Written by Kyle Dionela (@Ishcabible)
As a Chicago native, since the Chicago CanJam in 2010, there haven't been many big meets. We usually have smaller, more intimate meets other than our yearly ChiUniFi, which still focuses more on hobbyists' unique setups rather than vendors setting up booths, so many newly released headphones are absent. When the opportunity to go to Rocky Mountain Audio Fest in Denver, Colorado, arose, I took it, knowing I'd have the opportunity to be among the first to try many newly released headphones. Of course, like at all events like this, I ended up talking to people more than trying gear. So, I didn't have time to try some notable things, such as any of the recently released Audeze, the Abyss Phi and Diana; and, most sadly, the allegedly fantastic RAAL headphones--the table was always full whenever I had a free moment to try them. However, I did get to try most of what I wanted, and I've taken the time to write some long-form impressions.
Multi-driver systems are common in IEMs but they’re much less common in headphones. The 1MORE Triple Driver over ear is one of the few modern multi-driver headphones. It sounds...weird. You can definitely tell there are multiple drivers because you can hear different timbres between the bass, midrange, and treble. It’s an interesting idea but it sounds more like a proof-of-concept headphone than anything. The bass sounds echoey and resonates just very slightly slower than the rest of the sound. The midrange is a bit too recessed for my liking, especially above 1.5kHz so they sounded kind of distant and dull. I want to say I heard a timbre shift around 4-5kHz from the graphene driver to the ceramic tweeter where the decay seemed a little faster and timbre was harder, but it’s possible that the tweeter doesn’t kick in until later. It’s an interesting sound. It’s a closed headphone that folds so theoretically it’d work as a decent portable. I’d rather have this than the Sennheiser HD1 and many other portable headphones, but for home listening I’m not sure it measures up.
The AD2000 is one of my favorite headphones because of the unique coloration they give vocals. It doesn’t work with everything, but when it works, it really works. I was hoping the ADX5000 would do something similar, but at a higher technical level. The ADX5000 isn’t quite that, but instead a very solid flavor headphone. The upper midrange is colored around the 4-5k region, but much less harshly than the MrSpeakers stuff, as it sounds like a wider peak rather than a jolt. The treble was grainer than I’d like for a flagship headphone. The Sennheiser HD800S is my threshold for graininess in a flagship and it sounded a bit grainer than that.
The Elegia was high on my list of things to try but the only one I got the chance to use was malfunctioning. I’ll have a full review and measurements coming up though.
The TH909 intrigued me when I saw its announcement. I’ve had a lot of experience with the TH-X00 and TH-900 so I know when you remove the cups, the bass kicks up astronomically (I think I measured +15-20dB at 20Hz over 1kHz with the TH-X00 cupless) so I was somewhat worried the same would be the case with the TH909. Luckily, Fostex seemed to damp the TH909 enough that this was not the case. I actually kind of liked these. They aren’t perfect by any means--the midrange timbre sounds artificial and kind of honky, the mid treble was elevated too much for my preferences, and the bass didn’t rumble or extend as much as the Vérité, but it’s a fun sounding headphone. It reminds me a lot of a much cleaner sounding Klipsch HP3 with less warmth. I dislike the TH900’s lower midrange dip enough that I frankly think the TH-X00 sounds better tonally despite the TH900’s much cleaner bass, but luckily the TH909 does not have this dip. It’s basically what I wanted the TH900 to sound like, but I could obviously do with less treble. They’ll make great EDM headphones and for bright EDM it’ll be a killer. For most other music I’d probably pass on these though.
