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    Review | Stax SRS-3100 Electrostatic Headphone System

     

     

    Stax SRS-3100 Electrostatic Headphone System

    By George Graves

     

    Stax SRS-3100 Electrostatic Headphone System By George Graves Electrostatic headphones systems are generally very pricy. It’s just a fact of life. One can pay many thousands of dollars for just the 'phones alone, and whether one buys a budget pair, such as the excellent Stax SR-L300 (see my earlier review of February 21, 2020) which list for four-hundred and thirty US dollars or the flagship SR-009S which sell for a healthy $4500, it’s only half the system. One still has to posses a suitable amplifier/energizer for them because unlike dynamic 'phones, you cannot just plug a pair of true electrostatic headphones into the headphone jack of one’s amplifier or receiver.

     

    Amplifiers for electrostatic headphones are available from an almost dizzying array of manufacturers. Stax makes a range of them and Woo Audio makes a couple as does companies such as iFi, HiFiMan, Headamp, Linear Tube Audio, Mjolnir, SPL Phonitor, etc. All of these have one thing in common: they all cost more than a thousand US dollars and many are more than $5000! The best of these that this reviewer has tried is the combination of the $4500 Stax SR-009S 'phones at $4500 and the Linear Tube Audio’s (LTA) Z10E at $6500 or Stax’s own SRM-700s (solid state) or SRM-700T (tube) at around $3400 US. That’s as much as $11,000! Now while that is quite a listening experience, and a lottery-winning dream, it is something that most of us will never achieve. Even the combination of the Stax SR-009S and the Stax solid state or tube amp is almost $8000. There must be a better (as in more affordable) way to get the joys of electrostatic headphone listening that mere mortals like you and I can afford without either going to the poorhouse or being hauled into divorce court!

     

    Since about 2016, Stax has sold, to the Japanese and other foreign markets, a combination of an electrostatic headphone called the SR-L300 with a matching SR-252S amplifier as a complete system called the SRS-3100 for around the equivalent of a thousand US dollars. Unfortunately, up until recently, this combo was not available through Stax’s US distributor and was available here only through Amazon (and others) who deal directly from Japan. But understand, this is a Japanese market product and the amplifier came with a 12 Volt, 500 mA “wall-wart” power supply designed for Japanese domestic mains. The Japanese might use a mains plug that is compatible with US and Canadian electric systems, but the North American electric grid is nominally 120 VAC and the Japanese mains voltage is only 100 VAC. That might seem like a trivial difference, but believe me it isn’t. A 20% difference is way outside of normal design tolerances and can cause a 100 VAC wall-wart to run hot when connected to a 120 VAC mains. This could be a fire safety hazard if it wen’t undetected, not to mention the wall-wart would probably fail sooner than later. Of course, all one needed to do was to replace the supplied power supply with any 12 Volt supply that was designed for 120 VAC, as long as it has the proper current capability and the correct sized barrel connector with the correct polarity.

     

    But now, Stax has introduced the SRS-3100 system for the US Market. At $1140 US list price and $937.79 from Amazon ** and as low as $791.38 directly from Japan, the new SRS-3100 has the same excellent sounding SR-L300 headphones, but the SR-252S amplifier now has a US spec wall-wart supplied.

     

     

    Description

     

    The SR-252S basic specs are:

     

    • Frequency response: DC-35 KHz (limits unspecified)

    • Rated input level: 125mV 

    • Gain: 58dB.

    • Harmonic distortion: 0.01% or less (at 10.0Vr.m.s. at 1kHz output).
    • 
Input impedance: 50kΩ(RCA).

    • Input terminal: RCA×2.

    • Maximum Output voltage: 28.0Vr.m.s./1kHz.

    • Standard bias voltage: 580V DC.

    • Power consumption: 4W.

    • Dimension:132 mm [5.2”](W) × 38 mm [1.5”](H) × 132 mm [5.2”](D) (protruding portion (feet, RCA jacks and volume knob) not included).

    • Weight:540g (1.19 pounds).

     

     

    The Front Panel, from left to right, consists of a single Stax “Pro” headphone jack marked Pro Only. In the center of the panel is a single green LED power on light, and on the extreme right, there is a single black knob for power on/off and volume.

     

    On the rear, again from left to right, are four RCA female jacks: Left and right line audio inputs and left and right parallel audio out. On the right, is a power jack to accept the included 12 Volt power supply module.

     

    IOW, this is a basic no frills unit. It powers a single pair of Stax-style, pro spec headphones of any model and from any manufacturer. I have listened to this amp with a variety of electrostatic Stax compatible ‘'phones and all work fine. My favorite non-Stax pairing is the Jade 2 ‘'phones from HiFiMan.

