On March 25 I hopped on a coach from Southampton to London with the Effect Audio Arthur IEMs in my ears and the Aune M1S pumping tunes through my cranium for the two hour coach ride. Upon touching down in Hammersmith and marching my way down to the study I immediately asked where I needed to go for the HE-1 and the Shangri-La. Luckily for me they were both on the same floor.
Metropolis studios climbs rather tall. I went up to the top, where the two most expensive systems lay in wait. First, the Sennheiser room, laden with all the high class, reasonably priced goodies that Sennheiser makes. When you look at what Sennheiser gear can do, and the prices they charge for it, they really are fantastic. I personally own the HD600.
When I got to the Orpheus Club, Sennheiser’s swish allusion to their former flagship electrostat headphone, the Orpheus, I immediately went to see if there were any slots left to listen to the successor to the Orpheus, the HE-1. There was one slot left, at 15:55. I booked it.
Next it was time to enter contests, talk shop about future reviewing opportunities and take pictures. There is some interesting stuff coming up from Sennheiser this year, and I’m looking forward to hearing it.
These HD600s below are much more pristine than my pair, but my WyWires Red cables are a bit nicer than the stock cable. HD600s really scale with balanced amplification. They are a hugely surprising headphone that constantly shows off what they can do on bigger stages than they should. The HD600s are still one of my best audio purchases-£170 for a used set was money well-spent.
After the Sennheiser room I spent a much larger than anticipated time in the HiFiMAN room. Most of my audiofriends at the show were in the room at the same time, so I was snapping photos and listening to a few headphones. Headphones I listened to included the RE2000, the RE800, the HE-1000 V2, and the Shangri-La.
The RE2000 is a very nice sounding headphone and incredibly comfortable. The case has a chunky awkward looking character, but it somehow just fit when put into my ear. HiFiMAN had MegaMini players out to drive the RE2000. I can tell you right now that isn’t going to get it done. I had to jack my Aune M1S gain up to high for the RE2000. They are about as hard to drive as the RHA CL1 150Ω headphones. I found the RE2000 to have nice bass, excellent clarity, and nice shimmer, but I was left feeling cold. These felt staid and conservative, a bit lacking in emotional content compared to the Noble Kaiser Encore‘s I’ve gotten so used to. I need more time with the RE2000. I think I’ll find them to be excellent technical performers, but at $150 more than the Noble Kaiser Encore, I think I’ll have some doubts about the value proposition HiFiMAN is offering.
I had a listen to the RE800, but I wasn’t able to get a good ear seal with the stupid double flanges that come standard with HiFiMAN products or the tips I had on hand. For the RE800 I would use foamies or good double flange tips like the Spinfit CP220. My impressions weren’t worth their ink due to lack of seal.
The star of the room for me was the HE-1000 V2. At $3000 it is actually a bargain. The HE-1000 V2 is more emphasized than the V1, but it still has a detailed sound that manages to be relaxed and never fatiguing. If I had to critique, I’d say that it needs a bit more oomph sometimes. I compared the HE-1000 V2 to the Effect Audio Arthur I had on hand for review and found that the $3799 in ear punch pound for pound equal with the HE-1000 V2. I’m inclined to believe the days of needing a big set of cans to enjoy a big sound stage are ending. The Arthur and the Encore both did comparably on technical capabilities to the HE-1000 V2. With that said, the HE-1000 V2 was at a distinct disadvantage, being an open headphone in a not silent room.
As soon as I entered the room I was waiting for the Shangri-La to be free. It was occupied by one friend for 15 minutes, then another friend for the same, and another, then a stranger and another and then it was my turn.
I was a bit underwhelmed by the Shangri-la. Yes, they are fantastic performers with a very natural organic presentation. Yes, they have a big statement piece of a tube amplifier. Yes, they look sexy. Yes, they sound excellent. All of the above minus one can be said of the HE-1000 V2 at $3000 instead of $50,000. There is simply no way to justify the price increase between these two headphones. If I had to put my finger on a performance difference, I’d say it’s about 3%. Sennheiser’s HE-1 is better in my opinion. I didn’t think the HE-1000 V2 sounded much better than the Effect Audio Arthur, either. Again, there are meet caveats, but the Shangri-La didn’t make me stand up and notice it based on sound alone. Its pretty fascia was more of a draw.
I found that it was a bit dry on vocals, sharp on treble. It was solid and analytical, but lacking in passion. This seems to be a problem endemic in electrostats not named Sennheiser that I’ve heard. The Stax SR-009 is similar, but at $40,000 less once you take into account needing a $5k amp to make the SR-009 shine. I didn’t get to do side by side comparisons, but I think it likely that I would have approved of the HE-1000 V2 sound more than the Shangri-La.
After leaving the HiFiMAN room, I headed out to visit some friends on the landings. Paul and Jack of Snugs were out and about and taking digital impressions. I got some done so I can do a Snugs review down the line. I’m excited to feel how these work and hear if they change sound in any way.
I also paid a visit to Calum of RHA. I’ve chatted with Callum on Facebook and via messages and email, but this was the first time we met. Callum looks like the face of youth in person. The RHA table was set up with all their gear and the obligatory critical mass of tips of all sizes. The kit suitcase was quite impressive. I need to get me one of those.
