Den-Fi

Through the lens of an audiophile.

AirPods Pro: Too Convenient to Ignore

The AirPods Pro use an abundance of technology to make you forget all about technology. Something I can appreciate now that AirPods finally come with ear tips to create a seal, meaning they sound pretty good.

Build and Comfort

The AirPods Pro are of course plasticy through and through, but they don’t feel cheap. They’re very lightweight and I can attest to the durability. There were two incidents where I’ve pulled my face mask off, only to slingshot one of them down the street. Neither look like they’ve ever been through any of that.

Comfort wise, the feeling of having something in my ear disappears rather quickly. The pressure relief vents were an appreciated inclusion in this regard. I mostly use AirPods Pro when running, and find that even after I’ve come back, I leave them in for another song or two before moving onto something else. The tips are very thin silicone material. I was amazed at how comfortable they were. Even when building up a sweat, they never became itchy (something I will go over more when comparing to the Sony WF-1000XM3) or uncomfortable. They are a very shallow insert, along the same lines as the FH5s and Starfields that I daily drove before the Airpods Pro. While they don’t have any hooks or cables to assist in keeping them in place, they never fell out of my ears when running. They’ve only fallen out when pulling a shirt over my head to take it off or certain face masks if pulled off with reckless abandon (as I’ve had to learn not to do).

Convenience is where the AirPods Pro win big for me. This is what the majority of your $250 pays for. My very first run illustrated just how much Apple got right here. The squeeze (force) trigger mechanics sounded absolutely bizarre on paper, but in practice I can’t see myself finding anything else as useful. Being able to perform the exact same functions on both sides does a lot to maintain your concentration and focus. It may not seem like much to have to think left or right, but the less you have to think about, the better. That’s a big theme here. What seems like too much technology, makes it so you don’t even think about technology. Siri reads off notifications in a manner that is less distracting than slowing down checking your phone. “Hey Siri” can be triggered in a normal, private tone that does not mistakenly alert someone nearby. Removing one of the AirPods Pro pauses the music quickly and reliably. This is something I like to do rather than just pausing the music, as most people trying to interact with you won’t start talking without the visual cue. It also just comes off as more polite.

The only negative I can really find is that they only come in white. They’re very easy to clean, so it’s not a deal breaker, but the case shows signs of use/dirt easily and it messes with my OCD.

Packaging and Accessories

The AirPods Pro come in Apple’s signature understated packaging. The standard documentation is wrapped in a simple, but recognizable “Designed by Apple in California” sleeve. Below that, the charging case is wrapped in a protective film with a pull tab, and below that are a charging cable, power brick, and extra tips. Quite surprising to see USB-C charging brick, but it seems like this may be the last time that happens.

Sound Quality

Highs

Let’s get this out of the way. The AirPods Pro are not $250 worth of sound. The treble is a tad on the dark side. I would not class this as a bad thing, but did find myself wishing for a bit more sparkle and air on more energetic tracks. Given the target audience, I would say taming the upper treble was a wise move. Brightness sensitivity varies widely from person to person.

Mids

Upper mids are on the flat side, with a very nice presentation of vocals. Lower mids are warm and pleasant. Overall, I’d say the mids were my favorite thing about the AirPods Pro and where most of the energy lives. This is great for me as, while I consider myself a bass head, lackluster mids ruin headphones.

Lows

I didn’t know what to expect when it came to bass, having skipped the first two generations of AirPods. I was bracing for limp, lackluster EarPod bass, or bloated, muddy “target demographic” bass. What I was presented with was a pleasant surprise. The bass has an almost mature quality to it. It takes over nicely from the lower mids, and never goes out of control. Punch is average, but not lacking, and sub bass is present, if a tad too conservative for my tastes. Sometimes I catch myself turning the volume up just touch too high to get that extra energy. It’s then that I realize why they were so careful with the treble. I’d like to see a little more low end in future iterations, but if they leave it like this, I still find it preferable versus the Beats sound of the past.

Other Sound Notes

Touching briefly on other sound qualities, detail and imaging are average. They’re what you’d expect for the general audience they’re aimed towards. Sound stage is one of those things I don’t pick up on well, but I can tell these are intimate. I mainly use them when running and have them in transparency mode, but ANC brings the sound even closer with the elements cut out. On the topic of active noise cancelling, I’ve done some listening in loud environments where possible. It does a nice job of cutting out predictable mechanical hums like motors, HVAC, and server rooms. In terms of talking, it can drown out chatter, but if someone is speaking above conversation level, you’ll hear it. I would have loved to do some commute testing, but COVID has made that impossible.

Comparison

Sony WF-1000XM3

I compared the Airpods Pro to the Sony WF-1000XM3. Another well known pair of TWS with active noise cancellation technology. I wish I had used the XM3s BEFORE the AirPods Pro. Perhaps I would think of them more favorably. My first interaction with the XM3s was lackluster. I found them more uncomfortable both immediately and in the long term. The more I sweat, the itchier the silicone tips were to me. I found myself taking them out completely and re-inserting them after about 15 mins. There is also a very present wind noise that I didn’t hear with AirPods Pro due to the added surface area on the XM3s. While I enjoyed their sound more than the AirPods Pro, it became clear that convenience meant a lot more to me now. The touch triggers on the XM3s were finicky. Double taps were often ignored, and I found them to be very sensitive if I accidentally brushed past them while wiping sweat from my forehead. This would cause unintended pausing or activation of ANC when I didn’t want it. The case for the Sony XM3s is also absolutely massive and carries very deliberate in the pocket.

In terms of pairing with more than one device, the AirPods switch seamlessly with other Apple devices, and aren’t that bad when using them with my laptop or PC. I had strange issues with the XM3s where one would connect to my phone and the other my computer (or just wouldn’t connect to its counterpart at all).

