Hello Readers. First, my apologies for the delay in getting this sequel out. It has been a while since I wrote Part 1. The delay was not due to any lack of interest on my part to write and publish. In the middle of a tropical summer, I was simply snowed in under an avalanche of research papers, projects, and disparate engagements.
Without further ado, let’s jump right into impressions of some amazing headphones I had auditioned over 11 separate day-long critical listening sessions on my recent trip to Bangkok. This part will focus most only on flagship electrostatic headphones (and high-end DACs), starting with Stax’s latest offering, the much-awaited SR-X9000.
As may be evident, the SR-X9000 is a sight to behold. I know for a fact that many of you Stax enthusiasts were lusting after it ever since Stax launched product photos and videos, not merely because you were excited about what sonic performance it would bring, but also because of how classy it looks.
In terms of sonic performance, the way I would summarize is that the X9000 has a relatively accurate tonality and top-level technical performance without any ostensible wow factor, based on my subjective preferences.
Some of the early impressions out there already attest to its bass performance. I personally think that the X9000 has decent bass weight, more than an SR009S, and vaguely reminiscent of a Susvara, without exactly matching Susvara’s level of impact. I had both the Susvara and the X9000 in hand for an A/B using a variety of amps and DACs. Which should also answer the question of whether the X9000 was driven right. While the Stax synergizes slightly differently with different upstream gear, the impressions here are based on an approximation of performance across different chains.
Overall, the X9000 has a large, refined, and laidback sound. However, in terms of clarity and resolution, it is not the triumph that I was hoping it would be. While I perceive more bass resolution on the X9000, the 009S gives me more midrange and treble resolution, and higher levels of clarity in the upper frequencies. That could partially be due to the 009S having more forward upper midrange and treble. The vocal inflections and nuances that the 009S can deliver is not necessarily present on the X9000, to the same degree.
I believe that frequency response graphs for the X9000 are not out yet, but when they do come out, I think you will see that the upper mids are not as forward on the X9K as on the 009/009S, rendering the former’s presentation relatively warmer.
The X9K also has extreme comfort, and I mean, extreme, ridiculous levels, “I want to hear it all day” level of comfort. The stage is also massive. In fact, the staging is rather enticing.
However, the question I asked myself, is whether it was worth owning? For me, personally, the answer was a comfortable no.
See, I have enjoyed but ended up selling the SR009S because I craved more bass impact. I enjoyed the 007 less overall, and although it had more bass impact, its bass was definitively looser. However, I have only heard the 007 MK1. The 007 MK2 is enroute to me for a review. In general, I like more bass than most e-stats can deliver as well as tight bass.
Another let-down for me was the performance for the price. Stax has always over-delivered for the price. Take the SR009, for example, which can be had for sub-$2000 used. To me, even the 009 handily outperforms the Susvara for resolution, speed, and imaging. It does that to almost every other flagship other than the AB-1266 and the SR1a. However, given the price point of the X9000, it is not the all-out performance monster I was hoping it would be. It is only marginally technically superior to the 009S, if at all.
Also, if I own an e-stat, I am keeping it for the high quality, airy and extended treble it can do, which most planars and dynamics struggle with (with exceptions). The treble on the X9000 was not the airy and liquid presentation that I have come to expect from e-stats, nor was it as clear as on the 009S. And lastly, the overall presentation of the X9000 was way too laidback for me.
So, who is the X9000 for? If you have never heard TOTL e-stats, the level of resolution and size of stage will surprise you. If you are treble-afraid and gravitate towards laidback presentations, this could well be your cup of tea. And even if you have heard or owned an SR009 and 009S, but have a palette for laidback presentations, you may still enjoy this. And lastly, if you are a Stax collector, of course you will want to add this to the stable. My video review is as follows.
While driving the X9000 and other headphones, I was quite impressed with the WES from Woo Audio. I have heard other Woo amps in the past, and although not Woo’s flagship offering, I appreciated how I got better bass off the WES than on my KG amps. The WES also has great resolution, very crisp sounding throughout the frequency spectrum, and a very liquid treble on most e-stats.
I have also long wanted to try the Stax SR009 in a direct A/B comparison with the 009S. I know some 009 owners who love their 009 so much that they have not bothered to upgrade to a 009S. Others are dissuaded by the price difference between a used 009 and a new 009S.
In my own critical listening, while I did find the two headphones to sound very similar, the 009 was less detailed, had slightly lower levels of bass impact, and a sharper treble. However, one important difference is that on some tracks, not all, I found that the 009 sounded more congested than the 009S. Moreover, the 009 is a bit more fatiguing over time.
In sum, for my preferences, the 009S is a better option if it is going to be one’s only headphone. However, the 009 might be an interesting option if you have multiple headphones and want a more flavored headphone with a lively treble presentation.
To move on from Stax, a dark horse in the e-stat fight I was orchestrating was the Audeze CRBN. What an amazing sounding headphone!
Living up to the aforementioned metaphor, the CRBN is also relatively dark in its presentation. And it has the best bass I have heard on an e-stat. Tuning-wise, if you are an HD 650/6XX fanboy, and have craved the TOTL e-stat version, then the CRBN is it. I enjoyed the CRBN bass more than HE-1 bass. I thought the HE-1 bass, while elevated, lacked timbral accuracy and the naturalness of decay that most e-stats suffer from.
