Katz's Corner: The Great Headphone Shootout - Part 4

On Monday it was raining lions and tigers all day, but four of the faithful eventually arrived, between an hour and two late. Except Mitch Corbin, musician (Suzy Bogguss, David Bromberg, Byron Berline, David Grisman) and project studio owner, arrived early. That was a good thing, because I gave him a solo audition. When the four others arrived, they each had a headphone to check out and shuffle around. Mitch stuck around to learn everyone's reactions and schmooze for the evening, and a wonderful time was had by all.

Mike Chafee (acoustician, system designer, manufacturer's representative) and Shilpa Patel (Engineer, certified Pro Tools instructor and consultant) could not attend the Monday meeting, which was also a good thing, because the group of four each got to hear a headphone without a wait. Shilpa and Mike visited on Tuesday, and I'll report their reactions in a little bit.

KatzCorner_Ep4_Photo_Sluts

Here's a photo from the shootout.

In addition to the Stax and the three Audeze, we occasionally threw a Sennheiser HD600 into the mix (a familiar reference) and shuffled headphones as well as headphone amplifiers. In many cases we played the same track several times until everyone got to hear all the major headphones with that track. We played much of the same material I used in Part 3, as well as a piece which Aaron Gandia recorded and the following gems, all good acoustic performances, while the Slutz took copious notes:

"You've Got Me", from my 15th Anniversary remaster of Rebekka Pidgeon's seminal audiophile album "The Raven". I transferred this album using my custom tape head and electronics from the original 15 IPS Dolby SR master tape. This is available from HD Tracks at 176.4 kHz and its derivatives. This is the first time this album has been heard with full dynamics. The sound is bigger, much more impacting than the original CD release, which was made by reduction from our ADC at the time, and some of the peaks had overloaded. But the tape retained the full analog headroom. Be sure you download the 15th anniversary remaster. We listened reducing the 176.4 to 88.2k in JRiver because the Prism Lyra DAC is limited to 96 kHz. It retains 99.999999999% of the sound of the 176.4. If you hear differences they are just as likely to be the performance of your DAC at the particular sample rate than any conclusions about the rate itself. Turn it up: By necessity this master is lower in level than the original CD, in order to retain the peaks which had been previously lost.

Andy Gonzalez's "The Body Acoustic" on Chesky Records, the 24/96 from HD tracks. We played track 1, "52nd Street". This gorgeously recorded piece includes muted trumpet, piano, percussion, bass clarinet and a big, fat Latin bass in a spacious complementary acoustic environment. Kudos to Nick Prout, who took over my reins as Chesky's recording engineer. If you like thoughtful combo Latin-influenced jazz, this is a must pick, suitable for audiophiles and just plain music lovers.

Editors Note: Ha! Good choice, Bob. This track is one of my reference tracks. Great space, great dynamics! And Bob Mintzer...good stuff.

Alejandra Robles, lovely Mexican folk singer. We played "Angelitos Negros", mastered by yours truly, the 24/96 master, from the album "La Morena". It's got her contralto voice, strings, deep percussion complemented by upright bass, fiddle, electric guitar, much more. You can purchase her songs as mp3 directly from here, or AAC from iTunes, and I see there are 4 CDs left at Amazon.

"April in Paris", from the album "2 The Max" by Bill Allred's Classic Jazz band, produced by Charlie Bertini, recorded by Andy DeGanahl, and mastered by BK. Although multimiked, this eight-piece combo in the traditional swing band tradition has been lovingly captured with beautiful dynamics, good stereo image and natural warmth. We played the 24/96 master, but the CD sounds great and can be obtained here.

"Blackbird", from the album "Silver Pony", by the sultry jazz singer and Grammy-winner Cassandra Wilson. Produced and recorded by the great John Fischbach (Stevie Wonder and many more) and mastered by me, this album has wonderful ambience, great playing, led by Cassandra's golden contralto voice. We played the 24/96 master, but the CD, which sounds great, is available at the usual stores.

