Headphones, etc. - A Baker's Dozen from Munich High End 2016

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Audio,
Headphones,
Earphones and in-ear monitors,
Headphone amps and amp/DACs,
Headphones

Sennheiser HE 1 electrostatic headphone/amp/DAC system

Last August, Sennheiser announced that it was in the final stages of developing an ultra-high-end, cost no object electrostatic headphone system intended as the logical successor to the firm’s legendary—and long since discontinued—Orpheus electrostatic headphone system.

That system, called the Sennheiser HE 1, includes an exotic valve-powered electrostatic headphone preamp/DAC housed in a Carrara marble chassis atop which is affixed a proverbial ‘black box’ with a motorised lid in which is housed the HE 1 headset and signal/bias cable. Interestingly, the HE 1 electrostatic amplifier is a hybrid valve/solid-state design where the solid-state section of the amplifier—a class A MOSFET design—is actually fitted within the ear cups of the HE 1 electrostatic headset. 

The headset features 2.4μ-thick platinum-vaporized diaphragms with equally distinctive and highly non-resonant gold-vaporised ceramic stators. Completing the picture are “99.5% silver plated OFC signal cables.”

The HE 1 system claims ultra-wideband frequency response of 8Hz to 100kHz, with what Sennheiser says is, “the lowest distortion ever measured in a sound reproduction system: 0.01% at 1 kHz, 100 DB SPL.” The price of the system has been quoted at a number of different figures, but a fairly safe estimate would be about €50,000, give or take a bit. HE 1 systems will be in continuous production from mid-2016 onward, but with quantities limited to about 250 systems worldwide per year.

Apart from price, the only other drawback to the HE 1 system is that it is very difficult to get an audition time slot. I tried at this years CES show and was finally able to get a 15-minute appointment at Munich (which I needed to share with another listener). Does the HE 1 system live up to all the advance hype? Some of my more jaded colleagues think it does not, but candidly I think they’re wrong. In my much too brief initial listening session, my initial impression was that the HE 1 was one of the most accomplished, refined, and beautifully well-rounded headphone systems I’ve ever heard at any price. Even if you don’t have—and perhaps never will have—the HE 1 system’s asking price, I encourage you to go hear it, just to experience what Sennheiser can do when it pulls out all the stops.

 
Shure KSE1500 electrostatic universal-fit earphone & KSA1500 portable electrostatic headphone amplifier

Shure claims its spectacular KSE1500 is the “world’s first electrostatic sound isolating earphone system” and it’s true. Shure has managed to fit a very tiny, miniaturized, full-range electrostatic driver within the confines of the earpiece of a traditional universal-fit earphone. In fact, so compact is this new ‘baby electrostat’ that at first glance you might mistake it for one of Shure’s more traditional high-end earphones such as the SE846 or SE535—until you note that, as a matter of necessity, it comes with its own compact electrostatic headphone amp/DAC called the KSA1500.

I gave the KSE1500 a brief listen, but was not able to find a set of ear tips that were a good fit for me, so that I was unable to reach any solid conclusions about the KSE1500’s sound, other than to note its richness of detail and superb transient speed. For obvious reasons, a proper follow-up listen is high on my list of priorities. The complete KSE1500/KSA1500 system sells for €3,000 (or, depending on who offers the quotation, €2,999).

Smyth Research Realiser A16 headphone surround-sound system

Smyth Research is a firm working actively to create a very high-quality, DSP-driven, surround sound system for headphones, where the firm’s Realiser A16 processor seeks to do four things:

  • Measure: The system measures the in-room performance characteristics of known-to-be-good loudspeaker-based surround sound systems as perceived by a seated listener.
  • Model: The system models the speaker-based system’s performance characteristics as rendered by a specific headphone (or pair of headphones, as the A16 system can accommodate two headphones at once).
  • Process: The system processes incoming audio streams for surround sound playback via headphones, enabling users to…
  • Listen: Smyth recognizes that the proof always comes in the listening, so the final performance verification step for the A16 system involves doing direct, A/B comparisons between the speaker-based system and the headphone system.

