Wednesday, June 7, 2017

Focal Elear

In 2016 with the launch of the Utopia and Elear, Focal officially entered into the Hi-Fidelity sector. Having missed out on hearing the Spirit One which was a stable among the Mid-Range closed back headphone options, I was very eager to get a chance hear the Elear for myself.



The packing is... enormous. Infact it was so large I was unable to take a proper picture of it in my tiny little Photo Box. The grandeur that accompanies un-boxing the Elear is befitting of it's sound! 


It sit's quite tall, and upon opening it has a fabric strap to keep the lid upright.                                                                                   The entire interior is padded in foam offering excellent protection during shipment and un-boxing.  The strap ensures that you don't accidentally let the lid fall onto the headphones themselves. The Focal team clearly made every effort to protect the Elear during shipping. Striving to minimize any damage once the headphones have departed France to their new owners! 







The headphone itself while built ruggedly, is a bit creaky. The metal gimbals connect to the headband with what appears to be a plastic mechanism. Overall the whole design is very stiff, inflexible and a little noisy. I do, frankly, expect more from a headphone at this price point. 




Unlike the headband assembly, the ear pads are soft and firm. They were very comfortable and I had no fatigue when wearing them for long periods of time. Each of the pads has precise even seams and no inconsistency with size. 




While comfortable, the headband does feel a bit cheap. It is composed of plastic and covered in some sort of faux-leather like fabric. From a design standpoint, the headband is comfortable, evenly distributing the weight of the drivers. Though it feels very brittle in the hands. 



Attractive and functional, while I would prefer a more premium material, the adjustment mechanism is very smooth. It has a solid click and holds the drivers in place. This piece, while plastic, does not feel as brittle as the headband it's attached to. 


While not the most ideal place to put Left & Right indications, the 3.5mm input jacks are very solid. Being the most important part of the build, these do impress. The  massive OEM cable fits in nicely, and the jacks themselves are very solid and have no wiggle to them even while supporting the weight of such a massive cable. You're also able to use your own 3.5mm terminated cables as well, Focal has done an excellent job ensuring such a crucial part of the assembly is well made. 

Specs Frequency Response


Measurements From Superbestaudiofriends.org
  • 40mm Transducer 
  •  15Hz-25kHz Frequency Response
  • Sensitivity: 103dB @ 1KHz, 1mW
  • 26 Ohm Impedance 
  • Rated Power Input: 30mW
  • Maximum Power InputL 50mW
  • Detacbale Kevlar OFC Cable
  • Gold Plated 3.5mm jacks
  • Weight: 260 Grams without Cable

The overall sound signature of the Focal Elear is both very neutral and laid back. An while it has excellent resolve with a smooth relaxed sound, it won't hide audible compression in low-res files. The Elear is an absolute joy to experience, it brings excellent dynamics and beautifully voiced transients to your music, it even introduced me to a few new details in my favorite songs. 

Starting from the bottom, there is an audible mid bass hump present. While it compliments some genres, it takes away from others. When listening to classical music, the Elear would often present timpani drums with excessive boom. Such over emphasis in those large drums often made busier passages featuring them a bit crowded. The hump does add good heft and weight to percussion and acoustic instruments, and thankfully, the Elear is quick enough that its over emphasized bass does not bleed heavily into the mid range. I prefer a more linear response at this price point, but a touch of fun pairs nicely with the Elear's smooth resolve and low distortion.

The mid range is both smooth and very dynamic, with a wonderful timbre and a very relaxed sense of presence. Regardless of my source, I found myself drawn into the music. It's been said, "the soul of the music is found in the mids." While I personally prefer the drier more tactile sound of my Hifiman HE 4, I can't deny how comforting and relaxing it was to just listen to the Elear. Having a headphone with both a laid back and very well resolve mid range was a first for me. However, there was a noticeable lack of presence for many instruments.  While I do prefer the mid range of the Elear over my HE 4 on almost every genre during my first few days, I found the Elear too laid back and weak sounding for metal and other high energy genres. An after living with the beautiful softer sound on the Elear for about a week, I started to miss some the excitement and tactility I get in the mid range of my HE 4.

High end extension was quite good, and the smooth beauty of the Elear continues upwards from the mid range. I found many of the metallic percussion instruments to have a refreshing sweetness to them, such as bells, chimes, tambourines and the like. Again though, that sweetness comes at the cost of aggression. High hats, tom-tom and snare drums lack a bit of edge and snappiness to them. The slower, more fleshed out mid range really detracts from percussion in high energy tracks. But for Jazz that touch of sweetness really pairs nicely with airy ethereal percussion tracks. 

