A Survey of Foster 443742 Variants - Subjective Listening Tests - Denon AH-D5000; Massdrop Fostex TH-X00; E-Mu Teak; and Fostex TH610 and TH900mk2

This story originally appeared at InnerFidelity.com

In this survey, I'll be walking you through my listening experience of these headphones and making comments with in the context of how these headphones compare with each other—I listened solely to them until I compared a few other headphones at the end of the test.

During a week of solid listening I must admit to becoming quite acclimated to their "V"-shaped character. At the end of testing when I wanted to switch back and forth between other headphones, I was quite surprised how strongly I heard smily-face tonality again. After playing around a bit, I figured out that I had been doing all my listening tests at a lower level than normal to compensate. When I played these Foster variants at the same level as other headphones, they all—some more, some less—seemed to loose composure by getting too loose in the bass and too bright up top, and some got quite hard sounding. I suggest this is a headphone for people who like to listen to headphones at a low level—like me, and I've come to like one or two of these headphones quite a bit.

Alrighty, let's get to it...

Denon AH-D5000 ($500; Discontinued)

When first released in 2007 the Denon AH-DX000 line was quite a revelation: A sealed headphone that sounded open. Well, it's not very sealed...probably better to call it a semi-sealed or semi-open headphone, but it sound pretty terrific given the context of the times. To my ears the D2000 was a bit too bright, the D7000 was a bit too sloppy in the bass, and the D5000 kind of split the difference. There remains a strong family resemblance among the three Denons, however.

Generally speaking, these headphones have a modest bass boost that that bleeds too far into the mid-range, and the bass can be a little too loose and lack punch. The mid-treble can be somewhat too hot and piercing; and the presence region below it a bit restrained delivering a slightly muffled and/or distant sound in that area.

To a greater or lesser degree, all the headphones in this survey have these characteristics. A somewhat "V" shaped response with emphasized bass and mid- to upper-treble. The withdrawn upper-midrange and lower treble coupled with the mid-treble emphasis can give these cans a lack of body and presence, and sometimes results in a breathy sounding response. Cymbals are too much shimmer and not enough "tang," vocals can sound distant and lack body.

Of the group surveyed on this page, the Denon AH-D5000 is among the worst in terms of these flaws. Percussive piano strikes are markedly less dynamic and punchy than the newer models. Excess mid-treble energy is ever present and eventually becomes fatiguing. Bass can be bloated and slow at times. The withdrawn upper-midrange and low-treble ends up leaving me disinterested.

Fostex TH610 ($599; link)

A clear step in the right direction, the Fostex TH610 is an improvement over the Denon AH-D5000. Bass is tighter and more controlled—maybe the best of the bunch here—though it still intrudes on the midrange some. Presence region is brought forward some, but not quite far enough to completely get rid of the slightly muffled character. Pianos now have significantly more impact and dynamism. The transition from upper-midrange to mid-treble is better and cymbals regain some of their solidity. I'd still call this a "V" shaped response, but it's less so than the D5000.

On the down side, the treble remains a bit uneven, and while the cymbals have more body now, they can still sound a bit unnatural and grainy. And while piano strikes have more dynamism, they can also sound a little hard...especially as the volume winds up. Basically, the TH610 has better tonality than the D5000, but it's somewhat uneven and lacks nuance.

Massdrop TH-X00 ($399; link)

Ahhhh. So nice and smooth after the TH610; the TH-X00 is clearly a more refined sound. At this point we're close enough to neutral that the "V" shaped character is less intrusive, but for a slightly hot top treble octave. Bass is somewhat emphasized, but bleeds into the midrange less than the other cans here. Unfortunately, it's gotten a little looser in this iteration giving it a more bloomy and undefined sound down low.

Vocals are refreshingly present and coherent; I get the impression here of the music as a whole more than the previous headphones. Dynamic punch—other than the bass—is also better controlled and feels much easier. It's significantly less hard sounding than the TH610, but I would call it just a bit dry.

Imaging seems to take a significant step up with the TH-X00. With the coherent whole of the music more apparent and a nicely balanced treble response, the TH-X00 does a really nice job of developing a coherent image with better than average width and depth. Yes, it does sound more like an open headphone than a sealed one. This is a darned good headphone at this price.