The Shangri-La Jr. was a big surprise. I used to own a Stax SR-007A MK2 that I bass port modded but eventually sold it because the Stax ethereal, weightless presentation always sounded really unnatural. But the midrange was undeniably very nice. The Shangri-La Jr. brings me back to that kind of sound with a bit of more weight, which is most of what I wanted from the SR-007A. The bass impact was still limper than most dynamics though, so it may not appeal to those who like a firm bass impact. It was also a bit brighter in the mid treble and had more forward upper mids so tonality was a bit less natural. It’s definitely not perfect though. While the show was pretty loud, I could hear a definite lack of dynamics and small details sounded distinctly more muffled from the Shangri La Jr. than even the Arya sitting next to it. For the $8000 the system costs it’s rather disappointing, but I can somewhat see the case for the $4000 retail of the headphone itself. The Stax SR-009 is a “better” headphone in terms of technicalities, but tonally the Shangri-La Jr. sounds more natural to me.
The Shangri La (non-Jr.) was a big disappointment in comparison. It actually sounded worse to me; the midrange and treble sounded much less even--the timbre was very different. It sounded quite artificial, very nasal, like singers have a cold. The treble was very harsh and unpleasant. It had similar problems with dynamics and detail as the Shangri La Jr, so the $14,000 headphone price/$42,000 system price difference sounds...misplaced.
The HE-6 is what I’d consider to be my favorite headphone, so I was looking forward to try the Susvara and HE-6SE. Unfortunately, the EF1000 amp Hifiman had on demo started clipping at what seemed like 70dB so neither were particularly usable and I didn’t get to try them on other vendors’ tables. The same was the case with the HE1000SE.
I’ve read a lot about the Sundara and while it had some initial hiccups such as failed drivers and failed solder joints which are unacceptable issues for a $500 headphone, I think it’s unfortunate Hifiman’s attained (justifiably) such a poor QC reputation because frankly, the Sundara sounded more tonally accurate than most flagships I’ve heard. The upper midrange is a bit unnaturally hyped and the treble was a bit harsh, but other than that and some technical complaints such as bass that seemed to decay slightly too fast and some detail veiling, they’re one of the most solid mid-priced headphones I’ve heard in a while. The bass extends nicely with a good amount of body, but not so much that they sound congested. The midrange from around 1-4k is relatively balanced, with a slight dip between ~1-3kHz that most high end headphones have. I’ve been hoping Hifiman would release a real HE500 successor because the HE400i and HE560 fell flat for me, and the Sundara actually might be it.
The Jade II was a big surprise; I’ve known about Hifiman making an electrostatic headphone in the price point for a few years but I figured it was cancelled and replaced with the Shangri La, which added an extra 0 to the price tag, so seeing the Jade II being released at $2,500 as a system, not just a headphone, I had faith Hifiman was trying to win back the people who believe that Hifiman’s no longer focusing on the consumer market.
Unfortunately, I think it sounds awful. It was painfully bright, the bass was incredibly anemic and ethereal, so it kind of felt like listening to IEMs without a proper seal. The midrange was very plasticky and texture, the treble was incredibly harsh, I couldn’t tolerate these for long before putting them down. They also noticeably lacked dynamics, more than any headphone I’ve heard in recent memory.
The Arya was another surprise. I believe the Ananda was meant to replace the HE560 rather than the Edition X so that price point had a gap, but I didn’t think it would come so soon. The Arya retails for $1599 and I legitimately think, versus many other flagships, it’s actually somewhat worth that. It reminded me a lot of the HE1000 V1 in that it has a lot of the softness yet retains decent dynamics, and tonality is quite good. It’s still a little artificial and veiled, but it’s arguably closer than many headphones that cost much more than the Arya.
I’ve been very interested in Meze’s upcoming Empyrean because it appears to combine both switchback planars like most current designs and circular traces, so it’s clear that Rinaro and Meze aimed to make something different from the other planar flagships in the market, and they certainly succeeded in making something interesting. However I don’t think the sound remotely justifies its $3,000 price tag. Frankly, it sounded like it could be a ~$100-200 vintage planar headphone. They sounded quite congested with a large 4-5kHz spike that, while sometimes pleasant in bringing vocals forward, sounded far too elevated when combined with low and mid-treble roll off so the result sounded very, very nasal and artificial. I also heard a dip at around 3kHz that made the spike so much more annoying and made the midrange sound distant. They sounded like they had some bass roll off, but it’s entirely possible but it could be fit-related as they’re not a small headphone. The bass it did have wasn’t very coherent or clean though. It wasn’t a terrible headphone, but I was really excited to hear these and I’m not happy their sound was so problematic, especially for such a large price tag. I’m going to try to give these more of a try because other than the friend I attended the show with who only took about a minute to decide they weren’t for him, the general reception was quite positive.