While it lacked air and depth compared to my HE 4, the Elear was phenomenally black. While the sound stage was more intimate and crowded than I like at times, it's super low distortion and overall black background allowed a lot of detail to shine through. A faster headphone isn't always better in every situation. On my system, the slower but blacker Elear introduced me to details on quite a few of my test tracks that I hadn't noticed before!   

Overall, after a having it for little over a week, the Elear proves to be one of the most resolving relaxed sounding headphone I've had a chance to listen to! While it's not my personal preference, and I think there are better sounding options,  what I do REALLY like about the Elear, is unlike the ZMF Atticus a similar sounding closed back or my HE 4 the polar opposite open back, the Elear sounds... quite similar out of both my NFb10ES2-> Project Ember, as it does straight out of my LG v20. Yes, there's better resolve and definition within the sound stage out of my home rig, but it was impressive right out of the phone as well. 

I think for the people who just want a headphone, paired with a very basic dac/amp the Elear is appealing, it's a very solid entry point into Hi-Fi, especially if you don't want to have to work to build the "perfect" synergy. The Elear gives an engaging but well resolved sound that rewards upgrades, without punishing the owner for using entry level source or amplification. 















Wednesday, May 24, 2017

Meze 99 Neo


After an enjoyable week with the 99 Classics, I’m very excited to get to revisit the exceptionally balanced and versatile house sound of Meze!  Made of more modest materials, the 99 Neo offers a fun twist on the great sound of the Classics without the luxurious wood cups. An frankly, really like the black and chrome aesthetics of the 99 Neo over the wood and gold of the classics. It has a slick contemporary vibe about it.

As always, while I am in no way affiliated with nor being financially reimbursed for my thoughts of the Meze 99 Neo, you can pre-order them right from their web site here!


The 99 Neo arrives in clean professional packaging. It's box is easy to open and features a magnetic flap to keep it closed. With a soft felt lining to keep the headphones cushioned.


Even cooler is the semi-hard shell that Meze includes with the 99 Neo. The semi-hard shell is the perfect size for the 99 Neos, and zips up easy. I had no issues tossing gently into the passenger seat of my car. It's the perfect balance of both form and function.



It even includes a little mesh cable for the detachable cables.


with even more soft felt to protect the headphones inside their shell. I really do like those little consistent details, and around this price point I like to see a few extra accessories come with a well built headphone. 

Speaking of build, the quality is top notch on the Meze 99 Neo. The pleather headband is simply comfortable and I had no problems with getting a good fit, nor any discomfort. 



The ePads are equally comfortable and the fit is simple, I will mention though some have noticed a drastic change in sound based on how well they seal. It has been reported that with a proper seal, these are very bass heavy... how ever with a "broken seal" they have a much more even sound. For better or worse, I apparently never got a true seal. I experienced a more balanced bass response throughout my listening. Maybe, there is some secret ritualistic fitting motion with my hands I'm forgetting to do or I just have a goofy shaped head. Either way in my week I never felt they weren't sealed properly. They sat evenly on my head, without excessive pressure or heat.



The gimbals are strong and sturdy. At no point during my listen did they ever creak, squeak or make any kind of audible noise. The headphone as a whole is well assembled, and feels sturdy in the hands. Best of all, just like the 99 Classics, ever part of the 99 Neo is serviceable and replaceable! Peace of mind and reliability like that is priceless in our modern age of disposable technology.



An best of all, that textured glow on that black ABS Plastic only compliments the shine of the zinc alloy hardware.

But packing, design  nor build are what's most important, the real question is how do they sound? 




Specs Frequency Response

  • 40mm Transducer
  • 15Hz-25kHz Frequency Response
  • Sensitivity: 103dB @ 1KHz, 1mW
  • 26 Ohm Impedance
  • Rated Power Input: 30mW
  • Maximum Power InputL 50mW
  • Detacbale Kevlar OFC Cable
  • Gold Plated 3.5mm jacks
  • Weight: 260 Grams without Cable


I found the overall sound of the Meze 99 Neo to be a warm neutral. With wet mids , a pleasant bloom in the bass and well extended sparkly highs.

