by John Grandberg
A few months back I surveyed the “affordable” sealed headphone landscape, ending up with a good number of competitors that I felt comfortable recommending. The most expensive of them was well under $400 and several on the list didn’t even top $300. That’s great for those of us on a budget, or for casual headphone fans who need a great sounding alternative to their speaker rig.
This question is. does it get much better than these affordable options? What about the absolute best sealed headphones out there, the really high-end models which pull no price-related punches? Today’s article focuses on the flagship sealed options, which is something we’ve seen a lot more of recently. Still, the list is rather small compared to open designs, and I’ll do my best to explain why many of the options just didn’t make the cut for me.
Sealed headphones used to be more of a “thing”. There was a time when big companies threw everything they had at making what they felt, at the time at least, to be truly reference caliber headphones. The resulting models were definitely extreme… Sony had their MDR-R10, using advanced bio-cellulose driver technology and selling for $2,499 (in 1989 dollars!). Some years later Audio Technica had their ATH-L3000, using leather over wood construction and also fetching thousands of dollars. In 2001, the electrostatic experts at Stax produced their only sealed model – the SR-4070. Built to order and therefore among the most rare Stax of the time period, the SR-4070 is often regarded as one of the most neutral headphones ever made. Since production stopped a few years back, these things have become extremely elusive — I’ve been on the hunt for a while now without much luck. When I do manage to find one in the wild, they tend to disappear almost immediately, fetching prices significantly higher than their original MSRP. Not to be outdone, the Sony R10 will often sell for $5,000 or more on the used market. Headphones as investments? Rare, but true in these cases.
Many other relatively expensive sealed models have come and gone since then. Some of them were decent, but few (none?) were spectacular in my opinion. A lot of them were just bad. It seems most headphone manufacturers wanted to focus on their open-back designs, an area that has seen plenty of growth. In recent years we’ve seen the rise of the mighty Sennheiser HD800, which set a standard still being chased by competitors (e.g., beyerdynamic T1 and AKG K812). We’ve seen the launch of the Stax SR-009 and more recently the JPS Labs Abyss AB-1266, two very different headphones both similarly priced at around $5,000. We’ve seen widespread consumer adoption of high-end custom in-ear monitors, with ever-increasing driver count and four-figure pricing. And lastly, we’ve witnessed the resurgence of planar-magnetic headphones – an old-school concept as it pertains to headphones, made new by the likes of HiFiMAN and Audeze. Despite all this progress with open models, the market for high-end closed-back headphones of the closed variety has been a lot less active. Allow me to explain why many of them didn’t make the cut for this roundup.
Denon had a trio of popular closed models called the AH-D2000, AH-D5000, and AH-D7000. The D5000 and the D7000 in particular were quite good in my opinion, especially the later iterations which showed some improvement over the early models . These were fun sounding cans, not really what I’d call “Reference” caliber in the HD800 sort of way, but plenty capable. Unfortunately Denon chose to discontinue them recently, replacing the top-shelf D7000 with the D7100 which is rather… unfortunate, in both looks and sound. This is a prime example of how blindly purchasing one of the most expensive models on the market does not in any way guarantee good sound. Thankfully the legacy lives on (sort of) with the Fostex models, which I’ll discuss shortly.
Audio Technica has long been a proponent of sealed headphones, and their W-series models have always shown various strengths that made them attractive in certain contexts. The W1000X (MSRP $699, street price often a lot lower) has been around a few years and remains a current model. I rather enjoy it… but don’t quite consider it a reference level headphone. Audio Technica did release a limited edition model for their 30th anniversary, dubbed the W3000ANV ($1299). It was by most accounts a brilliant closed-back headphone. Being a limited release, you’ll have to search the classifieds to find a pair. As this roundup covers headphones currently in production, I had to leave this one off the list. Dang!
German firm Ultrasone finally released a headphone that I enjoy — more than I expected, actually. Their Signature Pro ($1299) doesn’t really look like much, but the sound quality is far better than anything I’ve heard from them in the past. And yes, that includes their more expensive Edition 8 that I’m not particularly fond of. Still, I didn’t include the Signature Pro here as I feel it – like the W1000X – is not *quite* a top-level headphone, especially for the price. I apply the same logic to the $999 Signature DJ which is a bass heavy variation with funkier aesthetics.
