Recommended Components Fall 2021 Edition Headphones & Headphone Accessories

Headphones & Headphone Accessories


ampsandsound Bigger Ben: $4950
See "Integrated Amplifiers."

dCS Bartók: $18,500 w/headphone amp
See "Digital Processors."

HiFiMan Susvara headphones: $6000 ★
The HiFiMan Susvaras are over-the-ear headphones with planar-magnetic drivers, built around gold-coated Nanometer Grade diaphragms—their thinnest ever, the company claims. The drivers also use HiFiMan's Stealth Magnet grids, the individual magnetic strips of which have rounded edges to reduce interference with sound output. The Susvaras weigh 15.9oz and offer an impedance of 60 ohms and a sensitivity of only 83dB. HR later wrote that he thinks the Susvara is a contender for the world's best headphones. However, when he auditioned the Susvaras with the LTA Z10e amplifier, he found that, with the combination of low impedance and low sensitivity, the Susvara needed more power than the amplifier could deliver. Subsequently though, that amplifier was updated to provide its full available power—10Wpc—to headphones. (Vol.40 No.12, Vol.43 No.5 WWW)

JPS Labs Abyss AB-1266 Phi TC: $4995–$7995 ★
For those who regard the JPS Abyss AB-1266 Phi headphones as prohibitively expensive, HR offers perspective by suggesting that they, like such "notorious legacy products" as the Wilson Audio WAMM loudspeaker of 1983 and the Audio Note Ongaku amplifier of 1993, "exist in categories of price and performance all their own." The Abyss 'phones are built into black-anodized aluminum frames and use single-magnet planar-magnetic drivers separated from the wearer by rotatable lambskin earpads held in place with magnets. Specs include a sensitivity of 88dB and an impedance of 42 ohms. After listening to a Schoenberg piece through the Abysses driven by the Woo WA5 headphone amp, HR reported: "I scribbled the phrase "perfectly natural" several times. I never felt more kindred or connected to Schoenberg." He also suggested that the Abysses "delivered detail and soundstage images with an uncannily visual—nay, infinite—depth of field." HR later wrote that "The amazing part of the Abyss Phi TC 'phones is their complete absence of diaphragm breakup or modulation noise: They are the quietest speaker drivers I've ever heard. With the right amp, the AB-1266 'phones feel like they strip everything away between me and a recording." (Vol.40 No.8, Vol.43 No.5 WWW)

Raal-requisite SR1a: $3200
With Ribbon amp interface: $3500
Described by HR as headphones that will satisfy "headphone connoisseurs and stubborn contrarians" alike, the off-the-ear RAAL-requisite SR1a's have a physical design that prevents them from covering or putting pressure on your pinnae: Their sound character is not determined in any way by a padded acoustical chamber around the listener's ears. Electrically, the SR1a's are built using open-baffle ribbon drivers, the very low impedance of which force the need for an impedance-matching box (included) and a 50-150Wpc loudspeaker amplifier (not included). Herb had his best results driving the RAAL-requisite 'phones with solid state amps and said of the SR1a/Pass XA25 amp combo, "No matter what hi-fi you have, it's unlikely to dig deeper and find more beauty in your recordings." When he tried the SR1a's with the Schiit Jotenheim R amplifier, HR commented that "The more I've used the SR1a, the more I've realized they reproduce recordings with unprecedented levels of musical texture and tactility" and concluded "No headphone images anywhere near as accurately or spectacularly as the SR1a, period." (Vol.43 Nos.1 & 7 WWW, Vol.44 No.10 WWW)

T+A Solitaire P: $6400
Made in Germany, the T+A's Solitaire P headphones use a relatively large, oval planar-magnet diaphragm made of "structurally stable High-Tech polymer." Impedance is specified as 80 ohms. Two sets of earpads are supplied: The standard earpads are covered with gray microfiber suede, while the "UWE" earpads use foam that is firmer than that in the standard pads and encased in perforated artificial leather on the inside and microfiber suede on the outside. The UWE earpads are described by the manufacturer as elevating the high frequencies "just enough to add sparkle and detail for those who prefer that type of sound." This was confirmed by HR, though he also felt these earpads lacked the rich harmonic underpinnings he prefers for a satisfying orchestral music experience. With the standard, nonperforated earpads, driven by T+A's HA 200 headphone amplifier, the Solitaire P sounded balanced, with saturated tone and spacious, fluent clarity. HR enjoyed what he described as the Solitaire P's "look-inside-the-recording transparency." (Vol.44 No.2 WWW)