I was excited to finally hear the Aeons; I’ve read a lot about them (both good and bad) and what I heard was somewhere in the middle. They shared a few common traits, most notably very overdamped bass that, while sufficient in quantity, impact was lacking. Bass sounded like stuffing a kick drum to the brim with pillows so it didn’t really have much definition and ended up sounding muddy. But I bet trying to EQ the bass up wouldn’t really help with the impact and just make them sound muddier.
The Aeon Open was more congested than the closed model. The low midrange was overly thick which provided a slower sound, which contrasted too much with the overdamped bass and forward upper midrange with a tonality that kind of sounded like you were pinching a singer’s nose. This led to a very bottom-heavy, overly thick sound that seemed really disjointed. The treble sounded like it could use more refinement too. It’s an agreeable sound signature and I can see how people would enjoy it, but somehow it...sounds wrong to me.
The closed Aeon was a bit more agreeable, but I still had a number of problems with them. Beyond the overdamped bass, the upper midrange sounded way too artificially forward and made high strings sound painful, especially when paired with its mid treble spike. This says a lot, considering I usually like the typical forward Audio Technica midrange around the 4-5kHz level like the Aeon’s. It just doesn’t seem well-integrated and ends up sounding really, really off. I was pretty disappointed because I want more good closed options under $1000, but I wouldn’t really consider this an upgrade from the various T50RP mods. I might actually prefer Dan’s Mad Dog 3.2 to these.
The Ether 2 was something I was cautious about trying. I didn’t think much of the Ether Flow Open--the bass is muddy, the midrange timbre is artificial, and the treble is fatiguing. The Ether 2 does improve on the Flow, but not enough that I’d consider it justifiably better. The bass extends well, but like the Aeons, the impact sounded overdamped and decayed too quickly. They also had this diffuse quality that lacked direction and made bass presentation sound quite strange. The upper midrange sounded harsh around 4-5kHz, indicative of a bit too much elevation and a little bit of harshness around 1kHz and possibly a dip around 3kHz. Mid treble was too harsh, like the Ether Flows, but they sounded relatively airy.
I really, really want to like a Mr.Speakers headphone. Their frames are among the comfiest and the build is solid, but it seems like their house sound is the kind of overdamped sound that aims to be forgiving of bad recordings. While that’s definitely a positive trait for many, for such expensive headphones, it seems like it’s holding the potential music experience back.
The HD800 has been my reference headphone for years, so I was very, very excited to finally hear the HD820 and...it was probably the biggest bust of the show. I used a few different pairs to make sure it wasn’t just the particular unit, but sadly that was the case. The most noticeable thing is that the midrange sounds awful. It’s very plasticky and honky, the dipped low midrange and upper bass chops off so much body that listening to low instruments is unpleasant, the bass sounded one-note and muddy, and the treble sounded harsh. I felt almost insulted after using a third pair and hearing basically the same sound. It does seem to have very good detail retrieval and a pleasantly wide sound, but it was so hard for me to focus on its technical merits when it sound so tonally offensive.