Speaking of bass, I found it to be quite warm. Good extension and no humps, though there's a touch of audible distortion depending on what your listening with. For me, out of my Project Ember II, I didn't hear much of that distortion. Switching to my Pico Power it was a little more obvious. Still, my nitpicking will not be as obvious to those of you who will be living with these, enjoying your music! An music, is what the Meze 99 Neo Compliments. The bloom in the bass response adds a pleasant fullness with Jazz, Rock & Roll and Hip Hop. It didn't do as well with big percussion like Timpani drums, or Electric Bass solos. The bigger drums tended to sound a little bloated, and with a electric guitar solo there was a touch too much audible distortion and reverb. Again, I doubt most of you are going to be listening to a 3 minute Neo Classical Electric Bass Solo.

The transition from bass to mids is smooth, there is some bleeding but again it's not intrusive. Having a slight forward focus on the low mids, I found both male and female vocals to flesh out nicely. Guitars, both accoustic and electric, had a good edge and bloom to them. With a touch of wetness and a relaxed decay.

I enjoyed the top end the most on the 99 Neo, plenty of detail sparkle and air! With neither harshness or sibilance the 99 Neo has excellent top end extension. It pulled a lot of familiar details from all of my favorite tracks, such as the distinct and very quiet gong at the opening of So What to each and every breath taken in Igor Levit's Goldberg Variations, Track #1 BWV 988 - Aria with 30 Variations. 




However the Meze 99 Neo's strong point isn't micro detail or an amazing sound stage, but rather it's relaxed and versatile sound. It pairs easily with many different sources and with both local lossless playback or lossy streaming! It's not at all picky about what you hook it up to, but it scales nicely with better gear. Noticeable improvements are within the sound stage as you scale up, with both my at home and portable set ups it resolved left and right channel imbalances without to much difficulty and presented a modest sound stage overall with good air in-between the instruments. While nothing about the sound stage and micro detail were breathtaking, nothing was obviously flawed or claustrophobic. Good sound was consistent, regardless of source.

What the Meze team have done, is bring a versatile, comfortable and durable headphone to a crowded market. One with a modern contemporary styling and a sound signature that really lets you relax into your music. An that's what I like about it, very much a simple to own, simple to use enjoyable headphone!


Finally, if you'd like to read more check out the HD 25-1 ii vs Meze 99 Neo comparison here on Head -Fi

Sunday, May 14, 2017

Fleasbaby Hybrid Maple Sleeved /Black Limba Cupped Magnum V7

Totally one of a kind, and built around the Magnum V7 Dynamic Driver. This is a hand built headphone by Fleasbaby of Head Fi. With the popularity of Grado, there arose a wide selection of drivers mounted and assembled into Grado style headphones, to the point that there is a community built around experimenting with the different drivers them selves and the wood cups they are housed in. I my self, have had the chance to hear quite a few, including a Senn Grado built by JoeDoe housed in Cherry Wood as well as an Alessandro Music Series MS1i in Walnut.  In addition to my own Nhoord Red V1.

What makes these headphones so much fun is the individuality that each one has, as every part is sourced individually according to the tastes of the builder. They are truly works of Art, painted with metal, wood and wires.

These are my first built by Fleasbaby, and I'm really impressed the overall look! The brown leather headband, and cable visually compliment the Maple Sleeves. Additionally, he's assembled these flawlessly. There are no creaky hinges, no flimsiness gimbals, and almost no plastic.

In terms of use, the Magnum v7 driver does benefit from a dedicated amplifier. I was able to use them at moderate volumes on my LG V20, but the sound gained much more authority and control when switching into a dedicated amp.

The overall sound on these was fantastic, very neutral with a midrange sweetness and very little decay. They sound a little like a Beyerdyanmic DT 880 fused with a Grado RS2E, controlled bass, very clear imaging and amazing tone. The overall timbre is dry but natural, it's presentation is brighter than neutral and it has a very neutral overall sound signature.

In truth, I found them to be very transparent so much so that I used them to review JDS Labs The Element. 


With many of my solid states, the timbre proved to be too dry. The irony being, that a drier sound was my aim with those units! But having had them so long with my own gear I forget just how dry they are. 
Though when I paired it with my Garage 1217 Project Ember II  running a new production Electro Harmonix 6SN7EH the timbre was perfect! The Ember II brought the mids forward a little an added just enough body and extra decay into the mid range to keep all of the texture, but smooth out some of the roughness.

What resulted was sheer perfection in the mid-range. An aggressive edge, paired with quick decay and a smooth shift in sustain. I found that in many tracks this Magnum V7/Ember II combo had a better presentation than my Hifiman HE 4 out of my NFB 10ES2! Where as the HE 4 has a dead center neutral presentation, the Hybrid Maple Sleeved /Black Limba Cupped Magnum V7 had a slight forwardness to the mids. As such, it brought focus onto many of the little details in the midrange. Such as the trumpet and sax performance within tracks such as Miles Davis So What and David Chesky's Transcendental tripping. While my HE 4 also presented these same details, it didn't compliment them as well as this Magnum V7 did when pair'd with my Project Ember II.  