That said, my second phone is an Xperia 1 II. A lot of the convenience fades when you try to use the AirPods Pro on Android, so I’d give the win to the XM3s there, but at the end of the day, I daily drive an iPhone and they are completely blown out of the water by the AirPods Pro in terms of usability and comfort in the month I’ve been using the two TWS contenders. I would have loved to try the new Pixel and Galaxy Bud iterations, but I can’t justify owning that many pairs of TWS. Unlike regular headphones, these were purchased for practicality. I have the Sony on standby should I leave the AirPods Pro somewhere or forget to charge them.

Technical Specifications

  • Proprietary Silicone Ear tips
  • Up to 4.5hrs Listening Time (5 w/ ANC or Transparency off)
  • Qi Charging
  • Proprietary H1 chip
  • IPX4 sweat- and water-resistant
  • Connectivity: Bluetooth 5.0
  • Weight: 0.19 ounce (5.4 grams)
  • Case Weight: 1.61 ounces (45.6 grams)

Conclusion

Before I started daily driving AirPods Pro for workouts, I was using the Radsone ES100 and either Fiio FH5s or Moondrop Starfields. Both are superior in terms of sound quality, but I couldn’t see myself going back to that. The AirPods Pro allow me to get right to working out and in the zone. I also don’t have to worry about accidentally yanking a cable or pulling out my phone or looking at my watch to handle notifications. That said, if I was traveling more than a few hours or listening at home, I would definitely go back to my IEMs or headphones for critical listening and overall sound. The AirPods Pro are unbeatable performers in the area of convenience and don’t offend when it comes to sound, but I am not one to be tied down by a single pair of headphones, IEMs, or earbuds. It’s all about the right tool for the task.

Radsone EarStudio HE100 Impressions

Radsone EarStudio HE100 + ES100

Full disclosure: Radsone reached out to me to review the HE100. They were provided to me, but I did not receive any compensation, nor was I told what to say in this review.

IEMs are a little on the new side to me, but after being so impressed with the ES100, I had to take a look at this offering from Radsone.

Build and Comfort – The ES100 have a modest, understated look to them that don’t draw too much attention. That said, it’s a nice, clean look that I prefer to some of the gaudier designs out there. They are on the smaller side and don’t require any hooks for a comfortable fit. They come with S, M, and L tips and stay in place while not causing any discomfort. The cables are attached, which makes this a possible point of failure, but it’s a fairly strong and flexible material. Beneath the split, the cable is sleeved, which leads to some microphonics, but the included clip takes care of this. The driver housing is metal and plastic. Durability was a mild concern until I had them catch on a door handle, rip out of my ears, and fall to the ground. When I picked them up, I expected them to be broken, but there wasn’t even a scratch, so they did something right! If I had to pick on something, it would be the mic/control. It’s very plasticy and seems like it could be a point of failure in an otherwise durable cable. I point this out because it is not detachable.

Sound – The ES100 immediately struck me good all-around. Treble wise, these aren’t what I would consider bright. They’re relaxing in certain songs I ordinarily find fatiguing if they found their way to the end of a listening session. The best part about that is it doesn’t detract much from detail. There’s enough of that for me to enjoy even when I’m in a critical listening mood. Mids are solid. This is where most of my enjoyment comes from. Instruments are full bodied, well separated, and an overall joy to listen to. The bass has a clean quality to it. Mid bass is strong and a bit punchy, while not being overbearing or bloated. Sub bass is present and extends well but is a little lean for my tastes. Typically, when I’m on the go, having plenty of sub bass to keep me going is preferred. That said, this is a personal preference and I certainly won’t hold it against the ES100. They do a fine job here.

As far as sound stage goes, I typically don’t comment on it as I’m not the best at describing it or imaging. Here though, I found the ES100 was pleasantly wide for an IEM. I didn’t feel music was being pushed into my head. The presentation felt relatively natural to me.

Conclusion – The ES100 is a great effort from Radsone. One that makes me want to try an over ear if they decide to do that. Paired with the ES100, it’s a very nice setup for well under $200. The HE100 can be driven on its own, but I definitely prefer them with the ES100 to put a modest EQ on the bass.

Radsone EarStudio HE100

Aurorus Audio Borealis Impressions

Aurorus Audio Borealis

I will start out by noting that my Borealis is a relatively final demo unit. Things in place here may change by the time the headphone is released, but they are finished with most aspects.

Aurorus Audio is a company created by community members/enthusiasts Eudis and Amar (aka Ruck). As I mention in my Verum impressions, I absolutely love and will always support when someone goes through everything available and decides they will go out and create the sound they’re looking for themselves. That said… I did not, nor would I ever take it easy on the Borealis.

Build and Comfort – The Borealis immediately gives off a vibe of purpose-built. The chassis has no extra meat in the aluminum frame with immediate focus on ergonomics, weight distribution, and comfort. The standouts being the unorthodox seatbelt headband strap and the exposed driver. The seatbelt material seems an odd choice until you put the Borealis on your head. It disappears quickly, something a well distributed headphone should do. The nitinol rods allow a whole lot of freedom in terms of movement. They adapt to small and large head sizes alike. The pads are plush, comfortable protein leather and velour hybrids. I spent hours… and I do mean hours listening to the Borealis and was comfortable the whole time. The design choices here do lead to the headphones sometimes collapsing in on themselves when you’re handling them, but that is the same thing that happens with every headphone that has lots of different points of movement (think Arya, HE-1K). This just means they need to be put away/stored with some care. Top marks here.

