Headphones Reconsidered: NAD Viso HP-50 & Mr. Speakers Ether II

tmallin

WBF Technical Expert
May 19, 2010
552
124
455
68
Chicagoland

What Has Come Before

My two prior headphone threads, "Sennheiser HD 800 S Headphones + SimAudio Moon Neo 430 HA Headphone Amplifier" and Audeze LCD-4z Headphones review most of my experience with headphones over the decades, from the early Koss ESP 6 and 9 electrostatics and Sennheiser 414 and 424 up through the latest $4,000 Audeze models, as well as some meanderings through various aftermarket headphone cables. Of course, headphones need a driving amplifier. Add in my thread dealing with my current reference headphone amplifier, the Benchmark HPA4 Headphone/Line Amplifier and you will understand what I value in headphone drive.

Current Headphone Set Up


Headphone Discontent

Reading between the lines of my prior headphone-related discussions, readers may sense an overlay of discontent. You'd be entirely correct in sensing this. More than with any other component category, headphones for me have been a mixture of strong and weak points with the weak points never minor, much less insignificant.

THE endemic problem with headphone listening is its unnatural spatial presentation. Headphone listening never seems to present musical images or the musical stage way out in front of the listener in a three-dimensional manner the way most high-end speakers set-ups can easily do. In addition, the stage is too wide, too focused in the center of your head, and not enveloping to the rear. Special recording methods such as binaural and special Head Related Transfer Function (HRTF) DSP software can lessen these effects, but speakers in a room are leagues better at this sort of thing.

To a lesser extent, headphone bass is usually less than satisfying because the feel of bass on your body and in the room around you is lacking. And, of course, it is more difficult to have group listening sessions with headphones.

On the other hand, headphone listening doesn't have inherent left/right front/back balance issues for everyone other than a single perfectly centered listener. And—the biggest advantage—headphone listening does not constantly fight the battle of recorded acoustics versus the second-venue effect of overlaying your small listening room's acoustics on the recorded acoustics of the recording venue or artificial acoustics made part of the recording by the sound engineers.

Coming from a string of very naturally balanced loudspeakers—particularly my current Harbeth Monitor 40.2—I find it difficult to accommodate to headphones which, even at the highest price levels, persist in having significant frequency imbalances. Most of the time it is frequency balance which is the root cause of either long-term sonic satisfaction or short- or long-term sonic discontent. Once I hear a frequency balance problem, it becomes impossible to ignore it, like taking repeated steps with a stone in your shoe. I either have to fix it with equalization or move on to different transducers.


[Continued in Part 2 below]
 

tmallin

WBF Technical Expert
May 19, 2010
552
124
455
68
Chicagoland
Part 2:

A Trusty Standby: The NAD Viso HP-50 Headphones

My respect for these headphones continues to grow. For the price—or at any price—I've heard little that comes close, much less bests these in most ways. More than ever, I consider the NAD Viso HP-50 headphones to be a fantastic bargain at the circa $200 asking price. If you are looking for headphones which sound totally natural even in comparison with the very best headphones you can buy at twenty times the cost of the NADs or more, then these are definitely the ones I'd recommend you try. In my view, these are one of audio's all-time best buys! Attributes include:

