Adventures of the travelling audiophile: Endgame (nearly)

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First confession: I’m listening to them now.
Second confession: I seem to have come full circle; it isn’t the first time I’ve heard them. Not by a long shot; in fact, they may well have been the first really exceptional bits of hifi I’ve heard.
Third confession: I don’t know when to stop; there’s the beginnings of diminishing returns, and then there’s $1,000 cables. I’m not quite there yet, thankfully. And I admit I’ve tried to find something better, but fortunately, failed miserably.

You might have noticed I’ve abandoned the in-ear setup from the previous instalments; part of the problem is one of prolonged comfort/sensitivity – namely my ears’ inability these days to feel good about something crammed in tightly for more than an hour or so – and part of the problem is sonic. In-ears also tend to have a very forward presentation that feels like MAXIMUM ATTACK all of the time, and moreso if you have a detailed, hard-hitting monitor. You don’t get the spatial separation and airiness of an open, over-ear can; much less the coherence of just one driver doing all of the sound generation. The problem with in-ears is they either require you to accept some fuzziness and interstitial connections between the notes and the accompanying lack of definition and precision (if a single driver), or have multiple drivers to cover multiple frequencies, then risk tonal imbalance and coherence issues. It’s not easy to get anywhere up to 12 (!!) drivers per ear to play nice with each other. And that doesn’t even start on the 2018 setups that use as many as three types of drivers – miniature dynamic, balanced armature and electrostatic – in each earpiece. I can’t help but think that’s a reliability nightmare waiting to happen too, given the number of tiny components in there. Having gone off the deep end here (to the point of commissioning my own monitors with their own configuration and tuning, and a modest six drivers per ear) – I’ve gone the over-ear route for the aforementioned reasons of coherence and comfort.

There’s only one problem with all of this: the travelling part. I just can’t do it with this setup, but I have the most amazing static listening experience short of probably some six figure speakers.

The header image has only part of the stack: Tidal MQA on my iMac outputs via USB to a Schiit Wyrd USB cleaner, to a Musical Paradise MP-D1 Mark II Tube DAC running vintage Siemens tubes Schiit Bifrost Multibit*, which in turn feeds a Stax 353X class-A amplifier/energizer unit via a Schiit Loki 4-band equaliser. All of this is driving a pair of Stax SR-007 mark II headphones: the legendary “Omega IIs”. Is it all necessary? Well, yes. I seem to have acquired certain expectations when it comes to a) tonality; b) warmth; c) detail; d) soundstage; e) genre-independence; f) sibilance; g) bass attack; h) sub-bass extension; i) coherence; j) comfort. That’s a long list. You could in theory achieve all of those things with in-ears; but given where summit-fi is going, it would probably cost more than I spent on this setup, and I suspect it wouldn’t quite hit all points.

*Until it died recently. I’m not surprised given how crude the innards look; Made in China wins again. The Schiit doesn’t sound as good though, somehow being muddier. And around in circles we go again.

The challenge here is that i) really requires a single driver; g) precludes most dynamic drivers, meaning planar-magnetics or electrostatics, and d) means open backed. a) and b) mean tubes or bloat, and I’d rather go with tubes. c) and f) prefers electrostatics over planars due to their speed of decay and ability to respond very quickly to small but fast transients. (This is part of what gives the music texture, realism and that sense of detail that allows you to tell the difference between snare drums, cymbals and other percussion instruments.) I would say that h) tends to favour planars as most electrostatics tend to be bright and peaky rather than punchy – except (at least as far as I know) the dark and hard to drive** 007s. Even as far as comfort goes, I modified the 007s with aftermarket ear pads; large, pillowy alcantara things that are much less sweaty and more breathable than the original protein leather items. This is especially important for long listening sessions in the tropics; I’m going to use them at home, and if they’re that good, they’d better well be comfortable enough to listen to for extended periods.

**All electrostatic headphones are hard to drive: they’re a push-pull design that uses an electric field and resultant forces to move a very thin charged diaphragm. In the case of Stax Pro Bias, that’s 560V: not something your average smartphone is going to output.

Some back story: my mentor of many, many years ago – my neighbour in London, an illustrator by profession, photographer by hobby, and the person who taught me most of what I know about Photoshop – lent me a pair of the original Omegas and their matching tube amp sometime around 2004. At this point, I’d just discovered the joys of semi-decent in-ears, and their ability to create a little personal bubble to escape to on the tube. These were the very early days of personal audio, pre-iPod and when 128MB was a lot of storage for your mp3 player. Finding in-ears at all was nearly impossible – I had to go to several specialist stage musician stores, because they were the only ones using them at the time. I felt smug, at least until he told me to take these home and try them. Even with my lousy 128kbps MP3 sources. I did, and subsequently spent the next fifteen years chasing the same experience without all of the paraphernalia.

