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Flagship Headphone / Amplifier Round Up

I tried my best not to get caught up to much in tired, overused hyperbole and flowery descriptions, but it seems almost impossible to not at least try and explain the breathtaking impact that cutting edge audio equipment can have upon the mind and dare I say it …. soul.

There can be no outright winner between these systems because all are more than capable of not only presenting music in a seductive, transparent and ultimately enjoyable manner, but they are also able to transport the listener to a better place. After all isn’t that what great music and equipment is all about? Music surely shouldn’t be just about analysing the equipment and measuring graphs because within a truly fantastic system ideally the equipment should disappear from mind completely.

Most of the systems we looked at today will be firmly priced out of reach for a great percentage of KitGuru readers. Only a very small group will be dedicated enough to the reproduction of pure, faithful music or in a position financially to be able to afford any of them. This continual chase for audio perfection is addictive and unless you suffer from it then you will probably classify us as moderately deranged.

I have to admit, while I value a pair of flagship headphones and a quality valve amplifier, I don’t needlessly spend thousands of pounds on cables, and £60 on blocks of wood to keep them from touching the ground. Everyone should be free to experiment as they wish in life without fear of mockery, but sometimes even I draw a limit.

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Of the four systems on test today I can draw some conclusions after spending long periods of time with them all.

The Abyss 1266 with Cavalli Liquid Gold is a remarkable system if you enjoy rock music, pop music and electronic music of any kind. I would keep a set of these headphones for a lot of my classic rock, but the comfort level for me has become an issue in the last year. I hope they release a new set of these headphone with some changes to the headband and adjustment methodology. As they stand they are analogous to a medieval torture device.

The HiFiMan HE1000 with Luxman P700u is actually a combination I have used regularly in recent months. This is an incredibly versatile combination of headphone and amplifier which can deal with any genre of music without any problem. I am a big fan of the Luxman sound, and the P700u is a holy grail amplifier – one to keep forever. The HiFi Man HE1000 are extremely detailed, but this amplifier manages to remove a little layer of grain from the high end which makes them even more appealing. I have heard the HE1000 with lesser amplifiers and I can find them tiring when the synergy isn’t quite right. Yes, that is the last time I will use the word synergy in this article I promise.

The HiFiMan HE1000 is also one of the most comfortable headphones ever designed, so it earns a bonus point in my book. This is one of the few headphones I have used that completely disappears from my head over long periods of time.

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The Audeze LCD4 and Chord Hugo TT is a pairing I have taken with me on trips to Dublin in recent weeks. The LCD4 mid range is sublime and somewhat addictive and for this reason alone it is worth having in your collection of headphones (if you have a collection that is). It excels with female vocals alongside guitar and jazz instrumentals. It doesn’t quite match the HE1000 in regards to fine macro detail, but for some people this will be seen as a plus. I honestly can’t decide between the LCD 4 and HE 1000. They are both outrageous headphones that are able to transport the listener to another, happier world.

The reason why I often use the HE1000 over the LCD4 is not related to sound quality, but comfort. The Audeze LCD4 are one of the heaviest headphones you can buy and although I am a rather big chap myself, I do find they give me neck and head ache after using them for extended periods of time. They really do need to start reducing the weight and adjusting their handband strategy. They are not as uncomfortable as the Abyss 1266, but if the future LCD5 are heavier again then we will need to enroll in gym classes to strengthen neck muscles.

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The Stax 009 and Blue Hawaii SE is my favourite of all the systems on test today. Like any pairing, it is not perfect. Rock music for instance is better on every other system, but I find as I get older that I am listening less and less to metal, and even classic rock. Jazz, classical, orchestra and vocal tracks really come to life on the Stax 009. Listening to the Rachmaninov Symphony No. 1 – The Isle of the Dead for instance at high volume is extremely stimulating via the Stax 009. You just need to be very careful of the volume control as the dynamic shift in volume between certain passages can leave you leaping to turn it down. Wrist control is a prerequisite if you wish to maintain good hearing. Just be aware that you really cannot properly evaluate the Stax 009 headphones with any of the Stax amplifiers. The SRM 717 is the only Stax amplifier I rate highly without any modifications, but in their wisdom Stax decided to remove it from production to give us the dynamically restricted SRM727.

If you have £10,000 burning a hole in your pocket then any of the systems on test today are more than worthy of a purchase, but when spending so much money, I would advise you to speak with a local dealer to see if you can get some hands on time with the headphones and amplifiers. I hope my insights today can help guide in some way on your path to sonic nirvana.

I would like to thank some good friends of mine in helping with the hardware for this review. Justin Wilson at Headamp, Gary Penska at Analogue Seduction and Bernie Peters at Stax. Also special thanks to the Sennheiser team for their continued support.

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