Sennheiser HD 800 S Headphones + SimAudio Moon Neo 430HA Headphone Amplifier

tmallin

WBF Technical Expert
May 19, 2010
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#1
"Headphones? I thought you said that speaker reproduction was so much better?"

Yes, I did say something like that recently. For years I barely listened to headphones, even though I had two top Grado models from a decade or two past, the HP-1 and RS-1. The sound never seemed all that convincing and was either too warm (the HP-1s) or less warm but with some high frequency nasties (RS-1s). Many years before that, the Sennheiser HD 414 and 424 were rather lightweight in balance and the Koss ESP 6 and 9 electrostats, while good sounding compared to others of their time, were very heavy and clamped down on my ears too much to be comfortable for any length of time. And none of these had much sense of openness, much less of placing sounds anywhere but between my ears.

Thus, none of my prior headphones got a lot of use and eventually I sold them all, as well as a Joseph Grado Signature HPA-1 battery/AC headphone amp which is quite sought after on the used market these days. I was headphone-less for a couple of years.

Almost. I did, of necessity, use USB headphones for the last several years as part of a soft phone VoIP system. It was those humble $25 Logitech ClearChat USB headphones which sparked a renewed interest in headphones. Of course, not only did I use this headset for talking on the phone, I also could hear how naturally the voices of people I knew well were reproduced--which was very naturally indeed. And of course I tried those phones with reproducing the sound of all kinds of audio/video stuff on YouTube and elsewhere on the Web. Okay, no full bass extension, but everything above the low bass sounded quite natural, including classical orchestral and choral music. And spatially these were much more open sounding than previous headphones I'd tried, even doing astonishingly well with reproducing binaural and other "trick" recording techniques, making sounds appear all around--even in front of--my head. I actually enjoyed listening to these El Cheapo headphones.

But I couldn't use the Logitechs with my stereo because of their USB connection. My stereos only have the traditional 1/4" TRS phone jack and my iPhone only has the 1/8" stereo mini jack.

I began reading various headphone-related Websites. I took particular note of the writings of Tyll Herstens on InnerFidelity. This guy is REALLY serious about headphone listening, reviewing, and testing and seemed the most intelligent, rational, and thorough mouthpiece I could find on the subject. Even REG seems to respect the rigorous way he approaches his testing. As I listened to more headphones at shows and stores I also came to realize that I more or less agreed with Herstens' sonic assessment of various program material as well as headphones. He seems about equally intolerant of excess brightness as I am, for instance, and he's also looking for as much openness and "out front" sound as he can get, as I also think is desirable.

Since my EVS-modified Oppo BDP-105/105D also had their headphone jacks upgraded as part of the mods, I figured all I had to do to get started with audiophile headphones was to buy something at a reasonable price and see if I continued to be fascinated and entertained. Thus, looking at the InnerFidelity reviews of reasonably priced headphones, I chose the $250 NAD Viso HP50 as a starting point. Another possibility would have been the Oppo PM-3 for $400, but I figured I'd start with the less expensive NAD which Herstens seemed to like almost as well as the more expensive Oppo.

The NAD showed me that headphones these days could in fact yield full bass extension to 20 Hz with plenty of volume, even from an iPhone. They are low in distortion even at volume levels far too high for safe and healthy continuous listening, and certainly are balanced warmly, as I prefer. The NADs are probably balanced a bit TOO warmly, although this is not nearly as noticeable with an iPhone as it is with better headphone amps having more power and bass oommph, such as the headphone circuits in my modified Oppos. They also sounded very dynamic and bouncy, moreso than any phones I've heard before. What I don't like about the NADs--and probably wouldn't like about any other sealed headphones--is the sealing off of my ears from outside sounds. To me, that feels unnatural, uncomfortable, and considerably diminishes any feeling of openness the headphones may otherwise be able to generate. They don't sound as open or spatially exact as the Logitech ClearChat, for example, even though the NADs cost ten times as much. In these observations, I continued to track right along with Tyll Herstens.

I then thought that I might as well try Tyll's current favorite headphones. Right about that time he reviewed the new Sennheiser HD 800 S and stated that these were his current favorites. He, like me, found the prior HD 800 to be on the bright and piercing side, but that the 800 S cured that problem. I took the plunge. I was glad I did, even before I then decided to go for broke and also buy Tyll's current reference headphone amp to maximize the goodness of the new Sennheisers.

Thus, the newest addition to the Stirling LS3/6 + AudioKinesis Swarm system in my small converted bedroom is the SimAudio Moon Neo 430HA Headphone Amp which now powers my Sennheiser HD 800 S headphones. The headphone amp is seen atop the right channel subwoofer amp in the attached picture. My unit is equipped with the optional DAC, so the headphone amp will handle both analog and digital input signals.

I feed the headphone amp signal in two different ways. Since I use the EVS-modified Oppo BDP-105D as the digital source switcher, I feed the balanced analog output of the Oppo directly into the balanced analog inputs of the headphone amp.

The digital output signal from the Oppo is fed to my Lyngdorf TDAI-2170 via Blue Jeans coax digital (Belden 1800 F cable with Canare RCA plugs) and Blue Jeans Series FE HDMI cable (for SACD and other high-resolution digital sources), and then from the Lyngdorf's coaxial digital output via another length of Blue Jeans coax digital cable to the headphone amp's coaxial digital input via the Lyngdorf's headphone output mode. This mode allows implementation of the Lyngdorf's digital EQ voicings without the RoomPerfect correction applied to the speakers. It also allows the Lyngdorf's ICC dynamic range expansion to "unclip" signals fed to the headphone amp, just like the feed to the main speakers. The headphone amp can drive the Sennheiser HD 800 S headphones in either balanced mode (via the Sennheisers' 4-pin XLR cable) or unbalanced mode (via the Sennheisers' TRS phone plug). The balanced mode sounds a bit better, so I use that.