I have since learned that it’s not possible.

Had I just gone this route in the first place, I’d have saved myself a lot of time and money. And perhaps learned less about my own listening tastes, but perhaps this doesn’t matter so long as you’re enjoying what you’re listening to. The 007s are simply transparent – they just disappear and output what you input. There’s some coloration, and I think that’s okay because it makes them enjoyable rather than dry; I added a little more with the tube DAC, and more still (think of it like your final output sharpening stage on an image) with the Loki. But even without these tweaks, at no point do you ever get the impression you’re listening to the headphone; it isn’t limited in its ability to faithfully reproduce any tones or notes. A poor recording sounds congested and busy/ scratchy; but the speed of treble decay means there’s never any sibilance, and prevents things from getting painful. But a good recording expands and fills the air around your head, allowing you to just enjoy the overall coherence of the music or close your eyes to zoom in and pick out one instrument in one spatial location. You can choose to hear the little details or not; they’re never shoved in your face in a fatiguing sort of way that makes a song sound like a bunch of separate elements rather than one flowing whole. Vocals have texture and a slightly forward presentation that’s more like an smaller venue than a big arena; this is personally the way I like it. It’s intimate and makes you sit up and pay attention to the singer in front of you. The setup has the power and low extension to make something like Empire State of Mind headbangingly immersive, or the precision and speed to put you front and centre of Max Richter’s orchestra playing Recomposed: The Four Seasons. The temptation to turn these up far, far too loud is very real; though they lose little of their articulation when played quiet, you can and will want to raise the volume to the point the music becomes visceral.

Back to the original premise: this is not a portable setup. And given I’m carrying far less equipment and frequently travelling for business other than photography these days, I’ve got a lot more space in my carry on to devote to something to pass the flight and evenings away from home. The concept of ‘portable’ now being relative (no longer ‘absolute minimum volume’), I have a few more options. Electrostatics are out since they’re all open-backed (i.e. leaky, and not isolating you from the environment, which is desirable for public use) and need huge power to drive them; this brings us to planars and some form of portable battery powered DAC/ amp. I’ve accepted that wireless audio isn’t going to give me what I’m looking for, with most options being geared towards noise cancellation (high ambient SPLs, weird tonality) or consumer tastes (nothing but the bass) – so wired it is. Enter another pair of over-ears, this time closed; and what I’d consider the closest thing to the 007s you can find in a portable^ format.

^Stax makes a portable solid state DAC-AMP that’s battery powered; but it’s enormous and the battery runs only for 3-4 hours. And it doesn’t address the problem of the 007s being open: whilst this allows for a lot of empty space and that kind of black background that comes from a lack of sonic reflections from the inside of the ear cups, they leak sound horribly in all directions – both music out and environmental noises in.

Part two of the setup is a pair of planar-magnetic driver MrSpeakers Aeon Flow Cs, driven by a Chord Mojo, fed by an iPhone running Tidal and a couple of USB-Lighting cables and adaptors. It’s not great in the portability stakes, but far more portable than the desk-stack and sonically, surprisingly close to the 007s. Moreso with the right tuning pads in place and a change to a set of custom alcantara ear pads (protein leather in the tropics just gets nasty). If I listen to them back to back, I can hear the 007s just have more space, air, detail, definition and a crystalline sort of clarity (read: transparency); they also manage to be a bit more more musical. If I don’t use them back to back, I don’t feel like I’m missing much until I start trying to play hunt-the-details. They’re also more comfortable, being open-backed and alcantara-padded. But the Aeons don’t need close to 15kg of ancillaries to drive them, and they have the added bonus that I can use them in bed or on the plane. A Chord Mojo is the size of a pack of cards, runs for 8-10 hours on a charge, and can be charged and used at the same time. It also happens to pair very, very well with the Aeons. But the best thing about both setups is that they’re really genre independent: in the past there have always been some songs that sound better with some headphones and worse with others, leading to favourites based on the reproduction medium. But now I’m in that happy space of being able to listen to pretty much anything and if not enjoy it outright, at least have some inkling of what the artists/ producers were aiming for. It’s widened my listening variety no end, and in turn allowed me to discover music I previously wouldn’t have considered (or rediscover and enjoy things I’d ruled out or grown out of).

