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End Game Headphones

bigcrunch

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Hi, my name is bigcrunch. I'm an addict.

This is my first post, but I've been a lurker on these forums for some time. I was hoping the fine folks on here could give me some advice. I have to apologize upfront for the long-winded introduction, but I feel that some background is needed to give context to my question.

I began my HiFi journey back when I was in college some ~12 years ago with a pair of Grado SR-125s. I don't much care for the Grado sound anymore, but at the time, they were the shit. I carried them around with me everywhere I went and spent hours upon hours lying in bed, listening to low-quality mp3s that I may or may not have obtained legally.

Then along came upgraditis, and I traded my Grados for some Denon AH-D2000s, which I thought were grand. Surely, headphones couldn't get any better than this! I listened to them for maybe a couple of months before I bought a pair of Beyerdynamic DT-880s (back when they were considered high-end).

It was a long time before I felt the overwhelming allure of a new pair of headphones again. The Beyers were just what the doctor ordered. They had all the detail resolution and sound stage I could possibly want, and the ideal sound signature (for me) to boot. I loved those damn things. Oh sure, I flirted with an AKG-K701 at one point, and some Audio-Technicas at another, and I bought more amps, DACs, and misc junk than you can shake an audiophile-grade cable at, but I always came back to my beloved Beyers. Until I didn't.

A few years back I met my new love affair - the HiFiMAN Sundara - and ended my relationship with the Beyers. The Sundaras reminded me of my treasured Beyers, but better in every way - cleaner, clearer, more dynamic. More comfortable. More everything. Especially with Harman target equalization, these things are sublime. Indulgent, even. I don't find them lacking in any way, and I enjoy listening to everything from Gil Shaham to Explosions in the Sky to Tool through them immensely.

But I still feel an itch that I can't quite seem to scratch. The Sundaras are good - very good, even - but surely they are not the best. There must be something better out there. And there is one headphone that draws me in particular - the Stax SR-009S.

So, my question to you folks on ASR is, do you think this would be a justifiable and worthwhile upgrade? I have the money to spring for them, but it would be a significant purchase for me, and as you can no doubt see, I have a habit of spending money on stupid things. I would love to listen to them in person, but there are no stores in my area that carry them. Does anyone out there have first-hand experience with both the SR-009S and the Sundaras? If so, what are your thoughts on the differences between them?

Any advice, impressions, measurements, or admonitions would be greatly appreciated.
 

Ata

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If you can demo an electrostat -- any recent Stax -- you will get a fair idea if you like the sound more than the Sundaras. I would not make a significant purchase based on the opinion of others, even if it is on an objective audio site like this. If I am to take a guess, and I don't own any planar headphones, I think the Stax will be different, better at some things and worse at others.

Having said this, electrostats are very, very good at technicalities, I have a modded Stax SR-L300 and with a bit of EQ it is superb and is my reference setup. There are a few threads discussing the Stax line here.
 
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bigcrunch

bigcrunch

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If you can demo an electrostat -- any recent Stax -- you will get a fair idea if you like the sound more than the Sundaras. I would not make a significant purchase based on the opinion of others, even if it is on an objective audio site like this. If I am to take a guess, and I don't own any planar headphones, I think the Stax will be different, better at some things and worse at others.

Having said this, electrostats are very, very good at technicalities, I have a modded Stax SR-L300 and with a bit of EQ it is superb and is my reference setup. There are a few threads discussing the Stax line here.
Thank you for your response; this is good advice. It's highly questionable whether I should be making any more significant headphone purchases at all, and definitely basing them (entirely) on the opinions of others is not the best approach. You have further piqued my curiosity about electrostats though - I will be sure to track down a store that sells them the next time I'm in Stockholm.

There is one question that I have though, perhaps you could answer it. There is one flaw I've noticed with my Sundaras. Maybe. Beyond my infatuation with headphones, I'm also a somewhat serious amateur violinist, and recordings of violins never sound quite right to me, on any gear that I've listened to. I'm not sure that I have the vocabulary to explain it exactly, but there is a very specific "richness" to violins that is missing in recordings (at least, those that I've heard), almost like there are missing overtones. I'm not sure if this is a limitation of the recording equipment, or with my headphones, or something else entirely (room acoustics, mic placement, etc. etc.), but it's definitely there. Have you noticed this with your Stax? Or do you perceive them to reproduce instruments in their full richness and complexity?
 
