TOTL Headphones
Mike Piskor 2014

The TOTL Guide – 12 Flagship Headphones Compared

JH16 Pro FreqPhase – The SubFrequency Demigod

Summary

As if the original JH16 custom monitor wasn’t grandiose enough, Jerry Harvey upgraded its potential with a phase coherence boost, resulting in one of the most sadistically bassy, fun, and musical headphones that human ears can be blessed with.

The new upgrade allows for each general area of the audio frequency response ( lows, mids, and highs ) to lessen the likelihood of bleeding into each other, a fact that is proven to be true when bass boost or equalization is applied to the source while using the JH16’s.

Simply put, the bass, mids, and treble are entities in and of themselves and will not intertwine with each other. The technology of the “Freqphase” allows bass, midrange, and treble to reach the ear at as close to the same time as possible, near-total alignment of the frequency response itself in each of the three major categories of listening.

The tone of this monitor is near perfect to me, as I would rate it the most fun, lively and musical tone available without ever feeling overly colored or too neutral.

Bass

The low end of the JH16 is excessively robust and weighted. This is one of two true bass head experiences available inside this report. If the bass is your thing, look no further in the portable world.

One problem I’ve encountered that really grinds my gears with regard to the bass experience on the JH16 would be texture…there simply isn’t much there and I find it incredibly annoying to have such clarity and quantity combined with lackluster substance.

Thankfully, the bass experience isn’t overly punchy and it retains just the right amount of interesting slam appeal to it to be considered engaging in the utmost sense of the word. I wish the overall clarity and texture of the low end were more like an upgrade Audeze LCD3 or XC, something more pure and pristine instead of solid and firm.

I fully understand that some people prefer the more resolute and reserved JH13 low end, one that offers less quantity and a more clean approach, but I also am a bass head in my own right and really am dissatisfied with myself that so few other Summit headphones are capable of achieving bass quantity like this without complete loss of control.

Most Summit headphones offer a more reference or balanced attempt to the sound signature, but not the JH16. This is for those who want to rock out, not those who want a clinical or reference experience.

Mids

Due to the Phase tech upgrade, the midrange flows freely away from the low end and treble. Combined with the naturally forward sound signature in the vocal experience, the JH16 midrange is nothing short of amazing to me. Not the slightest bit of haze or nasalness, harshness or warping…which are commonplace in a few popular Summit level headphones like the AKG K812, Sennheiser HD800, and even the Audeze LCD3.

Boiled down, the upper midrange peaks are simply sparkled and well-controlled at all times. With that in mind, I’d be completely satisfied with all of that alone, yet the JH16 FreqPhase took it a step beyond and offered a very nice solidity factor to the entire frequency range.

The HD800 sounds thin by comparison and the JH16 actually is nearer the level of the Stax 007 in terms of that high definition, physical body, and solid weight to the sound signature.

Treble

Shockingly enough, we haven’t even gotten to the treble yet…which is the JH16’s most well defining feature. The upper end of this headphone sounds like the HD800 should when it plays a properly recorded track under fantastic source and amplification.

Like looking at a lake glistening in the moonlight in the twilight hours of the night, the JH16 treble is nothing short of beauteous with a stunning sparkling brightness to it, one that is never harsh and rarely sibilant.

The light and gorgeous treble only accentuate the spacious feel of the stereo imaging this custom offers, which is top-tier in the world of customs. Sound staging is excellent and of the largest caliber, I’ve ever heard in a custom monitor, retaining excellent depth, width, and separation qualities. Height is a downfall as a stereo imaging quality, but not worthy of griping about further.

JH16

The Most Interesting Comparisons

JH16 vs HD800

Of course, the HD800 is significantly more spacious and vast sounding, however, I find the JH16 to mercilessly destroy the HD800 in the musicality department more often than not. Under proper rig pairing, the HD800 is stellar.

However, without it the HD800 is lackluster and boring, severely lacking a low end and beautiful treble response that is omnipresent with the JH16 at all times. The HD800 is much thinner sounding with regard to the sonic signature and the weight the spectrum carries, the JH16 is more thick and solid.

Despite that, the HD800 is still more clear everywhere accept the treble, which I feel the JH16 to rival and exceed by a small degree when both are at their best. The JH16 isn’t nearly as realistic or deep, but for a custom monitor, there really aren’t many others that can even compare, let alone surpass. The JH16 is wildly fun and addictive, far from the reference of clinical appeal the HD800 with tonality.

JH16 vs Stax 007

I found it shocking that the notorious electrostatic solid-body sound signature approach wasn’t really incredibly superior to the JH16. Solidity is a hard thing to come by outside of the electrostatic headphone world, not even the best Planar’s offer yummy, vibrantly realistic physical weight and definition.

