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Mark Levinson No 5909 Headphone Review

Rate this headphone:

  • 1. Poor (headless panther)

    Votes: 19 11.7%
  • 2. Not terrible (postman panther)

    Votes: 51 31.3%
  • 3. Fine (happy panther

    Votes: 77 47.2%
  • 4. Great (golfing panther)

    Votes: 16 9.8%

  • Total voters
    163

Jimbob54

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It is not that difficult to make virtually any headphone to match the Harman target on a specific type/model test fixture, just not passively.
It might actually have a tonal balance close to what Harman finds to be the ideal average preferred tonal balance.
The question is will all of them be equally good sounding to every one and measure well on other industry standard test fixtures.

I think headphones is one of the areas where a lot of improvements can still be had (unlike electronics) and is what draws me to the hobby.
And what likely pushed you over the edge ;-)
 

Garrincha

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It is not that difficult to make virtually any headphone to match the Harman target on a specific type/model test fixture, just not passively.
It might actually have a tonal balance close to what Harman finds to be the ideal average preferred tonal balance.
The question is will all of them be equally good sounding to every one and measure well on other industry standard test fixtures.
Yes, these are the interesting questions. Looks like there is quite some unexplored territory and much more research needed.
I think headphones is one of the areas where a lot of improvements can still be had (unlike electronics) and is what draws me to the hobby.
Exactly. Amps and DACs have already reached the level of transparency, why care too much. Sure, there are features, design, built quality, new SINAD records, etc, but not anymore sonic improvement to be had, so let´s shift the attention (and the money!) to where it really matters, transducers.
 

Garrincha

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How would one use a 'trick' to improve soundstage that can only be done in DSP by manipulating the original signal in ways that cannot passively done ?
If a manufacterer is interested in improving the soundstage of their headphones, they can quickly and more reliably check with this plugin what has an effect and was not etc.
 

Cars-N-Cans

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With regards to the ongoing discussion of soundstage/headstage, it's interesting that most people reviewing the 5909 (me included) have mentioned the remarkable wide soundstage – again, this is compared to competing BT/ANC headsets in the market. Frankly, this aspect caught me by surprise and I believe the 5909's FR is largely responsible for this. This is also truly the first headphone I've tried where the music does not sound compressed or digitised in BT mode, and I'm using 256kbps AAC files both on my MBP and iPhone.
I was surprised at that aspect of the review as well. I would expect them to at least have the same as what IEMs can provide based on the FR. I suspect it may just not be as wide as headphones with larger drivers like the Stealth.
 

Cars-N-Cans

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If a manufacterer is interested in improving the soundstage of their headphones, they can quickly and more reliably check with this plugin what has an effect and was not etc.
There is certainly no reason they could not, and many internal R&D programs for the mfrs. may have such ad-hock tests for verifying the headphone complies with expectations. But such tests would be very informal “rules of thumb” and kept internal to the company. In my experience, though, the lack of formalization can lead to many misconceptions about how something works. Had that with a very well established process at my last job that everyone thought they understood, but my results with it contradicted the established understanding of it. As such we all decided that maybe me doing some formal investigation would help. Not to my surprise, it worked nothing like we thought it did. But such testing required that I develop/adopt controls and thorough testing methods along with copious documentation of the test methods used and all the results. It was quite an undertaking. And it would be similar, here. They would need to formalize the process for it to be truly useful, and this is an aspect of headphones that is not as well understood, and least from possibly what’s in the public domain.
 

Zim

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I am repeating the judgement of the sound from Amir and several other people I have read of in the internet. There were and maybe still are many people, also here at ASR, who claimed the the correct FR is the only or at least single most important criterion for the sound of a headphone. Now this one hits the nail spot on and apparently still does not sound very good. Also Sean Olive did not get tired of stressing the utmost importance of the FR. Lists were made who judged the sound qualities of headphones purely by closeness to the Harman curve. So while it clearly remains one relevant factors, several others seem to have been overlooked and this trail of research turned out to be a bit simple minded.

