What initially was supposed to be just a coffee shop shootout of the Hifiman HM602 and the Teclast T51 turned out to be the biggest headphones meet of 2010!
With the Philippines’ most renowned ‘head-fier’ and can collector Uncle Ken on board, the gears that graced this event were nothing short of awesome. just the list of gears present was overwhelming!
Of course, a meet won’t be complete without pictures and listening impressions:
Headphones Listening Impressions
For source material, I had an iPod nano 3G on me playing select ALAC-encoded tracks from Obscura, Death, Spawn of Possession, Down, Al Di Meola, Immortal, and Shrinebuilder. For the rigs with CD players, I popped in discs of Obscura – Cosmogenesis, Death – Spiritual Healing, and Behemoth – Zos Kia Cultus, all of which I consider to be well-recorded and not casualties of the loudness war.
I just had to try the Stax Omega MK II first. Already having been impressed with the Stax Lambdas in a previous meet, suffice to say my expectations were high for this one. The rig was a Sony XA7ES CD player (with a very cool silver puck in the tray I might add) connected to a Stello DA100 DAC, then driven by a Stax vacuum tube amplifier unit. I’ve stated in the past that electrostatics seem to be tailor-made for technical death metal – or any multi-layered music with a lot of fast and complicated passages. Naturally, I went with the Obscura – Cosmogenesis CD.
Man oh man, it did not disappoint! It had the trademark electrostatic attack, speed, and detail resolution pushed to stratospheric heights. When Thesseling has that sliding bass part on “The Anticosmic Overload”, I could have sworn I heard residual waves from the string vibrating against the fretboard.
Every microdetail was heard sick stuff. After a few more minutes of changing tracks and picking out nuances, it made the Lambas look somewhat one-dimensional in comparison. The Omega now had the complete package – the incredibly textured midrange now had body and authority, the bass impact was more prevalent and the upper mids and treble now had this added salacious aura that was nothing short of addicting. This Stax rig would definitely fit the bill of a be-all-end-all retirement rig due to the prohibitive price tag.
The other electrostatic I tried was the Koss ESP 950. I didn’t feel it was as good as the Stax ones, mainly due to the fact that it sounded thin and boxed-in, sort of congested, compared to the Lambda and Omega.
The time now for the flagship battle royale. I went with Beyerdynamic Tesla T1 first, and it was absolutely stunning actually holding it, instantly exuding class and luxury, beautifully crafted by folks at Beyer.
It was driven out of a Mosfet Class A DIY amp which had more than enough power to drive this 600-ohm beast, at about 11:00-11:30 on the volume knob I was already at a comfortable listening level.
It instantly impressed with its astoundingly lucid tonality, with no jarring peaks or valleys heard. I tried to look for a weakness in its presentation but didn’t find one. The soundstage was pleasantly wide and three-dimensional, bass texture and quantity just about perfect, midrange so real it’s almost tangible, and best of all a shimmering top end that never got harsh or strident even with some of my poorly recorded black metal material.
With the T1 making such a nigh-unbeatable impression on me, the other flagships now had a tough act to follow. I moved on to the Sennheiser HD800 (stock cables) next, driven by the same DIY amp. It made a solid show for itself with unbelievable space and headstage (some might find this artificial) which made live recordings that much more enjoyable.
However I noticed that it had this certain proclivity towards being a tad shouty and peaky particularly during guitar solos. On the whole, though it could not shake off the T1’s hold on my soul, sounding a bit too sterile and linear for my tastes, somewhat akin to one of the things I didn’t like about the AKG K701. I
n fact the HD800 strikes me as a K701’s next evolutionary step for those who love their sig, as it manages to fix the plasticky mids problem that I had with them and upping the ante in all other areas.
Edroc’s HD800 with balanced cables run out of the RSA Protector did better, with more lushness top to bottom and reducing the issue of the aforementioned high. Another great HD800 match was the Naim CD player + NAHA amp, which added a pleasant thickness to the proceedings. The best for the HD800 would be saved for last, as Alex’s Cardas-cabled HD800 via the Apex Peak setup ultimately stood out as THE perfect match, they now sounded just right to me and quite close to the T1 in terms of sheer overall performance and enjoyment factor.
Grado’s PS1000 now steps into the ring. I wasn’t fond at all of the GS1000 before, so I was hoping for this one to break my stigma against the jumbo Grados. Right off the bat, I noticed good similarities with the HF2, there is now an added creaminess to it and whilst adding more mids presence. Alas, I waited for it to have the same RS1 magic but it never came – suffice to say this fell short of my expectations.