I’ve been reading a lot about the M7 and M9 IEMs. I’ve been looking for an IEM upgrade for a while since my Ultimate Ears UE7 broke and I can’t find another UERM for sale. I was hoping the M7 or M9 would do it for me. They’re close, but not quite enough for me to bite. The M7 undoubtedly sounds thick; its low midrange and upper bass are elevated a bit, maybe ~3-4dB over 1kHz. The low treble is kind of dipped too so they sounded very relaxing overall. I’m often not a big fan of balanced armature designs because I’ve found that in general, timbre can sound artificial, decay can be unnaturally fast, and impact isn’t particularly convincing. I’ve heard a few dynamic driver IEMs that I’ve liked, like the DUNU Falcon C and Acoustune HS1551, but I’ve wanted to see if I can find a balanced armature design that fits my tastes too. The M7 and M9 do get closer than most—I prefer the timbre on these to the Campfire Andromeda and Noble Audio Katana, but they both have a sense of congestion and closed-in sound that bugged me with the Andromeda and Katana.
Rather than using Knowles or Sonion balanced armatures like most competitors, Sony has developed their own balanced armatures for their IEMs, which may partially explain why these stand out over other designs. The warmth elevates that feeling for me, and what seems like a small dip around 3kHz that makes midrange sound very slightly distant heightens that sense too. The bass does seem to have better impact than a lot of balanced armature designs and is about level with the Andromeda. The M9 sounds much like the M7 but sounds a good bit clearer overall; it’s a legitimate Andromeda competitor and I can definitely see people preferring it. I do still find it lacking in realism in timbre and impact more than I’d like for its $1500 US retail price commands. Compared to the Andromeda, it has a more forward midrange and sounds warmer and more relaxing overall, but I can’t help but feel the Andromeda is slightly more resolving of lower level details. It’s hard to really tell in show conditions so I’m going to try to get my hands on an M9 eventually to really compare.
The IER-Z1R on the other hand was fantastic. It’s a hybrid design with a two dynamic drivers and a balanced armature. I like these more than any other IEM I’ve ever used, but my IEM experience is admittedly rather limited. I wanted to make time to visit the Empire Ears, 64 Audio, and InEar booths, but unfortunately couldn’t, though it’ll take a lot to unseat these. The bass was a bit elevated, but nothing overwhelming. Decay was fantastic and tone was very, very close to realistic. The treble could be a bit more elevated for my tastes, but overall, I was shocked at how much I liked these considering I think the MDR-Z1R was a very disappointing-sounding headphone. I legitimately would consider buying a pair of these.
I owned a Z7 a couple years ago and had a lot of problems with it--the bass was muddy and one-note, the midrange was far too elevated below 1kHz which led to a lot of congestion and had a recession at 2kHz that made vocals, strings, and brass sound lacking in energy and uninvolving, and the treble was harsh and painful. After hearing the Z7M2 incorporated technology from the MDR-Z1R, I was kind of worried because the Z1R’s midrange was quite problematic to me too. When I put it on...I wanted to take them off after only a few seconds of listening. I put on a Rage Against the Machine song and I was shocked. It sounded like the guitars were gutted to the point where you can hear that they played a note, but none of the attack had any impact. It was one of the most bizarre things I’ve ever heard. And yet, the treble started giving me a headache within the first minute. The bass really wasn’t much better than the original Z7 either. Next to the Spirit Labs headphone, these were the biggest disappointment of the show because I really just want more good options in the
On the Questyle table was an Italian headphone company I’ve read a bit about, but beyond seeing that they make headphones that look like Grados and created their own drivers, I haven’t done much research. On display was their Twin Pulse headphone, their flagship headphone, costing $2,945. They connect two drivers in series and say it lowers distortion and allows for better airflow of the drivers.
It was the worst sounding thing I heard that day. The upper midrange was severely recessed, the treble was screechy and unrefined, the bass was very, very congested and muddy. The very nice rep suggested I try it out of the Questyle and frankly, it made them sound muddier. I legitimately feel bad about saying such negative things because they look beautiful and everyone that talked to me was very helpful and passionate, but they sound awful. I’d be very willing to try them again because it’s totally possible something was defective, but I was unprepared with how they sounded.
