Recommended Components: 2019 Fall Edition Headphones

Headphones & Headphone Accessories

Editor's Note: We strongly recommend those interested in headphone listening visit our sister website, www.InnerFidelity.com, which is edited by Rafe Arnott.

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Audeze LCD-4: $3995
For their new LCD-4 headphones, Audeze uses a variation on their tried-and-true planar-magnetic technology, with a vanishingly thin diaphragm of aluminized film suspended between a push-pull array of Double Fluxor magnets (flux density: 1.5 teslas) and impedance-matching Fazor waveguides on the outer surfaces of the earcups. The supplied cable has left and right mini-XLRs for the earcups and a ¼" plug at the other end, with no adapter supplied: the LCD-4s are not intended for use with telephones. Used mostly in single-ended mode, the LCD-4s impressed JA as bass "champions" that "spoke cleanly and evenly." JA also wrote that the new Audezes "excelled in the midrange," and noted that he enjoyed the LCD-4s' "sweet" treble performance more than Tyll Hertsens did in his own review of the LCD-4s for InnerFidelity.com. Writing from his test bench, JA also noted an impedance of 156 ohms (as opposed to the specified 200 ohms) and a very benign electrical phase angle, making for an easy-to-drive pair of 'phones (but beware their lower-than-average sensitivity). The verdict: "The best-sounding headphones I've heard in the 45 years since I bought my first high-end cans." (Vol.39 No.7 WWW)

Audeze LCD-X: $1699
These large, luxurious, circumaural headphones have planar-magnetic drive-units with a thin-film diaphragm energized by arrays of powerful neodymium magnets on both sides. They employ Audeze-patented Fazor elements, claimed to guide and manage the flow of sound in the headphone. The circular drivers are housed in polished, black-anodized aluminum earpieces cushioned with generously sized foam pads covered in lambskin or leather-free microsuede. Adjustment is via notched, chromed metal rods attached to each earpiece, which fit into the sprung, leather-clad headband. The LCD-Xes produced a seductive, compelling overall sound, with precise imaging, rich mids, smooth highs, and clean bass, said JA. Compared to his longtime reference Sennheiser HD650s, the LCD-Xes resolved more detail, produced the more convincing sense of recorded ambience, and provided deeper bass. "Highly recommended!" JA concluded. "Creator Special" edition (without travel case) costs $1199. (Vol.37 No.3, Vol.41 No.6 WWW)

Audeze LCDi4: $2495
Essentially a cost-no-object version of Audeze's iSine in-ear headphones, the LCDi4 uses planar-magnetic drivers: ultrathin, 30mm diaphragms bonded to the company's patented Uniforce voice-coils (in which a slow-deposited metal layer is micro-etched to form the signal coil) suspended within the field of a Fluxor magnet array. Each driver is enclosed in a roughly hexagonal magnesium casing and coupled to the user's ear by means of a tapered tube, the end of which is fitted with an interchangeable eartip; spare eartips of different sizes are supplied, prompting Audeze to claim for the LCDi4 a "universal fit." The impedance is 35 ohms, and a 105dB sensitivity is claimed. Used with the Pass Laboratories HPA-1 headphone amplifier, the LCDi4s impressed JA with a combination of low-frequency clarity and bass extension "unexpected for in-ear headphones"—and when driven by an Ayre Acoustics QX-5 Twenty DAC, the Audezes offered spatial realism from binaural recordings and further impressed with their "lack of mid-treble aggression." Also lacking was any useful degree of isolation from external sounds, making the LCDi4s unsuitable for private listening in public spaces. (Vol.40 No.12 WWW)

Ayre Acoustics Codex: $1795
Described by its designer, the late Charley Hansen, as "deliberately built to the lowest price point we've ever done," the Ayre Codex D/A headphone amplifier uses a 32-bit ESS DAC chip to provide up to 384kHz PCM or DSD128 resolution via its asynchronous USB input. (An optical input is also provided but is not compatible with all devices.) Both balanced and unbalanced headphones and headphone cables are supported. JI wrote, of listening to the Codex through his Audeze LCD-X headphones, "there was plenty of detail to go around, as well as the ability to hear into the space with the performers." He elaborated: "Probably the best words to describe the Codex's aural character are neutral and detailed—and add Control, with a capital C." Writing from his test bench, JA observed that "the Codex offers excellent measured performance." (Vol.39 Nos.6, 7 & 9 WWW)

Chord Mojo: $539 $$$
Fans of James Cotton and Muddy Waters will be dismayed to learn that the name of Chord's latest D/A headphone amplifier is a contraction of mobile joy. But that is likely to be the only disappointment associated with the chunky little Mojo—which, like Chord's more expensive Hugo TT, eschews an off-the-shelf DAC chip in favor of its own proprietary code, implemented with a field-programmable gate array (FPGA). The Mojo even runs the same Rob Watts–designed digital filter as its dearer stablemate, and its USB input is compatible with PCM up to 192kHz and DSD up to 11.29MHz (DSD256). No less striking are its three matte-surface glass control balls, which change color to indicate various functions and statuses. Used by JA with a variety of partnering gear—the Audeze LCD-X headphones suited it especially well—the Mojo "combined authoritative, well-defined low frequencies with smooth, detailed highs and excellent soundstaging." JA the measurer confirmed "performance that is superb for a portable device, and would not be out of place in a high-priced conventional D/A processor." But the last word goes to JA the listener: "Wow!" (Vol.39 No.2 WWW)

