Over-Ear Open Wall of Fame Adjustments

After recovering from a Christmas day celebration that had way more 'party' in it than ought be, I spent a few days listening to the headphones on the Wall of Fame Over-ear Open page with an ear out for readjustments. Basically, the Focal Clear has reset the bar. From now on I expect tonal balance from a $1000+ headphone. If it doesn't have it, it ain't going up on the WoF anymore. Here's what I done did and why.

Stax SR-009
In the end, this headphone is just too forward for me, and given the Sonoma Model One and its terrific tonal balance I reckon it was time to tell Stax they need to bring a little more warmth. A lot of folks think the modded SR-007 is the way to go anyway.

Audeze LCD-4
Despite Bob Katz love for these cans, I continue to feel they're just too far out of balance with too little 4-8kHz and too much energy above. Going back and forth between the LCD-4 and Focal Clear I hear the Clear as more natural.

In addition, I do worry about all the driver failures mentioned around the forums. I had a couple go out on me as well...I did have a lot of them go through the lab, but still.

Focal Utopia
It bums me out that I got a non-representative Utopia for my review; it sounded quite different, and better, than the many representative sample I received subsequently, which have a razor sharp peak at 6kHz. Too bad, the Utopias are otherwise a very smooth, resolving headphone. I'd love to see a take two on these, they hold a lot of promise.

Never did get any word back from Focal on the initial sample I got. Hm.

Focal Elear
Like the LCD-4, the Elears have a missing chunk of spectrum between 4-8kHz. But unlike the LCD-4 the treble above is at about the right level, so they tend to be a bit muffled sounding. Lots of good stuff here otherwise, they have dynamic punch for miles.

Being under $1000 (by a buck) I might not have removed them from the WoF, but since the Clear is made by Focal as well, and has those great accessories (cables and case) I just think it's worth spending the extra bucks for the Clear.

MrSpeakers Aeon Flow Open
At $799 I'm not going to apply my rigorous need for tonal neutrality to this headphone; it definitely has a warm, laid back sound. Fortunately, for me anyway, it's a lovely coloration with a character I easily accomodate for. Unfortunately there's a lot of action coming down the pipe at the $500-$999 price points and Aeon Flow Open is certainly at risk. We'll see.

Klipsch Heritage HP-3
I did get a sample in and found the having too much bass and zazzy treble. Beautiful headphone, but at $1199 it's got to have better tonal balance.

Audeze LCD-2C
I did get a very early production sample in that was not in production packaging. I asked for it because I wanted to have it around as I tested the Acoustic Research AR-H1, Advanced Alpha, and HiFiMAN Sundara. The AR-H1 was dispatched quickly, I've got the Alpha in house, and have not yet received the Sundara. Once they're all here, I'll be evaluating them all and doing reviews.

Sorry I couldn't get to the LCD-2C during the sale before Christmas, but I really feel it's most responsible to wait until the Sundara is here. My guess is these reviews will happen after the CES reports.

2018 should be a good year.

Policar's picture

Would you consider the frequency response on the Koss ESP-950 balanced? I think they excel in the mids but they seem bass-light.

Iliketrains's picture

Verrry bass light.

Argyris's picture

I'm happy to see this new stricter policy for high end WoF inclusion. It's time for manufacturers to shape up or ship out. No more tolerance for 6 kHz spikes or other tonal weirdness. Maybe in years past when no single offering even came close to getting everything right, one could make an argument (not one I would personally be convinced by) that it was acceptable to charge over a grand for a product with obvious issues but a few standout performance features. However, now that some offerings near the lower end of the $1,000+ scale are getting surprisingly close to all-around competency, it's not acceptable at all.

I'll put it bluntly for the sake of any representatives of high end headphone makers reading: if your flagship headphone can't in the very least match the coherence, smoothness and general sense of balance of the classic HD 6x0 family (evidently excluding the HD 660S), it isn't worth more than the $285 I paid for my HD 600*, let alone the multiple thousands of dollars we've been seeing in recent years. Treble problems and wonky tonal balance were solved by Sennheiser in 1992 with the HD 580; modern flagships that routinely cost an order of magnitude or more than the HD 6x0 should not have these issues, period.

