Katz's Corner: The Great Headphone Shootout - Part 3

On Friday, three days before the Headphone Slutz group meeting, I received my demo headphones from the Cable Company. The Xs and the 3s they sent are in mint condition, in perfect physical shape. The demo 3s are the newest model with Fazors and the Xs have always been equipped with Fazors. Then I dropped in at Charlie's to borrow his LCD-2s (new models with Fazors) and his Schiit Magni headphone amp, so I could set up all the connections. I use Mogami AES cable exclusively for all analog and digital interconnects in my studio. Mogami cable is very well made with oxygen-free copper, which enhances conductivity. I've found that Mogami AES cable used for analog interconnect not only has a very high bandwidth due to its low capacitance, it also sounds completely neutral. In contrast, I've found many other so-called "audiophile" cables have a resonance, sometimes a rise at high frequencies that sounds peaky, unpleasant or artificial, and they are not tonally neutral. A high frequency rise can give the artificial impression of detail, but it could represent distortion or impedance interaction that is not accurate. For me, accuracy has to come first—after that, the rest is a bonus!

I built some analog Y-cables so I could feed the Benchmark DAC into the Burson and the KGSS (Stax) amp. The Prism fed another input of the Burson and Stax as well as the Schiit amp. The Prism operated on internal clock with its asynchronous USB connection, which is a potential advantage over the Benchmark, which received signal via SPDIF from the Prism's digital out. I have confidence that Prism's digital output has been dejittered and is the same performance as the signal going in. The output levels of both DACs were matched to less than 0.1 dB with a 1 kHz sine wave. Five listeners at once could now audition cans, from the Burson, Schiit, Benchmark, Stax and Prism headphone outputs. In addition to the three Audeze cans and the Stax, a set of Sennheiser HD600s (which many were familiar with) and Sennheiser HD280 Pros were available as a "reality check". Aaron also tried his faithful Ultrasones but I think he was soon depressed.


Here is a photo of the four king headphones at the session, ready to rumble.

Bob's First Listen
Between Friday and Monday, before the group arrived, I spent hours comparing the premium headphones. Here are my notes:

The Amp Choice
I found the Burson amplifier to be warmer (in a nice way, without losing any detail), more robust and full-bodied than the Schiit Magni. The Burson also throws a wider image. The difference is not subtle, but keep in mind the Schiit goes for $99 versus $999 for the Burson, making the Schiit one of the the best bargain headphone amplifiers made. If I had a more limited budget I would not hesitate to buy the Schiit Magni. And Schiit has just dropped the price of the original Magni to $79, so get them while you can!

I feel that the Burson has all the sonic virtues of tubes without tubes and without any of the flabby bottom end issues exhibited by so many tube amps with poor power supply design. It's tight, powerful, warm (but detailed), big, bold and beautiful. I find that good Class A solid-state circuits like the Burson have a lot in common with the sound quality of good tube amp designs. It runs quite warm and in that and all other respects it reminds me of the lovely Class A Krell KSA-100 I had for several years. I do like "neutral" but I don't like "cold" or harsh: I want the sound to draw the listener in, not drive him away. So if an amp is delicately on the warm side of neutral and has good detail and depth I'll be perfectly happy. So I did the rest of my dynamic headphone auditioning on the Burson, which turned out to be my favorite amp among the 4 dynamic amps.

The DAC Choice
The Benchmark DAC-1 is far from the current model, and I wouldn't be surprised to find the DAC-2 sounds even better, but anyway, the Prism beat out the DAC-1 by a few inches: it produces a bit of a deeper image and wider soundstage. This would be more obvious on loudspeakers, which reveal depth differences more readily than headphones. Tonally the two DACs sound very similar, with the Prism having a bit more detail and definition. So I limited my listening to the Prism, the Burson and the Stax amp.

The Audeze Differences
Switching between headphones initially proved a shocking experience. At first the differences are so dramatic, especially between the electrostatic and the planar, until you acclimate within a minute. It's amazing to observe that there are so many "audiophile-quality" playback systems, yet they all sound different! With good headphones like these, however, differences can melt away and turn into simple, pleasurable listening.

But I plowed on, because my job was to pick a winner, and my profession is to make 0.1 dB decisions and to discern small differences. That's my job, mastering engineer. But the great thing is that all four of these great headphones made it very easy to forget their differences and just get involved in the music. That's the real news about this shootout. As one participant remarked, "I wouldn't kick any of these four out of bed."

