Just Ask Drew: High End Headphones

Drew Baird, CEO of Moon-Audio.com shares some of his favorite high-end headphones and briefly explains some of the technology and developments of each one.


00:30 Fostex TH-900 features and similar models 01:10 Possibly the best closed-back headphone ever, the Sony R10, sells used for $8,000 02:40 Audeze LCD-3 planar technology and sound signature 03:58 DRAGON cables for TH-900 and LCD-3 04:55 Sennheiser HD800 puts the sound of electrostatic in a dynamic driver 05:27 DRAGON cables for the HD800 06:00 Beyerdynamic T1: the Sugar Ray Leonard of headphones 07:30 Sennheiser HD650 and the Silver DRAGON cable 08:23 Grado Professional Series PS-500 08:57 Drew's picks on the Sound Signature gamut, from dark to forward sounding, and how Grado developed the RS-1 11:06 In-ear Monitors: JH Audio JH16 and 13 Pro 11:56 The benefits of Custom IEMs 12:25 DRAGON cables for JH Audio IEMs 13:25 King Sound HH1 Electrostatic Headphones 14:05Electrostatic headphones and Bias Voltage 14:35 King Sound M20 and M10 Electrostatic Amps 15:30 Summary


00:00:00 Hi, welcome to the Just Ask Drew video series. Just Ask Drew is where Drew answers all your questions about high-end headphone audio. In this video, Drew covers his top picks for high-end headphones.

Hi, I'm Drew Baird from Moon Audio and today I'd like to talk to you about high-end headphones, particularly headphones that are in the over $1000 category - with a couple of exceptions.

00:00:30 My first and probably most favorite headphone at the moment is the Fostex TH-900. Fostex is out of Japan, and if you'll notice there's a very good similarity to the last set of Denon headphones series, the D2000, D5000 and D7000. That's because Fostex' parent company, Foster, is actually the designer behind all of those headphones and the manufacturer. Why do I like this headphone? This is probably one of the best if not the -- at least the best on the market today and close sealed headphones.

00:01:10 I'd say the best ever sealed headphone was probably the Sony R10. Unfortunately it's no longer available and you have to pay a pretty penny to get yourself a set of those now. You can only buy them on the use market and they typically go for around eight thousand dollars, which is pretty expensive. The Fostex started out at $1,995 and after trying to compete with the rest of the world -- that is the United States -- in pricing, Fostex decided to drop the price in the US to match that around the world. It's now priced at a very competitive $1,499 and at that price point it's a steal for the sound quality. The Fostex is a very linear headphone from top to bottom. Unlike its predecessors, we'll call them, from Denon which tend to have a little bit of a recessed mid-range and sometimes overly blum bottom end weight to them, the Fostex is very linear from high frequencies all the way down to bass frequencies. Very clear, not an analytical sound a very natural and neutral sounding headphone, which is why I like it. It's a very easy to drive headphone. You could, if you're crazy enough to wear a $1,500 pair of headphones portably, you could use them as a portable system. They're very easy to drive, they've got a low impedance, and I'd say that they're not very picky about which amplifier you use them with. I haven't really had much issues with an amplifier I didn't like these with, so no worries in that department.

00:02:40 My next favorite headphone is the LCD-3 by Audeze. It's unlike the Fostex in that the fostex uses a dynamic driver this uses a planar magnetic driver. It's a very different technology and to go into the nuances of driver technology would take a little more time and we're not going to do that in this video. But what I will say about this headphone is that it's an open back design. Like the Fostex it isn't that difficult to drive, however, I have found with more powerful headphone amps there is a definite improvement in sonic signature. This headphone tends to be a little bit more on the warmer pace than the Fostex. It's got a huge bottom end I wouldn't say bloated, it's just very big and very pronounced. A fantastic headphone if you're into electronica or other things where you really want to hear a lot of bass. Whereas the Fostex, I would think to use it more as a reference headphone, even studio mastering, etc., because of its lack of coloration if you will. The LCD-3 has a little bit of coloration, it's on the warm side. The top end is a little rolled off, if you will. It's smooth, it's a very full-bodied, warm-sounding headphone.

00:03:58 For this LCD-3 my preference is the Silver DRAGON V3. This headphone tends to be on the warm side. It's got a big bottom end, it's a little rolled off if you will on the top end, and the Silver DRAGON does the best job of tightening up that bottom end, adding sparkle and detail to the top end. By no means does it make this headphone bright because it is such I'd say a lush and laid back headphone. Whereas with the Fostex because of its neutrality, really all three of our cables can be used with it, depending on the different direction you want to take it in. My preference is to use the Silver DRAGON on it because I tend to listen to jazz, blues, and when I listen to electronic and whatnot I tend to go to the LCD-3s. But folks that want to add more bottom and weight to the Fostex, I'd recommend the Black DRAGON, and if you just want to add some more detail and clarity, then go with a more natural, neutral Blue DRAGON, especially if you're going to do some recording and mastering.