Another German export, beyerdynamic — lack of capitalization is their choice, not mine — has their Tesla T5p ($1,399) sealed model. Being an expensive headphone, it is sometimes included on lists of reference caliber options. I very much dislike this headphone. It’s bright, edgy, and thin sounding, taking all the worst traits of its semi-open T1 sibling and magnifying them tenfold. What a shame, as this is one of the most comfy headphones I’ve experienced.
I could go on and on discussing models I didn’t include for one reason or other. The Shure SRH-1540 ($499) was just released as I wrote this and I couldn’t get a sample in time. The Sony MDR-7520 ($499) has been around for a while in Japan but just barely showed up in the Sony USA catalog, so again I couldn’t get one in time. If I waited for each new model to drop, well… this write-up might never be finished. The Sony and the Shure both arguably fit better in my previous article anyway, as street prices will likely settle and end up closer to those models. But rather than focus on what I didn’t include, I’d better start talking about the stuff I did put on the list – and why.
As I write this, I’m assuming you’re familiar with my original article for the background to this whole project. What’s that? You haven’t read it yet? You should probably do so in order to get the most out of this follow up piece — that way I don’t have to repeat myself as much. That article presents some really good options that don’t cost a fortune, and for a lot of people that level of performance is plenty. No need to keep searching or spend more. For those of us who want the absolute best available, regardless of price, this review is for you.
As I see it, the top closed-back headphones available right now are the Audeze LCD-XC ($1,799), the Fostex TH-900 ($1,499), and the MrSpeakers Alpha Dogs ($599). These are three very different headphones, all of which do an excellent job and rival many of their open-backed counterparts. These three are all very popular at the moment — so much so, that getting review samples proved unusually difficult. I went ahead and purchased the Alpha Dogs right when they came out because I had been so impressed with the Mad Dogs. But neither Fostex nor Audeze had loaner units to spare at the moment. I asked around and couldn’t seem to find a loaner pair anywhere — several regional dealers told me they had a hard time keeping their demo units in stock, because people kept buying them up. That’s a good sign right?
Eventually, an idea hit me. I remembered how The Cable Company has their very cool Headphone Lending Library program. For a small fee and the cost of shipping, folks can essentially “rent” a high-end headphone for the week, taking it for a spin with their own system. This lets people get a feel for the sound which goes well beyond what could be gleaned through an in-store listening session. The Cable Company carries most of the high-end brands and models, and they have a good selection of quality headphone amplifiers as well. The fees involved aren’t excessive in my opinion, and they do go towards the purchase if one ends up buying. So essentially it would just be the cost of shipping the demo units to and fro, which isn’t much when contemplating a rather large purchase like this. You can read as many reviews as you want but nothing is better than hearing for yourself. So I heartily recommend The Cable Company for this unique service, and thank them for helping make this article happen.
In order to get the most from these high-end headphones, I figured a top quality system was in order. So I used my best gear for these evaluations: Aurender X100L music server feeding an Audiophilleo 1 USB to SPDIF converter with PurePower battery option, Resonessence Labs Invicta Mirus DAC, and either an AURALiC Taurus mkII or else a Questyle CMA800R headphone amp — or sometimes a pair of them in true balance, dual mono configuration. Power conditioning was done by an APC S15, with Cabledyne Reference AC, digital, and interconnect cables throughout. I also brought out a slew of other gear just to get a full picture of each headphone’s character – single-ended triode amps from Icon Audio and Analog Design Labs, the B.M.C. PureDAC, the Anedio D2, Calyx Femto, Esoteric D-07x, and a bunch more. I’m fairly confident I got to the bottom of each particular headphone and what type of system it best pairs with.
MrSpeakers Alpha Dogs
Following the success of the Mad Dogs, Dan Clark (MrSpeakers himself) moved upscale with his flagship Alpha Dogs ($599). For an overly-simplified recap of his original model: Dan takes the affordable Fostex T50RP planar magnetic headphones, applies his own special tuning, and turns them into the Mad Dogs which sound vastly improved over stock. Comfort is improved via new pads and a soft leather headstrap. Mad Dogs really are an impressive achievement, one that many people have found to be a favorite.
The Alpha Dogs start with the same formula and take it to the next level with 3D printed baffles and cups. Why new cups? To extract the maximum performance possible. Sounds like marketing speak, but it makes sense when you think about it — the Fostex planar magnetic drivers have proven themselves to be extremely capable, scaling ever higher with improved damping. At some point in the process the actual plastic cups themselves become the weakest link. That’s a limitation the Mad Dogs will never quite surmount. New cups were mandatory to move the project to the next level.