The LCD-3s are about $250 more expensive than the Xs (such a nice pet name for a headphone), at $1945 versus $1699, so they must be the better cans, right? That was not my experience. However, the 3s are definitely lighter and more comfortable than the X's. My wife feels the X's are very heavy and "clamp on her head"; she's not comfortable with the physical experience, and definitely prefers the Stax—which almost float in the air and you are almost unconscious of their physical presence.

But in the interest of good sound, the weight issue becomes necessary to tolerate. In fact, the reason an Audeze phone sounds so good is tied to its weight, size, and heavy magnet structure. For me, the bottom end and lower midrange of the 3s sounds very seductive, warm, clear and punchy, but objectively, tonally they are not as accurate as the Xs when using my best references—albums which I have recorded or mastered.

On one recording that I know like the back of my hand, the Bombay Dub Orchestra's "Egypt by Air", from the Three Cities album, on Six Degrees Records, the bass on its 2496 master goes down to the center of the earth, throbbing and deep. This makes a great demo record and I can recommend the CD highly. Maybe someday the record company will release the 2496 version. I know exactly what its bass should sound like on my calibrated loudspeaker system, which I used for the mastering. In contrast, the 3s produced a slightly bloated low bass, especially the lowest octaves, attractive to many listeners, but definitely not accurate according to careful comparison with the reference calibrated loudspeakers. It's not like listening to Beats cans, but there is a bit of smile curve going on with the 3s, at the low and high end. I feel there's a bit too much 8k to 13k, but that's easy to accomodate.

I did not find that to be the case with the demo Xs, which sounded tonally neutral from bass through to treble, though at the extreme treble they are a bit closed in perhaps compared to the 3s. So it's a compromise, but overall I preferred the Xs. In my fifth installment I will discuss some important differences with the X unit that I eventually purchased versus the demo unit, but for the moment I am reviewing the demos that came from the Cable Company.

Another reference-quality recording which I did not master, but which I know very well is the Mozart Violin Concerto, with Marianne Thorsen, recorded by Morton Lindberg for his excellent label 2L. On the 3s I felt that it was lacking a bit of warmth, that pulled the fiddle too forward, which was not the case with the Xs.

The 2s are the least sensitive of the cans, but I simply turned up the Burson's gain until they appeared to match in level. Many people will find the 2s to be very nice, which would save you a serious $700 to $900. Primarily the step-up from the 2s gives more detail and better soundstage. I preferred the X and the 2 to the 3, but other's opinions might vary. The 2s sound a bit more closed in, but they still are excellent and overall have what I think is a better octave-to-octave voicing than the 3s. Family resemblance and all. Clearly the 2 is the best bargain of the three models, with little bad to say about it.

I listened to a wide variety of material, looking for the headphone which produces the most natural quality on the human voice without any more presence than I hear on my loudspeaker system. One of my favorite references is my recent master of Bella Hardy, Britain's folk singer of the year for the past 3 years. The album is called "With The Dawn", on Noe Records. I listened to the 2496 master. The first track, "The Only Thing To Do" is a tour de force with a live band and Bella's charismatic voice tying it all together. On this track the Xs were the winner, with the most accurate tonality and depth for the female voice. In fact, the only tracks which I've mastered which seduced me on the 3s were hip hop numbers that have no reference in nature and where "too much is not enough". So, even though I know what's the absolute sound, I acknowlege that for pure entertainment, the 3s can sound larger than life, larger than the Xs. Different strokes....

Among other recordings I auditioned where I preferred the Xs are Paul Simon's "That's Where I Belong", from the album, "You're the One", an excellent Bob Ludwig mastering job with pure and solid bass drum, natural vocal and harmonium. I think David Crosby's "Croz" is one of the best commercial recordings to come along in a long time. I like the 2496 version available from HD tracks, but the CD sounds fabulous until you get hold of the high res. However, the CD and the high res clearly are differently processed or come from different masters. The CD is slightly more compressed (tastefully by the team of Robert Hadley and Doug Sax), and a little louder, but in this case I think that the subtle compression glues the sound together in a nice way. Think of the CD version as a tasty but brisk lunch and the 2496 as a subtle, quiet dinner, and pick the one you're in the mood for. Crosby's voice has never been better and the entire recording is to-die-for audiophile quality. On the Xs, David's voice sounded perfect and matched what I was hearing on my loudspeakers, on the 3s it had a bit too much presence for my taste.

