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.

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

BrooklynNick's picture

Given the need for a specialized amp,I think the WoF should add an electrostatic headphone category. Plus, there are several new models of electrostatic headphones hitting the market (from Mr. Speaker. from a small Eastern European company whose name I forget, a lower cost model from HiFiMan, a baby HE-1 from Sennheiser, and perhaps a new uber STAX are all either shipping, announced, or rumored).

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.

maitrishah's picture

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