Going back a few years I recall helping @CeeTee with a meet in the Bay Area. It was the first one he organized, well before the Changstar days. I was still exploring and had relatively modest gear. The HD-800 was “king”, but it was all still a love and hate thing. I think folks were still figuring out how to amp it, and no one wanted to mod their uber expensive headphones. We all still had a pair of Grados that we listened to and/or modified. Planar dynamics were being discovered (again) with the likes of Audeze putting out their first offerings. I can’t remember if Marv was there, but I always remember him from those early meets as being super grumpy and having a rig that was not very FOTM but sounded awesome.
Up until that time, not only had I never considered an electrostatic headphone, I had never even heard one. I didn’t know it, but my direction in the hobby would take a turn that day. Well, not that day, but the seed was planted.
An unassuming young man (read kid) in the corner had a table full of “stuff” I had never seen before. Some of the headphones looked like they were made from plastic grills that would look more at home on a Jetsons episode. Amps looked distinctly DIY. A LOT of people were hanging around. Getting a chance to see what was up took some patience. I can’t actually recall if @n3rdling had his Orpheus rig with him that day, if he did I might have missed it. What he did have was a good, somewhat vintage, CD player feeding a Blue Hawaii amp. I’m pretty sure it wasn’t an SE. I made my way to front and got my chance to sample the SR-007 from this rig. To say I was impressed is an understatement. It shifted my perceptions about what headphone listening could be like.
All the time this “kid” with all the gear was completely happy to answer all of my silly questions. He was obviously passionate about the hobby and these mysterious electrostatic headphones.
I recall talking to @CeeTee after the meet and telling him I really liked the STAX Omega (the originals). It was only then that he told me how rare they were and how much they cost! At that time I was sure I’d never own them… but that would change.
At subsequent meets I was always keen to see what rig @n3rdling would bring along. He would drag along everything he had, no matter what it cost. I can remember nights in our hotel suites when we spent hours listening to his Orpheus rig.
He sold me my second electrostatic headphone and an amp. A Lambda Nova Signature and the not so common SRM-300 amp that had been lightly modified. I still have both the headphones and the amp to this day.
All this time I was buying and selling all sorts of headphones and amplifiers. I went through all of the “Flagships” of the time, and nearly all the “mid-fi” offerings as well.
Eventually I decided to change directions get rid of nearly everything to get serious with electrostatics. I decided that I’d end up with something like the BHSE and the 007.
Well, that plan never really worked out. I’ve owned nearly all of the STAX headphones, some of the basic, and all of the more exotic. I have had many STAX amps, still have a BHSE, and have built my own amps, like the KGSShv. I mention this only because it was really because of hearing @Nerdling’s rigs that I got hooked. While my wallet doesn’t thank him, my ears do!
Little did I know then that the “kid” was actually a budding mad scientist formulating his plan to build his own epic creation! Over the years I’d read a little here and there about him patching together some Frankenstein headphone or building his own CNC and 3D printer. It always seemed like he was in the middle of building something but nothing finished ever seemed to materialize.
Flash-forward to the meets earlier this year. There was a buzz about a DIY electrostatic. Soon after I heard from @n3rdling asking if I was interested in hearing his creation. I hesitated for .02 seconds and told him HECK YEAH!
A fair sized but relatively light box showed up on my doorstep in late December, direct from our own @MuppetFace. The timing was good. I was on vacation and had little else to do but audition this headphone everyone was talking about.
Check the meet thread and you can see the pictures. These are prototypes. There are parts which look to be 3D printed that are really finished looking. There are also some parts that look like a bad DIY project gone wrong. All that said, I threw them on my melon and they were light and comfortable. As per instructions from @n3rdling I let them clamp fairly tight to make sure I had a good seal. I spent some long sessions with the “clones” and they were as comfortable as any headphone I own. The concept is there and with some finish work they can look the part.
There was the occasional crackle, kind of like you get form the ESP-950, but @n3rdling had sent along instructions on how to combat these little issues and the clones performed essentially flawlessly while I had them.
Of course, the real question is “do they sound the part?”
I spent the most time listening with the Headamp BHSE fed from the dCS Debussy DAC along with some time from the STAX SRM-717. I’ve got some significant hours racked up with these systems listening with the 009, 007, Omega, He-60 and most other electrostatics. The major exception is the HE-90.
