Alas…the life of a reviewer, indeed. I admit, I smile ear to ear each time I see a new version of the TH-X00 from Massdrop that sprouts up for sale.
In this summer solstice of 2017, I’ll be taking a gander at the Purpleheart model, which is yet another variant of the TH-600 by Fostex. I’ll never stop reviewing them, you can’t make me!
So far, this is the third iteration I’ve gotten my ears around, I’ve yet to hear the Black Ebony Piano Key finish 4th version…another review for another time, I hope?
I am vividly happy that Fostex and Massdrop understand that reaching a wider range of tonality preferences will result in more sales. This is smart business.
New Tuning: A Revised Revision
Back in February of 2016, I’d reviewed the TH-600 and Massdrop TH-X00 Mahogany, which was a collaboration between Massdrop and Fostex, as well as an attempt to reach a wider market for their products for both companies.
I think most of us are very happy they’ve worked together on this because it might have resulted in Fostex tweaking the TH600 driver and potentially improving the treble a bit. Do I have proof? Nope!
Outside of my ears and experiences with every model so far but the newer Ebony version that was recently released, that is really all I can go on. It is my belief that Fostex has slightly altered the entire upper end to be less harsh, so when that is combined with a different wooden housing instead of the stock aluminum housings that came with the original TH-600, the result is something that appeals to a wider array of listeners…specifically, me.
Tonality is entirely subjective. Best we reviewers can do concerning this subject area of the audio experience is to say whether or not the entire frequency range, top to bottom, stays in line with itself and doesn’t lead itself astray anywhere.
Bass and Mids can be neutral, but if the treble is wildly vivid, then the tonality as a whole in the product is offset from what it should be. The result may be lower in score overall for me when judging the section of Tonality. A product with neutral bass, mids and treble will result in a much higher score than if one of the three primary areas of listening varies heavily from the other two.
Thank the audio deities of the 5th dimension that this is not at all the case with these Fostex/Massdrop collaborations. I wanted to reiterate this because it seems to be the area of concern with these TH-series reviews and often results in the highest volume of questions. So, I felt it important to try to let others know that the tone overall on this Purpleheart model is a little different than the Mohagany and the stock Aluminum cups of the TH-600, as well as different from the very high quality and supremely expensive Lawton wood cups I’ve used in this review for comparisons.
Why different Woods Sound different
Density & Grain
The bass, treble and tonality variants between these wooden cups are a result of wood density and perhaps even grain patterns. Some wood types are quite thin, lacking substance in a physical sense and much lighter, some are absurdly dense for their size. Acoustic resonance alters between each cut of wood, which is why businesses like Lawton Audio exist and why Fostex and Massdrop have been offering so many different types of woodcuts.
Of course, the exteriors are all different and beautiful, but the tone does in fact change, as does the vastness of the image. Ask any classical woodwind instrument player. Violins using specific types of resin coatings can alter the final sound of the musical score in tonality and presence, so an entirely different cut of wood outside of the norm may result in a different and subtle qualities offered between the physical amounts of bass, mids and treble.
The physics of wooden chamber resonance is something I am not at all qualified to instruct anyone on beyond the basics. Divots in wood grain, solidity factor and even the interior cut and angle of approach to the milling of the inner wooden chamber can and will change the final sound of the product. There are many factors that can be altered during the production of the wooden cup that will completely alter the sound.
As a person who is partially colorblind, I actually thought the Purpleheart was blue until I was told it was called the Purpleheart. The rolling marble effect is simply stunning and in my heavily subjective opinion, this is the most striking of the Massdrop TH-series variants in terms of exterior design.
This version doesn’t glow in the morning sunrise, as the Lawton or Mahogany did, but it does have an entirely different and exotic, subtle beauty. The cups themselves feel heavier than the Mahogany, but seem to be cut exactly the same way. This type of hardwood comes from South America. Specifically, Brazil.
Fostex has not at all changed the staging prowess of the TH-X00 and the wooden Purpleheart chambers don’t alter this at all over the original Mahogany cups of the TH-X00. There is quite a large difference in staging shape and width factor when swapping between Mark Lawton’s $600 custom wooden cups and the stock Purpleheart wood cups though. Lawton’s cups result is significantly larger staging width. This is directly due to the size and cuts of the wood for Lawton’s cups, I suspect, which are almost 3x as thick and much more elongated overall.
The stock PH (Purpleheart, from now on) cups result in a noticeably more intimate, closed-in-sound field that lacks width by comparison. As I’ve said before, the TH-series have the best soundstage in any closed back headphone in the middle tier. Despite Lawton’s cups sounding larger, the stock PH cups still offer excellent sound staging. Still, the alpha of the pack for imaging and that likely isn’t going to change anytime soon.
