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.

Pokemonn's picture

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

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.

amartignano's picture

That's the error: it's better for you, but can be the opposite for other people. Is there anyone here that thinks with his own head/ears and not with Tyll's?

hanshopf's picture

I bought the Clear before Tyll's review, so obviously not influenced by it. And no, there is no error on my side. The Clear is clearly objectively better than HD800S. The latter is lacking bass and still has a treble spike, albeit less annoying than HD800, but still annoying. If you do not hear this and are pleased, than it's fine for you. I think, people have fallen for this flawed Sennheiser HD800/800S long enough and therefore should be warned. Too many have fallen for it in the past (me as well...). In case you do not know this: to this day in most studios I have seen (and I have seen some), Sennheiser HD600 is lying around. Not HD800 and not HD800S. Ingenieurs would not work with such a flawed thing that it surly is, but still prefer the much less resolving, but tonally more correct oldtimer. Sennheiser just missed the train for too long.

amartignano's picture

There is no "objectively" at this quality level. If you feel happier believing that your subjective choice is objectively better for all the others, well... be happy. I don't think Sennheiser missed any train, nor their sales rates analyzers do think this. Nevertheless, happy new year for everyone!

hanshopf's picture

Forgive me, but an objectively tonally imbalanced product like HD800 might be subjectively superior to other products, which are objectively less flawed. But it remains a flawed product compared to a product like the "Clear", which is objectively much more tonally correct. If the goal is to make transducers as balanced as possible, than products who are more balanced than others are objectively superior in that aspect.

amartignano's picture

I don't forgive you. ;) YOU think it's flawed, this doesn't mean it's really flawed. As an example, I don't think it is. There is no objectively at this level: moreover, I don't have objective also in my subjectiveness, I change preferred headphone in different days, or because of the different mood, or my different earing (when I'm tired I hear less bass). I go to concert halls and listen to symphonic orchestras on a regular basis, and I play bass clarinet, I have some input about realities or what aspects I prefer to hear in reproduced music (aspects that can also change). Again, if your psiche likes to think that your tastes are objectively correct for all others, I can't really do nothing for this. But in many years of hifi reading, I begin to be tired by people that states "objectively better gear" without understanding that can be different visions, thus giving bad advices for wrong purchases for the particular person. I've said all, the discussion is now sterile.

reader's picture

hd800s excels many cans regarding its comfort. In other areas, it must do better.

amartignano's picture

Uoooo the big word... "outdated"! And even "must" do better! :D there's only one thing that we all "must", sooner or later :p Think that I don't find outdated even cans like Hd424/430/565 for many timbrical characteristics. Love the music, appreciate your beautiful cans without always searching for the flaws, and happy new year!

amartignano's picture

Oh and the best wish for 2018: might we all consider that there's different visions and tastes for quality headphones and be happy headphones passionates!

Wildcatsare1's picture

Why the negativity? My experience is the Clear is a much better headphone than either the 800 or 800s. Superior tone, dynamics, plus micro/macro detail without the shrill treble and honky tone. I sold my modified HD800 a week after the Clear arrived, my LCD3f is probably going to follow, it’s getting zero head time.

As for the WoF, obviously it is subjective, but knowing Tyll’s history in the headphone phenomenon, I take his recommendations seriously. There is no one,,including Jude, who has the experience in this niche.

amartignano's picture

No negativity here, only passionate opinions ;) But you're correct and all this is all not much important.

Wildcatsare1's picture

Yeah, I still love my LCD-3f, even if they aren’t getting much time. Listening preference, in my opinion, is always subjective. The numbers and stats give us a baseline, but in the end it’s what sounds good to your ears.

On another front, I love my Mojo>Clear combo, would like to find a desktop amp, that leans to the Yang (warm) side, that’s not stratospherically priced.

Martin.'s picture

It’s unfair to say “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.” He got a ton of backlash for putting the the Ether C Flow on the Wall of Fame. The irony is that it was precisely because, as he stated, “making the Wall of Fame isn’t about my personal likes or dislikes exclusively”.

No one can claim that they are 100% objective about something, but one can try to be as objective as possible. Obviously there is a subjectivity to headphones and some will experience the same product differently, e.g. Katz with the Audeze LCD-4 and Shure SRH1540, and Tyll ultimately decides what is on the WOF. But I feel he reasonably explains why he includes/excludes/removes a headphone from the list.