The headphones offer a similar shape to their presentations: wider than tall, mildly deep and spacious, powerful low end, beautiful treble, and a gently forward midrange. If there were a natural progression from the JH16 in a full-size headphone, I think the Stax 007 would be it.

No doubt, the 007’s are vastly superior in most ways but even then the JH16 still bests them in tone and overall perfect coloration to the setup. The 007 is noticeably darker and more vivid, the JH16 background is a fair bit brighter and more present.

JH16 vs AKG K812

These two headphones share some similar qualities between them. As much as I enjoy the JH16, I do find the low end very similar in texture and thickness ( lack of clarity ) to the K812’s own low end. With that comes a sense of muddiness that I am not fond of in the slightest, no question the JH16 is capable of much more bass quantity.

The midrange of the K812 sounds noticeably more forward, but also more thin and hazed, especially so on the upper midrange areas that sound absolutely nasal by comparison to the JH16. It was no surprise to me that the treble response on the JH16 offers a one-punch knock out on the K812, besting it significantly in every way, shape, and form.

Quality, texture, quantity, and style are leagues ahead on the JH16 as the K812’s treble lags behind without the slightest chance of catching up.

Rig Recommendations

Avoid neutral-sounding sources and amplifiers, as they will completely ruin the stunningly colored treble of the JH16. Amplification is not at all needed if you are running off a USB Dac or a portable source, better to stick with the highest quality source you can find and skip amplification entirely.

The JH16 certainly benefits a bit from a balanced cable and rig, but it really isn’t needed in this case since the JH16 offers so much bass quantity, to begin with. Players like the Astell and Kern AK120, the Fiio X5 and the iBasso DX90 are all this headphone needs to sound grand. I’ve found the headphone to be the most sensitive to background fuzz while pairing with a desktop rig ( check with the manufacturer to make sure your amp or Dac is safe to use with a custom monitor ).

Seek a forward midrange amplification with a reputation for having a great treble response. The forward midrange is also vital in your rig, so make sure to opt for sources and amplifiers that are notorious for outputting a forward midrange.

Alpha-Dog

MrSpeakers Alpha Dog – The Undisputed King of Bargain

For those unaware, the Mad Dog and Alpha Dog are modified headphones that use recycled Fostex T50RP Planar drivers. Originally priced at $89, the T50RP drivers probably cost less than $10 to produce, yet are able to exude clarity and dynamics on par with some Summit headphone models.

This goes to show you that something is severely wrong with how pricing has been escalating over the past few years in the Hifi world. The simple fact that a $10 driver can output this level of pristine clarity and imaging is mind-blowing to me.

Bass

The bass on this headphone rivals the Audeze LCD series, absolutely obliterating most other headphones in this report with raw clarity and liquidity, that purity in the bass is absolutely sublime in quality on the Alpha Dog, yet this headphone can be easily tailored to meet your standard of quantity via small tuning screws embedded in the cups.

With a simple twist, the vents can be opened or closed depending on your preferences. Opening the vents more equates to an airier, more bass-heavy signature, closing the vents allows for more intimacy and a much smoother bass response.

With vents opened, the Alpha Dog is an entry-level basshead headphone and is very responsive to bass boosting, probably more so than any other full-size headphone I am aware of. With moderate quantity enhancement, the bass quality remains excellent and rarely ever loses control.

This headphone is light years beyond some other headphones in this report on the low end. The texture of bass the Alpha offers is absolutely sublime, offering vividly interesting tone and coloration without appearing overly warm or neutral.

Previously, I’d considered the Audeze LCD3 original version to house the best low-end tone and coloration, I digress now and wish to swap that sentiment with the Alpha Dog. To me, the Alpha’s tone is absolute perfection on the low end.

Mids

The midrange is powerful, exceptionally well-formed, and actually more clean and clear than the Beyer T1, AKG K812, Hifiman HE-560, Oppo PM-1 and on par with the Hifiman HE-6 in my opinion.

Given the headphone’s eerily large sound stage for a closed-back headphone, the midrange is only that much more further accentuated in potential stage depth and realism. Solidity and lack of blurring on the edges is something that is common with most of these flagship headphones in this report, even the HD800 sounds a bit blurry on the edges by comparison and only the Stax 007 and Audeze XC can best the Alpha in this regard, as if the solidity of the sound itself is lacking or overly thin and less focused than it should be.

This is not an issue with the Alpha Dog, yet it is an issue with the other Planar’s like the HE-6, PM-1, and HE-560. Swapping between all of these headphones makes it very apparent which Planar has the best overall formation and physical body potential in the vocal experience…The Alpha Dog cleaned house in this respect.

