Electrostatic headphones have been with us for a long time. The Japanese company Stax (not to be confused with the record label) started making stereophonic ES 'phones with the introduction of the SR-1 in 1960 and by the late sixties, Koss was making their flagship model, the ESP-9. I had a pair of these puppies and found them wanting. While Stax was selling a system consisting of a a pair of phones and a combination tube amplifier and a polarizing power supply designed to be fed audio from a line-level input, the Koss ESP-9s had only the power supply. The audio was supplied by one's power amplifier. One connected said amplifier to the Koss box and then connected one's stereo speakers to that box as well. To listen to phones, one interrupted one's feed to the speakers with a switch on the front of the Koss box. Not a great way to power headphones, especially if one was using heavy speaker cables. They would pull the light Koss energizer right off the table. The ESP-9s sounded OK (and I wonder if I would still find that to be the case?) but they were heavy, bulky and with their oil-filled soft vinyl ear cups and closed backs, they would be uncomfortably warm to wear after a while. Meanwhile Stax was making relatively light and comfortable open back ES 'phones, but they were pretty expensive (and still are). Today, Koss makes more headphone models than anyone, including the ESP-950, which is a light, open-backed and comfortable looking electrostatic headphone system. I've never seen a pair in the flesh, but they have good reviews and they are certainly less expensive than most of the competition at $999.
I have never been a great fan of headphone listening, preferring instead to do my listening with loudspeakers. Though I've always had several pairs around, I generally used them only when I needed to not disturb others or when mixing a recording. I still have a pair of Koss Pro-4A's for location recording because they are closed-back and have great ear sealing capability. They really attenuate the outside noise and let me concentrate on what's coming in through the microphones. Today, however, headphone listening has become a major mode of listening to music for several generations of music lovers. Spurred, I believe by the fact that most younger listeners get all their music from iPod-like players, pads and smart phones, the industry has seen an explosion of new and old companies producing headphones operating on a number of different principles from the traditional small speaker cone in each earcup to the isodynamic or planar magnetic principle to electrostatics. For many years in the 80's, 90's and two-thousands, if one wanted electrostatic headphones, one pretty much needed to go to Stax or to Koss as they were the only game in town.
Today, there are so many electrostatic headphones being made that it's hard to keep track of them. Many new companies have started building this type of 'phone at almost all price points from the low end characterized by Voza and Cybersound with their electret designs (starting around $170), to the Warwick Acoustics Sonoma ES headphone system at at $4995 all the way up to the HiFiMan's $50,000 “Shangra-La” headphone system.
HiFiMan's Jade II Electrostatic Headphone System
We are interested today in a new moderately priced full electrostatic headphone system from HiFiMan called the Jade II. HiFiMan's first product was, in fact, a short-lived ES design called the Jade, but Dr. Fang Bian soon decided to concentrate his efforts on planar magnetic or “isodynamic” designs instead and the original Jades fell by the wayside.
About two years ago, the company surprised the industry by introducing a state-of-the-art, cost is no object electrostatic headphone system dubbed the “Shangri-La”. This system came with a huge combination polarizing power supply and tube-based amplifier. The amplifier uses four “Western Electric” 300B tubes (two per channel) and four smaller driver tubes (6SN7s). The 300Bs are directly heated (no separate heater, the filament is the cathode) triodes which were developed in the late 1920's for long-distance telephone amplification and are still prized today by SET fans for their incredibly pure sound. HiFiMan says that there is nothing between the 300Bs and the headphones, no transformers and no capacitors, and thus one hears to pure sound of the these remarkable (and expensive) tubes.
Later, and for considerably less ($8000), the company released the “Shangri-La” Jr. Also tube-based, this amplifier used four matched 6SN7s to power the headphones.
Now the company has released the very affordable ($2499 US) Jade II electrostatic 'phone system. These phones are all solid state with FETs driving the audio to the 'phones.
The Jade II's arrived at my door (from China) in a very large outer box and two smaller inner-boxes. One box contained the headphone set and the other the amplifier/energizer unit. The headset is the by-now familiar HiFiMan roughly anatomical ear shape and has the newer, simpler headband configuration. I.E., the earcups do not swivel right to left as in earlier HiFiMan designs, only back and forth. The first thing one notices about the headphone set is how light it is when compared to HiFiMan's premium planar-magnetic offerings. At less than 13 ounces (365 grams), the Jade II's are among the lightest full-sized 'phones this reviewer has ever tried. This lightness leads to a wearer comfort that allows for multi-hour listening sessions without neck muscles getting stiff! This is a real advantage and when coupled with very comfortable ear pads comprised of a breathable material, it means no ear sweating when listening over a long term as well. The six-foot cord is terminated with the industry-standard five pin plug, which means that if one already has a pair of Stax headphones one can use Jade II's as an extra pair of 'phones with that system's energizer/amplifier. One can also use the headset with the Woo Electrostatic headphone energizer/amplifiers and energizers as well as the iFI “Pro iESL” energizer. For this reason HiFiMan sells the Jade II headset separately, for $1399.
