(Setup: Primes, Hifiman EF6, Oppo HA-1 (DAC), Foobar/JRiver DSD128/64, Flac and MP 320k)
Much like when I first picked up the Alpha Dogs over the stock T50RP I expected to get something better with the Primes, after all, it is more expensive. But this time I honestly was not sure what better meant. I had read the first impressions and it largely focused on the Primes less neutral tuning but being much smoother in performance than the Dogs especially in the treble delivery. Well, truth be told the Prime is quite a different beast to the Dogs right from the get-go. This is not the Alpha Dog with a minor tweak to dampen the treble spark some had spoken about or lift the relatively flat midsection to something euphoric. The tonality of the Prime is entirely different for me personally. It is slightly darker and in many ways smoother than the Dogs but it is all about listener engagement and musicality whilst still retaining a high degree of accuracy and tons of clarity.
From the minute you stick on the Primes you are going to be hit with a far more vivid and dynamic presentation than the Dogs was ever capable of. The bass seems a little bit more filled out in the 120 Hz range and with more extension. The mids feel livelier than the flatter neutral sounding Dogs and the treble is a lot smoother and less peaky than the Dogs excellent but sometimes overly sparkly treble. The entire soundstage feels more alive as a result with a huge uplift in the imaging and instrumentation placement and a greater sense of width also over the deep but slightly narrower Alpha Dogs soundstage.
For some that slightly increased output of the Dogs below 120 Hz might make the bass seem weightier and more planted than the Alpha Prime. Your initial impression might actually be that the Prime is a bass light headphone as a result. For me, the Prime comes across as slightly flatter, almost certainly tighter and faster and much more coherent with the rest of the presentation than the Dogs. The Dogs sounded great, I mean seriously impressive in bass response but the Prime bass just slots in that bit more naturally and accurately overall.
You could make an argument and perhaps some do that the Dogs are a slight favorite if you prefer you music to have a bit of a lower end weight. I get that and I don’t think the Prime is designed to take that accolade away from the Dogs. The Primes still manage to sound full and engaging though without a hint of sluggishness but it doesn’t have the visceral grunt of say the Oppo PM-1 or HE400i. I do find it fuller and smoother than the HE560 and just as fast with a great extension that is on par with the LCD-2 though somewhat behind the LCD-2 in terms of overall weight.
The Prime also responds awfully well to some added EQ whilst still retaining a refined, tight and detailed bass signature. I don’t EQ much if at all with cans but this was in response to one of our guys asking how the heck it sounds. Well using Foobar and upping the output from 55 Hz to 110 Hz by around 30 to 40% the Primes added an element of low-end menace and weight without ever losing control or detail. It was not until I put the 50 Hz output up to around 50+% that the bass response started getting a little bit overwhelming. An old favorite road trip track from 1988, Alexa’s “Wanderlust”, which is a deliciously shallow brain dead but musical rock tune designed purely for flat long boring roads and boisterous road trip buddies really benefitted from that colored fatter low slam end the Prime could churn out yet still retained a very open and musical signature. That’s the first time in years I stuck that track on also and really enjoyed it.
Personally, I am glad I tried a little bit of low-end EQ and it does show the Primes are more than capable of coping with copious amounts of EQ modded bass if that is your bag or if you want to mod the sound without resorting to moving the tuning dots around. Of course, that is not always possible with some portable setups so the tuning dots still have a high degree of relevance but I can see myself having a few bass head nights easily with the Primes with Foobar.
Midrange & Treble
The mids on the Prime are quite different from the Dogs in many ways. The most striking difference for me is that they sound lusher and richer in detail than the flatter and more neutral Dogs midrange. The Prime’s midrange now competes much better with the PM-1 than the Dogs did. The control is still there but that added sparkle and dynamics with a more forward vocal presence really lifts the Primes, especially with rock vocals.
The Primes positively sings with harder-edged rock and classic rock tracks that require a weighted but detailed mid response for those chugging guitar chords and crunching rhythms. I went through a lot of rock tracks from the last twenty years finding the Primes sounded really at home with rhythmic AOR guitar and synth work from Sunstorm’s synth-drenched ‘Emotional Fire” in 2013, Burn’s really thick guitar work on 2008’s “Shadow of the Satellites” and Chicago’s vocal tour de force “Caroline”. The vocal presence of male and female is detailed, natural sounding and grain free. Chicago’s “Long Lost Friends” (XXX, 2006) opening male vocal solo from Scheff is a forceful but controlled vocal that can easily fall into issues of sibilance from a poor midrange but the Primes handle them excellently with tons of texture and detail right down to the individual “F”(familiar) and “th” (thousand) pronunciations.