“Is there anyone here that thinks with his own head/ears and not with Tyll’s?” Agreeing with someone does not follow that you cannot think for yourself.

mariscosyketchup's picture

We need more people in the world like Tyll, awesome job!

PS: The current revision of the SR-007, called "MK2.9" in the forums is the way to go once you get a good seal adjusting the headband and do the the port mod, it gets even better if you do the spring mod, put a KGSSHV Carbon or a BHSE and the SR-009 sounds cartoonish by comparison. It's time for Stax to kill the debate with a wonderful sounding SR-010 (2018 is Stax 80th anniversary).

DavGerm's picture

Just one question. When I compare the measurement of the Utopia vs. Clear. I cannot see a difference at the 6 kHz peak. Can anyone help?

IkSak's picture

Hi Tyll,

The Focal Elear is now US$789. What do you think of this at this price?

detlev24's picture

It still remains [probably] the best headphone below US$1000 and should not have been removed from the WOF. Additional US$710 for the Clear might not be worth it. The extra accessories are nice; if you need them! A 4-pin balanced XLR cable is certainly not required at its impedance and sensitivity + the unbalanced cables will also be free of crosstalk and will *not* increase THD etc., since the L and R 'ground wires' come together only on the jack at a 'common mass point'. [I hope my English translation is comprehensible.^^]

If you apply accurate EQ to both headphones, differences will be marginal - if audible at all! No need to spend more for the Clear; unless you want the accessories.

If you do not apply EQ, the Clear will be tonally more balanced at an additional cost; which IMO is higher than the accessories are worth it.


detlev24's picture

Let me show you an example with an average calibration profile for the Elear; at Mixed Phase setting - as of Sonarworks: a compromise between minimum and linear phase modes in terms of latency and phase response. [The following frequency response is translated to what loudspeakers measured in an anechoic environment would show.]

BLUE = measured average frequency response (of many samples)
RED = target frequency response [B&K 1974]
GREEN = correction

MAGENTA = corrected/final frequency response

detlev24's picture

The 'Massdrop x Focal Elex' was sold at US$699.99 just a week ago! That is US$300.00 below the MSRP of the Elear; and the Elex is a limited edition mod [less bass, more midrange/presence] with more accessories...

I guess that shows how high profit margins are in this business!

Sinesol's picture

The already little subjective Wof now becomes too much subjective and less value for the us. :(

Pianist's picture

I own and really like the Elear. I see a big problem with it being removed from the WoF, at least at this time. The Elear is currently $785 on Amazon.com. It can also be readily found on the used market for even quite a bit less. I am in Canada and here used Elears are regularly selling for $850-$900, while the Clear is $1900 + tax new with no used pairs in sight... The Clear is also still $1.5k on Amazon.com and there are very few if any available on the used market in the US either if I am not mistaken... So the Clear is basically up to 2+ times the price of the Elear at this time... Way more expensive and I don't consider the improvement worth so much extra money, unless you can afford the Clear new without a problem that is of course (duh lol). But the price difference is pretty huge right now, so if on a budget, a used Elear seems much preferable to me. The 4k dip can be EQ'ed if it becomes too bothersome. Personally, I am OK with the dip, considering how much else the Elear does right - superb dynamics, excellent resolution and speed, great bass extension and control, a very open sound, etc. Moreover, I think it's also a significant step up over the classic mid-fi HD6xx line or the mid priced planars. It's quite a bit of a step up in technicalities over my HD6XX and HE-400i to my ears for example. So it's absolutely worth the money to me and should be staying on the Wall Of Fame just for this reason alone, plus the aforementioned big price gap, at least of this writing, between the Elear and the Clear.