Focal Clear: $1499
Described by HR as "Focal's newest, handsomest, most comfortable, and, perhaps, most musically satisfying headphones," the Clears are dynamic, circumaural, and open-backed, built on a solid aluminum yoke with a soft leather headband. They use the same 40mm aluminum-magnesium domes and formerless voice-coils as the 33%-less-expensive Focal Elears, yet here those coils are pure copper rather than copper-clad aluminum; their impedance is 55 ohms, their sensitivity 104dB—clearly drivable by an iPhone. Three cords are included: one with an XLR for balanced use, one with a ¼" plug, and one with a 3.5mm plug. According to HR, with the Clears, "large-scale dynamics operated in marvelous ways," and they avoided the occasional glare experienced with Focal's flagship 'phones, the Utopias. For pure listening pleasure, the "absolutely comfortable, museum-quality-beautiful" Clears are Herb's "real-world reference." "Springy cord is a hassle to manage," notes JI. (Vol.41 No.6 WWW)

Focal Elear: $999
Offered as a comparatively affordable alternative to Focal's Utopia headphones ($3999), the Elears are made of slightly less costly materials—most notably an aluminum-magnesium alloy instead of beryllium for the domes of its drivers, and aluminum instead of carbon fiber for the yoke. As HR discovered, "both Focal models have delicate, beautifully rendered trebles, and . . . both sort out complex music better than any of their competitors." But he heard from the Elears a slightly thicker sound in the lower midrange and upper bass—qualities that did not always work against the less expensive 'phones: the humbler dome "adds an extra, enjoyable measure of tonal color that's absent from the more pure and empty-sounding Utopias." (Vol.39 No.12, Vol.41 No.6 WWW)

Focal Utopia Reference: $3999
The fully open-backed, circumaural Focal Utopias are designed around proprietary beryllium-dome full-range drivers that, uniquely, have no voice-coil formers: each coil is fastened directly to its dome, in a crease near its surround. The yokes are made of carbon fiber, and the earcups and headband are covered with lambskin. HR described the Utopias as capable of producing "a gut-level realism that is rare in high-end audio," adding that the Focals are "lightning-fast, extremely open, and profoundly uncolored." (Vol.39 No.10, Vol.41 No.6 WWW)

HiFiMan HE1000 V2: $2999
Claimed to have the largest and lightest diaphragms in the history of headphones, the planar-magnetic HiFiMan HE1000 V2 builds on the strengths of the original HE1000, offering lighter weight (14.8 vs 16.9oz) and sturdier cables, plus ear-shaped earpads of thicker "pleather." Impedance is 35 ohms, sensitivity 90dB. According to HR, the V2s are "extremely transparent, and excel at imaging and spatiality." No less important, Herb noted, was that the V2s "did serpentine flow better than any headphones I know." He added that their low sensitivity "never once let the music hesitate, or lack for sparkle or momentum." Icing on a good-sounding cake: the V2s impressed HR as being "way more comfortable than any Audeze model." (Vol.40 No.4 WWW)

HifiMan Shangri-La Jr: $8000 with energizer
For less than one-sixth the price of HiFiMan's flagship electrostatic headphone set, the Shangri-La ($50,000, including amplifier/energizer), you can own the Shangri-La Jr, whose companion amp/energizer uses a quartet of 6SN7 dual-triode tubes and provides two output ports for shared listening. HR praised the Jr for presenting and preserving vocal tones and textures, and noted its uncanny way with subtle details: "I heard the full Doppler effect of cars shifting gears as they passed [the recording venue]," he wrote, declaring that "this level of vibrant resolution makes the Shangri-La Jrs' $8000 price seem reasonable." The headphones are available separately for $4000, the amp/energizer for $5000. (Vol.42 No.6 WWW)

HiFiMan Susvara headphones: $6000
The HiFiMan Susvaras are over-the-ear headphones with planar-magnetic drivers, built around gold-coated Nanometer Grade diaphragms—their thinnest ever, the company claims. The drivers also use HiFiMan's Stealth Magnet grids, the individual magnetic strips of which have rounded edges to reduce interference with sound output. The Susvaras weigh 15.9oz, and offer an impedance of 60 ohms and a sensitivity of only 83dB. (Vol.40 No.12 WWW)