Treble – It’s safe to say that this is my favorite part of the Borealis. Honesty is the word that kept popping into my head from the moment I put these on. Every headphone has a moral struggle to deal with. Sometimes the truth (treble) hurts. Little white lies creep in and this is where we get a lot of our differences. I feel the Borealis does a good job of giving me details without needing to be harsh. I don’t get any haze or veil from the treble and this was especially evident when I compared them to my HD 800 S. It might be from the openness of the 800 S, but I felt they had something getting in the way of complete clarity when comparing the two. I don’t get fatigued by many things these days, so I can’t comment too much on that, but I did listen to the Borealis for 6 hours in a row the day I got them, and did not find any discomfort from the treble (which I would say is about as bright as Utopia).

Mids – The mids are a sigh of relief. They don’t take a back seat in the Borealis. Vocals get the attention they deserve, and layer well with other frequencies. You also get the best sense of the open nature of the Borealis here. Strings have a nice texture that you can feel in the music. Dynamically speaking, if a string is plucked or picked you can tell the difference in volume. Woodwind instruments sounds full-bodied and natural. The midrange backbone is there, and music stands tall.

Bass – It’s natural, technically sound, and full of life. I always value this in a dynamic driver because not every dynamic does it well. Something you’ll find in a true audiophile headphone is control. The Borealis does a fantastic job of cleanly transitioning from mids to bass and bass to sub bass. There’s a bit of a roll off at around 30Hz, but I’ll take this over loose, one-notey bass any day. The bass in the Borealis plays the support role very well. When necessitated by the instrument or voice, you get a heft that brings them to life. Vocals are full, strings have depth, and when you really hit a snare, you get the sharpness you expect, with the oomph to back it up in high/mid bass. The only area it was a bit light would be sub bass. I had to bring out the TH900 for that comparison and that impact is hard to beat. That said, you could still enjoy electronic genres well enough. It’s just not a bass cannon. Something most would argue is a good thing.

Comparisons – I listened to the Borealis a lot in conjunction with the Sennheiser HD 800 S, 650, Focal Utopia, and ZMF Verite. Utopia – This comparison is where I spent the most time. The Utopia edges out the Borealis in a few areas. It has a sharper finish to edges of details and it’s a bit easier to separate layers of music. I just found it astonishing that I spent so much time comparing the two when you look at their street prices. The Borealis doesn’t touch the Utopia in terms of build, but no one should expect it to. It’s a different beast in that regard. HD 800 S – This one surprised me. I enjoyed the Borealis more than the 800 S. This shouldn’t be taken to mean that it does everything better (like sound stage), but it means I’d pick up the Borealis first. It pulls out ahead of the 800 S in the bass and mid regions for me, and surprisingly I enjoyed the treble presentation more. Where the 800 S was more reserved, I felt the Borealis was more honest. HD 650 – This was more of a sanity check than a comparison, but I had to make sure tonality and timbre were in check, and they are. Not much else to say there. Verite – This is a bit rougher to compare since I’ve only owned Verite for about 3 days. The Verite edges out the Borealis in similar fashion to Utopia, but I felt Borealis was more aggressive with stringed instruments. Something I found enjoyable. All this to say, the Borealis can play in the same yard as the big boys.

Conclusion – What is the biggest takeaway here? For me, it is the power of finding your own sound. You hear the passion in the Borealis just as the guys behind it felt when they got the idea, all the way through its completion. Are they worth the asking price of $899? Yes. A headphone like this is not easy. Between the R&D and the cost of parts made in smaller volume, I think they landed at a fantastic number. A number that allows these to get in people’s hands, while ensuring that they have funds to continue working on their sounds and developing their next offering. I would have been happy with a good effort from a new company, but they took it up a notch and aimed for great.

MiniDSP E.A.R.S. Measurements - These were done w/ the Soekris dac1541 on the built in amp. PLEASE NOTE THAT THESE MEASUREMENTS ARE PROVIDED AS A GENERAL IDEA, AND THAT EARS MEASUREMENTS ARE CONSIDERED INACCURATE (PARTICULARLY AROUND 4.5K), BUT LITERALLY BETTER THAN NOTHING.

Additional Photos:

Aurorus Audio Borealis
Aurorus Audio Borealis
Aurorus Audio Borealis


iClever Boostcare Over-Ear Impressions [April Fool's 2019 Joke]

iClever Boostcare is a brand I would have normally overlooked, but I got a hot tip that these would be the new budget audiophile endgame. I was pretty skeptical given how many times this claim is made a year but ended up pleasantly surprised!

Gear Used – iFi Pro iDSD, Pro iCan, Pro iESL, iClever Boost Care

Build & Comfort – Food. Grade. Silicone. That’s right, sound is not the only thing delicious about these. Should the sound be so good that you just must take a bite, you can! No adverse effects. These are well built and durable. The high-quality spring steel in the silicone covered headband means accidental drops will not ruin your 12-dollar investment. The pink protein leather earmuffs have an almost unnatural spring to them that leave your ears in maximum comfort through your entire listening session.

Sound – Now this is where I had to check and make sure someone didn’t switch these on me while I wasn’t looking. You MUST take a look at how these measure. The treble has the most ethereal and comforting sparkle. It’s relaxed while maintaining a ton of detail, trading shots with SIXTEEN HUNDRED DOLLAR headphones like the Hifiman Arya. I was truly amazed. Mids were very chill. Soothing particularly in the lower region. These are truly come home from work, kick off your shoes, and just relax headphones. iClever manages to pull out planar-like bass from a driver that can’t be any larger than a dime. It’s linear, true to life, and just plan slaps!