So, why 3D printing? Yes, it’s a buzz word, very bleeding-edge and all that. But there are actually several benefits to be had there. The main advantage is a very high strength to weight ratio, with added rigidity through the use of a double-walled shell. There’s also the issue of control – can you imagine how many prototypes Dan Clark must have printed up while optimizing the design? Being able to do everything in-house allows him to try all sorts of ideas — keeping what works and discarding the rest — without relying on a third party for manufacturing. That’s not something a small headphone builder could likely pull off using injection molded plastic.
By the time we factor in the new baffles, damping, cups, completely redone cabling, pads, and the comfort strap, there’s not much left over from the original Fostex donor. The “forks” that hold each cup have been tastefully powder coated in black, so the only visible remnant of the T50RP is the “Fostex” emblazoned top arc. That could theoretically be replaced as well, but with added cost/complexity and little to no benefit. I think Dan made the right choice in keeping it.
So, how does the Alpha Dog sound? As luck would have it, I was listening to the Mad Dogs when the Alpha Dog package arrived at my door. I immediately swapped them out and was…. just slightly disappointed. Gone was the warm, somewhat smooth presentation, replaced by a more linear and “mature” sound signature. There was definitely more top end sparkle, clarity, detail, and all that, but somehow it seemed to be missing the character I had enjoyed from its little brother. I put the Alphas aside and let them burn-in for a few days while I worked on other things. When I came back and gave them a fresh start, things were far more enjoyable. With preconceptions dropped, I found the Alpha Dogs to be superbly well balanced, and exceedingly capable for the $599 asking price.
Now, l have to say I’m not really a big proponent of burn-in. I realize there can be small changes as the headphone settles with initial use, but I just don’t see that explaining the typical “night and day” differences folks usually describe. I tend to think it’s our brains/ears that do the changing — and this is definitely one of those cases. Coming from the more “fun” sound of the Mad Dogs, I had expectations of the Alphas being an upgraded version of that same experience — maybe somewhere in the ballpark of an Audeze LCD-2, or more specifically the original LCD-2 before the later revisions. A closed version of that headphone would be very welcome indeed.
But guess what? The Alpha Dogs have a clever adjustable bass system on board. They call it Very-Bass Tuning, and it allows for boosting or dialing back low frequencies using a screw in each cup. It’s not the sort of thing you’d use on a frequent basis to change the tuning from song to song. Rather, I believe Dan Clark intended people to dial in the bass just the way they want and then run it that way for the semi-long term. In any case, I found that a half-turn on each side gave me a very mild boost, and a full turn of the screw gave me a roughly 2-3dB bump. It started down low in the sub-bass region and tapered off by around 130Hz, meaning it didn’t interfere with the lower mids. This was about as much boost as the Alpha Dogs could handle before things started sounding a little “weird”, for lack of a better word. Most of the time this 2-3dB boost was just what I had been looking for – I got the thump I had craved for more visceral material while still keeping a nice overall balance for Mozart and Mahler.
Speaking of classical, I do have to mention — the Alpha Dogs are among the more “open” sounding sealed headphones I’ve experienced. It likely has to do with the airy treble presentation, and it makes them particularly well suited to large scale orchestral works, solo piano, and most everything in between. This is probably the most obvious area where the Alpha Dogs surpass their Mad Dog siblings. It may help that, like the Mad Dogs, these aren’t the most isolating sealed headphones out there. Whatever the cause, I really dig this aspect. I was able to get lost in my favorite performances of Ravel, Hayden, and Stravinski, more so than I could even with some open back models (Audeze LCD-2 for example).
As far as amplification goes, the Alpha Dogs aren’t incredibly difficult to drive. Like most planar magnetic designs, they do tend to “wake up” when driven with a reasonably powerful headphone amp. I get perfectly acceptable results from the Resonessence Labs Concero HP but things get really interesting when using a more potent amp such as the Auralic Taurus which can dump several watts into a low impedance load like this. The upper mids and highs are very nicely extended here, but the flip side of that is fatigue — with the wrong signal chain, the Alpha Dogs go right over the edge into “annoying” at times.