Whilst on the level with RHA I had a chat with ACS hearing systems. They have been around making custom in-ear IEMs for about as long as can be—Trekasaurus has their Encore custom IEM, but at this meet they were showing off their universals. I was busy trying to arrange an interview and forgot to have a listen. Shame on me.
After chatting with the folks at ACS it was down into the basement. I needed to pay a visit to Gisele of Aid2Hearing. Gisele is known to be one of the best at doing ear impressions for customs. One of my sets has already gone off to a manufacturer to be named later. By getting physical impressions with Gisele, I found out that my left ear is really sensitive to stuff being inserted in it deeply, so the extra self-impression kits I bought, well I’ll probably be waiting a while to use them. I’m a bit scared of them now.
Down in the basement with Gisele was a
fellow named Lewie. Lewie basically is Hear Wave Audio. Hear Wave is a British startup that specialises in custom IEMs for musicians. They have some nice looking designs that make me think of surfers for some reason, I get a Santa Cruz vibe—keep HeadFi Weird. The font is a bit like Jerry Harvey’s but different enough to not cause any problems, I hope. Their headphones come in nice large round metal screw-top cases. They look pretty spiffy.
It was interesting hearing his perspective as someone who comes from the stage and studio. He intimated that musicians weren’t generally looking for a reference headphone. They want a little bit of lift in the bass and smooth treble, as you don’t want fatigue to set in if you are in the studio all day. If this sounds like your kind of sound, you should check out Hearwave. I had a listen to the universals on hand, but Lewie let me know that they aren’t fully representative of the sound, the treble rolls off a bit more due to the size of the soundtube from the treble drivers. I’d love to hear what they do unleashed, but that will require a custom on the six-driver.
The WiFi was a bit wack downstairs, so I had to walk to a cash-machine about 8 minutes walk away. It seemed like an eternity. When I got back I got into a conversation with Lewie and forgot all about my HE-1 audition. I love the HE-1, but I’ll survive. I see it this way, the person before me got some extra time, and I’ve already heard it. I hope whomever that stranger was, they had a fabulous time.
Downstairs was also where the Focal/Naim table was. The area was pretty quiet by the time I got to listen. It wasn’t like earlier when someone was blasting Metallica at wake the twice-over dead or maybe Beavis and Butthead. That volume level was reincarnating demons. It was stupid loud. Everyone in the room noticed it.
I hadn’t gotten to listen to the Focal Utopia in a relatively quiet room. What I immediately noticed is that they definitely aren’t neutral. Out of the Naim DAC/amp hooked up SD card playing a limited supply of tunes—some really good stuff on there; I spun up Norwegian Wood and Enter Sandman. The mids on Norwegian Wood were thick, the bass was a bit syrupy. Extension in the treble was clear and the stage had excellent instrument separation. I found that on Enter Sandman the bass was accentuated and the mids had a bit uneven expression. Lower mids had quite a distant feeling, probably a tuning choice to aid separation from the thick bass, but with consequences for some male vocals and electric guitar and bass. Acoustic guitar was bang on on Wish You Were Here, couldn’t have been done better. Upper mids and lower treble performed really well on the Utopia. I’d love to get more audition time with it at home in a more controlled environment.
It stopped in the Kef room on the way to my last stop of the day, the oBravo table. I got to the room too late to try all the electrostatic goodies spread on other tables. The Kef LS50 wireless speakers sounded great playing via WiFi. The room was totally chill, with the relaxing purple light and cozy chairs just giving a nice little oasis of calm in the middle of all the frantic headphone switching abounding outside.
I tried all of the oBravo EAMT-xC lineups (the X takes an ordinal value). I’m not into the sound of the C lineup. I observed that all had varying degrees of extremely warm midbass that coloured the sound far too much for my liking. I also tried the ERIB-1C and ERIB-2C. I was not into their sound either. For oBravo, I am into their A range, which is good for me, as it is the least expensive, as well as being the closest to a neutral sound. I tried the new massively expensive Ra in ear (£10,000 rumoured). It used to be called the Zeus, but then oBravo got wise to the fact that there was already a prominent Zeus flagship. Good on them for avoiding a cease & desist order (or maybe heeding one). The Ra carried a similar signature to the EAMT-C lineup, but with better definition, a bigger soundstage and more treble extension. It was nice sounding, but still not my flavour, and something I would personally avoid in favour of top of the line IEMs. I didn’t see any justification for these being more than twice the price of their most expensive competitor’s model. I came in weilding the Effect Audio Arthur (collaboration between Empire Ears and Effect Audio) and left wielding it. No IEM, except the Noble Encore came close to touching it on performance during the day—it costs $3799. The oBravo folks make unique IEMs, but their pricing is totally out of control. This is luxury for the sake of luxury. The Ra does look rather fetching in its copper shell, though. The oBravo display was quite attractive, in general.
After the show, I hopped out to a pub and grabbed some grub with my fellow reviewer buddy Aornic. Go check out his blog, too. He’s well worth the read.
It was well worth the trip to London to go to the show. I didn’t get as much business as I’d like to do done, and didn’t listen to everything I wanted to, but I had a great time catching up with friends and chatting with the creators of beautiful headphones and amplifiers.