No other headphone we’ve tried can tell you more about your favorite recordings or about the components in your system, though it is important to bear in mind that today’s best dynamic and planar magnetic ‘phones can come fairly close to the Stax and for considerably less money. Still, when push comes to shove, the Stax SR-009 seems—as some sports writers might put it—like a man competing among boys. The only caveat here, if there is a caveat, is that the SR-009, for obvious reasons, can only sound as good as the amp that drives it.
Some of my industry friends who happen to be manufacturers of subwoofers recommend using the track “Hotel California” from the Eagle’s live recording Hell Freezes Over [Geffen] as a test of bass resolution and pitch definition. What attracts them, I know, is a syncopated, low-pitched drum pattern (a sustained “booom” followed by two shorter notes, “boom-boom”) that appears near the beginning of the song. What’s interesting is that after the pattern is introduced and repeated roughly twice, the listener discovers that, as one of my subwoofer buddies put it, there are “dual bass drums at different pitches to discern” (because within the short two-note pattern, the second note seems to played at a slightly higher pitch than the first). But when I played this track through the SR-009, I learned something I had never realized before (not even with the best of subwoofers), which is that what’s really happening is that the second of the notes is played on a large conga where the player strikes the drum with one hand while pressing against the head of the drum on the second note (perhaps with his elbow or free hand) to delicately bend the second note upward in pitch. As I listened, the Stax ‘phones afforded me one of those “Aha” moments where I thought to myself, “So that’s how they get the higher note in that sequence; sweet!” My point is that this is the sort of small yet richly rewarding discovery you can expect to make—over and over again—when listening through the SR-009s.
To appreciate the SR-009’s dynamic prowess, try listening to the track “Lil’ Victa” from SMV’s (that is, Stanley Clarke, Marcus Miller, and Victor Wooten’s) Thunder [Heads Up]. The track feature three master bass guitarists taking turns soloing, and part of what is thrilling is to hear how very, very different the three identically tuned instruments sound in the hands of these masters. But what I would draw your attention to is the sheer variety of fingering and plucking techniques the musicians employ, including hammer-ons (where the player presses the string against a fret with such vigor that mere fretting the string causes a note to sound) and other slap’n’pop techniques (where the player might, say, hook a finger under a string, pull it upward and then release it, allowing the string to bounce fiercely off the fingerboard, unleashing an explosive burst of transient energy). What I found gripping—and at times almost frightening—was the sheer speed and power of the SR-009’s on those intricate and vigorous bass runs. What I soon discerned is that most other headphones—even some very fine ones—tend to round off some of those bass guitar transients to some degree, whereas the Stax beautifully captures the raw intensity and blindingly fast attacks of the notes without so much as a flinch or a whimper. This, incidentally, is something no previous Stax model in my experience could do near as well as the SR-009 does.
Another impressive aspect of the SR-009 is its ability to keep very small low-level sonic details in focus, even in the midst of passages where much larger dynamic swings are in play. As an example, I put on the concluding two sections of Part 2 of Mahler’s Symphony No. 8 [Michael Tilson Thomas/San Francisco Symphony, SFS Media, SACD], and discovered that I could pick out very delicate individual vocal lines, even during choral swells, or could discern extremely subtle changes in the attack and tonality of brass section instruments, even as huge dynamic swells were unfolding. In short, the SR-009 is one of those oh-so-rare transducers that can do many things at once, yet without ever stumbling or ever putting a sonic foot wrong. This is something that’s very hard for even the largest and most capable of high-end loudspeakers to manage, yet it’s a feat the Stax ‘phones pull off with almost casual, offhand ease.