JPS Labs Abyss AB-1266 Phi TC: $4995-$7995
For those who regard the JPS Abyss AB-1266 Phi headphones as prohibitively expensive, HR offers perspective by suggesting that they, like such "notorious legacy products" as the Wilson Audio WAMM loudspeaker of 1983 and the Audio Note Ongaku amplifier of 1993, "exist in categories of price and performance all their own." The Abyss 'phones are built into black-anodized aluminum frames, and use single-magnet planar-magnetic drivers, separated from the wearer by rotatable lambskin earpads held in place with magnets. Specs include an 88dB sensitivity and an impedance of 42 ohms. After listening to a Schoenberg piece through the Abysses driven by the Woo WA5 headphone amp, HR observed: "I scribbled the phrase perfectly natural several times. I never felt more kindred or connected to Schoenberg." He also suggested that the Abysses "delivered detail and soundstage images with an uncannily visual—nay, infinite—depth of field." (Vol.40 No.8 WWW)

Linear Tube Audio MZ2: $1235
Designed by David Berning and built in Washington, DC by Linear Tube Audio, the MZ2 (originally called the microZOTL2.0, ZOTL standing for Zero-hysteresis Output TransformerLess) is a 1Wpc integrated amplifier that doubles as a headphone amp and triples as a line-level preamp. Each channel uses a 12AT7 dual-triode tube for voltage gain and phase inversion, while the two halves of a 6SN7 dual-triode comprise a single-tube, push-pull, class-A, OTL output stage. HR delighted in the sound of the microZOTL driving DeVore O/93 and Zu Soul Supreme speakers—with the latter, he said, "musical flow seemed more slippery and alive, like a trout in a clear mountain stream"—and with JH Audio Roxanne headphones, he said, "the midrange was pure and right." And "because of its radical transparency," says HR, the microZOTL2.0 "would hold its own" as a line stage "in a cost-no-object system." According to JA, while the microZOTL2.0's test-bench performance wasn't without wrinkles, "this unusual design measured well in some respects, particularly in how its linearity was not affected by the load impedance." (Vol.39 No.6 WWW)

Pass Labs HPA-1: $3500
Also usable as a line-level preamp—it has a pair of single-ended output jacks (RCA) to allow just that—the Pass Labs HPA-1 is a perfectionist-quality headphone amplifier that uses a MOSFET-based current-feedback amplifier to drive headphones ranging from 15 to 600 ohms. Its single headphone-output jack, also single-ended, is a Neutrik locking jack sized for ¼" plugs. After auditioning the HPA-1 with a variety of 'phones from Audeze, AudioQuest, and Master & Dynamic, JA declared that, "in bass quality and authority, and in midrange transparency, the Pass Labs HPA-1 is without peer." JA also brought the HPA-1 to his test bench, where it stood up to everything he could throw at it (well, not literally), prompting the appraisal: "superb audio engineering." (Vol.39 Nos.7 & 9 WWW)

Sennheiser HD 650: $499.95
The HD 650s are an evolution of Sennheiser's very successful HD 600 open-back dynamic headphones, claimed to provide superior results due to hand-selected parts with closer tolerances and the use of a specially developed acoustic silk for the driver diaphragms. Compared to the Grado SR325i, the Sennheisers sounded richer but slightly darker. JM found that their very effective seal created a resonant cavity that produced "bass that is both quite deep and a trifle indistinct." JA's new reference cans. Compared to the Audeze LCD-Xes, the HD650s had a similar overall sound, but lacked bass control, detail resolution, and ambience retrieval, said JA. (Vol.28 No.6, Vol.31 No.9, Vol.37 No.3 WWW)

Shure KSE1200SYS electrostatic in-ear headphone system: $1999
A less-expensive alternative to Shure's KSE1500 in-ear headphone system ($2999—see elsewhere in "Recommended Components"), the KSE1200SYS uses the same electrostatic transducers, driven by an amplifier/power supply with only a single (analog) input. Acoustic output is coupled to the user's ear via a small tube, covered with a detachable Soft Flex rubber sleeve to seal the ear canal. (A supplied Fit Kit provides pairs of sleeves in different sizes—something for everyone!) The accompanying amplifier is about the size of a deck of cards, and sports a 3.5mm analog input jack, a volume control, and a Lemo connector for the Kevlar-shielded cable, which carries the transducers' polarizing voltage alongside the high-voltage (+/-200V) audio signal. JA praised the pocketability of the new system's slightly smaller amp, not to mention the comfort of those Soft Flex sleeves. More important, he noted the "superb clarity" of the Shure system's midrange and its "extended, weighty low frequencies," adding that the KSE1500s' slightly bright balance was nowhere to be heard from the KSE1200SYS. JA's conclusion: "a must-hear product." (Vol.42 No.3 WWW)

Shure KSE1500: $2999
Unlike other in-ear monitors, most of which have balanced-armature drive-units, Shure's KSE1500s use electrostatic drivers: In each monitor, a virtually massless diaphragm is suspended between two stators. Because diaphragms and stators alike are operated at high voltages, the Shures must be used with their companion amplifier (included in the $2999 price), which doubles as a DAC whose USB input accepts data from Macs and PCs, as well as from iOS and Android devices. Word lengths of 16, 24, and 32 bits are accepted, as are sampling rates of 44.1 and 96kHz. With their standard earpiece sleeves, the KSE1500s had a bit of trouble fitting JA's wider-than-average ear canals (happily, they're supplied with other sleeves, the largest of which did the trick), but the Shures had no trouble delighting him with their clear, weighty bass reproduction and the "superbly natural tonalities" of their reproduction of women's voices. His verdict: "Shure's KSE1500 is the finest-sounding in-ear monitor system I have experienced." (Vol.39 No.11 WWW)

