TOTL Headphones
Mike Piskor 2014

The TOTL Guide – 12 Flagship Headphones Compared

Oppo PM-1: The Intimacy Titan

Hard to believe Oppo contingently rose out of the ground one day and began metaphorically shooting at the current Summit Fi headphone lineup…and with great success.

Staging

This headphone’s most intense flaw is the lack of sound stage width. That sense of goose-bump worthy envelopment is non-existent on this set, severely lacking separation qualities in the stereo void from left to right.

A sad thing, indeed. While staging depth and dynamics are just passable in my opinion, clarity and intimacy potential are absolutely sublime for an entry-level Summit Fi product. The general shape of the presentation is much taller than wide, in turn emphasizing vocals and midrange centric track cues.

Bass

The Bass quality is rock solid and firm when paired with Oppo’s HA-1 USB Dac and Amplifier, the combination here is a match made in heaven and the absolute definition of how two properly matched entry-level Summit pieces of gear can sound equally as good as some of the other big boy toys that exist in the upper-end pricing tier of the headphone universe.

Control is not a strong suit of this headphone, nor is smoothness. The low end of the PM-1 alters drastically with more power fed into it, as capable as it is on a portable rig without any amplification, the PM-1 greatly benefits from upwards of 1.5watts to 2watts of power. Any more than this and I’ve found the bass to continuously feel distorted, overdriven, and borderline bloated.

Mids

The midrange and vocalist experience is quite stellar, due to that taller than wide, forward midrange tuning, the PM-1 gets my award for the champion vocalist headphone in this report in terms of placement.

I find the midrange in this headphone highly addictive and considering the price of the headphone, coupled with the headphones jet black background coloration the midrange here only pops that much more by comparison to other sets like the Hifiman HE560.

While tonally sharpened and offering a bit too much kick and slam for me, the upper-midrange of this headphone is not defined in its space nearly as well as some of the other headphones I’ve tested here in this report.

Treble

Treble is fairly lackluster, offering neither enough quality nor quantity to fully satiate my ears. A bit recessed, perhaps too much, the upper end of the headphone is reserved yet it still retains decent treble in the right rig.

Prominent midrange and powerful bass are offset by the more secluded bass quantity, as a result, the entire upper end feels lopsided and a bit off. Not that this is a bad thing, most of the Summit level headphones have a fairly ugly treble response.

It is very evident that Oppo “played it safe” with regard to the treble response: it leaves much to be desired with a softer and more distant approach, something not at all common with the more expensive headphones in this report that tend to offer a much brighter…and sometimes even painful treble experience.

Tone on this headphone is mildly dark with a very solid feel in the bass and midrange, with treble as the weakest and most thin-sounding area of the sonic spectrum that is available. While not nearly as dark sounding as the Stax 007, Oppo’s PM-1 remains one of the darker tones available in HiFi’s $1000+ price tier.

Oppo-PM1

The Most Interesting Comparisons

PM-1 vs Alpha Dog

I feel the Alpha to be superior to the PM-1 with bass quality as well as treble. The PM-1 is vastly more efficient and portable, however far less well rounded with genre selection by comparison to the Alpha Dog.

The Alpha Dog retains a very “musical” house flavor with some noticeable coloration and pristine liquid bass texture and quality, the PM-1 offers more of a rock-solid and less textured approach to the low end. No doubt the Alpha Dogs sound stage and imaging with vents fully opened absolutely obliterates the PM-1 in every facet of the word.

Where the PM-1 is a bit neutral and monitor in tonality, the Alpha Dog is properly colored and extremely musical in coloration with overall tone in the low end. Outside of portable application, I do not think the PM-1 can quite compare in raw clarity across the frequency response spectrum inside the Alpha Dog, but I also do not feel the PM-1 to be too far off.

Both headphones have a seemingly artificial treble response at times. The Alpha Dog soundscape is significantly more well-formed and shapely than the PM-1.

PM-1 vs Hifiman HE-560

While I consider the PM-1 the better all-around deal, I find the HE-560 to offer a much more interesting sound signature, something I can enjoy more due to that softer presentation approach to the bass and midrange, as well the more distant and relaxed imaging placement the Hifiman tends to offer.

Where the Hifiman is a fair bit brighter in the background coloration and tone, the PM-1 seems more darkened and much more forward. The PM-1 is very claustrophobic in stereo imaging properties, which isn’t too much of a problem in the HE-560’s presentation.