I don't think it's accurate to conflate frequency response with spatial qualities, sound (tonality) with sound (space) to determine whether headphones sound good or not, despite both needing to listen to evaluate them.

Soundstage is a matter of preference like frequency response, and it matters as much, more or less depending on the individual.

Some people have some level of expectations for headphones to have a decent soundstage, others do not.
Some people have zero expectations for a decent soundstage for IEMs, others do not.

For the case of the 5909, from my interpretation of the review, it doesn't have a decent soundstage. So it wouldn't meet the expectations of those that care about soundstage. That doesn't mean it doesn't sound good because it'll still sound good to those who love the Harman curve yet don't care about soundstage.
 

majingotan

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Yes, frequency response at your eardrum is ultimately what determines soundstage, which is influenced by different measured frequency responses of headphones and indeed IEM's.

For IEMs, it's easier to gain that soundstage by making an 8 dB dip at 3-4KHz PEQ and an 8 dB boost at 6-8 KHz wide PEQ (the larger the differences in the loudness between those regions, the more soundstage perception one hears). That's how my IEM is tuned by manufacturer and because of this inverse Harman curve from mids to treble region, you get a better hearing perception of soundstage, separation, imaging

Andromeda-S3-Pre-2020.jpg


AKG K701 headphones also employ a similar curve at those 3-4KHz and 6-8KHz and has a wide staging effect as well

K701.jpg


FYI, this is just anecdotal and I'm also a sucker for soundstage hence I only own a K712 and my IEM. Would love to own the Utopia (too expensive though) since it also has that spatial perception that my IEM and K712 possess though it's not as wide sounding compared to both due to lack of a 3-4 KHz large dip relative to 6-8KHz peaks
 

Cars-N-Cans

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I don't think it's accurate to conflate frequency response with spatial qualities, sound (tonality) with sound (space) to determine whether headphones sound good or not, despite both needing to listen to evaluate them.

Soundstage is a matter of preference like frequency response, and it matters as much, more or less depending on the individual.

Some people have some level of expectations for headphones to have a decent soundstage, others do not.
Some people have zero expectations for a decent soundstage for IEMs, others do not.

For the case of the 5909, from my interpretation of the review, it doesn't have a decent soundstage. So it wouldn't meet the expectations of those that care about soundstage. That doesn't mean it doesn't sound good because it'll still sound good to those who love the Harman curve yet don't care about soundstage.
For what its worth, I suspect if headphones could accurately portray the soundstage in the recording and we could quantify it, it would become an objective requirement just like the Harman target :) But I would agree in that in terms of an analogy its like before we really had speakers that were truly neutral with constant directivity. The soundstage characteristics become like how tone controls were (and very much still are), and preference matters.

From my experience, though, the soundstage, spatial effects, and contrast are all intertwined together. The more the spatial effects suffer and the more myopic a headphone gets, the more likely it is not to have deep contrast, which is something that I personally place a good portion of my preference on. If one thinks about it, this makes sense. In order to have contrast, you have to be able to also render silence between the sound sources if it exists, and also keep their spectral content separate with respect to location. Headphones like the Stealth have the ability to provide very good "separation" of the instruments in the recording, and thus allow for deep contrast and a very vibrant sound. In contrast, no pun intended, are something like my Klipsch R6i's, which are so bad that I keep them just because they are so bad. Even with EQ its still just about three-blobs stereo, and they have less contrast than conventional speakers in the far field, and that makes sense, to me at least. If the spectral content is all piled up into one area perceptually, there wont be much there to perceive in the way of contrast. My personal experience has been that the more accurately things can be located spatially (and conveyed with a correct FR), the better the auditory center does with managing the spectral content of all the sound sources in the recording material. To me, such things make them sound much more natural and realistic.