An example of this kind of fatigue also occurred with the Asus Xonar Essence STU, which is an all-in-one integrated USB DAC with headphone amp. With the stock opamps swapped out in favor of the MUSES 01 JFETs (at $50 a pop!) the STU is a hyper-detailed soundstage extravaganza… and I just don’t like it with the Alpha Dogs. I find it too lean, too whispy and tipped up, with not much “soul” to be found. For about the same price the AMI Musik DDH-1 makes a far better match, as likely would the Parasound Zdac. But really, the Alphas are so capable, and scale so well, that they truly deserve to be used with higher level gear. With my Resonessence Labs Invicta Mirus and a pair of Questyle CMA800R amps in dual mono, fully balanced mode, the Alpha Dogs just sing like no other $600 headphone I’ve experienced. Yeah, it’s very impressive.
This may sound like I’m describing something akin to a Sennheiser HD800, with somewhat tipped up treble and bass that is very high in quality but not so high in quantity. And I suppose that’s true on a very basic level (prior to any bass adjustments). But even then, the Alpha Dogs tend to sound more tonally “meaty” than the ethereal Sennheisers. The midrange, despite being similarly prominent in the mix, is thicker and richer, but also somewhat less transparent. Likewise the treble comes across as just a tiny bit bright once in a while, as opposed to the HD800 which can be rather challenging in that regard. I have the utmost respect for the HD800 and consider it among the most highly resolving headphones available, but for general music listening/enjoyment (rather than analyzing) I find the Alpha Dogs a more willing partner — and I think the average music lover (note I didn’t say Audiophile!) would likely agree.
As with the Mad Dogs, Dan Clark is always innovating. He recently came up with the “Obedience Kit”, a $15 retrofit that helps adjust the character of the Alpha Dogs. It results in a slightly darker sound, with smoother treble and a correspondingly increased perception of warmth. I was able to hear a pair with this kit applied and compare it directly to mine… and all my whining notwithstanding, I actually prefer the sound on my pair. I know, I know… sounds contradictory right? Despite the occasional relative harshness due to treble spikes, I find my own pair to be more resolving and airy, and better balanced overall. If my pair is on the neutral-to-slightly-bright side (again, prior to fiddling with the bass adjustment screw), the tweaked version deviates from neutral in the opposite direction. Which, conceptually, I would tend to prefer. But not this time. I’m almost positive that if I heard this version first I would have loved it from the start, rather than struggle a bit like I did with my pair. But down the road I may not have ended up enjoying it as much as I do with my version. I do appreciate having the option though: between the Obedience Kit, the Very-Bass adjustments, factory balanced or single-ended cable termination, and now a choice between the original red — excuse me, Gloss Metallic Claret — and a new black finish, there should be a little something for everyone.
In the end, I find the Alpha Dogs to be spectacularly enjoyable for 99% of my listening. Once in a blue moon, I still pine for more low-end slam, or a slightly smoother top end, but those moments have become increasingly rare. I particularly appreciate the build quality and comfort of the design that really transcends its humble Fostex beginnings — it doesn’t seem at all out of place here, next to significantly more expensive competitors. Factor in the tuning options and I’d say the Alpha Dogs have something to offer for most everyone out there.
This has become my go-to headphone that I use more often than anything else to develop initial impressions when new gear arrives for review. It’s not my most transparent headphone, nor my most “fun” headphone, but makes a pretty strong argument for being a good compromise between the two. While I wasn’t completely blown away at first listen, the Alpha Dogs have grown on me to the point that I feel comfortable giving them a hearty recommendation.
Unless you’ve been living under a proverbial rock, you’ve probably heard the name Audeze (pronounced “Odyssey” of course). Their various models have carved a trail of praise across the audiophile landscape over the past few years, with the LCD-2 claiming plentiful credit for the modern planar magnetic headphone renaissance. Most recently, their LCD-X made the cover of the March 2014 Stereophile, having “seduced” Editor John Atkinson away from his longstanding allegiance to Sennheiser headphones. Serious expectations? Sure, but I’ve been a big fan of the LCD-2 since it first came out, and now really enjoy the flagship LCD-3 as well. So I knew what I was getting myself in to.
The LCD-XC ($1,799) is kind of a big deal because it’s the first closed back model in the Audeze lineup. With the exception of the Fostex T50RP and its various mods, all other (current) planar magnetic designs are open-back models. This includes everything from Audeze and HiFiMAN, the JPS Labs Abyss, and the new Oppo models too. The LCD-XC represents a sort of validation for those of us who, at times, require isolation — as if to say “Yep, it can and should be done”. The LCD-XC launched concurrently with the LCD-X, sharing the same newly designed drivers and other technology. Audeze continues to offer their flagship LCD-3 ($1,945) as well as the LCD-2 ($995), which I suppose has become their “entry-level” model at this point.
