For many years I have used three sets of headphones, all from Grado Laboratories: the Reference RS-1 ($695), the SR-125 ($125), and the SR-60 ($60). I've always favored Grado headphones because the minimal-resonance design philosophy that I feel is responsible for the uncolored midrange of their moving-iron cartridges extends throughout their headphone range as well. Recently, however, I've achieved a new perspective regarding the SR-125 'phones that I felt would be of interest to Stereophile readers.
"Preaching to the converted," I sighed to myself as I read the manual for the Stax Omega II Earspeaker headphone system. I fondly recalled my headphone reference for all time—the Most Fabulous and Seductive Sennheiser Orpheus tubed electrostatics, which Thomas J. Norton reviewed for Stereophile in 1994. I recalled the Orpheus's heady, open, fast, and colorfully wideband sound, and clutched my palpitating heart.
Sometimes, the only thing that'll soothe the cares and lift the thoughts of man is kicking back and letting glorious music wash over you. Isn't that why we're all here? But no sooner do you sit yourself down in the sweet spot and cue up, say, Mozart's 40th, than you hear:
"When I find something that works," John Candy leered, "I stick with it!" I have no idea if the folks at Stax Industries are fans of Splash or not, but they've certainly taken Candy's philosophy as their own. Despite manufacturing superb—if demanding—loudspeakers and electronics for the last 15 years or so, Stax has been best known for producing one thing: electrostatic ear-speakers, aka headphones.
Years ago, I uncovered a piece of my father's secret soul. Hidden in the back of a closet was a treasure trove I'd give anything to possess today. It was my father's stash of mementos from his service in the Eighth Air Force during WWII: his A-2 leather and lamb's-wool flight jacket, a silk scarf with a detailed topographic map of his Theater of Operations imprinted on it, his "50 mission hat" (an Air Corps-lid with the shaping frame removed, carefully crumpled through the middle so that every mother's son would know he was no FNG), his ruptured duck, and, thrust in one pocket, his old headsets—a pair of Bakelite earpieces held together with a leather-covered steel strap. They were funky-looking cans, but to me, they spoke of all of the nobility and courage displayed by the boys who flew over Fortress Europe. I don't actually remember ever plugging them into anything, but I sure wore them for years in every fantasy situation, from plucky French underground guerrilla to Wes Phillips Space Raaaangerrr!
What, I hear you asking, is an integrated drive? The MID is part of McCormack's much lauded "Micro" series (see my review of their Micro Line Drive in Vol.18 No.6), which are designed to offer the same dedication to quality as McCormack's full-size components, but at a lower price (and in a smaller package). The MID was initially the Micro Headphone Drive, sporting two ½" stereo phone-jacks on the front panel, a two-position input switch, and a volume control. The rear boasted two inputs and an output (controlled by the volume pot). It was designed to be a high-quality headphone amp and a minimalist preamp. In this configuration, I ran into it at the 1995 WCES where—almost as a gag—Steve McCormack had made up a few ½" stereo phone-plug to 5-way binding post connectors. He could, he explained, run small speakers from the headphone outputs. There was a serious purpose behind the joke, of course. Showing that the MHD could drive speakers spoke volumes for its ability to drive headphones.
For headphone listeners, this is truly a golden age—we have multiple choices at many different price levels. During the course of this review, I had as many as five headphone amplifiers (and, in several cases, multiple power supplies) set up for comparison. Yet many people don't understand why we might want a headphone amp in the first place.
It's hard to know what to call the SHA-Gold. It is a superb headphone amplifier—maybe even the target all future headphone amps need to shoot at—but it's also a full-function preamplifier. At two grand, it's not exactly a unit you'd add to your current system just to get a headphone connection...Wait a minute! What am I saying? I'm sure that there are folks out there who would add this to their existing reference systems as casually as I'd buy the Audio Alchemy headphone amplifier—but they'd be missing out on a great line stage.
I was cruising at 36,000 feet, totally relaxed, listening to Richard Thompson. Looking down at my lap, I caught sight of a little box with a glowing green light. Switching off this light was like turning on the noise—the 767 was roaring like a locomotive and the ambient sound hit me like a fist. Thompson's crisp Celtic chordings turned mushy, undetailed, and dull. I felt weary. Whoa, I wouldn't do that again if I were you, laddie! I fumbled for the switch and reactivated the NoiseGuard circuitry on my Sennheiser HDC 451 noise-canceling headsets. Thompson's guitar rang out clearly, the airplane quieted to sound like an S-class Benz, and I relaxed into a calm reverie with only one worry clouding my contentment. But I patted my pocket: yup, still two cognacs left. Everything would be all right.
The cab's outside, the plane leaves in 50 minutes. Let's see...HeadRoom Supreme, HeadRoom Bag, portable CD player, CDs, Etymotic ER-4S Canal Phones....Oh, yeah—mustn't forget luggage or plane tickets. Guess I'm set to go.
Drum me out of the High End if you must, but I have a shameful confession to make: I love headphones. I know, I know, I'm supposed to preface my comment with a lofty disclaimer, such as, "Of course, given my refined sensibilities, I could never derive satisfaction from such a compromised listening apparatus, but many of you seem to enjoy them." Well, pardon me for saying so, but pfffftttt!
You'd probably be surprised to learn that headphones are the most common means for listening to music. No, I didn't get that from a book, but from personal observation. I'm referring here to personal portable stereo listeningthe ubiquitous Jogman with which a whole generation has retreated into its own private world, isolated from traffic noise, muggers, and, at home, housemates or parents screaming "Turn it down!"
While headphone listening remains secondary to that of loudspeakers for most serious listeners, it's still an important alternative for many. And while good conventional headphones exist, electrostatics are usually considered first when the highest playback quality is required. As always, there are exceptions (Grado's headphones come immediately to mind), but most high-end headphones are electrostaticsuch designs offer the benefits of electrostatic loudspeakers without their dynamic limitations. Last year I reviewed the Koss ESP/950 electrostatics (Vol.15 No.12), a remarkable set of headphones from the company that practically invented headphones for serious home listening. Here I listen to examples from two other companies, each known for its headphones since Pluto was a pup.