Time for the Verdicts
While we adjusted listening levels simply by ear, when you average multiple listener's reactions they (hopefully) gain credibility. Our reactions are not blind, the conclusions were reached listening to a wide range of music and all the listeners were quite serious about their comments.

Amp Reactions
Even though none of us ever drove the Burson beyond about 90 dB average during the test, which is an idle task for this amplifier, it gave the impression of having great power in reserve. Like a Ferrari F12 idling at the pitstop, you sense its raw power, ready to take off. The Burson has that authoritative quality. Everyone preferred the Burson amongst all 5 amplifiers. They also agreed with my assessment that the Burson is warmer, more full-bodied than the Schiit, also wider with better separation, and clearer; the difference is not subtle. I mean "warmer" in a nice way, not thick or mushy, with good detail. One participant thought the Burson is so musical it must be a tube amp, but of the "good kind".

The Benchmark and the Prism headphone jacks measure well but our panel felt they are not in the same league as the Schiit or the Burson. Basically the dynamic amplifier rankings went: Burson, followed by Schiit, Benchmark and lastly, Prism. We'll consider the Stax amp as a package inseparable from the headphones.

Conclusions: Don't trust a THD reading.... THD measurements seem to have no correlation with perceived sonic quality (no surprise). But THD can be an early warning of a defect or issue in the amp's design or performance over time, so they are still useful, and we still should settle the low frequency issue that I measured.

Headphone Reactions
There was little concensus amongst my listening panel. They seem to polarize in two camps, X lovers and 3 lovers. All agreed that the Sennheiser HD600 is showing its age and much outclassed by the later models. Most frequent comments about the Sennheiser: "too soft" or "veiled". That's not to imply that "brighter is better", but simply that the tonal character of the HD600 is overly dark.

It's sad that the review X's leaned slightly to one side by about a dB, but I compensated for that often in Acourate Convolver. This did not seem to sway anyone's opinions, but some of the engineers in the group noticed when a center channel vocalist was half a nose away from center. I notified the Cable Company about this issue so they could send the phones back to Audeze for a checkup.

Charlie Bertini (Producer, Musician, Applejazz Records) - "I like the LCD-3 and the 2 with the Burson. The X sounds like compression, seems to compress the space. The 3 is rewarding, satisfying. The 2 is neutral but not as satisfying. I don't want to listen to the X after hearing the 2s and 3s. The Stax shows some masking of some notes. I prefer the 2 and the 3 to the Stax. The Schiit is fine for what it is and beats the Benchmark amp."

Dave Brown (Engineer, Producer, Studio Owner) - "I only heard the Stax on one thing. On Paul Simon, on the 3s the bass seemed more even. I prefer the Audeze to the Stax. The Xs weigh too much. I like the 3s over all others. The 2s are not as detailed as the others, however, they are excellent references and pleasure phones."

Aaron Gandia (Engineer, Mixer, Loudspeaker Designer) - "On the Benchmark, with the 2s and 3s I want to EQ the 5k down. It's too harsh. On the 3s with vocals, the low end was better. With the Xs I hear better transients, but the top end gets somewhat lost on the Benchmark. The 3s sound best on the Benchmark. On the Schiit, the sound got wider and more open.

I don't think Aaron got enough listening time on the Burson. After we got together and compared notes, I pointed out to him the bass accuracy issue. I urged him to compare the bass of the 3s and Xs using a recording which he mixed and knows. We returned into the room for a relisten and at that point Aaron was reconsidering and now he prefers the Xs for their accuracy, at least in the bass region.

Greg Begland (Equipment Designer, Loudspeaker Designer, Audiophile): "I prefer the Xs. I like the Schiit. Only the X reproduces the kick drum well. The Xs open the air. Vocals sound a little sibilant on the 2s and the 3s, but not the X.

Mitch Corbin - "I like the 3s."

On Tuesday Charlie had taken his Schiit amp and 2s back home, but S.P. and M.C. got to compare the Xs, 3s and the Stax.