Hi-Fi Fiedler on RCA, a favorite from my youth, has been mastered to high res and is available from HD Tracks. It's a must grab. With no obvious tape hiss, despite that some of the tracks go back as far as 1956, it's been lovingly restored. It's also available on SACD but I do not know the provenance of the digital master. Regardless, it's a knockout at 2488. The Boston Pops sounds rich, clear and big, produced by the Mohr/Layton team. Check out the Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2. This sounded great on all four phones, with the 3 giving a bit more "hi-fi" sound, but after all, this is Hi-Fi Fiedler!

By this time I was prejudiced to the X, and I can't remember whether I found anything negative to say about the other two dynamic phones when playing the Boston Pops. With this kind of recording, the air frequencies are very important. The Stax, because of their better extension and speed, reveal the ambience around the orchestra much better than any Audeze, produce a bigger, more spacious image, and bring out some wonderful details that transport you back to the original hall, however are missing the richness of the violi, celli and contrabasses provided by all three Audeze. On the Audeze, it sounds like a great recording; on the Stax, it sounds like a live performance.

By now you know the drill. So let's move on to the big question:

What about the Stax, Bob?
I've spent $4000 on the Stax 007 Mk2 and a custom-built KGSS amp, which can drive them as loudly and cleanly as you like. These are the most transparent reproducers I own, revealing details that are masked even on my fabulous loudspeaker system. That's what electrostatic transducers can do for you. I've always felt they have excellent and solid bass. So it was quite a shock to discover and admit that the cans which I have preferred for over forty years may have a victor: The Audeze LCD-X. As soon as I heard the X, I realized that my precious Stax are missing something very important: good bass. You may ask why I didn't discover this before, but all I can say in defense is that I never heard phones with the low end impact of the Audeze, and besides, the Stax are so easy to get used to, so clear and detailed that it's easy to get wrapped up in that and not miss the bass. Until you put on a pair of Audeze, and then the contest is sadly over. I prefer the warmth, punch and slam of any of the Audeze to the Stax.

But it's not all Audeze glory. The Stax are far more open than the Audeze: with their extra-light diaphragm, they are fast, fast, fast. They are much more transparent than any dynamic phone I've ever heard, though I must admit I've not heard them all! The Stax high end appears to extend to infinity, while the Audeze seem to roll off above about 12 kHz. Comparatively, the Stax is clearer but never bright sounding, very open and very enjoyable. Stax imaging and soundstage is wider, too, more holographic than the Xs. It's amazing how many different but enjoyable "audiophile quality" sounds there are. But bass is a very important part of sound quality and because of that I preferred any Audeze to my Stax. If only we could marry the best qualities of both. Hey, maybe we can, as I will reveal in Episode 5. Next up is Part 4: The Slutz Report.

logscool's picture

Wow thanks for all the great music recommendations! I think this is great after all the whole reason why we have headphones and amps and DACs is to listen to great music on them and I will definitely be checking these out.

Also I am hating you right now for the teaser at the end haha.

tony's picture

We used to do this sort of thing with Loudspeakers/Amp combinations ( back in the mid 1980s ), it's a kind-of endless journey but the results are beautiful things.

This last headphone meet in Ann Arbor,Mi. we were all piling up on a Schiit Valhala 2 Amp with the headphones Jude brought along.

I then felt the Audeze 8 Open were finalists but he big Sennheiser HD800 & the matching Sennheiser Amp were way up there too, maybe even better but didn't get to do a comparison.

The other startling revelation (that weekend) was the Bottlehead Crack driving the Sennheiser HD600s.

I then felt that any of these three combinations were End-game solutions to a long term music system.

Today, I'm adding an underdog system of Sennheiser HD580s Asgard 2 equalized with a 10 Band BSR.

Thats $3,000 to $500 price range.

I'm not all that price conscious to require me to stay within a modest range like this.

Your comment that the Stax goes deeper into the detail than your Genelec system keeps me pondering. The fact that your Stax continues to operate properly after all the use you put it thru and the idea of your wife preferring it to the HEAVY stuff keeps my pilot lite lit for Stax.

I feel the same about the Wt. factor, the Audeze are too darn heavy for me, they feel like a motorcycle helmet to my low mass phones. I can't adjust but they make beautiful music.

Well, here I am, since the mid 1950s, chasing better musical reproduction and better musical recordings.

Nothing has changed.