ZMF Auteur LTD: $1699.99
The zebrawood Auteur LTD weighs 490gm, uses biocellulose diaphragms, combines fairly high sensitivity (97dB/mW) with a high impedance (300 ohms), and comes with two sets of earpads. HR preferred the standard, perforated Auteur pads, which he said "generated one of the most delectable midranges I have experienced." He found the Eikon pads emphasized the bass enough to slightly obscure that luscious midrange. (Vol.43 No.4 WWW)

ZMF Pendant: $2499.99
Designed by Justin Weber of Ampsandsound, the ZMF Pendant uses a single transformer-coupled EL84/6BQ5 pentode per channel, connected in Ultralinear mode. The Pendant is rated at 2.5W into 8 ohms and 1.5W into 300 ohms. The review sample was equipped with the stock JJ-branded tubes; both the Pendant's gain and its sonic character can be fine-tuned by experimenting with its small-signal tubes. Compared with the Feliks Audio Euforia amplifier driving the ZMF Vérité headphones, the Pendant made spoken words more intelligible and images more distinctly drawn. "The Pendant seemed like the best all-purpose headphone amplifier I have used since I died and flew to heaven reviewing the $5899 Woo Audio WA5," summed up HR. A custom wood chassis adds $300 to the price. A vintage tube set adds $200. (Vol.43 No.4 WWW)

ZMF Vérité Closed: $2499.99
The MonkeyPod-wood Vérité Closed headphones weigh 35gm less than ZMF's Auteur LTDs due to using a magnesium headband rather than aluminum. Offering a sensitivity of 99dB/mW and an impedance of 300 ohms, the Vérité Closed headphones use an "ultra-thin" polyethylene naphthalate driver with a vapor-deposited beryllium coating. Using the standard Universe earpads, bass was tighter and more powerful than HR could remember experiencing with any headphones. "Piano and plucked-bass notes exhibited a very distinct leading edge, followed by an unusually solid note-center, followed by a trailing edge that I perceived as mildly attenuated," he wrote. Replacing the Universe earpads with the Vérité pads made the low frequencies sound perfectly tight and tuneful. "The midrange came up and brought the presence region with it. The 1-8kHz octaves were exquisitely detailed and wide open, he summed up, adding in a Follow-Up that "the Vérité was the Schiit Jotunheim's favorite headphone." (Vol.43 Nos.4, 5 & 7 WWW)


Audeze LCD-X: $1199 ★
These large, luxurious, circumaural headphones have planar-magnetic drive-units with a thin-film diaphragm energized by arrays of powerful neodymium magnets on both sides. They employ Audeze-patented Fazor elements, claimed to guide and manage the flow of sound in the headphone. The circular drivers are housed in polished, black-anodized aluminum earpieces cushioned with generously sized foam pads covered in lambskin or leather-free microsuede. Adjustment is via notched, chromed metal rods attached to each earpiece, which fit into the sprung, leather-clad headband. The LCD-Xes produced a seductive, compelling sound with precise imaging, rich mids, smooth highs, and clean bass, JA said. Compared to his longtime reference Sennheiser HD 650s, the LCD-Xes resolved more detail, produced the more convincing sense of recorded ambience, and provided deeper bass. "Highly recommended!" JA concluded. HR found that the Audezes driven by the Schiit Jotunheim "gave reproduced music life and brilliance." "Creator Special" edition (without travel case) costs $1199. (Vol.37 No.3, Vol.41 No.6, Vol.43 No.7 WWW)

Benchmark HPA4 headphone amplifier: $2999
The HPA4 adds a THX888 amplification stage to Benchmark's LA4 line preamplifier (see "Preamplifiers") to allow it to drive even low-impedance headphones with aplomb. It keeps the LA4's balanced and single-ended preamplifier outputs and adds a headphone output on a 4-pin XLR jack and a single-ended headphone output on a 1/4" jack. HR noted that with the hard-to-drive HiFiMan Susvara headphones, the HPA4 "showed each instrument in dramatic bas-relief. It accomplished this by presenting cleaner, better-articulated bass and manufacturing a sharper midrange focus than I had experienced previously with either my solid state reference, the Pass Labs HPA-1, or the tubed Linear Tube Audio Z10e." With the JPS Labs Abyss AB-1266 Phi TCs driven by the HPA4, "deep bass emerged with great volume and energy." "My romantic-dreamer mind adapted surprisingly well to the Benchmark HPA4's presentation," HR concluded. "The more I used the HPA4 to drive high-resolution headphones, the more comfortable I felt with its precise, pro-audio recording-studio aesthetic." JA noted that the the LA4 preamplifier was "the widest-bandwidth, widest-dynamic-range, lowest-noise, lowest-distortion preamplifier I had encountered at that time. … To those virtues, the HPA4 adds equally superb balanced and single-ended headphone outputs." Optional remote costs $100. (Vol.44 No.2 WWW)