The one area that the Alpha Dogs got a bit of flak for which the Primes seemed to have addressed was that it came across as a bit too peaky in the lower treble. Now in my original Dogs review, I didn’t have too much of an issue with that unless the matching was all wrong or too aggressive. I remember comparing the Dogs as a welcome contrast to the slightly shelved down treble response in my LCD-2 rev2 (pre-Fazor edition). The Prime, however, doesn’t display any of that peakiness from the Dogs. Instead, it has a smoother slightly more liquid response with less edginess or bite standing back a bit and certainly less tizzy when pushed. It is a smooth and sweet treble performance that behaves incredibly well and stays very natural and airy.
This the big one, the key element of the Prime that is going to leap out at you the minute you stick them on and the one area that everyone is going to say is much improved upon over the Dogs. The imaging and soundstage of the Dogs are one of the best for a closed headphone in that range displaying excellent depth for a closed headphone. However, compared to the Prime they really sound much narrower and less dynamic.
The imaging and width of the Prime are one of the best I have heard on a Planar to date which is not normally known to have awesome sound staging qualities in general. Now this is a little contextual given I am really comparing the leap in quality of the sound staging against the Dogs and it won’t rival the HD800 huge arena like qualities so it is not going to be my top choice for a dose of classical arena work but the clarity combined with that great “open” sound of the Prime is far more engaging and natural than the HE560, airier and more 3 dimensional than the HE400i and a bit more “alive” for me personally than the LCD-2 rev 2. Check out Meat Loaf’s opening bike revving intro on “I would do anything for love”. It moves so deliberately from right to left while still allowing hanging piano sequences on the right to shine clear and true. This is not vague, its pinpoint and you feel can almost reach out to it. The Primes really do create a very vivid and immersive soundscape beyond what the Dogs can achieve.
The Primes still need plenty of power but move forward one year and the range of potential mobile and desktops matchups is much easier to find at your local hifi dealer.
Last year I took the Dogs for a spin using the EF6, the Gungnir/Mjolnir, Magni/Modi and the HM901 and most of them I felt worked quite well with them apart from the Mjolnir which I felt gave the Dogs a slightly harsher treble edge. The setup used for the bulk of this review using the EF6 as the main amp is still the top dog for me personally with a warm, smooth liquid like response and plenty of power on tap. The Primes sound full, rich and very natural sounding with the EF6.
Matching with the Oppo HA-1 Sabre32 DAC edged out the Modi a little when in use with the Magni for clarity and speed yet the Magni still did its same great job as with the Dogs in keeping the sound full and smooth. The Oppo HA-1 did a pretty good job also in balanced mode using its own amplification output. The sound wasn’t quite as lush and rich as the EF6 though sounding slightly leaner and sharper but to its benefit, it sounded slightly cleaner and more nimble. Both did an admirable job but I found myself veering to the EF6 smoother tonality with the Primes.
Schiit Mjolnir (Gungnir)
The Mjolnir/Gungnir still produces a more neutral and aggressive tone but the Primes darker and smoother tonality coped much better than the Alpha Dogs less tolerant treble. The dynamics of the Mjolnir is a much better match with the Prime this time. The bass is also punchier than the Oppo HA-1’s own amp and a little bit more forward than the EF6/Prime combined. This is an attention seeking matchup suitable for high tempo matchups, EDM, and big rock outs, but that might prove tiring in the long run for longer listening periods. Spdif produced the cleanest signal to the Primes but the USB had a slightly smoother and fuller sound that I preferred with the M/G combo.
I had already done some comparison work on the HE560 and the HE400i and the Dogs and touched upon the HD800 but there are plenty more planars on the market in that price range and competition is much stiffer for the Primes at the $1k mark these days. As always with a lot of the planars except the Oppo range, power is an important factor in getting maximum performance and whilst the Prime is no HE-6 is still needed something a little extra to sound just right.
Audeze LCD-2 rev2 (Pre Fazor)
Both the Prime and LCD-2 rev have relatively similar demands on my HA-1/EF6 DAC/AMP combo with both sitting nicely 1pm on the volume dial on the EF6 and pre-amped on the HA-1 around 11am on high gain. The Prime is also significantly lighter though both have excellent levels of clamp. The edge in comfort and seal (open versus closed) goes to the Primes. The LCD-2 rev2 has the definite edge in low-end bass output but the Primes sound slightly fuller in upper bass though both do not possess any noticeable mid-bass hump. In truth that would be something if the Primes could beat the LCD-2 rev2 in pure bass extension output but it is not that far off.