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Hello @bigcrunch - I don't have experience with either headphone, but I can't help but notice yiu have not mentioned equalisation... If you have not tried equalising your Sundara cans, I recommend it. Your dissatisfaction with violin reproduction may reflect a midrange that is not to your liking, something easily and less expensively solved without spending a big pile of cash. Fun to play with too!
 
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bigcrunch

bigcrunch

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Hello @bigcrunch - I don't have experience with either headphone, but I can't help but notice yiu have not mentioned equalisation... If you have not tried equalising your Sundara cans, I recommend it. Your dissatisfaction with violin reproduction may reflect a midrange that is not to your liking, something easily and less expensively solved without spending a big pile of cash. Fun to play with too!
I'm using oratory1990's Harman target for Sundaras to eq them. That improves the sound signature quite a lot, but it doesn't fix the issue that I'm referring to unfortunately. I'll play with the eq settings some more though. If this is something that can be fixed with software, I'm all for that. I'm not even sure that it is an issue with the headphones though - it sounds almost as though some of the harmonics are different in the recording itself. It could just be that I'm so used to listening to the sound of my violin, that the timbre of other violin outfits sounds not quite right to me.

But it's strange, because I can readily distinguish between different violins in a live ABX test (I do this when I'm auditioning new violins), but when I'm listening through headphones, I can't. Different violins sound much more similar to me through headphones than what I think they should. I'm not sure if this due to something with the headphones, the mastering, the recording tech, or something else entirely though.
 
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Ahh, the curse of sensitive musical ears!!! I find a similar problem with acoustic instruments on various recordings. Sounds like ideally you need an afternoon trying on a broad stable of headphones!!!
Maybe there is someone close to you who could measure your headphones, considering unit to unit variability.
 
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bigcrunch

bigcrunch

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Ahh, the curse of sensitive musical ears!!! I find a similar problem with acoustic instruments on various recordings. Sounds like ideally you need an afternoon trying on a broad stable of headphones!!!
Maybe there is someone close to you who could measure your headphones, considering unit to unit variability.
That is an interesting suggestion. There may be someone in my extended social circle who has the equipment to do that. I'll ask around. Depending on cost, I'm also tempted to take my violin to a recording studio and record a few pieces that I know well so I'll have a better point of reference for comparing gear.
 
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That is an interesting suggestion. There may be someone in my extended social circle who has the equipment to do that. I'll ask around. Depending on cost, I'm also tempted to take my violin to a recording studio and record a few pieces that I know well so I'll have a better point of reference for comparing gear.
I think a violin live recording session is an excellent idea!!!
 

stevenswall

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I used to consider the JH Audio Lola an endgame headphone. I'd take it to conventions, test it against new things, and never ended up feeling the need to get something else.

Sure, there was an electrostat IEM that could do vocals marginally better, but having a power pack and massive cables wasn't appealing to me.

And yeah, a couple of headphones sounded better on certain songs, but the difference was very minor and I didn't always want the extra bass at the cost of noise isolation compared to my in ear monitor.

Eventually though I got Genelecs and realized that when I wanted to listen to something, I was never grabbing my IEMs... I'd just listen to it on speakers in a quiet room.

About the time I started going for crappy wireless earphones I got for free, I realized it was pointless having high end IEMs and headphones, so I started selling them.

If I want convenience I'm going for a wireless pair. If I want sound quality I'm listening on Genelecs.

That being said, if there is a wireless headphone like the Dan Clark Stealth, I'll likely save to get that.
 
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bigcrunch

bigcrunch

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I used to consider the JH Audio Lola an endgame headphone. I'd take it to conventions, test it against new things, and never ended up feeling the need to get something else.

Sure, there was an electrostat IEM that could do vocals marginally better, but having a power pack and massive cables wasn't appealing to me.

And yeah, a couple of headphones sounded better on certain songs, but the difference was very minor and I didn't always want the extra bass at the cost of noise isolation compared to my in ear monitor.

Eventually though I got Genelecs and realized that when I wanted to listen to something, I was never grabbing my IEMs... I'd just listen to it on speakers in a quiet room.

About the time I started going for crappy wireless earphones I got for free, I realized it was pointless having high end IEMs and headphones, so I started selling them.

If I want convenience I'm going for a wireless pair. If I want sound quality I'm listening on Genelecs.

