Is there life beyond the HD800/HD800S? For many headphone users, the venerable Sennheiser HD800 is a dinosaur, long ago surpassed by a slew of better (and more expensive) headphones. But for classical music lovers like myself, this question is as relevant today as it has ever been. That’s because, try as I might, I have yet to find headphones that can give me the same goosebumps with a well-recorded Mahler symphony that the HD800 does. There’s just something special about the HD800. Yes, it has the famous 6kHz hump. Yes, it is terribly unforgiving of certain genres. But oh, that soundstage - it’s a drug that keeps us classical fans hooked!
That doesn’t mean I don’t keep an eye out for new and better headphones. I’ve attended more than my fair share of meets, shows, and CanJams, where I dutifully check out the gamut of new offerings, hoping to find the holy grail - headphones that surpass the HD800 for classical music, AND are outstanding with all genres. Last April in AXPONA, I felt I had found it - but sadly, “it” was the $52k Sennheiser HE-1 electrostatic headphone solution. Gulp!
The idea for this article was born last year from comments I received in my DAC series of articles. More than one reader suggested the HD800 may be limiting my ability to resolve differences between high-end DACs. While I didn’t think so - and spoiler, it doesn’t! - it gave me the idea to do a roundup of high-end headphones in my own setup, both to answer that question, and to see if I could find headphones that could replace or augment my HD800. I could have called it “My Quest For New Headphones,” but that would have been so predictable!
So over the course of CanJam London and RMAF Denver 2018, I did the rounds and shortlisted headphones that I would request for review, for an in-depth shootout chez moi. Based purely on my listening, I selected the Focal Utopia, the Abyss AB-1266 Phi CC, and the Meze Empyrean. “But @austinpop,” you cry, “how come you didn’t pick the Acme Aural Exciter Mk II? It leaves all of these others in the dust!” Well, this is a subjective review. You can bet I listened to the Acme (after Wile E. was done with it) at the shows, but it probably didn’t speak to me the way it did to you. Also, it is probably no coincidence that two of the three headphones I shortlisted above gave me the opportunity to listen in a quieter listening room. One of my pet peeves about CanJam’s in particular, and headphone shows in general, is that the show floor is a lousy environment for headphone listening, especially since most high-end headphones are open-backed.
Anyway, review samples were requested, and yada, yada, yada, here I am to tell you about results. Without further ado then, let’s dig in to this roundup!
A quick word about my listening setup. My entire system is shown in the Associated Equipment section. Since I primarily listen on headphones, I just used my existing system, which features the Cavalli Liquid Gold (LAu) headphone amplifier. This amp is a monster, and drove all of these headphones, even the power-hungry Abyss, without breaking a sweat. That said, it is important to try headphones with different amps, as there can be variations in synergy between pairings. For this review, I was fortunate to also have on hand the Chord Hugo M-Scaler and, more relevantly, the Hugo TT 2 DAC/amp, a combo I recently reviewed. The TT 2 can deliver an astonishingly high 7.3W RMS into 8Ω via the single-ended RCA and headphone outputs, and 18W RMS into 8Ω via the rear XLR outputs. This is right up there with my Cavalli Liquid Gold, which is rated at 9W into 50Ω. If you’re scratching your head deciphering these numbers, don’t fret. The key takeaway is that both amps have prodigious power for this review!
Also important to mention are headphone cables. Yes, I hear cable differences, and especially with headphones, they can be an integral element of a headphone’s sonic presentation. My reference cable for my HD800 for several years now has been the Cardas Clear balanced cable. For this review, Cardas graciously sent me multiple samples of 3m Clear cables, terminated for the appropriate connectors for each of these headphones. They also sent me various adapters (also built with Clear cable) to convert from single-ended to balanced and vice versa for 6.3mm, 4-pin XLR, and dual-3-pin XLR. All this came in incredibly handy! For each headphone, I listened to the stock cable, Cardas Clear, and in the case of the Abyss and the Empyrean, the manufacturer’s own upgrade cable. For reference, the Cardas Clear has an MSRP of $720/3m.