Conclusion – Did I mention these were TWELVE DOLLARS?! Don’t even both auditioning. Just buy em. Buy a backup pair. Buy a pair for your friends, family, kids, pets… etc. JUST BUY THEM ALL! I mean I would literally invest half my saving in iClever stock at this point. These are going to dominate the market! Don’t be the guy that misses out just because you were skeptical of some dude on reddit. THE HYPE IS REAL!

MiniDSP E.A.R.S. Measurements - These were done w/ the Soekris dac1541 on the built in amp. PLEASE NOTE THAT THESE MEASUREMENTS ARE PROVIDED AS A GENERAL IDEA, AND THAT EARS MEASUREMENTS ARE CONSIDERED INACCURATE (PARTICULARLY AROUND 4.5K), BUT LITERALLY BETTER THAN NOTHING.

Campfire Audio Cascade Impressions

Campfire Audio Cascade

The Campfire Audio Cascade is Campfire’s first entry into over-ear headphones. I briefly owned the Lyra II, but IEMs just weren't for me. I loved the design and build of those, so I was pretty anxious to see how it would carry over into a over-ear headphone offering.

 Gear used for impressions – RME ADI-2 DAC, iFi Pro iCan, 2T Filters, Tidal 

Build & Comfort – There is an appreciable heft to these when taking them out of the box. They come in a few grams lighter than my Utopia. That seems to be regarded as a heavy headphone, but I’ve never been bothered by it. The aluminum and stainless-steel construction screams quality. Everything is solid. No creaking, no fitment issues. Their LEMO implementation is like HD 800/S, but you don’t get the feeling of terror when you unplug the cable. It plugs in securely and removes without substantial force required. The cups pivot and swivel allowing for folded or flat storage. These are designed for portable use, so the options are appreciated. I’d rather slide them flat into my laptop bag vs. putting them in the carry case. The pads are made of sheepskin leather and are all kinds of plush. You almost forget how shallow the cups are when looking at them as a whole. The headband is a bit on the firm side. No hot spots on my head, but I could see it giving others some discomfort during long listening sessions. 

 Sound - Bass. Ok impressions over. 

In all seriousness, this headphone can sometimes be unfairly classified as a bass cannon and nothing more. That’s simply not the case. It is warm and bassy for days, but there is quality to this bass. It is not wild and out of control. It starts to calm down at about 200hz. It doesn’t trounce all over mids and treble. The bass extends low, is impactful, and will definitely turn off sound signature purists. While the mids do dip, they are not muddy or muffled. Treble in general was pleasing. It was crisp and more detailed than some of my other portable bass heavy headphones (MH40, MDR-Z7). The overall sound presentation is one that I find pleasing. It really does well to appeal to my basshead side while not offending the critical listener I’ve been slowly turning into. Sound leakage is kept to a bare minimum as expected for something with portable intentions. 

Conclusion - Glad I decided to spend the $800 on these. I waited around for a bit to try and snag them used, but they’re newer and apparently the people buying them are keeping them. I can see why. My go-to portables were my Master & Dynamic MH40, but these will be replacing the MH40s. I’ll still use my Sony XM3s for the ANC. The Cascades won’t live in my bag like the MH40s. I’ll break them out when I’m in the mood for–as Ishca calls them–Basscades

MiniDSP E.A.R.S. Measurements - These were done w/ the Soekris dac1541 on the built in amp. PLEASE NOTE THAT THESE MEASUREMENTS ARE PROVIDED AS A GENERAL IDEA, AND THAT EARS MEASUREMENTS ARE CONSIDERED INACCURATE (PARTICULARLY AROUND 4.5K), BUT LITERALLY BETTER THAN NOTHING. 

Additional Photos:

Campfire Audio Cascade42mm Beryllium PVD Diaphragm Dynamic Drivers Aluminum and Stainless Steel Construction
Campfire Audio Cascade42mm Beryllium PVD Diaphragm Dynamic Drivers Aluminum and Stainless Steel Construction

Portable Setup - Master & Dynamic MH40 + iFi xDSD Impression

The Master & Dynamic MH40 is a high stylized headphone in both look and sound. I get a lot of requests for my thoughts on these simply because they look gimmicky, so the sound always comes into question. I’ve decided to make this about my portable setup, since I wouldn’t really use these at home.

Gear used for impressions: Master & Dynamic MH40, iFi xDSD

Build & Comfort – There’s a lot to unpack here. Styling aside, you are greeted with metal, leather, and an overall sense of quality. The leather feels great. The headband isn’t very padded, so I can see it getting uncomfortable to someone with a larger head, but I did not have this problem. The earcups are slim, but rather deep. The pads are a lambskin/fabric hybrid. If you have large ears, the pads will probably make contact. They touch my ears a bit but are not uncomfortable due to the soft fabric. The friction-based headband adjustment stays in place very well. The MH40 comes with 2 single sided cables. One with a mic and controls and one without. You can plug the cable in on whatever side is more convenient. A nice touch for a portable setup. I say portable because I wouldn’t really use these for critical listening, but I will go over that in the sound section. The only drawback to their portability comes in the form factor. The cups swivel flat, so I don’t have issues storing them in a messenger bag, but they do not collapse in any way. This could be a bit annoying if you needed to put them in a small compartment. I just lay them flat in between my laptop divider.