Sony Signature MDR-Z1R: $1999.99
An example of the sort of very-low-distortion headphone design that HR calls the studio sound aesthetic, the MDR-Z1Rs are part of Sony's new Signature line, alongside their Signature TA-ZH1ES DAC–headphone amp (also profiled in this edition of "Recommended Components"). They include Sony's latest 70mm drive-unit, which features a 30µm-thick magnesium dome surrounded by an edge-ringlet of aluminum-coated, liquid-crystal polymer. (Impedance is 64 ohms.) These are built into earpieces comprising outer domes of chromium-plated stainless-steel mesh and inner domes of "breathable" Japanese paper, the latter said to act as an acoustic filter to damp the drivers' back waves. Leather and sheepskin respectively cover the headband and earpads, and two cables are provided: a 3m single-ended cable fitted with a 3.5mm plug, and a 1m balanced cable with the special 4.4mm plug that mates with the Signature TA-ZH1ES, which HR used for "about a third of" his listening. Herb praised the MDR-Z1Rs as being not only "the most natural-fitting, fatigue-free" headphones he's ever used, but also, "by far, the most naturally transparent and open-sounding of any closed-back headphones I know." (Vol.40 No.6 WWW)

Sony Signature TA-ZH1ES: $2199.99
Inside the Signature TA-ZH1ES headphone amplifier is a DAC whose performance stretches all the way to 32-bit/768kHz PCM, plus native DSD up to 22.4MHz. But it's the Sony's outside—specifically, its front panel—that most shoppers will notice first: a row of six outputs, including three balanced (XLR4, 4.4mm JEITA, and separate left-and right-channel 3.5mm jacks) and two single-ended (6.3mm and 3.5mm). In his listening tests, HR found that the TA-ZH1ES "excelled at bass drive, boogie, and bounce," and sounded "darker but no less transparent than either the Linear Tube Audio microZOTL2.0 or Pass Labs HPA-1 headphone amps." He also praised the Sony for a "hypnotizing, deep-sea, looking-into-the-abyss spatial perspective that got darker and denser as it descended (or ascended) into infinite space." (Vol.40 No.6 WWW)

Woo Audio WA5 (2nd Gen): $5899
Described as a line-level integrated amplifier for headphones and loudspeakers (the latter must be able to get by on just 10Wpc into 8 ohms), the Woo WA5 uses, per channel, one 300B triode tube running in single-ended mode and driven by one 6SN7 dual-triode tube; a pair of 5U4G rectifier tubes straighten out the AC in this two-chassis, dual-mono, hand-wired design. Switches abound: for selecting between high and low output power, high-and low-impedance headphones, and headphones and loudspeakers. After harnessing the Woo to a variety of loads, HR declared it "a Darwinian step toward a new renaissance of audio humanism." It also sounds good—especially with less-sensitive, higher-impedance headphones such as Audeze's LCD-4s, which, according to Herb, the Woo drove "in a more satisfying fashion than any other headphone amplifier I've heard." After measuring the WA5, JA expressed reservations about its suitability as a driver of loudspeakers, but conceded that, for a single-ended amplifier, the Woo "performed better than I expected." (Vol.40 No.1 WWW)

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AudioQuest DragonFly Red: $199.95 $$$
AudioQuest DragonFly Black: $99.95 $$$
Descended from the company's popular DragonFly USB D/A headphone amplifier of 2012—a product whose price began as $249 before dropping, in 2014, to $149 with the release of the revised DragonFly v1.2—the new DragonFly Black and DragonFly Red embody a number of technical refinements. In particular, Black and Red alike use as their controller the Microchip PIC32MX, in place of the Texas Instruments TAS 1020B of their predecessors. That change allows the new AudioQuest DACs to use 77% less current than their forebears, which in turn makes them suitable for use with iPhones, iPads, and other portables. For the DragonFly Black, output voltage has now dropped from 1.8 to 1.2V, but in the DragonFly Red—which also has the distinction of an ESS Sabre 9016 DAC chip with 64-bit digital volume control—output voltage is bumped up to a healthy 2.1V, which AQ suggests better suits it to drive difficult headphone loads. (For use in driving the line-level input of a home playback system, both new DragonFlys require a cable with a 3.5mm stereo plug at one end and a stereo pair of male RCA plugs at the other.) AD remarked on the Black's greater openness and clarity over the original DragonFly, as well as its decreased bass weight, the latter associated with less boom with some recordings but less pleasant whomp with others. That said, AD wrote of preferring "the new DAC's superior musical incisiveness." The new Red, too, had less bass richness than the old DragonFly, but even "surer reproduction of pitches and timing." Yet when used with headphones, neither of the new DragonFlys was the least bit lacking in bass weight—and the Red's superior music-making was even more apparent. AD tried using the Black with his iPhone but, given the less-than-stellar sound, just didn't see the point—and surely wouldn't recommend buying the twice-as-expensive Red if use with a smartphone is all the consumer has in mind. After a false start occasioned by an unforeseen interaction between JA's test equipment and the Red's headphone amp, both DragonFlys generally acquitted themselves well on the test bench, though neither was at the head of the class in terms of jitter rejection. As of June 2017, the DragonFlys are MQA-capable. See KM's Pro-Ject review in Vol.42 No.4. (Vol.39 No.9 WWW)

