Tuesday, November 1, 2016

Headphone Quest

(aka, Adventures of 2 Channel Guy, Diving Head First Into the Head-Fi Deep End)

I recently started the process to compound my audio craziness with headphones.  I posted the experience on Head-Fi, which is one of the best communities for headphone people on the Internet. Replicating it here so I have an easy place to link to it to, but follow the link below if you want to see the discussion or (better still) participate in it.

October 30, 2016

Folks, as I’ve mentioned in a couple other posts, for the past couple weeks, me and a couple friends have been consumed with an extensive shoot out for ~12 mid to higher end headphones.

I tend to go through major audio upgrade waves every 10-15 years.  I last time I was serious about headphones was~15 years ago.  Back then I got my Etymotics and Sennheiser 580's and Meier Corda amp (as one did back in the day) and was then happy to be an occasional lurker on these forums, while I mainly listened to 2 channel audio on my home setup.

Having just bought a new house with a great listening space, I have just finished a major upgrade cycle on my home system (B&W 802d3's, Classe amp, Oppo HA-1, etc) and I have been spending way too much money (and not enough time) on awesome high def content.  I’m absolutely loving the new set up, and it has made me hungry for having this type of listening experience while I’m at work and (if possible) while traveling/mobile.

After reading way too much about how awesome modern headphones are, me and a bunch of friends decided to jump in and get together a small set of audition targets that we all could check out.  Since anything doing is worth overdoing, that list quickly turned into 10+, which turned into my dining room table being covered in cans and DAC/amps, with geek buddies hanging out 5-6 hours a night for over a week.

Fantastic learning experience and a hell of a lot of fun.  Here is a way too long documentation of our learnings/experiences/impressions (all from high end music lovers that have been 90% focus on 2 channel audio, and definite non-experts on headphones).  I hope it is helpful or at least interesting to others.

Thanks to everyone that contributes so much to these forums.



Headphone setup:
Mac Book Pro and Mac Mini, running latest OS X Sierra, content on local SSD
Audirvana Plus 2.5.4
Schiit Jotunheim DAC/Amp (primary for cans)
Single ended (mostly), native cables (nothing fancy)

My reference 2 channel setup:
Same content chain
Oppo HA-1 (primary DAC for 2 channel reference)
Classe 2300 amp
B&W 802d3’s

Here are my notes from my 2 channel process a year ago (for reference on what I key in on musically and sonically).


Almost 50 something, avid audiophile since high school (yeah I built my own subwoofer when I couldn’t afford anything more than bookshelf speakers), goes through major upgrade waves every 10-15 years or so.  I’m usually a 2 channel guy, but I’m so in love with the magic of the 802d3’s with high res content that I want the same at work and when traveling.  I’m looking for that headphone experience that can get me the “wow!” I get from my 2 channel setup, and my 0ld Skool Sennheiser 580s from 15 years ago just aren’t cutting it any more.

I really gravitate to tight, effortless, fast dynamics, with either balance across the range (I love that “standing behind the recording engineer at the sound board” feeling), or a “so real you can see the musicians” sound stage.

I was joined in this quest by several 40-60 something friends that were excited to spend a week of 5-6 hour evenings auditioning and (endlessly) arguing about headphones, music formats, DACs, and equalization.  I’ll pepper their experiences/impressions in below, but only where I think they were right ;)


My Go To Demo tracks and what I look for in each:

Murakkaz Ah Ya Muddasin, from “The Splendour of Al Andalus” by Calamus (MA Recordings, SACD)
Remarkable recording in what sounds to be a majestic and spiritual centuries old cathedral in Spain. With the right equipment, you are transported to a place you’ve never been to but always want to get back to.  When the full group joins in, it is profoundly challenging to reproduce the mids and highs without sounding shrill and congested.  When the reproduction is effortless, it is magical (to say the least…my jaw drops every time when it’s “right”)  If the sound chain is able to maintain that glorious soundstage, it is off the charts.

Royals, from “Pure Heroine” by Lorde (16/44.1 lossless)I auditioned this track on a lark when I was shopping for my 802d3’s.  When you have full bass extension, the balance in the mix is remarkable.  You feel you are at the mixing board, going “that’s it!” at the moment the engineer gets it perfectly dialed in.  The song is a wonderful test of the balance and extension of cans when pushed to their frequency limits.  If there is distortion or thinness at the low end, it will go from a wonderfully crafted recording to just a boomy pop song.