Of course I could be totally off-base with that impromptu analysis, but it does seem to at least fit my subjective experience. But, as stated, those sort of things don't have any concrete, objective definitions in their own right, so they are hard to judge. Still, it would be nice if there could be an authoritative reference that brought together all aspects of headphones and how they image. I doubt such a thing will become a reality any time soon, though, since the research that likely has been done is also the secret sauce that makes headphones sound good, and companies will rightfully feel loathed to share it with competitors.
 
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MayaTlab

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They would need to formalize the process for it to be truly useful, and this is an aspect of headphones that is not as well understood, and least from possibly what’s in the public domain.

Acoustic engineers aren’t shooting in the dark either, otherwise we wouldn’t get things like binauralisation of object oriented formats. There’s a sh*tload of research being done at the moment on surround sound virtualisation through headphones.

We kind of already have a decent idea how humans locate sounds in place. The main issue is delivering a predictable and desirable FR at anyone’s eardrum past 800-1k Hz, the degree of individualisation that is required for the binauralisation process to work (and how to gather and analyse data for specific individuals in a practical, user-friendly way), whether deliberate deviations from these individual features are of interest or not, and best practices to record / mix / master with these new formats.

A fairly typical method used is to ask participants to locate blind a sound in a virtual space (think video games). Crucially it means that where the sound is meant to be located is already known to the examiners, so the performance of the participants to locate it can be quantified to some degree.
 

Garrincha

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For IEMs, it's easier to gain that soundstage by making an 8 dB dip at 3-4KHz PEQ and an 8 dB boost at 6-8 KHz wide PEQ (the larger the differences in the loudness between those regions, the more soundstage perception one hears). That's how my IEM is tuned by manufacturer and because of this inverse Harman curve from mids to treble region, you get a better hearing perception of soundstage, separation, imaging

Andromeda-S3-Pre-2020.jpg


AKG K701 headphones also employ a similar curve at those 3-4KHz and 6-8KHz and has a wide staging effect as well

K701.jpg


FYI, this is just anecdotal and I'm also a sucker for soundstage hence I only own a K712 and my IEM. Would love to own the Utopia (too expensive though) since it also has that spatial perception that my IEM and K712 possess though it's not as wide sounding compared to both due to lack of a 3-4 KHz large dip relative to 6-8KHz peaks
Just to understand what you are saying, your claim is that soundstage is purely determined by the FR? And this dip at 3-4kHZ and boost at 6-8kHz are responsible for it? But it is speculation, or have you checked and investigated any further? The Sennheiser HD 800S has no dip at 3-4kHz but is still regarded as having a huge soundstage. How does this comply with the theory?
 

Robbo99999

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For IEMs, it's easier to gain that soundstage by making an 8 dB dip at 3-4KHz PEQ and an 8 dB boost at 6-8 KHz wide PEQ (the larger the differences in the loudness between those regions, the more soundstage perception one hears). That's how my IEM is tuned by manufacturer and because of this inverse Harman curve from mids to treble region, you get a better hearing perception of soundstage, separation, imaging

Andromeda-S3-Pre-2020.jpg


AKG K701 headphones also employ a similar curve at those 3-4KHz and 6-8KHz and has a wide staging effect as well

K701.jpg


FYI, this is just anecdotal and I'm also a sucker for soundstage hence I only own a K712 and my IEM. Would love to own the Utopia (too expensive though) since it also has that spatial perception that my IEM and K712 possess though it's not as wide sounding compared to both due to lack of a 3-4 KHz large dip relative to 6-8KHz peaks
I'm not really aware of any research that backs that, is there some available that you can point to? I'm aware the K702 has that dip between 3-4kHz that you mention, but for me the good soundstage of the K702 remain even after normalising it to the Harman Curve through EQ. (I mentioned my theories on what I think causes soundstage differences in headphones in earlier posts in this thread, not that there's any research I can point to that backs my theory either, apart from my own experience, and some correlation to other peoples experiences you see dotted around the internet.).
 
