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    Sajid Amit

    Part 2: Headphone Impressions from a recent “Audiophile Trip” to India

     

     

     

    To continue where we last off in my previous article linked here, below are more impressions of headphones and gears I tried on my recent “Audiophile Trip” to India. But before I continue with my micro-reviews, let me just say what fun it was to see the diversity of tastes, gears, audio businesses, and manufacturers in the small but growing portable audio scene in India.

     

    It is after all a country of 1.38 billion, so manufacturers ought to seriously take note! While demand in India for audiophile gears are growing, there remains substantial scope for awareness generation activities online and offline. I was particularly impressed with the work Headphone Zone is doing to generate awareness of the hobby among newcomers, with weekend events dedicated to Western and Eastern artists and “how to appreciate them” with various gears and the flavors they impart.

     

    In any case, I digress. Back to good old reviews!

     

     

    FOCAL Celeste:

     

    The Celeste is a seriously underrated headphone. I was amazed at how much I liked it and had to A/B with the Stellia for a while, in order to convince myself that the improvement is worth the substantial price differential. Yes, the improvement in speed, detail, and dynamics is noticeable, as you switch to the Stellia, but the price difference is higher than the improvement. Yes, you expect that from this hobby, but the Celeste is still rather remarkable for its price. It is one of the best tuned Focal headphones I have had the pleasure of listening to. It’s all there: a good tonality, good macro dynamics, great detail for the price, so and so forth.

     

     

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    MEZE Empyrean and MEZE Elite:

     

    I appreciate Meze. They have fantastic customer service. They have the best built headphones in the world. And they have truly inspiration design. However, every time I put the Empyrean on, I cannot get over its pricing relative to its performance. It performs, in my opinion, more like a $2000 headphone even if you factor in the outstanding build, comfort and design. It’s bloated bass, odd treble tuning, and subpar technical performance given the price point, was disappointing once again. I do concede that the tuning works for several people who swear by it, so take this as my subjective opinion.

     

     

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    Meanwhile, the Meze Elite is an across-the-board improvement over the Empyrean. It is more detailed, less bloated in the bass-to-midrange transition and has better technical performance. It is definitely a good headphone.

     

    It has a safe, inoffensive, and pleasing tonality and the same world class build, comfort and aesthetics as the Empyrean. That said, it’s not a flagship class headphone in the manner a Utopia or LCD4 (and hopefully, my incoming LCD5) is. And it’s certainly less impressive than a Susvara or a Abyss AB-1266 Phi TC. In fact, I would say that the Elite would probably be more competitive at the price point of the Empyrean. At $3000, the Elite would be a superlative buy, and would probably be massively popular.

     

     

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    SONY IER-Z1R:

     

    This is an impressive IEM but one of the worst in terms of comfort. It is impressive for its technical performance rather than its tonality, as I don’t particularly like the midrange on this IEM. Staging is impressive, as are detail retrieval and macro dynamics.

     

    The Z1R punches hard and I agree with everyone else that it’s a bass head’s dream. However, I think the IE900 has comparable technical performance, faster bass decay, and a more pleasing midrange, and I might pick the IE900 with an upgrade cable to the Z1R. In other words, I see the IE900 seriously challenging the Z1R’s niche in the hobby, in the coming months and years.

     

     

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    Shure KSE1200:

     

    This is a nice-sounding IEM with loads of detail, impressive imaging, layering, but weak dynamics (punch and slam). Its overall tonality is warm and pleasing and I debated for a while, on whether to get the KSE1200 or the Focal Stellia. I ended up picking the Stellia as I preferred the vocals of the Stellia as well as the Stellia’s dynamic impact.

     

     

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    To round up the headphone / IEM impressions, below are the two most impressive headphones I heard / re-heard on this trip: the Sennheiser HD800S and the almighty Sennheiser Orpheus HE-1.

     

    SENNHEISER Orpheus HE-1

     

    To start with the HE-1, it is a remarkable headphone system as one would expect from its price point. Remember, it’s a headphone system with a DAC and amp. The amplifiers are built into the headphones!

     

    Sonically, the HE-1 has a beautiful midrange that is surprisingly intimate in its presentation. This is both due to the Harman tuning which has forward upper mids and the relatively narrow stage of the HE-1. The intimate staging might come off as a drawback if you expect a bigger and wider soundstage at its stratospheric price level. I know I do.

     

    In terms of its strengths, the headphone is fast, as fast as an SR1a or a SR009S. The treble comes through beautifully and clearly, with the right amount of sparkle. The bass is very lively, present, energetic, and has great control.

     

    However, as may evident from the comparisons I have already drawn, purely in terms of technical performance, as a system, the HE-1 was no superior to $25,000 or even $18,000 systems I have heard built around an Abyss AB-1266 Phi TC or a Raal SR1a. For $18,000, you can get a Holo May DAC, a high quality amplifier or speaker amplifer, and a Phi TC, and honestly, to me, the TC matched it for detail, surpassed it for slam and stage, and timbre is a toss-up between the industrial timbre of the TC which works with modern genres, and the estat timbre of the HE-1 which works with classical and acoustic music more. This is not to say of course, the HE-1 doesn’t work well with something like hip hop or electronica. It does.

     

    The SR1a is another headphone which can rival or surpass the HE-1, with the right chain. The SR1a I have recently started using with a subwoofer, EQed so that the sub supports the headphone appropriately, and the results can be jaw-dropping. Although the HE-1 can surpass the SR1a in overall tuning, given how popular Harman tunings are, the SR1a is probably slightly more resolving, a hair faster, with deeper and wider stage.

     

    The Susvara and the HE-1 have very similar tonalities, with the Susvara having more sparkle in the air frequencies and the HE-1 with more bass energy. Technically, they are close, but the HE-1 beats it overall for detail retrieval and speed.