Beethoven Symphony #9, 4th movement by Suitner (OG Denon, 16/44.1 lossless)
This was the first CD I ever bought in 1984 (first CD ever made?)  I know every second of this movement and every nuance.  My current 2 channel setup was the first time I had ever heard the entire movement without a break (every other system I’d ever had/auditioned had some break at some challenging passage).  Naively, it seems grossly unfair to expect cans to replicate that experience, but it is worth a try.

Organ Prelude, JS Bach Magnificat by Dunedin Consort (Linn, SACD)
Motet, JS Bach Magnificat by Dunedin Consort (Linn, SACD)

These are new pieces to me.  What a breathtakingly lovely recording!  The dynamics and harmonics of the organ can range from “eh” to “holy crap!” depending on the cans.  Standing in the middle of choir is a lovely test of imaging and voice reproduction.  I don’t know these pieces well enough to pass critical judgement based on them, but I was looking for whether the cans made me want to listen to and learn these pieces, rather than just hitting next.

No Love Dying, from “Liquid Spirit” by Gregory Porter (24/96 flac)Another lovely recording and performance, that on a balanced system hits a resonance that is next level for me (just sounds “right” and get the “wow!”)  When things are not in balance or boomy/shrill, I hear it loud and clear.

The Verdict, from “Body and Soul” by Joe Jackson (16/44.1 lossless)Another decades long demo track.  I know it so well, that it is a good test for imaging and dynamics.   There are better demo pieces, but this is one I know cold (and I love the song)

Strange Angels, from “Strange Angels” by Laurie Anderson (16/44.1 lossless)Another test of balance and resonance between the band

Oh, Lady Be Good, from Bassface Swing Trio Tribute To Cole Porter (SACD)
It’s De-Lovely, from Bassface Swing Trio Tribute to Gershwin (SACD)

These direct to disc Stockfisch recordings are extraordinary.  Imaging and dynamics FTW.  Recordings like these are why we obsess over the things we obsess about.  I’m looking to get lost in the music, and the band appearing to be sitting right there.  When tonal balance is just right, these performances just jump off the SACD.

Take Five, from “Time Out” by Dave Brubeck (Analogue Productions SACD)
An excellent test of dynamics at the high end.  As an aside, these Analogue Productions remasters are off the charts!

Tenderly, from “While She Sleeps” by Art Lande (Blue Coast, 24/88.2 flac)
If you’ve ever sat next to a wonderfully tuned piano with an extraordinary player, you know how magical that experience can be.  The best pianos sing with resonances that envelop you.  The best musicians know how to coax beauty and life out of the instrument.  This recording from Art Lande captures that magic.  The stronger the dynamics, soundstage, and precision of the cans, the more lifelike this track becomes for me.  I haven’t experienced this track topping out: the better the reproduction chain, the more lifelike it becomes.

Let Me Touch You For Awhile, from “Live” by Alison Krauss (SACD)
I adore Alison Krauss. Having equipment that can reproduce the wonderful emotion and musicality of these amazing artists is why I spend so much time looking for the right speakers/cans/etc.  Their Live album is special, and you can feel the humanity and emotion in this track.

Mandela, from “Hope” by Hugh Masekela (SACD)
The dynamics of this recording are off the chart.  Crank it up, and see if your equipment can keep up, and how well the cans stay put when you get up and start dancing (because I guarantee you will ;)

Spanish Harlem, from “World’s Greatest Audiophile Vocal Recordings” by Rebecca Pidgeon (SACD)
Classic test track.  Other than the obviousness of the bass reproduction, the sound stage is exquisite: do you feel you’re in the same room?  Are you getting any resonances in the bass from Rebecca’s voice?

Girl from Ipanema, from “World’s Greatest Audiophile Vocal Recordings” by Rosa Passos & Ron Carter (SACD)
As a Chesky recording, the sound stage is vivid and real.  The dynamics of the percussion are also a treat. Can the single headphone driver keep up with the snap of the high hats and the deep resonances of the stand up bass, and not lose the soundstage and imaging of the musicians?

1000 Shades of Blue, from “Thousand Shades of Blue” by Carmen Gomes (Sound Liaison 24/96 WAV)
I’m just getting into the Sound Liaison catalog, but these really make you feel you’re in the room with the musicians.  When you get to the applause at the end, do you feeling like you were listening to awesome music or that you witnessed an incredible performance?

