The Entry Level #26

I couldn't have known it at the time, but Swans' "Lunacy" (see last month's column) would be the very last song I'd ever enjoy in my cozy listening room. Last times—whether with things, people, places, or, I suppose, especially with ideas—can be difficult to accept, tending to overshadow all other times, their lingering memories leading to remorse and games of "what if."

There's something to say for the notion of living each moment as if it's your last. #YOLO.

But, as far as last times go, this was a good one—a great one, in fact—and I have no regrets. I'm writing these words in my new home, sitting at the round, glass table, covered in sunlight. Stringer, the jerk, is at the window, relaxed, watching cars pass. Avon, the sweetheart, is looking adorable, half asleep on her favorite ottoman. Ms. Little sits on the gray couch, phone pressed to her ear, discussing holiday plans with her mom. In time, that gray couch will become my new listening spot. Out of respect for the woman and cats with whom I now share my life, I'll try not to clutter the couch with LP sleeves, CD booklets, and jewel cases.

John Atkinson likes to joke that it's a bad idea to get involved with a woman, no matter how beautiful, thoughtful, or loving: "She'll move your furniture, Stephen." But I've nevertheless moved in with Ms. Little—and, in fact, I've moved all of her furniture. Ha! If it seems that our relationship is progressing dangerously fast, it's only because I haven't told you everything about my life. I'm not the lonely sad sack I've made myself out to be. Not entirely, at least.

In case you're wondering, and I know some of you are, Ms. Little is not Natalie, no matter how often the two are confused. My dear friends Natalie and Nicole do live right upstairs and down the hall, however, so we'll have plenty of opportunities for listening parties, dance parties, and other assorted silliness. Yes, our life together does sometimes seem like an incredibly funny sitcom. If you want to get a sense of what it's really like, tune in to Fox on Tuesdays at 9pm EST.

Travel, storms, work
At this moment, as comfortable as I am, one very important thing is missing from my world: the stereo. It's been exactly one month, one week, two days, one hour, and 22 minutes since I last listened to my precious system. I can see its beautiful bits—the Rega P3-24 turntable is right over there, on top of a box of extraneous kitchenware; the NAD C316 BEE integrated amplifier isn't far from where Avon continues to sleep; and my PSB Alpha B1 loudspeakers are stacked by the bookshelf—but I can hardly remember what they sound like when they're all together, connected with the necessary cables, plugged into the wall, and powered up.

Why the long drought? First, it was the Rocky Mountain Audio Fest, in Denver, where I heard some of the greatest, most advanced, most expensive hi-fi systems known to man. After RMAF, it was a week of catching up with magazine work before departing for our annual weeklong vacation to Puerto Rico. This year, as last, Ms. Little and I journeyed with my brother-in-law and sister to the colorful beach town of Rinc¢n. We always expect a little bit of rain while we're there, but this year we saw some of the heaviest, most relentless storms imaginable: Superstorm Sandy was circling through the Caribbean and working her way up toward the eastern US. We managed to just beat the storm back to New Jersey, but then spent the ensuing week in the dark, without heat, hot water, or electricity. As you can imagine, the week after that was again one of playing catch-up.

A day after shipping our January issue to prepress, I was off to England, where I visited the homes of KEF and Celestion, in the lovely respective towns of Maidstone and Ipswich. There, I did manage to hear a couple of outstanding systems, including one highlighted by KEF's 50th Anniversary LS50 loudspeakers. Having spent some quality time with them, I'm not at all surprised that JA liked the LS50s as much as he did. (See JA's review in December 2012.) They sound far bigger than they should, image like crazy, and look gorgeous. For $1500/pair, they're extraordinary—unlike anything else I've seen or heard. I'm tempted to say something like, "You owe it to yourself to hear them," but that would be too John Marks-ish. Instead, I'll just say that I want them.

Not that the LS50 isn't worth it, but $1500 is a lot of money. Can some of the LS50's technology find its way into more affordable designs? According to Jack Oclee-Brown, one of KEF's youngest, brightest research engineers, certain aspects of the LS50's design—optimal placement of the driver in the speaker cabinet, for instance—would be simple and inexpensive to transfer to other, cheaper models. Yet how low can KEF go? Perhaps more precisely, how low should KEF go? Should the company introduce, for instance, a new $300/pair speaker—one to compete with the Wharfedale Diamond 10.1, the Tannoy Mercury V1, the Boston Acoustics A25, the Music Hall Marimba—and my beloved PSB Alpha B1?

