It’s Black Friday, and what’s more black than to buy a good pair of headphones for your favorite rocker or metalhead. Today the headphone audiophile community is buzzing about what may become a historic event in headphone history. Massdrop and Fostex have collaborated to create the best value in closed back headphones you can find today, with the Fostex TH-X00.
This isn’t the first time Massdrop has collaborated with an audiophile headphone manufacturer. Will Bright, who participated in the Head-Fi forums since he was a teenager, is the head of Community Expansion at the San Francisco company, and initiated a collaboration with AKG to create a special version of their 65th anniversary limited edition of their K702, which was a big hit in 2012. The resulting AKG K7XX Massdrop Limited Edition Headphone was assigned an MSRP value of $650, but sold for only $200 with Massdrop, a pretty amazing deal. In this case, it sold in only a run of 150, but more drops have been scheduled due to popular demand. A similar collaboration happened recently with the Grace Design x Massdrop m9XX DAC/Amp, a simplified $500 version of an amp that normally sells for $2,000.
I was tempted by these offers, but I already have the AKG K701 which I’ve used mainly for TV and movies in the living room for the past 9 years, and do not need another amp. However, the Fostex TH-X00 has inspired me to do my first drop. For years my favorite workhorse had been the Denon AH-D2000, great bass response for doom, midrange for rock and metal, and just enough detail but not fatiguing. The Dx000 line was designed by another well regarded Japanese company, Fostex. In 2009 they were the best closed back (semi-open) headphones around, an important evolution in headphone design that opened up a whole new segment of the market. The headphones were so popular that they fueled a whole additional side industry of modifications, for hobbyists who liked to switch out the earpads and cups for their own customized versions provided by companies like Lawton Audio.
The partnership with Denon ended quickly, by 2012, when Foster (the parent company of Fostex) decided to pull the licenses for their designs from Denon and focus on marketing their own Fostex TH-600 (originally selling for $1,000) and TH-900 ($1,200). Fans of the much more reasonably priced Denon DX000 line (starting at $350) justifiably felt abandoned. Today they are finally offering an olive branch to those customers by teaming up with Massdrop and creating a new design, the TH-X00, that is both a nod toward the popular “woodies,” the Denon D5000 ($699) and D7000 ($999) with their mahogany cups, and not only using elements from the Fostex TH-600 and TH-900, but even improvements, all for the amazing price (via Massdrop only) of $399. It claims the MSRP is $1,000. If that’s true, then that’s an incredible 60% discount that they’re selling it at, with a headphone that in most regards surpasses the TH-600, and in some respects the TH-900 and old Denon Dx000 line.
The past few years I’d been looking for a used pair of D7000 for a good price. I’d known people to find it for $400. Unfortunately it now mostly sells for $750 used, and that’s just too much for me. So the introduction of the Fostex TH-X00 is really exciting. It’s not the exact same tuning as the Dx000. Reviews have stated that the bass emphasis (thought not necessarily the extension) is mitigated in order to improve the midrange. Some bassheads should still be satisfied as it’s still very deep, while others may still believe it’s worth it to pay the extra money for TH-600 (which now sells for $600), TH-900 or a used Denon. However it should be good news for most metal and hard rock fans, as the midrange is very important for guitar music. And no less important is the bang for the buck.
I signed up for this drop as soon as I got up this morning and it was already at 1002. It’s now at 1322 as I finish writing this. 1950 units are available in this drop, so it will be sold out probably within the day. But they will certainly do another one as soon as their production catches up. Here’s a review:
While it is an astounding deal, they aren’t necessarily an endgame (a perfect headphone that suits all your needs for your lifetime) headphone for everyone. There’s plenty of great options, many more than when I last wrote about my latest Cans of Doom two and a half years ago, the Beyerdynamic DT 770 Pro. Since then, I tried out the Denon AH-D600 and did not like their tuning, and the fact that they looked to much like Beatz. I then sprang for a used pair of the famous Audeze LCD-2 v.2. In many ways, they were the most interesting headphone I’d ever experienced. They use updated planar magnetic and orthodynamic technology that was popular in the 70s, but faded when manufacturers found cheaper ways to make headphones. By the 2000s, Fostex was the only manufacturer that used orthodynamic technology, until Hifiman entered the picture in 2007 with the HE-5, and Audeze in 2009 with the LCD-1. My LCD-2 v.2 was released in 2013, definitely has a unique sound signature, with deep, luxurious bass response, rich midrange, and a rolled off high end that decidedly excludes them for use as professional reference. These are open headphones meant to be enjoyed at home for those who’s idea of fun is to re-listen to their collection through the unique filter of the LCD-2 tuning. And yeah, they go great with most metal, particularly doom.