Feliks Audio Euforia: $2599
Built in Poland, the Euforia Mark II is an output-transformerless (OTL) headphone amp that uses 6AS7G dual-triodes as output tubes and 6SN7 dual-triodes as small-signal tubes. The Euforia has a single pair of (RCA) inputs and a single ¼" output jack. The amp is specified by its manufacturer as offering 130mW into 32 ohms and 200mW into 100 ohms. Herb said the Euforia made the Grado GS3000e headphones sound "more transparent and satisfying" than the other headphone amps he had on hand; he further observed that "the Euforia's radiant liquidity enhanced [the Focal Clears'] sense of flow and resolve." (Vol.42 No.12, Vol. 43 No.4 WWW)

Focal Clear Mg: $1500
Focal's Clear Mg headphones replace the original Clear's aluminum-magnesium alloy–dome drive-units with pure-magnesium domes, these ensconced in a chestnut-colored, honeycomb-grilled headset finished in leather, microfiber, and "mixed metals." The new Clear is more clear than the old Clear, decided HR: "the Mg produces a fresh, bell-like clarity that puts my mind closer to and further inside every recording. Reverb has more presence with the Clear Mg. Piano notes have better-articulated attack and decay. Guitar strings are tauter and more vividly described." However, while with every recording HR tried, the new Clear Mg sounded more transparent, more sharply focused, more punchy, and more left-brain precise than the original Clear, on every male and female vocal, the old Clear put him closer in touch with the singer's personality. (Vol.44 No.9 WWW)

Focal Stellia: $2990
When he first heard these closed-back headphones, which use 1.5" M-shaped electrodynamic beryllium-dome drivers and have a 35 ohm impedance, HR felt that they "were delivering a very high level of relaxed and refined sound, with no beryllium metallic-ness." Continued listening with the Feliks Euforia amplifier resulted in "more excitement and colorful energy" than with the Auris Nirvana powering the Focals. HR concluded that with the HoloAudio May DAC and the Euforia, "Focal's Stellia closed-backs produced vital, exciting sound." (Vol.43 No.10 WWW)

Grado GS3000e: $1795 $$$
Grado's flagship "Statement Series" headphones, the made-in-Brooklyn GS3000e, feature 50mm Mylar drivers built with neodymium magnets and present the driving amplifier with an impedance of 32 ohms and a sensitivity of 99.8dB. According to HR, when driven with a complementary amplifier, the Grados impress with their "swaggering rock'n'roll boogie factor," but they can also sound "elegant and refined." As a bonus, the Grados "look and feel more expensive than [their] price would suggest." (Vol.42 No.12 WWW)

HEDD Audio "HEDDphone": $1899
The "HEDDphone" headphones use full-range, air-motion-transformer (AMT) drive-units and proved a synergistic match with the Pass Labs HPA-1 and Feliks Audio Euforia headphone amps, found HR, commenting on "an extraordinary level of transparency." (Vol.43 No.7 WWW)

HifiMan Shangri-La Jr: $8000 with energizer
For less than one-sixth the price of HiFiMan's flagship electrostatic headphone set, the Shangri-La ($50,000, including amplifier/energizer), you can own the Shangri-La Jr, whose companion amp/energizer uses a quartet of 6SN7 dual-triode tubes and provides two output ports for shared listening. HR praised the Jr for presenting and preserving vocal tones and textures, and noted its uncanny way with subtle details: "I heard the full Doppler effect of cars shifting gears as they passed [the recording venue]," he wrote, declaring that "this level of vibrant resolution makes the Shangri-La Jrs' $8000 price seem reasonable." The headphones are available separately for $4000, the amp/energizer for $5000. (Vol.42 No.6 WWW)