Separation, air, and width are all superior qualities found in the HE-560, however, the PM-1 seems taller and slightly deeper to me. The PM-1 is also again more portable and much more efficient, allowing you to take the headphone on the go with most portable rigs without the need of a portable amplifier.

PM-1 vs Beyerdynamic T1

The T1’s sound signature is significantly more bright across the board, with a much more potent treble response ( all be it still in the realm of relatively mild kick potential ). Immediately, you will notice the general shape of the T1’s presentation to be infinitely more well-formed, a solid stage forward images out in front, where the PM-1 seems totally absent that area of the stage.

Bass and vocals are much softer, more smooth on the T1, much sharper, and more solid feeling on the PM-1. Again, due to the PM-1s forward and highly intimate sound signature, vocal tracks seem very accentuated by comparison to the T1.

The T1’s background is significantly more bright and omnipresent, it is also immensely harder to drive at 600ohm, where the PM-1 plays nice with pretty much any portable source.

Rig Recommendations

The PM-1 is extremely easy to pair with pretty much any middle tier to a higher-end portable music player. Seek sources or amplifiers ( not at all needed ) that offer a highly forward and lush midrange experience, as well as something with a more potent treble response to help accentuate the mildly reserved treble response of the PM-1.

If you avoid recessed midrange sounding amps and sources, you should not have any trouble in easily finding a good rig pairing for this headphone.

Sennheiser-HD800

 

Sennheiser HD800: The Clinical Masterpiece

 

I think this headphone could easily be the best ever made, highly dynamic, massive sound stage, extreme comfort, and highly accurate. Unfortunately, that is a big problem for anyone looking to buy headphones to enjoy music with.

Musicality

Musicality is very low in this headphone for me, as it is one of the most highly accurate and unforgiving headphone experiences money can buy. The experience in the presentation itself is lackluster, boring, dry, and forgettable.

However and despite that, it offers the 2nd utmost clarity in terms of price to performance ratio that exists on planet Earth behind the Alpha Dog in terms of value. I can be altered in tone to something closer to gently colored and enjoyable in tone with proper rig pairing.

This headphone is shockingly unforgiving and if you are not using the absolute best source quality material experience will be painful. With proper source material quality of the highest degree, the experience is second to none and makes the Stax 007 electrostatic headphones seem like the worst deal ever.

I find myself in the biggest dilemma with regard to this headphone, I tend to become a true super snob and refuse to use the headphone without certain rigs I know to pair nicely with it. The sound this headphone puts out is nothing short of amazing, yet without a warm source signature the HD800 is overly clinical and harsh and a headphone I don’t want to use at all.

Bass

The presentation quality is semi-neutral leaning towards cold and monitor tonality, far from warm most of the time. The bass experience is lacking in physical quantity and on the top end of lean, but extremely pure and solid.

Mids

The midrange is pushed back and very relaxed like a typical Sennheiser headphone usually showcases. The realism factor is scary good and the overall physical body and weightiness of the mid-range vocals are thin and papery.

Highs

Highs are a problem for me due to most of my music tracks having a few sibilant tendencies, therefore the entire experience becomes too painful to listen to for extended periods of time. I cannot recommend this headphone for actual studio engineers unless they are doing master control audio editing. The headphone is simply too unforgiving for that and wearing it for many hours every day with relentless and unforgiving audio tendencies becomes unrealistic and impractical.

The treble is simply too snobbish to enjoy sometimes and the HD800 stereo imaging shape can seem lopsided and warped by comparison to any other headphone mentioned in this report, almost as if ( track depending ) something is very wrong with the generalized shape of the sound stage. We HD800 owners call this “the HD800 warp” and it is most likely due to the recording, not the headphone.

Staging

As swapping between the HD800 and the Stax 007 for example on a track with this warp effect denotes nothing wrong with the signature on the Stax headphone. Why is this? Well, the HD800 portrays sound stage size as recorded by the microphone rigging more accurately than any other headphone I am aware of. Don’t confuse that with the T1’s untouchable and superior placement of sounds. If the track was lopsided, it probably won’t sound wrong until you hear it through the HD800.

Having said all of that, when your source quality is excellent the experience is excellent and second to none of the dynamic or planar driver models in my view. I just find this tonality highly boring and unmusical “most” of the time. The literal clarity of the headphone has no equal in a dynamic driver headphone and I find the entire experience the most addictive out of every headphone in this report with regard to staging qualities.

For classical music, this headphone is truly special. Acoustic and live recordings have a visceral sense of realism, almost euphoric in the best of ways. The comfort factor is sublime and the headphone can be worn for the rest of your life and it would never get uncomfortable on your head.