  • They are small and lightweight, closed-back headphones. They offer a good amount of isolation from noise in your environment and those near you will not be bothered by what you are listening to even if you are listening at high SPLs.
  • They don't look cheap, but rather look refined and minimalist.
  • At least for my head and ears, the fit is comfortable with a good ear seal and adequate room for my pinnae. However, I know there are complaints from some about the fit or lack of room for their ears within the cavity of the cushions, so you definitely should try before you buy.
  • The low bass is not as powerful as that of the Audeze LDC-4, but the bottom octave IS there and stronger than that of the Focal Utopia, and way stronger than that of the Sennheiser HD800 and HD800S.
  • Above the low bass, the balance strikes me as the most neutral of ANY headphone I've heard, at any price, up through the midrange and lower highs.
  • The top octave is a bit soft, but it is there and in good balance with the lowest octaves.
  • This lack of a bit of top-end air, together with the lack of a presence range suckout and the fact that these are closed back headphones (which means each ear is only hearing the sound from the one earcup, not the sound from both) makes these a bit more "closed in" and the presentation a bit "smaller" than the best open-backed phones like the Senns, Utopia, and Audeze—but only a little. The presence of the deep bass counters the smallness of the closed-back design, creating cavernous space on recordings with good bass extension. These are very open/large sounding as closed-back phones go.
  • The presentation is much more "out front" of my head than that of any other headphone I've heard. Only the original Sennheiser HD800 comes close to this sort of presentation and the NAD is still superior in this respect and does not have the lack of low bass and zippy 6 kHz resonance of the Senns. This attribute should not be underestimated. The NADs are truly unique in this respect in my experience. For those who value a presentation which is "out there" rather than "inside your hear" these may be the ultimate best headphone experience available, despite any shortcomings.
  • These are very sensitive; that is, they play louder than many others at the same setting of the volume control. I would estimate, using the calibrated volume control of the Benchmark HPA4, that these are AT LEAST 20 dB more sensitive than the Audeze LCD-4. That means that for any given SPL I hear on the NADs, I have to advance the volume control of the HPA4 at least 20 dB higher to achieve the same subjective volume on the LCD-4 headphones.
  • The high sensitivity means they will play plenty loud with an iPhone 6 or X and sound pretty darn good from such sources. They are also driven VERY well from the headphone jacks of computers like my Microsoft Surface 3, Surface 2017, and Dell XPS 27-7760. The sound of movies played on such a computer through these headphones is simply stunning! The Audeze phones cannot reach satisfying levels when powered from such sources and the quality as well as quantity of sound suffers.
  • The stock connecting cords (one with an in-line volume control, one without) are about four feet long. That is fine for using with a portable device or desktop system (in fact, some say it's a bit too long for portable use) but only barely long enough for use with an audio system if you move your chair very close to your headphone amp. I strongly prefer to listen to music via headphones in the same listening seat from which I listen to speakers. For that set up, even with my near-field speaker arrangement and electronics between the speakers, I need at least a 2.5 meter (98-inch) headphone cable. The stock cables are obviously far too short for such use.
  • Unlike the Audeze LCD-4/4z, the NAD phones are not too picky about the quality of extension headphone cables. Yes, you can hear the cable differences just fine, but the almost perfect frequency balance of the NADs with the stock cable makes differences among after-market cables rather less off-putting. The best longer cable (three meters) I've found so far is the Moon Audio Blue Dragon which changes the perceived response in a complimentary fashion, adding a bit of bass extension and tightness as well as a bit of clarity and a tad of top octave air. The Laricable pure silver cable is fine, but leans out the midbass/lower midrange response a bit. The $7 Hosa 10-foot extension cable may add a tad more warmth, but does little else to the response and does not seem to reduce clarity, so it is the best bang for the buck in terms of a longer cable.
  • The clarity and lack of distortion are fine, just not quite as fine as the top rank of planar magnetic and electrostatic headphones. But the price differences are huge, with the clearest/lowest distortion phones costing at least four times as much and often ten to twenty times as much.
I've been listening to the high-price spread in headphones for many years now and I've heard many of the best out there at shows. I have owned my share of very fine and pricey headphones as well. Yes, there are better sounding headphones than the NAD Viso HP-50 in terms of the size of presentation and clarity/low distortion. However, the above-listed combination of virtues makes the NAD for me preferable to most headphones out there. If you can't afford the high-priced spread, here is where you should park. You need not be embarrassed. These sound truly excellent, are extremely practical in that they work fine with everything from a smart phone to the best separate headphone amplifiers, and don't cost much money!

While the NAD Viso HP-50 has been fairly well reviewed, I actually feel that its virtues have not been fully appreciated by most reviewers. While Tyll Herstens had it on the Innerfidelity Wall of Fame for awhile, it was ousted by the Oppo PM-3 phones which, in my opinion, are not as excellent. I think this Computer Audiophile review of the NAD Viso HP-50 comes much closer to describing what I hear than most others.

[Concluded in Part 3 below]
 

tmallin

WBF Technical Expert
May 19, 2010
552
124
455
68
Chicagoland
Part 3

The Best High-Priced Spread: The Mr. Speakers Ether II

If you must have headphones which have both a very natural tonal balance and near-state-of-the-art low distortion and clarity, then the new-ish Mr. Speakers Ether II is the best I've heard at length yet.