Of course, the Ultrasone Edition 8 would not be left out of my to-try list. It’s right up there with the Beyer T1 in terms of snazzy good looks, shiny surfaces all around, and seemingly tough construction. Putting them on my head they made their presence felt with an admittedly strong clamp, but as they were circumaural it wasn’t uncomfortable at all. SQ-wise it sounded great out of the D4 Mamba (Hiflight topkit), with superb bass control and rumble. Not much else to fault about it, but I honestly felt they should only be priced $400-500 for what they deliver, not the obnoxiously exorbitant price that Ultrasone is asking for them.
Despite the late arrival the elusive AKG K1000 would not be denied. Rightly so, everyone was flocking to try these oddities. When I finally got my chance, and with a little bit of fiddling of the swiveling earspeakers to get the position right, I was treated to an unreal experience that truly defines “open”. Their sense of intense realism is a whole different ballgame altogether and approached Stax-like levels of speed to top it all off.
Claude’s JVC Victor HP-DX700 made an appearance, and while I only had a short time with them out of the D4 Mamba I liked their sub-bass which goes quite low, but had a little too much quantity for me. The soundstage was another strong suit, they gave the illusion of being more open than they had a right to be. Mids and highs however seemed pushed back and distant in the mix.
The Headstage Arrow 12HE portable amp was also a pleasant revelation, exhibiting beautiful transparency, and a wide array of features – crossfeed/gain/impedance/bass boost selectors, two input jacks and a brilliant way of turning on and off! It doesn’t have a switch, rather it will power on automatically if it detects a signal. Paired with my Denon D1100 (bass boost 0, gain 1, crossfeed 1, impedance 1) it was a delight, as they brought out all the enjoyable aspects of the D1100 with a subtle widening effect. I daresay the 12HE even a better match with them compared with the D4 Mamba.
After reading that the D4 Mamba with the Hiflight topkit was essentially an RSA Mustang P-51 clone, I also A-B’ed my Hiflight-upgraded D4 Mamba with the Mustang, using the Beyerdynamic DT150 on velour pads. They indeed shared the same mids prowess, and I was hard-pressed to find any significant differences elsewhere. So, the Mamba is the better value for me as it also has USB DAC functionality, and I can overlook the Mustang’s advantages over it. (3-year warranty, longer battery life, compact size).
Also on the A-B examination table was the Creative Aurvana Live! and the Denon D1100. Both do certain things in a different way, ultimately it’s a matter of preference with no one headphone coming out way ahead of the other. One thing they had in common excellent retrieval of detail and instrument placement. The CAL! – softer and sightly fuzzier bass, mids pushed back, wider stage. The D1100 – punchier slamming bass, forward mids, closer stage. As a point of comparison I revisited the Denon D2000 too but found it too V-shaped to my liking which is not what I want when going up the Denon chain.
Last but not the least was the full-size headphone doppelganger Sennheiser MX980 and Yuin PK1 earbuds. They were quite close overall, both breaking the notion that earbuds are not deserving of a spot in an audiophile’s niche. I preferred the PK1, it just had more weight and bass heft which was entrancing. The MX980 did have the edge in sparking highs, the best top-end extension bar none for an earbud.
In conclusion the Beyerdynamic Tesla T1 was my favorite of this meet, it was the one headphone I spent the most time with and kept coming back to. My one regret was not trying it out with Schiit Asgard to see if they could drive them well. Too little time, so much gear! I also wasn’t able to try the Ortofon e-Q7, Stax 3030, and the iBasso D12 Anaconda amongst others.
Too sleepy to post long impressions but initially:
Omega 2, followed by the LCD2 and the HD800. The Omega 2 was really the standout, sounding so full and realistic. Among the dynamics I tried, the LCD2 was still the tops for me, followed by the HD800. I did not get to try the K1k as I had to leave early. The T1 sounded like an evolution of the HD600/650, while the HD800 sounded like a fuller, more refined K701 with better imaging and soundstage. Kinda strange for different brands.
A100 also impressed me a lot (awesome mids and rumbling bass. Racio really got himself a great deal with these) as did the Edition 8, which had a huge soundstage for a closed headphone.
The Apex amp was very impressive, as was Sir Ken’s DIY MOSFET, which sounded great with the T1. The NAIM had excellent synergy with the HD800 and the T1 but made the ED8 sound shrill for some reason.
Among the porta amps, the Stepdance really stood out. So much power and authority for a small amp. Just too bad about the 2-hour battery life.