And the results are most impressive. In a Munich demo, I found the Smyth system was able to re-create—with headphones—a remarkably close facsimile of a high-quality speaker-based surround system. To preserve realism, the Smyth system even provides a small head position/orientation sensor that can be attached to the headphone’s headband strap. In this way, if you should, say, swivel your head to the left, you hear exactly what you would hear if turning your head to the left whilst listening to a speaker based system. Interesting, don’t you think?

You might think all this would be merely a home theatre-related gimmick, but it’s not. In a brief demonstration, the Smyth system proved adept at handling multichannel music records (arguably as well if not better than the speaker-based system, because—let’s face it—headphones are not subject to room anomalies in the way that loudspeaker-based systems inevitably are). In fact, on music the Smyth system created the sort of seamless, enveloping, and three-dimensional listening experience that many audiophiles crave. Naturally, the system also has terrific promise for high-end gamers looking for the ultimate 3D sonic experience.

The Realiser A16 can model up to 16-channel surround systems, so it is compatible, says Smyth, with Dolby Atmos, Auro-3D, DTS:X, and all legacy Dolby and DTS formats (or, it can be run directly from 116-channel line level inputs, if desired). The Realiser A16 will launch soon on Kickstarter at a projected price of USD$1,500.
 

Stax SR-L700 Lambda-series electrostatic ‘earspeakers’

Stax is rightly regarded as a legendary manufacturer of electrostatic headphones, with many decades of experience in the product category, and at this point the most legendary Stax model of them all is the flagship SR-009 model, which in my home country (the USA) initially sold for about USD$5,250. The performance of the SR-009 is exquisite, so that its lone drawback would be that potential daunting price (USD$5,250 is more than many are willing or able to spend on headphones).

But this precise why it was so exciting to see Stax launch its new SR-L700 Lambda-series electrostatic headphone, since the L700 uses driver technology directly influenced by the design of the might SR-009, yet sells for a much more manageable €1,700. In a series of brief listening sessions, I found the sound of the new SR-L700 closely paralleled that of the top-of-the-range SR-009, which suggests the SR-L700’ should be very well received in the marketplace. The SR-L700, like all Lambda-series models, features comfortable, rectangular ear cups fitted with leather-clad ear pads. Depending on one’s tastes, it’s conceivable that some wearers might even find the SR-L700 even more comfortable to wear than the SR-009, which is saying a lot. Watch for an upcoming Hi-Fi+ review.


 
Ultrasone Tribute 7 limited edition dynamic-type headphone

The German firm Ultrasone was one of the first to offer ultra-premium, luxury, and high performance, dynamic driver-equipped headphones, which in Ultrasone’s case are also typically limited edition model. The first such offering from Ultrasone was the Edition 7, released in 2004, which was regarded by some as an instant high-performance classic.

The original Edition 7s are by now, of course, long gone, but if you missed your chance to own a set the first time around the very good news is that at Munich Ultrasone announced a new limited edition headphone called the Tribute 7, where Ultrasone promises that, “the sound reproduction of the Tribute 7 is identical to that of the earlier Edition 7. Just 777 of the new Tribute 7s will be produced and it is a fairly safe be that more than half of those will be snapped up by the vibrant high-end headphone market in Asia, so if you think you might want a pair you would do well to talk with your local Ultrasone dealer right away.

How do the Tribute 7’s sound? I felt they were one of the three best new headphones I heard at Munich, with a sound that is at once Germanically crisp, articulate, and precise, yet also possessed of vibrant natural warmth and a certain accessible quality that leads me to think the Tribute 7’s might be terrific for long-term listening sessions.

The Tribute 7 feature carved-from-billet aluminium ear cups, 40mm titanium-coated Mylar drivers with motors featuring Neodymium magnets, an Alcantra-covered headband pad, Ethiopian sheep leather-covered ear pads, and—importantly—the headphones use Ultrasone’s proprietary S-Logic Plus technology and MU-metal shielding to ULE standards (to prevent potential problems with long-term exposure to electromagnetic radiation). The Tribute 7 is priced at €2,499.

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