We close with an especially masochistic part three. On a recent trip to Japan, I went to the Akihabara branch of the Asian headphone Mecca: E-Earphones. That store is the only one I can think of that has pretty much everything currently made available to demo; on top of that there’s an extensive used section (that can also be demoed). And almost everything they have on demo is in stock – including the extremely rarified (and pricy) flagship headphones and amps. Hell, there’s a separate section for cables. If they don’t have it – it probably isn’t available anywhere. I listened to everything I could think of that might possibly be interesting for both an ultimate desktop setup, or a portable one. I realise all of these assessments are highly subjective, so take them in relative context (and in no particular order):

  1. Stax’s own flagship 009S (too dry and analytical)
  2. Sonoma One (not loud enough, not airy enough)
  3. Meze Empyrean (of all the headphones, this was the closest to my tastes, lacking some of the air of the 007s but making up for it with extra bass weight)
  4. Sennheiser HD820 (better than expected given the brightness of the HD800 and HD800S; felt closed but still remarkably wide soundstage. Not as precise or fast as the 007s though)
  5. Campfire Cascade (way too bassy and bloated)
  6. Campfire Andromeda S (not as coherent or precise as I remember; a bit too forward)
  7. Campfire Solaris (not coherent at all; I’ve found this to be true of almost all BA-dynamic hybrids)
  8. UE Live (shrill almost to the point of being sibilant)
  9. UE Reference Remastered (flat but somehow raspy at the high end; high hats, drum brushes and cymbals were almost painful but sounded identical)
  10. Sony IER-Z1R (very impressive: probably the best sounding IEM I’ve tried, and the most electrostatic sounding. They don’t quite have the air or separation of any of the Staxes, but they’re pretty darn close to the Aeons. If there’s such a thing as an open-sounding IEM, it’s these)
  11. Sony MDR-Z1R (bloated, muddy and slurry)

Towards the end of this group, it felt more like an exercise in checking the boxes than enjoying the music. At no point did I really find myself enjoying the music and forgetting to skip to portions of tracks I use for analysis. In contrast, the 007s make me lose track of time and a bit sad if I have to take them off. I was 99% sure before, but I left with certainty that I’ve found my headphone endgame. Tastes vary, but give them a listen if you want to try something special – and don’t blame me if your wallet hurts afterwards. MT

Coda: Since acquiring this setup, “one more song” has turned into something more like “well, another hour can’t hurt”.

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Comments

  1. Re. binaural, with massive popularity of headphone listening, it’s surprising there aren’t more such recordings available. The old Audiostax stuff is quite wonderful, if I can remember how it sounded. A few links, if you didn’t have time to look:
    http://www.terzoorecchio.com/mp3.html
    https://aerecordshk.com/The-Locrian-Ensemble-of-London-Binaural-Baroque-CD-VALCDBR003
    https://www.discogs.com/label/155436-Audiostax
    A little off topic, Kudos to Schiit for making a really useful device (the EQ), stepping on some purist toes. And, do you know of any real time dynamic range compressor, since the environment and headphone isolation are often less than ideal (not an audiophile question). I’d rather hear at -40 db what was 60db down, than miss it completely.

  2. I should imagine exchanging the earpads would have quite some effect on the sound, what with their different surfaces, no? I did this on some Beyerdynamics and the sound was way darker with velours pads than the leather ones. (“Protein leather” is fancy English for plain “real leather”, is it? Never heard that before – I thought protein was a food term.)

    Are the “alcantara things” Stax-specific, sold by them?

    • The sound is definitely warmer, which is a good thing with electrostatics – it gives the lower end more body.

      I think ‘protein leather’ is some reconstituted stuff that didn’t start out as a whole piece…

      Alcantara pads – they’re Brainwavz XLs, universal fit.

  3. Great read!
    My ideal portable setup is a Cowon with a Focal headphone. 😀 You must try the two brand when you can. 🙂

    BTW : I think the Schiit Wyrd is only placebo, you will have glitches to your raw file for example when you connect directly your camera to the computer, and it’s not the case. At least not for my not so high end computer. 😉

    • I tried the Focals (including Utopia, Stellia) – but honestly found them a bit too forward/aggressive to listen to, and somewhat fatiguing. Or perhaps I’ve been spoiled by the electrostatics 😛

      Also starting to agree on the Wyrd – but though to try it anyway.

  4. marcusbell800 says:

    Hi Ming, I’ve been a long time fan and always appreciate your wisdom, thoughts and advise. Has certainly added to my own GAS problem but also has helped me to steam line my thoughts (& gear) as well, greatly appreciated. Audio is another love of mine as well. I’m going to certainly check out the headphones. I’ve got the Mojo as well. Not sure if this will help but I’ve found that I’ve been able to use the Onkyo HF Player App on my iPhone and transfer 24bit Flac music to it ( Flac files Downloaded via HDtracks). Tidal is great but I imagine with the gear you have already it would be interesting to hear your thoughts on the difference.

