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Flagship Headphone / Amplifier Round Up

This page is reserved for my observations when listening to various music from a selection of genres. I really do not think you can test any of these headphone and amplifiers pairings with compressed MP3 audio, so I am using a selection of 16 bit and 24 bit Flac files as well as SACD.

Listening to the tracks on this page took many many days over 5 or 6 sessions. Jumping immediately between headphones and amplifiers can be massively confusing to the brain, so I always find it is best to set up a final test session listening to all the test tracks multiple times with the same headphone and amplifier, making observations and notes after each track, then moving onto the next track. I then take a break for an hour or two and move onto the next headphone and amplifier, repeating the same procedure. This is repeated the next day in a different order of listening.

Mariecke Borger

Mariecke Borger track ‘Not Too Late’ from album ‘Through My Eyes’. Fidelity: 24 bit Flac 44.1kHz. Downloaded from HDTracks.

Track overview:
This track from singer-songwriter Mariecke Borger is beautifully recorded to capture her raw, emotive and innocent voice. The track ‘Not Too Late’ is closely miked, featuring a wealth of acoustic guitar with plenty of ambience and ‘space’. At around the 1.50 mark, the band join the song with electric guitar and bass entering the fray.

System 1: Abyss 1266 with Cavalli Liquid Gold
The Abyss 1266 have a tendency to inject a lot of ‘energy’ into a track, and I found this pairing with Mariecke Borger was a little aggressive for me. If it was the only pairing I had heard I would be impressed, but there was a certain ‘zing’ with this track that left me a little cold. As I would expect, at around 1.50, the Abyss 1266 were able to convey the impact of the other musicians joining the song.

System 2: Hi-Fi HE1000 Headphones with Luxman P700u Amplifier
The Hi-Fi HE1000/Luxman pairing excelled with this track. Mariecke’s voice exhibited a lifelike quality which only the best headphones can portray convincingly. Gentle guitar sweeping within the first 10 seconds of the track was clearly picked out from the background of the soundstage. When the band enters the mix later in the track, the change in dynamic was noticeable and effective.

System 3: Audeze LCD 4 Headphones with Chord Hugo TT Amplifier
The Audeze LCD4/Hugo TT pairing was simply sublime with this track. The Audeze LCD4 mid range is almost hypnotic, both seductive yet crystal clear. The HiFi HE1000 system was able to extract a little more detail overall, noticeable with the crisp guitar plucking in the introduction, although the LCD4 high frequencies aren’t quite as extended as the HE1000. That said, I actually preferred the overall presentation from the LCD4, falling into the music quicker and marveling in the beautiful tone of Mariecke Borgers enthralling voice.

System 4: Stax 009 Headphones with HeadAmp Blue Hawaii SE
The Stax 009 and BHSE system managed to extract the greatest detail from this track without any inflated overemphasis on the high frequency curve. Mariecke’s vocals were presented in a heavenly ‘sitting beside the listener’ way, and the guitarists could be clearly positioned in the soundstage. Little ambient noises were easily picked up behind the main instruments and this was my favourite ‘rendition’ of the track via all the high end systems we are listening to today.

eagles 224

The Eagles track ‘Hotel California’ from album ‘Hotel Calfornia’ Fidelity: 24 bit Flac 192kHz. Downloaded from HDTracks.

Track Overview:
There really is not much we can say about this track that hasn’t already been written. The 24 bit 192kHz version is pretty much a reference point for a rock/pop track created in the last 30-40 years. It is very well recorded with plenty of tasty guitar work from Joe Walsh and Don Felder. Don Henley’s vocal is first class, alongside some bombastic drum fills. I always enjoyed the main verse chord pattern of Bm, F#, A, E, G, D, Em, F# which is not used much in modern music. It is actually a variation of a Flamenco guitar chord progression. It really is an exquisitely crafted arrangement from start to finish.

System 1: Abyss 1266 with Cavalli Liquid Gold
The Abyss 1266 system delivered a very enjoyable rendition of Hotel California. Don Henley’s vocal was presented up front and center in the mix, with drums and bass hitting hard. The visceral nature of the Abyss 1266 lends itself well to metal and classic rock tracks such as this. I did notice a very minor level of glare on some of the drum fills, with Henley hitting the hi-hat. Not enough to irritate, but noticeable.