Linear Tube Audio Z10e: $6950
The all-tube Z10e integrated amplifier/headphone amplifier/electrostatic headphone amplifier is built around a David Berning-designed, push-pull, output-transformerless (OTL) EL84-tube power amplifier that is rated at 12Wpc into 8 ohms and 13Wpc into 4 ohms. "The Z10e is a distilled, shape-shifted version of the Z10, designed to appeal to today's new breed of headphone collector-connoisseurs," wrote HR. It also has a five-pin, 580V-energized output to drive Stax electrostatic headphones. Though he liked how this amplifier sounded with high-sensitivity DeVore and Zu loudspeakers, he mostly used it with a variety of headphones. The Z10e got the best from Abyss AB-1266 Phi TC, Focal Clear, and ZMF Vérité Closed dynamic headphones, and excelled with Stax SR-009S and Dan Clark Voce electrostatics. Herb found that it wasn't powerful enough to drive the demanding HiFiMan Susvaras, but it was subsequently upgraded to deliver the full 10Wpc to headphones. HR summed up the revised amplifier by saying "the LTA Z10e Susvara combo missed no beats, showed no weaknesses, and kept my head bopping. … The Z10e amp displayed no hesitations, dullness, or clipping; no smoke from the tires, no engine stalling—only full-traction, high-torque engagement." (Vol.43 No.5, Vol.44 No.2 WWW)

Naim Uniti Atom HE: $3290
The "Headphone Edition" of Naim's Uniti Atom streaming D/A integrated amplifier, the Atom HE features both single-ended and balanced headphone outputs as well as a preamplifier output. Inputs include a single unbalanced analog on RCA and and digital—two TosLink S/PDIF, one coaxial S/PDIF, USB, Ethernet, and Bluetooth (aptX). Control is via buttons next to the front-panel display, Naim's iOS and Android apps, or with Roon. Used as a D/A preamplifier, the Atom impressed HR: It reproduced the body and reverberant character of a piano as graphically and completely as his Rogue RP-7 preamp sourced by the dCS Bartók. "That, folks, is saying a lot," he wrote. With the Atom HE powering the easy-to-drive, low-impedance (35 ohms), high-sensitivity Focal Stellia headphones, HR felt the sound was "squeaky-clean, bass-taut, and superdynamic lively." After five weeks of auditioning the Uniti Atom HE with a variety of headphones, HR concluded that its best and most obvious trait "was how gracefully and insightfully it danced through one musical genre after another. It was never not enticing. It was never not engaging. It never disappointed." However, he did caution that the Atom HE plays best with headphones with a sensitivity of 88dB/mW or higher. (Vol.44 No.9 WWW)

Pass Labs HPA-1 headphone amplifier: $3500 ★
Also usable as a line-level preamp—it has a pair of single-ended RCA output jacks—the Pass Labs HPA-1 is a perfectionist-quality headphone amplifier that uses a MOSFET-based current-feedback amplifier to drive headphones ranging from 15 to 600 ohms. Its single headphone-output jack, also single-ended, is a Neutrik locking jack sized for ¼" plugs. After auditioning the HPA-1 with a variety of 'phones from Audeze, AudioQuest, and Master & Dynamic, JA declared that "in bass quality and authority, and in midrange transparency, the Pass Labs HPA-1 is without peer." JA also brought the HPA-1 to his test bench, where it stood up to everything he could throw at it (well, not literally), prompting the appraisal: "superb audio engineering." One of HR's long-term reference headphone amplifiers. (Vol.39 Nos.7 & 9, Vol.43 No.7 WWW)

Raal-Requisite HSA-1b: $4500
A rating is as a headphone amplifier only. See Herb Reichert's review in this issue's Gramophone Dreams. (Vol.44 No.10)

Raal-Requisite SR728 Silver Headphone Cable: $1050
See Herb Reichert's review in this issue's Gramophone Dreams. (Vol.44 No.10)

Schiit Audio Jotunheim R: $799
The Jotunheim R is a special edition intended to be used with the open-baffle RAAL-requisite SR1a full-range ribbon headphones. It offers a "baffle compensation" filter for use with the SR1a and replaces the regular Jotunheim's headphone-output jacks with a single four-pin male XLR that mates with the SR1a's female connector. The SR1a headphones, driven by the Schiit Jotunheim R, "transduce recorded music at a level of verity and resolution matched only by the best at any price," HR concluded. (Vol.43 No.7 WWW)