Sound – This is not a balanced sounding headphone. As I said in the intro, the sound is as stylized as the aesthetics. The MH40 is bassy and laid back. The bass is energetic and punchy. This really works out well for me when I’m on the go as they’re fun and keep me going. I spent a short amount of time with my MH40s hooked up to my main stack (RME ADI-2 DAC, iFi Pro iCan) and did some critical listening. I’ll be brief here, because they aren’t technical headphones. The mids are reminiscent of the AKG K712 Pro. It is warm and colored in the same manner. There’s more treble than my measurements will show, but this has to do with these headphones being difficult to seal on the E.A.R.S. Treble shares similar accuracy issues, you know it isn’t perfect, but it is by no means unpleasant. The MH40 isolates very well and does not leak sound very much. If you’re not cranking them at max volume on public transit, they won’t disturb anyone.

iFi xDSD – I’ve been using this DAC/AMP combo for a while now. Build-wise, it’s small and lightweight. It’s a nice-looking unit for about 30 seconds. Once you touch it though, it’s fingerprint city. The chrome finish will always be covered in smudges. You’ll just have to surrender to that fact. The controls are frustrating to get used to if you switch between wired and wireless a lot. That said, I’ve adjusted over time. I don’t use Bluetooth that often, but for my Spotify and Tidal streaming experiences, sound quality was excellent. I mainly use the wired mode since I keep the whole setup in my bag anyway. I didn’t come across a headphone in my collection that these weren’t able to drive. Listening volume exceeded what I would call normal for me. Sound quality wise, the xDSD has a very clean, clear sound throughout the treble, mids, and bass. I tried it with My Utopia just to see if there was any harshness to the treble, but I did not find any. The bass boost function affects sub bass and lower mids. I don’t need to use it with my MH40s, but I tried it with the HD 650 and it was a pleasant bump. The 3D mode does… something, but my ears are a little too inexperienced to pick up exactly what it is. I didn’t care much for it though. The xDSD has some features I don’t use like toslink and a measuring mode. Battery life is very good, though I wish it charged via USB-C as opposed to micro.

Conclusion – This is my actual daily driver portable setup. I recently got the Sony WH-1000XM3. Not sure if that will become my new daily, but if they do, I will write a follow up piece.

MiniDSP E.A.R.S. Measurements - These were done w/ the Soekris dac1541 on the built in amp. PLEASE NOTE THAT THESE MEASUREMENTS ARE PROVIDED AS A GENERAL IDEA, AND THAT EARS MEASUREMENTS ARE CONSIDERED INACCURATE (PARTICULARLY AROUND 4.5K), BUT LITERALLY BETTER THAN NOTHING.

Additional Photos:

Master & Dynamic MH40Other gear: Azio Corp Retro Classic, Ti2 Design x CWF Pele Flashlight, CMF Metal Works Crusader V2 Knife, High Caliber Craftsman Twist Pens and ExtremAddiction Bolt Action Pen.
iFi xDSD & Master & Dynamic MH40

Hifiman Arya Impressions

This was by far the most requested headphone I’ve been asked my thoughts on. It’s been out for a bit, but there don’t seem to be many reviews. I think I know why, but the answer is NOT because they aren’t good.

Build & Comfort – Let me start by saying that I had to immediately RMA my Arya. The left channel was going in and out intermittently, then stopped altogether within the first week or so. I will say Hifiman turned it around in just a couple of days, so credit where it’s due. These headphones have similar styling to the higher-end HE1000 series and its cheaper relative, the Edition X series. They stand out for their unique look. They are plastic and metal in construction. The plastics don’t feel cheap or brittle. Some complain about plastic, but it really doesn’t bother me when done well. I’ll take the weight and cost savings. The biggest design con for me is still the annoying sliding headband adjustment. It’s a pain when it slides loose if you happen to tug the cable. This happens often enough to notice, but it is still a very comfortable headphone that all but disappears a short time into your listening session.

Treble – The first thing I noticed coming from the HEXv2 was that the Arya is brighter and more detailed. Something I didn’t know I wanted in the HEXv2, and something I was glad to have. It’s not at Utopia or HD 800 S level, but I was not expecting that. The more laid-back treble signature suits the Arya. Instrument separation and vocal presentation are good. These would not be my go-to for classical listening, but I spent a few hours listening to my favorites and enjoyed myself.

Mids – The mids are smooth and separation remains consistent. I could easily enjoy Thundercat, who has a style that sometimes allows the synths and bass guitar to overwhelm his vocals. I never felt that with the Arya. The midrange is where they feel the most open. It’s always nice to feel like you’re inside a recording rather then it being inside your head (depending on the genre). Live performances were particularly entertaining.

Bass – I would say these have a bit less sub bass impact than HEXv2. It extends low and is extremely clean and pleasant. The fact that bass can be both fun and technical eludes some headphones. Not here. The Arya presents bass like a psychological thriller. No jump scares necessary when you can tell a tale that gets to you on a deeper level. I will always appreciate a well done planar for this.

Conclusion – The Edition X V2 had an MSRP of $1299 at launch. I got mine on sale for $1199 w/ the 32GB DAP as a bonus. Is the Arya worth $400 more? I don’t believe so. Perhaps they will come down in price over time. That said, they are a fantastic headphone. I may end up selling them and going for HE1000 v1s. I prefer the aesthetic, and a few people whose ears I trust liked them more than Arya.

MiniDSP E.A.R.S. Measurements - These were done w/ the Soekris dac1541 on the built in amp. PLEASE NOTE THAT THESE MEASUREMENTS ARE PROVIDED AS A GENERAL IDEA, AND THAT EARS MEASUREMENTS ARE CONSIDERED INACCURATE (PARTICULARLY AROUND 4.5K), BUT LITERALLY BETTER THAN NOTHING.

Additional Photos:

Verum 1 Impressions


Note - 7/17/2020: I'd like to note that the creator of these headphones has recently proven himself to be a very hateful person. I will leave these impressions of the headphones here, but my impressions of their creator make me say seek other options.

