Headphones, Earspeakers, or whatever you want to call them…

So Stax has been making headphones, or earspeakers as they prefer to call them, since 1960.  That’s right…  55 years and counting as I write this.  They have been the de-facto standard ever since, and most still consider them to be the best you will find if you need to throw some “cans” on your head.  Interestingly, their technology has changed very little since their inception, which is why I’ve also included them in the “vintage” category, even though I purchased a pair that were manufactured in 2014.

They are still manufactured exclusively in Japan and if you want a pair you need to purchase from a dealer who imports them or import them yourself.  I purchased the 4170 system, which ships complete with a tube headphone amplifier and the SR-407 headphones.  But with Stax, nothing is as it seems and the headphones are actually mini electrostatic speaker panels (hence the terminology of “ear speaker”) and the headphone amplifier is not just an amplifier but also provides the high voltage these electrostatic panels need in order to produce music.

These ear speakers offer what is arguably the finest transient response, imaging (more on that later) and detailed frequency response available in a pair of “headphones”.  Interestingly but not surprising, they also lack emphasis in the bass department, just as similar planar loudspeakers also lack it.

I’ve never been a fan of listening to music on headphones and was hoping these “ear speakers” might change that.  I’ve always maintained that any high-end audio system starts with the room, and room acoustics are the single-most important “component” therein (Planars… The room is the enclosure and In a nutshell, the big Maggies (3.7Rs) are a fantastic speaker, but are very dependent upon room acoustics).   I’ve met many listeners who seem content to listen to audiophile quality music on headphones but, much to the chagrin of my neighbors, I’ve never been one of them.

Unfortunately these Stax didn’t change my mind.  No matter how you slice it there is absolutely no “sound stage” with headphones.  They simply can’t project a stereo image in front of the listener wearing them so all the “imaging” happens between your ears and it feels and sounds like that.  Not to mention that they are never gonna vibrate your listening chair.

Filling a room with music is a double-edged sword, in that room acoustics can very dramatically enhance or detract from the listening experience.  But when properly set up nothing beats it.  I can only speculate that those who prefer headphones likely have nearly impossible rooms to work with (which almost none are if loudspeakers are selected for the room – Why do speakers need to be matched to room acoustics?…) or their systems aren’t set up to take advantage of the room acoustics.

Another detracting factor of listening to music on headphones is the far greater potential for hearing damage, especially with an electrostatic version such as the Stax.  It’s far easier to exceed the threshold to try to get better quality out of them.  I noticed my ears ringing after a short session of listening to them at what I considered moderate listening levels by loudspeaker standards and haven’t worn them since.  Try as I may, since it would be far more convenient with headphones, I’d rather just wait for opportune times to sit down in front of my loudspeakers.


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