Shilpa Patel - "Overall I prefer the sound of the Xs. I think they have a true frequency response, and everything is clear. The 3s are a little harsh sounding when listening to the female singers. So maybe it's the high frequency response of the 3s that gets to me. I just know the Xs to my ears seem to be the most even across all the different songs we listened to."

Mike Chafee - "I definitely prefer the presence of the 3s to the Xs and the Stax."

As you can see, we have quite a variety of opinions. I feel comfortable to say that the X's are probably more tonally neutral than the 3s compared to the reference loudspeakers and using known masters, but many might consider the Xs to be too laid back, depending on your personal preferences. Different strokes for different folks. And that's why Audeze makes three models of headphones, oops, excuse me, six or more now! In my fifth installment we'll see how the phone which I purchased rates and then shake up the whole landscape.

COMMENTS
TMRaven's picture

I prefer the 3 to the X for the more robust presence region. The X is too laid-back and not neutral in that region. However, the X has a more addicting bass response than the 3 to me.

tony's picture

Your panel seems typical of the audio hobbyists I've known thru the years; Planer lovers.

Especially at $5,000 for a complete system.

The 3s? or the X? is the decision I see being made at headphone meets.

The Abyss, "New" Either and OPPOs are possible contenders but the Audeze is the "safe-bet" Gold Standard.

I sort of agree with your group except I need low mass devices and I'm a ( closet ) life long dynamic lover ( voice-coil driver ) , I have owned and enjoyed all types including Electrostatic systems.

An important "missing" is the report about greater musical detail being revealed ( or not ) by any ( or all ) of these transducer devices. You did comment about this in your earlier Stax writings.

A couple of months ago I did the test you just gave your friends, I selected an Audeze 8 Open as a finalist. I also loved the HD600 on the Bottlehead and the complete HD800 w/matching Amp.

I came to feel the Audeze as an "impulse" purchase and came to realize that the HD600s high impedance requires a stradegy somewhat different from low impedance devices.

As a result of you doing this work and writing about it, I've had a close look at the Burson stuff. I am tempted, I may pop for the new Conductor. I'll be writing to Australia for a couple of details, seems like a nice ownership experience type of device and a nice outfit.

Tony in Michigan

Bob Katz's picture

Tony, this panel has no axe to grind re: planars. They simply fell in love with the Audeze during the shootout. As far as "detail", most of my panel are not "audiophiles" per se. They are mostly professional mixing, mastering engineers and producers as well as musicians. So the word "detail" is not part of their regular vocabulary. It's not often part of mine, either, because most of the time I equate "detail" with "exagerrated high frequency response" and it often seems to be inseparable from that. However, in a later episode I will be discussing "detail" again in regards to an interesting discovery I made about the Stax.

I don't consider my X's to be considerably "detailed", but overall they have a very pleasant tone and quite a nice impact. Perhaps "detail" involves that upper octave above 12 kHz? The X's are missing some of that "air" and I think "air" and "detail" do go together.

Bob Katz's picture

I'm not a fan of an obvious rising high frequency response or exagerrated presence, but I do feel that the upper octave above 12 kHz is very important and is under represented in all the dynamic headphones I've tried, but my Stax Omegas do have that extension. They are not quite linear, however, and do have a bit of a rise, but it's so gentle as not to be disturbing, kind of like a good moving coil cartridge. And as you will see in an upcoming episode, I have a palliative for the rise or droop or other issues.

tony's picture

Oh dear, I didn't think anyone has an AXE or was trying to grind.

Your group are Music Professionals, not Neurotic/Psychotic Audiophiles.

Detail, hmm, not something you lads discuss?, you must already have all the detail in your gear to the point of only noticing a lack or absence as a problem needing immediate attention. ( one constantly reads about regular citizens discovering musical details never heard before in a familiar piece of music…)

X's nice tone. Now, there you have it, nice tone is understandable ( for me ). I guess I consider these transducers to be something like singing voices:

a bit grainy as in hm, Bonnie Rait

or as a Velvet Fog as in Mel Torme

or as in beautiful clarity as in Joan Sutherland or Luciano Pavarotti

All this discussion is in the Subjective Range, I accept your panel's opinion and even kinda agree with their findings.

