Gramophone Dreams #31: Feliks Audio, Focal, Grado, JPS

My current romance with audiophile-quality headphones began in earnest with the appearance, about 10 years ago, of Audeze's LCD-2 planar-magnetic headphones—these predated the company's patented Fazor elements, said to guide the sound around the transducers' magnet structures—and Schiit Audio's original Asgard headphone amplifier. Together, these groundbreaking products rekindled my interest by making headphone listening into something new and exciting—something less distorted, more dynamic, denser, and more intensely lifelike than what I was getting from my speakers on the floor. Best of all, I could listen while lying in bed with my eyes closed.

My first headphone romance was back in the 1990s, when I realized that headphone drivers were high-sensitivity, high-impedance devices. That's when I started cutting off phone plugs and connecting Grado headphones to my 300B amps. My brain hit the next level of engagement about five years ago, when I encountered JPS Labs' Abyss AB-1266 headphones ($4495, now discontinued). These radical, off-the-head transducers gave me my first glimpse of what I now consider the leading edge of audio reproduction. Their ability to reproduce recordings as supernaturally clear apparitions remains unmatched in my experience.

The planar-magnetic Abyss 'phones had low-to-moderate sensitivity and presented amplifiers with a purely resistive, frequency-independent load of 48 ohms. They required only 0.32V/2.14mW to achieve a 90dB SPL. But they sounded most transparent and compelling when driven by exotic tube amplifiers, such as the $5899 Woo Audio WA5 amplifier I reviewed in 2016.

My WA5 review sample came equipped with Takatsuki Denki 300B power tubes ($1995/pair) and a $1250 premium parts upgrade. The WA5 was not only an outstanding speaker amp, it was also an ideal headphone amp, offering user-selectable levels of power, output impedance, and gain. It made more than enough voltage and current (10W into 8 ohms/500mW into 32 ohms) to drive any tough-to-drive headphone to its limits.

Now as then, fitted with all those options, the WA5 costs over $10,000. But who cares? It made music from the Abyss headphones, as well as the HiFiMan Susvaras ($6000), sound more eerily transparent—more genuinely real and there—than any reproduced music I had ever experienced anywhere, anytime, with any other transducers, period.

My Abyss/Woo experiences were so paradigm-shifting that they jacked up my brain to start looking for similar performance at a lower price—much lower, preferably. What if I could find headphones that would measure up to JPS Labs' flagship? What if I could find enough voltage, current, gain, and sheer tube radiance in a lower priced amplifier?

Full of hope, I began auditioning a wide range of headphones and amplifiers—only to be disappointed. I found myself wondering, what is the difference between a headphone amp and the stereo power amps I use for speakers? I couldn't think of much, except that headphone amps probably have less gain, definitely have less power, and use weaker but more highly regulated power supplies—those and, of course, their ¼" headphone jacks in place of a power amplifier's speaker binding posts.

Inspired, I called a friendly cable manufacturer and begged him to make me some balanced 4-pin XLR-to–banana plug cables so I could connect my headphones directly to the power amplifiers I had stacked in my studio.

During the years that followed, I scrutinized amps, DACs, and phono cartridges with JPS Labs' newer Abyss AB-1266 Phi (also $4495) and HiFi-Man's Susvara headphones. These head-mounted transducers served a noble purpose: They eliminated messy box speakers and my listening room from my assessments.

Grado GS3000E headphones
One summer's day, during an audio lunch at the Bedouin Tent in Brooklyn, I told Rich Grado of Grado Labs (also in Brooklyn) how I had just used headphones to double-check my conclusions for the Schiit Audio Aegir power amplifier review. He said he loved Schiit products, especially the new Aegir ($799), and seemed intrigued by the idea of using it with headphones. Being the smart, friendly man he is, Rich saw this as an opportunity to educate me about how revealing and low-distortion Grado Labs' best headphones could be. "So, Herb, if I make you up some balanced-wired GS3000e's with special 4-pin XLR-to–banana plug cables, would you try them on the Aegir?" I smiled like the Cheshire cat: "Only if you make the cables long enough to reach my desk."

1219gram.grado3000e1

The GS3000e's are Grado's flagship "Statement Series" headphone (footnote 1). At $1795, the GS3000e's look and feel more expensive than that price would suggest. In my hands and on my head, the GS3000e's gave the impression of being lighter than their actual, 16oz weight. Their waxed cocobolo wood looks and feels luxurious. More unusual, though, are the firm, deep, graduated (like horns!) foam ear pads, which I imagine must play an important role in the GS3000e's sound. Their 50mm dynamic drivers—designed by Grado Labs' owner and chief engineer, John Grado—are made of Mylar, powered by neodymium magnets, and manufactured in New York.

What I admire most about Grado Labs, next to their world-renowned cartridges and headphones, is the Grado family, both literal and extended: Everyone there takes extreme pride in being part of a genuine old-school family business. The GS3000e's that I'm writing about this month were built by Isela, who has worked for Grado for 25 years. She made these in the Sunset Park building the Grados have occupied since 1918.

Editorial disclaimer
These power amp/headphone experiments I am about to describe are not aberrant or unprecedented. I am not encouraging audiophiles to blow out their ears, explode their amps, or destroy expensive headphones. Rather, I'm continuing a practice that started decades ago when headphone aficionados began connecting AKG's legendarily hard-to-drive (73dB/mW) K1000 headphones to the outputs of the stereo amplifiers that would normally be used to power loudspeakers.

