Gramophone Dreams #7

The golden rays pouring in through the left oculus transport a tiny child carrying a cross: ". . . the devil was vanquished, as if he had just swallowed the bait in the mousetrap." In his essay "'Muscipula Diaboli,' The Symbolism of the Mérode Altarpiece," the late art historian Meyer Schapiro explains how every object, every surface—even the smoke, light, and volume of space—depicted in the famous triptych by Robert Campin (ca 1375–1444) is a coded symbol explicating the mystical underpinnings of Netherlandish Protestantism (footnote 1).

The painting, now in the Cloisters of New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art, shows how a 15th-century Dutch fabric merchant—which describes the donor who commissioned this painting—might have imagined the Annunciation. This image was the beginning of a radical new art that would be valued more for its ability to represent philosophical or metaphysical concepts and crystalized thought than for any amount of craft or skill. The painting's main purpose was, as Schapiro's put it, to help churchgoers "picture in their minds . . . a long ago, far away, mystical event."

The central panel (see photo) shows the inside of a small Dutch living room in which the archangel Gabriel is about to announce to Mary that she will be the mother of Christ. The room has two rectangular windows, and two oculi—circular or oval windows—that represent human eyes. The room itself symbolizes the interior of the skull of the kneeling male donor in the left panel.

The altarpiece represents a sudden shift in the nature of painted representation, from the didactic, two-dimensional, illusionary "space" of all European painting up to that point, to a dynamic, three-dimensional allegory of the workings and imaginings crystalized inside the viewer's—and patron's—minds.

This early-renaissance paradigm shift is still an important part of our culture. Thinking, reading books, and, especially, listening to music—all require our personal awareness of this aforementioned "inner-skull" space. As we listen to recorded music, what we feel stimulates the production of images, and those images connect us with events long past. (Which is precisely why I hold stereo imaging in such high regard.)

When I lie on the bed in my darkened monk's cell, listening through headphones to a recording of J.S. Bach's St. Matthew Passion, I experience that same form of crystalized thought—directly between my ears. The space inside my skull becomes the nave of St. Thomas Church, in Leipzig, and I contemplate the mystical underpinnings of the Protestant Reformation. If you can imagine the beauty of this connectedness, then you are ready to explore the intimacy, power, and glory of great music experienced via great earspeakers.

The Guttenberg Bible
Steve Guttenberg, who writes for CNET and our sister magazine Sound & Vision, is my audio-reviewing runnin' buddy. He got me into headphones. He kept nagging me: "I know you, Herb. You're going to really like the way headphones connect you with the music." I showed him my Koss Porta Pros and Grado SR60s. He didn't give up. He loaned me a pair of over-ear Audio-Technica ATH-M50s and advised me to take my time, focus my mind, and listen patiently.

I looked up the ATH-M50s on the Internet and read all the reviews. Since then, I've been doing my homework: reading Tyll Herstens's writings at Stereophile's sister website and Guttenberg's own Audiophiliac blog at I've been borrowing a lot of headphones and listening at least an hour a day, comparing Steve's and Tyll's reviews against my own impressions. Here's what I've learned from these two major, full-time, professional headphone gurus: The last thing the world needs is another wise-ass pontificator (like me) babbling to the masses about which headphones are the best and which they should buy.

Audeze EL-8 open-back headphones
After Audio-Technica's ATH-M50x headphones ($239)—the well-balanced, musically involving, and extremely comfortable 'phones to which I recently upgraded to ATH-M50s—the next audiophile-quality headphones I spent time with were Audeze's LCD-2 open-back model (footnote 2). Their rich, solid musicality was beyond what I'd imagined headphones could achieve. The LCD-2s' detail, momentum, and unabashed beauty of sound took me inside the music, and revealed to me the exact words each singer was singing and each songwriter had written. The bass let me feel the music in my bones. The extreme high quality of the LCD-2s cured my ADD and committed me to the benefits of lying in bed and listening in the dark. With headphones, you're always in the sweet spot.

The LCD-2s showed me something else: Headphones are the same as loudspeakers—except that they're designed to be experienced in the listener's extreme nearfield. I've always preferred listening to my Quad ESLs and Falcon LS3/5a speakers very close up—say, from a distance of 3' to 7'. Sitting so close minimizes room colorations and intensifies the energy field, making instruments and voices extraclear and physically tangible. Listening to earspeakers is a natural extension of that practice.