What is the Verum 1? – The Verum 1 is a Planar headphone designed and built in the Ukraine by Garuspik, A member of the audiophile community who sought to put his own spin on the planar headphone. I’m normally weary of Kickstarter campaigns. I was burned by Zeyes in 2011 and watched a few crowd funded campaigns go down in flames. Garuspik was well beyond a dream and already had a prototype making the rounds by the time the campaign started. There was a well laid out plan and timelines in places that made the whole thing reassuring. Fast forward a few months and here it is.

Build & Comfort – The aesthetics of the Verum 1 are not for everyone. Once you get past that, you’re presented with a solidly built and sturdy headphone. I did not have any issues with the weight. Weight distribution is more important at times than the number of grams, and these do it well. I initially thought the angle of the 2.5mm connectors was strange–and still do–but it does a nice job of keeping the cables out of the way. My Verum 1s had a chip in the carbon fiber style paint, though it was minor. The biggest thing that stood out to me is the magnetic pad system. It makes most other headphone solutions seem unreasonable. For a first effort, the fit and finish is admirable.

Treble – I didn’t get a bright feel from these, but the treble is present and pleasant. Nothing negative here when considering the signature. Overall, it’s relaxed and reminds me of LCD-2Cs. I’ve enjoyed a brighter sound signature since owning my Utopia, but my rationale behind owning multiple headphones is matching them to the music I’m listening to. Not a believer that one headphone can do everything perfectly.

Mids – To me the Verum 1’s mids were a bit more forward than I remember the LCD-2C being. Instruments were presented nicely. Separation is not a strong point, but it’s not muddy. Vocals were presented with clarity and stayed out of the way of instruments. I enjoyed the mids best with music like the Dead Weather and Raconteurs. I had a really good time listening to drum and guitar solos.

Bass – Initially, I had some issues with bass and extension. This may have been the pads needing some time to soften and seal well, but it was where I wanted it to be in a day or so. The transition from mids to bass is nice. Planar bass is always intriguing when compared to dynamic. It extends well, is accurate in its presentation, and does not distract from the mids or treble. It is exactly what something like the M1060C should have aspired to be.

Conclusion – The Verum 1 is all about price to performance for me. At $350, I’d recommend them all day. Verum’s mission was clear in both physical and musical presentation. A headphone built for practicality by a music lover for a music lover. I hope this sends a message to anyone looking to do something like this. It can be done, and the audiophile community will get behind it!

MiniDSP E.A.R.S. Measurements - These were done w/ the Soekris dac1541 on the built in amp.
PLEASE NOTE THAT THESE MEASUREMENTS ARE PROVIDED AS A GENERAL IDEA, AND THAT EARS MEASUREMENTS ARE CONSIDERED INACCURATE, BUT LITERALLY BETTER THAN NOTHING.

Additional Photos:

The Verum 1The Verum 1 is a crowdfunded DIY Planar headphone developed in the Ukraine.
The Verum 1The Verum 1 is a crowdfunded DIY Planar headphone developed in the Ukraine.
The Verum 1The Verum 1 is a crowdfunded DIY Planar headphone developed in the Ukraine.
The Verum 1The Verum 1 is a crowdfunded DIY Planar headphone developed in the Ukraine.
The Verum Planar DriverThe Verum 1 is a crowdfunded DIY Planar headphone developed in the Ukraine.

Revisiting My First Setup - Fostex HP-A4BL & AKG K712 Pro

This is a slight extension of a previous post: My First Year in the Audiophile World

I spent the day revisiting my first setup since I’ll be selling my Fostex HP-A4BL soon. I started out with this and the AKG K712 Pro (cable is by Periapt). This setup was recommended to me because I wanted something open sounding with a warm signature and overall, a small footprint. (That’s nowhere near how I described it. I think I just said give me all the bass I can get, while still sounding nice).

The AKG K712 was eye opening for me in many ways. This was my first exposure to owning open-backs. The sound stage on these is wide, so going from mostly closed back or earbuds was night and day. There were new things to explore, breakdown, and analyze. You can of course listen to music just to relax, jam, explore lyrics, distract from the outside world, etc… but now I’m hearing detail. I’m hearing every instrument. I’m hearing the intention of the vocalist. I’m hearing the dedication of the musician. That initial feeling will be hard to replicate, but the fun part of this hobby now is always trying to recreate that moment in new gear, and learning new things about what my personal sound is.

These days I run an RME ADI-2 DAC, iFi Pro iCan, an iFi iESL (for electrostatics). I have a variety of headphones as well. Among my favorite are the Sennheiser HE-60, the Focal Utopia, and the TH900 MKII when I get that bass itch. I like a more detailed, critical sound as part of my every day enjoyment of music. Previously, I avoided any kind of sparkle and wanted all the bass. Now, I want to hear everything as close to how it should sound as possible. I have times where I want something more laid back, but now I have options.

Comparing my first setup to my current, the AKG K712 Pro is undoubtedly a warm and colored headphone. You really hear it in the mids. It is a pleasing, relaxing sound that I still enjoy, but I know now that it is part this headphone’s sound signature. I can appreciate the difference from can to can. I also compared the HP-A4BL to my RME ADI-2 DAC. I excluded the Pro iCan so that it would be a direct combo to combo comparison. I used to think the HP-A4BL sounded neutral, but it’s clear that it is warmer and less resolving than the ADI. In this warmer sound there is forgiveness. The ADI exposes bad recordings and flaws, whereas the HP-A4BL shows how ignorance can be bliss.