System 2: Hi-Fi HE1000 Headphones with Luxman P700u Amplifier
The Hi-Fi Man HE1000 system worked fantastically well with this track, even more so than the Abyss 1266, which surprised me. Don Henley’s voice seemed a little more organic when compared to the Abyss 1266 although this could be related to the differences in amplification as well. The immense production values of the track were clearly highlighted via the HE1000/P700u.

All in all, the HE1000/Luxman P700u actually was my favourite combination for listening to this particular track.

System 3: Audeze LCD 4 Headphones with Chord Hugo TT Amplifier
I was expecting a lot from the Audeze LCD4/Hugo TT pairing with this track, and again I was not disappointed. Don Henley’s voice was crystal clear in the mid range, easily matching the experience given by the HE1000/P700U system.

I do however feel the little extra clarity in the high end from the HE1000/ helped drive the track forward a little better. Still, I would be perfectly happy with this system if it was all I had.

System 4: Stax 009 Headphones with HeadAmp Blue Hawaii SE
The Stax 009 and BHSE system presented the most detailed rendition of Hotel California. If I closed my eyes I could almost envision Don Henley sitting right in front of me as the song progressed.

Unfortunately there was a little too much macro detail being portrayed which became a little tiring. Tube rolling might help adjust the sound signature a little however I didn’t want to get too caught up with this.

Overall I felt all the other systems delivered a slightly more enjoyable overall listening experience.


Karl Ikonen Trio track ‘The Testament Of My Heart’ from album ‘Bright’ Fidelity SACD.

Track Overview:
The Karl Ikonen Trio are a jazz ensemble who have produced some amazing recordings in recent years. The track we tested ‘The Testament Of My Heart’ starts off with a very heavy double bass introduction which lasts for around 1 minute and 25 seconds. The track subsequently flows into a gentle, melodic, somewhat mournful piano driven instrumental ballad.

System 1: Abyss 1266 with Cavalli Liquid Gold
The Abyss 1266 peppered the track with its own trademark larger than life personality. The introduction section featuring the heavy bass signature was immense, almost enough to pop my ear drums. The Abyss 1266 is a coloured headphone, but it is also incredibly fun headphone in a similar fashion to the older Grado headphones created by Joe Grado.

When the piano made its entrance, there was a very slight ‘tizz’ to the sound signature that was noticeable. This is not necessarily a bad thing however it was not my favourite pairing for this particular track.

System 2: Hi-Fi HE1000 Headphones with Luxman P700u Amplifier
The Hi-Fi Man HE1000/P700U is a wonderful system if you enjoy Jazz recordings. The bass section introducing the Karl Ikonen Trio track had almost the same visceral impact as the Abyss 1266, but with slightly less scale. Almost more intimate by design and certainly just as enjoyable.

The piano section main melody was presented in a more natural way with the HE1000 than it appeared with the Abyss 1266. The soundstaging between the two sets of headphones was also rather different, with the musicians in the room appearing bigger via the Abyss 1266. Overall, I would give this recording so far to the HE1000, but either proved very enjoyable.

System 3: Audeze LCD 4 Headphones with Chord Hugo TT Amplifier
The Audeze LCD4 are a very versatile headphone and repeated sessions with this track highlighted to me just how captivating their presentation is, especially in the mids. Bass response was excellent, if a little more subdued than the HE1000. The presentation of the piano section of the track however was almost as engrossing as the Stax 009.

I say almost, because some fine detail was lost between the configurations. Overall, a tremendous listening experience and one I thoroughly enjoyed.

System 4: Stax 009 Headphones with HeadAmp Blue Hawaii SE
Yes, you guessed it, the Stax 009 and BHSE system delivered the most expressive and detailed rendition of ‘The Testament Of My Heart’. Bass response was tempered when considered against the HE1000 and Abyss 1266, however sub bass response was sublimely accomplished. The Stax 009 may not produce the most intense bass in regards to volume levels, but it always seems almost perfectly balanced in the mix. As a matter of interest the Stax 009 can often reach to subterranean frequency levels to retrieve a note you might actually not hear with other headphones.

The piano section gave me shivers – extra macro detail was audible around the notes themselves. A little sustain hovering in the air between the piano and microphone in the studio room added some ambience to the experience. No other headphone could best the Stax 009 with this track, although if I was playing devils advocate I can understand why people appreciate bass monster headphones like the Abyss 1266.