    • Thanks. I use tidal as it’s much cheaper than buying all the new music I want to try (but not necessarily listen to again), and they’ve got all of my old stuff too. Very easy to sync, too.

  5. Ming, Ming, Ming…. if you really really want to indulge yourself in obsessive compulsive audiophilery (<<my word), go to http://www.thisisdarkness.com/ and have listen to something truly addictive. These guys do with sound what you do with photography. They paint with it in layers, so thick you can visualize it without an image, although to marry the two would really be something.

  6. Hi Ming!
    Fine equipment and captivating reading. Reminds me of my hifi times; was poor student then, would give a hand and a leg for good speakers (including a properly built house around them*). Then came family etc.
    How about the music itself – I oscilate mostly between rock and classic, sometimes jazz. What would be your Ten For Lost On An Island?
    Take care, Robert
    P.S. The first Hassy led to a small onslaught of lenses… Life is not always easy 😉
    * Sony had a CEO then – do not remember his name – who built his house with two concrete “chimneys” on top of which sat horn drivers. The house was ugly, but the SOUND…

    • That would have been dedication! I don’t think I could do a lost island ten…I would be frustrated with really disparate tracks, but equally frustrated with homogeneity.

      The 360deg speakers (I assume that’s what you’re referring to?) are much easier to place than normal planes, which are very position-specific…move to get a cup of coffee or answer the phone and all is lost.

      • No, no, I did not mean 360deg speakers. I think it was Mr. Morita of Sony and the speakers were traditional horn loudspeakers, only MUCH bigger than e.g. Klipsch horns of today. The drivers were placed on top of said chimneys, which themselves were shaped in the form of horns and made of concrete. I do not remember how high they were, but they were several meters high… If it helps: It looked like devil’s house 😉

  7. Did you A/B the Mojo for the travel rig against any of the other DAC/ Amp options? Dragonfly, ifi Micro come to mind.

    • Yes – I have the Dragonfly Red, one of my partners has the Black and I tried the iFi Micro and a couple of others – the Mojo is perhaps a bit more analytical than the others, but doesn’t have the same clipping that the DFR seems to produce with harder to drive headphones and it has more detail than the Black. The others either didn’t make enough of a difference or were awkwardly sized. One other important thing – though the Dragonflies are smaller, they suck power from your phone like crazy; at least the Mojo (and iFi) are self-powered. The only downside of the Mojo is the cable spaghetti required to make it work, and the stupidly long charging times.

  8. In the early 1980’s I purchased a pair of Stax Lambda Pro headphones with the standard Stax solid state amplifier. They were always remarkably fast and detailed but they had no bass and I never found listening to them particularly enjoyable so I boxed them up and stuck them in my basement. A couple of weeks ago I took them out. Twenty years have passed and I was curious to hear them again. To my utter delight, their sound had transformed! They are still detailed but now they full and warm with deep cohesive bass. The are incredible! Perhaps the diaphragms have loosened or otherwise mellowed? Regardless, they are providing me with so much listening joy. I’m listening to all kinds of music, even things I didn’t used to care for. Binaural recordings are freaky on these things. They transport one to different places and times! Enjoy Ming!

    • I don’t know if the hardware has physically changed (unlikely) or one’s own hearing – I’m told as you get older you get less sensitive to the high end, so perhaps it sounds a bit tamed/ relatively more biased to the low end now?

      For what it’s worth, I’ve always found the lambdas a bit bass-light too, with the L700 perhaps being the best of the bunch. No such problems with the 007s 🙂

  9. A great read indeed, as I’ve had that journey myself to find the best possible portable combo. For my tastes, a Sony WM1Z + Audeze LCD i4 combo fits the bill perfectly. Mind you, the i4 will need to be properly EQ’d though to get the “correct” frequency response and since it has literally no isolation, prohibits the i4 from being used in public places or planes. The other combo (which I’ve purchased recently) is the IER-Z1R + WM1Z. The IER-Z1R has a very natural timbre and its treble extension is simply amazing, even better than i4. The two seems to be made for each other. I have other IEMs and DAPs but these two combos are the perfect ones and still much more portable than the Aeons 🙂

    • The i4 was a tricky one to get right – I found it sounded great for some material and not others. I guess the EQ would fix that, though honestly I prefer not to have to do this.