Sennheiser HD 650: $499.95 ★
The HD 650s are an evolution of Sennheiser's very successful HD 600 open-back dynamic headphones, claimed to provide superior results due to hand-selected parts with closer tolerances and the use of a specially developed acoustic silk for the driver diaphragms. Compared to the Grado SR325i, the Sennheisers sounded richer but slightly darker. JM found that their very effective seal created a resonant cavity that produced "bass that is both quite deep and a trifle indistinct." JA's new reference cans. Compared to the Audeze LCD-Xes, the HD650s had a similar overall sound, but lacked bass control, detail resolution, and ambience retrieval, said JA. (Vol.28 No.6, Vol.31 No.9, Vol.37 No.3 WWW)

Shure KSE1200SYS electrostatic in-ear headphone system: $1999
A less-expensive alternative to Shure's KSE1500 in-ear headphone system, the KSE1200SYS uses the same electrostatic transducers, driven by an amplifier/power supply with only a single (analog) input. Acoustic output is coupled to the user's ear via a small tube, covered with a detachable Soft Flex rubber sleeve to seal the ear canal. (A supplied Fit Kit provides pairs of sleeves in different sizes—something for everyone!) The accompanying amplifier is about the size of a deck of cards and sports a 3.5mm analog input jack, a volume control, and a Lemo connector for the Kevlar-shielded cable, which carries the transducers' polarizing voltage alongside the high-voltage (±200V) audio signal. JA praised the pocketability of the new system's slightly smaller amp, not to mention the comfort of those Soft Flex sleeves. More important, he noted the "superb clarity" of the Shure system's midrange and its "extended, weighty low frequencies," adding that the KSE1500s' slightly bright balance was nowhere to be heard from the KSE1200SYS. JA's conclusion: "a must-hear product." (Vol.42 No.3 WWW)

T+A HA 200 DAC/headphone amplifier: $8900
This class-A headphone amplifier has analog and digital inputs, the latter processing DSD and PCM data independently, each in its own optimized pathway. There is a choice of four reconstruction filters plus a NOS (non-oversampling) mode. One of the USB inputs accepts PCM sampling rates up to 768 kHz and DSD up to DSD1024. (The other is for "possible future extensions.") An optional HDMI module ($600) adds two HDMI inputs and one ARC (Audio Return Channel) HDMI output. Analog outputs are balanced on a 4.4mm Pentaconn jack, balanced on a 4-pin XLR jack, and single-ended on a standard 1/4" stereo jack. Each output has adjustable impedance. Comparing the T+A with the Pass Labs HPA-1, HR felt that the German HA 200's soundfield was "more of one piece, the music more relaxed." Comparing the T+A with the Benchmark HA4, he felt that the expensive German amp beat the moderately priced American amp "at its own force, clarity, and specificity game." (Vol.44 No.2 WWW)


AudioQuest DragonFly Red: $199.95 ★ $$$
AudioQuest DragonFly Black: $99.95 ★ $$$
AudioQuest DragonFly Cobalt: $299.95
In 2016, AudioQuest replaced their original DragonFly USB D/A processor-headphone amplifier with two new models—the DragonFly Black and DragonFly Red. Like their popular forebear, both models were designed by computer-audio pioneer Gordon Rankin, and both offer 24 bit/96kHz resolution. AD wrote of preferring the DragonFly Black's "superior musical incisiveness" compared to the original 'Fly of 2012; for its part, the Red, which has higher output voltage than the Black, offered "surer reproduction of pitches and timing." But he felt that, for headphone listening with an iPhone, there's no sense opting for the twice-as-expensive Red if that's all the consumer has in mind. The new (2019) DragonFly Cobalt boasts a faster microcontroller and a newer processor chip (the ESS ES9038Q2M), plus improved power-supply filtering. When used in his home system, the Cobalt impressed JA with better bass extension and control than the Red, which also sounded "slightly 'harder' in the highs"—although he also noted that the distinctions between the two tiny DACs were "relatively small." JA the Measurer, who in 2016 noted that neither the Red nor the Black were at the head of the class in terms of jitter rejection, observed "excellent rejection of word-clock jitter" from the Cobalt, which he praised for "[performing] well on the test bench." JA adds some remarkable praise for a $300 DAC: except for its limited ability to drive low impedances, the Cobalt would be Class A. (Vol.39 No.9, Vol.42 No.12 WWW)

