TOTL Headphones
Mike Piskor 2014

The TOTL Guide – 12 Flagship Headphones Compared

The following feature is an in-depth review and comparisons of some of the world’s best-known headphones from Sennheiser, Hifiman, Audeze, Dan Clark Audio, Oppo, and Fostex to name but a few.

We would like to thank the following companies for their generous support in providing us with samples to allow us to complete this feature. They are as follows::

Sennheiser, Audeze, Oppo, Hifiman, Dan Clark Audio, Lawton Audio, AKG, Stax, and JH Audio.

The scores below now follow our 2020 scoring guide and they are readers’ votes combined with Mike’s score for each headphone. The scores are contextual to the comparison findings and purely for this feature. They are not our typical review scores for each individual headphone.

Slide here to add your score on the gear!63 Votes
7.8
7.8
Score

Background

I would like to thank everyone involved and every company who was gracious enough to trust me over the long years past. This was a serious undertaking for me and I couldn’t be happier to share my views of these Top of the Line Headphones with the community.

My goal is to be as unbiased as possible and provide as clear of a description of the sound signature of each product, what they offer with ungodly-brutal honesty, as well as to speak to the reader in as natural a manner as possible.

I would like to relay my experiences to you as if you and I were speaking at a headphone meet and with techno-babble at a minimum. I realize this is a giant report, I do not intend for anyone to read it all at once.

It is meant to be a reference for the community members when they need it. This is a resource tool, nothing more. You are not supposed to read all of it at once, instead pick at it over the course of your purchasing journey.

Intro-End

I recommend letting each musical link and cue play in the background while you read the Intro section. After all, this hobby is all about the music and emotional experiences it can offer. So, each area of that section of this report will come with a link to a YouTube video and some music that I feel accurately reflects my emotional tone while writing that specific area of text.

I hope you enjoy it and find it refreshing, as well as potentially opening the door to some of my favorite artists that you may have never experienced before. Below is a Directory with links to each individual section or product that I’ve covered in this guide. Choose your destiny, where you start and end is up to you:

Burn-In & AKG K812
Audeze LCD3 & LCD-XC
Beyerdynamic T1 & Fostex TH600/900
Hifiman HE-560 & HE-6
Jhaudio JH16 Pro & MrSpeakers Alpha Dog
Oppo PM1 & Sennheiser HD800
Stax 007 & Our Verdict

Burn In: Fact or Fiction

Some believe that using an audio product for a certain amount of time will allow it to settle it into itself after the purchase, becoming more clear or perhaps even changing any number of variables in the sonic experience simply due to using the product enough. Burn-In is a very touchy subject and one that usually incites mass hysteria and panic. I have a theory:

When suddenly thrust into low light venues, your eyes require time to fully adjust before your vision clears up and objects appear more defined and in focus. I believe this visual effect can be paralleled with your auditory functions.

Swapping from the Stax 007 (A dark sounding headphone ) to the Sennheiser HD800 (A brighter sounding headphone) instantly makes the HD800 sound muffled and hazy, emaciated on the treble and with a high sheen as if I were looking at an overexposed photograph.

A far cry from what my ears feel the HD800 be after using the headphone for any allotted time frame. There is a lot of inconsistency during the comparison process over just using either headphones by itself and fully allowing my ears to soak in the headphones sound signature.

When I use the headphone without having that reference point of some other opposing model, my experience is different than if I were to use the headphone alone normally and without something to compare it to.

The ‘Night & Day’ Difference

I simply am not sure that an audio product can alter itself internally over time in the manner most audiophiles suggest they do. The “night and day difference“ after Burn-In statements are something I cringe at now, however, my view on this has inverted itself in recent times.

I believe there is something else happening. What though: is the answer to that question that eludes me. There are many subcategories of listening that currently cannot be measured.

There are no tests to showcase how spacious a headphone sounds, measurements cannot relay the sheer awesomeness the Sennheiser HD800 offers in its sound staging qualities, nor can any current test truly appreciate texture and tone type: Is it warm, cold, neutral, natural or monitor in tone? What’s the bass texture like? Is it solid or a bit watery, does it sound loose or flimsy? What is the decay of the bass like? Is this a fast headphone or one that is more mellow? How much separation and air between instruments is there? Does the treble have a lot of snap and kick to it, or is it a bit softer and relaxed?