I just purchased "Three Cities", thank you.

You are doing a very nice piece of journalism here, thank you for that too!

Tony in Michigan

ps. I love that Bass too, I bought Three Cities for that Bass you mentioned.

ps.2 You just sold a couple dozen or more of the Xs, Audeze owes you a box of Cigars!

Bob Katz's picture

Dear Tony: I didn't even realize it was you writing until I read your byline. How did you find out that episode 3 of my War and Peace essays is out? I just happened to look and see that Tyll put it up. I need to clarify a few of your comments. You are absolutely correct that any of those three combinations are end-game solutions, similar to what I pointed out, that I wouldn't kick any of the four finalists out of bed. My preferences are clear: I suspect I would not like the Sennheiser 800, but I really like or am pleased with any of the four finalists I chose. The reference system to which I am comparing the Stax is not the Genelec system in Studio B, it is the very special monitor system in Studio A, which includes Revel loudspeakers and JL woofers, a specially treated room, a dedicated 100 amp power system and Acourate digital correction. The Stax I am referring to is the practically new pair of Omegas that I have, not the older Stax SR-5 bodies with Pro capsules, which are in Studio B right now. Even those older ones probably don't have more than 5 year old diaphragms as they were fairly new purchases by me. But my ancient 40 year old Stax are still in excellent condition, though mostly retired. As for the weight, the Stax are truly feather light. That is a virtue that goes a long way. We put up with a lot to "bear" the Audeze and the x are the heaviest of the three models. Only one user out of 7 had no objection whatsoever to the weight of the Audeze. Three Cities is a must have, I hope you like it. I don't smoke so just send me a gift certificate to Amazon's record store. :-). Onward and upward, Bob.

tony's picture

You're a Stax guy.

Three pair no less.

You even service em, able to change the capsules and diaphragms.


& you're an Audio Engineer!, A way higher "Authority", as close to Quincy Jones as we're ever gonna get.

I'm thinking that you are about to show us how to squeeze all the goodness out of $2,000 worth of Headphone & Amp.

OK, forget the Cigars. Audeze will need to give you Carte-Blanche with Amazon for a month or two.

Stax is way outa reach for nearly everyone, that's a given!, plus needing a god-awful expensive Amp, who's gonna make that leap from a pair of Grado phones and a Magni?

You can drive Audeze with darn near anything, it scales up well: it's a Stax kind of performance for "Everyman", something for us "the un-washed masses" to strive for, "End Game" Gear!

Screw N.Young,

Our Bob Katz is "C R E D I B L E" .

Long Live Bob Katz

Tony in Michigan

ps. this whole thing has been well worth reading, you have a future in journalism

veggieboy2001's picture

It's fascinating to follow you through the process...well done, indeed. It looks like I'm going to have to look up "Three Cities" although I'd rather, but can't afford, a LCD-X. Too bad the new HiFiman HE-1000 isn't in production yet...maybe that would marry the best of both...they sounded AMAZING at the Stereo Exchange Demo in NYC.

Thanks for the review!

ashutoshp's picture

..and this may seem strange but...I felt like a kid again and how warm and comforting it was to have my mum hold my face between the palms of her hand just before bed....
Anyways, I had a question Bob. I know this may seem open-ended so apologies in advance but how much should one spend on a headphone amp relative to the headphones themselves (for eg, $100 amp for a $1,000 headphone)? The reason I ask is because unlike many audiophile companies, pro-audio retailers don't appear to sell too many headphone amps spanning price ranges (and dare i say, performance).
I've even read pro-audio forums where folks spend a few hundred on a pair of headphones but then balk at the cost of audiophile amps costing the same or more and would rather contend with amps at a tenth of the cost. So is there a general consensus or a rule of thumb in the pro-audio sector about how much should one spend for both pieces of audio gear? If an audiophile's sole purpose was music reproduction and if musicians aren't making a big fuss over headphone amps, to what extent should the audiophile?
Lastly, since more money means better Audeze 'phones, how far out are the EL-8s (open) compared to the LCD-2?

DisCHORD's picture

I think you should just get what sounds good to you. If spending 800$ on an amp for a 1500$ headphone makes them sound better, then by all means do it. For me, I spent 200$ on a FiiO X3 DAP for headphones I got ranging from 50$-250$. I think it was a worthy investment, seeing as how it drives all of them, and sounds great.