They were a hit, and Audeze has since come out with several more models, with rapidly increasing price tags. While the latest edition of LCD-2 with fazor technology has gone down a bit to $995, there’s also the LCD-X ($1,699), LCD-XC ($1,799), LCD-3 ($1,945) and LCD-4 ($3,995). I spend a huge portion of my life listening to music, and I do think it’s worth spending some money on, but even I can’t yet justify that much. Not when you can get headphones that perform nearly as well for far less. Additionally, the main drawback, at least for my LCD-2, is the weight. They are so heavy, that after an hour or so, the top of my head starts to throb and ache. I could mess around with alterations, but I decided it was time to sell them via the Head-Fi community and try something else.
A couple weeks ago, I became interested in the ENIGMAcoustics Dharma D1000. It uses an intriguing hybrid of electrostatic and dynamic technology. The result is supposedly stunning bass extension (5 Hz) and high frequency range (40 kHz). What really caught my attention was when renowned audio engineer Bob Katz, in a blind listening test, rated it third in a group of headphones all priced significantly higher than it’s proposed $1,200 price (he had a prototype). It was ranked between the Audeze LCD-3 and Sennheiser HD 800, and also beat out the likes of Hifiman HE-1000, Stax SR-009, Audeze LCD-X and Mr. Speakers Ether. However, no one in the Chicago area has the headphone that I can audition, and I just can’t justify paying that much for a headphone right now. Perhaps in a couple years I can snag a used one for half the price. Still, it’s innovative technology that can compete with headphones priced as much as $4,450 is exciting. It’s a good sign that competition will make prices more competitive.
In the past couple years, an enthusiastic Head-Fi member from Moscow who goes by levap took on the ambitious task of auditioning dozens of headphones and rating them for their compatibility with various metal genres. As expected, my favorites, the Denon AH-D2000, Beyerdynamic DT 770 Pro and Audeze LCD-2 fared very well. While his overall favorites seem to be the D7000 and the Abyss AB-1266, which goes for a whopping $5,495, I took special note of the Philips Fidelio X1, because if their value, and the fact that many others in the headphone community have compared the newer X2, released in 2014 for $300, favorably with the likes of the LCD-2. They do have a somewhat similar tuning, an open headphone that reaches sub-bass depths possibly even deeper than the LCD-2. And like the LCD-2, they are known for their dark sound, meaning they do sacrifice some detail in the treble, compared to even the Denon AH-D2000. But for those looking for that sound, they are an amazing deal. And what sold them for me is they are much lighter and more comfortable than the LCD-2, with a self-adjusting headband along the lines of the AKG K7xx series, and memory foam earpads. During extended wear, I can nearly forget that I’m wearing headphones. Of course that can backfire if you’re not careful, as it’s important not to play at loud volume for extended periods. I usually don’t listen at high volume for more than 20-30 minutes, then I gradually turn down the volume. If I’m doing a marathon listening session of more than 3-4 hours, I take breaks and switch to speakers (which at night have to be at pretty tame volume). Who knew that the same manufacturer as my electric toothbrush would knock it out of the park with headphones? For the $300 price point, the Philips Fidelio X2 is probably the best option for metal and hard rock, unless you’re a fan of the Grado sound. I am not, as I find them harsh and fatiguing, and uncomfortable. Also, they still look like they were made in someone’s garage, which holds a certain rock ‘n’ roll charm for some, but not me.
Also worth mentioning is the Beyerdynamic DT 1770 Pro, which just came out in September. Judging from it’s model number, I presume it’s meant to be an update of my favorite Cans of Doom, the DT 770 Pro. However, these are different in that they use the Tesla 2.0 drivers famously used in their famous T1 Tesla headphones (originally listed for $1,399, but on sale at the moment for $699). Also much different is the price, at $699, more than twice the cost of the $299 DT 770 (which can be found easily for under $200). However, every component is easily replaceable, including removable cables, which make them a great, durable option for professional reference quality headphones with great bass extension. I have not yet heard them myself, but reviews so far have been very positive.
