Even the best-behaved rooms have an impact on what you hear. What the Stax ‘phones do is demonstrate just how big that impact is. Listen to a piece of music on your main system and then listen to it via the Stax; note how much clearer the musical phrasing is, the subtle shifts in level that characterize the playing, the ease with which you can follow the musical line. Now, both my system and the room lean towards clarity and a direct, explicit presentation, shorn of bass thickening or cosy richness. Yet the Stax still present a noticeably more connected and directed version of the musical performance. To quote a phrase, they let you hear the conductor--and I’m not referring to his breathing or tapping feet, but his musical influence, binding the orchestra and music as a whole.
The effect is programme dependent. The bigger and more complex the work the more obvious it becomes, so downsizing from the Brahms violin concerto to Bach mitigates the effect, but it doesn’t eliminate it. It’s just not as obvious. Downsize again to girl and guitar and you can barely pick it up, even when you know what you are looking for. Here the difference tends to get swamped by the contrast in presentation--perspective and acoustic versus detail and immediacy--with the speakers’ more naturalistic musical viewpoint carrying the day. But as soon as you ramp up the number of instruments or the musical density, the ‘phones start making ground and it’s not long before their particular appeal starts to vie for your attention. Am I about to give up on my loudspeakers? No. But I am thinking that it’s about time I invested in some serious headphones, not because they sound better than the speakers, but because they offer a different perspective. That perspective lays bare different aspects of the music, performers and their performance. It’s not just about detail, but what that detail can tell you, and in some cases that’s a night and day difference. Just try Neil Young’s Road Rage on for size and you’ll exactly what I mean.
Right about now the naysayers and “everything should be free on the internet” brigade will be spluttering their outrage at the proposition of spending more that £3K on a set of headphones. After all, you can pick up a set of ‘phones for a lot less than these will set you back--and they too, will eliminate the listening room. But there’s more to this than simply stuffing the speakers in your ears. Not only is there the question of the quality of the hardware involved, the transducer technology and the implementation, but there’s also the issue of the precise relationship between the driver and the ear canal. With a speaker that’s connected this intimately to a device as sensitive as the human ear, tiny differences will become readily apparent--with potentially ruinous results. Where the Stax score--and what you are paying for--is not just the engineering that’s gone into the electrostatic drivers and their energiser, but the thirty plus years of experience that informs the placement of those drivers relative to not just your ears, but the whole range of human ears and the heads they’re attached to.
That’s the really scary thing. Just as a loudspeaker manufacturer has to make certain assumptions regarding the range of rooms his products will appear in, and average their response as a result, the headphone designer is faced with the self same compromise, and although the variables are smaller, so too is the margin for error. The thing that impresses me most about the Stax is not the level of performance they achieve (which is impressive enough) but the utter consistency with which they do it, irrespective of the listener’s size or shape.
Stax refer to their systems as ‘earspeakers’. It’s an attempt to separate them from the run of the mill ‘phones with which we are all familiar, but it also reflects the level of performance they have achieved. Headphones have never been treated particularly seriously in hi-fi circles, as reflected in the slang moniker ‘cans’--redolent with image of tins and bits of string. That’s changing, largely driven by the iPod revolution, but that’s still predominantly a budget concern. What the Stax ‘phones demonstrate is that it’s time to raise our sights and enjoy the lessons that these earspeakers (and their competitors) can teach us. £3K is a lot of money--but it’s a lot less than a pair of Quadrature Zs and the Stellas! Besides which, there are four more affordable models in the Stax range. Give them a whirl; you might be surprised, you might be seduced, you’ll definitely be impressed.
Stax SR-007 Mk II Earspeakers & SRM-007 Mk II Kimik Energiser