HiFiMAN Jade II electrostatic headphone system

Headphone amps and amp/DACs

On the inside, the Jade II uses an ultra low-mass diaphragm less than 0.001mm thick and that is coated with nano-particles said to provide, “an extreme high frequency response and an excellent musical reproduction ability.” Completing the picture is a nanometre-thick dust cover designed to prevent, “dust and other pollutants settling, thus avoiding ensuing distortion caused by electrostatic dust.” The overall design goal, says HiFiMAN, was to create a headphone capable of delivering “highly resolving audio” along with extremely extended high-frequency response with soundstages said to be dramatically open and expansive compared to a traditional ‘moving coil’ type headphone.

The Jade II electrostatic amplifier is a balanced output, solid-state design, which comes as a surprise given that HiFiMAN’s previous Shangri-La and Shangri-La Jr electrostatic amplifiers were both valve-powered units. Compared to those two mega-amps, however, the Jade II amplifier is considerably lighter, more compact, and sports an elegant and attractive minimalist industrial design created by HiFiMAN’s Boston, Massachusetts-based US design team. The amplifier chassis, states the manual, is formed from “aviation grade aluminium alloy” finished in satin black.

HiFiMAN says the Jade II circuit uses a Texas Instruments OPA2107AO high-precision dual op amp “for signal pre-amplification”. In turn, discrete Cascode MOSFET devices power the amplifier’s balanced output stage. HiFiMAN emphasizes that the amplifier uses a high voltage power supply that features an independent power supply regulator. What is more, HiFiMAN paid particular attention to the amplifier’s PCB layout, which was developed, says the manufacturer, with an eye toward reducing “interference hum” thus enabling “a more transparent sound”.

The amplifier provides two stereo pairs of analogue audio inputs—one single-ended (via RCA jacks) and the other balanced (via 3-pin XLR connectors). Also on the rear panel is an IEC power inlet socket and an AC 115V/230V power input selector switch. The Jade II amplifier’s front panel sports a large power switch, a bright power light, two 5-pin Stax-type electrostatic headphone output jacks, a simple push-button input selector switch, and a moderately large, 21-step rotary volume control. In practice, the amplifier proved extremely easy to use while generating a commendably modest amount of heat.

For my listening tests, I was able to compare the Jade II electrostatic headphone with the substantially more expensive MrSpeakers VOCE electrostatic headphone. I was also able to compare the Jade II electrostatic amplifier with my reference iFi Audio Pro iCAN headphone amplifier driving an iFi Pro iESL electrostatic headphone adapter. In short, I compared both electrostatic headphones as driven by both electrostatic amplifiers, which proved illuminating. Here’s what I learned.

The Jade II follows much in the sonic footsteps of the original Jade, in that it offers a carefully judged combination of transient speed, transparency, exceptional midrange purity, superb spatial characteristics, and an inviting quality of natural, organic warmth. If you were hoping for a headphone that emphasizes bleeding-edge, razor sharp transient definition and sub-microscopic levels of detail retrieval, then the Jade II might not be your cup of tea—not because it does not possess those qualities in reasonable measure, but because it does not make them the centrepieces of its musical presentation. So, the Jade II is not about creating hi-fi-centric shock and awe experiences, but more about conveying the vibrant tonal and textural richness of well-recorded music, while also capturing the always-engaging dynamic shadings that help bring music alive. Also, more so than many top-tier headphones, the Jade II provides large, spacious soundstage envelopes that help keep the music from sounding as if it is trapped inside the listener’s head. Several musical illustrations will perhaps help to show what I mean. 

On ‘Zapateados’ from Pepe Romero’s Flamenco [K2HD, 16/44.1], the Jade II presents Romero’s exquisite flamenco guitar, recorded in a richly resonant natural acoustic space, juxtaposed against the striking handclaps and foot and toe taps of an expert flamenco dancer. Many transducers—loudspeakers and headphones alike—turn this track into a hi-fi-centric extravaganza, which sadly redirects the listener’s attention away from musical event and toward a narrowly focused preoccupation with sound quality. The Jade II, however, is different. Yes, it captures textural and transient sounds with exemplary clarity, yet it also captures the varied and subtle dynamic moods and the spatial cues that are so vital to conveying the ‘you-are-there’ sense of being present at the original performance. 

On this same track the MrSpeakers VOCE offers superior upper midrange and treble extension on the rapid-fire guitar passages and the sounds of the reverberant recording venue. The VOCE also delivers slightly more taut and better-defined bass on the dancer’s powerful, percussive foot stamps. With this said, though, I found the Jade II able to hold its own with the far more costly VOCE in terms of conveying the overall feel of the performance. What is more, the Jade II’s natural organic warmth attracts and holds the listener’s attention in a deeply engaging way.

On Mark O’Connor’s Fanfare for the Volunteer [Mercurio, London Philharmonic, Sony Masterworks, 16/44.1], the Jade II does a fine job of capturing the gravitas and sonority of the orchestra’s instruments—especially brass instruments and low percussion. The tricky part about rendering brass instruments effectively is finding the balance point between the natural ‘bite’ of the attack of the horns and the rich, burnished, harmonic ‘glow’ of their sustained voices—a balance point the Jade II found time and again. Similarly, the difficulty with reproducing low percussion instruments is capturing their weight, depth, and dynamic power while at the same time preserving vital textural, transient, and pitch information. Again, the Jade II did a fine job of finding the right balance point, where the headphone’s slightly warmer than neutral tonal balance helped give low percussion the dynamic wallop it should have. Perhaps the best part of all involved O’Connor’s solo violin passage, where the Jade II caught both the incisiveness and the sweet, lilting tonality of the violin.

On Fanfare the MrSpeaker VOCE showed again its superior upper midrange and treble extension, its greater bass purity and power, and its admittedly superior resolution. Even so, the Jade II offered enough of those qualities to be musically competitive with the VOCE, although the more than twice as costly VOCE is undeniably the superior headphone overall.

Finally, on Anne Bisson’s rendition of Pink Floyd’s classic ‘Us and Them’ [Portraits and Perfumes, Camilio, 16/44.1] the Jade II did something wonderful with Bisson’s voice; namely, it captured Bisson's breathy delicacy, her slightly off-kilter inflections, and her uncanny ability to underscore the dark humor implicit in the song’s lyrics. In contrast, the MrSpeakers VOCE offered greater extension and resolution, but at the expense of imparting very faint traces of glare on the edges of Bisson’s voice. Once again, the inherent musicality of the Jade II shone through.

In comparing the Jade II electrostatic amp to the iFi Pro iCAN/Pro iESL combo, I found the HiFiMAN amp nearly equaled the iFi combo on most material, though the iFi was arguably quieter, more resolving, and substantially more flexible. Given that the iFi combo is more than twice as expensive as the Jade II amplifier, though, I think all might agree the HiFiMAN amplifier offers terrific value for money.

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