Recently I had need, as one occasionally does, of a decent pair of headphones and, given that opportunity the audio glutton inside of me reached unthinkingly for the best available. Now, I’m no headphone aficionado, indeed I’m barely ever a serious headphone listener, but even I know that when you are talking headphones in audiophile and head-fi circles, Stax is a good place to start, so buoyed with the sort of received wisdom that borders on outright prejudice, I set about obtaining a pair of the legendary ‘phones. And like so many people who operate on the basis of assumption and urban myth, when reality bites it surely comes as something of a shock.
The ‘phones I was fortunate enough to lay my grubby mitts on were the Stax SR-007 Omega Reference Series II, placed one from the top in their six model range: fortunate because they served as a timely and salutary reminder as to just why Stax have provided the ruler against which all serious phones have been measured for the last 25-years; fortunate because they also demonstrated that far from being a second-class option when it comes to listening, a decent pair of headphones actually offers a very different and in its own way, just as valid view of the musical performance. I may not be a regular headphone listener, but time spent with the Stax has convinced me that they offer a real alternative to my main system--one with its own very real musical appeal--rather than just a last resort when the big speakers and the big system that goes with them is off limits for one reason or another.
Being electrostatics, the SR-007s naturally need their own matching energiser, the SRM-007 tII, which amounts to a standalone headphone amp, complete with three line-inputs one of which is balanced, it’s own volume control and a line-out so that it can be situated within a tape loop if necessary. It’s a tube design, employing four 6FQ7 valves and can drive two pairs of Stax phones if required from handy, front panel sockets. Styling has stepped straight out of a 1980’s JVC catalogue Р which makes it pretty much up to the minute.
The ‘phones themselves employ surprisingly large circular ear-pieces, in contrast to the traditional, rectangular Stax style of old. Look closer and the surprises continue. The beautiful leather pads have ‘D’ shaped apertures in order to get up close and personal with your ears, while they also rotate independently to further enhance the fit and comfort. Meanwhile, the outer, open face of each driver also rotates, allowing you to ideally angle each three-core ribbon cable. Given this beautifully engineered attention to detail, I was slightly surprised to discover that the headband is not adjustable. Instead, the wide support strap is simply elasticated. While initially sceptical, this arrangement proved remarkably comfortable in practice, and equally so on Louise’s far smaller head, so chalk up another to Stax’s long experience in the field.
The headset is reassuringly solid and nicely weighty, but all that attention to fit and comfort ensures that in use it never becomes a burden, while its gentle fit, a world away from the vice-like grip of studio ‘phones, means that sweaty ear syndrome is also a thing of the past. The supplied cord is a generous 2.5M long, but extensions are available should you need them. In its standard form this system will set you back a cool £2,995 but, if that’s not rich enough for your blood, then there’s also a tweaked or Kimik version, with a matched set of cryogenically treated tubes, EAT tube dampers all round and up to four days on the test-bench to make sure everything is perfectly balanced. This treatment adds a mere £300 to the ticket so, under the circumstances, why not?
Enough of practicalities, how do the Stax ‘phones sound?
Resident amp/speaker combination at present is the Berning Quadrature Zs driving the “one down from the Grandes” Focal Stella Utopia Ems, a combination that manages to combine phenomenal transparency and resolution with real scale and dynamic range. It’s an impressive and imposing set up. Compare that to the Stax system--which nominally sets out to do the same job--and you might think the result is a foregone conclusion. But you’d be wrong. Sure enough, the Stax ‘phones can’t match the sheer power, the staging and the immersive presence of the big amp and speaker pairing, but there are other areas in which they can teach us a thing or two. Detail and intimacy are traditional strengths of both electrostatic transducers and headphones, and it’s no surprise to note that the Stax take these attributes to the extreme. But that alone doesn’t justify their status as a genuine alternative to more conventional replay systems. That comes from another attribute entirely--the elimination of the listening room.