While the Jade II's headset is light, the amplifier/energizer is not. At 14.3 lbs or 6.5 KG, it consists of a black anodized, CNC machined outer surround and an oval inner case nestled inside. The overall measurements are 10.9” X 10.6” X 4.6” (276mm X 270mm X116mm). The amp has two standard electrostatic headphone connectors on the front along with a push-button on-off switch, a push switch to select between balanced and non-balanced inputs and a stepped volume control which controls both pairs of headphone jacks simultaneously. There is no provision for balance between right and left nor are the two output jacks individually adjustable for volume.
On the back is an IEC power cable connector and a pair of XLR balanced inputs flanked by a pair of gold-plated unbalanced RCA jacks.
Connecting The Jade II's to My Audio System
As mentioned, the Jade II energizer/amplifier can be connected to one's system by either unbalanced RCAs or via balanced XLRs. Since I have XLR outputs on my DAC (a Schiit Yggdrasil) and there is a definite advantage to having the headphone's controls next to my listening chair (on the other side of the room from the equipment shelves) I decided to use XLRs to connect my system to the Jade II. I have lots of XLR mike cables of different lengths and most are color-coded right and left with red and white tape wrapped around the connector barrels on both ends, so I decided to “borrow” a pair from my recording stash that was long enough to stretch from my DAC around the periphery of my listening room to a table beside my listening chair. All of my digital sources, ranging from the audio stream served from my computer in my office, to Internet radio from my Logitech Squeezebox Touch to CDs and SACDs and audio Blu-Rays played on my Oppo UDP-205 “media center” as well as DAT tapes played on my Otari DAT recorder lead to the Yiggy. This is done to get the most consistent digital sound from all sources. Thus connected, I could play everything (save LPs) into the Jade II amplifier and control the volume from where I sit. The only problem with this scheme is that the Yiggy does not have a remote control (and believe me it needs one!), but I solved that problem with a broomstick! I found that a broomstick would just reach the Yiggy's source selector button if I leaned forward in my listening chair, so I went to the home depot and bought a length of wooden dowel to use to select which digital input I wanted! I keep it next to my chair at all times.
Listening to the Jade II's
Anyone buying a pair of Jade II's should not expect great sound when you put them on for the first time. Fresh out of the box, the 'phones sound very restricted in dynamic contrasts as well as presenting a fairly narrow soundstage. These phones definitely need about 100 hours of “breaking-in” before sounding their best. The reason for this is that the sound producing element is an extremely thin diaphragm of some proprietary plastic material that is stretched very tightly over the supporting frame between the two perforated stator plates. This diaphragm must stretch a bit to loosen it enough to have the travel necessary to give the best sound. My advice is to turn on a digital radio station and pack the headset in pillows so you don't have to listen to the 'phones as they break-in over four or five days of constant playing. Just let them play for about a week before doing any serious evaluation of their sound.
With the Jade II's fully settled-in, the first thing I noticed was the absolute lack of distortion of any kind. Most of us are so used to the types of distortion produced by most transducers, that we don't even think about it. We don't really notice it at all... until it's not there anymore! This is especially true of low frequency distortion, which most of us just take for granted because it is present in greater or lesser extents in virtually all cone based woofers. The Jade II's follow in the general HiFiMan tradition of having great bass extension. HiFiMan's published specs for the Jade II's is that they go down to 7 Hz (although this is without the limits being defined). Irrespective of how many dB down these 'phones are at 7 Hz, in the low 20 Hz region the bass is prodigious for a pair of headphones. More than just the quantity of bass present, the Jade II's have exceptionally clean bass. Listening to Saint-Saens Symphony #3 in C minor, OP78, the “Organ” symphony with Micheal Stern and the Kansas City Symphony (Reference Recordings RR-136), I was struck with not only the power and depth, but the clean delineation of the full C Major chord when the organ sounds-in in the second movement. I know this work well, yet I was still startled by the pedal chord when it started. Even with good subwoofers, capable of shaking the house foundations, I have never heard the organ work in this composition with such authority and cleanliness of presentation. Most headphones tend to double at these frequencies, especially if the low frequency notes are very loud. The Jade II's do not double and maintain a linear pistonic action to the very bottom of whatever is recorded.