That being said, if there is a wireless headphone like the Dan Clark Stealth, I'll likely save to get that.
Interesting! I've never been drawn to speakers the same way I am to headphones. I'm not sure there's a rational reason for it. I like to move my sound system around the house I suppose. During winter I like to sit in front of the fireplace and listen to music. When the weather is nice, I like to listen outside on the balcony. Electrostats would definitely be less convenient for this, but still very doable I think.
 

stevenswall

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Interesting! I've never been drawn to speakers the same way I am to headphones. I'm not sure there's a rational reason for it. I like to move my sound system around the house I suppose. During winter I like to sit in front of the fireplace and listen to music. When the weather is nice, I like to listen outside on the balcony. Electrostats would definitely be less convenient for this, but still very doable I think.

Every room that I care to listen in has 3-5 speakers you can listen on. Not always in the sweet spot I suppose, but then headphones don't have much soundstage anyhow.

If you have any way of using an Android phone as a source, you should try an app called Wavelet. It lets you apply an EQ based on headphone measurements, kind of like Amir does. Might help you see if you like things brought closer in line with the Harman curve, and then you could shop based on that.

One of the pitfalls in my headphone listening early on was that anything that sounded different sounded good in some ways. Something could be too bright and make my other earphones sound muddy, but then the brightness would bug me and I'd switch back and realize the muddy ones sounded fine after a few days.

Good luck figuring things out!
 

Ata

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Thank you for your response; this is good advice. It's highly questionable whether I should be making any more significant headphone purchases at all, and definitely basing them (entirely) on the opinions of others is not the best approach. You have further piqued my curiosity about electrostats though - I will be sure to track down a store that sells them the next time I'm in Stockholm.

There is one question that I have though, perhaps you could answer it. There is one flaw I've noticed with my Sundaras. Maybe. Beyond my infatuation with headphones, I'm also a somewhat serious amateur violinist, and recordings of violins never sound quite right to me, on any gear that I've listened to. I'm not sure that I have the vocabulary to explain it exactly, but there is a very specific "richness" to violins that is missing in recordings (at least, those that I've heard), almost like there are missing overtones. I'm not sure if this is a limitation of the recording equipment, or with my headphones, or something else entirely (room acoustics, mic placement, etc. etc.), but it's definitely there. Have you noticed this with your Stax? Or do you perceive them to reproduce instruments in their full richness and complexity?

Very good question! IMHO string instruments and in particular violas and violins can be very revealing when it comes to overall sound reproduction quality. I do not know myself why that is for sure... there has been a lot of good discussion of Stax/electrostats in https://www.audiosciencereview.com/forum/index.php?threads/the-science-behind-staxs-magic.22550 that would be interesting to review.

My understanding is that, ignoring source+reproduction device issues, for headphones everything boils to:
- Frequency response: this can be tweaked with EQ with varying success depending on headphone, its inherent distortion profile (i.e. you can't EQ well a region that distorts much, usually in the bass but sometimes elsewhere). There is also the issue of pair to pair variation and how reliable in-head measurements are. Yet, we should consider frequency response more or less a solved problem with EQ;
- Distortion: always aim for low distortion headphones. There is a bit of contention as to whether THD is a sufficient metric or if some other measure is required, i.e. IMD distortion, but most people with more knowledge than me seem to be convinced the THD metric as sufficient;
- Group delay: this one has the least understood effect on perceiving music and sound quality. If I were to bet, I would say this would be the main factor in how complex/organic sound of violins is perceived.

To test this assumption, consider Sundara's group delay graph from Amir's review on this site:

hifiman sundara Grou Delay measurements.png


There is a lot of noise in the group delay through much of the spectrum, which could be messing up the way you perceive violins via the Sundaras. I would certainly not expect frequency response errors alone to cloud your ability to differentiate between recorded instruments if you can distinguish them live, our ears are quite good at adapting to such FR errors.

Will the stats be better at playing violins? I'd say, that much is almost certain, but I have not seen a group delay graph for these to test my hypothesis above. My Stax excels at microdetail and clarity, both subjective claims but hardly disputed by anyone who had a chance to listen to them.
 
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bigcrunch

bigcrunch

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Very good question! IMHO string instruments and in particular violas and violins can be very revealing when it comes to overall sound reproduction quality. I do not know myself why that is for sure... there has been a lot of good discussion of Stax/electrostats in https://www.audiosciencereview.com/forum/index.php?threads/the-science-behind-staxs-magic.22550 that would be interesting to review.

My understanding is that, ignoring source+reproduction device issues, for headphones everything boils to:
- Frequency response: this can be tweaked with EQ with varying success depending on headphone, its inherent distortion profile (i.e. you can't EQ well a region that distorts much, usually in the bass but sometimes elsewhere). There is also the issue of pair to pair variation and how reliable in-head measurements are. Yet, we should consider frequency response more or less a solved problem with EQ;
- Distortion: always aim for low distortion headphones. There is a bit of contention as to whether THD is a sufficient metric or if some other measure is required, i.e. IMD distortion, but most people with more knowledge than me seem to be convinced the THD metric as sufficient;
- Group delay: this one has the least understood effect on perceiving music and sound quality. If I were to bet, I would say this would be the main factor in how complex/organic sound of violins is perceived.