Leonard Slatkin – Track: Ostrov myortvikh (The Isle of the Dead), Op. 29. Album: Detroit Symphony Orchestra/ Rachmaninov Symphony No. 1 – The Isle of the Dead. Fidelity: 24 bit 352kHz.

Track Overview:
After the disastrous failure of its première in 1897, Rachmaninov’s youthfully exuberant Symphony No. 1 had to wait until after his death before it was reconstructed from the surviving orchestral parts and performed again, in Moscow in 1945. Since then it has taken its rightful place as one of the great Russian symphonic works of the late nineteenth century. The Isle of the Dead, Op. 29 is a vivid and powerful symphonic poem based on a well-known nineteenth century painting by the Swiss symbolist artist Arnold Böcklin.

Internationally renowned conductor Leonard Slatkin is currently Music Director of the Detroit Symphony Orchestra and of the Orchestre National de Lyon and Principal Guest Conductor of the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra.

isle of the dead

The 21 minute Isle Of The Dead is a hauntingly ominous track, with the lowest ranges of the orchestra working tirelessly as the piece builds up into a crescendo, akin to a slow funeral march. In some ways it is reminiscent of the opening of the Second Piano Concerto (Piano Concerto No. 2 in C minor, Op. 18). The music was inspired by a creepy Böcklin painting. The music signifies a boat approaching a little harbour of the island. A mysterious ferryman rows while a white figure rests beside a coffin.

As the strings rise from below the surface, the gently flowing 5/8 rhythm moves forward in pace – as uncompromising as Holst’s Mars and as unnerving as Sibelius Tapiola.

This long crescendo is formed around the boat approaching the island, moving slowly through thick dense mists signifying the world between precious life and the realm of the dead. A series of beautiful sweet melodic music is heard. Around 16 minutes in strings join the fray to offer symbolisation of The ‘Day Of Wrath’ from the Latin Mass. A woodwind section starts, highlighting the completion of the task. The boatman of death departs. The slow, uncompromising waves return, sending the listener away from the Island. Fading away.

System 1: Abyss 1266 with Cavalli Liquid Gold
The Abyss 1266 is not the first headphone I would associate with classical music, but it is surprisingly versatile. This is a dramatic track and the Abyss 1266 lend a certain extra weight to the sweeping strings and rising tension. I did notice a little shimmer in parts of the track, lending an almost unnatural overhang to the proceedings. This wouldn’t be the headphone I would select for this kind of music. Plenty of impact, but the lack of a little finesse at times.

System 2: Hi-Fi HE1000 Headphones with Luxman P700u Amplifier
The Hi-Fi Man HE1000/P700U fared better than the Abyss 1266/Liquid Gold with this complex, unearthy track. The sweeping strings maintained the full sense of drama, but without the upper glaze on the strings during the more active passages. The 21 minutes passed in quickly and I had to step away for breather -amazing how some music can simply transport you to another place if you close your eyes.

System 3: Audeze LCD 4 Headphones with Chord Hugo TT Amplifier
The Audeze LCD4 pounded me in the middle of a headstorm of strings and subliminal undercurrent. I noticed the reduction of a little detail in the upper frequencies when compared against the HE1000/P700U. While this sounds negative, I actually warmed to the LCD4 sound after a few minutes. The mid range of these headphones is something special – the relentless 5/8 transporting me from my seat at home, into a position close by the boat riding the waves. There is no shortage of dynamic range with the LCD4 headphones, and while they would not be my first choice for this kind of music, they are more than up to the task.

System 4: Stax 009 Headphones with HeadAmp Blue Hawaii SE
This is the reason why people buy Stax 009 headphones. While the other headphones in this test are more than up to the task of wrapping the listener into various states of euphonic bliss, the Stax 009 completely transport me into the boat, as Rachmaninov intended when he was writing the music.

The hairs on the back of my neck were proudly standing to attention by 4 or 5 minutes into the track. The BHSE sings with complex music, never feeling as if it is compressing or running into a dynamic wall. Careful attention is actually required when listening to music like this especially as it is builds to a crescendo. There is no doubt that being a little ‘spin happy’ with the volume pot could potentially cause some hearing damage.

If you have any appreciation for this kind of complex orchestra oriented music, then I really do see no other alternative than the Stax 009 and BHSE, it really is just as simple as that.

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