Amidst my love affair with the mids, I did find extension on both ends of the spectrum to be excellent. There was some sub bass roll off that was only audible with Electronica, other wise the Hybrid Maple Sleeved /Black Limba Cupped Magnum V7 had a taut low end, with generous texture and power. It wasn't boomy, nor flabby, didn't ever linger too long or bleed into the mids. While it didn't quite compare to the power and weight of my HE 4, it matched it perfectly in natural timbre, decay and transients.  I found them to be airy on the top end, with a nice splash. Though, with just a solid state amp, the top end and upper mids can get very harsh almost scratchy. Out of my Project Ember II, the highs kept a lot of energy and sparkle with good decay. Best of all there was no loss of micro detail when switching from a solid state amp to a hybrid tube. 

In truth, I was a little smitten with these! They were astonishingly beautiful to listen to with my Project Ember II,  they will remain by far one of my favorites. 





Saturday, May 6, 2017

Oppo PM3


I'm not usually one to pick up headphones from a cellular phone company. So when I heard that Oppo had launched a planar magnetic headphone... I gave it a listen. With every intent to laugh at their failure...

Thankfully, I wound up eating my words. As the Oppo PM2 sounded amazing! While I wasn't a fan of how dead neutral and almost lifeless it was... I couldn't ignore how flawlessly it performed with every genre of music and every source in my collection.

Fast forward to now, and after hearing about the PM 3 countless times. I decided it was time to give it a listen.

An truthfully, I'm shocked at how well Oppo transitioned from an open to a closed back planar magnetic! Even more shocking is the price, as of this writing you can purchase the PM 3 for around $399 new or $300 used.

Back when I was looking for a nice closed back, the Mr.Speakers Mad Dog modded T50RP was the newest sensation, I got a pair... hated them with my Tube amp and Sold them, they were around $350, next I tried the AKG K550 used for around $250. They sound amazing! But the comfort was horrible, and the sound was prone to changing any time you moved your head... so they too were sold.




What makes the Oppo PM3 a game changer, is how easy it is to own an operate. Unlike the Mad Dog it doesn't need a lot of power, and unlike the Akg K550, it doesn't sound anemic when you blink.


While they aren't quite as small  as my Sennhesier HD 25-1 ii, their relatively small size and fold-able ear cups give them the edge in portability . With the removable cable, you can easily walk around with these around your neck. Something I often did as a college student, though I had to either carry a big bag with me, or try to manage balancing a big pair of dynamics headphones, with cables poking out of my pockets. Thankfully, those days have ended for my-self and for the market.

Thankfully, the Oppo PM3 is equally comfortable and easy to carry. Their big soft pleather ear pads didn't have any issues with sweat, even in the thick heat of summer. The clamping force was enough to get a good seal with my glasses on and keep them in place as I moved around. I spent a day at work with these and had no problem tuning out my co-workers and screaming manager. Sadly though, many pens were vaulted at me that day... Non the less, between the excellent comfort and amazing isolation I often found myself really escaping into the music! 

The Oppo PM3s  have a luxurious in the hand feel, and a very solid click to the adjustable solid metal headband gimbals.  I guess my only real complaint would have to be with the Headband, compared to everything else it did feel a little lack luster, but that's just me nitpicking. Other wise the build quality is exceptional. 

Driver Specifications
Driver TypePlanar Magnetic
Driver Size (Round)55 mm diameter
Magnet SystemSymmetric push-pull neodymium
Frequency Response
In Free-Field
10 - 50,000 Hz
Long-Term
Max Input Power
500 mW according to IEC 60268-7
Pulse Max Input Power2 W
Acoustic PrincipleClosed back
Ear CouplingCircumaural
Nominal Impedance26 Ohm
Sensitivity102 dB in 1 mW



Numbers are nice but they don't really correlate to audible performance, so to put it short, the PM 3 sounds amazing. I've seen many recommendations of it lately, and it's obvious to my ears why.

Going back to the PM2, I can honestly say I hate it. It sounded AMAZING with everything, but was so utterly boring... thankfully the PM3 is equally as multi talented, but does have some unique flaws that really add to it's character!