Get Lucky, from “Random Access Memories” by Daft Punk (24/88.2 flac)
Another track that transcends pop when played back through equipment that really reproduces the full range and dynamics of the recording (and another test for whether cans stay put on your head when you’re dancing ;)  The subtlety and layers on Nile Rodgers’ guitar work is incredible, and the recording is outstanding so you should be able hear it all.  I listen for whether it is washed out, and how well I hear all the (considerable) nuances in his playing.

Isn’t She Lovely, from “Ink” by Livingston Taylor (SACD)
This track rewards higher quality reproduction chains with what seems to be a never ending series of layers.  How many layers can you hear?

So What, from “Kind of Blue” by Miles Davis (Japanese single layer SACD version)
One of the finest recordings and performances of the 20th century.  Always the last track I play during any audition.  Until there is a time machine to take me back to March 2 and April 22 1959, I will buy every new remaster of this album, and play it on every piece of high end audio kit I can find.


Oppo PM-1 (refurb unit direct from Oppo)
Fit/finish and aesthetics are off the charts, although the  wooden box it came in was embarrassing for everyone involved (what the heck do I do with a coffin for my cans?).  Very attractive and wonderful materials.  Unlike most of the cans scattered all over my dining room table for this shoot out, I would have no embarrassment wearing these in public.

I found them mostly “invisible” when listening (combination of comfort and spaciousness).  SQ, end to end is very good, but doesn’t have the wow of other TOTL cans.  Bass is solid but has a bit of slop (and truncates a little too soon for my taste).  Cellos are heard but not felt, and resonances of piano are lost.  Mids are solid but indistinct.  Highs are effortless and very comfortable, but the dynamics on high hats fall just a bit short of “holy crap!”.  Imaging and space is present, but low res compared to several of the other miracles we listened to.  There is essentially no isolation, so best to have no friends if you have these cans.

This are the kick back by the fire with a brandy and a blanket cans: very casual and relaxed, extremely comfortable and satisfying, but falls just a bit short if you pay too close attention.  In another 15-20 years, retired me and my future dog (who won’t complain about sound leakage) would love a pair of cans like these.

Net net, these PM-1’s are handsome and  charming (in a Hugh Grant kind of way), but they’ll be going back.  For now, I’m hoping Alex (@FFRESPONSE) can work miracles with his Audio Zenith PMx2’s (heavily modded PM-2’s)

B&O H6 (purchased new)
This is the outlier on the low end.  I wanted to see what a portable set of cans could do.  Could I get to good enough when I was out and about and in the office and save a couple grand?  If not, one of my daughters would be over the moon to get these.

I was surprised at the price/performance of these cans.  Weaving all over the place, but for walk around cans plugged right into your phone, they’re awesome.  I wouldn’t use for critical listening, but these might be worth saving as a mobile pair, leaving the big dogs (whatever they turn out to be) tethered in my office.

B&W P9 (new from B&W…no demo units to be found locally)
The P7’s at Magnolia (wired) didn’t impress me, but I didn’t have my DAC/Amps with me either.  The 802d3’s are so off the chart spectacular, that I couldn’t wait for the P9’s (designed by same team for B&W 50th anniversary) to arrive.

Out of the box, these look and feel like a next level luxury object.  The design details, fit, and finish are top tier.  These are gorgeous artifacts that would not be out of place as a tasteful accent in a finely decorated home.  The build quality is outstanding.

I first listened to them directly off my laptop (I was at work and didn’t have my DAC/Amp there).  Very very impressive how well they are driven by laptops and phones.  I’m not sure I would be comfortable walking around the city with these (begging for the wrong kind of attention), but it would be an option.

Clamp strength was a bit too much for me.  The seal was very tight, but not uncomfortable (very stable)  They are fairly closed, but for some reason it didn’t feel as claustrophobic to me as the Audeze EL-8’s.

The real surprise for me was the sound quality (and variability of same).  These cans seem to be phenomenally sensitive to how they are placed over your ears, the type of seal, and the shape of your head.  Some times the low end was nice tight and mellow, other times it was a boomy mess that overwhelmed everything else.  For others in our group, all they heard was the boomy.  After fiddling around, we discovered that if they lifted the cups just a bit (enough to relieve the pressure a little bit but not lose contact with their head), the boominess came under control.  For me, if I pressed down on the cups, I could consistently get the boomy.