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Cars-N-Cans

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Acoustic engineers aren’t shooting in the dark either, otherwise we wouldn’t get things like binauralisation of object oriented formats. There’s a sh*tload of research being done at the moment on surround sound virtualisation through headphones.

We kind of already have a decent idea how humans locate sounds in place. The main issue is delivering a predictable and desirable FR at anyone’s eardrum past 800-1k Hz, the degree of individualisation that is required for the binauralisation process to work (and how to gather and analyse data for specific individuals in a practical, user-friendly way), whether deliberate deviations from these individual features are of interest or not, and best practices to record / mix / master with these new formats.

A fairly typical method used is to ask participants to locate blind a sound in a virtual space (think video games). Crucially it means that where the sound is meant to be located is already known to the examiners, so the performance of the participants to locate it can be quantified to some degree.
Ah, I finally remembered why this headphone caught my attention! I had two wordy posts originally but your PC videogame comment finally spurred my memory. :D

PC games have been one of my vices and as such I usually have a nearfield system on my PC. The current one is arranged with a quasi-RFZ at the seating position. The very interesting thing is that its possible to move out of the "RFZ" over a rather short distance, and my experience when the imaging changes once outside of the said RFZ is the same as Amir's with this headphone review. Once outside, the imaging naturally becomes more narrow, but at the same time things like bass notes in electronic music suddenly lose some of their impact, and the sound becomes less interesting. Granted, I would be foolish to say this is the same difference as he might see between this headphone and his Stealth, but the effect was pronounced enough to catch my attention. Move back in, and the sound suddenly becomes more interesting and the bass more attention grabbing with its re-found impactfulness. Its identically the same as Amir's experience from his description, but probably a good bit less less pronounced, obviously, as its with speakers instead. But still its an interesting point that the imaging does appear to impact how the tonality is perceived, even when the FR may be the same.

As an aside, I did take incremental in-room measurements, and the FR changes gradually as I move outside of the prime listening location, so that's probably not the root cause.
 

Cars-N-Cans

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Acoustic engineers aren’t shooting in the dark either, otherwise we wouldn’t get things like binauralisation of object oriented formats. There’s a sh*tload of research being done at the moment on surround sound virtualisation through headphones.

We kind of already have a decent idea how humans locate sounds in place. The main issue is delivering a predictable and desirable FR at anyone’s eardrum past 800-1k Hz, the degree of individualisation that is required for the binauralisation process to work (and how to gather and analyse data for specific individuals in a practical, user-friendly way), whether deliberate deviations from these individual features are of interest or not, and best practices to record / mix / master with these new formats.

A fairly typical method used is to ask participants to locate blind a sound in a virtual space (think video games). Crucially it means that where the sound is meant to be located is already known to the examiners, so the performance of the participants to locate it can be quantified to some degree.
I think Thomas_A mentioned trying cross-feed. I wonder if that could replicate the experience on the Stealth? In principal, it should obscure some of the spatial cues in the recording.
 

Thomas_A

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I'm not really aware of any research that backs that, is there some available that you can point to? I'm aware the K702 has that dip between 3-4kHz that you mention, but for me the good soundstage of the K702 remain even after normalising it to the Harman Curve through EQ. (I mentioned my theories on what I think causes soundstage differences in headphones in earlier posts in this thread, not that there's any research I can point to that backs my theory either, apart from my own experience, and some correlation to other peoples experiences you see dotted around the internet.).
With respect to image height, there is this one with references.

 

Robbo99999

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I had a quick look at that, I think stuff like the 8kHz peak influencing height is really only applicable to spatially rendered content - so for instance gaming where you would have audio cues potentially at different heights - so I think that's just relevant to using frequency response "EQ" within virtual surround systems like for instance Dolby Atmos. (Meaning the Virtual Surround Systems will themselves be altering frequency response of different spatially located sources, and they probably use some kind of generic HRTF's to do that.....I would imagine). I don't really see how that applies to two channel headphone listening to music.....which I suppose best case would create an illusion of 2 speakers in front of you (which it doesn't unless you use Impulcifier or Smyth Realiser), so it's not like you use the 8kHz peak to bake in a certain height.......well, I mean I suppose theoretically you could use the generic 8kHz peak to bake it in to sound that is level with your head rather than above or below your head, but I don't knowingly have that problem in headphone music listening.
 