The LCD-XC follows the traditional Audeze design cues — it appears to use the same general headband and frame assembly, very similar pads, and identical cabling (detachable and available in balanced or 1/4″ termination). There are small differences in the pads and maybe the other parts as well but for the most part they are all “close enough”. That said, there is a notable difference in weight that will certainly be a factor for some users.
The LCD-2 in standard bamboo is 490 grams, with the rosewood variation being slightly heavier. Plenty of folks have complained about that weight. The LCD-3 is 548 grams and the LCD-X is 600 grams. The closed back LCD-XC weighs in at a rather portly 650 grams. To put these numbers in perspective, the competing HiFiMAN HE-6 and HE-500 planar magnetic headphones, also considered to be rather heavy, weigh 502 grams. The Sennheiser HD800 is a mere 330 grams, Audio Technica’s W1000X is 350 grams, the previously discussed Alpha Dogs are 440 grams, and my reference Stax SR-007 electrostats are 365 grams. So the LCD-XC is nearly double the weight of some of these other models.
I’m a pretty big guy, and honestly I’ve never identified with people who found the Audeze or HiFiMAN products too heavy. While neither brand makes the most comfortable headphones in the world, I’ve always attributed that to other factors. Still, I have no problem using an HE-6 or LCD-3 for hours at a time, and I didn’t anticipate having trouble with the LCD-XC either.
Turns out I was wrong. Apparently the LCD-XC exceeds my personal limit because I do find it overly heavy, to the point where I can only comfortably handle one album at a time. I’m not sure if it’s the raw weight itself, or the distribution (which seems somehow different than the other models), but it just doesn’t work as well for me. It’s not so much that my neck gets tired, but more a matter of pressure on the crown of my head. The Audeze fit has very little clamping force so almost the entire weight rests on the noggin top, which is a very sensitive area. I have trouble with most Ultrasone headphones as well, which are very light weight but put all their pressure on that same spot. So maybe it’s just my particular sensitivity. I don’t claim to have an answer to this problem — closed headphones, by their very nature, require more materials than their open counterparts. All that extra wood on the cups, and probably more damping material as well. It’s unavoidable. The only way to really tell if these work for you is to actually try a pair and see. When I first put them on I thought everything was fine but over time I had to reluctantly concede this point.
Just as my expectations regarding comfort had ended up being wrong, so too did my ideas about sound signature end up being somewhat misguided. I went into this evaluation expecting what I’d call the “classic” Audeze sound — a rich, creamy presentation with generous low frequency response and a somewhat smooth, forgiving top end. That’s how my very first LCD-2 sounded, and my current LCD-2 — though definitely more balanced — retains that same general character. The LCD-3 has increased resolution and is less colored overall but again has at least trace elements of that sound to it.
The LCD-XC, to my ears, is a noteworthy departure from that heritage. My initial listening notes use the words “Mostly Neutral” on several occasions. I mean that in relative terms, compared to the other Audeze models rather than Stax or Sennheiser. With the LCD-XC, the bass is solid but seems somehow different from the typical Audeze presentation. I’d say it has more “punch” and less “slam”, meaning an emphasis around 80Hz rather than the sub-bass regions. As with all its siblings, bass quality quite nice — there’s plenty of texture and nuance here, and it is certainly not a one-note bass cannon. However, after direct comparison to an LCD-2 and especially LCD-3, the LCD-XC seems just a little less satisfying to my ears. I’m sure it’s difficult to engineer a good closed-back headphone – take any open model and cover the cups with your hands, and you’ll instantly hear what I mean. Perhaps this is just the best Audeze could possibly do given these limitations. Or maybe it’s just my preference for deep sub-bass impact. Don’t get me wrong, these are very satisfying until I compare them directly, and if I didn’t know any better I’d say this was as good as it gets.
The LCD-XC strikes me as being somewhat forward sounding — not Grado forward, but nonetheless having more energy in the 2-3kHz range than what I’d consider truly neutral. And these aren’t just less relaxed than their open siblings, but actually slightly aggressive in the upper mids at times. Thankfully they remain very clean sounding, worlds better than any Grado I’ve ever experienced (and I’ve owned most of ’em). There’s practically zero grain to be heard, so it tends to come across as very detailed rather than just obnoxious. Still, this is something to potentially watch out for. If someone finds the Sennheiser HD700 annoying (to pick one example), they should not automatically discount the LCD-XC because the forwardness is rather different — and far less pronounced in this case.