00:04:55 Next on my list of favorite headphones is the HD800 by Sennheiser. This, like the Fostex, uses a dynamic driver and it's got an interesting sound in that -- and we'll talk about this type of headphone later on -- it sounds very much like an electrostatic headphone but it uses a dynamic driver instead. Electrostatic headphones tend to be very light on their feet, very fast and transparent. Well Sennheiser has captured that sort of same signature with the HD800. It's a very fast detail, and sometimes can be considered a little bit too analytical.

00:05:27 So which cable do I use with the Sennheiser? My pick would be the Black DRAGON V2 in either regular form or in the new premium version that we talked about in our last video. I tend to use this headphone with a tube amp to add some warmth and body to them. I find them to be a little too clinical with most solid-state headphone amplifiers, although there are some solid-state that do have a warmer tonality. I'd recommend those in that situation. But it really comes down to personal preference, of what you're listening to and what your ears can hear.

00:06:00 Next on my list would be the Beyerdynamic T1. And as explained in the last video this one's been set up with a detachable connection system. This headphone, really, I like to call it the Sugar Ray Leonard of headphones. Pound-per-pound, it's one of the best headphones around for its price tag. Is it better than the Fostex? No. Does it come close? Yes, it's in the same ballpark. But at $1,299 it's fantastic. And why I call it the Sugar Ray Leonard of headphones is while Sugar Ray Leonard probably couldn't knock out Mike Tyson, pound-per-pound he was the best fighter ever, and that's sort of how I see this headphone. It's not going to knock out the LCD-3 or the Fostex but for the money it's just a fantastic headphone. Like the Fostex TH900, it uses the Tesla technology in its dynamic driver. It's a very powerful magnet and thus gives a very pronounced big bottom end. It's got very good top-end very detailed and clear. Almost similar to the HD800 but not as analytical. So I can't say it's as top-end, bright -- and I don't want to call the HD800 bright, but we'll just use that as an exaggeration -- This tends to be bright in comparison to the T1. The T-1's a little smoother on the top-end but nowhere as smooth as the LCD-3. The bottom end is close to the LCD 3 but not as punchy and as impactful, but it definitely has a very good bottom end characteristic.

00:07:30 Another couple of headphones I want to talk to -- and these are actually in the under-a-thousand-dollar category. One is the Sennheiser HD650. Why, you ask, do I talk about this headphone since it's been out for a while? Well, it's it's just a fantastic headphone. We've sold more of these than any other headphone in our shop. It's a great value at $499. By going with our Silver DRAGON V3 it really takes it to a next level. The reason I chose the Silver DRAGON V3 is, well this is probably one of the most laid-back, lush and liquid sounding headphones. And I use a couple of different headphones in comparison when I'm talking about sound synergy and whatnot. This is probably the darkest headphone that I know about one that's a little more forward-sounding, I'll go over to the to the other under-$1000 headphone from the Grado line.

00:08:23 The Professional Series PS-500. The Grados tend to be very much like studio monitors. They're very up-close and personal sounding, very detailed, the drivers are very close to your ear so there isn't a huge amount of 3D spacialness to them. But it's very clean, precise and detailed so I'm going to say that this is a little more forward- sounding than the HD 650, which is probably the most darkest sounding. In between these, I often say that the AKG 701, which I don't have pictured here, is probably halfway between these two. So when asked a lot of questions over the years about where a headphone fits in the gamut of sound signatures, I usually use the HD 650 as the darkest headphone, the Grado -- and not just the PS500 but all of the Grado line -- as a more forward sounding headphone, and the AKG 701 as the most sort of in the middle, neutral headphone. So with the PS500 from Grado, what they've done essentially is -- and this goes back to an old headphone by Grado, the PS1. The PS1 has always been my favorite open-back headphone of all time. And so Grado decided because it was such popular headphone, but a very very pricey headphone, to come out with something they could try and compete with it, if you will, but in the under a thousand category. And we can also talk about the PS 1000 at some point but we won't do that in this video. So the PS 500 is very much like the RS1 except that it uses metal cups. And I find that the signature, the only differences between the RS1 and the PS 500 is the PS 500, because of the metal cups, I think tends to smooth out the top end. So it's not so much edgy, if you will, in your face -- not that the RS1 is, but I have to give a little bit of analogy to the differences between the two models. So the metal cups tend to smooth out the top end. So these are a very good reference headphone, very detailed, crisp and clear. Whereas for the Sennheiser HD650 it's a very dark natured headphone. I'd use this headphone to listen to classical music, blues where I want a sort of, I don't want to say mushy, but a darker tonality. It just seems to meld well, better with those types of music, whereas the Grado line - I've said to be probably the greatest rock and roll headphones for use. And when you go up to the GS 1000 and PS 1000 I think you go from rock-and-roll headphones to more tonalities for classical, jazz and blues. But we'll talk about those two headphones in another segment.

