Of all the whackadoo cults out there, what’s better than worshipping giant speakers as cathedrals of sound? Music can be arguably attributed to all kinds of miracles. It’s often the spark that initiates relationships, or revives damaged ones. It can trigger memories, and as recent scientific evidence has shown, even heal the brain! If that isn’t a gift from the audio gods, I don’t know what is.
Of course there’s all the other odd quirks that come along with the baggage of religious cults, like chasing down dead-end placebo effects of $10,000 cables and turntables. What is it with post-middle aged white men and their freaky hobbies? If you’ve ever read about weird sex cults or secret societies that perform elaborate blood sacrifice rituals, they’re all creepy, wealthy older white men. That was my impression when I first entered the Axpona (Audio Expo North America) convention on Saturday. It was about 98% white men, the average age probably about 55. I guess it makes sense. Many of them are empty nesters who finally have a little extra money to spend on their hobbies. Ironically one’s hearing is sometimes in rapid decline at that age range, especially if they didn’t protect their hearing throughout their lives. Many have stopped listening to new music 20 to 30 years ago, but are trying to squeeze more and better sound out of their moldy oldies. Music used in the demos was pretty conservative, mostly jazz, blues, classical, opera, classic rock (lots of Stevie Ray Vaughan), and a shit ton of Steely Dan.
But I’m not here to hate. After all, I’m rapidly approaching that age demographic myself, but without the spare money. At least there’s no real harm in the audiophile hobby, no virgins are sacrificed, though a few kids may find their college funds depleted (sorry kid, you should have done better in school and gotten scholarships, enjoy your quarter-mil plus in loans!). In a way, it is a form of paranormal cult. Many in this hobby swear by the almost magical effects of expensive cables and turntable cartridges that defy laws of physics. I may find that aspect of the hobby ludicrous, but more power to them. At least they’re helping fund companies that also produce a lot really solid gear. In a world when music has been devalued and people expect to be able to stream everything for free, and speakers are hidden inside earbuds, computers and walls as if they’re dirty secrets, I think it’s important that there’s some subcultures that still maintain that music is important and valuable enough to worship at the altars of massive sound systems and speakers that dominate a room like large sculptures.
While I did check out several listening rooms with impressive speaker setups, which I’ll recap in a bit, I’m pretty set with my own loudspeakers. My flagship set are Wharfedale Opus 3s that I got at deep discount ten years ago, and intend to enjoy at least another ten, and I don’t want to be tempted. I came here specifically for the headphones. Headphones, at least certain ones, are affordable enough for me to try a new one every year or so, and sell off old ones to fund the new ones, particularly through the Head-Fi community (I’m currently selling my Fostex TH-X00 to help pay for my preorder of the Mr Speakers Aeon). Aside from a couple headphones from Audeze (who I lost interest in because the LCD-2.2 I owned was virtually unusable for me as the weight gave me headaches) and the Sennheiser Orpheus, I have not heard many of the current batch of flagship headphones, and this was a great opportunity to do so. While Sennheiser didn’t bring the Orpheus HE 1 this time (I did get to hear it briefly at an event in September), pretty much everything else was available. The headphone I was most keenly interested to hear was MrSpeakers Ether E electrostatic prototype. It’s been in development for a few years, and preliminary feedback on the prototypes have been extremely encouraging. For example after the Source AV electrostatic event last month, Headphone.guru had this to say: “The combination of the MrSpeakers ETHER E Electrostatic Headphone, the HeadAmp Blue Hawaii Special Edition Electrostatic Headphone Amplifier and the Chord DAVE FPGA DAC ($15,500) were without question my favorite sound of the event.”
The electrostatics I was able to compare were the $50,000 (including amp) HiFiMAN Shangri-La, Stax SR-009 ($3,800) and MrSpeakers Ether E. While they all had different source components, I did manage to hear at least one common track via Tidal, Charles Mingus’ “II B.S.” It’s a useful track that I’ve used to audition speakers and headphones over the years. Ideally you can hear Mingus’ fingers and nails scrape on his bass strings. With just 10 minutes each, I only heard a few other things, some heavy rock like Zeppelin, some vocals like Ella Fitzgerald. Both the Shangri-La and 009 had some uncomfortable moments that felt like dissonance, or could have been just so revealing that they laid bare flaws in the recordings. Or maybe they just more accurately portray the somewhat harsh tones in the moments when the horns are blaring, as if you were sitting fifteen feet away from them at a club. The vocals on the Shangri-La were especially grating. But I was blown away by the MrSpeakers. Definitely the most revealing, wide soundstage experience I’ve had with headphones aside from perhaps my brief encounter with the Orpheus last year. The headphones felt relatively light and comfortable, to the point where I imagine I could forget I’m wearing them and get lost in the music, which is the ultimate goal. I asked owner Dan Clark how the release schedule is coming, and he gave a list of things they have to finish and perfect for the final version. I asked if that meant not until next year? He said oh no, they likely could ship by July! I was surprised by that, I didn’t think it would be that soon! If iFi ever finish their Energizer and sell it for a reasonable price (I’m hoping for under $1,500), I could conceivably at least consider trying to save up enough to try that setup at some point.