The Audeze LCD-3 is only just comparable, the XC however is a bit superior, the Hifiman HE-6, HE-560, and Oppo PM-1 do not compare with solidity and the physical body the Alpha puts out.

Treble

The treble experience is a bit artificial and still inferior to the likes of the HE-6, as well as the XC. Both offer more quantity, more sparkle with a more beautiful appeal. That engaging quality seems a bit lackluster and I find myself scratching my head as to how some want to lessen the treble response of the Alpha with the included felt pads included ( thin pieces of material that cover the inside of the earpads to help reduce treble quantity ).

I actually wanted more treble, but who am I to judge others on how they hear things? In terms of raw texture, I find the upper end of the Alpha Dog to be uninteresting and even frustratingly boring. I truly cannot complain due to the price tag of the Alpha Dog at roughly $600, considering it still competes and even exceeds a number of Summit level headphones in many ways.

I was first shocked at how well the center imaging experience is when I’d first heard this headphone, while not as spacious as the XC from Audeze, the Alpha retains beyond excellent staging qualities in depth, height, separation, airiness and how well-formed the general shape of the stage itself appears to be.

The tone of this headphone is unforgettably musical, with just the right amount of coloration on the low end, a gentle warm hue to the tone as a whole.

The Most Interesting Comparisons and Recommendations

Alpha vs Audeze XC

I truly do not find the XC to be vastly superior in clarity nor sound staging potential, I feel the Alpha Dog to certainly be within reach and perhaps a step and a half behind in bass purity and clarity, as well as midrange vocal clarity with vents fully closed on the Alpha.

The tone of the upper end and midrange of the XC is more colored than the Alpha to my ears, I’d attribute the tone of the Alpha to the original tone of the Audeze LCD2 rev2: something noticeably naturally colored in the midrange, but also noticeably warm on the low end.

Side by side with my LCD2 Rev2, the Alpha has the more clear midrange, I also feel the Alpha to produce a more pristine bass quality. Noticeably so, the Alpha’s most severe weakness is treble, which I find to be superior on most of the headphones in this report outside of the AKG K812.

I don’t find the XC to be much of an improvement in stereo imaging size over the Alpha, both retain excellent sound staging properties for a closed-back headphone.

Alpha vs AKG K812

Once again, I feel the Alpha to exude significantly superior bass and tone clarity over the K812. The K812 sounds a bit muddy and muffled as if an omnipresent haze exists over the entire headphone’s presentation. There is a greater sense of space on the AKG of course, but considering the Alpha is a closed headphone I find it unjust to compare without bias.

The Alpha’s weak treble by my standards is still more clear and defined than the K812, yet both have a muted effect to them at times. The Alpha’s treble sounds a bit recessed and out of place compared to the plentiful midrange and bass experience, their tone is simply more yummy and musical than the more dry appeal the K812 offers. The K812s background isn’t nearly as natural or absent as the Alpha.

Alpha vs Beyer T1

Immediately, you should notice the T1’s overly bright sound signature by comparison to the more darkened background effect of the Alpha. The tone of the background on the Alpha is almost non-existent by comparison.

The Alpha also emits a noticeably larger sound stage in every way, most notably in stereo depth and airy qualities over the T1. True that the T1 offers a much brighter and enjoyable treble, as well as softer bass and vocal experience, whereas the Alpha offers a more lively and engaging sense to the kick and slam.

As with the K812, the T1 seems to exude an ever-present haze over the entire spectrum that becomes vividly noticeable when swapping between it and the more clean presentation of the Alpha Dog.

The bass texture on the T1 has extremely blurred and soft edges, whereas the Alpha permits a more pristine and pure bass texture, also one of higher fidelity. The vocal experience on the Alpha is more forward and engaging, the T1 more relaxed. Both headphones are fairly hard to drive and require a fair amount of voltage to really make them shine.

Rig Recommendations

The Alpha Dog is power-hungry, so feed it in excess of 2watts to fully satiate that inefficient Planar driver. Stick to amplifiers with exceptional staging qualities like the Burson series, amps and sources known for very airy presentations will pair amazingly well with the Alpha.

You will also want to make sure to avoid classic U-shaped sound signatures in your source and amp pairing, as recessed midrange signatures do not at all pair well with this headphone. Avoid neutral or overly natural tone, instead, seek amps and sources known to offer a more gently colored or warm approach to the bass to help mirror the mildly warm and hyper pristine bass type the Alpha offers.

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

Click here for the Oppo PM-1 and the Sennheiser HD800

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