Bob Katz's picture

Dear A (May I call you A for short?): As for choice of amps, I have not evaluated any headphone amps between the $100 price for the Schiit and the $1000 price for the Burson so it's hard for me to give you a definiitve recommendation. Let's put it this way: If there is a headphone amp with the robustness and warmth of the Burson but with more clarity at equal or lower cost than $1000, jump on it! Maybe I can convince Tyll to send me some $500 price range candidates for a review. I cannot believe that a company cannot make a $500 headphone amp that has all the virtues you need. It's not like building a 350 watt loudspeaker amplifier, after all. But back to the Schiit.. if $100 were all I could afford, I'd buy the Schiit in a second. It's only the ego that would make me feel inadequate because the Schiit is very respectable, until you hear the Burson and then you don't want to turn back. Based on my limited experience with the Burson, it's beginning to look like you have to spend $1000 for a $1000 headphone, which seems reasonable in these inflated times. But you should not have to have the build quality of the Burson to get Burson-quality sound, I'm betting there's something in the $500 category, but I'll be damned if I know what it is (yet). I have not heard the EL-8's and would be very interested in performing a shootout versus the LCD-2 or higher model. Just for giggles.

ashutoshp's picture

By all means, call me A, or Ash. Since headphonedom is the big thing these days, I agree with everything you said about the price-to-performance ratio.
Schiit make the Asgard and the Lyr (both less than $500) which seem to have a huge following. I'm pretty sure Tyll mentioned reviewing some Schiit gear on Innerfidelity this year and maybe now is the time ;)

JRAudio's picture

The HiFiMan HE-1000 would perfectly fill the gap, between Stax and Audeze. Until the HE-1000 will be on the market, the HE-6 (that must be driven by a very good headphone amp, otherwise it does sound too thin) does a good job, having a good part of the treble resolution of the Stax and having a bit of the neutral bass of the Xs.


xnor's picture

If your "profession is to make 0.1 dB decisions and to discern small differences" and the Burson is 'warmer' than the Magni and that this "difference is not subtle", then where do you think are these significant differences grounded in physics, measurements?

Bob Katz's picture

I don't know, could it be Satan?

xnor's picture

The Burson summons Satan? Interesting hypothesis...

How about a serious answer?

tony's picture

Hello again Bob,

The STAX vs your Big System comments are now even more impressive.

There are some lads on the East Coast feeling the Stax resolution kinda mandates a darn good DAC converter ( something in the MSB range ), from which point the others ( Audeze & Sennheisers) fade into a distant second best.

MSB Analog DAC @ $10,000
+ Stax @ $5,500
+ Blue Hawaii @ $5,000

= $20,000
not to mention Wire.

So, with only a modest DAC, I've stayed away from the STAX concept. Maybe I should rethink this.

Your Revel System in Room A reminds me of all the work we went thru getting our main listening room "tuned" , we ended up with what they call a "live end - dead end" configurtion which gave Amps plenty of workout but kept us in the store till the wee hours during our listening/Scotch tasting adventures.

Now, 30 years later I'm playing the same Music ( but on my iMac in 16/44 ) hearing stuff in the music that wasn't there in 1985.


About 1980 Hobby Audio changed : Audio Research SP3 , LINN LP12 Turntable , Koetsu Phono Cartridges all came in about then , quality music reprodution pursuits were great fun.

Today, Hobby Audio is becoming fun again but this time it's headphones & Gigabytes.

Maybe Headphones will over-take over High-End Audio as it has for me.

Tony in Michigan

Seth195208's picture

is a huge fan of the LCD-X and has made it his reference headphone. He also loves the Revel loudspeakers that Mr Bob owns. I have a feeling this "Shoot out" is going to end with the X's on top.

Bob Katz's picture

..I can't speculate on why the Burson sounds warmer and more robust than the original Schiit Magni, for example. What's the point when we do not have the schematics and the measurements don't give us enough information? I wish we had more information. But I will take measurements at low levels, perhaps that will reveal absence of crossover distortion. But I'll have to drag the Schiit out of Charlie's hands to do those measurements again.

And I have to wait till Burson sends me a replacement to confirm some other issues.