Transient attacks are what one should expect from a small electrostatic transducer, but rarely hears. I have a recording that I made with a Zoom H6 hand-held recorder using MS microphone module that comes with the recorder. The recording was 24-bit/96 KHz and was made at a local night club. It consisted of solo “flamenco” guitar and an elaborate percussion ensemble. Through my hybrid electrostatic speakers and through my numerous pairs of dynamic headphones, the rim shots on the snare drum are, indeed, impressive, but through the Jade II's they are nothing less than electrifying! The attack is startling and the rim shot stops as quickly as it starts. I have listened to this recording countless times through my HiFiMan “Edition -X, v.2” planar magnetic phones and they didn't have the realistic spped or impact of the Jade II's. I put this down to the ultra thin (less than one micron) diaphragm that HiFiMan employs. This all but massless membrane is able to accelerate and stop much faster than would phones employing more conventional diaphragm materials such as thin Mylar. The Edition X's, I believe, are slowed down by the need to have a current-carrying “voice grid” applied to the diaphragm. So, irrespective of how thin the diaphragm material, there is going to always be the added mass of the voice grid. Electrostatic phones' diaphragms, which have a molecule-thick conductive coating “vacuum sputtered” evenly over their entire surface, don't need this extra mass and thus can accelerate and stop much faster.
Midrange and High Frequency Performance
As good as the Jade II's are at the bottom of the audio spectrum, and as good as they are in the transient response department, the 'phones present a basically uncolored midrange as well. Brass instruments sound just right and have the bite one associates with the real thing; something that is rarely present with the best loudspeakers, much less headphones. Also, I have never heard cleaner highs. The advertised Jade II high frequency extension,which is said to reach out to 90 KHz (!) is hardly relevant to the reproduction of music, but it does speak for a smooth and extended treble region, free of the peakiness often encountered with dynamic phones as they reach their high-frequency resonant point. Obviously a headphone system that has response out to 90 KHz is going to have a diaphragm resonance that is way above the audible band pass.
Soundstage and Imaging
Finally, I'd like to comment on soundstage. This may seem like a strange thing to discuss when evaluating headphones because we've all come to expect any imaging produced by a pair of headphones to be inside of our heads. I expected no more or no less when I first donned this pair of Jade II's and to be honest, I was not disappointed. The soundstage was indeed in my head just as I expected. But, after giving them a hundred hours of break-in, I was flabbergasted to find that these phones actually image in a much more speaker-like manner than any headphone set that I had ever experienced before! For the first time the image was outside of my head and in front of me. I realize that it's an illusion, but it is a very satisfying one! If one keeps one's head relatively still, the soundstage that one hears is stable with great image specificity and a wide deep presentation. You'll not be fooled into thinking that you are listening to stereo speakers, But it will be such a breath of fresh air after living with ordinary headphones, that you won't really care.
At $2499 (US) there is no doubt that the HiFiMan Jade II electrostatic headphone system is a bargain. The nearest quality electrostatic competitor is the Stax combination of the SR-007A MKII at a bit over $1800 (from Amazon) and the matching Stax SRM-007TA SRM-007TII driver unit/headphone amplifier at slightly more than $1400 (again from Amazon and imported by them directly from Japan as are the headphones) for a grand total of around $3200. Even though this price isn't bad, considering that planar-magnetic units from HiFiMan, Audeze, and others can cost far more than that, Still, the Jade II's modest price is very tempting, especially in light of their stellar performance.
Since the Jade II's use the same headset connector as do Stax headphones, if one needs an extension cord, one can purchase the 6 Ft extension for Stax phones, but be advised that such an extension is over a hundred dollars from Amazon. XLR terminated microphone cable is much cheaper and allows one to place one's Jade II system next to one's listening position, obviating the need for an expensive headphone extension.
With the introduction of the Jade II electrostatic headphone system from HiFiMan, the performance bar for high quality electrostatic headphones has been raised and simultaneously, the price bar has been lowered. One can spend much more that the $2499 for a pair of magnetic phones that sound nowhere near as good as the Jade II's. Keeping in mind that they won't sound their best until until they have about 100 hours under their belt, one simply cannot go wrong making the HiFiMan Jade II headphones one's next high-end expenditure.
Jade II Electrostatic Headphone and Amplifier ($2,499)
Jade II Electrostatic Headphone only ($1,399)
Electrostatic Headphone Amplifier only ($1,599)
Jade II Product Page
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