Grado HP 1 headphones JA auditions the Grado & Stax headphones
I do quite a bit of headphone listening during the day, making use of their convenience to shut out the office hubbub while I get down to serious copy editing. The system I use is modesta pair of no-longer-available Sennheiser HD420SLs driven by an Advent 300 receiver I bought for $75 from Andrew Main, one of Stereophile's popular production people, with CD source provided by a Denon DCD-1500 IIbut I get quite a bit of musical satisfaction from it. It was with great interest, therefore, that I read Gary A. Galo's report on Joseph Grado's HP 1s elsewhere in this issue. Perhaps it behooves me to try these high-performance cans, thought I.
Accordingly, GAG sent along the Grados he'd written about. I also borrowed a pair of the Stax Lambda Pro "Ear Speakers," as well as a Stax ED-1 diffuse-field equalizer. The Lambdas were driven by their SRM-1/Mk.II direct-drive, class-A, solid-state amplifier, using a Meridian 208 CD player as source, while the dynamic 'phones were driven by the Advent receiver, by my home-brew dedicated class-A headphone amplifier, and by the pair of 25W VTL Tiny Triode tube amplifiers reviewed last month by Corey Greenberg. (These were fitted with a pair of Electronic Visionary Systems Ultimate Attenuators to provide volume control and to match the dynamic headphone level to that of the Stax.) My listening comments are an amalgam of the notes taken with all three amplifiers.
As well as using each pair of headphones for my daily music supply, I did some paired comparisons, matching levels by ear using the 1kHz warble tone on the Stereophile Test CD. First, the $1200 Stax Lambdas: I've used these electrostatics on most of the recording projects I've been involved in over the last few years, finding their clean low frequencies and superb retrieval of midrange detail essential to getting an optimum recorded balance. It could never be said that these were dull-sounding cans, however, and as well as an elevated mid-treble region, which somewhat accentuates tape hiss, their sound can sometimes become a bit steely; some audiophiles attribute this to the solid-state amplifier. Certainly when the amplifier is first switched on, the sound is objectionably hard; it takes at least 30 minutes to warm up. Nevertheless, the ease of the Lambdas' sound, coupled with their spacious presentation of recorded acoustics and a comfortable fit on the head, make for a lot of long-term listening pleasure.
Turning immediately to the beautifully made, $595 Grados after the Lambdas makes the dynamic cans sound shut-in in the mid- and high-treble by comparison. "The upper octaves [are] somewhat laid-back," says GAG; I agree that the HP 1's tonal balance is warmer, darker than the Stax. After comparing the two headphones on a number of different kinds of music, however, I found their overall smoothness became quite addictive. Voices, in particular, were reproduced with a seamless, natural quality. Despite the electrostatic 'phones' reputation for great bass, I actually found the Grados' low frequencies to be both cleaner and subjectively more powerful. LF pitch definition, too, was a little better with the dynamic 'phones. The Stax ED-1 equalizer rendered the Grados less warm, more natural-sounding, though there was then perhaps rather more grain to the sound.
Judging soundstaging with headphones is a little awkward, due to the fact that with conventional recordings, all the instruments are inside your head, hung on a line stretched between your ears. Binaural recordings, however, made with a dummy-head microphone, should produce out-of-the-head imaging with good headphones. To judge soundstaging I therefore used a number of my own binaural recordings as well as some CDs supplied by John Sunier of The Binaural Source (footnote 1).
The Grados didn't throw quite as wide a stage as the Staxes, though both were still excellent. Neither gave me an image to the front of my head with central sources, though this is something I have never found a pair of cans to do, even with the Stax diffuse-field equalizer in the chain. (I understand that this has something to do with the fact that the headphones have to have the exact response of the listener's pinna for this to happen, and that this is something that can only be approximated given that it is different for everyone.) Instead, frontal sources tend to move in an arch over my head.
All in all, while I wouldn't go quite as far as GAG does in recommending the Grado HP 1s for location monitoring, as their rather laid-back high frequencies might well cover up problems that would need to be heardthe tape squashing and dropouts on J. Gordon Holt's 1961 Dubois track on the Stereophile Test CD are much less audible on the Grados than they are via the Stax Lambdas, for exampleI agree absolutely with him that they are excellent value for money, offering a superbly smooth, tonally accurate presentation, with extended lows. A winner, in my humble opinion, particularly given that a version without the polarity switches costs $100 less. And the combination with the $1200/pair Tiny Triodes gave many happy hours of musicI would be intrigued to hear how the Stax SR-Lambda Signature, which includes a tube amp in its $2000 price and is the best-sounding headphone BS has heard, compares with this combination.John Atkinson
Footnote 1: Perhaps the most stunning binaural recording I've heard, in terms of out-of-the-head experience, is the Space-Sound CD (AX CD 91 101) from AudioStax. When Günther Theile opens a window in the studio, it's as though a window has been opened in your room, complete with traffic noise. The Binaural Source, Box 1727, Ross, CA 94957. Web: www.binaural.com.