Now these have had minimal break in time (10+ cans on your dining room table sort of puts a dent into burn in procedures).  Another poster mentioned that after burn in, the boominess gets tamed. Given our experience messing with the pressure of the cups against our heads, it could also be the pads and headband breaking in and getting some give.  I will update this post if I see a change over time, but for now I’m calling it as them being extremely sensitive to positioning on the head.

So after tweaking and adjusting positioning to get the bass to be reasonable, is it worth it?  These are very frustrating cans.  At times, I get flashes of that classic B&W voicing that I adore in the speaker line (I’m a 30+ year B&W slut), and a very 2 channel like experience.  At others, the hump in the mid range just washes things out.  For tracks with heavy bass, the subsonics literally were shaking my head (the experience rapidly went from WOAH! to distracting to disorientating and to not at all pleasant).

I have no idea what the designers were shooting for in the voicing of these headphones.  It seems like the platypus of voicing profiles, packaged in a brilliant and tasteful suit.  These are too well made for these choices not to be purposeful.  Will things change when they ship their lightning cable DAC next year?

I will give these a chance to break in before making a final call, but for now, color me very disappointed at confusing execution, and wishing things were different without being able to say what that is.  Likely going back, but hoping against hope that they break in to that B&W ideal I’m looking for.

Audeze LCD3 (rented)
Interesting retro look, but at least for my head, the weight distribution was all wonky and unstable.  Very difficult to listen to for me, since any movement would shift cans around.  Clamping force was also a bit strong for my taste.  Even after a brief time of wearing them, they were quite uncomfortable.

From a SQ and voicing perspective, also not a good match for me.  Bass control and extension was SOLID, but much to thin at the high end and too flat a soundstage for me (at least with the type of music I like to listen to).  We did play a bit with equalization and bump up the high end, making it much more approachable, but with 10+ other cans at the party, didn’t spend much time with these (not a good literal or voicing fit).

Good cans, but there are outstanding options available now for a lot less than what these are going for.  Looking forward to seeing/hearing how Audeze reinvents their headphone line in the future.

Audeze EL-8 closed back (rented)
Much more comfortable (for me) than the LCD3, but I’m not sure if closed headphones are for me.  Even after a short while wearing, feels congested and isolating.  I may need to focus on more open cans, just out of personal preference.

I thought the high mids were a bit more balanced than the LCD3, but not as quick and sharp as some of the other higher end cans.  Low end was a bit more sloppy than the LCD3s, but still good (just not great like the LCD3s).

Again, didn’t spend as much time on these.  At this mid tier price point, I thought there were better options for dynamics, range, and voicing.

Sennheiser HD 800 (rented, SN 41xxx)
I’ve had Sennheiser HD 580’s for many years, so I’m very familiar with the sound and feel of Sennheiser headphone.  Aside from our shock at the garishness of the design, they were extremely comfortable and well proportioned.

First listen with the 800’s was stunning: the expansive soundstage, the sense of being in the musical space, the lightning fast dynamics, all awesome.  The low end was a lot thinner than I would have hoped, but I had found equalization curves where people had worked to address that (more later).

As a newbie to the 800’s, the “wow” moments were frequent and awesome, but there were also many “what the hell was that?” moments.  After some quick googling, I learned of the infamous 6k spike.  Ouch.

I LOVE these cans though.  If only the low end could get extended out without getting all sloppy, if only the random sonic farts at 6k could get tamed, if only yada yada yada.

Thus started a multi-day effort pull down equalization software (Sonarworks, DMG), learning how to use the damn things, and fiddling fiddling fiddling fiddling, trying to keep the magic but address all the “if only”’s.  The bass was easy to tune to acceptable but not great levels (except for when it wasn’t), but the 6k fart machine was harder to tame.

Even after this minimal tuning effort, I started tuning different EQ curves to different types of music, and wishing I could have dynamic EQ profiles so I could tune differently within particular songs.  At that point, I knew I had a problem: the goal is to listen to amazing music, not become an engineer at the sound board tweaking the tonal balance of a performance.

The “wows” are so awesome though!  Is it worth dealing with the crazy (and crazy making) tweaking and finickiness to get those moments?  Would the 800s be any better, or the super resonant mod that all these other frustrated people keep talking about?  How would the cans sound with the paper bag I’d have to wear over my head if I wore them in public?  This is starting to feel like a dysfunctional relationship that you just can’t leave.

Time to move on to the other cans before the 800’s and I start yelling at each other again.