Okay, I haven't yet spent much time with the newer electrostatic headphones from Hi-Fi Man, Mr. Speakers, or others. The need to use a specialty electrostatic headphone amp to drive such headphones make them totally limited to a single system and adds another piece of electronics to that system. Neither of these factors endear such headphones to me. But I'd probably go there if I heard electrostatic headphones which truly "blow away" the planar magnetics and dynamics.

Yes, I've heard the Stax electrostats many times over the years in various contexts. Stax headphones have more detail than planar magnetics, but they are also unnaturally cold, overly bright, do not have nearly the satisfying bass weight and punch, and will not play at high levels with the lack of distortion the Ether II provides.

I will have to investigate the newest Abyss AB-1266 Phi TC (Total Consciousness) at the upcoming AXPONA. In short auditions, earlier versions of the AB-1266 have sounded unique in mostly pleasing ways. Usually, however, such uniqueness does not wear well over time so that uniqueness of sound combined with the very high price and high weight on the head has kept me from pulling the trigger on prior versions. We shall see.

But, so far, in my auditioning, the Ether II is a long-term best in terms of sound quality. At around $2,000, it is also a best buy. I'd much rather listen the these phones than any of the Stax electrostatic models. And I really haven't felt much urge to swap out the Ether IIs for either of my Audeze phones, either.

The overall tonal balance naturalness of the Ether II is in the same league with the NAD. This is the only "high-priced" headphone I currently can say that about. The midrange is not quite as accurate as the NAD, but I'd say it's 90 percent of the way there.

But the bass is truly phenomenal in all ways! It bests the Audeze LCD-4 bass in that it is at least equally extended, but has more kick and more detail without any less weight. It does not flirt with overly warm upper bass/lower midrange the way the Audeze LCD4/4z do. At high volumes the bass kick is the closest thing I've heard from headphones to the way truly full-range yet smooth speaker bass sounds.

The Ether II has more seeming high frequency extension, delicacy, and openness than the NAD and is thus top-to-bottom very well balanced the same way the NAD is. And yet the highs are very easy on the ears, with no sense of overbrightness or overlay of brittleness or distortion of any kind.

The Ether II lacks any overt sense of recession in the presence range. In this way it clearly bests the Audeze LCD-4 and even the LCD-4z. There is still a hint of politeness in this range and thus it is not quite so honest through the mids and lower highs as the NAD, but it is not far removed.

The soundstage is not as big as that produced by the Audeze or Sennheiser HD 800/800S phones, but still is plenty big enough, at least as big as that produced by the NADs. It also sounds "open" in the best sense of open-backed headphones. In my opinion, soundstage bigness/largeness is an over-rated attribute for headphones since the stage on any headphones is usually very wide indeed compared to most speaker set ups. The Ether IIs have a good sense of the music being out front: not up to the quality of the NADs in this respect, but better than the Audeze and roughly equal to the Sennheiser HD 800/800S.

Where the Ether II stands head and shoulders above the Audeze and NAD phones, however, is in listening comfort. They truly are light weight, the pressure on the head is low-ish and they seem to get more comfortable and yet better-fitting on my head as the minutes go by. After ten minutes, I scarcely notice they are there at all. I cannot recall owning a pair of headphones which were this comfortable to wear for extended periods, and by extended I mean anything more than 20 minutes or so.

The new VIVO cable which comes with the Ether II is very nice: substantial yet supple, lightweight, extremely flexible, and lacking in microphonics. I have two ten-foot cables, one with four-pin XLR at the amp end and the other with a 1/4-inch phone jack. I use the XLR cable on my reference system, the 1/4-inch cable in other applications. I hear and see no reason to try aftermarket cabling with the Ether II.

While not quite as demanding of power as the Audeze LCD-4, the Ether II is not as sensitive as the LCD-4z, much less the NAD Viso HP-50. You will need a decent headphone stage to drive the Ether II to high levels. For straight-in phone, tablet, or computer use, I'd definitely stick with the NAD.

In general, I agree with the extensive comments by Ice-man on the Ether II over on the Super Best Audio Friends site beginning here. If you think you might be interested in the Ether II, be sure to check out Ice-man's comments there first.
 

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