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
- Sources: Auralic Aries G2 streamer, Oppo UDP-205
- Equalizer: DSPeaker Anti-Mode X4, usually used in bypass mode for headphone listening
- DAC: Benchmark DAC3 HGC
- Line/Headphone Amp: Benchmark HPA4
- Digital Cables: Benchmark RCA to RCA Coaxial Cable
- Analog Cables: Benchmark Studio&Stage Starquad XLR
- Headphone cables: usually stock, sometimes various aftermarket
- Power cords: stock or Absolute Power Cord
- Electrical system: two dedicated 20-amp circuits, both sourced from the same phase of 120-volt phase of 240-volt power, each feeding a single quad of receptacles, one for digital electronics, the other for analog electronics (amps and headphone/line amp)
- Equipment Rack: Salamander Archetype 28", solid cherry shelves with two extra shelves making it a five-shelf rack.
- Isolation: A/V Audio Service Equipment Vibration Protectors (EVPs) under all electronics, tops of chasses damped with issues of The Absolute Sound
- Connection Enhancement: Caig Deoxit Gold G100L
- Power Treatment: P.I. Audio Group UberBUSS with Triode Wire Labs Seven Plus power cord on each dedicated line (coming soon)
- Headphones Available: Audeze LCD-4, Audeze LCD-4z, Mr. Speakers Ether II, NAD Viso HP-50
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]