Pass Class A fully balanced symmetrical.... what makes that sound more robust and warmer than some class AB amps? What about those Hypex Class D... how did designers manage to break the original Class D barrier where some early models sounded harsh but newer models sound as good as or better than our previous Class A favorites? So many mysteries, so few actual answers. If you want an answer, ask Bruno Putseyz, or Nelson Pass, not me. Bruno is both an incredible audio designer and an audiophile. I'm an audiophile, and a professional who makes listening my profession. I can build some stuff from scratch, but I'm not in the same league. Once I built a simple, basic, semi-passive mixer using only one opamp per channel and a really good power supply. It sounded harsh and didn't make it. At that point I realized that I don't know all the magic that makes good sound.

tony's picture

This is about the best answer I've heard anyone ever come up with for the question: "Why does this stuff sound so good" !

Charlie Hanson at Ayre, with decades of experience behind him, came up with an affordable little piece of electronics ( inside the Pono ) that's dazzling. How'd he do that?
Ok, the Pono promotion is crap but the circuit design is outstanding. Now, Ayre are offering a grown-up Adult Audiophile version called the Codex ( I think ), $1,700 .
I'm not shilling for Ayre but it does illustrate the unique set of talents involved in a successful result.

Back in the day ( 1985ish ) Monster Cable introduced their Reference Speaker Cable, I sold the stuff, it was better than their regular speaker cable ( $2.50 per foot vs. about $1.00 per foot ) , it was a good seller.

Then, one day, Karen Sumner sent us a 6' pair of MIT MH750 Speaker Cables ( $500.00 ). The transformation in our Main Sound Room was incredible, the sound stage widened (maybe doubled), the Front to Back image deepened ( again maybe doubling), the dynamics improved like we increased the Amp Headroom by 2.

My partner Dr.George Buckley and I are Auto Company Engineers, we know wire "can't" make "any difference what-so-ever" yet our Big system consisting of a well designed room, Thiel CS-3s, Elecrocompaniet Mono Amps ( the electronics that created the Thriller Album by Quincy Jones) was transformed by two pieces of wire.

Once again the question: "Why does this stuff sound so good" ? kinda went un-answered ; "it just does".

The reality is that a whole group of talents work in a harmony to achieve a special result. An Audio hobbyist will attempt to re-create these magical results and might succeed or might not succeed, or may succeed enough to satisfy before completely running out of money and/or patience.

I, for my part, am working to fully reveal the secrets of the "Lolly-pop" Transducer in the venerable Sennheiser HD580/600/650 ( which I think are nearly identical ). I'm using the Schiit Asgard 2 Amp which itself has a depth of secrets of which I'm working to reveal. I'm now achieving a high level of magic ( much like we achieved in our main Salon audition room at Esoteric Audio ) .

I'm having the sensation that if a person works with A level ingredients , keeps pecking away at it, just might end up with A Squared performance results.

Imagine what might be possible if a person were to work with the Super A level ingredients, phew.

Well, thats exactly what I think is going on just now: Engineering talent is working at turning our iPhones into Audiophile source devices, our IEMs are becoming superb, our whole world of music reproduction is decreasing in financial cost and at some point we'll take for granted that anything and everything will sound "good".

We live in exciting times now, we're seeing it all happen, right before our very eyes & ears.

Tony in Michigan

xnor's picture

I'd hoped, since you often deal with 0.1 dB differences, that you could at least ballpark where the non-subtle 'warmth' comes from.

We're not talking about old class D amps here, that had various easily measurable problems like several dB deviation from flat due to filter-load interaction, limited frequency response, distortion problems due to low switching frequencies...

There are no mysteries here, except some anecdotal claims. It's funny you mention Putzeys because he has debunked the "too much feedback" or "lots of feedback is bad" nonsense.
He showed that applying only small/moderate amounts of feedback - ironically like some audiophile manufacturers do today - can be really bad for the sound quality (again measurable).

On the Burson: I'd say that the drastic rise in distortion at low frequencies and high levels comes from the power supply being 'undersized'. Keep in mind that class A is incredibly inefficient, so you need much more power at the input, and will only see a tiny fraction of power at the output.

Big amounts of crossover distortion should be audible with a low-level tone, for example a 300 Hz sine, but of course (detailed) measurements of the Magni would rock!


Bob Katz's picture

Let's face it, till the day I die there will be no magic breakthroughs in psychoacoustic discovery that will reveal exactly why one amplifier sounds as it does and another sounds different. To disparage "anecdotal" is also to deny the power of listeners. I'm not taking sides here, I'm actually running a rigorous double blind test with up to 100 listeners to help settle a very important question in audio. As Jim Johnston mentioned in his Heyser lecture, we must respect both the scientists and the artists. Great advances have been made in psychoacoustics, studying the thresholds of audibility in the presence of other sounds (masking). But there have been no advances to my knowledge over what makes one amplifier sound "warmer" than another.