The muting switch on the Lyngdorf mutes the Lyngdorf's speaker output, but not the Lyngdorf's digital headphone output. The muting switch on the headphone amp mutes the sound from the headphones when I'm listening via speakers.

As mentioned, the digital input of the headphone amp allows the Lyngdorf's EQ voicings to be applied. I'll have to decide how important that is as time goes on. This may be headphone dependent. With the Sennheisers, no EQ is needed if I don't need the bottom octave at full level. The NAD Viso HP50 phones give full bottom octave without any EQ, but not the clarity, openness, and in-front staging of the Sennheisers.

The availability of the Lyngdorf's ICC processing through the digital input of the headphone amp seems more important. This processing can make a clearly audible improvement to compressed signals of all types. And since the headphone amp's DAC seems to be a very good sounding one, there are times when the digital input (with the SimAudio doing the D/A rather than the Oppo) sounds at least as good as the analog signal direct from the Oppo. The Oppo's balanced analog signal always sounds a bit larger and more open, but the digital signal often sounds a bit more dynamic at peaks and with lower noise levels and more "small sound" detail.

The SimAudio headphone amplifier is rated to output 667 milliwatts into the 600 ohm load of the Sennheiser phones. This is considerably more than most headphone circuits or headphone amplifiers.

How important is a "high powered headphone amp" to what you hear from headphones? The Sennheiser HD 800 S have fairly low sensitivity as headphones go, plus they have a high impedance, lowering the power available from any amplifier. Listening to these Sennheiser phones plugged into the headphone jack of my iPhone is pleasant enough, but there is not enough volume. Also, the bass is a bit weak and the sound, while more open sounding than the NAD phones, is still a bit center-of-head focused. The NAD Viso HP50 phones have much higher sensitivity and play plenty loud enough and sound fine directly from the iPhone--fine, until you compare the sound with a more powerful amplifier driving them.

Plugging the Sennheisers into the headphone jacks of my EVS-modified Oppo BDP-105/105D players (the headphone output is also upgraded by the mods) yields enough volume, strengthens the bass, and produces a cleaner more open presentation. The NAD Viso HP50 phones also have greater openness and stronger, more solid and defined bass when listened to through these Oppo player headphone outputs.

But moving the Sennheisers to the SimAudio headphone amp is another world. The SimAudio really opens up the stage of the Sennheisers and moves the stage focus more out front, while adding yet more bass power, definition, and extension and a degree of clarity/transparency without any high frequency accent that must be heard to be believed. The sonic background is significantly "blacker." The sound also seems totally unconstrained dynamically at any volume level. The NAD phones also benefit from the SimAudio headphone amp in the sense of firm control of the bass and increased "drive" to the sound. Both the Sennheisers and NADs seem overall much lower in distortion and just cleaner sounding when driven from the SimAudio. Neither of these phones sound distorted when otherwise driven, but with this headphone amp I get the distinct impression of yet-lower distortion.

How spatially unnatural is the headphone imaging with this Sennheiser/SimAudio system? I've concluded that it is actually quite a bit like the way I have my car's surround sound system adjusted to my liking for my listening-while-driving. I like car surround sound audio staging to have just a bit of "out front" location with otherwise very strong envelopment. Straight up, the HD 800 S phones driven from this new headphone amp sound just a bit less "out front" than my car's surround sound set up as I like it. Engaging the built-in crossfeed function of the headphone amp leaves the tonality intact while making the headphones sound at least as equally out front as the car audio, and reducing the stage width to a bit less than what I hear in my car. My car is a 2016 Acura RDX with Advance Package. I think it has an excellent sounding audio system as factory installs go.

In all other aspects, the headphone sound via the SimAudio amp has it all over the car audio. And, except for the bottom octave, this headphone system sounds more tonally accurate, cleaner, clearer, and more detailed than either my Stirling- or Harbeth M40.1-based systems. In fact, it sounds cleaner and clearer than most every speaker set up I've ever heard anywhere. Possible exceptions are the Sanders 10D and Volti Vittora at the best I've heard those speakers.

Spatially, headphone sound is not like a concert hall. Hardly. But listening through such a headphone system is an audiophile's dream in terms of hearing every little thing, all with sensational overall tonal balance, rock solid imaging, and wonderful envelopment. Part of the unpleasant accentuation of detail in many headphones and many high-end speakers is that it frequently is the product of frequency response skewed to favor the lower highs and/or the upper octave "air."

That is not the case here. The tonal balance of these new Sennheisers alone will shock music lovers looking for accurate tonality. At least on my ears and head, this headphone system is more perfectly balanced tonally than any speakers in any room I've heard. If you are satisfied with not having the bottom octave of bass at full level, no EQ at all is needed, in my estimation. For those of you familiar with the PSB T3, imagine a well-set-up pair but without the 4 kHz emphasis and you will start to get a sense of the type of tonal balance I'm talking about.

This headphone system is enough to convince me that the headphone listening craze is not just about selling audiophiles expensive new goodies. A good headphone listening experience is these days a very pleasurable alternate reality, one that is enjoyably better than concert hall reality in some ways, much less being better than speaker listening in some ways.

In other words, if my currently very supportive wife were to tell me someday that she can no longer stand the noise from my audio rigs, it would be no big sacrifice at all to be constrained to listening to music via this headphone system. Yes, it's that good. See the InnerFidelity reviews of the Sennheiser and SimAudio by Tyll Herstens. Now I'll just wait for new headphones which add the bottom octave at full level (as the NADs do) while being as good above that as the Sennheiser HD 800 S.

IMG_4375.JPG
 

tmallin

WBF Technical Expert
May 19, 2010
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#2
The ICC circuitry of the Lyngdorf TDAI-2170 can be deactivated in the Lyngdorf's menu system. Now that the SimAudio headphone amp is fully broken in, I could not reliably hear any difference at all through the Sennheiser headphones when switching between the direct balanced analog connection to the headphone amp from the EVS-modified Oppo BDP-105D and the digital link from Oppo through the Lyngdorf through the SimAudio DAC as long as the Lyngdorf's ICC circuitry was disabled. With the Lyngdorf's ICC circuitry enabled, the digital connection through the Lyngdorf sounded superior.