I'm sensing the importance of the lowest frequencies being discussed and evaluated and perhaps the deciding factor or at least a dominant factor ( considering the other requrements to be "in-place").

Thank you for writing back and clarifying things for me.

And thank you for a glimpse into the Professional world where you lads have to keep abreast of equipment as a matter of business imperatives, I didn't realize headphones could be sonically comparable with the High Level Equipment of a Mastering Studio. ( one normally see's stuff like the Fostex T50-RP being worn in Studio Settings )

Your group falling in Love with Audeze is typicall of audiophiles as well. Betcha they're getting 50% of the $1,000 and up Headphone sales here in the States.

Thanks again for writing back,

Tony in Sunny Michigan ( a bit sore from Springtime gardening work)

ps. I have a keen eye out for your #5, I hope you keep going with this as a Serial kind of project.

Bob Katz's picture

Dear Tony...

.... just an unfortunate choice of words in response to your words "planar lovers". I just meant that the panelists didn't come in endemically being planar lovers but I think most of them came out being Audeze lovers. One of the panelists actually used the word detail, we discover... in the blog episode #4.

Onward and upward.

zobel's picture

I see that the term was coined in 1951 in "High Fidelity" magazine.
Most sources define audiophile as 'someone with a great interest in high fidelity sound reproduction'. Obviously the sound in question would be music. By this definition, you and your friends making a living producing the highest fidelity sound on recordings and spending time and money listening to these high end, expensive headphones on high end expensive gear would definitely classify you as audiophiles. If not, then I don't understand the meaning of the word. You can be as passionate about music as anyone and also be enthusiastic about the gear to hear it on. Does being an audiophile mean being someone who doesn't love music? Of course not.

Are we just talking about those who have gone off the deep end in blind pursuit of the ultimate high end audio when we use the term audiophile? Probably what we have in that case is an audiophool. Most of us are aware of the wretched excesses that the industry has foisted on deep pocketed suckers who continue to buy the lies and ridiculous pseudoscience. Those have been called audiophools.

What do you say? Tyll describes himself as an audiophile. I think everyone reading this blog is an audiophile. It is just the strange connotation the word has acquired recently, that associates "audiophile" with "rich, ignorant fool who doesn't care about music, only gear", that makes it unappealing. I guess the same goes for "Stereophile". We should define these words. What say you Bob?

Bob Katz's picture

Dear Zobel: If I wrote, "I'm feeling happy and gay today," the other meaning of "gay" might come up unwittingly in people's minds. The meanings of words are always evolving. I think "audiophile" in the traditional sense (from the Greek "lover of audio") is pretty safe for the time being even though some writers choose to use the word pejoratively. By implication an "audiophile" probably is also a music lover. I certainly am! I don't think we even have to define this word at Innerfidelity since there are already 97 pages at Wikipedia defining words suffixed in "phile"! http://en.wiktionary.org/wiki/Category:English_words_suffixed_with_-phile

You're passionate about the meaning of the word "audiophile". I guess that makes you an audiophilephile!

zobel's picture

Never knew what a coprophile was, I'm not one, no shiit! There are a lot of twisted sexual deviant type of philes there! I'm your typical gynephile, but definitely not a spankophile. Well I'm getting off topic here. \

Found an interesting homophone though; audiophiles who record music digitally create more audio files. Those audio files, if of high quality, create new audiophiles.

thune's picture

Ed: What schiit amp? What stax headphone? ... Note:reader shouldn't have to reference previous posts to know the gear being talked about.

RazrLeaf's picture

While it would be convenient for the reader to not have to reference previous posts, it's meant as a 4 part continuation, so it's not an unreasonable assumption.

But I'd agree that they should at least mention that it's the Magni in the first mention in the article, before going back to calling it the Schiit.