(Another surprise: the amount of leakage from these headphones is almost criminal. Not a socially acceptable set of cans…be prepared to only listen to them when you’re alone, or you will quickly become alone after you start listening to them)

Focal Elear (purchased used)
Out of the box, the cans just scream quality and taste.  Sound leakage was minimal, styling was top tier. 10 on the social acceptability scale.  For me at least, they feel like the are part of my heard when I’m wearing them, although a friend with a wider head complained about the excessive clamping.

Plug them in and fire them up, and all I can say is WOW!!!  The lows and mids are almost full range speaker like: controlled, balanced, confident, and full extension.  Starting at high mids and going into the treble,  things start to thin out.  Soundstage and imaging wasn’t to 800’s level, but OK.

As much as I really really enjoyed listening to these headphone, I always had a nagging feeling that something was missing or that I had forgotten something.  When going back to 800’s, I actually felt some relief (at least until I had to tweak the 800’s again, and the nagging problems came back again, and we started screaming at each other again…ugh)

These are spectacular headphones (esp. at the price), IF you can live with the thin top end or prefer darker/warmer cans.  So relaxed and natural, almost effortless with what they do.  Unfortunately for me, I really key off imaging and transients in the high end: any thinness or distortion really stands out for me.  I wish it were otherwise, because then these would be the perfect headphones for me.  Would their (really) big brother Utopia’s address these gaps?  Stay tuned…

Grado HP-2 (I told you we are 0ld Skool))
Impressive how these vintage headphones perform.  Comfort and fit is extremely good, but stability can be shaken (even the best headbands loosen up after 20 years of use).

Highs are modestly fast and clear, with no hint of distortion/sibilance (very enjoyable). Probably the most-speaker like that we heard.  Mids are robust and neutral, but do get muddy at times.  Bass extension was better than I expected when I saw the drivers but still limited. They were a little sloppy at the very low end, but otherwise clean.  Soundstage and imaging are not competitive with more modern cans though (surprising…given their vintage I was naively expecting that to be a strength)

Using our redneck frequency response setup (don’t ask), it seems like they voiced headphones to a flat curve back in the day (interesting).

Overall a very impressive set of vintage headphones, esp. for casual listening.  I can see why these are going for such a premium in the used market.

Ether Flows (MIA)
Absent from our party and very much missed…hope to drop by the MrSpeakers factory soon and audition these.  I’d love to see what Dan and company have been able to do with their innovation engine.

**** UPDATE!! ****

Ether Flows / Ether C Flows (auditioned at the factory!)
Many thanks to Peter and Dan at MrSpeakers for allowing me to visit their offices and audition Ether Flows and Ether C Flows.  I had an extremely enjoyable couple hours, enjoying their cans connected balanced to my Jotunheim. Please note that I auditioned these headphones in an office setting (fairly quiet, but different than my living room), and separated in time from the other auditions.  Please take comparative impressions with the appropriate grains of salt.

Ether Flows
Extremely nice feel. Weight all around drivers, so very well balanced (not top heavy, sat extremely comfortably and naturally on my head).  I loved the strap/wire band design (clever).  Build quality felt quite good. A modest amount of sound leakage, but doesn’t seem as bad as HD800’s (from memory…I did not have them side by side to A/B).  I really liked the cable (and all the other nice pragmatic design touches…well done guys).

Tight highs, *very* slight congestion in denser passages of Calamus, but mostly clean.  Good dynamics at highs, but not as much detail and space as some others. Overall, highs better than Elears, but can’t touch HD800’s.  Mids neutral and transparent, as they should be.  Bass extension is thin (between the Elears and HD800 but closer to HD800), but extremely well controlled.  Lows mostly there but not getting the full range resonances in Royals or orchestral strings overtones or that sense of being next to the piano.   Not as bass thin as HD800’s, but doesn’t have that ridiculous soundstage and imaging to make up for it, and doesn’t have the musicality (for me) that the HD800’s had.

Imaging OK, but not as precise as others (slightly more fuzzy placement of players).  Soundstage was middle of the pack for me.  In general, the sound reminded me of listening to speakers where the cross overs aren’t quite dialed in or the sound field hasn’t quite converged: the sound just doesn’t seem to flow (tonally) across the spectrum.  Very hard to describe, but missing that “woah” that I heard with the Elears, HD800’s, and PMx2’s.