Therefore, this past weekend I rewired things to eliminate the analog connection to the headphone amp and to let the Lyngdorf do the source selection, rather than having the Oppo do that. Over time I've found that the application of the Lyngdorf TDAI-2170 ICC (peak unlimiter) circuitry is more important to the sound quality from the headphones than is a direct analog connection from the Oppo. Thus, I now let the Lyngdorf do the DAC work for the speakers and the SimAudio headphone amp do D/A for headphone listening, with the Lyngdorf's ICC circuit working on both the sound heard from the Stirling LS3/6 + AudioKinesis Swarm speaker set-up and the headphones.

Thus, the Oppo only "plays" discs and Tidal now and sends them to the Lyngdorf via digital coax or HDMI. The Lyngdorf selects either the Oppo, the Squeezebox Touch (via USB), or the Apple TV via HDMI (for Sirius and anything else I want to stream from my iPhone.


 

tmallin

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#4
I recently "discovered" (I'm sure others have written about this somewhere, but I just have never read about it) a simple way to make the imaging and staging you get with headphone listening more closely resemble what you hear with loudspeaker listening. In other words, the image and stage clearly move out front and lose the "inside your head" feel, adding additional "spaciousness" to the sound you hear.

All you need is open-backed headphones and a separate headphone amplifier. I "discovered" this effect using the Sennheiser HD 800 S and SimAudio Neo 430HA Headphone Amplifier which are the primary subjects of this thread, but ANY open-backed headphones and ANY headphone amplifier should work about as well.

The open-backed headphones are needed since you want to be able to hear what is happening in the room around you with minimal attenuation. Close-backed phones are closed so as to provide more extended bass, but also for privacy: to prevent the headphone sound from escaping into your immediate environment and to attenuate the noise and other sounds you would otherwise hear in your immediate environment. Closed-back headphones severely attenuate the high frequencies of room sounds; open-backed headphones have little overall attenuation and what attenuation they do have is relatively uniform across the frequency spectrum.

The separate headphone amp is needed because for this technique to work you need a way to separately and independently adjust the volume of the program playing simultaneously through your speakers and your headphones. The speakers can't be muted and can't track the headphone volume.

My "discovery" is that for any particular program material I listen to via the headphones, there is a corresponding level (actually a bit of a range of levels) of that program coming from the speakers which pulls the imaging/staging quite a bit further forward without allowing the speakers to be independently heard as sound sources, but which adds further spaciousness to the sound. I adjust the headphones level first to the desired level using the headphone amp's volume control and with the speakers muted. Then I increase the volume of the sound from the unmuted speakers from a low level until I hear the desired forward imaging/staging and increased spaciousness. Once you get used to this process, it takes perhaps 10 seconds to get the relative levels nearly optimal.

This trick works best if your speakers subtend an angle of 60 degrees or more from where you are listening with your headphones. For my system, I just stay in my usual listening chair because this requirement is met. If your speakers do not subtend that large an angle from your usual listening chair, try moving to a closer position centered between the two speakers with the headphones on before rejecting this technique. Of course, as you move closer to your speakers, you will have to lower the volume from the speakers to maintain the proper ratio of headphone/speaker sound.

When everything is "right," the speaker sound does not blur the headphones sound in terms of left/right positioning and what you hear through the headphones will not be affected very much by your room sound, other than in terms of spaciousness. You can at any moment check what you are gaining/losing using this technique by just muting the speakers. When you mute the speakers, you may be surprised at the sudden collapse of the amazingly fine sound field you previously heard.

This technique also works better when the frequency response of your speakers match the at-ears response of your headphones fairly well. In my system, with RoomPerfect applied to the Stirling LS3/6 + AudioKinesis Swarm speaker system, the match is reasonably close to the Sennheiser phones in terms of response above the low bass. The speakers have more bottom bass, but that can only help this technique by slightly filling in the bottom end of what I hear through the phones.

Yes, what you hear with just the headphones operating is more precisely positioned with less "blur" and more clarity and detail. Those who relish this precision, clarity, and detail above all will just listen to headphones as normal, with the speakers muted. What you hear with the speakers operating simultaneously while wearing the open-backed phones is a bit more like what any speakers operating in a real listening room sound like--maybe more than a bit more.
 

tmallin

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#5
[FONT=&amp]In addition to frequency response, distortion by frequency and by SPL are important measurable parameters in headphone listening. Tyll Herstens of InnerFidelity provides explanations of all the measurements he does on headphones. [/FONT]http://www.innerfidelity.com/headphone-measurements[FONT=&amp]

[/FONT][FONT=&amp]Subjective headphone listening factors that may not be easily measurable are "openness" of the sound and the degree to which the sound appears in front of your head rather than within your head. Also, different head anatomy among users may significantly affect the amount of bass different listeners hear from a give set of headphones due to differences in the seal provided around the head. However, this is much less a factor in open-backed headphones which don't depend as much on a tight seal for bass extension and the open-backed ones generally sound more open and out-front anyway. [/FONT][FONT=&amp]
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[FONT=&amp]Because there are no room effects where headphone listening is involved, it can be argued that equalization (EQ) is much less important for headphone systems than for loudspeaker systems. Auditioning headphones is easier because you will hear close to the same sound regardless of the room where you hear them. You just listen to familiar material and make a purchase based on which model sounds most natural for the amount of money you want to pay. Reviews tend to be more helpful for the same reason. Once you find a reviewer with whom you seem to basically agree, that reviewer's comments can guide you. I find Tyll Herstens to generally agree with my assessment of headphone sound in most cases. [/FONT][FONT=&amp]
[/FONT]
[FONT=&amp]But, assuming you do in fact want to EQ headphone sound, keep in mind that applying EQ to headphone sound is not always a trivial matter. I think Tyll Herstens has a dedicated headphones-only system and listens from files on a computer hard drive. Thus, he doesn't have to worry about how to apply a different EQ to the headphone sound than is applied to the loudspeaker sound and he applies Acourate EQ in the software domain.[/FONT][FONT=&amp]
[/FONT]
[FONT=&amp]Most analog graphic and parametric EQ devices only have one set of settings. They either apply or they are bypassed. With most such units, setting up one set of settings for speaker listening and another for headphone listening is not an option. You would need separate EQ boxes. The Rane DEQ-60L is one exception; you could apply the same EQ to both channels using the left channel sliders and another EQ to both channels using the right channel sliders and use one setting for speakers and the other for headphones.[/FONT]

