Comparing World-Class Headphones

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It's not often one gets to set-up $37,000+ worth of the world's best headphone gear on the dining room table. I should do a little comparative listening test and report my findings, methinks.

Wasn't easy to write with all the good music going on in my head, though.

Splitting Hairs
I need to preface this article with the observation that these are all great headphones. In this article, I'm testing these cans in a comparative manner. If you're not careful you might walk away thinking there's more difference between these cans than I actually heard. In the end, these headphones are all very, very good, which means the differences between them are actually relatively small.

In addition, I will have just a couple of days listening to this set-up. The differences I hear will not be drawn from months of experience. All of these products deliver nuance that is simply inaccessible --- and somewhat indescribable (like dancing about architecture) --- in an article of this type. My intention here is simply to get a basic read on the general character of each headphone relative to one another, and offer it to you as a first pass sorting of the gear. From there on, you'll really need to do the listening yourself to find gear that suits your taste.

Gear List
HeadAmp Blue Hawaii ($4995); Apex Audio Pinnacle ($10,000); Wadia 861SE CD Player ($9,950); Stax Sr-009 ($5200); Stax SR-007, Mk1 late version ($2600 for current MK2); Sennheiser HD 800 ($1499); Audez'e LCD-2 late Rev 1 ($995); HiFiMAN HE-6 ($1199); HiFiMAN HE-500 ($899); Cardas Golden Reference interconnects ($840); and Audio Power Industries Power Wedge Ultra line conditioner.


Testing Proceedure
I did the listening tests one track at a time listening to each headphone, but will present the data here one headphone at a time to make it easier for you to read.

Almost all the tracks I listen to are short (10-30 seconds) snippets of music with which I am intimately familiar --- I use these tracks exclusively on all my evaluations, and have done so for approximately the last 5 years.

Pink Noise/Overall Balance - I almost always start my listening tests with pink noise. If there's such a thing as objective listening, this is it. Pink noise is broad hiss/shhh/rumble sound that has equal energy in each octave. To our ears, it should sound like static that doesn't have any particular frequency that draws attention. It should just sound like broad, smooth noise.

Listening to pink noise is especially helpful in picking out peaks in the frequency response --- dips are much harder to hear. Pink noise mainly allows me to readily identify hot spots in the treble range, and the overall balance between bass, mids, and treble.

Bass Texture and Extension - These tracks help me identify how well articulated the texture of bass notes are.

For this test I use Hans Thesink's "Late Last Night" which has a tuba playing a bass line. In it, the tuba's texture and lip smacking juiciness is groovy. Poorly reproduced it turns into a murky blur.

I also use the Ray Brown Trio's "Things Ain't What They Used To Be." During Ray's solo on the acoustic bass there's a section in which he hits a number of really low and growly notes. The masterful and raw texture of his playing are evident.

Lastly, the opening bars of Tiger Okoshi's "Color of Soil" feature some of the lowest notes I've heard on a string bass. The second low note is an Adam's Apple wobbler. Great for hearing extension.

Bass Slam - Because so many listeners these days want bass slam, and it's not easy to get low bass with impact, I have special tracks for hearing bass slam.

MC 900 Foot Jesus "If I Only Had A Brain" has plenty of percussive notes with a slammin' bass line on a synth, which has a couple of really low notes in the section I use.

Medeski Martin and Wood's "Chubb Sub" includes an unusually course sounding stand-up bass and big loose drum section. If the system doesn't have bass impact, it can sound a bit thin.

Massive Attack's "Be Thankful For What You've Got" intro is percussive and swinging. All the bits need to gel above the electric bass line or your head will not bop.

Midrange - Here, it's mostly about the human voice. If you don't get it right, you won't have the sense of the physical presence of a person standing in front of you. It's important to note the enunciation of the mouth combining with the resonance of the nasal passage and heft of the chest. Both male and female voices should be heard to complete the test as both have differing character. Things should sound natural, rich, and easy; our hearing is particularly in tune with the sound of another's voice.

The Persuasions "Oh! Darlin'" is an a cappella group of men singing this Beatles tune, and recorded with Chesky Records' famously realistic sensibilities. Completely unaccompanied, we hear a dense and rich blending of male voices; when well reproduced, they surround you with their honey rich realism.

Anna Caram "The Telephone Song" (another Chesky recording), is a lovely Brazilian lady happily serenading you and a mild Sunday morning. Her voice is rich and clear; you can almost hear the tones emitting from her neck and head along with her mouth.

Treble - Again, with the David Johansen track from the opening notes, we hear a laid-back electric guitar intro supported by the drummer using brushes on snare and cymbal. Here I listen for the naturalness and organic sound of the high frequency components of the cymbal and brush work. You should almost be able see the cymbals struck and vibrate, and feel the skin of the drum.

Tiger Okoshi's "Bootsman's Little House" has a shouting trumpet line. When poorly reproduced it can be very harsh; with high-fidelity the attack is powerful without being piercing.

Dynamics - The title track of James Carter's "J. C. on the Set" opens with a ripping sax line and amazingly dynamic drumming by Tani Tabbal. The impact can be eyeblinking when well reproduced.

Carlos Heredia's "Chachipen" (on Chesky again) is a fiery Flamenco number. Here, guitar strumming, clapping, foot stomping, and castanets are all done with great vigor and dynamism, but, because there's so much high frequency with little deep lows, it can sound quite thin when poorly reproduced This track readily separates the dynamite cans from the pop guns.

Imaging - Imaging is a contentious subject with headphones. I'd argue there really isn't a legitimate audio image there unless some form of crossfeed or HRTF is involved. But I know what we're talking about here: a sense of breadth and depth, with tightly focused placements of the instruments in the soundstage. With very good fidelity, and ample listening experience to accustom your brain to the sound, a good sense of space can be achieved with headphones.

Todd Garfinkle at M•A Recording produces not only some of the best quality, audiophile-grade recordings I've heard, but also has one of the most eclectic mixes of music on the planet. Peter Epstines "Crowd Theory" on "Staring at the Sun" by M•A Recordinds is a stunningly spacious modern jazz recording. The sense of space and place is palpable; the layering superb. You are there when reproduced well.

Not surprising that another M•A Recording is in my imaging test tracks: Santiago Vazquez' track "Quejas de Bandoneon" is a beautifully layered and exquisitely arranged tango on the album "Sera Una Noche." Penny whistle, tablas, accordion, guitar, cello, and goodness knows what else populates this marvelously recorded track. Recorded in a church 100 miles from Buenos Aires, the sense of space is spectacular.

Let's have a listen to the headphones.