Now, if some time in the future, used Clears start popping up often for, say, around $1k and used Elear prices don't go down much below what they are currently, then sure, the Clear can become a more compelling option over the Elear. However, if used Clears start appearing often at aggressive prices, then I predict that used Elear prices will also go down even further, which again will mean that Elear will remain a great alternative for those on a tight budget... So anyway, I really think Elear needs to stay on the WoF. Such a great headphone. Not perfect, but what is? After all, audio is largely a matter of subjective preferences. Objectively, aside from the 4k dip, Elear is a very technically capable headphone as has been demonstrated through measurements already. One of the fastest and most resolving dynamic drivers - it can be seen on the waterfall plots at SBAF. No, it's not at Utopia or 009 level, but I don't think it's far off knowing the law of diminishing returns.

arthur li's picture

In the review of elear, there is no such criticism of elear's "missing chunk between 4 to 8k". In contrary, Tyll described the elear as having a slightly laid back sound signature (which suit his preference). Tyll has also praised the "smooth clarity" of the elear. Now, Tyll describes the elear as having a slightly muffled sound. That's quite inconsistent.

Wildcatsare1's picture

I can’t and won’t speak for Tyll, but my thoughts are in comparison to the Clear. I know that’s my experience with the Ether Flow, a headphone I loved. Though now when I put them on after the Clear, they sound a bit lifeless.

Ranstedt's picture

I agree with Wildcatsare1.

I take it as the Elear's sound muffled compared to the Clear's. That's what I think Tyll meant.

Sylvanor's picture

Since I agreee with the fact that there was probably too many headphones in the WOF, I wonder...
- Why didn't you keep or introduce the SR-007 MK2 in the WOF, since you prefer it over the SR-009, and it's less expensive?
I'm also one of those people who prefer the SR-007 MK2 over the SR-009 (and I don't want to mod it!) even if I love the SR-009.

- Did you try the LCD-4 with another cable than the one given by Audeze? I recently bought the LCD-4 and, like you, I found there was too much energy in the high treble region, but I used another cable (made with litz wire) and this energy disappeared, leaving me with a very detailed and smooth headphone.

I would also love to read/watch a review from Tyll about the recently released JPS Labs Abyss Phi, since it looks like they corrected many flaws of the original one. I think Tyll could also love the Kennerton Odin, which is now a classic headphone here in Europe, and which has many qualities, with a great upper range.

eric65's picture

I approve of Tyll's approach for his new WoF; more than the technicality of a headphone, the tonal balance, if possible close to the neutral and the regularity of the FR are to be taken into account for high price and pretension headphones.

For Sylvanor, I think listening to the new Kennerton Tror will be better than the Odin in Tyll's ears, especially taking into account this new criterion, that of a better regularity of the FR, close to the neutral.

crazywipe2's picture

Tonal balance is the most important thing in a headphone. It doesn't matter how much detailed is a violin - just to make an example - if his tonality is out of pitch. An instrument should sound how is supposed to be in reality, not a brighter or dark version of it.
Of course, the Wall of Fame represents Tyll's opinion, he owns it, and he has all the right to manage it. His approach is a mixed Subjective/Objective (with the majority of other audio reviewers you got only subjective impressions)
When He talks about tonal balance, He also refers to Harman Target Frequency Response Curve, not only to his subjective thoughts. This Harman Curve is the most advanced study on How a headphone should sound, this is a study, not an opinion.
In a World where 6k headphones are always praised, by most reviewers, as the perfect listening device to my eyes Tyll is the only brave one to recommend a 1,5k headphone on top of all the others. No matter if it will alienate the manufacturer or some fanboy owner. The Goal here is to get a better headphone with no crazy price. This is a huge contribution to the community.

Argyris's picture

That's exactly why I appreciate what Tyll does so much. He's not just a rubber stamp for whatever new hotness comes into the lab in a given week. He's not willing to ignore considerable flaws for fear of being called out either by jilted enthusiasts who blew their wad on something Tyll ends up giving a lukewarm or critical review, or by the makers themselves, who obviously don't like less than glowing reviews when there's money to be made. No, if it's truly egregious, Tyll is willing to call a spade a spade, and this is something we sorely need more of in this hobby these days. Finally putting the foot down on flagships with obvious tonal issues is just the next step in moving away from the "anything is acceptable at any price if somebody claims to like it" attitude that has allowed headphone makers to charge more and more, year after year, for obviously flawed equipment.