AudioQuest NightOwl Carbon: $399.95
According to HR, at the opposite end of the spectrum from Sony's MDR-Z1R headphones and their Apollonian studio sound aesthetic are AudioQuest's more Dionysian NightOwl Carbons, which use the same drivers as AQ's NightHawks, but in aperiodically vented rather than semi-open earpieces. (That driver is a 50mm biocellulose dome with a rubber surround.) The 99dB-sensitive, 25 ohm NightOwls also have the same "liquid wood" earcups, although here they sport not a faux-burled wood finish but dark-gray metalflake paint. How do the $699.99 NightOwl Carbons stack up against the $499.99 NightHawks? According to HR, "If you're one of those who thought the original NightHawks sounded too dark, you can now rejoice: properly broken-in, the NightOwls beguilingly straddled the lines between dark and light, hard and soft." Herb's conclusion: "If I were now forced to live with just one set of headphones, they would be AudioQuest's NightOwl Carbons." (Vol.40 No.6 WWW)

HifiMan Jade 2: $2499 with energizer
A successor to the Jade—HiFiMan's first electrostatic headphone set—the Jade II weighs just 12.9oz (365gm) and comes with a solid-state amplifier/energizer. HR found the Jade II's sound to be "cool, clean, and well sorted" but lacking in the bass depth, grainlessness, and clarity of the company's more expensive electrostatic headphone set, the Shangri-La Jr. Using the Shangri-La Jr's tubed amp/energizer to drive the Jade IIs restored some, but not all, of the charms of the higher-priced set, HR noted. The Jade II headphones are available separately for $1399, their solid-state amp/energizer for $1599. (Vol.42 No.6 WWW)

iFi Audio Pro iDSD D/A processor/headphone amplifier: $2499 (Name change ?)
See "Digital Preocessors."

ifi Pro iCAN: $1799
Despite being burdened with "switchy doodads" such as a switch that allows the user to select between Solid-State, Tube, and Tube+ sounds, an analog-domain bass-correction system, and a choice of three different 3D Holographic Matrix circuits, the fully solid-state iFi Pro iCAN headphone amplifier had some features that HR did like, including three different levels of gain and choices of single-ended or balanced inputs and outputs. Better still, Herb found that "the Pro iCAN played recordings in an unusually appealing manner." In fact, he found that with every associated D/A processor he tried, "the Pro iCAN was never sonically outclassed, and never the weak link." That said, as good as it is, the iFi headphone amp did not impress HR as offering the ultimate in value. (Vol.40 No.6 WWW)

Koss ESP/950: $999.99 $$$
One night, after listening through the admirable Pass Labs HPA-1 headphone amplifier and Audeze LCD-4 headphones, HR decided that the sound was just a bit too uptown for the Jorma Kaukonen disc he was listening to, and switched to his new-old, "always-enjoyable" Koss ESP/950 headphones with matching E/90 Electrostatic Energizer power supply. He was "stunned by the richly textured midrange they delivered." As it turns out, the Koss ESP/950s can still be bought brand-new, which is a little like waking up from that dream where your favorite old car is in storage somewhere just around the corner—and finding out it's true. Herb: "Introduced in 1990—TJN reviewed them in the December 1992 Stereophile—the Koss ESP/950s are still in production, still made in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. They're exceptionally light (10oz or 284gm) and comfortable, and come with a limited lifetime guarantee: If they break or wear out, just send them back to Koss; when they return, they'll be good as new." The Kosses aren't the last word in bass or treble, but, as HR reminds us, "there's more to life than bass and treble: there's happiness and consciousness—and that's what the Koss ESP/950s delivered." (Vol.39 No.11 WWW)

Master & Dynamic MH40: $249
In the Master & Dynamic MH40, the earpads and the underside of the headband are covered in soft lambskin and the upper surface of the headband is made of cowhide. Nevertheless, democratic socialist (if not quite vegetarian) AD loved these 'phones, lavishing as much praise on their sound as on their comfort: "These Master & Dynamic headphones sounded clear and explicit—qualities they delivered in a manner that was smooth rather than brittle." AD also found the MH40s to be well balanced, with bass quantity in good proportion to their treble extension, and gave them extra points for their handy mute switch (which doubles as a right-channel indicator). (Vol.39 Nos.2 & 7 WWW)