Soon, I got lucky again, and began spending nights with Audeze's then-new LCD-X open-back 'phones. The 'Xes reproduced reverberating hall sounds, giant pipe organs, and massed voices with a crystalline beauty that turned the inside of my skull into the nave of a cathedral.

Then, last January, at the 2015 Consumer Electronics Show, I entered Audeze's room, where I encountered former Stereophile fabulist and current public-relations person extraordinaire Jonathan Scull. He smiled like a naughty Frenchman. "Herb, I hear you're into headphones. Try these!" He handed me a pair of Audeze's new EL-8 open-back model and turned up the volume on the Burson Virtuoso Conductor DAC-headphone amplifier ($1995).

Within 30 seconds, I was thinking, These 'phones seem more transparent, detailed, and open than the LCD-2s or the LCD-Xes. Within minutes, I was thinking how much lighter (420gm vs the LCD-Xes' 600gm) and more comfortable (than the LCD-2s) the EL-8s felt. I asked the price. J-10 smiled again. "$699!"

I mumbled something and started switching tracks on the music server. Then I plugged the EL-8s into my iPhone and listened to "Raga Basant Mukhari with Jogia: Gat in Jhap Tala & Teen Tala," from Ali Akbar Khan's Artistic Sound of Sarod (CD, Chhanda Dhara SNCD 3386). This recording sounded stronger, faster, punchier, and more transparent than it ever had—even through my big floorstanders. "Jonathan! I need to write about these. What do you think?" Again he flashed that naughty I have a dirty secret smile.

Unlike my LCD-2, the LCD-X—and all of the newest Audeze models, including the EL-8—come equipped with a Fazor apparatus attached to the twin magnet structures (footnote 3). Audeze claims that the Fazor guides and manages the movement of sound pressures around the dense magnet grids, thus creating a more symmetrical acoustic load on the diaphragm; theoretically, this should improve the phase and impulse responses, especially at high frequencies. To my ears, the Fazor-equipped models sound more airy and transparent, but less weighty and punchy than the non-Fazor models.

The Audeze EL-8s are made in the US, and are available in closed- and open-back models. I report here on the open-back version, but I listened to both and found them equally worthy—but different. I tend to prefer closed-back headphones for serious critical listening, such as evaluating recordings or audio equipment—and especially for setting a phono cartridge's azimuth, vertical tracking angle, and stylus rake angle. But for late-night motets, masses, and British folk music, I usually go with open-back 'phones—they feel more relaxed and expansive.

Footnote 1: Reprinted in Meyer Schapiro, Late Antique, Early Christian, and Medieval Art: Selected Papers, Vol.3 (New York: George Braziller, 1993).

Footnote 2: Audeze LLC, 1559 Sunland Lane, Costa Mesa, CA 92626. Tel: (714) 581-8010. Fax: (702) 823-0333. Web:

Footnote 3: See Tyll Herstens, "The Audeze LCD-X, Fazor, and a Fresh Listen to the Current LCD-2 and LCD-3."


handler's picture

Dear Herb and Stereophile:

I share Herb's initial impression with the AQ NightHawk. When I carefully auditioned the NightHawk shortly after it arrived at my local dealer, it sounded overly-warm, congested, lacking highs, and kind of hollow sounding. Definitely not a 'phone I'd want to own or recommend to anyone. However, I obviously did not get to audition the Hawk again after hundreds of hours of playing time. If there's such a drastic different after break-in, however, it would most definitely show up in a measured frequency response. Therefore, Stereophile, I beg thee: PLEASE PLEASE measure a broken-in pair of NightHawks and a freshly-out-of-the-box pair, and publish the response plots. I'd like to see what's actually happening after "break-in." I'm sure many readers would be interested also.


dalethorn's picture

I have the NightHawk, and that won't make a significant difference. It didn't for me. But the NightHawk is a most unusual headphone nonetheless - it responds to changes in gear like a chameleon, and is capable of producing the most amazing sound. Hard to explain. I haven't had another headphone (of 150 or so) that's like the NightHawk.

tonykaz's picture

That's more'n my wife's got shoes.

Is finding a keeper all that hard?