     

    Circuit-wise, the SR-252S is a Class “A” amp using an emitter-follower output configuration. The SR-252S is designed using some of the latest low-noise FETs in the direct-coupled signal path (no capacitors) and the latest high-speed, high-voltage transistors for the bias voltage section of the amp. This makes the SR-252S a clear improvement over the similar (but no longer available) SRS-323.

     

    I was even able to make up a custom cord to run the SR-252S from one of those brick-sized 12 Volt emergency car starting batteries and it works perfectly in that configuration; allowing one to travel with the amp. While not as convenient as the Stax rechargeable SRM-D10 ($899 – US Price) portable electrostatic Earspeaker amp, it’s certainly a lot cheaper and better than nothing.

     

     

    How Does The SRS-3100 System Sound?

     

    Stax SRS-3100 HERO.jpgThis entry-level system sounds surprisingly good. I already knew of what the SR-L300s were capable* as I was able to audition them using my personal HiFiMan Jade2 amplifier as well as the new Stax SRM-700T (a tube amp) and the fabulous and fabulously expensive LTA Z10E. The 300s did not disappoint on any of them.

     

    Since the SRA-3100 is a complete system, unless one has access to other Stax pro system compatible headphones, it is pretty much impossible for most buyers to evaluate the 'phones and the amp separately. Luckily, during my tenure with the amp (I already owned the SRL-300 'phones) I had access to the aforementioned HiFiMan Jade2, the Stax SR-009S, and the Mr. Speakers Voce electrostatic 'phones. The Jade 2 system also afforded me the ability to audition all of these 'phones with the Jade2 amplifier. My conclusion is that the Jade2 amp and the Stax SR-252S amp are very similar in sound. Whether playing the Jade2 'phones or the Stax SR-L300 Lambdas, both amps pretty much disappear and the sound that one hears is mostly the headphones. There are a few differences in the amps, of course, but they really aren’t all that noticeable. The HiFiMan amp has slightly tighter bass (which I attribute to the Jade2’s bigger, more robust power supply). The Stax amp has a better high frequency presentation and is slightly quieter. But overall, I’d hate to live on the difference! The bottom line here is that the SR-252S is an excellent electrostatic headphone amplifier and sounds extremely good.

     

     

    Conclusion

     

    The joys of electrostatic headphone listening are many. The clarity, and lack of distortion coupled with the speed of the almost massless diaphragms in the 'phones make transients a fairly startling revelation! While not in the same league with electrostatics costing many thousands of dollars, if one’s headphone listening experience has, up to now, been limited to dynamic (magnetic) 'phones, even similar planar magnetic types, the Stax SRS-3100 system will be a real revelation. Be warned, this system is addicting and once you hear it, I can guarantee you that you will want to keep it. If one takes care of the 'phones themselves, their plastic build will last for many years as they are, as I said elsewhere, not in the least flimsy. The amplifier is worthy of just about any brand of compatible electrostatic headphone, not just Stax “Earspeakers”. In some markets, the SRS-252S is available stand-alone (in England, for instance, it sells for £450 or about US$600). Maybe Stax will see fit to offer the amp, by itself, in the US market as well. If you are in the market for new headphones, or even if you are just curious, I urge you to try the Stax SRS-3100, The system is better than the HiFiMan Jade2 system (the nearest price competitor) and considerably cheaper. I don’t see how you could go wrong.

     

    *An aside here, The Stax Lambda Series consists of three models: the SR-L300 ($430), the SR-L 500 Mk2 ($792), and the SR-L 700 Mk2 ($1569). They all use exactly the same electrostatic element. The differences between the three models are build and materials. In the SR-L300, the entire headphone is plastic. That means the ear-cups, the ear-cup yoke and all of the headband components are plastic (all the ear-cups are the same). The SR-L300 also has very thin artificial leather ear-pads and the oxygen-free cable is non-detachable. The SR-L500 Mk 2 'phones have cast metal yokes and a detachable cable. The artificial leather ear-pads are also thicker. Finally, the SR-L700s have an all-metal frame (except for the ear-cups of course), a detachable cable, and the thickest pads of all.

     

    I have read that the differences in sound are due almost entirely to the ear-pads. Apparently, The thicker they are, the better these 'phones sound. Ostensibly, if one bought a pair of SR-L700 ear-pads from Stax as replacements, and put them on a pair of SR-L300s, one would get the benefits (not to mention increased comfort) of the higher end model without the cost. There are also third party pads available that have been designed to fit the Lambda series, and they are much thicker than the stock ones. One other thing. Just because the SR-L300s are made entirely of plastic, one shouldn’t concern oneself with quality issues. The SL-R300s are well made, but as with anything plastic, they probably require a bit more care in handling than the two more pricy models, but they are anything but flimsy.