The SR-009 has always struck me as an odd sounding headphone. It’s an incredibly fast and detailed headphone, but sounds like it tries so hard to be “high resolution” that it sounds fake to me. I’ve used the SR-009 with so many different systems and in all of them, the SR-009 sounded unnaturally bright with very plastic timbre. It’s a technically great headphone, but...I just can’t enjoy music with it. The SR-009S seems to try to remedy that by adding extra thickness and a bit less treble, not totally unlike the Sennheiser HD800 versus the HD800S. But in adding this thickness, it seems to lose some resolution and sounds even more artificial because the upper midrange still sounds almost as plastic as the SR-009 and is now contrasting a thin upper midrange with an overly thick low midrange. It’s probably a more consumer-friendly sound, but Stax tend to sound ethereal and lacking in impact, and the SR-009S is no exception, so this kind of sound seems to clash with that presentation. It tries to have a slightly bassy (roughly SR-007-level if not a bit more) and thick low-midrange sound but without a sense of impact like most planar magnetic and dynamic headphones, it sounds confusing. It has the idea of warmth but instead it sounds messy. I don’t want to say it doesn’t sound clean, because it definitely is still incredibly fast and detailed, but it just sounds disjointed. The Shangri-La Jr. sounded much more coherent with better impact to me, but the SR-009S is undeniably a better technical headphone. Overall, if I had to pick between the SR-009 and SR-009S, I would probably go with the non-S SR-009. While I’m not in love with the SR-009 tonally, the SR-009S makes too many compromises and in the process, messes too much with what made the original great and its changes don’t improve the sound enough to outweigh the losses.
The Vérité was my pick of the show, but I admittedly didn’t have time to try a couple things that caught my eye, most notably the RAAL headphone prototypes and anything on the Audeze and Abyss tables. But compared to every other headphone I heard, the Vérité fit my preferences more than anything else. They had forward upper mids between 4-5kHz like many other headphones I used, but like the ADX5000, it wasn’t overdone or too unnatural. There was still a tinge of artificialness, but it’s nothing beyond other flagships like the Focal Utopia, Sennheiser HD800, or Stax SR-009. The bass rumble reminded me a lot of the Utopia and, frankly, I thought the general sound was a bit more natural than the Utopia, which can sound slightly hard with a strange resonance at 4kHz. I do wish they were more forward in the 1-3k region because it’s a little more dipped than I’d like, but Zach said he’s still finalizing the tuning so I’m hoping that region gets some attention. I was trying to listen for ringing or distortion and the bass could sound a little bit cleaner but I fear trying to damp that too much may push it toward being overdamped. As it stands, it’s somewhere between the HD800 and Utopia in terms of bass distortion, but I want to say that the quantity is a bit more than the HD800, which is a pretty good level for people that think the HD800 is too thin. I’ll be getting a Vérité to review more in-depth, but as it stands, it’s easily a competitor for the best headphone available.
I’ve received a lot of requests asking about what I think about the Auteur but before RMAF I actually had not heard a pair. The closest thing I can compare them to is a dynamic version of the HE1000 V1. They have more of a midbass hump and less bass extension, maybe a little less upper end air. They’re a little soft-sounding compared the the Aeolus and Vérité. They didn’t seem to do anything particularly offensive, but I can see people wishing they were more exciting.
The Aeolus was pretty fun-sounding. It definitely reminds me of the Atticus with its strong warmth and elevated midbass, but it didn’t have a lot of the closed-in sound I heard from the Atticus (probably a given, since it’s open). It had a bit of a mid treble boost that I wasn’t a huge fan of, but like the Vérité, they’re still incomplete in tuning. I could see these being an interesting option for those who have something like an HD800 or Utopia and want something more fun-sounding. I didn’t hear it to be the most resolving though and low treble sounded a veiled. It makes a compelling Audeze competitor for those wanting a dark sound; the bass isn’t as elevated as the Atticus so I could see people viewing these as a potential “upgrade” to the HD650 if they think Audeze headphones are too upper midrange-deficient, though I do think the HD650’s mids are more forward.
-Kyle Dionela (@Ishcabible)