Gramophone Dreams #56: Woo Audio 3ES preamplifier/headphone amplifier and Audeze CRBN electrostatic headphones Page 2

One of the best records I have for making this energy-in/energy-out comparison is Roscoe Holcomb/The High Lonesome Sound (Folkways LP FA 2368). On my preferred, simple LP-based sound systems, Roscoe's otherworldly voice and close-miked banjo come out sounding a lot like I imagine they did while the recording was being made. Western Electric engineers called this phenomenon "Mirrophonic": "A True Reproduction of the Original."


Speaking of Western Electric: I recently heard that High Lonesome disc on a 10'-tall, five-way horn-speaker system with a $350k record player. That million-dollar system made Roscoe's voice and banjo image larger than real life—I call this "cinema-sized"—but knock me over if Roscoe didn't sound like a real live person timbre-, density-, and intensity-wise.

When I came home from that bighorn experience, I played that High Lonesome disc with the Koetsu Rosewood Signature Platinum moving coil driving Sutherland Engineering's Little Loco phono stage into the Woo 3ES, with the Parasound Halo A21+ powering my 1-foot-tall Falcons. Dang me to hell if Roscoe was not almost as dense, intense, and live-like as he was with the large horns. (He was smaller though, maybe 2/3 life-size.)

Used as a traditional preamp, the 3ES enhanced my system by presenting recordings with an extra-brilliant, extra-radiant transparency and a density and intensity of projected energy that exceeded that of my reference Rogue RP-7—and any other line-level amplifier I can remember using. Oh, and by the way, this extraordinary Woo Audio preamp also amplifies electrostatic headphones.


What about Audeze's CRBN headphones?
In 2016, Audeze was approached by researchers at the UCLA Semel Institute for Neuroscience and Human Behavior along with the industrial designers at BoomBang for help designing a headphone to be used by patients while they are inside MRI machines. When Sankar first told me about this "CRBN project," I told him how the first time I had an MRI I freaked—had a panic attack—and tried to escape and run from the room. The nurse/operator stopped me at the door and comforted me. She told me panic attacks were not uncommon and then urged me to try again. Which I did—but only to impress her with my courage. I told Sankar if he pulled this project off, he would be deified.

As many of us know, MRI machines expose patients to high-power electromagnetic fields. When operating, MRI machines sound like buckets of angry bolts slamming against the steel drum of a washing machine. The design brief for the Audeze headphones included noise-canceling and a microphone for patient-operator communication. Most important of all, the headphone and its cables must be invisible to the scanner. Audeze's engineers replaced the headphone's wires with carbon fiber and developed a new polymer film diaphragm that eliminates the use of ferrous or metallic coatings by embedding carbon nanotubes (SWCNT) within the thin film.


Audeze Audio (footnote 2) is world-famous for making audiophile-grade planar-magnetic headphones, but this MRI research yielded two new electrostatic headphones, both called "CRBN." One is for MRI and uses a 1kV bias; a second, for audiophile use, operates at 580V bias and is fully compatible with all Stax "Pro" five-pin energizer systems. The CRBN I am reporting on costs $4500 (without power supply).

The name "CRBN" is pronounced "carbon"; it alludes to Audeze's new 90mm × 120mm "uncoated" polymer film electrostatic diaphragm infused with the abovementioned carbon nanotubes. According to Audeze's website, the charge on the nano-tubed diaphragm "is evenly distributed throughout the film; resulting in a uniform driving force that reduces distortion and improves clarity, resolution, and transparency."


These nanotubed diaphragms are fastened in elegant, oval, open-backed housings made from magnesium, stainless steel (footnote 1), and polymer acetate. The headband is carbon fiber and leather. Best of all, the CRBN weighs only 300gm, which is extremely light compared, for example, to Audeze's open-back planar-magnetic Audeze LCD-3, which weighs 635gm, or the Stax SR-009S, which weighs 590gm.

Listening with CRBN
It took me a week to stop bathing in the mesmeric forces proffered by the Woo Audio preamp. When I did, I encountered a second wonder: With the Woo Audio 3ES's electrostatic headphone amp, sourced by the Mola Mola Tambaqui DAC, Audeze's new CRBN headphone did not sound like any electrostatic headphone I'd ever heard before, including the CRBN I auditioned at the Ace Hotel.