My baseline: Sennheiser HD800 (SD Mod)
The HD800 was already venerable when I bought mine. I heard them at a friend’s, and I was hooked. In addition to their sound quality, they are one of the most comfortable pair of headphones I’ve tried. I have largish ears, but despite that, they fit perfectly, and I can - and do - wear them for hours on end.
Shortly after getting mine, I too discovered the infamous 6kHz peak that can make these headphones sound bright on some material. Over the next few months, I tried a couple of DIY mods, popularized by Tyll Hertsens at InnerFidelity. First up was the so-called Anaxilus mod, that involved me doing my first craft project in (mumble) decades since elementary school. While that helped, it was only when I tried the Super DuPont mod that I finally felt the HD800 had elevated to magical status to my ears. While there have been many mods suggested since then, I’m really not much of a DIY guy, and I’ve stuck with the “SD mod” ever since, going on 3 years. When the HD800S came out, I compared my SD-modded HD800 with the HD800S, and found I was quite happy with my modded unit.
HD800 Amp Pairing
System synergy is very important to get the best out of the HD800. I tried several amps before settling on the Cavalli Liquid Gold, and this particular pairing works very well. Coupled with the Cardas Clear balanced cable, this combination really makes the HD800 sing. That said, the HD800 paired very well with the Chord TT 2 driving them. While I would give a very slight edge to the LAu for dynamics and bass, the TT 2 directly driving them has better resolution and clarity.
The HD800 is ruthless about exposing deficiencies in the audio chain. I’ve done a lot to improve my digital streaming chain while I’ve owned these headphones, and I will say they have responded very well to these improvements. So much so that with my system in its current state, it takes a particularly poor recording to elicit a reaction that these headphones are bright.
On a recording like Mahler Symphony No. 3, Iván Fischer, Budapest Festival Orchestra (24/352.8 DXD, Channel Classics), it’s hard to find fault. This is the kind of recording made for these headphones. One could wish for perhaps some more oomph on the low end, but that’s it. However, things change with other genres, and with recordings of lesser quality.
One recording that is like a canary in the coal mine for me is Adele’s 21 (16/44.1). For the record, I actually like this album, but this recording is very unforgiving of headphone systems. Certainly with the HD800, even with the SD mod, this can sound “hot,” and I don’t mean sexy. Of course, as I’ve improved the quality of my digital chain, especially the digital transport and the DAC, brighter recordings like this have become much more listenable. Still, the HD800 isn’t necessarily at its best with pop, rock, and similar genres.
Improving the HD800 with accessories: Dekoni replacement earpads
Before exploring other headphones, I took a quick detour with some accessories to improve the sound quality of the HD800. I chatted with Tal Kocen of Dekoni at RMAF about my project, and he sent over a sample of each of their replacement earpads for the HD800. These range from the Elite Velour ($59) to the Fenestrated Sheepskin ($99). I had fun experimenting with these earpads and, on the whole, I was impressed. The stock velour pads do have a tendency to get funky with age, so these are a nice alternative. My personal favorite was the fenestrated sheepskin. Not only did it look a lot nicer, it was cooler on the ears. One mod I had to make was to cut out the dust cover, as it was making contact with my outer ear. Also, these are thicker than the stock pads, so may increase clamping pressure for some.
In terms of sound signature, there were only subtle differences with the stock pads. The velour pads add a slight amount of bass, and a slight taming of the highs, which you might think is a good thing. But to my ears, that seemed to diminish the expansive openness the HD800 is known for. The fenestrated sheepskin is more true to the original, while adding comfort. Bottom line: consider these earpads for improved comfort and styling, but not as a sonic improvement.
A Curious Accessory: High Fidelity Cables Trinity Helix
I also had on hand for review a curious Toblerone-shaped device called the Trinity Helix ($2799 MSRP), from High Fidelity Cables. Designed for headphone cables, and like their other cables, the Helix uses a strong magnet to concentrate signal flow to the center of the cable, with claimed improvements in SQ. The device attaches between your existing headphone cable and the headphone output of the source.
I have to say, I was not prepared for the improvement I heard. The bass was tighter, deeper, and more full-bodied, there was an overall increase in dynamics, and a calmer, smoother treble. Since the price is daunting, I would not for a moment suggest this is a necessary accessory. However, the Helix definitely enhanced sound quality, and I used it in all my listening.