Some of these are qualities that are reported post Burn-In and it creates a bit of a conundrum when trying to accurately paint a picture of audio qualities with text and keystrokes. I neither fully defend nor fully repel the possibilities of some type of change after time, either electrical or physical that occur inside an audio product over time.

My gates will always be open on this subject. I simply found it very interesting that my opinions after a fair amount of time using a product can change so drastically when I have a reference point on par with or exceeding that product. It isn’t until A/B comparisons take place that my ears pick up clarity deficiencies, haze, or static that my mind and ears simply no longer pick up on after a certain amount of time.

Kindly sourced from behance.net, image by Besart Gerguri
Kindly sourced from behance.net, image by Besart Gerguri

Memory Recall

Is it possible that most claims to audible differences post-Burn-In are directly related to that enthusiast simply becoming either unadjusted or adjusted to that product? Perhaps, the infant minutes of your experience with a headphone can be etched into your auditory memory and recalled more easily than later minutes.

Once a certain amount of time is spent with that headphone, you might now have two reference points: The unbiased newborn sound signature as your memory recalls it, and the adolescent and the biased version after your ears have adjusted to the sound signature.

Claims to drastic changes seem very understandable now that I’ve played with all of these flagship headphones together and witnessed first hand my own uncontrollable auditory bias as more time is spent with a set of headphones.

After hours upon hours of usage with headphone A, I can swap out for headphone B that offers a vividly different tonality and presentation. After enjoying headphone B for a bit, flipping back to headphone A results in a tone and sound that I am a bit unfamiliar with.

My gut instinct now is that something has altered, which may be an absolute illusion. Headphone A now has a noticeably more haze that I feel it to have had just before removing the set from my ears. These problems were not noticeable in the slightest after spending a fair amount of time with it. This effect took place on all 12 headphones I have for this report.

The bottom line, you have to take the journey yourself and discover how your ears settle into the sound signature of any given product. The impression your ears have during the first few minutes may be entirely different from any impressions you might have many hours later.

Some audiophiles insist you immediately run pink noise tracks after purchasing a product and letting it play for X amount of time, I say otherwise. Use the headphone immediately so you can fully appreciate any potential change, enjoy your purchase from start to finish, and don’t worry about Burning In your headphones as soon as you acquire them. You own them now, so enjoy them from beginning to end.

The Ballad of the AKG K812

The wake of the Planar Magnetic Wave of 2011-2013 hit us hard and without warning, sweeping most like myself out to sea and creating a bit of a bias towards Planar design. That yummy, meaty sound signature in the Planar headphones out there is very hard to ignore and borders on addictive. It was a serious shock to my system when I had first heard AKG had planned to stick to their guns with this new Summit level K812 headphone. Opting for a dynamic driver design right in the middle of the Planar tsunami might not have been the wisest course of action.

Summary

This headphone has a somber problem with the treble. It is hyper dry and distributes some of the most boring upper ends of any Summit level headphone that I am aware of. Naturally, audio enthusiasts are probably most interested in how the K812 compares to the Sennheiser HD800’s…it doesn’t compare and certainly lags a bit behind in clarity potential.

The K812 sounds a bit muted, recessed, and absolutely out of control on the upper end of the spectrum. By comparison, the HD800 sounds tonally beautiful, all be it with the potential to be equally as ugly depending on the track quality. However, the HD-800 has the aptitude to sound truly prodigious with the right amp and a proper high-quality track. The K812 will never solicit that dazzlingly gorgeous appeal, nor will it ever sound even remotely tangible or well-formed.

Despite the total nuclear disaster in the treble experience, the K812 midrange presentation is bloody marvelous. I find solidity a problem with dynamic headphone midrange, as most headphones with this driver tech seems to offer a thinner and less solid feel from top to bottom.

Such is not the case with the K812, as it renders a very good sense of solidity to most of the frequency range without sounding overly firm or weighty. This is why I love the K812 as a vocalist headphone, it offers an unforgettable well-textured, moderately-forward sound stage.

Excellent staging qualities fuzed with a more engaging flare to the physical locale of the midrange vocal experience tend to fully accentuate all vocals. As a result, a midrange bloom effect takes place. While not as spacious sounding as the Sennheiser HD800, the AKG K812 certainly remains one of the largest sounding headphones on the market, offering plentiful low end as well as the excellent separation of instruments from left to right.

It procures more of a widescreen effect, something similar to the Stax 007 in width shape but exudes noticeably more height and air to the sound stage. Where the HD800 is a very large square in terms of stereo imaging shape, the K812 has more of a rectangle with noticeably less height and depth by comparison.