So, how does this translate in musical terms? Well, despite everything I just said, the LCD-XC still manages to sound more neutral than my other Audeze models. This may be similar to the Focal Spirit Pro, which I also describe as “neutral” even though it does have some midrange prominence. Those in the know have called the LCD-X the least colored of all Audeze models and since they share the same driver, it makes sense that the XC would follow that same path. The closed back design likely holds it back from achieving the exact same performance.
Either way, it makes the LCD-XC a good all around performer for a wide variety of music. It’s as happy playing Livingston Taylor and Sinatra as it is with Blotted Science, The Mighty Diamonds, Radar Brothers, or Crooked Still. It does an excellent job throwing up a large soundstage — it’s somewhat deeper than the Alpha Dogs, though not quite as wide. Classical is quite impressive here though due to that forward nature I found myself avoiding Bruckner (and other brass-heavy stuff) unless I was in the mood to listen at a modest volume level.
As for ancillaries, the XC is definitely different from the LCD-2. Where the latter favors plenty of juice from a neutral or slightly brighter amp, and likes about as detailed a DAC as you can possibly find, the XC takes a different approach. It doesn’t necessarily need a powerhouse amp (and has the 95dB sensitivity to prove it), favoring instead a smooth, slightly laid back presentation. I get the best results using an Icon Audio HP8 mkII single-ended triode amp running NOS tubes and fronted by the delightfully smooth Metrum Acoustics Hex DAC. If I throw the LCD-2 or LCD-3 in that same system I get thoroughly unsatisfying results. I also like the LCD-XC using a good solid state amp such as the AURALiC Taurus, proving tubes are not the only way to go here.
The comparison between LCD-XC and Alpha Dogs is an interesting one. The price mismatch is rather significant but in overall performance I consider them almost like peers — I don’t know if that’s flattering to the Alphas or insulting to the Audeze, perhaps a little of each. Anyway, the two sound vaguely similar overall — I can see how each company could dub their product “neutral” without an obvious stretch to their credibility. The LCD-XC has a slightly more forward signature, with an emphasis in the upper mids bringing vocals (especially the female variety) further out into the mix. They have a little more bass kick too, at least with the Alpha Dogs at their default setting. Using the bass tuning option allows the Alphas to just about match the XC in both low end tone and texture. I’d say the key area where Audeze earns their premium pricing is the treble presentation. The Alphas are not quite as clean in that region — there’s a very slight bit of grain in there, and some peaks as well, making for a slightly fatiguing experience at times. Some people are more sensitive to it than others, and of course your choices in music and source/amplification will be important factors. The upside is the XC seems better at resolving low-level information — the Alphas can’t match it for microdetail extraction, despite their attempt at being more sparkly. Then again, I find the Alpha Dogs far more comfortable to wear, and suspect most people would feel the same way. So tradeoffs exist no matter which way you go. Ultimately, the LCD-XC is the better headphone overall, while the Alpha Dogs are easily the better value.
I was hoping the Audeze LCD-XC would absolutely knock my socks off. And in some respects it did. The build quality is top notch, the appearance is stunning, the sound quite remarkable for what it is. It’s a bit different than I expected but nonetheless sounds very good. This is the only headphone in my roundup which has an open back counterpart (more or less) – the fact that it doesn’t quite match up exactly should not be counted against it, considering the Alpha Dogs and Fostex have no such comparisons to suffer through. This difference in character could actually be a good thing for users who weren’t completely sold on the traditional Audeze house sound.
My one reservation has to do with long-term comfort. As someone who thought I could handle just about any headphone out there, no matter how heavy… I finally met my match with the LCD-XC. Audeze seemingly did everything they could to mitigate this problem but it just wasn’t enough in my case. I know plenty of folks on Head-Fi who don’t have any issues with comfort, so this clearly varies from case to case. Will they work for you? There’s only one way to find out.
I’ve already peripherally discussed Fostex since they make the T50RP planar magnetic headphones, which serve as the basis for the Mr. Speakers Dog products. What some people don’t know is that Fostex also has a solid history with quality dynamic driver headphones — they were the OEM behind the popular (recently discontinued) Denon D2000, D5000, and D7000 closed models. Fostex has actually been around for decades making speaker drivers and other audio related gear. So, despite not being as well known as Sennheiser or beyerdynamic, this is a company that has some real history and experience under its belt.