No one knows definitively these answers. We can surmise, try to put together the clues, and take mostly meaningless measurements. Even measurements of crossover distortion will mostly confirm the performance of the amp, but rarely if ever point definitively to why it sounds as it does because we do not know the thresholds of audibility. Keep in mind that low level distortion may be masked by higher level material. At this point in our knowledge, only a very carefully conducted formal blind test could possibly answer the question. The rest is speculation and informed listening.

Do you really enjoy listening to music or just criticizing other people's answers? Don't rub it in and as we say, "quit your bellyaching".

xnor's picture

I have already explained most of this (psychoacoustics, bias, etc.) in a comment on your previous Part 2.

I'm not denying the power of listeners (who e.g. listen to stuff that's been through many class AB opamps with tons of feedback and whatnot ... and don't hear it), but aren't you denying the power of the brain?
Again, if you hand out placebo sleeping pills then roughly 50% will report that it works like the real deal. Raise the price, tweak the design, name and so on and you can raise that number to 70%. But there's still nothing active in it.

I think I'm respecting both artists and scientists. Hey, if it sounds warm to you then so be it. I was however asking where you think these "significant differences" are grounded in physics, measurements. Maybe they are not actually audible (physical) differences? Maybe they are. Hence my question!

The problem is that in order to make advances there have to be actually audible differences. This should be easily demonstrable, especially if the "difference is not subtle".

On your question: I really do enjoy music. I like high fidelity, but music comes first.

tony's picture

Chris Thile & Edgar Meyer: "Bass & Mandolin"

Alexandre Desplat : (Soundtrack) "The Grand Budapest Hotel"

Gene Haris : "Listen Here"

A.R.Rahman & Various Artists : "Mondo India"

Tony in Michigan

ps. Tyll seems to have "discovered" another "Wall of Fame" top contending headphone. I'm rubbing my hands together, smiling and I promise to keep my fingers crossed. It's Chinese, of all things, where they make our iPhone 6s.

tony's picture

Hello Bob,

Phew , this album has Beelzebub Bass.

Nice Eclectic music too, kinda music I chase.

I'll be looking at the Label's others.


Tony in Michigan

Bob Katz's picture

Yeah.... really nice synth bottom. I recommend the other two titles in the Bombay Dub. Over 75 musicians participated in the making of the Three Cities CD. Very sweet classical Indian playing. I'll look at some of the other tities that you (Tony) mentioned. Other titles I've mastered for Six Degrees over the years are: Stephen Coates' The Real Tuesday Weld. "At the End of the World". It's a whimsical lighthearted journey, a combination of Performance Art and song. "The Return of the Clerkenwell Kid, also by The Real Tuesday Weld. Just makes you smile. "Lost in a Moment" by Shrift, soft, easy, flowing performance art, excellently recorded. "Bathtime in Clerkenwell" also by Tuesday Weld. If you like one you'll like them all.

bfwiat's picture

Hello Mr Katz :)
So far I have been enjoying your article as it is a great mix of information, fascination and technical understanding shared with all of us as you enter your journey into Headphone heaven.
I used to rely nearly solely on tech specs for sound... but I remember the first time I heard a 25w class A amp beat a 200W pre/pro in the 90's... it made me revise that and I learnt to trust my ears and senses more than a suite of graphs.
I believe that in today's modern hi-fi world, specifications can reveal if there is something horribly wrong with a product - but not tell you how good it sounds :)
I personally ended up with a Burson head amp as I also found it to be warm, detailed and accurate.... I believe the difference between two amps that test very similar, yet sound different, has everything to do with transient (A.D.S.R) response of the entire circuit when the signal(music) ebbs and flows through it rather than test tones or pink noise...too fast can sound detailed/"cold", too slow "warm" or "mushy" and just right...well that is the job of the designer/engineer to tune into and get right using any and everything from chassis, power supply, shielding etc etc etc.

I look forward to reading more as I am both a gearslut and a headphone slut (I record and produce the odd thing or two as well as a hobby) :)

Tony - if you are reading this, a recording I quite enjoy is Holly Cole - It Happened one Night (live recording from mid 90's with great bottom end and smooth full sound in general)

all the best from here in Australia!


