If you ’ve ben around the audio hob y for awhile , you ’ll know that electrostatic transducers have a justified reputation for midrange and high -frequenc y purit y. While cruising over the north Atlantic in an Airbus A340, listening to Ivo Janssen’s excellent piano renditions of the Bach preludes and fugues, I’m trying to sort out whether Stax’s miniature SR-001 electrostatic headphones’ pure sound is enough to make them the answer—the ideal in-flight headphone during this iPod era.
Right on script, the clarity and lack of grain of the SR-001s put most headphones, portable or not, to shame. The impressive thing about the SR-001s is that they deliver a great sense of transparency without sounding edgy or harsh.
Unfortunately, purity is not the only requirement for mobile headphones. The problem with the SR-001s, at least in my ears, is that they aren’t just on the light side at low frequencies—they’re positively anemic. The bit about “in my ears” is important because the SR-001s, despite having a headband, are really an in-ear design, somewhat like the Etymotic and Shure ’phones. That means that they rely on
some kind of a seal between the ’phone and your ear to provide both isolation and solid bass. I’m not sure if I simply couldn’t get the seal right or if the Stax design is just plain bass-shy, but in any event, I couldn’t get them to sound balanced on Janssen’s piano or, for example, on Los Lobos’ Kiko. As they say, your results may differ, and if you value treble purity highly, the Stax are worth a look.
Switching to the latest Bose Quietcomfort 2 noise-canceling headphones on this same flight was a revelation. If you’re old enough to remember the golden era of electrostatic speakers, you may also remember the near-universal audiophile revulsion at the mention of all things Bose. The Bose stereotype is: big one-note bass, depressed midrange, and grainy highs.
I guess stereotypes were made to be broken, because the Bose headphones are better than that. Much better, in fact. You still get traces of the Bose personality, in the form of strong bass and less than perfectly smooth high frequencies. But the overall octave-to-octave balance of the Quietcomfort ’phones is quite good, and transparency is pretty high. I would rate them on a par in pure musicality with some of the better Sennheisers, though they aren’t quite as dynamic and involving as the Grado designs. But none of those designs has noise cancellation, which I would rate as a must when in transit.
I also noticed that the Bose deviates from neutrality in a way that helps, psychoacoustically, in the air. When traveling, you have excess low-frequency noise. The noise-canceling feature helps, but having the low frequencies on the warm side of neutral works better than the opposite approach. And my personal feeling is that the electronic noise canceling used in the Bose design will work for anyone, whereas the mechanical seal used by Stax or Etymotic varies from person to person. When you add it all up, I’d say that the Bose headphones, despite their somewhat cumbersome size, are among the top all-around travel-headphone choices right now. TAS