     

    Overall, impressive headphone system no doubt, and probably a good choice for those who can afford it and especially those who do not want to tinker with their chain. And, of course, there is the status symbol associated with owning an HE-1.

     

     

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    SENNHEISER HD800S

     

    Last but not the least, my favorite headphone on this trip, surprise, surprise, was the Sennheiser HD800S, which I got to revisit.

     

    It is funny how our tastes evolve over time. In my case, when I first head the HD800S, it struck me as bright, “overly detailed”, and fatiguing. Those were the days I used to be enamored with the Sennheiser HD650. And then the Susvara happened, which, was a perfect gateway to summit-fi, the world of the TC, SR1a, and Stax headphones, since the Susvara is so polite. Now having increased my tolerance and even love for treble, and appetite for detail, with an appreciation for soundstage width and space between instruments that the Raal provides, the HD800S felt remarkably good for its price.

     

    I drove the HD800S off both my Kann Alpha DAP as well as the Sennheiser HDV 820 amplifier and loved it off both. I just loved the prospect of being able to get summit-fi performance or very close to it, without needing to be chained to large desktop amplifiers. And the comfort is so remarkable on the HD800S. I also think it looks iconic. And oh the stage! Did I mention the stage?

     

     

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    Amps and DACs:

     

    I tried several amps and DACs on this trip, but nothing stood out in comparison to my personal rig of the Accuphase e380 and the Holo Audio May DAC. I use the Accuphase e380 to drive the Susvara, the TC, and occasionally, the SR1a. The Holo May is a well-regarded R2R DAC that also measures well, not that I index for measurements.

     

     

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    Among the source gears I tried, the Matrix Audio X-Sabre Pro was a nice, warm-sounding DAC, with good imaging and staging capabilities, comparable to a Hugo 2 in detail retrieval, but a very different sort of a tonality. It appeared to be more resolving than the much lower-priced Denafrips Aries 2, but I preferred the timbre of the Aries II.

     

     

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    Meanwhile, I wasn’t overly impressed with the Cayin setup: the IHA-6 and the iDAC-6MK2. The IHA6 is fine for its price, but I didn’t quite enjoy how its treble sounded grainy on some tracks, using headphones that I am familiar with. Although it had more “life” than the widely known Topping A90, I think they are on par with each other overall, performance-wise.

     

    An amplifier that impressed was the Alo Audio Studio Six. The Class-A SET tube amp projects a deeper soundstage with a smidgen of warmth. It is also marvelously built and looks gorgeous.

     

     

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    Other amps I tried that are worth a mention are the Sennheiser HDV 820, which synergized spectacularly with the HD800S. The HD800S sounds more fluent and organic off this amp. Highly recommended pairing, although for the price of the HDV 820, there are “better” amps one can find, if the goal is to drive non-Sennheiser headphones, i.e., lower impedance varieties such as planar magnetic headphones.

     

    The Violelectric HPA V280 is also impressive. Portable and well-built, the V280 is fairly well-resolving, although I might prefer the Headamp GSX Mini to it, which comes in at a similar price.

     

     

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    So that’s it for my impressions of audiophile gear from my recent trip to India, across two cities, Delhi and Bombay. I also got to see a lot of cool sights, indulge in different Indian ethnic cuisines, and conduct some business meetings, so overall, a highly rewarding trip. Hope this two-part article series was useful.

     

    Stay tuned for a Stax SR-009S review, coming soon!

     

     

     

     

     

    Sajid.jpgSajid Amit is an academic, researcher and practitioner in international development by day, and audiophile night and day. His YouTube channel is called the Amplify Audiophile Show.




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    Thanks  for the  folllowup!

     

     I do suspect that planar headphones may behave like planar speakers... output current performance of the amplifier influences SQ

    more than output voltage performance so that the amplifier that works well with a dynamic driver may not be a good choice with a planar.

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    17 hours ago, MikeJazz said:

    Thanks for the article, I look forward to listen to the Celestee.

    You are welcome. Let me know if you do. Very enjoyable - especially if you like the Focal house sound. 

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    On 11/11/2021 at 10:48 PM, The Computer Audiophile said:

    Thanks for Part 2 Sajid. I love that Accuphase e380!

    I adore it as well! Come to think of it - given the shortage of reviews on Accuphase products on the internet - it could be a useful product to review, particulary for those in the two-channel world. 

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    On 11/11/2021 at 11:08 PM, davide256 said:

    Thanks  for the  folllowup!

     

     I do suspect that planar headphones may behave like planar speakers... output current performance of the amplifier influences SQ

    more than output voltage performance so that the amplifier that works well with a dynamic driver may not be a good choice with a planar.

    Yes, absolutely. Current performance does impact SQ greatly. 

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    6 hours ago, Sajid Amit said:

    I adore it as well! Come to think of it - given the shortage of reviews on Accuphase products on the internet - it could be a useful product to review, particulary for those in the two-channel world. 

    After Sony TA-ZH1ES, Phonitor2, the very much underrated Headphone output on an Accuphase C-2420 is the go to HP amp for a long time now. 

     

    Accuphase won't make a standalone HP amp, since their best is built into their integrated and pre-amps already.

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    2 hours ago, One and a half said:

    After Sony TA-ZH1ES, Phonitor2, the very much underrated Headphone output on an Accuphase C-2420 is the go to HP amp for a long time now. 

     

    Accuphase won't make a standalone HP amp, since their best is built into their integrated and pre-amps already.

    Agree. Accuphase amps are marvelous. I drove a Pass Labs setup and an Accuphase setup for my speaker rig and my Susvaras for quite sometime. Recently, I decided to sell the Pass and keep the Accuphase. 

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