Auris Audio Nirvana: $5799
With its EL34 output tubes and optional 12AX7 driver tube, this single-ended headphone amplifier/preamplifier is specified to produce a maximum of 6Wpc into 32 ohms. A front-panel switch selects one of five separate taps on the amplifier's output transformer to optimize performance with 32, 80, 150, 300, and 600 ohms. HR found that the Nirvana drove the closed-back Focal Stellia headphones "in a manner I would describe as straightforwardly neutral and well-controlled but also glowing and magical." He also found it worked well with JPS Labs' Abyss AB-1266 Phi TC and HiFiMan's Susvara headphones. HR concluded that the Nirvana provided "greater wallop" than the ZMF Pendant, and while it was not as "LSD-300B radiant, atmospheric, or dramatically three-dimensional" as the Woo WA5, it was "more solidly detailed and directly spoken." (Vol.43 No.10 WWW)

HifiMan Jade 2: $1750 with energizer
A successor to the Jade—HiFiMan's first electrostatic headphone set—the Jade II weighs just 12.9oz (365gm) and comes with a solid state amplifier/energizer. HR found the Jade II's sound to be "cool, clean, and well sorted" but lacking in the bass depth, grainlessness, and clarity of the company's more expensive electrostatic headphone set, the Shangri-La Jr. Using the Shangri-La Jr's tubed amp/energizer to drive the Jade IIs restored some, but not all, of the charms of the higher-priced set, HR noted. The Jade II headphones are available separately for $1399, their solid state amp/energizer for $1599. (Vol.42 No.6 WWW)

iFi Audio Pro iDSD 4.4 D/A processor/headphone amplifier: $2749
See "Digital Processors."


Hagerman Audio Labs Tuba: $689
The Tuba, like the ZMF Pendant, uses a transformer-coupled EL84 output tube but wired in triode mode to deliver 350mW into 32 ohms, which should be enough power to drive most headphones. "It played most headphones really well," decided HR, "but its limited gain and low power prevented it from being considered as an all-purpose giant killer." Compared to the Pendant or the Feliks Euforia, the Tuba had a clear but "short" sound, wrote HR. With Grado GS3000e open-back headphones, the Tuba generated a tidy, naturally detailed, highly musical sound that HR found 100% enjoyable. "Midrange tone was exemplary," he found. (Vol.43 No.4 WWW)

Koss PortaPro: $49.99 ★ $$$
Imagine 60-ohm, 101dB-sensitive, perfectionist-quality 'phones that fold up small, clip together, and fit in your pocket. Imagine silver-dollar-size earpieces with easily replaceable foam earpads that rest gently on your pinnae. Imagine flying down a hill on your bike while grooving—and I do mean grooving—to your favorite music. Imagine that the ca-1979 Koss Porta Pro headphones are back again and sell for only $49.95 per pair. As it happens, and as HR reported in the June 2018 Stereophile, it's all true. (Editor JCA, who first tried them in the '90s and disputes "perfectionist" but agrees they're decent 'phones and a good value, has seen them for $35 on Amazon.) (Vol.41 No.6 WWW)

Meze Audio 99 Classics: $309
The Romanian-engineered, Chinese-made Meze 99 Classics are closed-back, circumaural headphones that feature Mylar-cone drivers, machined-walnut earcups, synthetic leather-covered earpads and headband, and a clever frame design that KM found comfortable. Standard accessories include a 4' remote-equipped cable for travel, a 9' cable for home use, and a resealable faux-velvet pouch. KM praised their "slightly buttoned-down sound," which he found to be more neutral than that of the AudioQuest NightHawks, although the latter provided a more "immersive" experience. JA measured the Mezes and found their impedance to be "relatively low" and thus needful of a current-capable amplifier—and after listening to the 99 Classics, he suggested that their low-frequency balance was "somewhat exaggerated." (Vol.42 No.6 WWW)

Schiit Audio Vali 2+: $149
This bargain-priced headphone amplifier uses a single 6BQ7A/6DJ8/6922 dual-triode tube, has both RCA and headphone outputs, and has high gain and unity gain settings. HR commented that it was "impossible to not notice how much solidity, punch, drive, and bite the Vali 2+ (on Low gain) had powering the 32 ohm, high-sensitivity (106dB/mW/1kHz) Focal Stellia closed-backs." However, he did find that the more he raised the volume, the harder the sound got. Nevertheless, if a $149 headphone amplifier must veer from perfection, maybe it is best if it goes soft and colorful, as the Vali did with Focal Clear headphones. "Hard, gray, and glaring is more the norm in this price range," HR reminded us. Replacing the stock 6BQ7A tube for a NOS, made-in-Japan, Electric Industry Co. 7DJ8, the effect was "lit from the inside" luminosity with greater definition and voice intelligibility. On the test bench, the Vali 2+ offered a low level of predominantly second-harmonic distortion in unity-gain mode, but this harmonic did increase significantly in high-gain mode. As this wasn't accompanied by higher-order harmonics or intermodulation distortion, JA felt that he would expect a "fatter" sound in this mode. (Vol.44 No.5 WWW)