I’m still learning. I’ve got a long way to go with correlating what I’m hearing to measurements (it’s great to be able to quantify what you’re hearing). I’m learning to listen for dynamics, timbre, and the various tonal ranges, but most importantly I’m having a blast doing it. Recently I’ve been getting the question “Do you even enjoy the music anymore? It sounds like you’re just listening to electronics.” I’d argue that I’m enjoying music much more now. I’m someone who could listen to a song on repeat for hours. Hearing new things with each listen is what it’s all about. Having more things to photograph is a bonus.

Massdrop X Koss ESP/95X Impressions

Overall, Pleasantly surprised.

These things are great. The first thing you notice about the sound is how lively it is. I got this feeling with my Sennheiser HE-60s. It was a enjoyable while into first listening before I remembered I was trying to analyze the sound.

Sound – (on E/90X) The mid-range stuck out to me when I started to listen critically. It's pleasantly rich and detailed. The highs are also well detailed with some nice sparkle without being fatiguing. Lows are present and well extended, but I would not call this a bassy headphone. Overall, I enjoyed them way more than I expected. These resolve very well. I always use the Prague Festival Orchestra & Chorus version of Carmina Burana when checking how well my headphones resolve. It’s a live recording and there’s all kinds of things to listen out for. Vocals, instruments, people getting up and moving around, throats clearing and coughing. I hear it all with these.

Build and Comfort - As far as build quality, I've come to expect lots of plastic when dealing with electrostatics in this price range. I have L300 Limited and HE-60s and both are just lots of plastic. The only thing that bothered me was the initially strong chemical odor. I actually waited a day to start listening so that they could air out. It was much better the next day. Comfort was great. They're naturally light, the earcups are spacious, and wearing them for hours was not a problem.

Other Observations - I wanted to wait until I got a STAX 5 pin adapter before posting my impression. I wanted to hear it on my daily driver setup (RME ADI-2 DAC, iFi Pro iCan, iFi Pro iESL). The first thing I noticed using the iESL vs the Koss energizer, was that the treble is a bit more laid back off of the iESL. That’s the only real difference I noted. Though I’m still learning to discern audible differences between sources. Comparing the ESP/95X against the Sennheiser HE-60, I’d say the Sennys are warmer and richer sounding. I have STAX L300 Limited but did not add it to the comparison because I hardly use them.

Conclusion – I really enjoy these for what they are. They’re a great buy @ $500. The stock E/90x energizer seems to get a lot of flak, but I didn’t hear anything particularly wrong with it. I wouldn’t rush out and replace it.

MiniDSP E.A.R.S. Measurements - These were done w/ the Soekris dac1541 on the built in amp. PLEASE NOTE THAT THESE MEASUREMENTS ARE PROVIDED AS A GENERAL IDEA, AND THAT EARS MEASUREMENTS ARE CONSIDERED INACCURATE (PARTICULARLY AROUND 4.5K), BUT LITERALLY BETTER THAN NOTHING.

  

Additional Photos:

My First Year in the Audiophile World (2018)

Learned a lot about my ears this year. Started getting into headphones in the beginning of 2018, as where I live implemented noise limitations past 10PM. Started the year with the Fostex HP-A4BL and AKG K712 Pro. I was amazed at what having good headphones was like. Before this I had always been about bass. The more bass the better, no matter the cost. Once I had the K712s, I quickly realized that was NOT the way. The collector in me awakened and I wanted to try all sorts of headphones. I’ve had over 30 pairs this year alone. Tons of different sources as well. I had bought the Schiit Bifrost and Lyr 2, then ended up with an Yggy & Woo Audio WA 22, finally landing on the iFi Audio Pro iCan, iFi Audio Pro iESL, and RME ADI-2 DAC. That’ll be my main stack for quite some time.

I got a hold of the TH900 MKIIs and oh man. As a basshead, I thought that would be the only headphones I ever needed. As I went along, I started to notice that while I like bass, I was much more greatly appreciating detail. This led me to the HD 800 S and then the Utopia and Sennheiser HE-60. I do still absolutely enjoy fun cans like the TH 900 Mk2, Argon MK3, and Eikon. They’re among my favorites. All in all, just really glad to find so many ways to enjoy music. I’ll never settle on one headphone and don’t believe in endgames. Looking forward to hearing new stuff in 2019. I’ve got my eye on ZMF’s new offerings.

Headphones in this photo:

Hifiman Arya

Fostex TH900 Mk2

ZMF Eikon Ash

Sennheiser HE-60

Mod House Audio Argon MK3

Sennheiser HD 800 S

Focal Utopia

Sennheiser HE-60 Electrostatic Headphones Impressions

Equipment Used – HE-60, HD 650, STAX L300 Limited, RME ADI-2 DAC, iFi Pro iCan, iFi Pro iESL Tidal Hifi. Had a lot of requests for impressions on these. Here’s my take on them.

Build – It’s a very plasticy frame. Doesn’t seem to be particularly terrible plastic. They’re extremely light, but they don’t feel fragile like a pair of STAX Lambdas. The fabric/foam padding up top is not much to look at, but it does the job.

Comfort – Unlike my HD 650 and others in that series, these have very little clamp, but still stay put since they’re so light. The frame is very wide. Reminds me to my Focal Utopias. Not sure if this is due to the age of the plastic, or down to design though. The pads are velour hybrids. Not sure if they are leather. Overall, I can wear these for any length of time and not be bothered in the slightest. Comfort gets an A from me.

Sound – These were re-cabled w/ a STAX connector. The seller didn’t have the Sennheiser amp, which didn’t bother me really because I heard it was not great. I used my iFi setup. I didn’t do any super scientific A/Bing as I’m not very technical, but I did compare them to the HD 650 and STAX L300 Limited. The presentation of sounds was too different from STAX to compare, so I will be making most of my comparisons to the HD 650s.