[FONT=&amp]Most headphone amplifiers do not have a tape loop into which an EQ device could be inserted. EQ would have to be applied to the input signal to the headphone amp before the signal gets to the headphone amp.[/FONT][FONT=&amp]
[/FONT]
[FONT=&amp]The Z-Systems rdp-1 and DSpeaker Dual Core are examples of DSP EQ devices which have multiple presets. Either unit could act as a digital source selector/preamplifier, although the Z-Systems has only digital outputs so you would need a separate DAC. Some but certainly not most headphone amps have a built-in DAC.[/FONT][FONT=&amp]
[/FONT]
[FONT=&amp]Automatic EQ programs like the RoomPerfect in my Lyngdorf TDAI-2170 are useless for headphone listening since they are only intended to equalize room sound, not sound coming from headphones.[/FONT][FONT=&amp]
[/FONT]
[FONT=&amp]If you listen to headphones exclusively via a computer or via a mobile device, there are apps less expensive and less complicated than Acourate which are aimed at EQing the sound. See, for example, recording engineer Bob Katz's explanation of the Onkyo HF Player app at the "Fine Tuning the EQ" portion of the following page: http://www.innerfidelity.com/content/katzs-corner-episode-11-oppo-explosion#i41odK2T3UuzTF9P.97[/FONT]
 

tmallin

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#6
In the post which began this thread, I said:

[FONT=&amp]Now I'll just wait for new headphones which add the bottom octave at full level (as the NADs do) while being as good above that as the Sennheiser HD 800 S.[/FONT]

That wait is over. As Tyll Herstens and others have found, the Focal Utopia headphones, at $4,000 US, blast all the others out of the water in terms of sound quality. About the only way the Utopia, right out of the box with no break in, is not clearly superior to the Sennheiser HD 800 S or any others I've tried is in the extent to which the imaging and staging seem to be big, forward, and outside your head. The Utopia's whole presentation is a bit more compact. However, it is better "organized" and focused and just generally seems more realistic, as well as seeming just as far forward as the Sennheiser.

The bass, while not quite as forceful as the NAD, is at least as punchy, and is far superior in both punch and extension to that of the Sennheiser and clearly bests the NAD in terms of bass detail/differentiation. It does seem to add back in that extra bottom octave which I knew the Sennheiser rolled off a lot. I also agree with Tyll that most people will find the bass to be fine in terms of extension and weight. I do agree with Tyll that a bit more weight can be used on some material. I set up a preset on my Z-Systems rdq-1 which adds a +4 dB shelf filter at 70 Hz as an experiment. This is similar to the amount of EQ Tyll seems to have dialed in. On some material, this sounds about right; on other material it sounds a bit excessive to me. I will keep experimenting with the degree and frequency of possible bass boost. But even with no EQ at all, the low end is quite satisfying, I'd say.

Read Tyll Herstens' review. Other than the possible exception of the bass boost, I agree right down the line. For now, the Focal Utopia seems to be the "it" set of headphones. Costly, yes, as headphones go, but if you enjoy headphone listening, then this one is definitely worth more than twice the price of the Sennheiser HD 800 S. Yes, they are THAT good! I would not have thought this possible, as fine as the Sennheisers sounded to me before. But many times it just takes hearing a a true breakthrough product to realize the shortcomings of some of the prior best products of a class. Reading Tyll's review of the HD 800 S and then what he says about those Sennheisers once he heard the Utopia, I think Tyll had the same reaction I've had.
 

tmallin

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#7
There has been quite a controversy going on over at InnerFidelity (and I'm sure other headphones-oriented sites) as to the relative merits of the Focal Utopia and Audeze LCD-4. Tyll Herstens reviewed both initially, loved the Focal but found the mid highs of the Audeze recessed and otherwise strange.

Then Bob Katz did a comparison of the two, as did a number of other pro-audio sound engineers Katz knows. Almost all of them clearly preferred the Audeze. However, it was clear that there was a channel imbalance problem with the Utopia sample Katz & Co. used. Then Tyll measured the LCD-4 Katz & Co. reviewed and found distortion problems in one channel with that sample compared to a new sample supplied to Tyll by Audeze. Tyll also found that the Utopia sample he initially measured was atypical of six other samples he measured, with the others measuring as one might expect, given the comments of Katz & Co. about the Utopia's upper ranges. Herstens is currently waiting on more Audeze LCD-4 samples to listen to and measure. He has not changed his Wall of Fame listing of the Utopia (and not including the LCD-4) so far, although his recent comments have indicated that this could well happen.

Now that I'm the proud owner of both of these (at least for the time being), I can weigh in on this debate. The answer, as I hear it, is quite simple. The Audeze LCD-4 is the better sounding of the two, and not by a small margin. While I really don't hear anything "wrong" with the Utopia, I agree right on down the line with Katz and his compatriots that the LCD-4 is more lifelike in most every parameter you can name. This is hard to believe, given how great I thought the Utopia was compared to all other headphones I've seriously auditioned, but, as good as the Utopia sounds, the LCD-4 is just better, sometimes by what I hear as a considerable margin.