Bob Katz's picture

I suggest thune read episodes 1 and up. I've done a lot of repeating for those who did not read earlier episodes, but I did not repeat the name of the Stax or the Schiit. I'll have to think about whether it should be necessary to repeat the model and name, since these episodes are a series that should be read in order to get the whole impact. Think of it like a long review article. And all the blogs are right here. If you jump in on episode 4 without the preamble you'll miss a lot. Why didn't you ask about the bass response issue I alluded to? Why didn't you ask which model Burson? It would be too much to cover. I also mentioned my loudspeaker system and amplifiers.... much too much too much to keep repeating.

I think the best way to solve this gear issue would be an equipment-used summary box that floats with all the articles. When Tyll gets round to revising the website structure, ok guys? Thanks for your understanding.

Equipment summary:

The Stax I have are the 007 Mk 2, also known as the Omega Mark II. They are a very new pair, only a couple or so years old. Driven by a custom KGSS amp, which is the way to go in my book. The Schiit amp was the original Magni, the $100 model, borrowed from my friend Charlie Bertini for this shootout. The loudspeakers are the Revel Gems, coupled with a pair of JL Fathom F112 subwoofers. Amplifiers are Lipinski. The entire system is linearized with Acourate Filters run in Acourate Convolver. Louspeaker preamplifier/controller is the Cranesong Avocet. DACs are the Cranesong Avocet DACs for the loudspeakers. And for the headphones various DACs were under test. I've settled for a Logitech Transporter (an excellent DAC) to drive the Burson Soloist dynamic headphone amplifier, and a Forssell MADA to drive the Stax headphone amplifier. Interconnects are all custom-made by me with Mogami AES/EBU cable used for analog interconnect. Connectors are Neutrik gold-plated or Canare, treated with Stabilant 22A. Did I miss anything :-).

zobel's picture

I do have a question Mr. Katz, You stated that it was raining lions and tigers. Did you meet in Florida? I can certainly see how that might make it difficult for people to make the event, after all, those are very large carnivores.

Here in Montana, it never rains cats that big. It rarely even rains cats and dogs here, and those domestic animals don't even compare to those wild cats. Once a year, at the end of the college football season, it rains Bobcats and Grizzlies. The Grizzlies usually end up squashing the Cats in what is called "The Brawl of the Wild". Those are big carnivores, but the Griz are obviously more dangerous.

I heard that there is some vegan Bob Katz in Florida. We would be so much safer if it were raining those. Only the vegetables would be at risk. If it were to rain any type of big cat, that would be the one I would pick.

Obviously I have way too much time on my hands. I'm recovering from some heavy duty surgery and am spending a lot of time on the computer. I really appreciate having your articles to read here. I also enjoyed your book.

The result of the shootout is interesting. It really points out that we all hear differently, and have different objectives and tastes in what we want in sound reproduction. I'm sure you are more than casually aware of individual preferences since you are dealing with people and there pet sounds constantly in your work. I have to say though, you are very good at what you do. You have really good ears and know how to use them.

thune's picture

I've been skimming all the parts. Even if I read them back and forth, no way I'm going to remember gear details from 3,5, or 7 weeks ago.

Since the article was serialized, the floating summary would be nice. But even without that, a few editor clarifications "schiit [magni]" or stax [sr-007 mk2]" at the first mentions of gear in part 4 would have saved me the frustration of hunting/searching for the information from previous parts.

Bob Katz's picture

I'll save Tyll the trouble of editing that and try to define my equipment described better in further episodes. It's a quandary that ultimately will not be settled until within a year Innerfidelity's website and forums will be upgraded. In the meantime, I'll try to remember to put an equipment summary in the first comment of the first article in a series. Now back to our regularly scheduled curmudgeonry. :-)

tony's picture

This is something of an On-going Saga. Chapter 4 builds on the three previous Chapters. At this point we are working with a group of "givens" much like a scientific expedition might or should build on the previous discoveries.