Grado SR60e, replaced by newer version not yet reviewed. Focal Clear, discontinued, Woo Audio WA5, not auditioned in a long time.

MatthewT's picture

Not much for me here, being a vintage gear fan first. Please bring back the entry-level column, there is a lot of gear at that price-point worth getting reviewed.

Anton's picture

Budgetwise, I think I would be most like a "Double A" audiophile.

Same with me and wine.

I do admit to seeing some of the top end prices for either wine or Hi Fi and thinking that there are people who have checkbooks that are 'better' than their palates/ears.

Like JA1 described in the past...there are already parts of my own hobby that are beyond my budgetary event horizon.


If we did have audiophile classes, from minor leagues to major league, I wonder what the price points for each step would be.

MatthewT's picture

Lets me play every now and then in the Majors. Nothing depreciates faster than audio gear. I have to admit being somewhat happy at seeing a dartZeel break while listening to it, while my beloved Sansui keeps making music.

Anton's picture

I like showing gear in the reviews to my wife and asking her to guess the price.

When I saw the OMA turntable in the latest issue, I guessed 15,000 dollars. When she saw it, she guessed 12,000 dollars, and we've been playing this game for 25 years!

Next, I asked her if I were able to purchase it for 90% off retail, would she let me. She said, "Only I promised to flip it immediately."

Then, she threw me a bone and said, "You could buy it and keep it for the 12,000 dollars that I guessed."

I'd need a 97.5% discount to have a chance at it. And even that would be wildly extravagant. I'm happy with life, this is just for scale.

tonykaz's picture

Above the PS Audio level is the world of Status & Ego. !

Which has me wondering if Stereophile is a Status & Ego type publication ? Is this a Robb Report mag that belongs on the coffee tables of private Jet Airports ? ( I've never seen it there )

Does an Anodized Red $200,000 Amplifier belong on the Front Cover of a magazine like ours ? None of us will ever have any chance to experience Velvet Rope Gear so why are we bothering with it? It being better is probably one person's opinion ( and that person probably doesn't have to buy it or own it ).

Reviews of these $100,000 +++++ pieces are man-speaking to us how our gear is deficient and unworthy, we are reading Hubris & gas lighting.

There is a World of $1,000 bottles of Wine, $25,000 Rolex Watches, Super pricy First Class Seats on UAL Flights and Political Leaders that are wealthy from insider trading. We shouldn't be reading about those things here.

Ours is like the world of our modest Canadian, revealing a new form of music discovery and writing one of Stereophile's most insightful pieces of literature about it. ( nice writing Mr. Robert S.)( is that the door bell? )

Tony in Venice Florida

rschryer's picture

Thanks, Tony

tonykaz's picture

Annnnndddd :

Thank You to the Editor that gave you the Word Budget and turned you loose.

Stereophile keeps raising the Bar !!!

Tony in Venice Florida

Anton's picture

Where on Maslow's Pryamid is a half million dollar record player?

I'm curious to see....misguided 'esteem?'

I prefer to use Swanson's Pyramid....

(Second from bottom left.)

tonykaz's picture

A most expensive record player would service the Ego needs of someone needing to establish themselves as the very Top of Analog Audio's Caste System.

The widely recognised Top Level Analog Format has been Tape.

I grew up in a Performing Arts household, my mother was an Operatic Performer and one of my older brothers was a Horn Player for our local Detroit Symphony Orchestra.

So, from my point of view, no Analog Audio System has ever come close to performing like a Live Audio Performance from a listening distance position.

Super pricy Audio Gear is about Status & Ego !!! ( I hear that Bob Carver still laughs at this stuff )

Tony in Venice Florida

tonykaz's picture

Yes, Brilliant Observation! ,

of which, of-course, I completely agree .

Proving the old maxim: when two people agree on something - only one is doing the thinking.