Now, let’s look at some headphones!
Focal Utopia (US MSRP $3999)
I’m a big fan of Focal. I’ve long admired their loudspeakers, and more recently, their headphones. For about a year, I actually owned their entry-level Elear headphones (at the time $999, now $699 MSRP), having bought them to complement my HD800 for brighter genres. I eventually sold them as I found that the improvements in my digital chain allowed me to use the HD800 almost exclusively. I’d previously been daunted by the Utopia’s price point to give them serious consideration, but on this go-around, I really liked what I heard during my scouting at the shows.
The Utopia is Focal’s flagship headphone. It is an open-backed dynamic design that has benefited from Focal’s long history with loudspeakers. Indeed, Focal’s literature describes their goal as “a full range loudspeaker in a pair of headphones.” They have a white paper that describes the genesis and design of the Utopia. Unlike the Elear that uses an aluminum/magnesium diaphragm, the Utopia features a beryllium diaphragm that is credited with the refined high end and resolving nature of these headphones.
Having lived with the Elear, the Utopia was ergonomically familiar to me. Everything about the Utopia oozes quality, from its high gloss frame, the padded leather headband, the carbon fibre yokes to the rich, perforated lambskin earpads. Despite the fact that I have a wider than average head, these were extremely comfortable headphones. Earpad size was just about adequate for my larger-than-average ears. While they weren’t as comfortable as the HD800, I had no issue with wearing these for long listening sessions. Clamping pressure was just right as well, and the adjustable-length yokes allows an easy fit with an even pressure on top of the head. The Utopia weighs in at 490g compared to the HD800 at 330g, but didn’t feel unduly heavy in any way.
Focal Utopia Amp and Cable Pairing
The Utopia is known for its dynamics, and boy, it does not disappoint! This is one punchy pair of headphones. Due to its 104dB (1mW/1kHz) sensitivity and 80Ω impedance, it’s quite easy to drive, and was equally comfortable with my Cavalli Liquid Gold and the Chord Hugo TT 2. As with the HD800, the Cavalli drove the Utopia with just a bit more authority in terms of low end bass and dynamics, at the expense of a slight loss of transparency. Given the highly resolving nature of the Utopia, this was an acceptable trade off.
My review sample was sent to me with the stock 3m OFC single ended cable, which is a good starting point. However, the balanced Cardas Clear cable was a significant improvement. The Clear opens up the soundstage, which is particularly beneficial with the Utopia, while providing more clarity and deeper bass. For all my listening, I used the Cardas Clear cable.
Focal Utopia Sound
The Utopia handles music with aplomb and authority. The overall impression is one of control, power, and resolution. I was hearing a wealth of detail in recordings that I had missed before. In addition to its dynamics, the Utopia’s bass is more prodigious and goes deeper than the HD800. The midrange and lower treble has a richness to it that is very addictive. It there is one area that surprised me, it was that the overall presentation comes across as brighter than neutral. This is not the 6kHz HD800 hump, but I did hear some sizzle in high hats and cymbal clashes, which was surprising given how smooth the rest of the spectrum is. While my canary-in-the-coal-mine Adele album was quite listenable, it was still fatiguing with the Utopia.
Finally, the Utopia portrays a detailed and textured soundstage that is rock solid and dimensional, but certainly more intimate than the HD800. The latter is well known for its huge soundstage, and the Utopia was quite a contrast.This suits close-miked small-venue genres very well, but not so much the aforementioned Mahler symphony. All in all, there was much to like in the Utopia, and it’s easy to understand its popularity.
Abyss AB-1266 Phi CC (US MSRP $4995)
The Abyss headphones have been around for several years now, starting with the original AB-1266, followed by the improved Phi drivers, the CC (ceramic coated) upgrade, and their most recent upgrade, TC (Total Consciousness). The TC upgrade was announced after I had already received my review sample, so this review will talk about the Phi CC. I hope to try the TC version very soon. So if these headphones have been around so long, what drew me to them now? Simple - I had never heard them at their best. During RMAF, I got to hear these in JPS Labs’ quiet room, where Joe Skubinski, owner and chief designer of Abyss Headphones, showed me how to properly adjust these beasts. Wow! I came away from the demo very impressed.