Sadly, my listening was cut a little short this time around, as my iBasso PB2 died on me during my last listening session. Non the less, my biggest problem with the PM 3 was timbre. It's a little dry and uneven, it's dark presentation and fairly neutral sound signature do mask some of it's weirdness, but non the less I found it to have a some upper mid over emphasis. With Jazz, Trumpets can often sound a little grainy and the release is a little lax. In tracks with a powerful vocal lead, trailing notes were often over emphasized. They tended to stay around a little to long, the same can be said when enjoying a single pianist. A portion of their playing has a beautiful tactile attack, with a very fast decay and release, but then other notes don't quite have the same tactility nor speed.

Aside from that, these sound amazing. The bass has a lot of power, and remains very well textured and taut. Low and central mids, also have a nice fullness to them most of the time. I really liked the top end too! While it wasn't as sparkly as I'm used to,  the darker top end shifted the focus away from high hats enough to let the mids sing a little more in genres like Rock and Jazz. Finally their sound stage is phenomenal. While listening to the very same pianist amidst that wonky timbre was a shift from the left to right channel. As he moved across the keyboard the sound did follow him. Just a small shift in favor of the left or right channel. and while that was only a small detail I found it to be really cool! It's not something I noticed on any other headphone aside from my HE 4. I found  many of those little surprises it's in imaging during my week with them. Compliments of their amazing isolation and unique presentation.

It's no slouch with detail either, in addition to those amazingly fine imaging shifts, I found no lack of micro details. From the weird gong noise in So What, to every breath in Igor Levit's Aria with 30 Variations, the Oppo PM3 continued to impress me!

All in all, the Oppo PM3 is an incredibly immersive headphone! Well built, it's super easy to carry around and by far one of the most comfortable headphones I've worn in a while. Plus it's easy to drive and voiced beautifully.  It's a headphone that has a unique but easily adaptable sound signature, that makes it a real pleasure.












Wednesday, May 3, 2017

JDS Labs The Element





From the humble cMoy Bass Boost, to the polished Element. JDS Labs has really grown over the years! When I got my Beyerdynamic DT 880 in the summer of 2013 my humble little Fiio E6 was not enough, digging through the threads I came across the cMoy Amp. Built into an Altoid Can and sold for right around $60, I immediately snatched it up just because of how cool it looked. Well fortunately for me, I grabbed the JDS Labs cMoy with Bass Boost, it was my first real hi quality portable amp. So I have some blood with the guys at JDS Labs, as I spent a lot of time emailing them after getting that amp, and every time they were happy to answer my questions, and even offered me a sweet upgrade that fit my needs. Fast forward to today, and I'm happy to say that same level of quality and visual cool factor are present in their flagship amp/dac The Element.


The Element feels solid in the hands, the power and gain buttons have a nice click to them. The USB input doesn't wiggle either, it sits nicely. Best of all, the volume knob is HUGE and very smooth. I had no issue's making fine adjustments to my volume as the knob has a nice heft to it. My only gripe is the 6.5mm headphone jack, with some of my smaller 6.5mm plugs there's a little wiggle at first. My Audio Technica W1000X 6.5mm is my heaviest and most luxurious. Gold plated and seated in American Cherry, it was the only 6.5mm jack to have a very solid and sturdy feel when plugging in and out of The Element.



AMPLIFIER PERFORMANCE

·         Frequency Response 20Hz-20kHz+/- 0.1dB
·         THD+N 1kHz, 150 Ω0.0009%
·         IMD CCIF 19/20kHz 150 Ω0.0004%
·         IMD SMPTE 150 Ω0.0005%
·         Noise, A-Weighted-108 dBu
·         Crosstalk @ 150 Ω-67 dB
·         Output Impedance0.1 Ω
·         Channel Balance+/- 0.56 dB
·         Max Continuous Output, 600Ω140 mW (9.4VRMS)
·         Max Continuous Output, 150Ω505 mW
·         Max Continuous Output, 32Ω1.1 W
·         Peak Output Power, 32Ω1.5W
DAC PERFORMANCE
·         Frequency Response 20Hz-20kHz+/- 0.15dB 
·         THD+N 100 Hz -0.15 dBFS0.0023%
·         THD+N 20 Hz -0.15 dBFS0.0016%
·         THD+N 10 kHz -0.15 dBFS0.0019%
·         IMD CCIF 19/20 kHz -6.03 dBFS0.0011%
·         IMD SMPTE -6.03 dBFS0.0012%
·         Noise A-Weighted dBu 24/96-102 dBu
·         Dynamic Range (A-Weighted)>112 dB
·         Linearity Error -90 dBFS 24/96-0.02 dB
·         Crosstalk -10 dBFS 100K RCA-100 dB
·         USB Jitter Components 11025Hz-113 dB
·         PCB Stackup4 Layers
·         Maximum DAC Line-Output, 100K2.10 VRMS
The Element has a basic set of input and output features, nothing special. I'm not a huge fan of having the gain button on the back out of sight right next to the power button. Thankfully I never shut my off accidentally. It's layout is simple though, spaced nicely and easy to take advantage of.