Very airy and light feeling.  Very comfortable and non fatiguing.  Music is just there, like a friend that is neither pushy nor demanding, but I had the odd feeling that the music wasn’t always “geling” into a larger whole.  While very relaxed, I wasn’t getting any “wow!” moments, or the big dynamics and transients that make me sit up and take notice; experience was sort of neutral and flat in comparison to my other favorites.  If I were to be wearing headphones all day while working, these would be near ideal.  For critical listening or getting lost in the music, may not be the best not most interesting choice, but would be an incredibly comfortable one.

Ether C Flows
Good isolation, but not as comfortable as the open Ether Flows.  A bit more pressure, but not uncomfortable.  Could feel the weight difference. I found them a little more fatiguing for extended listening (but I already commented on my reaction to closed headphones above…no where as near as claustrophobic as the Audeze EL-8’s, these have a very open headphone feel to me)

With the caveat that I auditioned the ether flows in an office environment (quiet, but not a listening room…closed cans have more dynamic range to play with), I’m hearing more of the music and the space around it with the ether flow c’s.  To my ear, there was more extension at low end, and some more space at highs.  Imaging precision is roughly the same, but richer presence. All around, more resonances and overtones in the music, but still not at the level of some of the other cans.  The punch and dynamics seemed better as well.

Ether Ruminations
One of the great joys of music for me the resonances (figurative and literal) and unexpected overtones and dynamic transients.  Those are not where the Ether Flows excel.  If the Audio Zenith PMx2’s offer incredibly opinionated and musical neutrality, the Ether Flows offer unobstrusive and passive neutrality.  With Ether Flows I’m listening to amazing music, not being part of it and having it be part of me.

I would pick the Ether Flows for comfort and long term listenability, and the Ether C Flows for more critical listening.  Unlike the Ether Flows, if I want to really critically listen to something, I can go there with the Flow C’s, but I wasn’t quite hearing all the things I know were there from other headphones I listened to (but still damn good).

If want headphones that are part of the rest of your (non-music) life without being the only part of your life, the Ether Flows are fantastic (best of the bunch that I’ve auditioned, but I haven’t auditioned the Sennheiser HD600, for example).  For me, I’m finding I want something that evokes and engages and demands my attention and response.  For a first pair of (critical listening focused) high end headphones, I will want something like the PMx2’s/Utopia’s/HD800’s.  However, I could see adding something like the Ether Flows as a second pair of (integrate with the rest of your life) cans in the relatively near future.

**** END UPDATE ****


@darinf came over this week to profile my 2 channel system for his Out of Your Head product (as an aside, the effect with custom measurements is incredible…wow!).  He was kind enough to bring part of his headphone menagerie over and chat while I did a quick audition.  Thank you Darin for your generosity and contributing to our crazy shootout!

Audio Zenith PMx2 (Darin’s)
For those unfamiliar with these, they are a heavily modded/rebuilt version of the Oppo PM-2’s.  Completely different experience than PM-1 (hard to believe they’re cousins).  Alex (@FFRESPONSE) does an absolutely incredible job transforming the PM-2’s.

Compared to the PM-1’s, the PMx2’s are much more controlled and richer highs (amazing how tight the lows are actually).  Bass and mid lovely and controlled: the wispy lazy slop of the PM-1’s is gone.  Feels like much deeper bass extension than PM-1’s as well (which is an amazing thing to accomplish), without giving away control or dynamics at the low end (ditto).  To my ear, bass extension seemed a tad lower than the Elear.

MUCH better balance across the range, with no loss in dynamics.  It is actually remarkable to hear what tonal balance really sounds like with a headphone; it makes you realize how far everything else is from this ideal (alas, once you hear it, you can hear the lack of it in other headphones…beware!)  Great sound stage and imaging, but still a bit short of the 800’s.  Punch and dynamics are excellent, but fall just a hair short of the Elears and Utopias I think.

This is a world class set of headphones.  Hard for me to find any sonic faults with them without being “that guy” (“Gee Alex, this is a miraculous transformation of an already TOTL set of cans to ‘best I’ve ever heard’ level, but could you just squeeze a couple more Hertz bass extension, and just a bit better imaging and soundstage?”).  Sonically, the tonal balance is so near to ideal that you’re foolish if you focus on the “near” part instead of the “ideal” part. Coupled with Oppo build quality and aesthetics/comfort, and Alex has a winner.