Let’s address the elephant in the room. Styling. These headphones do not look comfortable. And at 640g, they’re substantially heavier than the others in in this roundup. Yet, they are comfortable. Looks can be, and in this case are, deceiving. What is true is that to hear them at their best, they must be properly adjusted. There is a helpful video on the Abyss website that guides you through the process, and it’s well worth doing this patiently and methodically. The inverted U-shaped frame not only has a range of width from the overlapping groove connecting the left and right halves, it can also be pivoted around the central screw to fine tune and equalize the clamping force from front to back. Most importantly, you need to experiment with the earpad orientation. The earpads are magnetically attached to the frame, and are designed to be adjustable by detaching and rotating them a few degrees to the next snap-in notch. You have full 360º control of this rotation, and you will find a “correct” orientation for your ears. In my experience, this position is when you hear the “holy $h!t” deep bass these headphones are capable of.
In my case, I found even the widest position of the frame to still be a bit tight, for which Joe reminded me I could actually “bend” the frame outward as shown in the video. The other trick I found was that the ideal wearing position was a little further back than the centre of my head. Suffice it to say that after these adjustments, these headphones were extremely comfortable. Just don’t look in the mirror. And tell your friends and family to get their “propeller-head” jokes out of their systems once and for all. In any case, they’ll stop laughing after they listen for themselves.
Abyss Amp and Cable Pairing
Before I get into sound quality, let me talk about amp synergy. The Abyss was the least sensitive of the headphones, with an impedance of 42Ω, and a sensitivity of 88 dB (1mW/1kHz). While the LAu could drive the Abyss as loud as I wanted to - and louder - the overall signature was lean, and seemed a bit lacking in excitement and dynamics. In contrast, the TT2 was more dynamic, full-bodied and meaty. In addition, there was a marked improvement in resolution and micro-details. It just goes to show that amp pairing is important, and the best amp isn’t necessarily the one with the most power output. For the rest of this review, I used the TT2 to drive the Abyss.
For cables, I had a choice of the stock aluminum alloy “alumiloy” cable, the Cardas Clear, and the JPS Labs HP Signature cable (MSRP: $1990/4ft). The latter has a gorgeous look and feel with a soft woven outer jacket (no microphonics on this cable) and beautiful rhodium plated connectors. I should mention that the stock cables themselves retail for $999/8ft, so kudos to Abyss for including high-quality cables as standard equipment.
In terms of sonic signature, the stock cables are really excellent. They have possibly the best bass of all, with an overall tight and meaty tone. I could live very happily with this cable. The Cardas, in contrast, has a richer midrange, a warmer tone, but is a bit leaner in the bass. Not better, not worse, just different. The Signature HP cables are quite a step up. They have all the muscle of the stock cable, but sound cleaner, more resolving and more expansive. Yes, they’re expensive, but if you can swing it, the Abyss with the Signature HP cable is a fabulous pairing, and it’s what I used.
The Abyss, more than any of the other headphones, reminded me of listening to loudspeakers. First, there’s the bass. It’s prodigious and it goes down to subterranean depths. Tonality just seems spot on across the spectrum. Instruments sound “right.” I was hearing all kinds of new micro-details in recordings I thought I knew well. Soundstage and imaging was big and spacious. Unlike other headphones, which tend to invite association with certain genres, the Abyss is the ultimate all-rounder. It plays back everything you throw at it with fidelity and accuracy. Like a precision instrument, it will extract and present exactly what is in the recording.
With pristine recordings and matching gear of the highest order, this translates to a listening experience that is transformative. My bellwether Mahler 3rd in DXD, played back through my high-quality chain to the Chord HMS/TT2 was absolutely sensational. The Abyss handled the Mahlerian dynamic range with authority, and I sat riveted through the 90+ minutes of this epic piece.
That same precision can also be unforgiving. On less-than-pristine, more compressed or brighter recordings, the Abyss will expose them - flaws and all. Adele 21 is actually not as bad as many recordings, but it can get shouty at higher volumes. That is exactly what you hear with the Abyss on this recording - fatigue at high volumes. Listen to compressed MP3’s or grungy recordings, and their flaws will be revealed mercilessly. Garbage in, garbage out. This is the dilemma with highly-resolving gear - do you want fidelity or do you want forgiveness? It depends on what’s in your music library.