00:11:06 Jumping from full-size headphones over to in-ear monitor category the JH16 Freqphase is probably my favorite in the IEM market. I don't do well with universal fit IEMS. They tend to put a lot of pressure on my eardrums, and so customs tend to be my favorite. I've also got a set of the 13 Pros, and I often get asked what are the differences between the two. Well, the 13 tends to be a more neutral sounding IEM. It's a little less flavorful, if you will. So if you're looking for a character that isn't a little top-end heavy or a little bottom and heavy, then the 13 would be my pick, especially for doing reference recordings and whatnot. The JH16 tends to be a little more bass-heavy, if you will. Not overly, but a very pronounced bottom end. I absolutely love these earphones.

00:11:56 The benefit to custom IEMs over universals is that these are custom molded to fit your ear. In other words, nobody else can wear these. And the great thing about them is that you can do almost anything with them and they don't typically fall out of your ears like universals. I like to run, I like to mow the grass with IEMs, and in both these situations I always tend to drop them out of my ears. So this is my pick for the best of the IEM monitors out there.

00:12:25 The cable I like to use with a JH16 Pro is the Silver DRAGON V1 IEM. I like a lot of detail and clarity and listen to a lot of different pieces of equipment, and how things change based on the cables I use here in the lab. So it's very important that I hear all the nuances in my system. I'm a detail freak. I like to have a lot of top-end clarity, I want to hear all the instrumentation and the music, I want to hear the differences between the guy over to the right and the other guy over to the left. And it's important to have that transparency and clarity in the listening that I do. So the Silver DRAGON is is my pick for this headphone. With the JH13 I would probably go with either cable, the Silver DRAGON or the Black DRAGON V1 IEM. Because of its neutrality, depending on what sort of signature you want in the end result, if you want a warmer full-body sound then I would go with the Black DRAGON. If you want detail and clarity, I'm a detail freak - the Silver DRAGON is the pick for me for both of these IEMs.

00:13:25 Last on my list of top headphone picks in the high-end category is a new product on the market from King Sound. This is the HH1. This is an electrostatic headphone that I alluded to earlier when I was talking about the HD 800 from Sennheiser. Electrostatic headphones tend to be very light-on-their-feet sounding, very fast, transparent and really I'm going to say for the first time, this electrostatic headphone has a lot of bottom and weight to it. Most electrostatic headphones tend to sound a little thin on the bottom end until you get into the really high-priced pieces sort of like the STAX 009, which has a beautiful bottom end to it, and is probably one of the best headphones on the planet, if not the best.

00:14:05 So King Sound has come out with an electro- static headphone, and two electrostatic headphone amps. The reason I'm showing these two electrostatic headphone amps with the headphone is because electrostatic headphones require a bias voltage. What is a bias voltage? This is an electrical voltage that charges, essentially, the drivers and gets them basically excited to play audible music. So you cannot use an electrostatic headphone with a conventional headphone amp because you need this bias charge to drive them.

00:14:35 This is the M20 electrostatic tube amplifier from King Sound, and this is the M10 solid-state electrostatic headphone amp from King Sound. They've come out with two different amps for two different price points. And what's so exciting about this headphone is that price point. To get the electrostatic headphone amp M10 and the HH1 electrostatic headphone you're looking at $1000. This is an insane price for the amount of performance that you get out of this headphone. And if you step up to the M20 tube setup then you're looking at $2,000. The reason to go with the tube amp versus the solid-state amp is if you want a little more musicality and warmth to the sound because the electrostatic tends to be a little bit on the forward sound. I always tend to use tube amps with my electrostatic headphones for that particular reason. I find that the voltage characteristics of a tube amp work a lot better with the electrostatic as well.

00:15:30 So to summarize it, the King Sound is probably my pick for the best bang for the buck headphone on the market right now. And my two favorites in the open and closed back design category are the Fostex TH-900 and the Audeze LCD-3. So if you have any questions please visit us at our blogor give us a post on our Facebook page and let us know what your top contenders are for fixing the best headphone category at any price level.