Did you know that KEF already makes something like that? It's called the C3, and its price is actually $329/pair. I saw one in Maidstone—it was very attractive—but I didn't get to hear it. It's being quietly phased out. Michael Johnson, KEF UK's head of marketing, even wonders whether there's strong demand for such a thing. And by "strong," I suppose he's looking for potential customers beyond just me and my imaginary friends—weird. Johnson's concerned with addressing the ways in which most young people listen to music. If most young people use a computer as a source component, then wouldn't it make more sense to manufacture a powered desktop speaker?

To that end, KEF has introduced the X300A "digital hi-fi speaker system," the company's first powered, or active, design. Rather large for a desktop speaker at 11" (280mm) H by 7.1" (180mm) W by 9.6" (243mm) D, the X300A uses KEF's Uni-Q point-source driver array and places twin class-A/B amplifiers and a high-quality toroidal transformer in each cabinet. Further, the X300A has an internal 24-bit/96kHz asynchronous DAC. The signal flows not through standard speaker wire, but via a "digital inter-speaker connection," or USB link. According to Johan Coorg, KEF's head of brand development, this is to ensure that high-quality sound is carried through the entire signal chain.

Judging by Coorg's brief demonstration, the technology works. Placed on a desktop about 6' apart and playing WAV files from a laptop running JRiver Media software, the X300As had no problem filling a large meeting room with clean, clear, detailed sound, showcasing an exceptionally stable soundstage and pinpoint imaging, the latter easily discernible even while I sat way off to one side of the room, far from what might be considered the "sweet spot." I was impressed.

Had Coorg told me that the X300A would sell for $2500/pair, I wouldn't have been surprised or insulted. Had he told me that they, like the awesome LS50, would sell for $1500/pair, I'd have been pleased. When Coorg told me that KEF was actually aiming to price the X300A at under $1000/pair, I was sort of shocked. This level of quality and technology, at such a reasonable price, from a company with an admirable, 50-year history, is great and exciting news. By the time you read this, KEF should be shipping the X300A to dealers worldwide. Screw it: You owe it to yourself to hear them.


volvic's picture

I have heard both of these as I was looking for headphones recently.  I didn't have the same experience you had, yes the Beats were slightly boomier than the B&W but not more so. Perhaps the music source or recording was responsible.   While I didn't buy the Beats I have to say they were not bad, not perfect and def'n more comfortable to wear than the B&W speakers and if I were to chose between the two would have picked the beats for my ipod but not for my home listening.    


Stephen Mejias's picture

That's interesting because the difference I hear is surprisingly, unusually dramatic. I listened to a wide range of music, formats, and sources, and the results were consistent. I don't doubt your experience, but I do wonder about the manufacturing consistency of some popular headphones. I'm getting a second sample of Beats soon, for a Follow-Up in our May issue, and I'll compare both—to one another, to the B&Ws, and to a couple pairs of Skullcandy Aviators.

volvic's picture

The Beats versions I heard happened almost two years ago (and the B&W more recent) with the same music sources on my iPad,  so it is possible that manufacturing techniques/bad sample/ my bad memory, etc., are responsible for this.  I took a long time listening to quite a  few different ones and the B&W had the edge for home listening but no way for outdoor listening, the Beats were pretty good - not great but pretty good, both had higher bass than I am used to.  I always thought that the higher bass on the Beats was more for a younger market and as a way to mask all the extraneous noise surroudings they would be used in.   In the end I opted for PSB for the iPod and Grado for home, I spent over two years trying to decide and you know what ? I am still looking for something better and greater. 



Stephen Mejias's picture

There are lots of interesting options out there, so your search may never be complete. I'm curious about a "crossover" model—a headphone that will work well both at home and for commuting/travel. In that regard, I'm currently most interested in the Sennheiser Momentum.

John Atkinson's picture

Fascinating stuff. And unusual for Noel Lee to take his eye off the ball like this.

John Atkinson
Editor, Stereophile

volvic's picture

What a great read!!! Lends credence to the fact that their headphones might not be the same ones one year ago, two years ago etc as they are no longer manufactured by Monster but by different companies with looks trumping sound.  Fits in with Stephen's comment about how now they may not be audiophile grade but hint at the idea of audiophile quality headphones. 