The Abyss AB-1266 Phi CC, at its best, is in a class of its own and one of the world’s best headphones. It demands the best from its matching amplification, cables, and recordings. Meet its demands, and it will deliver a sublime listening experience.
Meze Audio Empyrean (US MSRP $2999)
I first heard the Empyrean at CanJam London last year. They had a quiet room set up, which I discovered at the tail end of the show. So while I was able to listen in peace and quiet, it wasn’t for very long. Still, I was drawn to these headphones immediately. I knew Meze Audio’s strong sense of style from their 99 Classics, but these flagships were about style AND substance. I loved the way they looked, they were extremely comfortable, and had a really appealing sound signature. Of course, they were still a long way from release. A few months later, at CanJam RMAF, I arrived early before the crowds, chatted with Mircea Fanatan, Meze’s Managing Director, who was manning the booth, and had another extended listen. Arrangements were made, and in due course a review sample arrived.
Meze is a Romanian company, and they collaborated with Rinaro, a Ukrainian company on their unique planar magnetic driver, which they call a hybrid array. Meze claims “The Empyrean Driver combines individual switchback and spiral-shaped voice coils, their unique shapes allowing sound to be targeted with more accuracy around the natural form of the ear.“
These are drop-dead gorgeous headphones. Romanian/Ukrainian engineering, yes, but they have an Italian sense of style! Even by the high standards of the $3k price point, this piece is like a work of art. Just look at the intricate filigree pattern on the outer grille of the earpad. And that same design ethic pervades the unit.
The unit ships in a handsome hard case, and comes with a second pair of earpads, so you get both a leather and a velour (or Alcántara) finish. This is an unusual but very welcome touch! As I found, these earpads have different sound signatures, so add to the customizability. The unit was sent to me with a standard single ended cable, but at my request, Meze also sent me their Balanced PCUHD Silver Plated Cable ($499 MSRP).
I found fit and comfort just outstanding with these headphones. For a planar magnetic, they are really quite light at 430g due, I’m sure, to a combination of the clever design and the choice of materials (carbon, aluminum). Thoughtful touches abound here. Height adjustment is done by rotating and sliding the earpad rods up or down the hinge where they attach to the headband. I really loved the unique shape of the headband with pressure distribution wings. They really work, as I felt no downward pressure on my head at all. Finally, the ovoidal earpads are (just) big enough for my larger ears, but people with large ears should definitely try these out for fit. I particularly like that the earpads are deep, so my outer ear was not making contact with the earpad’s grille.
Empyrean Amp and Cable Pairing
The Empyrean, with an impedance of 31.6Ω, and a sensitivity of 100 dB (1mW/1kHz), was remarkably easy to drive. My iPhone 7 driving them, via a Dragonfly Black DAC, could elicit very satisfying sound quality from them. That said, these headphones really deserve good amplification, and will reward you if you provide it. Both the Cavalli Liquid Gold and the TT2 elevated the sound quality tremendously. The LAu was slightly more full-bodied with deeper bass, while the TT2 more transparent and detailed. A familiar theme! Call this one a draw. You can’t go wrong with either of these amps with the Empyrean.
The stock cable for the Empyrean is perfectly fine - but just like amps, these headphones will reward you as you scale up in cables. Meze’s balanced silver-plated PCUHD (Pure Copper Ultra High Drawability) cable is a case in point. I am very sensitive to excessive treble, so tend to avoid silver analog cables (digital and DC cables are a whole other matter!), due to their brighter signature. Having said that, I found these cables to match the Empyrean extremely well. Perhaps because they’re silver-plated copper, they brightened up the high end just enough to be pleasing, while also sounding more open, with a tighter bass.
The Cardas Clear cable was also a nice step up from the stock. It too opened up the soundstage, but brightened the sound more gently than the Meze cable. The area it really shone was in solidifying the low bass. I had a hard time picking between these cables. In the end I gave the nod to the Meze cable, since it synergized particularly well with the headphones at a lower cost.