This isn't a preference issue. There's some wiggle room as to whether one prefers a warmer or cooler tilt to the sound, or maybe a given listener is a basshead and likes some extra low end emphasis (beyond what Harman-like curves prescribe). That's where preference comes in. Abrupt spikes and troughs or broad bumps and suckouts in the midrange and treble aren't part of anyone's preference. They're always audible flaws. Smooth midrange and treble and good balance should be considered table stakes to even dare to charge more than $300 for a headphone, and at over $1,000 I want to see a solid improvement on the HD 6x0 family (e.g. real bass extension, low bass distortion, more durable finish and materials, etc.)

*I'll be kind and not say the $35 combined total I paid for my KSC75 and its PortaPro donor headband, but I absolutely could, and the fact that this much sound is available for so little should give every single headphone maker pause.

南开米饭's picture

the Sundara will not release until June, 2018

Nubbelrn's picture

...the Sundara is selling and shipping

amartignano's picture

Little correction: you decided to expect the tonal balance *you like* in 1000+ headphones.

Phos's picture

Yeah that's basically what this reads like.

kais's picture

I'm not happy with the removal of the STAX SR-009 from the Wall Of Fame.
In my large collection it's the one with the audibly best overall evenness of the frequency response.
The treble has no audible spikes, drops, wiggles, the midrange no honks or other annoyances.
The bass is clear and controlled.
Distortion is nonexistent, resolution close to perfect, dynamics represent what's in the source, soundstage is great, ... perfection!
Depending on the music there could be a bit more level in the bass range, but a lot of tracks sound just right.
As the SR-009 needs his own dedicated amp anyway, bass boost can easily be achieved by any type of EQ (the simplest consisting of a capacitor and two resistors, fully passive) if someones personal taste asks for.

Tyll, maybe you should read your own review again, the SR-009 has not changed since, and all the other offerings have a flaw here or there, at least the SR-009 does serve as a reference for tonality.

hanshopf's picture

have you listened to the Focal Clear then or to the Sonoma? I guess you have not. Don‘t you think you should do this before complaining? In my opinion the Clear is way better than the Stax. The 009‘s tonality has always been flawed (way too bright), cannot compete with the Focal‘s dynamics, needs fancy amping and costs at least twice the price of the Clear.

kais's picture

Me the Clear, the Sonoma, not yet (I'll do soon), but have you intensively heard the STAX SR-009, and I don't mean on occasions like Can-Jam or an hour in a shop, but at home?
Tyll doesn't seem to have it present any more according to his comments in the Sonoma and other reviews, so ...

hanshopf's picture

Yes, I did, for several hours. But it has been very obvious to me right from the start, that the 009's tonality is a matter of taste. I believe that one can safely argue, that it's objectively way too bright. It's resolution might be slightly better than the Clear's. But the Focal's dynamics are in an other league than the Stax's. Likewise it's tonality.
I did not hear the Sonoma, but am not interested, because I do not want to be bound to their DAC. One could even argue, that Audeze offers DSP correction as well, so that the LCD-4 with Audeze's DSP might be superior to the Sonoma. At least one could still use a superior DAC in that case.
I sold Utopia after hearing the Clear. Lost a lot of money, so no reason for me to love the Focal brand. But the Clear for sure is the best headphone I've ever had on my head.

kais's picture

The STAX SR-009 does not sound too bright for me, but the SR-007 sounds honky instead around 600Hz with lots of music tracks, else I could even live with it's lower presence range - a matter of taste.
For anyone interested in the Clear, Massdrop currently releases a hybrid design between Focal Clear and Elear that looks promising, the ELEX. Much closer to the Clear than the Elear, as far as the measurements go, a tad more on the bright side.
Unfortunately not available here in Europe, else I gave it a shot for sure!
With the customs fees and third party cost to get them here the base price of 700$ isn't attractive any more, but for those getting it free shipping...

Martin.'s picture

The amount of times I've wished I lived in the states cause of deals like this...