If you insist on duplicating my experiments and feel technically qualified to do so, you must proceed cautiously, and at your own risk. Use professionally constructed cables and experiment only with low-sensitivity (under 90dB/1mW) headphones. Make sure the amp is turned off when swapping cables—in fact it's a good idea to take the headphones off your head until it's evident, from the sound-bleed, that they won't blast your scalp onto the ceiling—and then bring the volume up slowly as you listen, holding your breath and praying for grace.

Using banana plugs, I connected the GS3000e headphones to the loudspeaker outputs of the Schiit Aegir amp. After streaming music through the Grados for 48 hours straight (but not listening), I put on my newest favorite LP: Golden Slumbers: Lullabies From Far and Near, by Pete Seeger, Oscar Brand, and others (LP, Caedmon TC 1399).

The success of a matchup like this depends in part on the gain and noise of the amp being used (under 20dB is best) and the sensitivity of the headphones; the 32 ohm, 99.8dB Grado GS3000e's are likely too sensitive for this type of use and the gain of the Aegir a little too high. When I first connected the Grados to the Aegir and started listening, I immediately noticed some 120Hz power-supply noise. When the music started—after I had turned up the volume—I could still hear a faint hiss in the background (footnote 2). That noise reduced transparency but not the startling realism of Pete Seeger's voice.

1219gram.grado3000e

Oscar Brand singing "Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star" and Pete Seeger singing "Hush Little Baby" sounded so vibrant and in-the-room solid that I laughed—and then wondered, could digital ever sound as lifelike as this 1972 LP? The Aegir-Grado combo played these captivating lullabies with such delightfully high levels of sonic purity that I had no choice but to play them over and over—for two days. With the Grados on the Aegir, my head became the recording microphone. There was nothing but measurable space between me and the folksinger's mouth.

Most amazing was how on "Hush Little Baby" I was looking down from the recording microphone (located at Seeger's mouth) to Pete's banjo, by his waist. That degree of image-locating could never happen with floor speakers.

Grado and First Watt J2
Did you ever think, while listening to a record, that you were hearing recorded detail that even the record producer never heard? I've had that feeling many times while using the Nelson Pass–designed First Watt J2 JFET amplifier to drive headphones. The J2 develops only 19.5dB of gain but makes 13Wpc into 4 ohms, 25Wpc into 8 ohms, and maybe even a few more watts into the Grado GS3000e's 32 ohms.


Footnote 1: Grado Labs: 4614 7th Avenue Brooklyn, NY 11220 Tel: (718) 435-5340. Web: www.gradolabs.com.

Footnote 2: The music got louder but not the noise, which shows that the noise was coming from the amplifier.

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COMMENTS
JRT's picture

If you want to adapt headphones and power amplifiers, and want to use transformers instead of Lpads (would still need to parallel a load resistor on most tube amps)...

Menno van der Veen has a toroidal transformer designed for use with headphones, can be used as an autoformer or isolation transformer, has numerous taps on the secondary, and exhibits wide bandwidth.

Here are the links.

https://mennovanderveen.nl/cms/index.php/nl/producten/other/vdv-800-v-hph-detail

https://mennovanderveen.nl/cms/images/producten/VDV-800-V-HPH/2018-10-30_VDV-800-V-HPH_specifications.pdf

tonykaz's picture

This seems like less than half of a Proper Review.

These Feliks Amps are Tube Roller designs. ( as are the Schiit Lyr & Valhalla )

Since Sonic quality of Tubes is a critical element in the performance of any Tube Amplification, how is this feature routinely ignored?

Tube sonic quality and it's availability for replacement & up-grading is the primary reason to invest in Tube Gear. Tube degrading is the painful down side of owning high performance tube gear. ( which is where UpScale comes in ).

Chasing exemplary Audio performance is the goal behind subscribing to and being informed by Stereophile's ears and curiosity.

The Engineers in Poland have designed a powerful Tube Rolling Amp, it gets reviewed in Stereophile by the Journal's wordiest Insight yet no mention of the Amps Great Quality ?

Tony in Venice

ps. I was anticipating a good deal more.

pbarach's picture

If you connect headphones directly to a power amp, how are you regulating the volume of the source??

JRT's picture
pbarach wrote:

If you connect headphones directly to a power amp, how are you regulating the volume of the source??

A control preamplifier is often utilized upstream of the amplifier, and that preamplifier most usually includes means of controlling volume level.

Alternatively, signal level can be attenuated in the digital domain, or in a combination of digital and analog domains, and depending on specifics of the system that combination can result in lower noise floor than attenuation in the analog domain alone. For good example of this I would point you to the RME ADI-2 Pro FS, and would also point you to the manual for that which has a section that explains the subject both well and succinctly.

In the manual at the link below, see section 34.20

https://www.archiv.rme-audio.de/download/adi2profs_e.pdf

Herb Reichert's picture

like I do with box speakers

hr

Bogolu Haranath's picture

HR could review the matching Focal Arche headphone amp ($2,500) with the Focal Clear and the Utopia headphones ...... HR has already reviewed, both the Focal Clear and Utopia headphones :-) .......

Bogolu Haranath's picture

HR could also review the Manley, The Absolute tube headphone amplifier ($4,500), with the various headphones he has :-) ........

Bogolu Haranath's picture

BTW ........ Focal Arche is designed by Micromega ........ HR favorably reported about Micromega M-One (around, $5,000), in his previous audio show report ....... May be HR could also review the Micromega M-One? :-) .......

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