The Denon D2000 and D5000 have been around since 2007 — that’s ancient in headphone years. The flagship D7000 was announced at CES in 2009 priced at an atmospheric (for that era) $999. At the time, existing flagship models included the beyerdynamic DT880 ($399), Sennheiser HD650 ($499), and AKG K701 ($449). Ok, Grado did have their $995 GS-1000, but everyone knew that thing was way overpriced. Besides, those are all open-backed headphones anyway. With the Denon line, closed models were finally getting some serious attention. Sennheiser also released their pricey HD800 at that same CES, and ultimately made a more significant impact on the headphone landscape. The Denons, however, paved the way for consumer acceptance of expensive, really high-quality sealed headphones. Fostex deserves serious credit for that.
Fostex must have seen the increasing popularity of the headphone segment and decided to make more of a name for themselves, rather than just doing OEM work for others. In 2012, we saw the launch of their flagship TH-900 headphone, followed later in the year by its slightly less ambitious sibling the TH-600. This duo had a lot in common with the prior Denon models, being more evolutionary than revolutionary — at least as far as appearances go. These were originally priced even higher but have since “settled” to $1499 for the TH-900 and $999 for the TH-600 — with street prices sometimes a bit lower (especially for the TH-600).
I’ll admit it right now: the TH-600 is something of a mystery as it seems most people with a big budget and a desire for a high-end Fostex sealed headphone almost always go straight to the top model. The Cable Company doesn’t stock them in their Headphone Lending Library for exactly this reason. I tried several other industry contacts and dealers, and all of them basically told me the same thing. So, the TH-600 could very well be a fantastic option, but for the purposes of this article I’ll be pretending it doesn’t exist. Sorry.
The TH-900 uses the tried-and-true Denon D7000 frame with a few tweaks to enhance comfort and durability. I’ve always found the Denons suitably comfy and the TH-900 is even better, mainly thanks to the superior materials used for the pads. Literature for the Denon models claimed the pads were real leather but that was pretty obviously false. Fostex calls theirs “protein leather made from eggshell membrane,” whatever that means. It feels to me like the Denons tried and failed to simulate real leather, while the TH-900 shoots for something altogether more unique. We may know it isn’t traditional leather, but we also don’t care because it’s so nice in its own way. It also seems to “breathe” better than pleather or even real leather, which comes in handy on warm days or for long listening sessions.
The most obvious characteristic of the TH-900 is the wood cups, which are created from Japanese Cherry Birch and coated with Urushi lacquer. You can see more about the process in the video below.
It’s far more complex than I ever imagined, and seeing the artisans create these things has only deepened my respect for the end result. I’m sure MrSpeakers and Audeze have complex production methods as well, but I have to think Fostex takes the cake here. Does it really matter when we compare the final products? Maybe, maybe not. All three are beautiful in their own ways, and some people will be interested in the production process while others won’t care one bit.
The TH-900 weights 400 grams, which is a bit lighter than the Alphas and significantly lighter than the LCD-XC. The weight difference almost makes the Fostex seem like a toy in comparison, but build quality seems fairly robust so I wouldn’t worry about it. Comfort is extremely good, at least for my particular head — probably the best of the three, especially for long term listening. The headphones settle very lightly on the skull and there’s not a lot of clamping force. The flip side to that? They don’t isolate as well as the other two. Sounds will leak in a bit more, and if you listen at high levels, someone sitting next to you may hear enough of your music to find it distracting. That only really applies under specific circumstances though — it may not work well in a shared cubicle, for example. But for late night listening while the family sleeps in their rooms down the hall? Even at high volumes, these will still do the trick just fine, where a true open headphone may not.
Fostex doesn’t want you to think their flagship is merely a conventional design with a pretty finish. Their claim to fame is a proprietary neodymium “magnetic-repulsion” driver with a magnetic flux density of 1.5 Tesla — that’s significantly more awesomeness compared to beyerdynamic’s T1 driver which claims a “mere” 1 Tesla. Fostex states this technology gives them wider dynamic range than a traditional driver could possibly achieve. In addition, the diaphragm is made from bio-cellulose fiber that they dub “Biodyna”, supposedly lighter yet more rigid than traditional plastic-film based driver technology. All this to say the TH-900 is more evolved than we might initially think, with enough improvements over the Denon series to hopefully justify the price.