Overall

Overall, I think the headphone is one of the best ever made if not THE BEST ever made in terms of price to performance ratio in dynamic driver design, despite being one of the pickiest headphones to find a good amplifier for that meshes well with its sound quality…it is extremely picky and difficult to find a good combo for. The HD800 stereo imaging is nothing like any other dynamic headphone on the market, it is highly visceral and deep, as well as wide with massive separation qualities.

Here is where it gets interesting for me, the HD800 is without question the pickiest headphone for source and amplification needs there is. End of Story. It took me years to find the right pair that really meshes with it and I am extremely happy. Once you find the proper source and amping that not only meshes with your ears, but with the headphone as well, you are going to never want anything else for a select few genres. Nothing and I mean this, nothing in the headphone world handles classical music the genres I mentioned earlier like the HD800. I use the Burson Conductor SL as my home USB Dac and Amplifier and it sounds bloody amazing. The warmth of the Burson tone really helps the more barren tone of the HD800, taming the lows mids and highs and transforming the headphone into an extremely high musical experience most of the time.

The Most Interesting Comparisons

HD800 vs 007

The largest and most apparent differences between them are of course the sheer vastness of the stereo imaging properties the HD800 is capable of. The HD800 is noticeably larger, more aired and more spacious in every sense of the word.

In terms of literal clarity, the HD800 is a step behind the 007, yet a good HD800 rig will always cost far less than a good Stax 007 rig. The HD800 can be altered in tone with sufficient warm sounding or colored source and amplification pairing, but generally speaking, the headphone is colder and more metallic, much brighter in the background than the darkened appeal of the Stax 007.

Solidity is another major difference between them, as the 007 emits a rock-solid, superbly physically defined experience in the midrange and treble, where the HD800 simply sounds thin by comparison.

In terms of the physical weight and solidity actual instruments and voices sound, the 007 is the more realistic of the two, the HD800 falls short compared to the likes of many other Summit headphones in this regard. I have never found the HD800 to sound physically realistic in that sense, only realistic in terms of the sense of space the sound stage is capable of.

I will even go a step further and say it is not at all accurate on anything with a proper low end; cello’s, bass in Dubstep and R&B and similar genres are not always accurately portrayed as the track intended with regard to quantity. The HD800 is too lean on the bass to honestly call it accurate, it chugs along with noticeable distortion on bass-heavy tracks compared to a few others like the Stax 007, XC and the LCD3 and even the Alpha Dog.

The 007 is more musical on the low end with more bass quantity. The 007’s treble sounds like the HD800s on the best track and rig imaginable at all times. The HD800 is also more distant and relaxed in the locale of the stereo imaging, the 007 feels more forward.

HD800 vs Audeze XC

I felt the LCD3 to fall short of comparing to the HD800 in most ways, however, I find the XC to be a bit superior to the HD800 in overall clarity, significantly more colored and musical, much more fun than the HD800.

The background color of the XC isn’t jet black, it is omnipresent just as the HD800 is however both headphones seem to exude a different tone coloration to the background effect: The HD800 is cooler and a bit brighter, the XC more neutral but still decipherable.

The bass quantity award goes to the XC but just a hair, neither have potent bass near the level of the Stax 007, but both retain hyper smooth low ends: the HD800 is solid and firm, the XC more liquid and typical of Audeze’s house sound. I consider both of these headphones as blood brothers.

If you want musicality that is easily paired with sources and amplifiers, the XC is your ticket in. If you want a more likely to be a clinical or accurate headphone, the HD800 is for you. No doubt the sound staging qualities of course are better on the HD800, but the XC is no slouch. It extends very nicely from top to bottom with good depth…however the HD800’s similar qualities are rated as all entirely great.

Rig Recommendations

This is the hardest headphone to recommend sources and amplifiers for. The HD800 is beyond super picky so you need to first ask yourself what sound you want out of the HD800: Musicality or Reference Quality?

Depending on your choice for tone and coloration, or lack thereof, seek the most spacious sounding amplifiers known to mankind to help accentuate the titanic sound stage the HD800 emits. If you prefer less clinical sound, opt for the Burson Conductor SL-1793, or the Oppo HA-1 USB Dac/Amp combo, something is known for a colored and potentially warm experience.

If you want clinical, seek amplifiers known for a more neutral sound. Avoid notoriously harsh-sounding amplifiers like the Schiit Mjolnir and Gungnir combo, Bryston amplifiers, and similar.

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 Stax 007 MK1 and our verdict

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