Year! Hope your holidays were filled with joy and many audiophile presents. I'm writing this in November, but on the day of publication
celebrating one of those turning points in a person's life; my first day of
retirement. Wish me luck as I've been a workaholic since 16 when I started
volunteering in hospitals. Even better, wish my wife luck as I'll be home
driving her crazy.
One advantage will be more time to evaluate
equipment and actually spend time enjoying the system I've constructed over
the past 33 years. For three months though I'll be taking a break from the New
Hampshire winter and living at my house in the Caribbean. We bought the land in
1987, spent the next three years building it by a company that preferred sitting
on the job rather than working, and have gotten to use it for a total of 11
weeks since. Happily it is paid for itself through rentals, so I'll be able
to sit back and enjoy the warmth.
Unhappily, during that time I'll be separated
from my beloved home theater room. As I tend to go through withdrawal after
about three days away from it, I've spent months worrying about how to combat
“audiophillia nervosa" or a nervous breakdown related to “deprivation
separation." Luckily I've found a way to cart my 7 horn loudspeakers, 15
amplifiers, 10 subwoofers and sundry other equipment along with me. Of course,
What made this possible is the Smyth Research A8 Realiser. Through digital signal processing, the unit will match the output of a pair of over-the-ear headphones to the sound of up to a 7.1 speaker system, thus eliminating the “between the ear" reproduction of the sound field typical of headphones. Prior to finding this unit, I couldn't stand listening to even the best headphones for even a short period of time. With this unit, a great set of headphones, a source, and possibly a headphone amplifier, one can almost perfectly recreate the sound of any 7.1 or less system anyplace ac power is available.
To prove the point, and to get the house ready
for February and my wife's plans for an expensive redo of the kitchen and
bathrooms, (there goes my sailboat) we arrived yesterday on the island for a two
week vacation (and meetings with the architect, contractor, bankers, car
dealerships, etc.,) at the Club Med, and am at present sitting on the beach next
to the cabana bar where my computer and Smyth A8 are plugged in and am listening
to the Brahms first symphony on my home system. The sound stage extends from
about five feet in front of me out to the surf and to the left to the “bikini
top optional" part of the beach. What a sound and visual stage! Pure Heaven!
Prior to leaving I sent two of my tube amplifiers for update which may take up
to two months for some reason so I'll have plenty of time to evaluate
So over the next three months I've ordered for
evaluation several headphones and their amplifiers to see which one will
accompany me to the island.
Thus I began looking for a replacement that could fill in the bottom octave to the ears. The problem is, if you think it's tough finding a studio to evaluate audiophile level loudspeakers, try to find one that has any high end headphones. In that case one has to buy, borrow, or rent several units, or rely on reviews. As retirement is approaching, the first option with its expense was out.
So up I went to several reputable web sites, the names of which won't be mentioned as they're the competition, looked at multiple reviews, and singled out three headphones that might fit the bill, the $7000 Stax Sr-009, big brother to my Stax's which can use the same amplifier, the $995 Koss ESP 950 which my wife had given as a Christmas present 15 years ago, and were recently overhauled by Koss, the Audeze LCD 2 or 3, and the Sennheiser HD 800. I had evaluated a couple of Grado headphones previously and, along with my second headphones presently, the Koss, found them to be very good but not equal to the Stax. The Sennheiser's were borrowed from a friend, but after several hours of listening, were found lacking in the ability to reproduce the nuances that my loudspeakers and the Stax's could produce. The Stax 009 headphones were backordered from Japan and wouldn't be available for the reasonable future even to a reviewer, but the Audeze representative was very happy to send me their LCD 2 headphones, the $995 little brother of their top of the line $1995 LCD 3.
While I always go for the high end if possible,
they wished an evaluation of this unit as they had sufficient superlative
reviews of the 3, and guaranteed that it would beat what I had and was extremely
close to the sound of its more expensive brother. I'm a sucker for a
reasonably priced high end piece, so I accepted.
The headphones arrived a week later from their
factory in California, where they produce everything except the wooden body.