E-Mu Teak (~$700; $449 previously on Massdrop; link)

And now we move to liquid goodness. The E-Mu Teak isn't readily available in the U.S. yet, but has made an appearance on Massdrop for around $450, which seems like a bargain to me. I did receive a number of cups for these cans which I measured and listened to long enough to decide I liked the Teak best. It seemed to have a warmer, mellower, and more liquid sound, while the other cups had the cans sounding dryer like the TH-X00.

The tonality of the E-Mu Teak is splendid. Only a hint of it's genesis remain. Bass has just a bit of bloom; upper-treble is ever so slightly hot, but not bothersome in the least; and vocals could stand to come forward slightly. But these are nit-picks, switching back to the original D5000 at this point is almost painful—vocals are hard and body-less; the unbalanced treble delivers cymbals that are harsh caricatures of their former self; and the image collapses into a confused mess in a line between the ears.

Putting the E-Mu Teaks back on (ahhhhh) the music pops back into proper perspective and can be taken in as a luscious whole. Maybe the most surprising thing to me is how nicely the entire treble range integrates. Though there's still a slight haze of high-treble energy around, cymbals have a natural balance now.

Imaging with the Teak is surprisingly wide and deep—they sound quite like open headphones—but not terribly precise. Like all these cans, things are a bit hazy up high, which tends to blur the image some. Other than the bass, where it's a bit better than average, the Teaks seem to be cleaner and more dynamically capable than the other cans in this survey. I can play them louder than the others without hearing them get hard sounding. I think this is the best sounding headphone of the bunch.

Just a little side-note on the wooden cups, and I suppose it holds true for all the cans on this page: Here in Montana we have very low humidity. Over the course of time I found that many of the cups for the E-Mu had shrunk considerably and no longer fit in the headphone. I had to store them in a plastic bag with wet paper towels inside to re-hydrate them, and I was able to get them to fit subsequently. My point here is that if you live in a very dry climate and are storing earcups for future fitment, you may need to moisten them up to swell before they'll fit on the headphones.

Fostex TH900mk2 ($1499, link)

Ouch! Holy smoke, these are bright. What the heck is going on?

Measurements show this headphone, and the preceding TH900, to be substantially different than the other headphones in this survey, mainly in having a large, wide bass bump, and having extra energy in the 4-8kHz area. I found both the TH900 and TH900mk2 abrasive and hard to the point of aural discomfort. These suck.

It's surprises me because during the disassembly photo session I noticed these were the only headphones in the group that had damping material in the earcups. I also noticed they had earpads with circular holes rather than the ear-shaped holes of the other headphones. Pads can make quite a difference, so I swapped the TH610 pads and....

My goodness, what a difference! I really didn't expect that much change. Doesn't quite get the tonality as good as the TH-X00 or Teak, but they're much closer than with the stock pads. Also, I hear these headphones as fairly hard sounding. The measurements show quite a bit of distortion, but frankly those plots look a little weird to me...not sure if I trust them. None the less, the impression of having a hard sound persists as I listen to this headphone after the pad change.

If you're a TH900 or TH900mk2 owner, do your ears a favor and get some TH610 earpads. Couldn't find many places that have them; HeadRoom said they'd have some in stock very soon here.

In the end, the E-Mu Teak won me over, with the Massdrop TH-X00 following close behind. Both these cans have a somewhat "V" shaped character with emphasized bass and treble response. I found them particularly satisfying when listening to music at low volume levels. Given the historical Massdrop pricing I'd pay the extra $50 for the E-Mu Teak. I'm not sure what the normal price of these headphones will be once they're in regular distribution, but I'd say they're worth about a $200 premium over the TH-X00...but no more.

The TH610 sound okay, but the price kinda puts it out of the running for a recommendation. As for the rest, because of troubles in the trebles in a variety of ways, I really can't recommend any of them. However, if you're a TH900 or TH900mk2 owner I do recommend swapping in some TH610 earpads.

Click here to view on YouTube.

Product pages for the: Massdrop TH-X00; E-Mu Teak; and Fostex TH610 and TH900mk2.
Measurements and pictures of the insides of these headphones.
Head-Fi.org reviews for: Denon AH-D5000; Massdrop TH-X00; E-Mu Teak; and Fostex TH610 and TH900mk2.
SBAF.org threads for: Massdrop TH-X00; E-Mu Teak; and Fostex TH610 and TH900mk2.