Midrange Bloom: When the midrange protrudes outward more so than the bass and treble that feel a bit more relaxed by comparison.

Studio Monitor Sound

The general tone of this headphone is closer to slightly studio monitor sounding with a moderately dark background. If you love the monitor tonality and crave a more comfortable headphone, this is the headphone for you.

Offering excellent comfort and efficiency, the K812 is one of very few truly well-rounded headphones that sounds grand almost anywhere you utilize it. Those who desire a bit more bass, but are willing to sacrifice sound stage, should opt for the K812 over the Sennheiser HD800.

In terms of raw clarity, the K812 is noticeably hazier and muted by comparison to the HD800. However, the K812 is simply a more musical sounding headphone that isn’t at all picky or snobbishly accurate. Those who enjoy an excellent and intimate vocal experience without needing to worry about the source and amplifier pairing should feel right at home with this headphone. From classical to jazz, folk to death metal, the K812 hammers most genres and applications without much of a problem.

If not for that lackluster treble, the headphone would probably be considered the best overall dynamic driver headphone ever created. Out of all 12 headphones appearing in this guide, the K812 is the only true well-rounded model, it is a headphone with the least amount of flaws and that can be taken anywhere and still end up responding nicely. From movies to gaming, death metal to classical the AKG K812 will perform admirably, excellent comfort topped off with great efficiency really sweetens the deal.

AKG-K812

The Most Interesting Comparisons

K812 vs the HD800:

The K812 trumps the HD800 on raw musicality on most system rigs, as it is not at all picky with what pairs well with it. It also responds less than the HD800 to warm-sounding sources and ends up exuding generally the same tone on all rigs I was able to test with.

There is no question the HD800 is superior in clarity, it really is a no-brainer in that the HD800 is superior sonically in every way. The K812 exudes a less bright sound signature overall with more emphasis on stereo width, with height being the most physically lackluster staging quality.

The K812 offers a more solid sound signature than the uncomfortably thin HD800 sound signature to me. Vocals and instruments tend to have more body through the K812. Treble problems plague both headphones, however, the HD800 can sound magnificent with proper source and track quality, the K812 never sounds magnificent with the treble. The HD800 presentation is more relaxed and distant, whereas the K812 is more mid-forward.

K812 vs the Oppo PM-1

Shockingly, the Oppo PM-1 sounds a bit less clean and clear. Fidelity and that realistic body to everything inside the track have more solidity through the K812 and sounds a bit less defined in the PM-1.

In a clarity game, I would rate the K812 the more clear headphone by the smallest of a degree, the K812 brutally destroys the PM-1 in sound staging qualities. Offering a significantly larger and more spacious appeal.

The K812 really can’t be bested by many other headphones out there with regard to the stereo imaging qualities. Both headphones are comfortable, efficient, and well built. The PM-1 is much more portable and user friendly in terms of fit and design.

The PM-1 also has a very natural flare to the tone by comparison to the K812’s gentle monitor tonality. That natural sense of tone is more vivid on the PM-1, which is a sound that simply isn’t noticeably colored by comparison, and switching up between these two headphones showcases the K812 to be the more cold, metallic sounding headphone of the two. Both headphones also share a similar sense of impact and slam, both are highly engaging without being too harsh and I consider both fun headphones.

Rig Recommendation

Due to the forward sound signature of the midrange, this headphone offers, and coupled with the excellent staging properties, I highly recommend Burson as your go-to amplification provider. Any similar brands or models from other amplifier companies will pair well with this headphone, it isn’t at all picky so enjoy the journey in mixing and matching.

Just make sure your source and amplifier are not generally considered to have a classic U-shape to their sound signature, as it would adversely affect the best qualities the K812 has to answer.

Feel free to also boost the low end a bit with an active bass booster. You won’t have to worry about small bass boosts up to +5db, anything more than that and you might be heading into uncharted territory where muddiness and loss of control are commonplace.

The K812 is very efficient at 36ohms and works very well off portable music devices, it also does not at all benefit from more than 2 watts of power so the excessive driving ability is not required. It seems the more power I feed it, the worse it sounds as all amplifiers and Dacs set to high gain are noticeably brighter and a bit hazy by comparison to the plentiful volume setting on low gain modes.

Click on the next page below to read about Audeze’s LCD-3

  •  
  •  
  •  
  •  
  •  
  •  
  •  
  •  
  •  

1 2 3 4 5 6 7 Next