     

    - George

     

     

    More information from Stax - https://stax-international.com/products/srs-3100/

    Link to purchase - https://amzn.to/2YkOu72 **

     

    ** Using our links gives us a tiny kickback and doesn't cost you anything. We're experimenting with this, so please no phone calls, facsimiles, or telegrams just yet. 

     

     



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    Thanks George! As big of fan as I am of the RAAL-requisite SR1a, I'll always have a soft spot for Stax. I'll always listen to them at audio shows. Who knows, perhaps I need a pair of these as well :~)

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    Fabulous. I remember listening to Stax in the early 00s; you can't help feel that this is an iconic brand within the hifi - high-end audio community... 

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    Thanks, George!   As I PM'd a while back, I bought the SR-009S and SRM-700T on inspiration from your earlier review.  After eschewing headphones for years, I am completely addicted.  A good pair of Stax are captivating, revealing, ethereal in their presentation.  My only complaint is that my listening sessions often extend too damn long (haha).  

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    Great stuff, George! 

     

    I'm not so sure that plastic is a negative.  Back in the '70s, my wife bought me a pair of SRX-IIIs for a birthday present. They were truly spectacular and far ahead of anything I'd heard to that time - and they'd still be quite fine for true high end listening today.  But the real leather pads deteriorated in a few years, as did the foam beneath it. Replacements suffered the same fate, and I'm as far from a profuse perspirer as it gets.  After I replaced them for the third time in about 15 years, a friend offered me a ridiculous amount for them and I accepted it (with my wife's approval, of course). I'm not one to get buyer's or seller's remorse - I think this is the only deal I truly regret having done.

     

    But no other headphones have deteriorated like this for me.  I finally replaced the pads on my good old Sony MDRs a few years ago after more than a decade of use.  I've had Sennheisers for many years without needing new pads, and my AKG 701s have remained in beautiful shape since I bought them in May 2012.

     

    I have no doubt that these Stax are great - in fact, your review has me itching to check them out. At under a grand, they're great value.  Had I not just bought a new guitar in December, I'd probably get these tonight!  Thanks so much -

     

    David

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    9 hours ago, bluesman said:

    Great stuff, George! 

     

    I'm not so sure that plastic is a negative.  Back in the '70s, my wife bought me a pair of SRX-IIIs for a birthday present. They were truly spectacular and far ahead of anything I'd heard to that time - and they'd still be quite fine for true high end listening today.  But the real leather pads deteriorated in a few years, as did the foam beneath it. Replacements suffered the same fate, and I'm as far from a profuse perspirer as it gets.  After I replaced them for the third time in about 15 years, a friend offered me a ridiculous amount for them and I accepted it (with my wife's approval, of course). I'm not one to get buyer's or seller's remorse - I think this is the only deal I truly regret having done.

     

    But no other headphones have deteriorated like this for me.  I finally replaced the pads on my good old Sony MDRs a few years ago after more than a decade of use.  I've had Sennheisers for many years without needing new pads, and my AKG 701s have remained in beautiful shape since I bought them in May 2012.

     

    I have no doubt that these Stax are great - in fact, your review has me itching to check them out. At under a grand, they're great value.  Had I not just bought a new guitar in December, I'd probably get these tonight!  Thanks so much -

     

    David

    I didn’t say that plastic was negative, but I did say that it is more fragile, mechanically, than is, say, aluminum or steel.

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    15 hours ago, The Computer Audiophile said:

    Thanks George! As big of fan as I am of the RAAL-requisite SR1a, I'll always have a soft spot for Stax. I'll always listen to them at audio shows. Who knows, perhaps I need a pair of these as well :~)

    You won’t be disappointed, I feel fairly certain.

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    I write from Spain. I got the srs3100 in a store with a sale for € 876 (December 2020) They are connected to an RME adi2 fs (2020). They are the best headphones I have. I've done my research and as you say, George, the L's only differ in cosmetics. Maybe in the near future I will buy the L700 pads. My doubt is that such would handle the srm-252s some stax 007mkII. Although I like to have multiple headphones (HD600, rs1e grade, sr225e grade, hifiman sundara, akg371), I recognize that these are the best from any point of view.

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    8 hours ago, gmgraves said:

    I didn’t say that plastic was negative, but I did say that it is more fragile, mechanically, than is, say, aluminum or steel.

    I wasn’t challenging you, George.  But you do make multiple references to a general perception that products made of plastic are often believed (rightly or wrongly) to be of lesser quality and durability than those made of metal, leather, and other materials for which plastic is substituted, eg “Just because the SR-L300s are made entirely of plastic, one shouldn’t concern oneself with quality issues” and “as with anything plastic, they probably require a bit more care in handling than the two more pricy models”.

     

    FWIW, there are easily obtainable and readily usable plastics that far exceed aluminum and steel in strength.  For example, look at hemp plastics, from which Ford built a car in 1941 that was 30% lighter than the same car in steel. The plastic used is 25% stronger (compressive, tensile, and torsional as I recall) than the pressed sheet steel it replaced - the door panels could not be damaged with a sledgehammer.  Here’s a link to more info for those who are interested.