If the PM-1’s are the cans your retire by a fire with your dog with, the PMx2’s are the cans you take off and explore the world with.  Bravo Alex for showing what can be done with a pair of cans when a gifted engineer that deeply cares about tonal balance hand tunes them to their limits (I just listened to Bassface Swing Trio again, my jaw dropped *again* at the tonal balance…wow!).  These are WAY more that 2x the PM-2’s, and an exquisite gem of an offering.

HiFiMan 400S (Darin’s)
Quick demo.  Impressively balanced mids and highs, but lacking some punch on dynamics (esp. in the highs).  The cans were overwhelmed with the complexity of the Calamus. Good control at low end, but extension not quite as far as others.  Imaging less precise than some of the higher end cans, with more narrow and washed out soundstage.  Extremely listenable for the price point.  No issues driving it with the Jotunheim.

My mid tier choice, but I’d shy away if you have more demanding musical tastes (orchestral, etc.)  Based on this quick listen (first time I’ve heard HiFiman headphones), I’ll be looking to listen to some of their higher end offerings when I get a chance.

Focal Utopias (Darin’s)
Quick demo.  Fit/finish is fantastic (clear step up from Elears, which are already fantastic)  Clearer and more effortless at high end, but falls just a bit short of the PMx2.  I found myself still wanting a *tad* bit more precision and umph at the high end, but we’re getting to the most trivial of nits.  Amazingly graceful and effortless across the range.  Tight.  There are 4,000 reasons I shouldn’t have listened to these cans, but I’m very glad that I did.  Bass extension not as robust as PMx2s, but very controlled.

For off the shelf out of a box cans, these have the potential to be the best headphones I have ever heard (by a wide margin)*, but if someone were to offer me these or the PMx2’s and I couldn’t resell them, I would be very tempted to take the PMx2’s.  With a more serious DAC (and maybe amp), TBD which has the most additional juice to offer, but I suspect both have at lot more to offer than I was able to hear with my kit.

Above are all drive-by impressions.  I wish I had more than a brief tantalizing taste of these cans (is anyone willing to let me borrow a pair for a couple days?), but my bank account is VERY grateful that I didn’t.

* I need more than 30 minutes with them to make that claim

Sennheiser HD 800 (Super Resonant mod + EQ to boost the bass) (Darin’s)
Precision of soundstage and imaging are still amazing.  None of that was lost vs the stock 800’s.  SR Mod really tamed some of the weirdness in the mids/highs.  Base extension very natural, but still not as robust as the PMx2’s.  Attack and precision in the highs is outstanding…really brings it alive.  Definitely less frustrating than stock 800’s, but still have the frequent “Wow” moments.  Nile Rodgers is an uber boss with these cans. I found it was still lacking some of the low end resonances, but still very nice.  For price/performance, these might be the place to be while this golden age of headphone innovation continues to blossom, and buy me time until I invest in the 10-15 year cans 2-3 years from now.


Darin was kind enough to also bring over his Schiit Mobi Multi-bit DAC, so we could A/B against the Jotunheim delta-sigma DAC.  The detail and reveal was definitely a step up with the MB DAC. The more dynamic can’s (Utopia, Elears, HD800’s, PMx2’s) definitely benefitted from the MB. Evaluating and unwinding the nuanced differences between these cans really required the Mobi MB. Thank you Darin!

Is it worth $250 to get a separate DAC for my Jotunheim?  For these top end cans, absolutely.  Is it worth stepping up to the Bifrost MB or Gimby?  I think I’ll want to spend time with the Gimby first, to see if there is enough marginal value to go up the MB chain, but I definitely see a MB upgrade in the future.  One of my co-conspirators has already ordered a Bifrost MB (and Lyr 2 for some tube madness), so I’m looking forward to seeing the impact with both headphones and my 2 channel setup.


The pace of innovation and the spike in quality in headphones is astonishing.  In reading through older posts, what was top of the heap even a couple years ago is being supplanted by better/cheaper options, with fewer structural and sonic compromises.

Precision manufacturing at relatively small scales is having a huge impact on the state of the art, and access to rabid audiences like us on forums like this is knocking down a lot of barriers on the go to market side.  My gut is we’re just starting up the price/performance S-curve driven by precision small scale manufacturing, materials innovation, and computer modeling (what I call the 3 M’s).  What we will be able to buy 5 years from now will be way ahead of what we have now.