I'm not quite optimistic enough to say we've reached a turning point, but as the WoF can attest, there's some pretty good stuff now that, while still more than I'm prepared to spend at the moment, might actually be worth it as a long term upgrade goal.

sszorin's picture

There is tonal/spectral balance and there is tonal accuracy. Talking about the sound of a violin - you meant tonal accuracy ?.

crenca's picture

I agree with Tyll's approach here - a $1k+ HP should have an inherent tonal balance, have TOL resolution, dynamics, etc. etc.

The Elear has all this but only with EQ. With a proper EQ curve applied (you can find examples on the internet) the Elear is a fantastic HP. I think they should print a warning on the box: Do not use without DSP.

Of course, many folks are either unwilling or unable to use DSP - that's fine, don't get an Elear then. The Elear takes to EQ like a duck to water (unlike some other HP's, particularly in the Sennheiser line) and with it is back on the WOF ;)

miko64's picture

Tyll, WoF is to some extent subjective and I agree cleaning up is a good thing. Here my comments
a) Reconsider Stax SR007 for WoF since it is exceptional value for Money and Katz could like it also; I at least do
b) Check out Final d8000, very interesting and imho very good

Johan B's picture

You reviewed both 009 and 007 in a single test. Your superlative comments on the 009 are now retracted on the basis that other people (?) find the 007 better? Did you test the 007mk2 or not? Your conclusions on the 007 are missing in that specific test. Are you going to test the 007mk2 as it is now missing on the WoF.

Johan B's picture

“The SR-009 is a bit bright, and many claim the modified SR-007 is better, and I think the Sonoma Model One has a more balanced and pleasing sound—even though it can't play very loud”. :: so the Sonoma is not as good as the 009 at loud levels? And other peoples modded 007s sound better than 009? But you never tested those?

detlev24's picture

The Sonoma Model One should probably not be on the WOF at all, considering its insane price. Frequency response is better than with the STAXes; but audio fidelity is defined not only by that: distortion and noise should find an equally high consideration - especially in the $1000+ price range! THD+N of the Sonoma system is way too high [see measurements], inducing audible coloration already at moderate listening levels: similar to what ordinary tube amplifiers would do. This is unacceptable for a headphone that is considered end-game.

The truth is, that the STAXes are technically not up to date anymore and the Clear is probably the most balanced headphone offering as of today; but its price should drop.


Jazz Casual's picture

I've taking the removal of the Utopia from the WOF extremely personally. I trusted you Tyll.

tony's picture

I have my own version of the WOF.

But, still, Tyll's WOF has always been Tyll's evaluation.

Tyll's work is our ( my ) "most" important reference.

I value my personal ( not as well informed ) evaluations as being more important. I'm balancing my gear for my purposes.

Bob Katz, as well as Tyll's entire group are probably Audio's most accurate evaluators.

The finest transducers ever manufactured are being reviewed and evaluated right dam here. I'm interested in Tyll's opinion.

Thanks Tyll

Tony in Michigan

Mihalis's picture

They are great performers but how is it that no one here has mentioned how prices were dropped dramatically after a few months (thus anyone who bought retail is getting killed in the aftermarket) and now, adding insult to injury, the Clear comes with more accessories than the 2.5x priced flagship. At least Audeze had the decency of including the cipher cable post facto with their new lcdi4. Why buy the clear now when in a few months Focal will probably reduce its price again by 25%?

KG_Jag's picture

It is clear that the standards here of how headphones are evaluated, and whether or not they make (or remain on) the WOF have changed. They are probably still in flux. Improvement in headphones over the last year or so does not come close to fully explaining these changes. This lack of stability and consistency makes the end results less valuable and reliable as they were before 2017. My read of events is that there will be more adjustments in the standards (mostly unrelated to improvements in headphones that will be released) before Tyll gets back to a more stable--if not entirely objective--set of standards. ...Or at least I hope be gets back to this.

Finally more emphasis should be place of headphones with street prices under $500--perhaps better yet under ~ $300. The cans that have gone essentially unmentioned in this thread. Among other things it will be interesting to see how the shift in emphasis in the current evaluative factors trickles down to quality (and perhaps changing--both now and in the near future) mid-fi and entry level headphones & their reviews.

Junki's picture

I appreciate this change. Tyll's new WoF filters out all the excess and leaves only time-tested legends and truly innovative advances.

This will also be a forcing function for manufacturers to deliver more substance with their headphones to accompany the price inflation we've seen in the industry.