Reading this adventure from it's beginnings is worthwhile.
These are Audio Professionals bringing High levels of Music Industry experience to our often & mostly subjective journalisms.

Here we have Tyll as "Editor in Chief" presenting us with a group of technical contributors the likes of Joker, Grandberg, Steve G. and now Bob Katz. Where else can we have this level of expertise? , where else can we bring this ocean of detail into perspective?, where else can a person find "firmer" ground to base a prospective purchase?

And: these people seem to respond by writing back notes to You personally.

This Site "inner fidelity" reads different that the other sites, thank goodness, it's well written, definitive and accurate. If you prefer the "Sizzle" you probably won't find much of it here or "out of context" evaluations & conclusions.

disclosure> I own the little Schiit amp being described in this story, I was surprised it made it into the mix being reviewed, it isn't anywhere good enough, the Schiit Asgard 2 is good enough though, in fact my Asgard 2 is the equal to the finest electronics I've ever owned ( Electrocompaniet Ampliwire ).

Still, my discussions with the Burson combined with this Katz story may result in my owning a Conductor.

I'm a bit worried that Electronic Devices built south of the Equator have the electricity swirling around kinda backwards.

Maybe the Ed. can straighten me out on this, I've heard he's from down there somewhere.

Tony in Michigan

RazrLeaf's picture

Based on part 3, I assume that the Schiit amp they refer to in this one is the first generation Magni.

MattTCG's picture

Just wondered which Burson is being referred to. Sorry if I missed it.

Bob Katz's picture

Please look under Equipment summary in this comments section. Thanks to the other poster who has definitely exposed an issue with a continuing blog and equipment being described. I'll try to put an "equipment summary" in the top of a comments section the next time I do a review!

Seth195208's picture

..in this. Smart guy. Good choice, Bob!

Bob Katz's picture

Yeah. Greg is smart. He lurks here, too. I think he lurks everywhere!

studiotech's picture

I'm watching you....

AstralStorm's picture

Next time, toss in Hifiman HE-6 and/or HE-5LE to the test as well. Abyss too. And of course Sennheiser HD800.
For fun, also add a set of advanced in-ears, say, Logitech UE900 and Hifiman RE-600.

Volume matching by hand and ear is not good enough. Use your measurement gear to match using pink noise, C-weighted. (or 500 Hz sine tone)

Bob Katz's picture

There is no measurement which can match perceived loudness of different headphones which have different frequency responses. Even 500 Hz pink noise would be invalid. Please read the episodes of this blog.

However, matching different amplifier outputs by measurement for use with the identical headphone, is valid.

The only way I could get any of those other cans would be with a manufacturer's loan or perhaps if the Cable Company had those in stock.

AstralStorm's picture

It's not meant to match perceived loudness exactly, just a ballpark estimate, for which wideband noise with psychoacoustic (e.g. C) weighting suffices.

Or the old method of matching on a sine tone, letting loudness elsewhere fall where it may - but that fails on very sculpted FR headphones.

The idea is to remove the human factor, allowing to match the amplifiers precisely.
--
Pity about the lack of headphones, I had hoped Tyll could nicely ask for more models.

Bob Katz's picture

It would be nice to remove the human factor. But it is the human factor which is the very reason why attempting to match different headphones by any form of measurement will fail. Please see the explanation in my blog.

Lunatique's picture

Bob, just wondering if you have any plans to check out the Stax SR-009? It's Tyll's pick for the world's best headphone on his Wall of Fame. Expensive as hell, but I'm sure a world-class mastering engineer can afford it. :)

Bob Katz's picture

Oh my.... I waited 40 years till I could find spare money to get the SR-007 and the KGSS. Maybe someone would kindly loan me an 009 so I can do a review/shootout?

Bob Katz's picture

I asked Tyll if he had done a shootout of the 009 vs. the 007... he said, "no." That would be a very interesting comparison.

writersperhour.com's picture

Had downloaded the 15th anniversary remaster - thats great!
Thanks for your work)
Amazing article!
http://writersperhour.com/

writers per hour

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