Thomas_A

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I had a quick look at that, I think stuff like the 8kHz peak influencing height is really only applicable to spatially rendered content - so for instance gaming where you would have audio cues potentially at different heights - so I think that's just relevant to using frequency response "EQ" within virtual surround systems like for instance Dolby Atmos. (Meaning the Virtual Surround Systems will themselves be altering frequency response of different spatially located sources, and they probably use some kind of generic HRTF's to do that.....I would imagine). I don't really see how that applies to two channel headphone listening to music.....which I suppose best case would create an illusion of 2 speakers in front of you (which it doesn't unless you use Impulcifier or Smyth Realiser), so it's not like you use the 8kHz peak to bake in a certain height.......well, I mean I suppose theoretically you could use the generic 8kHz peak to bake it in to sound that is level with your head rather than above or below your head, but I don't knowingly have that problem in headphone music listening.
In that case headphones were used so I am quite confident that it is part of the puzzle.
 

theobserver

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I've owned the 5909s for several months now and would like to make a few comments.

First, the 5909 is primarily a wireless & ANC headphone and, as such, sound quality is actually very good/excellent, at least compared to all other BT/ANC headphones out there (and I've tried and owned most, if not all, of the more expensive offerings by the competition). The fact that in passive mode the 5909 delivers very good sound is an added bonus as competing products tend to perform very poorly when used passively.

Unlike amirm, I think build quality is actually very good and quite a step up from the K371 (only B&O's H95 and Apple's APM offer such good quality materials. The design, though, is still not my cup of tea, but this is a solidly built headphone and, crucially, one of the most comfortable ones out there. And although not often mentioned in posts or reviews, the 5909 travel case is ideal for its intended purpose – this isn't always the case even with some premium BT/ANC headphones. Add to that that all accessories (cables, adapters, case) are truly premium, the cables themselves being also quite suple, best in class.

With regards to the ongoing discussion of soundstage/headstage, it's interesting that most people reviewing the 5909 (me included) have mentioned the remarkable wide soundstage – again, this is compared to competing BT/ANC headsets in the market. Frankly, this aspect caught me by surprise and I believe the 5909's FR is largely responsible for this. This is also truly the first headphone I've tried where the music does not sound compressed or digitised in BT mode, and I'm using 256kbps AAC files both on my MBP and iPhone.

So, taking all individual elements of the 5909, and taken as a whole package, I don't actually think this is outrageously expensive headphone.

Things that need improving: a) ML must fix the unacceptable bass boost when ANC is enabled in wireless mode; b) head-on detection is still hit and miss even after latest and only FW update; and c) 16 volume steps on iOS/macOS is unacceptable for a product of this nature (with masters/recordings of the last 25-30 years a single volume step can sound too loud or too quiet).

I'd like to add a couple of things I missed in yesterday's post.

amirm made a point about the (small) size of the 5909's earcups. Once again, seeing that this is primarily a portable BT ANC headphone, the 5909's earcups, compared to the competition, are actually some of the bigger and roomiest out there. You must bear in mind the key aspect of portability when talking about BT ANC cans, so physical parts need to be made quite small as much as possible. Mind you, ML opted, like Apple's APM, for a non-foldable design (unlike Boss, Sony & B&O) so that there are fewer moving parts that could prove problematic in the future (some Sony models, and even the Aonic 50, for that matter –even when the latter doesn't have a foldable design– are notorious for their creaking sounds when adjusting the headphones or when only moving your jaw!)

One other aspect that stands out with the 5909 is the BT codecs available. I believe only the Shure Aonic 50 offers as many as the MLs, though the Shures fall way short in other areas.