Phew, that's a new headphone every month for 12 years or so.

Betcha Tyll, up in the frozen North ain't got that many.
or maybe even Jude here in Michigan.

You must have a special Room to Store all of em.

Tony in Michigan

ps. I've owned a few more than a Dozen and thought I was an impulsive buyer.

dalethorn's picture

Headphones are fairly cheap, like digital cameras, music players, etc. You can buy 150 headphones for less than the price of a decent car - even a few "flagship" headphones. The point for me is I don't have anything to sell, so I can offer a common-man's perspective on audiophile sound via headphones. But I should say up front - the selections today are amazing in value, and with hundreds of DAP's, DAC's, amps, and the plethora of DSP's/apps floating around, you can get awesome sound for very little money.

tonykaz's picture

Oh how right you are about the Car Prices!!, I've spent most of my life in the Auto Industry and don't own one. I bought my wife an entry level Kia Soul for an out-the-door cost of $21,000. ( I stay on the Bicycle my Cardiologist insists on or a Taxi if I need to get to the Airport ).

I have most of my Headphones packed away somewhere with only my favorite two out and playing, one wireless and one wired.

Does "nothing to sell" carry the meaning that you don't sell-off any headphones or that your opinions aren't biased like so may reviewers seem to be ( or have to be )?

I've always seemed to trust your posts, you seem to offer honest opinions.

I'm just beginning to trust my opinions but I doubt that they're all that useful.

I'm looking at the Garage1217 stuff, leaning to the Sunrise based on AtomicBob's recommendations. He's having an Affair with the Schiit Multibit stuff. Hmm. I'm slow-to-rise to bait. My impulsive days are over.

Thanks for writing back, aaaallllllllways nice hearing from y'all.

I only commented cause I saw it was you!

Tony in Michigan

ps. you're out there in the Left Coast somewhere, aren't you?, probably never gonna meet ya. too bad

dalethorn's picture

I've been known to sell some of my used headphones, on forums where I know the people. I don't do eBay or anything like that. As far as biases go, I have biases, prejudices - all that stuff, but since I don't work in the audio industry or have any relationships there**, I operate independently. Some people call it a hobby, but hobbies to me are pastimes, and I don't have that kind of spare time to waste. So I call it something else - a personal ongoing project with a goal: To determine how to get the best sound for the least money possible. I'm not against spending big for my personal satisfaction, but I keep in the forefront of my mind why I'm doing this - to help others who are on a very limited budget, where I was for quite some time.

**I have gotten an occasional free sample - probably about 10 percent of my total headphones, but the most expensive of those samples has been in the mid-$200 range. One thing you have to understand about reviews is that if you have a site that monetizes those reviews, you can justify the time invested by the returns in publishing, since you're not selling and reviewing too. In my case, time is the vast majority of my investment, since headphones are relatively cheap, up to $1000 or so anyway.

Edit: East coast this month.

nklewis's picture

Hi Herbie,

This year, I sold off my tri-amped speaker system based around a 5.5-foot-long 1930s horn used wideband 110-6000hz with Western Electric 720a drivers from the 1940s. These were driven with some nifty 2A3 amps with a 6SN7 driver, which was good but not as good as the 10Y-45 IT coupled amplifier powered by a 250V stack of lead-acid batteries that I built in 2007, specifically to drive these horns. But, it was fussy.

Now, I'm listening to (oh so boring) Sennheiser HD600 cans, driven by a Metrum Octave DAC through some of Dave Slagle's 600 ohm autoformers. The Metrum is an R2R dac with no output stage. The output comes right off the resistor ladder, goes through the autoformer, and into the headphones.

This sounds really good. It is better than my SLA battery-powered 01A-71A all-DHT headphone amp, with the same DAC. I tried the 4x more expensive HD800 cans on this rig, and preferred the HD600. Gain seems to be adequate with headphones of at least 97db/mW efficiency. I also tried a number of other amplifiers, which all sounded broken compared to my 71A amp, or, for that matter, my battery-powered 2SK170 jfet amp.

I'd give the DAC-direct strategy a try. If you find something better, great. But, don't be surprised if you don't.

Preddy's picture

have you tried Beyerdynamic DT990Pro or T90?

I got myself T90 and extremely pleased with the result!