My next favorite was the new JPS Labs Abyss AB-1266 Phi ($4.495/$5,495) which was just released March 31. It’s an upgrade to the original Abyss released a few years back. I can’t speak to the improvements, as I’ve never heard the original, but the sound was impressive, particularly the sub-bass levels, which were the deepest I’ve heard in a headphone without being too sloppy. I had to hold them flush against my head because it takes some trial and error to adjust the fit properly. Ultimately though, I’d never buy these as they are too heavy for me to enjoy for extended sessions. Also fairly heavy, but a much more balanced, comfortable fit are the Focal Utopia ($4,000) flagship. The first one I picked up were blinged out with gold and jewels, and were a special edition that sells for $80,000. I slowly put them down, as I was not going to be the one who drops and breaks them. They said there’s no difference in sound with the regular edition, and it offers pretty much everything you could want from a top of the line headphone. I won’t go into more detail as you can find that elsewhere with full reviews from people who spent at least a week or two with them. While the price tag is too much for me, at least Focal also has the Elear for a quarter of the Utopia price ($999), and is a solid option for those looking for that sound signature. I found the best values with the ZMF Eikon ($1,299) which I preferred over the $3.8K SR-009, and Sony’s new flagship MDR-Z1R ($2,200) and was nearly as good as the Mr Speakers Ether Flow open ($1,800). I look forward to hopefully spending more time with the ZMF. MrSpeakers Aeon ($799, though pre-orders, which just sold out, were $699) is another winner, trickling down technology used in the Ether Flow for less than half the price, not to mention lighter and more comfortable, and sealed, ideal for work, which is where I will eventually use mine for. Shipping of pre-orders has been delayed from April 30 to around mid-May. Last but not least is the Meze 99 Neo, which is available for just $249, with first orders shipping later in May. I have to say, it sounded nearly as good as the AudioQuest NightOwl Carbon ($699), a great value in itself as a closed headphone that’s comparable to the beyerdynamic DT-1770 Pro. So at a third of the price, you get an astounding value in a great sounding, portable sealed headphone. Highly recommended, and at some point I’ll likely get one myself for commutes.
Roughly in order of preference:
- MrSpeakers Ether E (Summer 2017, “well under 3K”)
- JPS Labs Abyss AB-1266 Phi ($4,495/$5,495)
- Focal Utopia ($4,000)
- MrSpeakers Ether Flow ($1,800)
- ZMF Eikon ($1,299)
- Stax SR-009 ($3,800)
- Sony MDR-Z1R ($2,200)
- Sennheiser HD-800 S ($1,700)
- MrSpeakers Aeon ($799, ships mid-May)
- ZMF Atticus ($999)
- Focal Elear ($999)
- Sennheiser HD-650 ($500)
- HiFiMAN Shangri-La ($50,000)
- AudioQuest NightHawk Carbon ($799)
- AudioQuest NightOwl Carbon ($699)
- Meze 99 Neo ($249, ships mid-May)
I haven’t given up on Audeze, by the way. They are announcing some new products soon, as are Stax (an SR-009 successor, and a new amp, SRM-T8000 for around $5K) and Sennheiser. Below is one of the mysterious photos that appeared on Sennheiser’s Facebook page, accompanied by this text — “The headphone game is going to change forever!” The photo appears to be the HE 1. I’m hoping they’re going to come out with a consumer version with a much friendlier price.
At noon I attended my first Head-Fi meetup in one of the rooms for a pizza lunch (thanks to . I’ve participated in the Head-Fi community for 11 years, and it’s the first time I’ve met any of these people in person. Just like the headphone section of the convention, the demographic is quite different, a much younger group, with an average age of about mid-30s. It’s a friendly group, and there was no talk of the sonic voodoo from a $10,000 cable that changed their lives that would make me want to back out of the room slowly. It makes sense of course that younger generations would be interested in headphones as, just as for me, they’re a more affordable way to get into the hobby. I’ll hopefully see some of them again in future Head-Fi meets.
The rest of the time I spent wandering into various listening rooms to pay homage to the mighty loudspeaker deities. Three particular ones were impressive enough that I was drawn to sit down and listen for a while. Best in show for loudspeakers for me goes to the MartinLogan Neolith, the new-ish flagship electrostatic speakers by the Brit kingpins of electrostatics, which sells for $80,000 a pair. Whew.
Perhaps Magico or MBL could have exceeded MartinLogan, but they did not bring their top of the line flagships, the Magico Q7MKII ($229,000) and MBL Radialstrahler 101 X-treme ($202,000). The next most impressive room had the MBL Radialstrahler 101E MkII ($57K), closely followed by the Magico Q5 ($60K). I wonder how many of these systems are sold? Apparently just enough to keep the industry going, and continuing to come out with not only new crazy flagships that almost no one can afford, but also many other lines that benefit from the technological advances. While I also heard great things from more relatively affordable models like the Sonus Faber, Aerial Acoustics, Odyssey, Revel, Dali and others, I won’t really be tempted until someone can truly outperform my Wharfedale Opus 3 at less than half of what I paid for, under $800. Highly unlikely!