Overall, I find my self very satisfied how The Element is assembled, and I love the design! The volume knob looks great and feels good, the placement of the 6.5mm works well with the visual design, and the glowing ring during play back is the icing on the cake for me.



I had an excellent week with The Element, and during this time I paired it primarily with a Magnum V7 Driver, mounted in Black Limba housings, sleeved in Maple. Sadly, this beautiful headphone isn't mine, but I found it to be amazingly transparent and very easy to drive. Hence forth, I did my usual listening with this headphone, as opposed to my HE 4.

Power wise, The Element boasts a peak of 1.5w per channel, with a sustained output of 1w per channel. While ample enough power for the newer breed of efficient Planar Magnetic Headphones, like the Oppo PM3, The Element did not drive my HE 4 very well. It got me to a loud listening level, but really lacked any low end authority. Compared to my iBasso PB2 and my Audio GD NFB 10ES2, The Element sounded very weak with the HE 4. Which is to be expected, the earlier Planar Magnetic headphones, tended to lack sensitivity and be very power hungry. That said, I really loved listening to it with the Dynamic Magnum V7 Headphone.

Thankfully, many modern Planar Magnetic Headphones, such as those sold by Oppo, Hifiman's and Audeze are easily driven by The Element.

I found myself most impressed with the Dac Portion of this unit, as the overall sound was warm, smooth and detailed with a very good natural tone through most of the spectrum. It pulled out all of the details I'm accustom to hearing in my Audio GD NFB10ES2, the only draw back was the overall sound was a little diffuse. Good width, but height and depth weren't as discernible. Still, while it fell short compared to my HM 901 and Audio GD NFB 10ES2 in this regard, it was a clear step above my Behringer UCA 202 and my Hifiman HM 601's internal amp and line out to my iBasso PB2. It performed exceptionally well within it's price bracket.

The Element has a nice sense of dynamics, moving from louder to quieter passages quickly and naturally, It has a very wet sound overall, with a nice emphasis in the bass and a good fullness in the low and central mid range. I really loved the sound of the double bass in Miles Davis So What, as well as the beautiful tone in Igor Levot's Goldberg Variations.

What The Element does really well, is bring a natural warmth to a lot of the amazingly detailed but often dry and cold headphones, such as the Superlux HD 668B, Beyerdynamic DT 990 and Audio Technica AD 900X.  It offer's an amazingly well designed small foot print, with beautifully simple visuals. It's easy to use, easy to own and easy on the eyes, a lot like my first JDS Labs amp! Bringing with it  good detail with a warm natural sound  The Element is a very elegant convenient solution for any one looking for an all in one.

Check out my deep dive into JDS Labs The Element, here on Head fi!




Sunday, April 23, 2017

@Upstairs Audio In Columbia SC

To start I'd like to thank David @Upstairs Audio in Columbia for being such a gracious host, this was a first for me. I've never had the chance to look around a real high end audio store before, nor get a chance to really listen to some top of the line 2 channel speaker set ups before. I know I was really excited, and probably a bit of a burden, non the less David was more than ready to let me spend a little time with quite a few of their speaker set ups and get a chance to do a brief listen through their Grado product line. 


Here's their case, they sold everything form the SR 60E right up to the RS2E and the PS500E. I had my Hifiman HM901 and iBasso PB2 with me along with my Nhoord Red V1 for comparison. This is by no means a review, but more of my initial impressions with each headphone! 

SR 125E

Tone of each of the first 3 SR series headphones is pretty consistent, each move up the ladder brings a better bass quality. With the SR 125E having the best bass presentation. I settled on the G Crush pads in the end, with those pads I found a sound similar to my Nhoord Red V1, fun bass with a warm forward midrange, and a nice sense of top end sparkle. The biggest loss in the SR125E from my Nhoord V1 Red was depth in sound stage, but at around half the price I felt these were still a great entry point for any one curious about the Grado Sound! I also listened to the SR60E with the L Crush pads, and I honestly felt that they and the SR 80Es are also a good place to start. The biggest difference being that my Superlux HD 668B left me more impressed than either of those did.