Treble – The HE-60s are brighter than the HD 650s, but this is a good thing. Vocals were more pleasing to me on the HE-60s when compared to the 650s. I also felt instrument separation was better overall, but with treble heavy instruments, there was no contest.

Mids – The mids are comfortable. Is that a technical term? I don’t think it is, but hey... I warned you. With the HD650s, I found the mids enjoyable, but more intense than the HE-60s at times. I don’t feel this way with the HE-60s. They’re presented very nicely, and I go hours thinking more about the music than the sound. If that makes any sense.

Bass – This was a pleasant surprise. I’d always heard electrostatic = no bass. That was a big problem for me, since I happen to love bass. I was rather unfulfilled with the L300 Limited. That was not the case when I put the HE-60s on. They were surprisingly full sounding and extended low for what I was expecting. They lacked impact, but to compare them to a dynamic is just a setup for failure. I was VERY pleased with the presentation of bass with these. It’s clean and fast. I enjoyed every song I came across. I could not say the same for the STAX.

Sound Stage – Not great at comparing sound stage, but I did find the HE-60s a great deal wider than the HD 650s. This was evident in live jazz & live classical performance recordings.

Conclusion – I listen to hours upon hours of music on a weekly basis. I absolutely love having a variety of headphones, having a different sound for different genres, and just overall like the headphone hobby. I was hesitant about electrostatics for a while. I thought I would either be disappointed in them, or that they would make not want to go back to dynamics and planars. Glad to say that wasn’t the case. I REALLY like the HE-60s, but I can also go back to my other headphones without feeling like I missed anything. This is why I don’t believe in “endgame” headphones.

iBasso SR1 Early Impressions

Equipment Used : iBasso SR1, Massdrop X Focal Elex, Sennheiser HD 800 S, RME ADI-2 DAC, iFi Pro iCan, Tidal Hifi.

Build : These are fairly well built and feel solid. No creaking to be found. I have a couple of issues though. The edges of the yokes are very sharp. This means that the paint is very likely to wear when rubbed against anything. I learned this the hard way when pad swapping. That leads me to my second issue. These pads are pleather. They have that unpleasant pleather smell to them, but their worst offense is heat. My ears were sweating within 15 mins of listening and I’m not someone this happens to often. The choice of MMCX is something I wasn’t too fond of either. They have made a fairly competent system to combat damage, but this limits your ability to use your own cables or go balanced unless you buy first party. I understand that they make IEMs mainly and this was likely a tooling choice, but it is a sore point.

Comfort :These sit nicely on the head, and the leather comfort strap is very nice. They don’t feel heavy on the head. They’ve done a good job with weight distribution. Where they fall short is the pads. As mentioned before, my ears were sweating within 15 mins. I ended up putting on some sheepskin pads AFTER I was done getting my sound impressions.

Sound : I Listened to these for a good 4 hours without listening to anything else first. At first listen I was very pleased with the sound. Treble is a bit less than I’d like. This became much more apparent once I put the HD 800 S and Elex on to do some A/Bing. There have been rumblings that perforated pads fix this, so I’ve ordered some sheepskin perforated pads. It does a good job at detail retrieval. Much better than I expected. Vocals and mids seem recessed when compared to the Elex and HD 800 S. Overall, I’d say it’s just missing some sparkle. Where I really like this headphone is in the bass dept. The Elex tend to bottom out at volume levels I’d consider normal. This is not an issue with the SR1s. In fact, the impact is very pleasant. Boosting them just a bit w/ my iFi Pro iCan makes them a very fun headphone.

I had read some impressions comparing them to the Focal Utopia, but they are not on the same level, don’t have the same sound signature, and you’re setting these up for failure making that comparison. I think it was just because of the driver technology that Utopia comparisons were floating around.

Conclusion : These are a fantastic first outing. I’m excited to try pad swapping them and even more excited to see what iBasso will do with their next over ear. I had a hard time with writing this because they have so much potential, and I don’t want that to seem like a bad thing. These were a joy the entire time they were on my head.

Additional Photos:

October 2018 Desk Stack Update

Desk Stack Update/Overview


RME ADI-2 DAC - Replaced my Schiit Yggy. Takes up much less space and doesn’t need to be on 24/7. Overall, the sound is very clean and the options are endless. The built in amp is surprisingly capable. The dedicated IEM port is also a nice touch. Looks wise, I’ve always been a sucker for visual spectrum analyzers, so that’s always a plus.

iFi Pro iCan - Replaces my Woo Audio WA22. Again, it was a matter of space. I moved my audio stuff to a much smaller desk, so space economy was important. Sound wise I am a big fan of all the options. Each button press and twist of a knob is meaningful and means one is never bored with this little powerhouse.

iFi Pro iESL - I got this to drive my incoming STAX L300LEs and a few other electrostatics I may pick up along my audio journey.

Focal Utopia - I picked these up for a great price. After getting the Massdrop X Focal Elex, I really wanted to see what these were all about. As someone who loves warm, dark headphones, it really surprises me that these have become my #1. My favorite part about them is detail retrieval. A phrase I pretty much could never relate to until I got these. I mean… it just gets every nook and cranny of a recording. Kind of bites you with poorly recorded tracks, but is extremely rewarding with well recorded tracks. Instrument separation is some of the best I’ve heard. Previously my HD 800 S was the best at this (in my collection). I only used the HD 800 S with classical and similar genres, but I find myself listening to almost everything with the Utopia. I still like my TH900 Mk2, Eikon, and Argon Mk3s when I’m in a bass mood.

ZMF Eikon Ash - Honestly… I got these for the looks. That was what drew me in. Not to say I didn’t care what they sounded like. I was told by a few people that know my taste that these needed to be in my collection.