Porta Amp Impressions with Ed8
Bear in mind this is measured in terms of synergy with Edition 8 only and does not really mean one is better than the other! Cause though I prefer the 3move from the Stepdance, it was the other way around with the DT150 for an example.
In order of preference:
602 > amp > Ed8 Single Ended
- Corda 3move: Just improves Ed8 on lows, bass thump, body, better mids. Everything is more harmonious and whole.
- Corda Stepdance: This sounds different from the 3move. More air, space, but loses out on total harmony and smoothness and body
RSA Hornet: For the lack of power (considering it still is very powerful), the lows are not as strong as the ones above. Also mids are weaker than both above. Timbre and highs are still better on the Hornet compared to the Corda’s. But really the lack of power is that much evidence.
- Ibasso Toucan: Although the lows and body are close to what the Corda can offer, this however sounds thin especially on the high mids and above. It sounds thin compared to even the Hornet. This lacks body even compared to the Hornet. Balanced would be interesting though.
The last three are almost equal footing honestly. Unfair for the Protector because not balanced mode and unfair to P51 because this is definitely not an IEM.
- RSA Protector: Single-ended, the power is lacking.. This sounds very close to the Mustang. Mids better than Hornet.
- Ibasso D12: On all aspects, weaker than the Hornet. Zaafiel made a point that you get this only if you also want the DAC. If not, Toucan is much better.
- RSA P51 Mustang: mids mids mids mids… I’ve read reviews time and again and yes, it beats the Hornet as well on the mids. The power, however, is not enough to give body and proper
- drive to the Edition 8.
PS: Mini3 was very good. Lacking sophistication in the sound but really good. Also, look out for the exposed DIY amp dawidynk brought… if he ends up selling those at only $50.00, grab one. In my brief listen, to both, it wins over the mini3. But the listening time was really brief. Anyway, it would be great if someone could compare those two properly.
Headphones Desktop Systems
On a desktop system, the one but seriously impressive amp I’ve heard was Sir Alex’s Peak & Volcano combo. That is really a further jump in audio quality. For me, it beats the 3move by more than twice at least on the audio performance. Yes the price difference is just incomparable at about USD2,500.00 or more?? Versus maybe Php 8,000 but just saying It really does give everything the Ed8 needs and even the ones I thought it no longer needed.
These are the ones I was able to listen to. The lesson of the day: even if your headphone is easy to drive, use an amp. Second, more power doesn’t mean more volume but really, the Ed8 at only 30ohm and usually 9 o’clock on the Hornet just sounded much more different provided with more powerful amps especially the bass. It is even more generous but still very tight and detailed. Whenever I mention something above did not have enough power, it was not that the volume travel was far… the Mustang drove the Ed8 well at about 10 o’clock but just did not have enough oomph as the others.
It was a shame I was already too tired to try out different DAPs… I will have to probably request favors to try and set up a DAP match up of some sort of a loaner program.
I can’t seem to get over my audio hangover from the meet yesterday! I was simply inundated by the mammoth cans (champion din yung siopao ni Ken, BBQ ni Joma at yung puto ni Shok!) Not to mention the sense of camaraderie I felt thru out the meet… to all HeadPhilers, guys, you are the friendliest and kindest folks I’ve come to know, props to everyone!
Quick impressions for now… man, I didn’t expect I’d be way impressed by the T1, I think I’m slowly getting to be a Beyer fanboy! I love their mid’s tonality and body, smooth smooth highs, and hefty bass (darn those Head-Fi reviews saying that those cans don’t have any bass), but the mids really grabbed me. They don’t have the expansive soundstage of the HD800’s (much less of the K1000’s), nor the bass extension and organic palpability of the L’s, but boy-o’-boy those cans feel “right”, for the lack of a better word.
Stax Omega 2 MK1
The Omega 2 Mk1 definitely deserves all the accolades thrown at them, the best Stax I’ve heard to date, the ultimate electrostatic cans as far as I’m concerned. They may not have the impact and slam of most dynamic as well as ortho cans, but their pace and timing were incredibly fast (and furious!), the transients were effortlessly vibrant and graceful, micro sonic nuances were ridiculously lucid. I had a blast listening to them with my own CDs, and I love Ken’s all champagne-gold theme from the Sony flagship CDP (with a colossal CD tray platter!) to the valved stat energizer Stax amp, to the cans themselves, the whole setup looked fabulous, real eye candies!
And many thanks to Mark for making it at the 11th hour and lugged his legendary K1000 with him! All I can say is wow! Soundstage-wise, it kicks the HD800’s ass to smithereens, that can is certainly without peers in that regard.