My initial Mola/Woo/CRBN impressions suggested a slightly crisper-sounding HiFiMan Susvara. The CRBN resolved deep into the recording like the openback planar-magnetic Susvara, and like JPS Labs' Abyss AB-1266 Phi TC, but the music that now came out of the CRBN was more brightly lit and sharply focused than it is with those venerable magnifiers. With the Audeze, sounds were exquisitely formed, distinctly visual, and exceptionally three-dimensional. They were also slightly less physical and present than I was expecting from the Tambaqui DAC and Woo Audio 3ES amp, both of which specialize in solid, muscular sound.


As you may have noticed, I enjoy noticing the sound of sound. I especially like it when the sounds I'm listening to are artful notes from John Fahey's guitar. Fahey's notes are provocative enough when I stream them from my iPhone; through the CRBN with the Tambaqui DAC and 3ES amplifier, they became transcendent. With the CRBN, every track on Fahey's Henry Kaiser–produced On Air (16/44.1 FLAC, Tradition & Moderne/Tidal) came through sounding beautiful and surrealistic. Fahey's pacing was pure poetry. On Air, which was recorded for Radio Bremen, Germany, in 1978, features Fahey doing his best to let the dark dreams inside his mind dance with the dark fears floating in mine. The 3ES/CRBN pairing did an unusually effective job of facilitating that level of artist-to-listener connectedness.

After John Fahey, I got on a Hank Williams kick, playing through everything on Tidal and Qobuz and ending up, as always, on I Saw the Light (Expanded Edition) (16/44.1 FLAC Mercury/Tidal). During these Hank moments, I realized that the Audeze CRBN somehow avoids that right-ear/left-ear overemphasis that characterizes virtually all "unprocessed" headphone listening. Somehow with the CRBN, mono recordings, including all this Hank Williams, presented themselves almost completely outside of my head and mostly in front of my face. Similarly, the CRBN presented stereo recordings as—more than usual—one continuous soundfield, without a hole in the middle.


Besides the coherence of its mono and stereo soundspaces, the Audeze CRBN distinguished itself by its understated clarity and lack of electrostatic-ness. Together, these traits produced a neutral, natural, high-detail, low-fatigue, listener-friendly headphone experience.

3ES via LTA Z10e
After several weeks of 3ES and CRBN auditions, I replaced the Woo and Parasound amplifiers with Linear Tube Audio's Z10e integrated. Like the 3ES, LTA's Z10e is built in two chassis (one for the power supply, the other for the audio signal) and uses a David Berning–designed ZOTL10 power amplifier and preamplifier to drive electrostatic headphones, planar-magnetic and dynamic headphones, or loudspeakers. The Z10e costs $6950 and is specified to output 12W into 8 ohms and 13W into 4 ohms (footnote 4). In my system, the Z10e plays the 15 ohm Falcon Gold Badges and the 10 ohm DeVore Fidelity Orangutan O/93s with an easy-flowing natural beauty, surprising muscle, and a spirited élan.


I began my Z10e listening with the speaker amp driving the Falcons while repeat-playing two of my current piano-playlist favorites: the tracks "Ode" and "Chant" from German composer Nils Frahm's 2015 album Solo (24/96 FLAC, Erased Tapes/Qobuz). Frahm recorded this 42-minute single-take improvisation on a David Klavins–built Model 370 piano, which is located in TÅbingen, Germany. If, like me, you're a fan of rich, endless reverb tails and deep, low-toned pedal sustains, this 370cm (about 12') high, 1.8-ton piano has 10' strings on a massive, floorstanding soundboard that adds depth and dimension to every note.

With the Z10e, Nils Frahm's "heavy" notes entered my room in a languorous, sensuous manner, lingered for close examination, then exited slowly and gracefully. It was a high audio-pleasure moment.

When I plugged the Audeze CRBN electrostatic headphones into the LTA Z10e, the extreme reverberance of Nils Frahm's "Chant" sounded more damped than it did with the Falcons or when driven by the 3ES. Low bass notes were distinctly tighter, but they also sounded less expansive. The Z10e + CRBN made reverb tails seem a little shorter and harmonic expansions a mite curtailed. But overall, timbre and tone were just right and satisfyingly color-saturated; the Z10e gave every recording a straight-up, plain-truth beauty that was very easy on my ears.