      Fully agree on the Z1R, though – that’s one of the most amazing sounding IEMs I’ve heard, especially for treble extension and clarity. But the prices are scary, and knowing Sony – it’ll be 50% off next month when the new model comes out…

      • Hahaha….well I guess for Sony it’s a bit different in the audio world. Their last flagship, the XBA-Z5 was released back in 2015, and the WM1Z/A in 2016 (and still no signs of new model yet, compared to A&K they always release new flagships almost on a yearly basis). So the product cycle is definitely longer than Sony cameras, therefore I believe it’s worth the investment 🙂

        I agree that for i4 is a bit tricky to get it right, but once you do, it’s unrivaled. The simplest way would be to use the free cipher cable with iOS device. I dare say that the sound using cipher cable would get to 90% of the properly EQ’d sound coming out from WM1Z. YMMV.

  10. Par Lindh says:

    Any Stax Aachen head recordings to go with the Stax hardware? Comments? Worth a listen while your ears are not too old.

    • No, but now I’m going to look for them! 🙂

    • Speaking of binaural, try these remarkable recordings of Ferrari F1 cars at a track. On my Sennheiser HD800, the out of head effect is remarkable, but it’s almost non-existent on the HD6x0 for me. I wonder how they’ll sound on your Stax. He has a bunch of other binaural recordings of race cars on his channel too.

      • Thanks for sharing that – the Staxes sound natural, for want of a better expression – very similar to my experiences during races at actual circuits. The V10s remain the most spine tingling of the lot…both the wail and the jackhammer downshifts.

        • That´s an interesting experience. The Stax SR-404 sound very natural also. The clarity while being quite smooth in the hights is one of the points i like at the Lambdas. It seems to work very well with binaural recordings.
          I had the same experience like your HD6X0 with the HD650. The soundstage was too narrow, it had not the clearity of the Stax and also was a bit slower at the transiens. I had and have other Headphones with more character. The HD650 always sounded a little boring. I don´t understand why it has so many fans.

      • Nicholas D says:

        Wow – does that bring back memories (was a track marshal for many of the 3.5 and 3 liter years…) I can’t say the current hybrids do much for me (although quick to say that the top drivers come close to walking on water status…..)

        Great stuff – with audio and video quality to match- Thanks!
        (sorry – have nothing high fidelity or photography related to offer…..;)

      • I bought my gear in ’76; a Sony amplifier, AKG K240 headphones, and a Marantz cassette player. The player is long gone, the amplifier, with its Canton speaker and Dali subwoofer, just recently, but the headphones are still like new, although I have replaced the headband with genuine leather and changed the plug to one more suitable for pro use.

        I bought everything from a friend that is an audiophile, and in those days was an expert seller in a downtown shop (long gone). I built my first bass amplifier, and the woofer box was designed by KEF’s very own design genius Raymond Cooke, just for me, and used their oval bass speaker, B139.

        Reading comments above telling about Sony’s designer using gigantic horns in his house I remember someone that used that very woofer element in ah ouse with two fireplaces, that were bass horns using the same principle, if just 4 meters long, or so. Worked very well, of course.

        My self-made bass box (Cooke’s design!) got a new life when I met my wife 20 years ago. She had a gigantic bass horn, that was falling to pieces, not least the speaker, so the bass amplifier was transferred to my box, and it worked great for some years.

        Eventually, the speakers my wife had, proved to be falling to pieces, no matter that they were the classic JBL speakers that once were manufactured in Denmark. I had come into some money, so we invested in a 7:1 set, Dali speakers all of them, but eventually upgraded the woofer to one that sounded even better.

        Some of you guys probably know of Leif Claesson, who nowadays lives in Thailand, a fantastic Swedish sound engineer (he has an Oscar to prove it!), designing amplifiers/compressors for radio and TV stations around the world.

        He a perfect music ear, and one day he came visiting, bringing things from our son in Thailand. The Denon transceiver was playing something in the background, and he looked worried until he found the reason why, as we had been watching an action movie late at night the previous day we had turned on the night mode, that dampens the base.

        Anyway, he settled down in our unusual flat, definitely not designed for maximum sound quality (looks like an L, seen from above), and after a while smiled his broad smile and told us, having his acute ear he seldom finds the sound of people amplifiers and speaker anything to enjoy but being polite he says great especially if their famous brand gear sounds crap and costs $100,000 or so.

        And then he paused, smiled, and said: ‘This, on the other hand, is quite delightful, and I could sit here all day just enjoying myself!’
        He sat for a while, till he had to catch a train, for another meeting with people in the sound industry!