PS500E

Wow, these had an abundantly aggressive forward sound. Out of the line up that I had to try, these had by far the MOST exciting sound. I also preferred them with G Crush Pads, I found them to add a nice sense of space to the PS500E along with a more balanced presentation of it's very aggressive forward mid range. The bass was very solid, a good step up from my fun Nhoord.


Most impressive of all was the Grado RS2E, I enjoyed the best with the L Crush Pads. There was really no comparing these to my Nhoord Red V1, they had a more intimate mid range with an equally spacious sound stage. A tighter bass, with better top end extension and detail throughout the entire presentation! By far, these were phenomenal to listen to with my HM901 & PB2 combo. It was a bit hard to put these down that day as well, as they had a dynamic quality to them similar to my HE 4 but without the need for a high output amplifier, nor the bulk. While I'd imagine that compared directly to the HE 4, the RS2E wouldn't be as impressive, just by it self it was beautiful to listen to, That's what impressed me the most, to have a beautifully dynamic spacious presentation, without the bulk and weight of a full sized headphone!

My time with the Grado's was short lived, as I also wanted a chance to hear the Planar Magnepans they had set up! 



I used my Hifiman HM 901 as a source, into their Rouge Audio Cronus. The team their did a great job placing ECC 82 tubes into their pre stage! The Maggie 1.7s I listened to were phenomenal, they offered me the same quality of sound that my HE 4 has, but being speakers with a more palpable presentation. I can feel the low notes of the Cello in my legs, my arms and my chest, and the weight of the shifting notes of the sax against not only my ears but across my face. These like my HE 4 can really raise the hairs on the back of your neck. 

The MMGs pictured next to the bigger and more impressive 1.7s were also pleasant. They offered a similar presentation that the Grado RS2E did, except it was room filling! A great point of entry for speakers I think, and something I could certainly see my self owning.  The MMGs are just big enough to fill up their building with a very balanced natural sound,  while they offered little to no tactility they were just pleasant to listen to, something that I'd appreciate while cooking or hosting guests! They didn't suffer from having as powerfully defined a sweet spot as the 1.7s did. 



I ended my time with David by listening to the Maggie 3.7s, Powered by a pair of Rouge Audio M180 mono blocks, these were by far the most natural sounding set of ANYTHING I've yet to hear. David and I sat at the back of a well lit room, and enjoyed some music sourced from my HM 901, and I heard details in my music that I was not familiar with! In particular, the breath taken by pianist Igor Levit as presented in the Goldberg Variations album, was a sound I'd hear before on my HE 4... but only the Maggie 3.7s presented it free of the lingering decay of his playing. For a brief second, he paused took a quick breathe and began again. And going back to hear it on my HE 4, sadly that breathe did not stand out as naturally as it did on the Maggie 3.7s, it didn't sound as... real! 

So, having a new sense of what top of the line sounds like, I returned home, really in awe of both the impression those 3.7s left with me as well as how beautiful the Grado RS2E sounded. 

Saturday, April 15, 2017

The SuperDuper Superlux HD668B


Available for right around $40, the Superlux HD668B is hands down my favorite entry level open back headphone. As some one who started out with a Beyerdynamic DT 990, my cost of entry to the world of audiophile headphones ran me right around $250. That was for both my headphone and the little amplifier I needed to power it properly. What makes the Superlux HD668B so amazing, is that it offers a similar sound as the DT 990, clean, clear and wonderfully detailed without sacrificing bass, for significantly less money AND without the need for an amplifier! 

You can purchase here on Amazon for $39.95



Specifications

Drive Type: Semi Open Back
Frequency Response: 10-30kHrz
Sensitivity: 98 dB SPL/1mW
Maxium Power Input 300mW
Impedance:  56 Ohm
Weight 7.8oz (222 grams)
Cable: Removable 1M & 3M 
Plug Adapter: 3.5mm to 6.5mm (1/4 inch)



The Superlux HD 668B comes in very simple packaging. Cardboard box, with the brand and product name on the front. Specifications are listed on the back side, and the left panel has depicts what is included inside.







Accessories include a 1M and 3M female to male 3.5mm TRS along with soft plastic cloth carrying bag. Given the cost, I'm very happy to have the addition of the adapter and two cable lengths! 







The design is simple, reminiscent of AKG, and more importantly it fits almost every one. I've never personally had an issue with the wing system, though I've owned a few Audio Technica Headphones myself so I'm used to it.


A detachable cable, and easier to power driver make it easy to pair the Superlux HD 668B with a variety of sources. I've enjoyed it with my LG V20, my Audio GD NFB10ES2 and even my New Nintendo 3DS. With each, the quality of sound and total volume was beyond sufficient. For music play back I've primarily used my HM 601, and I will be using that as my primary source for the sound portion of this review.