First, the LCD-4 is the only open-backed headphones to give me all the weight and extension in the bass I could possibly want. These sound like the best loudspeaker-plus-subwoofers bass end you've ever heard--minus the body impact, of course. Just about perfect weight (keep in mind that I like my midbass a bit juicy) right up through the entire bass range. Even the sealed NAD Viso HP-50 headphones in my stable are not as seemingly extended, perfectly weighted, and well defined, and they are darn good in those areas, especially for the price! The LCD-4 makes the Utopia's lack of full-weight bottom octave painfully obvious, even though the Utopias themselves reveal the bass- and midbass-lightness of the Sennheiser HD-800s.

The midrange is also about as perfect as they come. Outstanding! The presence range is just a bit backed off, sort of like fine BBC-style speakers, and sounds just right on massed strings and most other classical music.

The highs are quite fine as well. Yes, as even Katz notes, you might want to boost the mid highs (4 kHz to 8 kHz) a bit, but only a bit and only sometimes. Much better this way than too much in this region. Yes, I hear the lack, but I apparently either am not bothered by it the way Tyll Herstens was, or my brand new sample is a bit different in this range.

In terms of openness and apparent size of the stage, these are right up there with the Sennheiser HD800s and on a lot of material, the vastly increased bass extension allows them to cast an even bigger, more open stage. The feeling that the music is coming from bit in front also matches that of the HD800s, which is to say about as good as it gets for headphones. The Utopia, by comparison, are more compact and tidy; not bad, just lacking the vast openness of the LCD-4.

Apparent distortion throughout the spectrum is very low as well, at least the equal of the Utopia. In fact the LCD-4 usually bests the Utopia here since there is a complete absence of annoying overbrightness and excess sibilance in the highs, while the top octave has crystalline transparency.

The only problems of the LCD-4 relative to the Utopia (the two are priced about equally) are that the LCD-4 is heavier (although for me this is not a problem), the stock LCD-4 cable is at least two feet shorter (but much lighter and more flexible and long enough for my set up) than the Utopia cable, and that the LCD-4 is so demanding of amplifier power that you will need a stout headphone amp to drive it to very loud levels, if you so choose. My SimAudio Moon Neo 430HA is up to the task. At slightly reduced volume levels, the headphone output of the Benchmark DAC-3 DX also sounds remarkably fine with these headphones.


 

Al M.

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#8
Very interesting reads, Tom.

I started out as an audiophile with a headphone system (Stax), but what you describe seems more likely to again be able to entice me. I don't bother anyone with my speaker system, usually played rather loudly (while avoiding excesses), but for middle-of-the-night listening a headphone set-up might be useful.

You said:
Part of the unpleasant accentuation of detail in many headphones and many high-end speakers is that it frequently is the product of frequency response skewed to favor the lower highs and/or the upper octave "air."
Yes, I have become wary of such "resolution" and "air". Fortunately, my system with Reference 3A de Capo monitors does not suffer from this artifact.
 

tmallin

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#9
You should check the measurements of two different models of the Reference 3a da Capo published by Stereophile and SoundStage. The Stereophile measurements show a large midrange peak and a top octave peak and the SoundStage anechoic measurements show the same midrange peak plus an exceptionally ragged high end response for a good speaker.
 

Al M.

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#10
Fine. I go by what I hear in my room. And that is a frequency response not skewed towards upper end artificial "resolution" and "air".
 

tmallin

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#11
Sure, the perception of the sound stage with headphone listening is more head oriented than with loudspeakers, but it's also more immersive. Me, I like immersion, envelopment, and involvement with the music.

Near-field (and I don't mean eight feet away--more like six or less feet away) listening, wide-angle listening (e.g., 90-degree subtended angle between the speakers as is proper for Blumlein recording reproduction), surround sound, and headphone listening all create a greater feeling of envelopment, of the listener being immersed and involved in the music, which is addictive for many modern listeners. I purposely adjust the surround sound in my car so that there is just a bit more frontal orientation than I hear with my Sennheiser 800S headphones, for example. Music listening is increasingly a personal activity, not a group activity, and putting yourself within the music making fits that paradigm.

No, headphone listening (without special DSP processing such as is used in the Smyth Realiser) is not like hearing speakers at a distance. But I think the days of people loving presentations which are "way over there" or "out there" are numbered. Listening to speakers from 10 or more feet away with subtended angles of 30 to 45 degrees, as is common among many audiophiles, is just so bo-ring! They may kid themselves about this being more like concert hall sound from more than a few rows back, but this just isn't true. Small room acoustics overlaid on the presentation doesn't sound like a large room, and small room acoustics, and a lot of that, is what you primarily hear in most domestic rooms from that far back with most speakers.

How a recording is made affects the success of headphone listening, as it certainly does with loudspeaker listening. Binaural recordings tend to stage a bit more out of one's head and toward the front on headphones. Blumlein recordings also tend to sound this way on headphones, I've noticed.

Also, some headphones, especially those with forward-placed drivers (e.g., the Sennheiser 800, 800S) tend to stage a bit in front even on normal stereo recordings.

I think that some of this is a learnable interpretation of the actual physical stimulus. The more you listen to music through headphones, the more your brain learns to interpret the paradigm. Loudspeaker stereo is also an illusion, one which the ear/brain of most people learns to interpret as creating virtual images and a stage left and right, front-to-back, and even up and down, even though the sound is really all coming from two fixed-in-space speakers.

To speed up the headphone listening learning curve, I suggest listening through headphones to music videos of symphonic music where the video production is not artful, but is just a single camera from front and center on the orchestra. It also helps if the miking is from an audience location and fortunately a lot of pirated performance videos are made this way. Not pirated, but a good video to start with, is this simply miked recording of chamber orchestra and choir playing the Agnus Dei portion of a Mass composed by the pianist in this recording, Steve Dobrogsz.