Now that I'm living in the Deep South, Swansons Pyramid is where I'm slowly migrating to. Hmm.

Y'all have a Grate Day

Tony in Venice Florida

rochambeaux's picture

Kudos my friend. My first visit here to see how my "budget" system choices stacked up and lo and behold none of them to be found. Between my 3 piece desktop stack, speakers and subwoofer I spent about $2,500.

Apparently in Sterophile's world that's what I should spend on a single speaker stand...

ravello's picture

The introduction to recommended loudspeakers states that "Candidates for inclusion in this class [i.e. Class A, limited LF extension] must still reach down to at least 40Hz, below the lowest notes of the four-string double-bass and bass guitar." The Falcon LS3/5a, for example, most certainly does not reach down to 40 Hz, unless you define "reach" to include a -10 or -15 or even lower dB point, which cannot be construed as useful bass etension. This is probably true for several other speakers listed in this category. So what is happening? What is the thinking behind this inconcistency?

smileday's picture

Perhaps about -7 dB at 40Hz in this room. Fig. 6,

It might be -3 dB at 40Hz in a broadcast van, the intended usage at the design stage.

tonykaz's picture

...performance level for all Great Transducers?

It was the very loudspeaker that brought me and my English partner into the Audio Business. ( back in the early 1980s ) -- ( my business partner and I begged Raymond Cooke for this design to import to USA - he said NO! )

Isn't it still a "Reference" for comparison ? , doesn't any new design have to match or exceed it's super high levels of performance?

This little device and a well matched sub builds an outstanding Desert Island System.

But, it's still outstanding without the Sub.

It may not be Full Range but it well earned a Lifetime Class A+ transducer system rating. ( four Decades + )

Tony in Venice Florida

Ortofan's picture

... like antique furniture, but the KEF LS50 Meta is a much more highly evolved successor.

tonykaz's picture

I'm sure that I agree with you.

I seem to have a deeeeeeeep seated feeling that the LS3/5a is the grandfather of High End music Gear.

Even during the 1980s, my little shop : Esoteric Audio in Farmington Frills, Mi. stocked most of the small mini-monitors including the LS3/5a, Linn Kann, ProAc Tablette, Spica TC50, Quad ESL63 and the whole range of other hopefuls. Performance wise, the ProAc Tablettes were the musical leaders, the Quads were the Sales leaders, the Spica was the Reviewer Favourite . We had them all on permanant comparison using a VPI player, Koetsu Rosewood, Electrocompaniet Electronics and MIT Music Hose cable interfaces. It was an exciting adventure for any and all customers to take part in the ongoing comparisons. People bought scads of 'all' of those small speakers types.

With great or outstanding supporting gear, the LS3/5a can Scale up to amazing levels of music reproduction.

Tony in Venice Florida

ravello's picture

@ smileday: With due respect, the link you posted is not to the current Falcon "Gold Badge" reviewed in 2021, which I was talking about, and which is about 12 dB down at 40 Hz (ref. 1 KHz) in JA's listening room on the evidence of Fig. 6 and Fig. 8 (red trace). This, as I was saying, cannot and should not be construed as useful bass extension at 40 Hz, so listing this speaker as "Class A, limited LF extension" is misleading (to say the least) in light of Stereophile's own stated criteria for inclusion in this category. Perhaps Editor Mr. Austin would like to take the stand on this. Furthermore, most of us don't listen to music in a broadcast van. Mind you, I am not saying that these are not truly great speakers. Indeed, I used to own the Harbeth P3ESR, which I found as nearly flawless as I suspect is possible in a loudspeaker, except for bass extension and volume (SPL) capability -- admittedly an inevitable design constraint given the size of the midbass driver, the size of the cabinet, and the benign impedance. This is why I eventually replaced them with a pair of the Harbeth C7 (40th Anniversary), which turned out to be game-over speakers in my small, 12 sqm study. Perfectly solid bass to 40 Hz and possibly below.

TowerOfPower's picture

It's surprising to not see a single Soundsmith cartridge on this list. Would like to know why.

skitheeast's picture

Hi - I am looking for a subwoofer to match the KEF LS50 Wireless sound, ideally with wireless integration to make placement easier. The 17 ms delay would not bother me as the speakers match the delay. Did anyone test the KEF KF 92 in addition to its smaller sibling and can they recommend it? Would I get better results with something like the SVS SB 3000 regardless of losing the wireless integration? Thanks in advance.