That being said, my steadily degrading hearing can’t wait for the ultimate headphones.  The price/performance of the current state of the art is already off the charts.  There is much happiness to be had today listening to amazing music.

What is clear is that a 10-15 year upgrade cycle isn’t going to work for me this time around.  That means, no splurge for an “end game” headphone, for similar reasons as I don’t splurge for “end game” DACs right now.  My gut is I would make a 2-3 year investment, and be able to hand down some awesome cans to my kids or friends that are looking to step up to higher end audio.

With that context, my sweet spot is some combination of used Sennheiser HD800’s (modded and equalized), Focal Elears, or Audio Zenith PMx2’s.

Is it better to have awesome styling and build, world class sound, but lack that excitement and presence of what you really wanted?  For me, the Elears are the equivalent of getting a 3 series BMW because you fell in love with the 7 series BMW (Utopia’s) but can’t justify throwing around that kind of money on a car.

Or is it better to have the finicky tweaking and more than occasional frustrations, but be reward with the frequent moments of “wow”?  To extend the analogy, the 800’s are the Ferrari that is always in the shop or just getting out of the shop, but thrilling to drive in between.

Or is it better to spend the money and support a gifted visionary that hand crafts world class headphones?  That would make the PMx2’s the Tesla that is pointing the way to how cars will be designed and built in the future, but is hamstrung by other people’s production realities until he can get to a scale to justify his own designs/manufacturing at scale.

I’m at point in my life where surprises and moments of joy are ever more special.  Preserving that is worth the frustration of the constant tweaking and fiddling (and looking like an idiot when I’m wearing them)  Tweaking is also an opportunity to really learn what types of acoustics I respond to and why.  A solid set of used HD800’s, equalized up at the low end and with the super resonator mod, will keep me very happy and engaged for the next several years as the precision manufacturing wave sweeps through the industry.

I also appreciate devotion to craft and doing things right, and appreciate opportunities to support the same with my patronage.  It would be a privilege to spend the $1400 for a pair of hand tuned PMx2’s from Alex.

Next year there will be the equivalent of an Elear with fewer compromises (and better materials and manufacturing precision) and the year after that, again.  My bold prediction is that Utopia-level performance will be the norm in $1000 cans within the next 3-4 years.

I’m going to spend some extended listening time with the HD800’s and Elears (alas, I need to return the PMx2’s…glorious headphones), and experiment with @darinf ’s amazing Out Of Your Head software.  For mobile and office use, a synthetic 2 channel soundstage may be good enough, especially if the digital processing is not fatiguing.

Decisions decisions… (and as they say, may we all have first world problems like this, am I right?)

tl; dr:

If you’re a audio geek like me that values even full-range tonal balance and the sense of “being there” musical ambiance that comes with fast dynamics, low distortion, and good phase coherence in the high mids and trebles, here is my advice after a stoopid crazy week of excessive headphone evaluations:

  • If you focus on tonal balance and appreciate and want to support bespoke craft that borders on alchemy, get the Audio Zenith PMx2
  • If you find presence in music thrilling, feel a sense of reward when you get that unexpected “WOW!” after messing/tweaking with something, and don’t mind wearing really ugly (sorry ;) headphones as you listen to music alone, get the Sennheiser HD-800’s and start tweaking
  • If you want world class next generation cans that sing out of the box, sell a kidney and get the Focal Utopia’s (and sell part of your liver to upgrade your DAC/Amps to be worthy of this engineering marvel).
  • If you want to experience that next level next generation cans without giving away organs (or parts there of), the Focal Elears are phenomenal $1000 cans, that evoke the best of their breathtaking sibling, but are a little too thin in the high end for me.
  • If you want lovely headphones that integrate well into the rest of your life and don't cause the music to distract you from work etc, the Ether Flows are top tier.
  • Shy away from any TOTL/premium models from companies that haven’t adopted significant material and manufacturing innovations in the past 3 years…they are the pinnacle of a previous age, and the miracle of the 3M’s (manufacturing/materials/modeling) S curve are available for roughly the same price
  • These are all FANTASTIC products, and honestly, is there any among us that if stranded on a dessert island, wouldn’t be delighted with any of them? Be happy, enjoy what you have, and enjoy the gift of music in your life.

MANY thanks to the incredible community here, and all the experiences and insights that everyone shares day in and day out.  I’m a definite newbie in the headphone space, and appreciate being able to stand on the shoulders of so many more experienced and savvy people.  Thank you.

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