Consistent with the impeccable design aesthetic of these headphones, the earpads were beautifully integrated with the frame via a magnetic coupling, that is so intuitive to attach and detach that you think - why can’t all headphones do this? It reminded me of the magnetic charger inputs on Macbooks. Once you see it, all other methods of attachment seem clunky and silly.
The Empyrean pads have distinct sound signatures. The leather pads are more incisive, more open, and a tad brighter, while not quite as bassy. The Alcántara velour pads enhance bass, but at the expense of openness and clarity. I think you can see which one I preferred! The leather pads complement the essential character of the drivers far better than the velour. The only time I favored the velour pads was with a really thin-sounding poorly-recorded album. And perhaps this is the point with providing these earpads. We all have different sonic preferences, and a range of recordings from poor to excellent in our libraries. For people with extreme treble sensitivity, or for that pathologically poor recording, the velour pads provide a nice alternative.
I routinely burn in gear for a few hundred hours before any critical listening. Since I usually have a review backlog, this is easy enough to do! The Empyrean really benefited from burn in. Out of the box, I found them a bit woolly sounding, but I set them to burn in, and let them be for several weeks. When I finally got back to them, they sounded magnificent. Whatever that woolliness was, it was gone, to be replaced with a balanced, smooth, and expansive sound. These really are alluring- sounding headphones. I hesitate to use the word neutral, because what is neutral isn’t necessarily the most pleasing and most fun. To my ears, the Empyrean is a bit tipped up in the low-to-mid bass, spot on in the mids, and just a tad rolled off on the highs. Don’t get me wrong - this actually sounds wonderful to my ears.
Using the Mahler 3rd as an example: imaging and soundstage was excellent on the Empyrean. Despite my comments about the treble, these are highly resolving headphones, on par with the best. I heard a wealth of detail, just with the relaxed tonal signature I described. Switching over to the Adele was a completely different story. This album sounds wonderful on the Empyrean. That brightness I hear with the HD800 and the Utopia is completely absent, and Adele’s voice is beautifully rendered.
The more I heard the Empyrean, the more I loved it. More than any other headphones I’ve heard, it has an uncanny ability to take less-than-ideal recordings and make you fall in love with them again. The relaxed and smooth tonal balance can initially deceive you into thinking these headphones lack resolution, or are recessed. That only lasts a few seconds, until you realize they are not! Over time, I really came to appreciate how resolving and clean these headphones sound. Finally, and most importantly, these are engaging and fun headphones, which are attributes that don’t often go together with resolving and refined. Meze have managed to build a flagship that delivers outstanding sound quality and is both refined and sparks joy in the listener. No one in their right mind will ever KonMari™ one of these babies!
Yeah, yeah, you say, they’re all wonderful headphones, but where’s the beef? How do they compare? Given the number of headphones, amps and cables, and combinations thereof, I made some simplifying choices for these comparative listening tests. I drove all of the headphones from the Chord Hugo M Scaler/TT 2 combo, since this amp paired well with all of them. For each headphone, I chose the cable at my disposal that sounded best: the Cardas Clear for the HD800 and the Utopia, the Meze balanced silver-plated cable for the Empyrean, and the JPS Labs Signature cable for the Abyss AB-1266 Phi CC.
Mrs Vanderbilt, Band on the Run (24/96, Paul McCartney Archive Collection): This album has always sounded bright to me on the HD800. While system optimizations have improved things a lot, the overall signature is still bright, and cymbal clashes are definitely hot. The Utopia is a notable improvement, with better bass, sounding more dynamic, smoother and richer. Imaging is precise but not as expansive. There is still some sizzle on the cymbals, suggesting an upper treble peak. Moving on the Abyss - wow, the bass is excellent. The overall tonality is so balanced and neutral. Dynamics, resolution and micro-details are off the charts. And the image is as expansive as the HD800. These headphones really do remind me of speakers. Finally, the Empyrean just put a smile on my face. Tonally, there’s just a bit more oomph in the mid-bass, and the treble is the smoothest of the lot. Imaging is between the Abyss/HD800 and the Utopia. While the Empyrean can initially sound a bit recessed, resolution is right up there with the Utopia and the Abyss. It’s just a more relaxed presentation. Neither the Abyss nor the Empyrean have even the hint of sizzle on the cymbals. Winner: Overall, this was a tie between the Abyss and the Empyrean, with the former sounding the most “right” and the latter sounding the most “fun,” followed by the Utopia and the HD800.
