll be spoiled forever. I can't tell you how STUNNED I was at the clarity and dynamics. You could not only hear the cellist breathing through his nose, you could tell he needed to clip his nose hairs.

LFF's picture

Looks like I need to start saving some serious dough....

Currawong's picture

Thanks for the great summary analysis of all those headphones. :)

While I don't have a Blue Hawaii, I did feel when I received the 009s that they may well be the king of vocals over the Sony R10, Stax 4070, LCD-2 and HD-800s, but I don't have the others here to compare, though they were the headphones that impressed me most in this regard. Also your thoughts on the 009's bass -- I was thinking the same thing, that they are unusually great. I was used to associating 'stats with "this is how treble is done right" and orthos with "this is how bass is done right", but the 009 seems to me to deliver bass with the same brilliance as they deliver the rest of the frequency range.

Comparing them to the 007 v2.5 and LCD-2 r2 would be interesting.

dalethorn's picture

This makes a good starting point and reference for anyone who uses reviews to help select their next purchase.

DaveBSC's picture

Awesome comparison test Tyll, thank you so much! Just curious, how would you compare the Thunderpants to this crew? I was planning to buy an LA7000 as a sealed complement to my 007 Mk1, but am now leaning towards the Thunderpants instead.

Tyll Hertsens's picture

The latest Thunderpants are indeed the best sealed cans I've heard, but I don't think they'd quite match up to the performance of these cans. I suspect the best of sealed cans will never quite match up to the best of open cans.

LFF's picture

I agree. It's tough to get a great sounding sealed can to match up to these world class open cans. Apples and oranges really....

ericohgb's picture

Dear Tyll,
Nice review!
Totally agree with your 007 and 009 review.
My 007A is an Mk2 who recently got the diaphragm changed to the MK2.5 so they indeed sound forward and seem easier to drive.
Loving my 009. It's not perfect, but it's a great step over the 007.
Could you compare the 009 to the HE90 if you get the chance?

plin's picture

What can I say, your reviews and articles are getting better and better. You are a very valuable source for headphones info!
I am very intrigued by the significant - but not audible- THD rise on the one channel at 100dB for HE-500. You wrote that you were not listening to those levels, but you are neglecting that 100dB peaks are not hard to reach even with moderate levels on HQ recorded music, so I think it would be still audible.
Could it be that something changed on the HE-500 *after* you measured it (which is some months before you done this comparison - and I don’t imply burn in -)? Maybe there was a hair, or some dirt, near the driver on one channel only, which did not really vibrate till the 100dB level? It would be very interesting to repeat the THD plot now and compare the results.

Thank you again for all your valuable info!

Captfantastic's picture

What a significant, lengthy review of many of the world's greatest headphones and equipment. The good comments of several readers lead to further discussion and food for thought. However, no one has addressed the beams of lights coming down and illuminating the equipment and Tyll's review in the video!!! Don't be fooled for a minute that these beams were from the lamp bulbs above the table. Oh no! These light beams are proof that alien intelligence, advanced civilizations are monitoring Tyll and Inner Fidelity! And no wonder! Click around this website and see what treasures are there for discovery. "They" have finally found something worthy enough on this crazy messed up planet that they have aborted their invasions plans. Tyll you are doing work that is so great, really, and all of us appreciate your efforts. (Note that most of the beings were seen wearing Sennheiser HD 800s as they flew off, which I thought was fascinating). Keep up the Universally good work!

mward's picture

Great piece. I know it was a huge undertaking, so thanks for all the hard work for providing this great resource.

I was fortunate enough to have a loaner set of the Audeze on hand for a while, and I thought they were absolutely fantastic—although with nothing of comparable quality to compare them to, I wasn't really able to identify the ways in which they fell short of perfection. But still, wow. Such pretty sounding headphones. If only they weren't so heavy.

Milton's picture

"Bass Texture and Extension - These tracks help me identify how well articulated the texture of bass notes are.

For this test I use David Johansen and the Harry Smiths' "Somebody Buy Me a Drink" on the Chesky label, which has a tuba playing a bass line."

Hi Tyll,

I have this disc, and I am pretty sure there is no tuba on it. Could you have referring to another disc, such as Ry Cooder's Jazz?