        Till this day I smile thinking of it, and really enjoy some classic guitar played over the speakers, which I hope will stay in shape till I die! We invested around $8,000, and I had to do a lot of installation work with wires and pedistals, but the result is still delightful.

  11. Over the years, there are a few key things I’ve found about how and the situations of how/why I listen which has contributed to my (lack of) spending on audio equipment. The first is commuting – the tube, nightmare so cheap pair of true wireless does the job. At work, I actually don’t like listening too much to music when working. And lastly if at home, I prefer a full hifi setup – though I appreciate that is not suitable for all.

    Now on equipment, the first and most important thing is the source – I’m still on Spotify, the breadth of my extremely random diverse music listening from techno to jazz and mainstream has trumpeted Tidal – though I should try Tidal again as it seems to have improved dramatically. But overall I cannot deny that Spotify is inadequate quality – I tend to then buy FLAC of my favourite albums which leads to another monster discussion on portable players – again, Tidal simplifies things dramatically. I still feel we need another competitor to Tidal and Spotify, but doubt we get it.

    Over ears I fund uncomfortable and so have tended to stick with IEMs. Thankfully after thinking myself mad spending £500 on a pair of Sony XBA-Z5 hybrids 4 odd years ago, I’ve been happy enough with sound and comfort. I love them.

    I know before I try looking experimenting with headphones I need to sort out the bits in between – I genuinely think your ‘mobile’ setup involving the Chord Mojo is really as good as you need (and not THAT expensive either) for most. And I’ve not even tried my IEMS in balanced either yet.

    Audio chasing has always been fun – don’t go into hifi!

    • I like Tidal because you can offline cache high quality files – and yes, the variety is there (at least for the breadth of stuff I tend to listen to). Sony has a matched balanced amp/player that should work well with your Z5s, I believe…

      No interest in hifi. No space, no funds, and a four year old – plus, apartment living and neighbors.

      • Yea, I’ve tried a few Sony players, not convinced. And a phone is so convenient.

        I just had a look at the MrSpeakers – really nice looking closed backs!

  12. Hi Ming, congratulations. Just the perfect musical experience, i think. With the Lamda SR-404, a SRM 212 and a Musical Fidelity HPA-90 i just start listening to my favorite songs for 15 Minutes and stop at 2 or 3 hours listening time. (Oh, i just read your last sentence, i know what you mean).
    To me, using Stax, especially in the range of your Omegas, means not to search for more. It´s it. Full Stop.
    Other System maybe stronger at some departments, but not as a whole.
    Maybe one thing on the mac is what i like a lot is using Audirvana for playing the songs and giving a lot of resources to it from your mac (you can control that in the settings). The sound of the player (it is actually more like whole Music System the a player) is very refined and has a lot of punch if you like.
    Maybe for your system the Stax SRM-D50 electrostatic headphone amp/DAC is a better solution than the Shiit and the Stax 353X, but i have no experience with it.
    On the mobile side you like bass? Maybe you should try the Dunu DK-3001. The highs maybe a little recessed, but the Bass ….
    Or do you like perfection where you switch the amount of bass you like? The InEar ProPhile 8 should be it, but maybe a little too good just for traveling.
    Or do like the ultimate mobile electrostat? I think it´s the Shure KSE1500. Never had a chance to hear, but what i read about it, a dream, but this one is on the pricy side for sure ;-).

    • I’ve heard mixed things about the new amps – fortunately, no chance to demo and I’m happy with what I’ve got, so all good!

      Mobile/bass: I find a bit more than I’d prefer on the desktop setup is necessary to compensate for background noise, but not too much. The Dunus were a bit too much for me; if I was going to go that route I’d stick to the Beyer Relents (which were also too warm).

      Aside from being unable to demo the KSE1500s, there’s the problem of limited runtime since they need another pack to drive them – which isn’t exactly portable…

      • I´d like to try the Shure, but here is no way to hear a demo.
        So, if you are looking for something mobile, the InEar ProPhile 8 seems to fit your needs quite well. Maybe you should google a bit about them. Here in Germany they are said to be the reference of being neutral, with an adequate soundstage and very high resolution.

  13. Mate your lost! go for a walk on the beach and listen to the birds..when you can idenitify animals by their sound then your getting there..

  14. Robert Gould says:

    Ultimate portable set up: Shure KSE1200 with Chord Mojo. Add Chord Poly to free your source from wires. Not cheap but will be difficult to beat as a home set up too so you can double up.