I Talk to the Wind, In the Court of the Crimson King (40th Anniversary Steven Wilson Remix) (24/96, Panegyric/DMG): I was in a progressive rock mood during this evaluation, starting with this classic Greg Lake ballad from King Crimson’s debut album. This is a fairly mellow track, so all the headphones rendered it beautifully. The HD800 had the best imaging, the Utopia the best dynamics, the Abyss the best tonality, while the Empyrean was the most engaging. Resolution was a 3-way tie between the Utopia, Abyss, and the Empyrean. Winner: The Abyss won by a nose over the Empyrean, followed by the Utopia and the HD800.
III: Scherzo, Mahler: Symphony No. 2, Osmo Vänskä, Minnesota Orchestra (24/96 BIS): Moving on to classical music, the HD800 reasserted its dominance, with the biggest and most holographic image. With excellently-recorded acoustic music like this, the HD800 sounds tonally spot on, matched only by the Abyss. The Abyss and Utopia still topped it in dynamics, while they were joined by the Empyrean in having more resolution and micro-detail. Winner: To my ears, this track embodies the raison d'être of the HD800, and indeed it was the winner, followed by the Abyss, the Empyrean, and the Utopia.
Rodeo: Ranch House Party, Copland, Colorado Symphony (24/96 BIS): Fire up this performance of Rodeo, Copland’s quintessentially American ballet, and I challenge you not to break into a grin. The music is contagious, and once again, the HD800 is in its element, leading the pack on tonality and imaging. The Utopia edges out the Abyss on dynamics, and yet again, the Abyss, Utopia and the Empyrean tie on resolution. The excellent BIS recording allows the HD800 to do what it does so well. Winner: While the others bested it on resolution and dynamics, the HD800 is again my pick here, followed by the Abyss, the Utopia, and the Empyrean.
The Hansbach, Journey to the Centre of the Earth (2012 Re-recording) (16/44.1, Music Fusion) Returning to prog rock, while I have a sentimental preference for the original Journey..., this re-recording by Rick Wakeman with the Orion Orchestra, the English Chamber Choir, and his rock band, the English Rock Ensemble is a far better recording. The Empyrean really excelled on this track. The thumping beat at the beginning was most exciting and visceral, and Wakeman’s soaring synthesizer notes sounded the most pleasing. Winner: The Empyrean, followed closely by the Abyss, and then the Utopia and the HD800.
Stank, Explorations in Space and Time (24/176.4, Chesky) This tends to get used as a demo a lot, but this is actually a great album musically, and of course an outstanding binaural recording. The sense of space and ambience is amazing on this album, which of course, the HD800 rendered best, followed closely by the Abyss. The Utopia had the best dynamics in the sense of excitement, but both the Empyrean and the Abyss excelled in the bass on the various percussion instruments. Both the Utopia and the HD800 sounded a bit bright on this piece. Winner: I’ll call this a tie between the Abyss and the Empyrean, followed by the HD800 and the Utopia.
Shahen-Shah, Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan (16/44.1, Real World Records): When I was growing up in Delhi, I was too busy being “cool” and listening to Western rock and folk of the 60s and 70s to pay attention to the incredible musical traditions around me. Now that I’m older, I am reclaiming that part of my heritage. Case in point is this album, by one of the masters of Qawwali, Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan. In Meri Ankhon Ko Bakhshe Hain Aansoo, like the rest of the album, Nusrat’s powerful singing is accompanied by his chorus (or “party”). This recording, on Peter Gabriel’s Real World Records, is decent, but can sound strident on the wrong system. The HD800 did an excellent job with this song, although the harmonium verged on brightness. The Utopia conveyed the speed and dynamics of Nusrat’s voice beautifully, but still had a bright tinge to it. In contrast, the Abyss allowed me to just connect with the music. The Empyrean was very close to the Abyss, with a more relaxed presentation. Winner: The Abyss just nailed this, followed closely by the Empyrean, the Utopia, and the HD800.