Moon by Simaudio 230HAD: $1500
The compact (7" wide by 3" high by 11" deep) Moon 230HAD is described by HR as "a fusion product"—a space-saving mashup of DAC, headphone amplifier, and line-level preamplifier. It has four digital inputs, of which its USB input supports PCM up to 32-bit/384kHz and DSD up to 11.2MHz, and two analog inputs: a pair of RCA jacks on the rear and a 1/8" jack on the front, the latter for the analog output of a portable device. On its rear panel are two pairs of single-ended (RCA) line-level output jacks, one with fixed output and the other with variable output. When using the 230HAD as a DAC-line stage, HR described its sound as "an informative, no-nonsense transparency that told me more [about] how the recording was made." (By contrast, he described the Linear Tube Audio microZOTL's transparency as telling him "more about how the music was played.") At the end of the day, HR concluded that the Simaudio's strongest element was its headphone amp; when he used the 230HAD with a different manufacturer's DAC, music "sounded extremely sweet, beautifully detailed, and super lifelike. Totally top-of-the-top headphone sound." JA's measurements confirmed that, "as a headphone amplifier, the 230HAD offers superbly low distortion [and] very high dynamic range," but he was puzzled by apparent modulation of the noise floor during some tests of its DAC section. (Vol.39 No.9 WWW)

MrSpeakers Æon: $799.99
The Æons are closed-back headphones built around planar-magnetic drivers with pleated diaphragms, which MrSpeakers says improves pistonic motion. These drivers are contained within padded, teardrop-shaped earpieces sealed with carbon-fiber backs. The skeletal headband comprises a leather strap and two hoops of nitinol, which sounds like a sleep aid but is actually a "memory alloy" that, after being deformed, returns to its original shape when reheated. Sensitivity is 93dB and impedance is stated as 13 ohms—the latter spec confirmed in measurements by JA, who noted the need for a headphone amp "capable of delivering enough current into such a load." When using the Æons with the headphone jack of his Ayre Acoustics QX-5 Twenty DAC, JA heard some mid-treble emphasis but found the sound "otherwise smooth, with an uncolored midrange." He also noted that, after installing in their earcups the two thin foam pads supplied with the Æons for that purpose, "low frequencies were in better balance with the midrange." JA's conclusion: "the Æons have opened my ears to what can be achieved with closed-back headphones." (Vol.41 No.3 WWW)

Thinksound On2: $199.99 $$$
Thinksound's original On1 headphones were praised in July 2014 by ST, who hates in-ear headphones and noise-canceling headphones of any sort, yet who described the closed-back On1s as "Bass-rich, full-bodied, nonfatiguing, comfortable to wear, [and] reasonably well isolating" in their passive, closed-back manner. The On1s have now been replaced by the On2s—which, like their predecessors, have over-ear enclosures machined from sapele, a mahogany-like wood, and earpads of memory foam (the modern pillow stuff) covered with faux leather. For the new model, Thinksound's 40mm drive-units have been enhanced, the plastic headband has a more durable faux-leather cover, the earpads have an improved sewn construction, and the price has been lowered: from $299.99 to $199.99. JA described the On2s' bass as a bit lightweight compared to that of his AudioQuest NightHawks, but he was "impressed by the natural-sounding mids and the clarity of the lows" from the Thinksound cans—which, he declared, he could listen to for "at least an hour without experiencing fatigue" or any physical discomforts. His conclusion: "With the Thinksound On2s priced at a penny under $200, I can confidently recommend them." (Vol.37 No.7, Vol.40 No.4 WWW)

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Grado SR60e: $79 $$$
The original SR60 offered a rather dark-toned balance, with a full bass and excellent resolution of detail. A more forward midrange, however. Uncomfortable. Upgrades from the original SR60 include a new driver and improved cables. While maintaining the original's freedom from obvious colorations and resonances, the SR60i went a bit deeper in the bass and had a slightly more vivid midrange for a more involving overall sound. "The SR60i is modestly better than the original, and remains one of audio's great bargains," said JCA. (Vol.17 Nos.6 & 10 WWW, original, Vol.33 No.4 WWW)

Koss PortaPro: $49.99 $$$
Imagine 60-ohm, 101dB-sensitive, perfectionist-quality 'phones that fold up small, clip together, and fit in your pocket. Imagine silver-dollar-size earpieces with easily replaceable foam earpads that rest gently on your pinnae. Imagine flying down a hill on your bike while grooving—and I do mean grooving—to your favorite music. Imagine that the ca-1979 Koss Porta Pro headphones are back again and sell for only $49.95 per pair. As it happens, and as HR reported in the June 2018 Stereophile, it's all true. (Vol.41 No.6 WWW)

Meze Audio 99 Classic: $309
The Romanian-engineered, Chinese-made Meze 99 Classics are closed-back, circumaural headphones that feature Mylar-cone drivers, machined-walnut earcups, synthetic leather-covered earpads and headband, and a clever frame design that KM found comfortable. Standard accessories include a 4' remote-equipped cable for travel, a 9' cable for home use, and a resealable faux-velvet pouch. KM praised their "slightly buttoned-down sound," which he found to be more neutral than that of the AudioQuest NightHawks, although the latter provided a more "immersive" experience. JA measured the Mezes and found their impedance to be "relatively low" and thus needful of a current-capable amplifier—and after listening to the 99 Classics, he suggested that their low-frequency balance was "somewhat exaggerated." (Vol.42 No.6 WWW)