In terms of technical performance, the CRBN is not the performance monster that the 009/009S is, but it is not far. It is less resolving than 009/009S, but it is sufficiently resolving compared to other TOTL headphones. The only nitpicks I have, are: (1) the treble can be a tad dark and (2) vocals are relatively forward in the mix.
All said and done, the Audeze CRBN is an impressive headphone, and I would strongly recommend it if you want bass from an e-stat. It is also a gorgeous headphone, maybe even more so than the X9000.
The last e-stat headphone I had long sessions with is the HIFIMAN Shangri-La JR. This is another very impressive and well-rounded performer, with great tonality and technical performance across the frequency spectrum. In fact, I prefer its frequency response to the Susvara’s as it is slightly more forward in upper mids and treble.
However, I do have to say that its build quality is horribly unimpressive, in that it feels cheap. It does picture well so may not be fully evident how cheap it feels in the hands.
Starting with the tonality, the Shangri-La JR has better bass than the 009 and 009S, and trades blows with the CRBN for bass. The JR bass is deep, well-controlled and has decent impact. The midrange is the thin yet liquid. It is the same beautiful midrange you get from higher-end HIFIMAN headphones. The treble is deliciously liquid, sparkly, airy but smooth. On some tracks, the treble can become a tad bright, but on lower listening levels, it comes scarily close to a perfect presentation.
Interestingly, the Shangri-La JR amp is surprisingly well-built compared to the headphone. It even feels premium, almost like it is built by a different company. The JR scales on its own amp and becomes more impactful in the bass, while the treble is better controlled.
Overall, this is an immensely pleasurable headphone and perhaps, sonically, my favorite e-stat. But keep in mind that its build quality resembles a half-way house between a Sundara and grade school science project. It feels a lot cheaper than an Arya or a Susvara.
If I had to rank these flagship electrostatic headphones in terms of tonality, my ranking would be as follows:
- HIFIMAN Shangri-La JR
- Audeze CRBN
- Stax SR-009S
- Stax SR-X9000
- Stax SR-009
In terms of technical performance:
- Stax SR-X9000
- Stax SR-009S (very close second)
- Stax SR-009
- HIFIMAN Shangri-La JR
- Audeze CRBN
Next, I had the opportunity to try the new dCS Rossini APEX DAC. Before sharing impressions, at this price point of DACs, it is important to perhaps reveal details of the overall source chain. The interconnects I used were the Shunyata Alpha V2 XLRs and the power cord, the Shunyata Omega QR. The dCS audition was kindly arranged by DECO 2000, a prominent dCS dealer in Asia. I have a quick YouTube video here, gushing over the dCS DACs.
In any case, the dCS Rossini APEX DAC gave me the most thrilling moments of the entirety of my audiophile experiences in Bangkok. This DAC is incredible. It is such a uniquely effortless yet resolving yet dynamic sound, that on a scale of 1 to 10 of hair-raising moments, this was a hard 10.
I first tried the Rossini APEX with the Shangri-La SR. There was an immediate and massive change in the Shangri-La JR’s presentation. It became the best sound I have ever heard off headphones. I was reminded of YouTubers and fellow audiophiles who insisted DACs do not make a difference, and I smiled.
I mention in my YouTube review of these DAC that every audiophile superlative you could think of, applies to the Rossini APEX. I stand by it. This is a different level from Bartok: two levels up, in my opinion.
This is also one or two levels up from the Chord Dave, and perhaps one level up from my much-loved Holo Audio Audio May + HQPlayer. The May is still unbeatable not just for its price, but at 3-4 times its price. However, the Rossini APEX is the only DAC that I would consider upgrading to from the May (but I don’t think I could ever jettison a May, given its timbral and overall synergy with my Abyss AB-1266 Phi TC).
I also heard the dCS Vivaldi, which dCS itself claims is superior to the Rossini. However, the Vivaldi is more relaxed sounding than the Rossini, and the overall laidback nature was not my cup of tea. I personally enjoyed the Rossini more. So, while, yes, performance does usually scale with price, you do not always have to enjoy a “superior” device more. It could well come down to subjective listening preferences.
Of course, Bangkok is not just about audio.
In fact, it is, for the most part not about audio. For married men such as myself, Bangkok is mostly about a plethora of shopping at some of the glitziest malls in the world and open-air street markets, some of the most incredible local and international food, good vibes, extreme hospitality, and kindness of its citizens. It is also an extremely foreigner-friendly city, having lived in New York, London, and Delhi, and having traveled extensively all over Asia and Europe.
My wife and I are eager connoisseurs of Thai and Asian cuisines, and since this hobby is about tastes and flavors, I hope you will not mind if I end this two-part review with a photo of my favorite Thai dish. I love Thai noodle bowls for the plethora of flavors they offer, much like my current headphone stable.
So, that’s it for now, good folks. As they say in Thai, Khob Khun Kha, i.e., thank you (for reading)!
About the Author:
Sajid Amit is an academic and practitioner in international development by day, and audiophile night and day. His YouTube channel is called the Amplify Audiophile Show and is available here. His HeadFi thread is here.