Also try watching movies on a big computer screen (or other screen subtending a large angle) while listening to the soundtrack through headphones. Modern movie soundtracks, where you have the video to anchor the sound, can often sound astonishingly like you are there, right in the action with the performers. Headphone listening is usually at least as good at revealing this as the best surround sound loudspeaker system, at least with a bit of "practice."

The purpose of such exercises is to give you a visual perception and later a visual memory to tie to what your ears hear. "Eyes open" music listeners like me use such visual memory all the time in order to "see" and interpret the spatial placement of auditory cues from stereo recordings heard through loudspeakers. The same can work at least to some extent for headphone listening.
 

tmallin

WBF Technical Expert
May 19, 2010
320
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Chicagoland
#12
As I've mentioned in another thread, in this system I have now replaced the Lyngdorf TDAI-2170 with the tiny-by-comparison Benchmark DAC3 DX, which is the latest model with digital-only (AES/EBU, coax, toslink, USB) inputs. I did not want to give up the ability to deal with "intersample overs" which the Lyngdorf had and the Benchmark is one of the few other games in town on that front. See the discussion of this issue in the Benchmark Application Notes: https://benchmarkmedia.com/blogs/app...-cd-recordings. I have the Benchmark's pro-audio-level XLR outputs padded down by 10 dB through movement of internal jumpers so that the volume controls on the Benchmark and my Janszen Valentina Active internal amps operate in their sweet zones and so that the Benchmark's XLR balanced outputs do not overload the Valentina amp inputs (such overload was clearly audible with the Benchmark's balanced outputs unpadded). The DAC-3 DX manual with instructions and measurements is at https://cdn.shopify.com/s/files/1/03...42760822039914

I have also recently been experimenting with the headphone amplifier gain of the Benchmark DAC3 DX, which is also adjustable via internal jumpers. Now that I'm regularly using the lower-sensitivity Audeze LCD-4 phones, I've changed the gain on the Benchmark's headphone amp from minus 10 dB to zero dB. In other words, it now has 10 dB more gain for any given spot of the volume control.

Doing this has increased the quality of the sound I get from the Benchmark driving headphones. It is now much more competitive with the sound I get from the SimAudio Moon Neo 430HA separate headphone amplifier with these headphones. The Benchmark seems to have even greater clarity and focus, as well as a bit brighter sound--but in no sense obnoxiously bright. It now has plenty of oomph to drive even the Audeze LCD-4 as loud as I might like, with great dynamic kick and no indication of any strain. The SimAudio has a bit warmer sound as well as seemingly wider stereo separation, for some reason.

The differences may partially stem from the fact that when using the headphones with the Benchmark, I'm using its main analog buss, which uses three sections of the ESS Sabre ES9028 Pro DAC chip with the headphones connected directly to the headphone output on the chassis of the Benchmark. When listening through the SimAudio, I use the auxiliary analog buss of the Benchmark, which uses the remaining one section of the ES9028 Pro chip. That auxiliary analog buss of the Benchmark is output via a set of RCA jacks on the back of the Benchmark and is connected to the unbalanced analog inputs of the SimAudio by one meter of Blue Jeans Cable LC-1 Low Capacitance Audio Cable.

In any event, this is just an alert that if you choose to use this Benchmark DAC-3 DX, you also get a very, very fine headphone amplifier thrown in, one capable of effortlessly driving even very low sensitivity headphones to very high SPLs at a quality level which is quite competitive with the SimAudio Moon Neo 430HA, a very fine separate headphone amp, the one that, at this writing, Tyll Herstens of InnerFidelity uses as his reference headphone amp.

 

tmallin

WBF Technical Expert
May 19, 2010
320
17
18
66
Chicagoland
#13
Adventures in Headphone Cableland

In the six months since I wrote the above post, as detailed in another thread, I have developed methods for getting much better sound from my SimAudio Moon Neo 430HA headphone amp involving "doubling down" on the Benchmark DAC-3, buying a second DAC-3 to allow me to feed the Benchmark's balanced analog output to the balanced analog input of the SimAudio headphone amp while also still simultaneously driving my speaker amps from the balanced analog outputs of my other Benchmark DAC-3. Basically, I no longer drive my Audeze LCD-4 headphones from the Benchmark headphone jacks, now finding the sound from SimAudio 430HA to be totally superior.

Sometime before Christmas 2017 I speculated that perhaps further improvements in the sound from the Audeze headphones could be had if I could drive them from the 430HA's balanced outputs, rather than the single-ended output. The LCD-4s are inefficient, very hard to drive phones. Taking advantage of balanced drive would double the apparent power of the already stout 430HA headphone amp.

The standard cable which comes with the LCD-4 is a 2.5 meter, 98-inch-long braided single-ended cable which Audeze sells as an aftermarket add-on for other phones for $599. I noticed that Audeze also sells an LCD balanced cable for only $199. My wife asked me what I wanted for Christmas. This balanced cable was one of my suggestions and she graciously gave that to me as a Christmas present.

From first listen to the new balanced cable, I knew I was onto something good. The sound had a new focus, ease, and three-dimensionality not matched by the standard single-ended cable, even though that standard cable was much more expensive. In all other respects, especially overall tonal balance, the sound was quite similar to that provided by the standard, single-ended cable. Very pleasing sound indeed.

I probably would have stopped there, at least for awhile, were it not for the fly in the ointment of the new Audeze balanced cable. Despite the website's statement that the balanced cable is 2.5 meters or 98 inches long, the cable I received was only about 75 inches long. That was a bit too short for my set up. To use it without moving my listening chair or equipment stack, I had to sit toward the front edge of my listening chair, not a comfortable position. I was not willing to move either the listening position or equipment stack since this would undoubtedly impair the tweaked positioning of everything I have set up for loudspeaker listening. Well, thought I, that should be simple to solve--I'll just call Audeze and exchange the balanced cable I'd received for a longer one, offering to pay more for the custom length.