Stephen Mejias's picture

Well . . . my first experience with Beats headphones came back in 2010, when they were still tied to Monster, and I think those 'phones sounded a lot like the current models. But this is also something I want to explore more deeply in my Follow-Up: How have the headphones changed, if at all, since Monster and Beats parted ways?

volvic's picture

Very interesting topic look forward to the read. 


dalethorn's picture

I went to the Apple store and tried the new Beats Executive. Awful - worse than the little ones. So I asked one of the hip young attendants there "What do the kiddies do to hear any details out of these things?" - And he replied "Turn up the volume."

davescards's picture

Congratulations on your new relationship.  I'm going to miss your old apartment, and your outings with Natalie and Nicole.  It wasn't that long ago that you kindly shared photos of your cozy apartment with us.  And not that long ago that you first started your column.  It was a breath of fresh air from the mostly dry reviews found in Stereophile.  You quickly became my favorite writer/reviewer.  Recently, though, I was beginning to think you had lost that freshness, as your writing became less personal and more technical.  Now I understand why.  But please don't stop giving your reviews that personal touch.  Stereophile doesn't need another reviewer who drones on for pages comparing speaker cables.  Best of luck with your new life.   Hope you get to listen to your stereo system soon!  David

John Hall's picture

Let me start by saying I love this column! This is one of my favorite things to read each month. I was recently on Amazon looking at headphones and i saw the P3's selling for nearly $100 over your quoted price of $199! I went to a few other sites to check prices and they all were at or around $199. What's the deal AMAZON?! Buyers beware!

GearMe's picture

They can be listened to and purchased at Apple, J&R, and BestBuy (Magnolia) stores for $199 or online at Crutchfield.  It is also very unlikely that you can do better price-wise for new, in box B&W has always controlled the market pricing tightly.

FWIW -- depending on what your sound signature preference is, there may be better headphones available with similar form-factors and prices (Beyerdynamic DT1350, Sennheiser HD25, Audio Technica ESW9, etc.).

I tend to buy based on value for the dollar. For my portables, I chose the dual driver, Phiaton PS320 ($90 at Amazon) better than the P3 for me and the Audio Technica ATH-WS55 Solid Bass for (were $30 at Microcenter! is $83 on Amazon).  The WS55 is a basshead can that blows away Beats in my opinion. 

Two headphones for less than the cost of one pair of Beats that allow you to enjoy your listening across all music genres!

andy_uranium's picture

I recently bought a pair of the PSB M4U 2 headphones... and enjoying them immensly.  I tried the beats but found them lacking in definement.  enjoyed the article.

coruja's picture

...with your mention of the once (and still?) venerable purveyors of fine quality loudspeakers, Messrs Celestion of Ipswich, England. Yet you allude to it no further in the article. I am bemused.

Stephen Mejias's picture

I am bemused.

I was invited to England to meet with a few of the people behind KEF and tour the KEF factory in Maidstone. KEF and Celestion have the same corporate parent (GP Acoustics), so, on the second day of my trip, we visited Celestion. Celestion was also very interesting, but we spent much less time there than at KEF. Basically, I got to see how Celestion's drivers are developed and assembled. Celestion no longer makes loudspeakers for the home, but are focused on guitar amps and pro audio.

Big Al's picture

I know they are not considered audiophile quality, but I do like the fit and appearance of these headphones. Does anybody know who is making Beats Pro ?

One thing I definitely agree with regarding Beats is they are responsible for bringing many folks into the arena of expensive headphones, so when they go looking for an adiophile quality ear phone next time, they will already be somewhat prepared for the cost.

Thanks for the article Stephen.

JDDisantis's picture

Have you heard the Spirit Ones by Focal, Steven? Give them a listen, its worth it. Great headphones. They're more in a catagory of the Bowers and wilkins P5s or the Beats Studios but they sound better and are cheaper. not too sure if they sound better than the P5s because I've never heard the P5s. See for yourself. I would love to read you're opinion.

DaveinSM's picture

My experience with the P3s is that they still seem mid-bass heavy compared to Grado's SR80i.  But I also discovered that the B&W's tonal balance seems to be more dependent on ear placement.  Placed a bit further forward, it mitigates the bass heaviness a bit.  But overall, I prefer the sound of the Grado's, which also are only half the price.

In all fairness, the P3's are more efficient with an iPod, and much more portable.  The fit 'n' finish and high quality of materials is much better than the Grado's.  Sennheiser's HD 439 also sound more balanced to me than the P3's, with better noise isolation than both.  They are lightweight but not portable, and quality of plastic could be better.  I also have a pair of Audio Technica ATH-M50s on the way, which I hope will sound the best of all.