I also purchased a KetDirect 4.5ft BlueCloth cable terminated to a right angle 3.5mm, I happen to prefer a right angle 3.5mm for my needs and if you need something different you're free to upgrade and swap cables how ever you see fit!





With a $40 cost, I'm satisfied with the build quality of the HD 668B, the plastic is sturdy with some flexibility to it.








The wing system bends and allows the cups to place themselves just over the ear, and the ear cups also flex and rotate to further help with the fit.









My only qualm with the HD 668B is quality control, sadly my first pair had a very loud resonance on the left driver from around 230-250hrz. I simply returned that one and repurchased another pair from amazon. Thus far I haven't had any problems with the replacement.










On the plus side, the pads are also removable and easy to swap out! I've yet to change mine out, but doing so does offer changes to the overall sound, so for this review I'm using the stock pads.


I find the stock pads to be plenty comfortable, even in the heat and humidity that's common here in the south eastern United States. Being semi open, the headphones do block out some central to higher frequency noise, things like fans and traffic. However you can still hear people speaking, vehicles and the rumble of heavy to light machinery. I've walked around my house while cleaning, or working with no issues. I've also spent some time at the gym with them, and while the sweat from the pads was problematic, the lack of noise was not. I was able to focus on my music, while still having enough audible awareness of those around me.



Sound

For the purpose of this review, I paired the HD 668B with my Hifiman HM 601.

The overall tone of the Superlux HD668B is Cold and Dry, I find it's presentation to be very Bright and the overall sound signature is a fun neutral. Measurements show that it has a slight v shape to it's frequency response.

I really love the bass of the HD 668B because it gives a wonderful speed and texture to a variety of drums. It even stays true to the power of an electric bass and the warmth of a stand up bass. My favorite moment with them, was finally getting to really HEAR the bass line in Metallica's The Shortest Straw, in addition to some intimate fret action added into one of my favorite bass solo's. Synth Sub bass lines are the only draw back to the HD668B bass presentation in my opinion. I enjoy the extra speed and hardness that the HD668B has to it's bass response.

The mids are very dry, however out of my HM 601 I found a wonderful timbre to many brass wood winds. Trumpets, the sax and even flutes all had a very life like presentation, trumpets maintained a metallic edge without sounding tinny. The Alto and Tenure Sax both had excellent body and bite. The bright presentation of the HD668B also presented the quick breath taken in-between each note. It is problematic with stringed instruments. Heavy Metal riffs had a nice crunch, but not real bite to them. Acoustic guitars, while having great timbre in the lower notes, had a very uneven sound overall and the same can be said for almost all stringed instruments. The harmonics of many of those instruments were lost in the overall presentation of the HD 668B.

Top end clarity is another pleasurable quality of the HD 668B, high hats, cymbals and the brightest guitar solos all have a wonderful sense of clarity and air. While some may find the treble to be too hot, or too bright, I really do like the shimmer that the HD668B brings, really makes you feel like you're walking on air.

Sound stage presentation is very wide, but lacks some depth. Left, right and center separation are excellent and though it lacks depth, the Superlux HD 668B holds you more or less equidistant from each instrument. On tracks with a very strong sense of depth it is audible, but it is by no means top of the line.

It's lack of depth is often overshadowed by it's amazing mirco detail or transparency, it's a headphone that will certainly add a sense of atmosphere and ambiance to your music. An let you really hear EVERYTHING.  With the Superlux HD668B the devil, is certainly in the details! Good or bad, the Superlux HD 668B brings detail, if it's captured, chances are you'll hear it. This is also true of the equipment that you pair the HD 668B to, my HM 601s warmth helped to improve the tone of the HD668B, it softened a very stiff bass, and helped balance out the low to central mids.

In conclusion, the HD 668B is an incredibly transparent and fast headphone. While it's a tad drier than neutral, it pairs very well with a lot of entry level source and amplifiers, so chances are you'll probably not notice a lot of what I have,  and best of all it's $40!!! So not only is it a total steal for this level of transparency, but it's also a fun headphone to own! There are so many ways that you make little adjustments to how the HD 668B sounds, from the cable you use, to the pads, to your source, to your amp, and if you own tubes I'd imagine it would be a blast to listen to tubes with! All in all, I highly recommend the Superlux HD 668B.

For a more in depth review, and a song by song break down with comparisons to other headphones, check out the in depth review here at Headfi.com