The clone (is that what we’re calling it?) out of the box didn’t hit me with anything in particular. That’s a good thing in my book. A headphone like the 009 will immediately give off that “hi-fi” tuning that sounds really good out of the gate, but tends to grind on me in the long term. The clone isn’t so “in your face”.
I’ll remind the reader that it’s been a long time since I’ve spent time with the HE-90, so my recollection is likely biased with the passage of time, but I also felt the clone wasn’t quite as smooth and romantic sounding as the mythical Sennheiser.
Early listening seemed to leave me feeling they fell somewhere between the 007 and 009. Not as dark as the 007, not as analytical as the 009. Not as bright and a little thicker than the Omega. There are a lot of similarities with my Unicorn Jades, and that does not surprise me now that I’ve compared measurements.
FR was clearly pretty flat without noticeable roll off on either end.
It wasn’t long before I fell in love with the upper sub-bass and mid-bass from these headphones. Percussion reproduction was on par with some of the best I’ve heard. There was a good physical impact, tone and timbre. Certain tracks sounded down right magical in this area. Tight, fast, and absolutely no ringing. It’s probably this area of strength that gave the clone a fuller sound that some of the thinner sounding stats can struggle to achieve.
As flat as they measure, the clones have a slightly warm tone that I really enjoy when listening to music and not picking apart sound quality. And that’s really the highest compliment I can give to headphone… being able to listen for hours and just enjoying the music without continually noticing some glaring imperfection or omission. Not having to choose a specific genre of music that “works” with that particular headphone. Throw anything you like at the clones and they handle it.
I know that some folks felt that the mids and vocals are where the clones shine. While I found the mids to be very, very good, I did feel like occasionally there was an ever so slight tinny or metallic sound to the vocals. I am talking VERY slight as compared to the best stuff out there. I had some discussions with N3rdling about this and we surmised that it might be because I am used to the typical 1k rise found on a lot of STAX. The clones are flat well past 2k. I was also not long over a head cold. I think I was also comparing it to the vocals I’m enjoying form my vinyl and speaker rig. Whatever the reason, I noticed this less as time went on with the clones.
One of the pleasant surprises about the clone was their ability to dig out texture without sounding like an over sharpened digital photograph. On first listens I didn’t realize the level of resolution they were capable of, but longer session revealed a great level of transparency. That is one of the things that I think was most HE-90 like about these headphones.
The words neutral and clean kept coming to mind, but the solid bass to low-mids seemed to keep things musical instead of entirely clinical.
The high end was clean and crisp, almost on par with the treble of the 009, but never harsh. Thank goodness!
With a lot of listening I began to wonder if that little dip around 8k you see in Ultra’s measurements isn’t a peak in disguise? I felt like I heard it, but it wasn’t really nasty like peaks in that area can be. If it’s there, it probably can be tuned out when the cages are added to a more finished headphone.
As for soundstage, well, they are headphones, so meh… whatever. I don’t really care. Ok, they do have the right amount of air to feel open and not like a wall of sound. So, they get a full passing grade for me in this area.
I generally listen at fairly pedestrian volumes, especially with stats. Oddly, I did find myself pushing the volume up, and up, and up with the clones. Not sure what the reason was, but it’s just something I noticed. I definitely did not consider them the best low volume level headphones I’ve heard, but they sure rock out when pushed!
All headphones have compromises. The clones are no exception, but it became apparent that this was a headphone I could enjoy full time. It is a headphone that competes with the best offerings out there, dynamic or electrostatic.
And that’s what is really amazing. The fact that @n3rdling has cobbled together a headphone from scratch that is at this level is nothing short of awesome. If you read about how STAX are produced, or catch up with the electrostatic DIY threads you’ll understand that building something like this is not like slapping some dynamat into your HD-650. It takes a special kind of DIY guy to build a headphone like this.
If @n3rdling decides to sell a few of these masterpieces I wonder what challenges lay ahead? How easy will it be to match diaphragm tension? Will the diaphragm coating formula be repeatable? Will adding more protection for the drivers impact the sound? I don’t know, but man, I hope none of this is an issue because they sounded darned good and I’m sure I want to be in line to get my hands on one if they become available.
It’s been a while since I’ve reviewed any headphones so my 6moons mojo is probably a little rusty. If I’ve left something out feel free to ask and I’m happy to throw my opinion out there.
I want to thank @n3rdling. Thanks for introducing me to electrostatic headphones in the first place and now for letting me hear a world-class headphone that you created by hand. Well done!