Now, one thing people must bear in mind if considering getting the 5909 is that its ANC isn't quite as effective as that found on Sony, Boss and Apple models. However, in my experience ANC is perfectly good enough when traveling by plane and train or in an office environment.
 

Robbo99999

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In that case headphones were used so I am quite confident that it is part of the puzzle.
Maybe. I think in practical terms the best thing to do is choose headphones with good natural soundstage, some consensus on the internet with regards to which ones, and/or pursue Impulcifier or Smyth Realiser. And of course Virtual 7.1 Surround processing for gaming & movies. They're not some bad options.
 

JanesJr1

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At a top level I would hazard to say there are probably two aspects to the spatial characteristics and imaging of a headphone. One is how well does the device convey the interaural timing and intensity differences (FR related), and secondly how does it interact with the pinnae (driver and cup design). An interesting demo I found on YT actually demonstrates the differences between different headphones and speakers nicely. Its a binaural panning demo in dearVR found here: dearVR Pro 3 Dimensional Mixing Demo and at one point he moves the image of a recorded guitar soloist, in his words, "a little to the left." Repeating an earlier experiment of how it sounds on my various devices is interesting, to say the least. On my 2020 Sundara's, which have the best spatial effects of all my headphones with EQ, the image is slightly behind me as with most headphones. On those, it moves a little to the left like he says. On my FiiO FD5's, the image is narrower, so it appears to move a little to the left a bit less. On my 560S's, uh... It moves to the left, but appears to do so by rotating over the top of my head. A very unusual and somewhat off-putting result. Only on my nearfield speaker system does it actually appear to move with the dot, which is quite a bit to the left, by about 40-45 degrees or so (42 degrees in the mixing software, to be exact). Closing my eyes and moving my arm with the image shows a similar angle to the little dot on the "radar" screen when I open my eyes and look afterwards.

Every device gives a completely different result, and also a completely different soundstage. The speakers are, by far, the most accurate with respect to imaging since they are close, in a fairly dead space acoustically, and can interact with my ears as sound would normally. But by far the most open sounding device is the 2020 Sundaras on the Harman curve. The caveat is the increased bass, which they need to sound balanced, causes excessive excursion and a temporary loss of tension in the membranes (and consequently them doing really unpleasant things), but fortunately they do recover after a while. And one thing I can say is, that for me at least, its like they aren't even there they are so incredibly open listening to them again. Its really quite remarkable compared to the others which sound more closed in. But the bottom line is each device, despite being more or less compliant with the most current FR curves from research, have completely different imaging. Clearly its an aspect of headphones that is, perhaps, not getting the true attention it deserves. And it has a big impact on how they are perceived. As I would suspect, a lot of this probably derives from how they interact with my head and ears, and how that relates the ITDs and IIDs in the source recordings and my own HRTFs (if any at all with things like IEMs), which will obviously vary by individual.

Edit: Replaced video with simpler link instead.
Agree this demo is provocative. My KRK desktop monitors were very idiosyncratic; they changed their spatial characteristics but they didn't match the video in 3D space at all. However, my DCA Aeon 2 Noire phones matched the video perfectly in 3D space, move for move and angle for angle.. Most interesting, I heard the image go behind my head when the YouTube demo showed it, although I have not found another music recording which spatially leaves the frontal, 9-to-3 o'clock hemisphere with those 'phones, until this demo.
 
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Thomas_A

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Maybe. I think in practical terms the best thing to do is choose headphones with good natural soundstage, some consensus on the internet with regards to which ones, and/or pursue Impulcifier or Smyth Realiser. And of course Virtual 7.1 Surround processing for gaming & movies. They're not some bad options.
I am not so much of a headphone guy and have only a couple for use. Bose QC25 for travel, Beyerdynamic DT150 with DT100 pads for general use. HD600 is also ok soundise but clamping force is to strong for me. Currently I don’t have crossfeed etc but but I might get it some day. I mainly use my 4.2.2 system when I want more enveloping effects.
 
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