Realism, depth of field, height factor, airiness and separation of instruments are effortless in setup, sublime and damned near addictive. The center image of this headphone is fantastic, but this may have been improved more than usual by the Lawton Leather pads I had on hand for this review, more on that later. It is subjectively difficult to swap between a Fostex TH-series headphone model, to another and be happy with the soundstage elements in the other set. Fostex does soundstage justice, and then some.
It is true that there are cleaner bass experiences for the price, but none that I am aware of that have that much quantity. AudioQuests newest NightOwl Carbon actually hits harder than these TH-X00 models, believe it or not. When you have lots of bass quantity and nice quality on one hand, but a very satisfying and non-problematic or annoying level of physical impact (dynamics) on the other, the result is something very unique in this price point.
Everyone knows Fostex’s TH-series models are all regarded for excellent bass response, and rightly so. Iteration to iteration, it doesn’t seem to matter what type of wooden cup variant they install on there, it always seems to sound great down below.
Substance & Tone
This PH version is no different in quality or quantity than the others, but substance and tone are certainly different than the Mahogany and the Lawton premium cups versions. Bass tonality is actually a gentle bit warmer than the others, more bloom, less of a precise feel to it with regard to physicality. By that, I mean that the decay factor is noticeably slower and there is more resonance inside the cup chamber.
Where the older Mahogany version had a faster bass response, something that felt quicker and snappier, and the Lawton’s besting even the Mahogany’s in that respect, this PH model is the most musical so far. Fun factor is a thing now with regard to tonality, at least in my opinion. I prefer this type of a bass, it is not as accurate and precise as the others. This model is certainly the wiser option if you want just a little warmth down yonder.
If you were unhappy with the neutral sound signature in previous models but want to retain the A-typical Fostex TH-series bass, then this Purpleheart might be a good buy for you. This headphone is not for the heavy-hearted when it comes to bass quantity, so if you are looking for a mellow and soft sound, this isn’t for you.
Still V-shaped, but due to some marginal improvements to the lower treble and upper midrange (to my ear) this model is probably the most capable and productive of the lot, which will likely score higher than the others in overall matchability.
The reason for that is the midrange doesn’t feel as nasal as the previous model’s midranges tended to. Too much recession and harsh treble in the original TH-600 meant poor engagement, lack of a solid score for a wider range of genre selection. Here and on the PH variant, the midrange doesn’t feel so problematic, but it surely still is recessed. Sadly, there is no difference in placement at all between all the variants I’ve heard and no wooden cups will allow for a boosted midrange in terms of physical local.
Having said that, the sets slightly warmer bass end and tweaked treble improvements really does hit home with the neutral crowd of midrange lovers. That colorless, natural flavor to vocals, in general, is sublime and I rate it very well.
Despite being not the clearest for the price on the market, it certainly sounds the largest. Midrange lovers will still get a kick out of the recessive tendencies this headphone has to offer with the central regions of response.
Despite that, the midrange itself is not at all suited to vocals, but still, handles it well enjoy to be enjoyable. Plenty of other forward-sounding midrange headphones for this price tier that do is much better, but none of them sound as vast that I am aware of. One came close, that will probably be mentioned in my very next review.
The rumors are true, with regard to Fostex TH-series treble harshness. The entire upper end is still unsavory to me, but I am happy to report that the PH wood sounds more mellow here than the Mahogany version and the original TH-600.
Physical slam factor is less of a problem and has now entered the “I can listen to this for a bit before I feel it has become harsh” instead of it being “this is always harsh sounding” with all the previous models top ends.
Quality is the problem, as well as substance factor. These headphones lack sparkle and density. It is very difficult to pick up an older Hifiman HE500, something with good treble, and then swap to any of the Fostex variants and hope to achieve something very good on the summit of the mountain. Even Lawton’s expensive woodies don’t improve the treble enough to make it what I would consider smooth.
Those expensive cups also do not improve treble density. They do improve slam and kick, making the entire top end of this headphone feel more physically subdued and easier to listen to for extended periods of time: the Mahogany version didn’t do it well enough, this PH version did it better, and the Lawton cups do it very well by comparison.
My outlook on the TH-X00’s has not changed. I still believe it to be the most spacious closed back on the market, as well as one of the best overall values in the middle tier for headphones. If bass and imaging is your thing, you really can’t do better for this price range. Once more, I’d like to ask for a detachable cable. If the TH-610 has it, why can’t the newer editions of the TH-X00 as well? The cable is just too long, at least terminate with a 3.5mm instead of a ¼ so we can use it on a nice portable rig that most of us have these days.
Beyond those few small gripes, the TH-X00 is still one of the most beautiful, one of the most stylish and spacious sounding headphones on the planet. So long as they keep churning out new wooden cups that alter the tone or imaging properties a bit, I’ll continue to review them.