     

    Thanks again!

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    5 hours ago, bluesman said:

    I wasn’t challenging you, George.  But you do make multiple references to a general perception that products made of plastic are often believed (rightly or wrongly) to be of lesser quality and durability than those made of metal, leather, and other materials for which plastic is substituted, eg “Just because the SR-L300s are made entirely of plastic, one shouldn’t concern oneself with quality issues” and “as with anything plastic, they probably require a bit more care in handling than the two more pricy models”.

     

    FWIW, there are easily obtainable and readily usable plastics that far exceed aluminum and steel in strength.  For example, look at hemp plastics, from which Ford built a car in 1941 that was 30% lighter than the same car in steel. The plastic used is 25% stronger (compressive, tensile, and torsional as I recall) than the pressed sheet steel it replaced - the door panels could not be damaged with a sledgehammer.  Here’s a link to more info for those who are interested.

     

    Thanks again!

    Guess I should have said that plastic was “generally” more fragile than metal. Certainly, the fact that the Stax SR-L300 phones are entirely made of plastic has not hampered my enjoyment of them one iota, and I suspect that the plastics chosen by Stax are of a type that will last if some modicum of care is used. Of course if you have male rug-rats about, all bets are off. Your average 2-4 year old boy could destroy these in a matter of seconds given access to them!😉

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    7 hours ago, bluesman said:

    But you do make multiple references to a general perception that products made of plastic are often believed (rightly or wrongly) to be of lesser quality and durability than those made of metal, leather, and other materials for which plastic is substituted, eg “Just because the SR-L300s are made entirely of plastic, one shouldn’t concern oneself with quality issues” and “as with anything plastic, they probably require a bit more care in handling than the two more pricy models”.

     

    As always this is a matter of degrees.  Carbon fiber is plastic, acetate is plastic, a number of very cheap and fragile items are also plastic.  The inference of lacking material quality points directly at the weakest point no matter what part of the design or manufacturing was engineered to produce that failure.  Patina is also undesirable/nonexistent in plastic.  It chips, it shows scratches and can crack.  

     

    Fake leather pads and (eco-)foam are certainly an interesting tack from hard molded surfaces.  I don't think they were being considered in the bolded text.  Much can determine decomposition of items in contact with or leaching oils from skin.  I can't say if this was a common problem with that vintage model and replacement wear items.  Honestly I'm surprised you didn't attempt making pads, but life and careers take their own toll.    

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    On 1/28/2021 at 10:44 AM, bluesman said:

    I wasn’t challenging you, George.  But you do make multiple references to a general perception that products made of plastic are often believed (rightly or wrongly) to be of lesser quality and durability than those made of metal, leather, and other materials for which plastic is substituted, eg “Just because the SR-L300s are made entirely of plastic, one shouldn’t concern oneself with quality issues” and “as with anything plastic, they probably require a bit more care in handling than the two more pricy models”.

     

    FWIW, there are easily obtainable and readily usable plastics that far exceed aluminum and steel in strength.  For example, look at hemp plastics, from which Ford built a car in 1941 that was 30% lighter than the same car in steel. The plastic used is 25% stronger (compressive, tensile, and torsional as I recall) than the pressed sheet steel it replaced - the door panels could not be damaged with a sledgehammer.  Here’s a link to more info for those who are interested.

     

    Thanks again!

     

    Separate from the question of actual durability--Stax, like RAALs, give the definite sensation that they need to be handled with much more care than the more typical headphone design of, say, Focal Utopias and countless models from lower performance tiers.  I skip the recommended storage box, but I do cradle my Stax with two hands so they do not twist as I pick them up on the shelf.  The RAALs I demoed were even trickier.  I think this is a small sacrifice to get unparalleled sound quality--from either Stax or RAAL, depending on your taste--but it's a pretty obvious weakness.

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    1 minute ago, PeterG said:

     

    Separate from the question of actual durability--Stax, like RAALs, give the definite sensation that they need to be handled with much more care than the more typical headphone design of, say, Focal Utopias and countless models from lower performance tiers.  I skip the recommended storage box, but I do cradle my Stax with two hands so they do not twist as I pick them up on the shelf.  The RAALs I demoed were even trickier.  I think this is a small sacrifice to get unparalleled sound quality--from either Stax or RAAL, depending on your taste--but it's a pretty obvious weakness.

     

    Speaking of the RAALs, you can handle them like a bull in a china shop. Check out this video.

     

     

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    11 minutes ago, The Computer Audiophile said:

    Speaking of the RAALs, you can handle them like a bull in a china shop. Check out this video.

    Ha!  Great video--captures both the finickiness and the robustness simultaneously

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