The LCD-2 rev2 also sounds marginally grander and harder hitting than the Primes during some initial EDM sessions (Deadmau5 and David Guetta) however the Prime sounded a bit more lively and articulate in the high end when playing more complex work from the likes of Max Richter’s Four Seasons (Spring 1). The Prime also edged out the LCD-2 rev2 with its superior holographic soundstage and imaging. Overall the LCD-2 has a slightly smoother and darker tonality to the more energetic and faster Prime. However the Prime though just felt a little more dynamic and involving than the LCD-2 rev 2’s bigger but more sedate soundstage.
My all-time emotional favorite, the HE-6 from Hifiman. The scaling king and the frustrating overlord of power consumption, I had tamed this beast about 12 months ago with the EF6 and it still is today my favored match for listening to whatever the heck I want to. Naturally, fit and seal went with the Primes but that treble and detail from the HE-6 is unbeatable in many respects and the Prime went the way of most others albeit with significantly more power into the equation.
If you do not have plenty of power in your amp avoid the HE-6 and plump the Primes. If you do though what you get with the HE-6 is a more detailed and articulate treble performance over both the LCD-2 and the Primes, a more neutral and cleaner tonality but slightly less width in the sound stage. I did slightly prefer vocals in the HE-6 performance over the Primes. Though the Primes tended to push vocals a little further forward and sounded slightly smoother than the HE-6, the detail and clarity of the HE-6 as more to my personal preference. Anything less than a power plant and the HE-6 is going to sound overly hot and sibilant otherwise and that is where the Prime doesn’t suffer so much managing to retain a smoother sound over a wider range of amps. It is a fine line between great and meh sometimes.
Oppo PM-1 (new pads edition)
The PM-1 is a heck of a lot more efficient and lighter than the Primes. Comfort is slightly higher also but the seal and isolation levels are superior on the closed Prime. The PM-1 signature is thicker and richer than the Alpha Prime particularly on the bass response but the Primes are tighter and faster with the better extension on the bass. The Primes also have a better vocal presence, a wider soundstage and a more energetic but still smooth top end. The Primes also sound a bit cleaner and more detailed than the PM-1. If you want your low end with plenty of gusto and a laid-back top end for long listening periods then the PM-1 will have the advantage particularly for portable gear on the go but the Primes just edge if for me with a more vivid and dynamic experience, better bass extension and cleaner tonality on desktop setups.
I had a great time with the Alpha Primes and I just wish this came a little earlier in 2014 when I was considering the gear of the year award which went to the Dogs. They are indeed a step up on the Dogs in terms of musicality, engagement and general resolution and clarity and probably one of the best closed-headphones on the market right now at this price point.
You cannot miss the difference from the minute you put them on your head. That imaging and 3-dimensional soundstage performance is an instant hit for me personally. I can dig some might miss the slightly weightier low-end bass response that the Dogs had and some will stick to the flatter neutral setting, it is still a signature that I adore but the Primes do respond nicely to low-end EQ and you can get heavy slam if you really want before it all distorts or distracts. I am personally glad also Dan laid to rest that issue with the glare in the lower treble that the Dogs was prone to leaving the treble just on the right side of articulate without any significant roll off.
The $1k market is pretty packed now with planar power so the Dogs are not alone with the likes of the HE560 just below it and the LCD-2, PM-1 and if you are lucky an HE-6 (grabbed mine on the promo $999 deal a few years back). Each planar has something unique about it that might tip the edge either way from pure bass performance of the LCD-2, to the efficiency of the PM-1 and the beautiful scaling of the HE-6 there is a lot more vying there for your attention. Fostex’s TH900 is a big leap in price and the T5p closed from Beyer is still SRP over $1k. Closed flagship cans such as the D7000 are no longer made and the Shure SRH-1540, whilst being a competent closed headphone doesn’t really have the same chops as the Prime. If closed is your bag and for many, it is I honestly cannot think of a finer cut cloth of a bag than the Primes at this price range. The most ‘open sounding’ closed can comes to mind when I listen to the Alpha Prime.
But isn’t it kind of ironic we are bracketing the Prime in the same category as the LCD-2 and HE-6 as peers given the humble beginnings of the Primes driver, a stock T50RP driver? It is really quite something when you think how far MrSpeakers have taken this humble can. Is it the end of the road with this driver I asked Dan – response? “That would be telling…”
Alpha Prime Technical Specifications
- Frequency response (+/- 3dB): 16Hz to 18KHz
- Efficiency: 90dB/mW
- Weight (without cable): 440g
- Cable: Dual entry