It wasn't that simple. When I spoke with Audeze, they acknowledged that they recently had a similar complaint from another purchaser of the balanced cable. They inspected their stock and found that all the balanced cables were this shorter 75-inch length, despite what the Audeze website said (and still says as I'm writing this) about the length being 2.5 meters or 98 inches. The representative I spoke with claimed that Audeze did not know what was going on with the cable length and that the website may just contain old information. The representative also said that Audeze could not procure or manufacture a longer length of that balanced cable. This was despite my offer to pay a premium price for a longer balanced cable of construction similar to the too-short one I had. Instead, Audeze just referred me to a list of aftermarket headphone cable manufacturers whom Audeze believes do a good job of making custom cables for the Audeze LCD headphones. Here's the list:

aloaudio.com
kimber.com
moon-audio.com
nordost.com
plussoundaudio.com
surfcables.com
wywires.com
zynsonix.com

The representative refused to recommend a particular manufacturer from the list as having products which Audeze believed worked best.
[FONT=&amp]To Audeze's credit, they gave me a very prompt refund for the too-short cable once I returned it.

I did some pondering and considerable research of reviews of aftermarket headphone cables. For this first foray, I decided I did not want to spend more than about $500 per cable. That pretty much eliminated the Kimber Axios and Nordost offerings on the list. In the end, I decided to try three different balanced cables, the Moon Audio Silver Dragon Premium V3 for Audeze Headphones, the Moon Audio Black Dragon Premium for Audeze Headphones, and the Zynsonix Ballista Audeze LCD Series Headphone Cable. I have yet to receive the Ballista, but can already report on the two Moon Audio offerings. For all these cable, I ordered 10-foot lengths with Furutech 4-pin XLRs at the amp end and Furutech rhodium plated mini-XLRs compatible with the Audeze LCD-4 connections at the headphone end.

My sonic comments refer to the sound after the recommended 80-hour break-in for the Silver Dragons and 40-hour break-in for the Black Dragons. Actually, I found that the Black Dragon also improved in sound for at least 80 hours, so my comments on its sound also refer to after that amount of break in. For break in, I simply played WFMT's classical music web stream 24/7 at moderately high volume through the cables and headphones.

Moon Audio's comments about the relative qualities of the Silver Dragon and Black Dragon seem to basically match my perceptions.

What they share is, first of all, a considerably more "out of the head" imaging than either the stock single-ended Audeze cable or the too-short balance Audeze cable I tried. This a very pleasing effect since it both enlarges the presentation and makes the presentation appear to come from a bit more in front of the listener, more like listening to loudspeakers. Second, both cables also seem quite a bit more transparent than the Audeze cables, in that small details (such as performers breathing, chair and music stand noises, humming or other sub-vocal sounds musicians are making, doors closing at the recording venue, the sound of lips parting or even spittle on the lips, changes in recording hiss) are considerably more apparent. Third, the focus and stability of images is also considerably improved, from fine to rock-solid, carved in stone.

The Silver Dragon has more of these three qualities than the Black Dragon. It is pretrenatural in these areas, literally jaw dropping in its presentation of what has been captured in the recording. And it does this with an ease and "organization" of all you hear that will have you shaking your head in disbelief. If your highest thrill is to hear the absolute most detail possible from recordings without any blatant bright or other coloration, the Silver Dragoned LCD-4s is the combination for you.

Unfortunately, at least to me, all this detail comes at a price and that price is the perceived tonal balance of the Audeze LCD-4s. One major reason I so admire these phones is their very natural sounding tonal balance with the Audeze cables. These phones, with the Audeze cables, combine the detail of my Janszen Valentina loudspeakers with the tonal balance of my Harbeth M40.1s, while adding flat bottom-octave (20 to 40 Hz) bass. They even are a bit "relaxed" (some would say "withdrawn") through the presence range, which makes for a very easy, rich-sounding listening experience, the way live music in a great hall ideally should sound, in my experience.

With the Silver Dragon, the LCD-4 bass, while more defined, is also tightened to a degree that it becomes a bit anemic, not nearly as warm or generous sounding. Deep bass is there, but the immediate and lasting impression is of a low end that is too tightly controlled, too thin, just not powerful enough. The presence range relaxation is gone, which may be a good thing. Above that, while not sounding overly forward, the sound is brought forward a bit in the mid highs. The top two octaves are definitely better defined and airier, but they are also more prominent. Whenever I listen to music with rock or jazz cymbal work, my attention is always drawn to the highs. They are ever so clean and beautifully filigreed, but they are a bit or more too prominent in the mix. How much of the incredible clarity and detail of the Silver Dragon comes from this apparent change in tonal balance is hard to say, but prior decades of experience strongly indicates to me that there is at least a partial cause and effect relationship between the change in apparent tonal balance and the change in apparent detail.

While I miss the preternatural qualities of the Silver Dragon when listening to the Black Dragon, the Black is much more neutral sounding with the LCD-4 headphones. It, like the Silver Dragon, brings the presence range a bit forward, but, as I said above, for the LCD-4s, this is probably a good thing. The bass is firmed up more than a bit compared to the stock Audeze cables and the highs are clearer and more defined than the stock cable presentation. Most importantly, the overall balance of bass and highs is just about right. The easy, rich sound of the stock cabling is still fully there and is quite satisfying.

Once I get the Zynsonix Ballista I will report on whether it manages to imbue more delightful detail than the Black Dragon while maintaining the Black's great tonal balance. The stock Audeze cables, at least the single-ended version, are silver plated copper. The Zynsonix Ballista, uses some silver-plated copper strands with others made of pure copper. While I'm sure that the materials used in a cable's conductors are only part of the reason for the subjectively audible qualities of that cable, in my experience, silver conductors typically do impart a combination of greater clarity and brighter/thinner tonality.