No Class Distinction

Shure Bluetooth 5.0 Earphone Communication Cable: $149
Intended as a convenience accessory for Shure in-ear headphones, the company's Bluetooth 5.0 Earphone Communication Cable plugs into the two earpieces, replacing their original cable, and dangles down to approximately mid-sternum, where it terminates in a Bluetooth receiver/DAC that's roughly the size of a USB flash drive, and that opens to reveal a USB-B Micro jack for charging. (Estimated playing time: up to 10 hours.) AptX, aptX HD, aptX Low Latency, AAC, and SBC codecs are all supported. Used with a pair of Shure SE535 in-ear headphones, the Bluetooth 5.0 cable impressed JA with AAC-encoded sound that was "[not] as inferior as I'd expected" on classical music, with only slight congestion that, much of the time, "wasn't an issue." Hard-driving rock fared slightly less well. (Vol.42 No.3 WWW)

K

AufioQuest DragonFly Cobalt.

Deletions
Apogee Electronics Groove not auditioned in a long time; Ultimate Ears 18 Pro and JH Audio JH16 Pro replaced by new models not yet reviewed.

COMMENTS
Charles E Flynn's picture

From https://cdn.stereophile.com/content/recommended-components-2018-edition-how-use-listings :

Class K

"Keep your eye on this product." Class K is for components that we have not reviewed (or have not finished testing), but that we have reason to believe may be excellent performers. We are not actually recommending these components, only suggesting you give them a listen. Though the report has yet to be published in certain cases, the reviewer and editor sometimes feel confident enough that the reviewer's opinion is sufficiently well formed to include what otherwise would be an entry in one of the other classes, marked (NR).

Enrique Marlborough's picture

Could you add the year of entry to these lists.

Jason Victor Serinus's picture

It's there.

prerich45's picture

When did the Pulsars go up from $7k/7.7k to $9k?!!!!!!!!! That's a huge increase!!!!!!

Bogolu Haranath's picture

The new Pulsar2 Graphene are $9k :-) ..........

brians's picture

I always found it really odd that Stereophile never links the recommended component to its referenced review(s). Really odd, and kind of charming.

AaronGarrett's picture

Are the headphones pictured Sennheiser 800s? Is this a secret recommendation since they aren't on the list?

stereoGoodness's picture

How in the world can the TotalDac still be listed as a Class A+ digital processor? The device's proponent on the Stereophile staff was Michael Lavorgna, who has since been let go by the magazine.

The TotalDac was never properly reviewed by Stereophile, likely because the device's creator knew that it would measure horrendously. Audio Science Review confirmed its terrible engineering, and TotalDac is now closely associated with how audiophilia can go badly wrong.

https://www.audiosciencereview.com/forum/index.php?threads/review-and-measurements-of-totaldac-d1-six-dac.8192/

John Atkinson's picture
stereoGoodness wrote:
The TotalDac was never properly reviewed by Stereophile, likely because the device's creator knew that it would measure horrendously.

I don't routinely measure the products reviewed in the magazine's columns, but in hindsight I wish I had have done so with the Total DAC. Even so, back in the day I spent a very pleasant afternoon listening to Michael Lavorgna's system with this DAC.

stereoGoodness wrote:
Audio Science Review confirmed its terrible engineering, and TotalDac is now closely associated with how audiophilia can go badly wrong. https://www.audiosciencereview.com/forum/index.php?threads/review-and-measurements-of-totaldac-d1-six-dac.8192/

Oh my!

John Atkinson
Technical Editor, Stereophile

Bogolu Haranath's picture

Ne casse pas le verre :-) ..........

Bogolu Haranath's picture

'We (at, Stereophile) choose truth over facts' :-) .........

JRT's picture

"TotalDAC" was a wrong-headed approach in engineering, is grossly overpriced for its performance, is grossly over-hyped in its niche market, and it objectively measures very much worse than lower priced DACs. It is a poor solution, and represents poor value.

However, I also think that there is another larger consideration in this that was missed.
No small of number of people like the sound, people who critically listen to their system and to changes in their system.

So a key take-away is that "TotalDAC" provides a good example of the importance of better perceptual weighting in objective measurements. The simple fact that so many seem to like the sound of this "TotalDAC" regardless that it measures so poorly shows that a large body of critical listeners are highly tolerant of its imperfections that show up clearly in objective measurements.

Note that Amir Majidimehr gave it a bad review because of poor objective measurements resulting from poor choices in engineering, but he did not find the resulting sound highly objectionable in his listening tests. Similarly, John Atkinson and Michael Lavorgna were not displeased with the sound in Lavorgna's system. And there seems to be many others.

Since so many critical listeners are highly tolerant of the imperfections of "TotalDAC", and since there are many inexpensive DACs that outperform it, I would suggest that the DACs should receive a rather low weighting in budget allocation. The opportunity cost on this expensive DAC is far too high, could be better spent in something that matters very much more in perceptual weighting such as loudspeakers, a bespoke low frequency (sub-Schroeder) subsystem, improvements in room acoustics, etc.