Another category worth exploring is portable headphones. The latest and greatest generally are smaller, sealed so as to keep out most exterior noise and avoid bothering those around you, and with removable cords with controls and a microphone that work with your phone. After selling off my venerable Audio-Technica ATH-M50 and doing some research last year, I tried and rejected the Denon AH-D340 (lack of bass extension), and settled on the NAD VISO HP 50, which lists for $299, and is currently available for $249. I also considered the V-MODA Crossfade M-100 and Sennheiser Momentum. I’ve been very happy with NAD, who are of course veterans in the audio world in regards to amplifiers and receivers (I use their C 355BEE integrated amplifier in my doomcave listening lair), but fairly new to headphones. They are nearly as comfortable and light as my Denon AH-D1001, but sturdier for outdoor use, and better noise-isolating properties. What seemed to give them an edge over others according to reviews, was their RoomFeelTM technology, which creates a much wider soundstage than other headphones in that category. I have to agree that with some music, you can imagine being in the room and hearing instruments come from different directions. This would probably make them suitable for movies too, if I were to invest in a smart pad/tablet. This past year my use has been limited to FLAC files on my little Zip Clip+, and streaming Spotify on the iPhone. Bass extension is excellent, though not quite as deep as my Denons.
For many, $300 is still an insane amount to spend on headphones. Fear not, there are still great affordable options. Often neglected in the hype over the legendary Fostex-designed line was the Denon AH-D1001. Listed at $149, I got them for around $80 new from Amazon, and they are what inspired me to also get the D2000. For relatively small on-ear headphones, their bass extension is incredible, I’d say at least 95% as good as the D2000. They are also the most comfortable headphones I own, which is why I keep them at my bedside, as I can lie back on my pillow with them on and listen and read with total comfort. Fortunately, when Denon lost their licensing with Fostex, Creative was able to carry on the design with just a couple small changes and improvements. The Creative Aurvana Live! lists for just $99, and can be found currently for $57.50, without a doubt the best value in headphones at that pricepoint. Another popular option is the Fostex T50RP Semi-Open Dynamic Studio Headphones for Commercial Recording and Critical Listening Applications, which list for as low as $99. A whole industry has also arisen based on making modifications to these headphones. The latest version, the Fostex T50RP MK3, was just released last month, and lists for $200, and can be found for $160. Many claim this is the best sounding headphone available for under $500, and I would love to audition them and compare to the DT-770 Pro, Fidelio X2 and of course the TH-X00.
There are literally hundreds of other viable options, as I’ve been focusing on headphones that work best with metal and hard rock. Sennheiser, AKG, Sony, Audio-Technica, Hfiman and many others also make great headphones.
I should note that with the exception of the Audeze and Beyerdynamic DT 770 Pro (250 Ohms), most of the ones I’ve personally used can perform fine from your phone or computer. A dedicated DAC (digital audio converter) can improve on the sound, and the increased power from an amplifier can resulting in scaled, better performance from many of the headphones. However beware of this rabbit hole! There’s a fine line between what is cost effective, and what is completely ludicrous and frivolous. I admit that I drank the kool-aid and, in order to drive my Audeze, invested in a Meir Audio Corda Classic amp and Daccord DAC setup. While not nearly as expensive as other compatible rigs, it also wasn’t cheap, it took 20 days to arrive due to customs. On the other hand, it looks and sounds great, especially with the Audeze. If I were to simplify, I would probably opt for the Grace Design m9XX via Massdrop, which still offers crossfeed, which I believe helps alleviate headphone fatigue (basically it simulates how you would normally hear speakers in a room with natural crossfeed, the theory being that hearing completely separate left and right channels makes your brain work harder to make sense of it). However my Meier setup works nicely as a pre-amp to my stereo amp and loudspeakers too.
Some audiophile hobbyists have no problems with tinkering with amps, upgrading and collecting. I, on the other hand, simply need uninterrupted time with my tunes. So before you go in too deep, consider a starter like the Creative Soundblaster X-Fi HD, which lists for $99 and sells for less. Also highly regarded is American company Schiit (yes, it’s pronounced just how it looks), hence the punny name of their diminuitive Fulla, for just $79. They are one of those dangerous companies that draw you in with the quality of their lower end products, and you could end up spending $3,900 on the Ragnarok/Yggdrasil amp/DAC combo!
While several headphone manufacturers are getting into the game of insanely priced flagships for over $3,000, fortunately there are still some that are also doing a great job putting cumulative experience, knowledge and technology to great use in affordable options that far outperform most anything that was available even six years ago.