[/FONT]
 
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tmallin

WBF Technical Expert
May 19, 2010
320
17
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Chicagoland
#14
Zynsonix Ballista

I now have and have broken in the third of my experimental aftermarket headphone cables, the Zynsonix Ballista Audeze LCD Series Headphone Cable. I got Furutech connectors at both the amp and headphone end so as to match that part of the construction of the two Moon Audio cables.

In short, the Zynsonix Ballista is a pretty close sonic match for the stock Audeze unbalanced cable my LCD-4s came with. Tonal balance is similar, as is clarity. It does not have the extraordinary out-of-head presentation of the Moons.

It also, like the stock cable, is a bit depressed in the presence range. Not obnoxiously so, but in comparison to my speakers there is less level and presence in this region. Better this than an overly forward sound.

But my new speakers (new speakers? a tale for another day) tell me much more about this region without any overly forward sound. With the Moon Audio Black Dragon, the Audeze LCD-4 is a close match for the speakers in this region as well as elsewhere up and down the spectrum.

For now I will be sticking with the Moon Audio Black Dragon connected to my Audeze LCD-4 headphones. Further break in of this cable has brought its clarity closer yet to that of the Silver Dragon while maintaining its wonderful bass response and out-of-head presentation, as well as a lack of over-emphasis in the top two octaves. The Silver Dragon emphasizes the top two octaves too much for my taste with these headphones.
 

tmallin

WBF Technical Expert
May 19, 2010
320
17
18
66
Chicagoland
#15
Reconsideration

Upon further listening, break-in, and possibly "aging" of the Deoxit-Gold GL100 contact enhancement treatment on its connectors, I now find that the Moon Audio Silver Dragon sounds supremely natural, open, and exciting with the Audeze LCD-4 headphones. Gone is the too lean/tight bass and overly bright top octaves. The tonal balance of the headphones now seems exemplary. The clarity and organization of the presentation, its great openness and out-of-head presentation are unaffected.

I'm not really sure how to explain this since the Silver Dragon cable had well over 100 hours on it when I put it aside for weeks to try the Black Dragon and Zynsonix Ballista. This transformation was evident from the second I reinstalled the Silver Dragon after listening to the Black Dragon again for about a week after I removed the Ballista. There have been other system changes (speakers and their amplification) since I last listened to the Silver Dragon, but those changes are not in the headphone listening signal path.

So, for now, at least, I'll be using the Moon Audio Silver Dragon since it produces the best sound I've yet heard from my Audeze LCD-4 set up. Maybe in a few weeks I'll re-try the Zynsonix Ballista to see if it, too, undergoes some sort of miraculous transformation while in storage.
 

tmallin

WBF Technical Expert
May 19, 2010
320
17
18
66
Chicagoland
#16
More on Headphone Cables

Well, I'm back where I started with the cabling of the Audeze LCD-4. As I discussed in the thread about my new headphone/line amp, the Benchmark HPA4, that unit is revelatory when it comes to both speaker and headphone listening. With the HPA4, it is quite clear to me that the original cable which comes with the LCD-4 and which Audeze sells separately for $599, is actually the best sounding of the bunch with these headphones. The tonality is just more natural, the staging is just as open, and the sound is just as clean.

The only minuses about these phones, even with this cable, is that they are indeed just a bit recessed in the presence range and treble below the top octave, they need a very stout amp to drive them to loud levels cleanly, and even with such a stout amp, they can sound a bit on the polite side due to the frequency response relaxation in the presence and lower treble range. But certainly it is better this way than to have an overly aggressive sound that close to one's ears.

Now, I have found that my favorite high-value headphones, the NAD Viso HP-50, does benefit from the Moon Audio Blue Dragon cable when used with the Benchmark HPA4. The bass is tightened and deepened just a bit while not impairing the nice warmth the stock cable gives. The headphones also gain a bit of added clarity. The Room Feel technology Paul Barton applied to these creates a combination of second-to-none natural frequency response for headphones and a significantly more out-in-front staging than any other headphone I've heard, even the Sennheiser HD-800 or 800S. The cost of the Moon Audio Blue Dragon cable, while high compared to the cost of the headphones themselves, still yields what I feel is a very high value combination.

But, truth to tell, if you need a cheap longer cable for the NAD phones, the Hosa extension for about $7 works pretty well indeed, not impairing the sound of the short stock cable at all even when used with the Benchmark HPA4.

The NAD Viso HP-50 does not have the presence/lower treble recession of the Audeze LCD-4 and thus sounds even more startlingly real from a tonality standpoint. No, it's not quite as open sounding and the low bass is less powerfully extended, but tonally it is in the very top rank, is no slouch as to openness, the staging is the very best I've heard, and it can be driven to very high levels even from a smartphone. At its price, what's not to like?
 
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tmallin

WBF Technical Expert
May 19, 2010
320
17
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66
Chicagoland
#17
NAD Viso HP-50 Headphones

In case what I said in the above post was not clear, 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 respectable even in comparison with the best headphones you can buy at much more than ten times the cost of the NADs, then these are definitely the ones I'd recommend you try. Attributes include:


  • They are small and lightweight, closed-back headphones.
  • 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. I know there are complaints from some about the fit, however, particularly in terms of whether there is room enough for your ear within the cavity of the cushions, so you 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 hear 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.
  • These are very open/large sounding as closed-back phones go and give you and those around you the added privacy that closed-back headphones bring to the table.
  • The presentation is 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.
  • 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. The Audeze phones cannot reach satisfying levels when powered from an iPhone 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, 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, at least 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 are VERY good sounding, extremely practical, and don't cost that 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. And while the Oppos were themselves displaced by the Mr. Speakers Aeon, the Aeon is $800. While I'll have to listen to the Aeon more to see if it actually is better sounding than the NAD, it is four times the cost and not nearly as compatible with low-powered sources/amps. I think this Computer Audiophile review of the NAD Viso HP-50 comes much closer to describing what I hear than most others.
 

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