For an interesting comparison, I used the Z10e's "HI" output, which is intended for difficult-to-drive regular headphones, to power HiFiMan's 83dB/mW, 60 ohm Susvara open-back planar magnetics. On that above-mentioned duo of bass-dense Frahm performances, I was soothed and delighted by the Susvara's extreme transparency and dynamic ease and how it exposed layer upon layer of expanding harmonics. Compared to the slightly light CRBN + Z10e bass, bass with Susvara + Z10e was vaster, deeper, and, on Frahm's album Solo, delectably large.


If it is true that, as I said, the CRBN + Z10e presents recordings with a "plain-truth beauty," then I'd have to say HiFiMan's more expensive Susvara conveys those same recordings with a "high-grade-LSD" form of beauty.

In my view
The Woo Audio 3ES preamplifier/electrostatic headphone amplifier and Audeze's new CRBN electrostatic headphones are extraordinary products that, while high up on the price scale, are also up there among the most exciting, smartly engineered audio components I've encountered at any price.

My verdict: Get thee to a CanJam or audiofest and find out if my observations jibe with your impressions.

Footnote 2: Audeze LLC, 3410 South Susan St., Santa Ana, CA 92704. Tel: (657) 464-7029. Web:

Footnote 3: Presumably, the version of the CRBN used inside the MRI machines uses a different housing material, since stainless steel is a ferrous metal.

Footnote 4: See


JHL's picture this one, which are rare and getting rarer, show that the sensitive, appreciative listener is, when a writer, also an artist. Here the muse is balanced between perception and creation, with both at a high level.

That is a gift. I cherish these pieces and I hope there are many more.

Merry Christmas, Herb.

Herb Reichert's picture

I am grateful and honored you enjoy these types of 'adventures'

Your kind words are encouraging

peace and health and good cheer


Jonti's picture

Did you panic because the experience had unexpected elements? Or because it was exactly what you had been anticipating?

I went in for an MRI a few weeks ago and approached it as if I were going into a Ryoji Ikeda* installation for one. It was quite a show. I loved the guttural thrum of the 50-100Hz sweeps followed by HF zaps and bleeps. And the acoustics in there are fascinating, surround sound pinging about a cylindrical church.

*Check out his "+ / -" (2006, Touch) and "Supercodex" (2013, Raster-Noton) albums for a dive into the pixellated frequency vortex.

Herb Reichert's picture

I freaked because I have become claustrophobic

I will only sit in aisle seats

and do not like being 'restrained'

or held captive


Jonti's picture

I wouldn't wish any phobia upon any being. May you remain free as a bird.

Jack L's picture


Me too, I hate to be seated in middle seats while travelling on air.
I always go for aisle seats given the choice in pre-check-in. Why? I like moving around in the airplane without bothering other passengers.

That said, I would always go for centre seats some 10-13th rows from the performance podium for any classical music concerts. For the best balanced sound without too much reverberation from the hall behind & least impairment of the hall PA systems, IMO.

On the contrary, I hate to be CONFINED dumb seated on my couch wearing a pair of headphones for phsyical & musical reasons for sure.

Listening is believing

Jack L

ok's picture

..but lately I almost slept in the mri tube out of boredom.

ok's picture

Herb must be the only reviewer using lps for headphones evaluation.

Lars Bo's picture

Thanks, Herb.

I can't help mentioning an experience during a Nils Frahm concert in Blågård church in Copenhagen (ca. 2012), where Mr. Frahm initially had a panic attack and froze.

He was very frank about his emotions, someone passed him a drink, and all of us saluted and drank a toast to him. He gave it a go once more, and he went on to give an amazing performance that night.

Maxson's picture

Thanks for mentioning these awesome speakers and the idea that one would alternate between these and a horn system. I've got the Staxes downstairs driven by Emotiva and upstairs Lowthers in a small room driven by Decware monos, both vinyl-centric systems. I love the transparency and presence of both topologies, tho have never sampled the LS3/5as

Jack L's picture


From design view point, how 'clumsy' is to get the 2x300B cathode BALANCED out only without any single-end output.

This will push the consumers to spend $4.000 more to buy the Cardas balanced output cable !!!!

Give us a break please.

Jack L