  15. Nice to read, that You prefer the SR-007 over the SR-009s, too.
    Used to be an IEM-type guy (easy listening while laying on the side), but got a problem with too much wax in the ears from them, so wanted the ultimate and bought a Stax Set with the srm-006tII tube amp and SR-404s years ago which I seldom used because it lacked bass and the mobile revolution with services like Spotify and Apple Music got me. Then I bought a Hifiman Arya and paired it with an iFi micro black label which is a really great mobile combo – Very neutral sounding and the bass goes deep down and has quality but lacks just a little bit of quantity (though can be fixed with the bass feature from the iFi). Because Stax still got me fascinated and I demoed a Stax SR-007mkII before (came to the conclusion that for my kind of listening to mainstream non-audiophile music with its darker signature it is a better match than the analytical SR-009) I went the Stax route again and paired it with the SRM-717II which is drier than the tube amp but has more punch. After that I bought a chord mojo because I needed a second DAC – and now It almost sounds better with the Arya and the SR-007 than the iFi because it’s a little bit warmer.
    This should have been endgame headphone-wise (sure DAC-wise there are far more expensive improvements possible)
    …but now I need a closed-cap solution for the living room, so Audeze LCD-XC is on its way…
    Oh, by the way: Switched from Nikon D600 to OM-D E-M1mkII and like the portability but with the Z6/7 out now and the old camera and newer Nikon lenses still in my posession I’m afraid it’s the same like with Stax…(Learned it’s called Gear Aquisition Syndrome and not sure if it could be cured.)

    Greeetings from Germany

    • The 007mk2 also does pretty well for analytical stuff if you have the right combination driving it. The tubes are a bit warm, but a 353X and Mojo tames that; I have a Schiit Loki too which you can tweak things to taste with.

      GAS stops when you stop looking 😉

  16. jean pierre (pete) guaron says:

    Stay away from the “in ear” phones – they’re apparently the shortest distance between you and deafness!

    • Not if you keep the volume down. The isolation definitely helps things.

      • Dear Ming!
        Nice read! I went the same path. Because of having little children I was using the 007Mk2 as well with the 717 energizer (I like the 353 with the 007 too). For me it is the most musical Stax headphone, by far! My trusted shop here in Vienna sells lots of Stax stuff, but I am the only client in many years who bought the SR-007, and he said to me that he is selling many many 009s – hard to understand.
        One thing to consider: Be very careful with deafness!
        Because of the very low distortion of electrostats you tend to listen much louder without noticing. And because of lacking the solid-borne sound one listens a few more dB louder than normal. A friend of mine needs hearing aid already, because of his extensive listening to earphones. I read somewhere: Crank up the volume to a convenient level, then turn it down a bit. You always have to have the feeling that the volume is a little bit too low.
        Now with the children being nearly 12 I went back to listening with speakers again – it’s like coming home.

        • I suspect many may be buying off the price, spec and model number rather than what their ears tell them…my first encounter with the 007mkI was very special. Nearly 15 years later, those impressions were confirmed – and the 007mk2 sounds every bit as good.

          Deafness: I’m very careful with overdoing the volume as it’s far too easy to do with these. I keep the SPL at ear to 85db or less, which corresponds to a certain energiser setting (about 5) – I start at 3.5 for a while, which feels between adequate and a little low, and then turn it up to 4-4.5 for extended listening – then you’re safe and satisfied!

  17. Kristian Wannebo says:

    Two gems, perhaps not on top in sound quality, but musically – yes!

    Sidney Bechet,

    ( – my, up to now, favourite Summertime.)

    Elly Ney,

    ( – her last recording, aged 86, of Beethoven’s open.111, to my mind her most musical and personal.)

    • Hi Kristian. Summertime? And no Ella Fitzgerald? The Sidney Bechet Version is nice, for sure. But when Ella Fitzgerald starts to sing, well, this makes me feel the song how it´s meant to be played.
      Of course, different taste, but Summertime is married to Ella Fitzgerald in my taste.

      • Kristian Wannebo says:

        Aye,
        Ella Fitzgerald, my second favourite,
        especially with Louis Armstrong.
        🙂

        • Yes, with Louis Armstrong, a dream.
          The version of Summertime with Ella Fitzgerald i listen to is the 1960 live in Berlin.

    • Thanks!

    • Thanks! That was an enjoyable listen with my iPad + Philips Fidelio M1 headphones. 🙂
      I prefer listening through loudspeakers, Cyrus amps with Magnepan speakers in my case, but I do listen to headphones while travelling. For those circumstances, a good balance between portability and sound quality is important to me, combined with decent noise isolation. The Fidelio’s may not offer the best sound quality, but they are very transparent and well balanced to my ears. The on-ear design with soft padding offers enough isolation in most environments and the folding ear-cups make them very portable. They are sensitive enough to allow more than enough loudness when driven from just an iPhone or iPad without the need of an external headphone amp. Ming’s setup probably sounds better, but certainly is less portable and a lot more expensive.