To test this assumption, consider Sundara's group delay graph from Amir's review on this site:

View attachment 183632

There is a lot of noise in the group delay through much of the spectrum, which could be messing up the way you perceive violins via the Sundaras. I would certainly not expect frequency response errors alone to cloud your ability to differentiate between recorded instruments if you can distinguish them live, our ears are quite good at adapting to such FR errors.

Will the stats be better at playing violins? I'd say, that much is almost certain, but I have not seen a group delay graph for these to test my hypothesis above. My Stax excels at microdetail and clarity, both subjective claims but hardly disputed by anyone who had a chance to listen to them.
Thanks for the informative and well-thought-out response! I was familiar with frequency response and THD, but not so much with group delay. Upon reading a bit more about this, your hypothesis that group delay is the culprit seems very reasonable, at least at first blush. After doing some more investigation, I'm not so sure.

For a violin with standard tuning, the pitch ranges from G3 (~196Hz) to somewhere around E7 (~2637Hz), but most compositions don't use notes above D♯6 (1244Hz), which looks to be below the frequency where the worst of the group delay takes place in the plot that you shared. According to this, group delays less than 1-1.6ms should be inaudible at those frequencies, and the group delay for the Sundaras appears to be well below that for most of the 196-1244Hz range.The overtones may extend a bit higher than that, but overtones for a violin are pretty close to the fundamental, so that's probably not it either.

But according to Amir's measurements, THD for the Sundaras should be inaudible in this range as well, and as you pointed out, the frequency response doesn't seem likely to be the issue either. Of course, I'm far from an expert in either acoustics or signal processing, so I could very well be misinterpreting/misunderstanding something ¯\_(ツ)_/¯

I would love to listen to some Stax at some point so I can compare them to my Sundaras though. I wish it were easier to ABX headphones, but alas, I do not know of a great way to do that, so my subjective impressions may have to suffice. It will still be interesting to compare them in any case.
 
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Gene LeClair

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Perhaps the violin thing has to do with the recording or source of audio. I think that's the case with piano and guitar. They seemed to sound better with Qobuz than with Spotify.
 
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bigcrunch

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Perhaps the violin thing has to do with the recording or source of audio. I think that's the case with piano and guitar. They seemed to sound better with Qobuz than with Spotify.
I do most of my listening through Tidal and Pulsar with FLAC encoding, so it's definitely not a bitrate issue. Maybe I just need to start listening in MQA. </ducks>

It seems plausible to me that it's something on the recording end, but I don't know nearly enough about recording tech to have an informed opinion on it.
 

Rthomas

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I have an SR009S and KGSSHV Carbon amp.

I've never heard the Sundara.

The only way to answer this question is to borrow the headphone from a dealer and compare for yourself.

No amount of subjective comparisons from other people will suffice, trust me :)

If you ever visit Spain you are welcome to audition my system.
 

Ata

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Thanks for the informative and well-thought-out response! I was familiar with frequency response and THD, but not so much with group delay. Upon reading a bit more about this, your hypothesis that group delay is the culprit seems very reasonable, at least at first blush. After doing some more investigation, I'm not so sure.

For a violin with standard tuning, the pitch ranges from G3 (~196Hz) to somewhere around E7 (~2637Hz), but most compositions don't use notes above D♯6 (1244Hz), which looks to be below the frequency where the worst of the group delay takes place in the plot that you shared. According to this, group delays less than 1-1.6ms should be inaudible at those frequencies, and the group delay for the Sundaras appears to be well below that for most of the 196-1244Hz range.The overtones may extend a bit higher than that, but overtones for a violin are pretty close to the fundamental, so that's probably not it either.

But according to Amir's measurements, THD for the Sundaras should be inaudible in this range as well, and as you pointed out, the frequency response doesn't seem likely to be the issue either. Of course, I'm far from an expert in either acoustics or signal processing, so I could very well be misinterpreting/misunderstanding something ¯\_(ツ)_/¯

I would love to listen to some Stax at some point so I can compare them to my Sundaras though. I wish it were easier to ABX headphones, but alas, I do not know of a great way to do that, so my subjective impressions may have to suffice. It will still be interesting to compare them in any case.

