A Survey of Six High-End Headphones

Alternate Paths to the Sonic Mountaintop

Equipment report
Categories:
Headphones
|
Products:
Audeze LCD3 Headphone,
Beyerdynamic T1 Tesla,
Grado Laboratories PS1000,
HiFiMAN HE-6,
Sennheiser HD800,
Stax SR-009
A Survey of Six High-End Headphones

Models to Audition

Beyerdynamic T1 Tesla ($1399) north-america.beyerdynamic.com

The T1 Tesla is the finest headphone that the German firm Beyerdynamic makes and it earned its name by being the first (and, at its inception, the only) headphone featuring drivers whose motors offered a whopping one (1) Tesla of magnetic flux density. Headphone enthusiasts who value purity, smoothness, and inner detail will particularly appreciate the T1 Tesla.

The T1 Tesla offers two interrelated sonic qualities that together make for its greatness: almost unearthly levels of timbral purity coupled with equally exceptional smoothness and evenness of frequency response. The T1 is also remarkably free of grain, which gives a heightened sense of see-through transparency.

The T1 Tesla is not necessarily a sonic “thrill ride” in the way that some headphones can be; rather, its pleasure and points of excellence are subtler in nature and take a while to register on the listener. In this respect, the T1 Tesla gives performance akin to that of certain ceramic-driver-equipped loudspeakers (albeit with a vastly more expansive dynamic envelope and very wide- bandwidth response).

Sennheiser HD-800 ($1499) sennheiserusa.com

The HD-800 is a statement-class, flagship model from the venerable German firm Sennheiser; it is an essentially hand-built product and looks the part in every way. Among headphone cognoscenti, the HD-800 enjoys the reputation of a headphone that is more respected than loved, for reasons I will partly address below. Measurement-oriented headphone enthusiasts, however, should note that the HD-800 produces some of the best all- around empirical test results of any top-end headphone being made today.

The HD-800 is a brilliant all-rounder that does all (and we do mean all ) things well. Still, we would observe that there is a distinct gap between the sound of the HD-800 heard under “good” conditions and the sound of the headphone under truly optimal conditions—in fact, for discerning listeners this can be a night/day difference (hence, the “respect” vs. “love” dilemma). The fact is that the HD-800 almost always sounds good-to-very- good when used with a competent headphone amp, but it is also true that the HD-800 only achieves its full potential when pushed by great headphone amps (again, the difference isn’t subtle). With the right amp, the HD-800 can sound spectacular—as engaging and evocative as you might ever desire, which is where “love” enters the picture.

Grado Labs PS1000 ($1695) gradolabs.com

The PS1000, which is hand-built in very limited quantities, is the top model from the Brooklyn-based phono cartridge and headphone specialist Grado. Grado’s less expensive middde- range ’phones have won widespread critical acclaim for their vibrant and highly expressive (albeit somewhat midrange- forward) sound, and the PS1000 represents the culmination of that “house sound,” but with higher resolution, a more neutral top-to-bottom tonal balance, and exemplary extension at the frequency extremes.

A sound that is well balanced, evocative, and incredibly engaging and dynamically alive. With that said, however, we’ll let you in on a secret: if you listen to the PS1000 you might think, as we did at first, that it sounds like an upgraded version of one of its less costly Grado siblings (e.g., the $995 GS1000i or $695 RS1i). In other words, the PS1000 at first seems to offer the ultimate extension of the Grado sound, giving good results, but results that perhaps do not quite justify its price. With a great amp, however, the picture changes dramatically, as a great amp will enable the PS1000 to “shift gears,” so that it jumps up to much higher levels of performance than other Grads models can achieve. Hint: To hear the PS1000 at is finest, try powering it with a top-flight tube-powered headphone amp (e.g., Woo’s Audio WA5-LE).

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