      • Magnepan! These look fantastic bang for the buck, but with a four year old who likes poking things, I suspect a pair of large panels may prove too much temptation 😦

  18. Have you looked at the Astell and Kern hi res Audi players ? These have built in DACS. I made the change from using my iPhone as a source because the Audi was just too compressed with no separation on busier tracks. The A&K Kann is streets ahead. I use with either a pair of sennheiser pic 550 or some Bose IEM units purely as I need the noise cancelling. A & K also do some pretty good IEM units that may be worth looking at !

    • Yes, I have an earlier one. But managing music is a pain, and unless you buy a new (and expensive) model then there’s not streaming/offline services. As for their headphones, they’re co-brands with other manufacturers – I have the AK T8ie mk2 / Beyer Xelentos, which are good but a bit on the warm side for my current preferences.

  19. Alex Carnes says:

    Here speaks a recovered audiophile: you can waste huge amounts of time and money on this hobby! I’m sure you also know that all this subjective, sighted listening is hogwash!

    Unless you just like burning money, get a pair of HD 650s and a decent solid state DAC/amp to drive them. If you’re on the move get a sealed can to keep background noise out – I use Focal Spirit Pros, they provide decent isolation and a fairly neutral sound. You’re a physicist so you know what to think of people who claim $1000 cables have a transformative effect on the sound! And tubes are outmoded, inefficient, and simply add distortion. 650s and a Benchmark DAC One and you’ve got as good as it gets, and the DAC One is a colossal overkill.

    I eventually decided only to listen to music in the concert hall or at home; I don’t really pay enough attention to it while I’m on the move.

    It’s just one of those addictions I suppose. Rather like alcohol and tobacco, camera people also seem to have a thing about watches and hifi gear! I used to have an interest in watches, I now wear a G Shock 5600 that automatically sets the time to GMT. I listen to music on 650s and an Arcam rDAC, fed from my PC. You grow out of it. I use expensive camera equipment but I no longer have GAS and the only ‘upgrade’ on the horizon is chopping my Sigma 24-35/2 Art for the 28/1.4. The new lens looks fabulous, but how much difference will it really make at the apertures I normally shoot at (ie, f/4-11)?! Not much, I bet.
    I

    • There’s definitely a deep end to fall off. Some have better hearing than others; some have deeper pockets; some have both. I have now learned not to look at price or manufacturer when assessing sound, and go with what you enjoy – if you enjoy it a second time. Then, stop looking 😛

      I spend a lot of time on the move, unfortunately. That quest continues.

      • Alex Carnes says:

        Transducers make a difference so you need cans that suit. Pretty much any modern DAC will drive HD650s loud enough to damage your hearing, and they all sound the same. A Cambridge Audio DacMagic XS USB DAC is all the travelling audiophile actually needs. I’ve got one somewhere with my AKG 701s still plugged into it! All properly designed modern DACs have a ruler flat frequency response within the audible spectrum, bags of power, and vanishingly low distortion, and you can get them for peanuts. The only thing you really need to watch is output impedance, especially with tube amps.

  20. One more quick but important detail, put this on your head and press play on the most recent remastered version on Led Zeppelin II and I dare you not to smile!

  21. Great read. I have been down many roads.

    One thing you did not talk about is the theft/damage risks of a portable setup. The more it costs, the more each of these eventualities(?) will hurt.

    My home system consists of Moon 430HA amp and HD820’s wired with “stupid (my wife calls them this because of their cost) cables”

    I have a simple portable setup that is not in your list that I’ll offer to others who might be reading here.

    HiRes Sources –> HF Player (Onkyo) app on iPhone –> lightning to USB cable –> iFi micro –> Senn HD600 and/or Shure SE846

    costs

    Varied –> 4.99 (if you already have an iPhone) –> 14.99 –> 600.00 –> 350 / 999

    Under $1000 with 600 or 650’s and a damn fine audio experience

    • The HD600s are open, no? Surely that doesn’t work so well in a portable application…?

      • Hence the SE846’s. But in many quiet situations, including work, it is a perfect system.

        What IEM tips do you use? I had my Shures in for a 11 hour flight from LA and they never bothered my ears. I use the Comfy foam and get an excellent seal. Even with no music playing, they are great at isolating the outside world. I get the lack of space that some deliver, but the 846’s are a different kettle-o-fish.

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