BrooklynNick's picture

The ELEX is basically an Elear with Clear-like pads. Don't fall for the hype. It is much closer to the Elear than the Clear. It may be a bargain, but it is not a half-price Clear.

John Grandberg's picture
in terms of sound, Elex is closer to Clear than Elear. Yes, the driver is a tweeked Elear, but the result is definitely quite different.
BrooklynNick's picture

So the clear has harsh treble and the same dropout as the Elear? Because that is what listeners and measurements say about ELEX.

John Grandberg's picture
it really isn't
Mihalis's picture

There is no comparison between the LCD4 and the 009, the latter being in a completely different category of performance driven with the right amp (and this really makes a big difference as most energizers are crap). I own both. I also have tried the Sonoma which has poor measurements and distortion issues which is why initially it was presented with a volume that at 5pm was below normal listening level. Yes they try to fix some of the performance with DSP but I dont think they are there yet.

BrooklynNick's picture

Most of those criticism apply to the Sonoma Model One. Expensive, custom amp required (and only made by them), etc. I can't figure out what Tyll likes so much about them. Sure, the tech is kinda interesting, but I found them underpowered and the sound was meh. Not in the same league as STAX especially if you level the playing field and EQ the STAX (the Sonoma Model One amp has built-in DSP).

Mihalis's picture

Agreed. Way underpowered and the reason is that the design can’t take much more power before starting to distort like mad. This can also be seen in measurements. I think it is an error to make these changes over a curve that may be Tyll’s personal preference and to ignore the fundamental issues which are so obvious. This is such an obvious disconnect with reality that one may wonder if it is done in good faith. I see lots of Sonoma ads latel. Disappointing.

BrooklynNick's picture

I agree with everything you said, except about the ads. I trust Tyll to be giving his honest opinion as he has always done in the past. So I don't blame the ads. However, it does give me pause about some of his other recent reviews. It is disappointing since in the past I have generally found his taste to align with my own pretty well, but preferences do change.

Mihalis's picture

Yes that’s fair. I am maybe too suspicious of anyone connected with stereophile. I am a lot more experienced in two channel and there I know for a fact what the game is. I read this site here for the same reason as you, ie measurement based proper reviewing.

Pokemonn's picture

The 009 is too forward. I have never satisfied with them.
The 007 is the way to go.

BrooklynNick's picture

To me, the 007 is too dark compared to the 009. I recommend others hear both before deciding.

Pokemonn's picture

each person's hearing ability and prefences and upstream gears make big diffrence.
it really depend on them.

Pokemonn's picture

I just tried completely different EQ setting for 009. It really works for me. phew!
until today I just couldn't realized that I have hearing loss of treble.
for aged person like me , may need EQing for 009s...

Pokemonn's picture

in the end, I use this EQ setting for 009.
Harman Target Curve = +4.8dB@20Hz, +-0dB@1Khz, -4.4dB@20Khz
I use Boom2 software EQer for my iMac.

amartignano's picture

Saying that an Hd800/800S isn't worth the money because they don't have the smoothness of an Hd580 (which is an absolutely subjective assumption) is in my opinion crazy. There's a reality rendering of the orchestra that no 580/600/650 can reach. And also saying "excluding the 660S" from the smoothness-quality-legend is imho incorrect: indeed, it's only taking Tyll's words as the only truth: to me the 660S is significantly superior to the other 6xx range.

Redacted as stated here, the WOF list became a probably futile little list of what Mr. Hertsens likes, and not a list of equal-quality headphones but with different (and described) flavours among one can choose. I already know I prefer a brighter sound singature than Tyll, if the list only says what he likes, it has no significance.
It's like a restaurant guide without no fish restaurants, because the *only* reviewer doesn't like fish. A legitimate choice, but the list must be named "Only meat best restaurants according only to my tastes".

hanshopf's picture

The Clear is the same price as HD800S, but simply a much better product. If you like it, it‘s fine for you. But to recommend them in 2018 would be irresponsible in my opinion.

reader's picture

Clear is even cheaper by $200. Clear $1500 vs HD800S $1700.