JRT's picture

Wasting budget resources on expensive esoteric cable assemblies brings little if any performance improvement, and in comparison to moderate cost well engineered solutions the esoteric cable assembles can sometimes degrade system performance.

https://www.stereophile.com/content/adcom-gfa-7805-five-channel-power-amplifier-cable-issues

https://sound-au.com/cable-z.htm

Bogolu Haranath's picture

Regarding sound quality ........ See Stereophile review and measurements of BorderPatrol DAC SE $995 to $1,850 ........ Somewhat similar suboptimal measurements as the TotalDAC ....... Costs lot less ....... Several reviewers liked that BorderPatrol DAC's sound :-) ........

JRT's picture

You get a good DAC and also a good headphone amplifier, plus can be utilized for making objective measurements.

https://www.rme-audio.de/en/products/adi_2-pro.php

Maybe add an inexpensive 2x2 AES/EBU Dante bridge such as the one at the following link.

https://www.bhphotovideo.com/c/product/1417856-REG/audinate_adp_aes3_au_2x2_2x2_dante_avio_aes3.html

Bogolu Haranath's picture

The Chord Mojo ($570, reviewed by Stereophile) and the Chord Hugo2 ($2,695, reviewed by Hi-Fi News), also are, good quality DACs and headphone amplifiers :-) ..........

Bogolu Haranath's picture

Benchmark DAC3 HGC ($2,199, reviewed by Stereophile, Class-A+) is a DAC, pre-amp and headphone amp :-) ...........

JRT's picture

Those lack AD converters.

Seems like a lot of money to spend for simple DA conversion and an output buffer to drive headphones.

Bogolu Haranath's picture

How many Stereophile readers use/want a AD converter? :-) .........

Benchmark also sells a headphone amp/ pre-amp HPA-4 ($3,000, reviewed by Hi-Fi News) :-) ..........

JRT's picture

For one example group, I suspect some need AD converters to capture the output of their phono preamp to FLAC files.

Bogolu Haranath's picture

How many Stereophile readers want/use AD converters? ......... may be 5% to 10% .......... Which means 90% to 95% Stereophile readers don't want/use and are not interested in AD converters :-) ..........

Stereophile reviewed Ayre Acoustics QA-9 AD converter ....... I think JA1 and MF still sometimes use that Ayre AD converter :-) ........

Stereophile has also reviewed USB output turntables from Sony and Music Hall, which obviously have built-in AD converters :-) .........

Bogolu Haranath's picture

BTW ....... Don't post any comments about AD converters on AnalogPlanet ....... Stereophile readers are more tolerant people :-) ........

Bogolu Haranath's picture

Seems like MF is currently using one of the Lynx Hilo AD/DA converters ......... Some of these Lynx products are available at Sweetwater ........ May be JA1 could review one of these AD/DA converters currently available :-) ........

Bogolu Haranath's picture

Benchmark also sells just a DAC ..... DAC3-B for $1,699 :-) ...........

Bogolu Haranath's picture

There are other less expensive DA converters/headphone amps ........ Pro-Ject Pre-Box S2 ($399, reviewed by Stereophile), AudioQuest DragonFly Black and Red ($99 and $199, reviewed by Stereophile) and DragonFly Cobalt ($299, Stereophile review may be forthcoming) :-) ...........

Bogolu Haranath's picture

Schiit Audio makes several headphone-amps/DACs, from $99 to $499 :-) ..........

Bogolu Haranath's picture

The new iBasso DC01 and DC02, DAC/headphone-amps $75 to $79 :-) ..........

Charles E Flynn's picture

You are now officially on your own when it comes to the purchase of a table radio.

Bogolu Haranath's picture

Get a Naim Mu-so2 or Qb2 ....... EISA award winner .......Kinda table radio ....... See, S&V review on their website :-) .........

listentomusic's picture

does someone know why is simaudio 340i is gone from the list.it was there is last 2-3 lists

Jim Austin's picture

By long tradition and with some exceptions, components are removed from the list when they have not been auditioned for more than 3 years. The tradition arose from print, and the limited space it allows; this practice could be relaxed online, but then we would have two different lists. (The exceptions, usually, are cases in which a Stereophile reviewer has continuing experience with the product, as when it is part of a reviewing system, and so can continue to vouch for it.)

Jim Austin, Editor
Stereophile

Bogolu Haranath's picture

Jim Austin is the perfect reviewer for the new Revel Performa top-model, F328BE ($15,000/pair), and compare them to the Revel Ultima Salon2 :-) ............

dial's picture

There's a lack of cheap tonearms with detachable headshell like the ones on dj turntables, some are really excellent.

Bogolu Haranath's picture

Guitar Center sells some of those DJ turntables ........ They also sell some Technics TTs, which come with tonearms with detachable head-shells, including some used ones ......... You could check with them :-) ..........

dial's picture

Thanks a lot for your advice, I sold my Stanton DD, the tonearm wasn't removable (I speak about the straight model, a little short, can only use an Ortofon Arkiv on it).
I still miss someone here who wants to review a ZYX cartridge, even a "budget" model. I think it's imported here.

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