HeadRoom Max headphone amplifier Head to Head

Sidebar 4: Head to Head (From February 1998, Vol.21 No.2)

No sooner had I reviewed the $1699 Stax Lambda Nova Signature/SRM-T1W electrostatic headphones combination (Vol.20 No.6) than I began to receive letters from headphone listeners asking me to compare the Lambda Nova with Sennheiser's HD-580s driven by a HeadRoom Max amplifier. I thought a comparison between the Stax and the $1732 Sennheiser HD 600/HeadRoom combo would be appropriate.

First, the Staxes are a bargain—their $1699 price has been established by Audio Advisor from a "list" price of $3200. (Something about this math disturbs me. I'm not at all sure "list" price has any meaning when the going rate is nearly 40% less. Maybe we should just call Audio Advisor's price the true price.)

Furthermore, the SRM-T1W is extremely versatile. It will drive three Stax headphones (two "Pro," one "normal"), accepts three inputs, and also functions as a passive preamplifier—an extremely good one. While the HeadRoom Max can also serve as a preamp, it's limited to just one input, which, even in these days of digital supremacy, is somewhat Spartan.

But when it comes to long-term comfort, the Sennheisers are far and away the better choice. The tight fit of the headband means that it won't budge once it's set, and the velveteen fabric that covers the earpads breathes (unlike the Stax's vinyl covering, which grows hot and sweaty during long listening sessions).

In many ways, the two headphone/amplifier combinations were startlingly close in character. Both were detailed, dynamic, and timbrally true, and at first I found it frustratingly difficult to perceive much difference between them. Over time, however, subtle distinctions began to emerge. The Sennheisers portrayed music with more heft—different from having superior bass response. Music just had more body with the HD 600/HeadRoom Max combo; through the Stax rig it seemed less substantial.

At first I thought the Staxes revealed more texture, but the longer I listened, the more I came to feel that that texture lacked specificity—it was more like a slightly grainy overlay that simulated texture, reminding me of the textured anti-glare glass sometimes used to frame photographs: While it gives the appearance of increased clarity, it comes at the expense of fine detail.

Maybe it's just me, but I experienced an odd sensation while listening to the Stax 'phones over long periods. I would become aware of the proximity of the diaphragm to my ear, but the sensation would disappear as soon as I paid attention to it. This felt like the aural equivalent of those optical illusions in which the foreground becomes the background when gazed at intently. By contrast, the Sennheiser HD 600 simulated music occurring in space better than any other headphone I have used—I was never conscious of its diaphragm's proximity to my eardrum.

Make no mistake, both of these units are superb—in my experience, only Sennheiser's extravagant Orpheus and Stax's out-of-production Omega have sounded better. But with products such as Sennheiser's HD 600 and HeadRoom's Max, dynamic headphone technology has finally come of age. Good as the Staxes are—they deserve their Class A designation—the electrostats no longer outperform their competition. Convenience and versatility to one side, I consistently preferred the sound of the Sennheiser HD 600/HeadRoom Max combination.—Wes Phillips

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