If there is one lesson I learned from this very enjoyable exercise, it is that it is incredibly difficult for one pair of headphones to do it all. The Abyss came closest to that ideal. Officially, it is the winner of this roundup. As it should be, given it’s the most expensive. It excelled with every genre of music I threw at it. It is the most neutral, resolving, and accurate pair of headphones I’ve ever heard, especially with the Signature HP cables. But did it, or any of the headphones reviewed here, displace the HD800 in the area it shines: large, orchestral, classical music? To my ears: no, not quite.
Moving on to the Empyrean: while it didn’t quite match the Abyss in certain technical abilities, it was the most fun, and more importantly, most engaging, to listen to. It’s the one I reached for, when I wanted to sink into my chair, close my eyes, and just enjoy the music. It excelled with all genres, even classical, although I preferred the HD800 occasionally. While some might find it ironic to call something costing $3499 an outstanding value, that is exactly what I consider the Empyrean/PCUHD cable combo to be. Despite being only half the price, it came very close to the performance of the Abyss Phi CC/Signature cable combo.
The Utopia was a tough one for me. There is so much to like about these headphones. The dynamics and resolution are scary good. I think it’s a matter of taste. My ears are very sensitive to treble, so I tend to prefer smoother sounding components. I also place a lot of value in expansive imaging, which is not a strength of the Utopia. Your preferences may be, and very likely are, different. Do give the Utopia a listen for yourself.
Summing it all up: I’m keeping my HD800! At some level, that’s an easy decision, as I wouldn’t get much for it on the used market. But more importantly, I still prefer it from time to time for some classical music. For all other genres, I find myself on the horns of a delightful dilemma: buy the Abyss Phi TC for its precision, accuracy, and balance, or the Empyrean because they’re so damn comfortable and fun to listen to? Choices, choices. If cost is no object, the Abyss gets the nod, but if aesthetics and value are important factors, the Empyrean is hard to beat!
- Focal Utopia (MSRP: $3999)
- Abyss AB-1266 Phi TC (MSRP: $4995 to $7995, varies by bundle)
- JPS Labs Superconductor HP Upgrade Cable ($1990/4ft)
- Meze Empyrean (MSRP: $2999)
- Empyrean Balanced PCUHD Silver Plated Cable (MSRP: $499)
Review System: Here is a diagram of the system used for evaluating the headphones in this review. In addition to the Chord Hugo M Scaler and TT 2 combo shown, an Ayre QX-5 Twenty DAC was also used.
Roon Core: Intel NUC7i7DNBE running Audiolinux (in RAM)
Streamer: The Linear Solution DS-1 OCXO running Audiolinux (in RAM)
Headphone Amplifier: Cavalli Liquid Gold
Headphones: Sennheiser HD800 (Super DuPont Mod), Focal Utopia,
Abyss AB-1266 Phi CC, Meze Empyrean
USB Regenerator: SOtM tX-USBultra
Ethernet Switch: The Linear Solution OCXO switch
Reference Clock: Mutec Ref 10 10MHz clock driving the tX-USBultra
Power supplies: Utpone LPS-1.2 for switch & tX-USBultra, Paul Hynes SR-4 for DS-1
Power Details: Dedicated 30A 6 AWG AC circuit, PS Audio P5 PerfectWave Regenerator
Power Cables: PS Audio AC-12 (wall to P5), Cardas Clear Beyond (Cavalli Amp),
Cardas Clear (Mutec Ref-10, QX-5 Twenty, SR-4, SR-7)
Pangea AC-14SE MkII to all other PSUs
USB cables: Phasure Lush & Lush^2 USB
Clock cables: Habst 5N Cryo Pure Silver
BNC cables: Habst 5N Cryo Pure Silver
Ethernet cables: SOtM dCBL-Cat7, Supra Cat 8
DC cables: Audio Sensibility Signature Silver (LPS-1.2)
Paul Hynes fine silver (SR-4, SR-7)
Interconnects: Cardas Clear XLR balanced (DAC to Amp)
Headphone cables: Cardas Clear cables for all headphones, except where indicated otherwise
Accessories: Synergistic Research Tranquility Base XL UEF with Galileo MPC
Many thanks to Cardas Audio for providing a loom of Cardas Clear cables to aid evaluation.