They were packaged in a thick cardboard box, inside of which was a very thick
formed plastic travel container which protected the headphones, a black ¼ inch
phono to two mini-XLR cable the XLR side attaching to the female inputs on the
headphone, thus allowing one to use one of the several after-market cables being
made for them. This also allows them to be used either single ended or balanced
depending on their amplifier. Included was a bottle of wood polish to keep the
headphone's bamboo wooden body shiny. What self-respecting audiophile wouldn't polish their headphones on a regular basis?
They are planar magnetic in design and vary from the LCD 3 in having a slightly thicker membrane, fewer magnets, and a different wood for the body. The ear pads and head support are made of foam filled lamb skin, and have an open back to decrease resonances. While somewhat heavier than other headphones I've tried, they are very comfortable for extended listening, one marathon session of mine lasting for over six hours without serious damage except for a flattened butt.
Now on to the important part; the sound! In a word, superb! These are the best sounding headphones I've had the pleasure of listening to both at home and the many audio shows attended. With the signal taken directly out of the Smyth, the bass is tight, full, and significantly more life-like than the Stax. The midrange is clean, being able to add more reality to the Smyth's presentation of my system. Neutrality would be another word that would come to mind. The high end extends out as far as my RAAL super tweeters could produce or I could sense. Over the three weeks I had them, the main system was almost never turned on except to remind me how close the LCD2's came to reproducing the system's sound.
Since all 9 tube amps, 12 channels of solid state amps and five subwoofer amps were turned off, this produced the lowest electric bill this house has had in 32 years. I figured that we saved about $18 to $19 in watts, and maybe a polar bear to boot. Considering that they're less than half the cost of the Stax system, they're a definite steal. Unlike with the Stax headphones, I felt that the LCD2's might be able to come even closer to producing an even more realistic image. While the Smyth Realizer's built-in amplifier is good, it's front headphone jack is a secondary output to its RCA preamp type output on the back. Thus I went back to the web and looked for headphone amplifiers.
Since my last foray about 10 years ago into headphone buying, the amplifiers made only for headphones have multiplied tremendously, selling anywhere for less than $200 to over $6000. What a problem for an audiophile as all have to be purchased by mail, but most do come with a return policy. Three with the highest ratings that weren't exorbitantly expensive were picked out. Two of them were being shown at the Rocky Mountain Audio Festival and wouldn't be available until after that show, but will be reviewed at a later date. But the third company from Australia had a pair immediately available and could be shipped here in five days by FedEx. I'm talking about the...
Audio Soloist Headphone Amplifier
The output will either go to the headphone plug
or the RCA output, depending on whether headphones are plugged in. There are
three different levels of output to allow the unit to be used with just about
any headphone with different resistances and sensitivities. As the Audeze
require more current than most headphones, for most of the listening the maximum
output setting of 4 watts was used.
Unhappily, one cannot use headphones and the RCA output at the same time to run a subwoofer or tactile transducer, but it can be used as a three input preamp, which I didn't try. The Class A circuit is made up of 21 discrete parts rather than using op amps, laid out and hand soldered to the circuit board with great care. Out of the box the sound was good, with deep tight bass besting the direct output of the Smyth, but the midrange and highs were a little bright. The company recommends at least 200 hours of break-in so my OPPO BDP95 player and an inexpensive pair of headphones were plugged in, and the unit was left running a break-in CD for several days.
Over that time there was a slight but consistent improvement with a decrease in what minimal high frequency hardness there was. Hardness isn't actually the appropriate term maybe a little more smoothness would be more accurate. In addition the bass tightened up a little bit more, again taking my headphone's output a little bit closer to what my speakers do in my room. Details such as hall sounds came more to the fore, always a good sign.
As this is the first high end transistor headphone amp I've had the pleasure of listening to with the Audeze headphones, I really can't say anything further, except I could certainly live with this sound at my desert island retreat. Once I've gone through the other reviews of amplifiers, I'll do a summary and final grading. All I can say is that the sound is so good that I've purchase the unit as my baseline for reviewing the rest as the sound is far superior with the Audeze headphones and Burson Soloist amplifier to my Stax and Koss electrostatic units.