I’ve started reading this great book- David Weigel’s The Show That Never Ends, The Rise and Fall of Prog, and as I review these next products, I’m hearing the Emerson, Lake, and Palmer lyric in my head “…all on loan… all on loan.” This will be my first new product review, my first of many I hope, and I’ve been fortunate enough to be graced by four generous manufacturers in this. I could not be more privileged, and I sincerely hope that you enjoy reading this as much as I enjoyed writing it.
This started back at a meeting of the Chicago Audio Society that I attended in March. I was able to listen to a couple of high-end headphones, and was somehow lucky enough to secure them for my review purposes here. I was able to talk with several of the members there, and get their thoughts on both of these incredible pieces then, but was already forming my own solid opinions about them. Fast-forward a few weeks, and I have been allowed to group them with some great cables, and a headphone amp that is more in-line with what I think you, my reader, will appreciate.
Speaking of which, as I’m first writing this, that headphone amp has not arrived yet [crowd lets out a heavy sigh]. However, this has granted me an important opportunity. Many of us in the headphone market are still tempted to plug them straight into our source components or receiver/preamp, and listen that way. I’m going to start my review accordingly, until the amplifier arrives tomorrow. This way, I will be able to isolate exactly what benefits, and I believe there will be many, that the headphone amp is really giving us. I have yet to see a review that does this, so I want to tackle this issue head-on, so to speak.
For the moment, then, I am using a Pioneer Elite DV-45A SACD player and an Integra DTR 7.1 receiver. I am plugging straight into the headphone jack of the receiver. I am running analog from the Elite to the Integra via an Audio Art Classic Series cable. Both headphones have been augmented by Audio Art HPX-1SE cables (about a $440 upgrade), a beautiful addition over the stock inclusions. Let the show begin.
Sennheiser HD-800S Headphones ($1,699)
The immediate thing about the Sennheisers is the bigness of them, in so many ways. They are large, but in a wonderfully comfortable way. Their soundstage is absolutely immense. Even cheating in the way that I am here, plugging straight into this receiver, instruments are well-placed and spacious. The bass is miles deep. These let you know right away that you’re wearing a high-end set of headphones. Voices are not isolated simply to left and right, but seem to come from center, and anywhere the engineer placed them in the recording. Absolutely stunning. The comfort is fantastic. Many headphone users tell me that they wear theirs for hours at a time, so this is a huge factor. I can envision wearing these all night.
The sound alone, if not for their comfort, would keep me all night. I go back to the largeness of the soundstage. As I go through several test discs, I eventually come to Pink Floyd, and have to slip in “Shine On You Crazy Diamond.” I’ve heard good rooms that couldn’t capture what I’m hearing from the HD-800S headphones right now. The dimensions they present are breathtaking, while still keeping me right here in the music.
Audeze LCD-3 Headphones ($1,995)
I am such a huge fan of these headphones. These have an immediacy all their own. They are much more forward than the Sennheisers, which is the last comparison I will make between the two. They are really each their own headphones, two very different animals.
Very comfortable in their own right, but a bit heavy; these feel like a substantial piece of hardware on your head. I don’t mind in the least. They feel incredible to me. The earpieces fit me perfectly and isolate wonderfully. The voices come through so strong with instruments being perfectly placed behind them. Punchy and deep, they feel so involved. I feel deeply immersed in the music. This is the experience I’m truly looking for.
These bring out things that I missed in the Sennheisers, even. I know I swore I wouldn’t make any more comparisons, but I feel it worth mentioning. Just minor details, like little bits as “Shine On” fades in. These details mean everything to me.
It’s finally here! Linear Tube Audio MZ2 Headphone amp ($1,235)
It was quite intentional that I started this review plugged into a receiver in such a crude way. I think a lot of us still do it. I mean, do we really need a headphone amp? Well, I’ve been listening to the LTA for about 15 minutes now, and I’m here to tell you…
I’ll never go without a headphone amp again.
Not only has this made a firm believer in me, but it has also shown me that there are really great tube headphone amps in a reasonable price range. Let me expound on this further.
That phenomenal soundstage of the Sennheisers? The LTA’s tubes just opened it up further, pushed the walls out to the point of non-existence, and let them breathe in the way they were truly meant to.
The immediacy of the Audezes are still there, but a tad tamer, and vocals have now separated nicer. Instruments have fallen into place in the soundstage in a much more appropriate fashion. They are still just as involved, but are much creamier.
This not simply a drastic improvement in the sound, this is an alteration of the sonic landscape. Pity, this is a piece I regret having such a short time with, because I’m just scratching the surface with it. Not just a headphone amp, the MZ2 will function as a tube preamp, and even as a tube amplifier with high efficiency speakers. Yes, this would even drive my Klipsch KLF-30’s. How badly I would love to spend some real time with this! (…all on loan …all on loan, Michael) To sweeten the pot, the folks at LTA thought to include the upgraded power supply for my review (Kudos to them for making this with an outboard, optionable power supply!). Between that, and the upgrade of the Audio Art cables, this is a setup to fall in love with.
If you’re a tube guy like me, you can’t help but get excited about the glowing fire bottles of the microZOTL component, and the more they warmed up, the creamier and smoother the amp became. After 15 minutes of listening, it went from pleasant to downright addictive. The 12AT7 preamp tubes are singing as I’m in the last throes of “Shine On” now, and I can’t help but push the volume just a hair more to get a little more from the output tubes (6SN7). The detail is just striking. There are a million more words that come to mind, but I’ll refrain out of good taste and brevity. Suffice it to say- Wish you were here.
The Added Bonus- Audio Art HPX-1SE Cables ($440)
I can’t thank Rob Fritz and the folks at Audio Arts enough for sweetening the pot on this. The addition of the HPX-1SE, as well as a Classic Series interconnect (coming in a future article) really made the difference in this review. Cables can truly make all the difference, and when you’re as immersed in musical richness as I have been during this experience, these cables became simply enriching. The level of detail these brought out over the stock cables was significant, especially once the LTA headphone amp came into play. While this is an option that starts at over $400, the investment over above what you’re already making is well worth it. Thank you again! Check back with me for more on Audio Art cables very soon.