Bob Katz's picture

I love Holly Cole's album "Don't Smoke in Bed". The vocal is very sibilant and can be irritating on some bright systems, but the production and the feeling are so good you can forgive it. Best song on the album is "I Can See Clearly."

tony's picture

Jersey Girl
Train Song
Make It Go Away
I Can See Clearly Now

Here R a few more,

Jack White --"You Know That I Know" .
I've gone thru plenty of Jack White stuff but only found this one tune to keep, it's a A+

Hank Williams 111 -- "Thunderstorms & Neon Signs"
This one is Country Tangy but a room pleaser -- A+

Seldom Scene -- "Working On A Building".
Superb Bluegrass voices , mandolin and a nice messaged song, beautifully perfumed. A+ ( at least 4 A+ songs on "Creators of Urban Bluegrass" )

The Totally System Blowing-Up Album "Isam" by Amon Tobin.
The leading song "Journeyman" connects to your nervous system and starts firing off synapses a-plenty, you will reach for the Gain control to optimize level and sit back paralyzed, the first cut lasts 6:39. All the songs put the listener in an Electric Chair for a few minutes, the breaks (two seconds) between songs is when they turn off the Voltage. Phew . Sure, this is Sci-Fi but it's musical, little children love it , I love it, the Amps & Speakers must be capable, there is always the feeling that the Voice Coils are about to melt and the Amp will go into Clipping. This is way beyond Andreas Vollenweider .

Thanks for the recommendations Bob, I have 6 Degrees on my Radar now and I'll have a closer look at Holly Cole stuff.

I have my thousands of A music on "random-play iTunes" in my home, I'm constantly surprised by the piece of music that starts playing. I have one of those table-top gain controls to lower/raise levels, a quick turn and the music takes prominence or vanishes; a great luxury .

Thanks again for helping,

Hello Mr.bfwiat,

I'm looking at one of those Bursons, I see 'em darn near everywhere I look, even in England. Hmm.

I had a chat with their US guy about getting Bob one of the new designs.

I'm quite pleased with my Schiit Asgard 2 which I feel is of the same sonic quality as my best stuff ever: Electrocompaniet out of Norway.

I've even considered Schiit's other tube Amps: the Valhala 2 and Lyr 2 which I've auditioned and am attracted to, maybe enough to own but I love my Asgard 2 so Why fix what ain't broken?

That Burson stuff is beautiful so there is some Pride of Ownership involved in buying a Conductor. It's a definite "Maybe" for me.

If I decide to make the leap into Electrostatics from Stax I'll buy one of their matching amps. ( the Stax hobbyists urge a KG design )

At the moment I'm delighted with my Schiit / Sennheiser HD 580s , which I've juiced up, I've not discovered any weaknesses in my little system but I'm prepared to discover even greater greatness, enough to plunk down some serious Dineros for it.

For now I'll hope for better DAC performance. I was around when Phono Cartridges became magical ( the Koetsu ) and realize the better the IN the better the musical performance so I'm preparing for a major DAC purchase ( perhaps a MSB Analog ) .

Thank you for helping with the music.

Tony in Michigan

bfwiat's picture

Hi Tony,

yes, Amon Tobin's production chops are pretty tight... I personally still enjoy his first album "Bricolage - Amon Tobin" and his pre Amon Tobin "Adventures in Foam - Cujo" the most.
"Spiritchaser - Dead Can Dance" on Mobile Fidelity vinyl is an incredibly well recorded album from the mid 90's.
I also have "http://www.discogs.com/Various-The-Best-Is-Yet-To-Come-The-Songs-Of-Cy-C..." on vinyl and it is just an incredibly well recorded album with some great vocalists.
"Ah Um - Charles Mingus" is stunning..
"Boards Of Canada ‎– Tomorrow's Harvest" has an eerie feel with fantastic sound-scapes and surreal bass.

I guess the list could go on forever....

If you get a chance to audition the Burson you should, as only your own ears will tell you what you think of the Burson "solid state can sound great" discrete design that they have maintained since day one... I find it more organic than a majority of SS gear, but with the tight deep bass that can be missing from some tube gear...
Currently my personal favourite combo of digital is the Sony HAPZ1es as a source feeding into my approx 20 year old TAFA777es SACD integrated amp that actually has a stunning headphone out on it too :)

Anyhow, I am off to play some new music that just arrived in the post yesterday.

I look forward to the up n coming Katz part 4,5 and on.