Thanks for the interesting response. It seems we agree FR and distortion are not likely in play.

Regarding group delay, as I said am not sure, either. I do not know how group delay is audible, nor whether the methodology used back in 1978 is still state of the art. It may be that string instruments (including piano and guitar) provide kind of a "torture test" for group delay, whereas the methodology used a different signal and measurement. But, assuming 1.5ms of group delay is audible:
  • You have to consider the absolute amplitude of change (min to max) in the graph. That exceeds 1.5ms in a number of places between 200-1000Hz and is in the 3-5ms range in the 1.5-4KHz range, where our hearing is quite sensitive;
  • I could find some FFTs (spectrum graphs) of a violin on the net (https://maestronet.com/forum/index.php?/topic/319868-messing-with-fft-now-that-i-have-a-violin/) , it is clear overtones and harmonics extend very far into the spectrum above 1KHz, and at a considerable volume, making them audible and unlikely to be masked:
gallery_24261_63_25067.jpg


In any case, I suspect Sundaras are far from a pinnacle in terms of sound quality, e.g. Crinacle rates them as B in technicalities -- subjective rating I know, but my own subjective experience closely follows his. You should try a headphone with better group delay, or better subjective technical rating, or both, and then draw your own conclusions.
 
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bigcrunch

bigcrunch

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I have an SR009S and KGSSHV Carbon amp.

I've never heard the Sundara.

The only way to answer this question is to borrow the headphone from a dealer and compare for yourself.

No amount of subjective comparisons from other people will suffice, trust me :)

If you ever visit Spain you are welcome to audition my system.
Cool! I may be in Spain this summer; if so, I just might have to take you up on that offer.
 
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bigcrunch

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Thanks for the interesting response. It seems we agree FR and distortion are not likely in play.

Regarding group delay, as I said am not sure, either. I do not know how group delay is audible, nor whether the methodology used back in 1978 is still state of the art. It may be that string instruments (including piano and guitar) provide kind of a "torture test" for group delay, whereas the methodology used a different signal and measurement. But, assuming 1.5ms of group delay is audible:
  • You have to consider the absolute amplitude of change (min to max) in the graph. That exceeds 1.5ms in a number of places between 200-1000Hz and is in the 3-5ms range in the 1.5-4KHz range, where our hearing is quite sensitive;
  • I could find some FFTs (spectrum graphs) of a violin on the net (https://maestronet.com/forum/index.php?/topic/319868-messing-with-fft-now-that-i-have-a-violin/) , it is clear overtones and harmonics extend very far into the spectrum above 1KHz, and at a considerable volume, making them audible and unlikely to be masked:
View attachment 183765

In any case, I suspect Sundaras are far from a pinnacle in terms of sound quality, e.g. Crinacle rates them as B in technicalities -- subjective rating I know, but my own subjective experience closely follows his. You should try a headphone with better group delay, or better subjective technical rating, or both, and then draw your own conclusions.
Aha! It seems I was misinterpreting the group delay plot after all - hardly surprising, since I just learned about it yesterday :p So it is the dispersion that matters most for group delay instead of the value at any single point. Do you know what negative values indicate? Is the plot simply standardized to have 0 mean, or do negative values in some way denote a different physical process than positive values? My guess is that it's the former, but it would be nice to have that clarified.

If you're right about violin overtones and harmonics extending that far above the fundamental, then the group delay seems like a very plausible explanation for what I'm hearing. My subjective impression is that some of the overtones that should be present are missing, and that seems to track pretty well with this hypothesis.

I agree that Sundaras are not likely the pinnacle of sound quality or technicalities, and that is why I am looking to audition the SR-009S. But I don't fully trust my ears, so before spending the money on them I would ideally like to confirm that there are some real objective improvements as well - something that I am becoming increasingly convinced of.
 

radix

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Aha! It seems I was misinterpreting the group delay plot after all - hardly surprising, since I just learned about it yesterday :p So it is the dispersion that matters most for group delay instead of the value at any single point. Do you know what negative values indicate? Is the plot simply standardized to have 0 mean, or do negative values in some way denote a different physical process than positive values? My guess is that it's the former, but it would be nice to have that clarified.

There's a long and somewhat painful thread about group delay you can search for. Group delay is how quickly the phase angle changes with frequency (i.e. the derivative of phase wrt frequency). So a positive group delay means the phase is increasing wrt to frequency. A negative value means the phase is decreasing wrt to frequency.

If the plot of group delay is centered around some value (e.g. 0), it means the phase angle is oscillating around some constant.
 
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