The sound of the TH-900 is something I find beguiling yet difficult to explain. It’s definitely not a neutral, reference type signature. There’s a distinct coloration to it — warm, lush, and somewhat “V-shaped” to use a generic audiophile term. That nets us very solid, prominent low end response, and a delightful sparkle up top. The presence region is slightly laid back, and this is the part that I have trouble explaining. I wouldn’t call it distant or recessed. In fact the TH-900 midrange is very engaging. It’s just not as forward as the Alpha Dogs or especially the LCD-XC. The experience is more akin to sitting towards the rear of a concert hall, where the perspective is not so in-your-face. That doesn’t prevent it from having excellent detail retrieval and clarity — it’s just not the main focus here.
The Denon D7000 was a fun headphone with somewhat sucked-out midrange, though it improved quite a bit in the refreshed models near the end of production. Still, the TH-900 comes even farther in comparison, with the presence region being more satisfying to these ears on direct comparison. The D7000 initially comes across as having a touch more bass thump (or “thud” if you prefer, as the focus is squarely on the sub-bass region), though upon further listening I think that’s a function of the midrange-to-bass transition being more drastic. With a more even frequency response, the TH-900 seemingly has less prodigious bass as a byproduct. Carefully comparing them, back to back on the same amps, I conclude the TH-900 actually hits a little harder, and is therefore more fulfilling in the grand scheme of things. Since the overall presentation just sounds more even, it takes the spotlight away from that particular region to some extent. If big bass is priority one, you might consider looking for a used D7000 (they are becoming more and more scarce these days). If you want that rumble without sacrificing midrange liquidity, the TH-900 should be at the top of your list, proving that dynamic drivers can still keep up with their planar magnetic counterparts.
Another aspect I enjoy over the Denon models is the treble presentation. Where the D7000 could get overly sharp at times, the TH-900 seems like a great balance between sparkle and overload. There’s more information up there but it’s cleaner and less peaky, making it more satisfying for both the short term and the long haul. I can still imagine some people finding it too bright though – certain folks are fairly sensitive to that sort of thing and won’t get on with the TH-900 very well despite all of its other strong points.
The Alpha Dogs and the LCD-XC are both adept at throwing a large, precise soundstage. I was a bit worried that the TH-900 wouldn’t be able to keep up, since that sort of thing was never a strong point of the Denon models. My fears were completely unfounded though… the Fostex is one of the most open-sounding closed-back headphones on the planet. It’s not so much that the soundstage is that much bigger than the others, but that it seems so effortless. If you blindfolded me and put these on my head (a creepy scenario, to be sure) I would swear they were open-backed rather than closed in nature. Are they as open as a Sennheiser HD800? Nope. But then again, what is? The TH-900 is more like an HD650,which is still quite an accomplishment for a sealed design. The result is the most spacious in this group, though not quite as precise as the others in terms of imaging. Which seems appropriate given the voicing of each model.
I found the TH-900 to work best with what I call “real world music”. That is to say, music which isn’t necessarily reference caliber. If I play the usual cheesy audiophile nuggets such as Patricia Barber, Diana Krall, Rebecca Pidgeon, maybe some Dire Straits or The Eagles… that stuff doesn’t come across as being as “perfect” as it should be. I hear the coloration, the extra warmth and lushness, and am constantly aware that it sounds “different” compared to what I’d call a true reference system. No, the TH-900 is better suited to music I actually enjoy. I’m able to break out albums from Sister Sparrow and the Dirty Birds, Infectious Grooves, Further Seems Forever, Obscura, and a bunch more that aren’t very suitable with my HD800. Then again, I can also enjoy Hiromi, Doug MacLeod, and The Bad Plus, all of which I consider very well recorded — just not as stuffy. So the only limitation for the TH-900 seems to be music I don’t care for anyway… no big loss right?
An effective, if not perfect, analogy for the TH-900 is to compare it to certain speakers. Not one particular speaker, mind you — I’m talking in generalities. Stuff like Zu Audio, Wilson, and Magnepan, where the sound will have a distinct character as compared to something like a Focal or Dynaudio that typically go for the same general sound. Before you get too bent out of shape, note that I’m not saying all Dynaudio and Focal speakers sound the same! Rather, both companies seem to be aiming for a similar, monitor like sound — transparent, clean, neutral to a fault, with each having their own slight variation on how they interpret that ideal. Their various models have differing capabilities, so those attributes will come on stronger or weaker at times, but I maintain they are all shooting for a similar goal. Not so with some other brands. Whether you actually enjoy a Zu Druid or a Magnepan 3.7 is another matter entirely, but I think most people would admit they sound very different in their own ways. That’s what we have happening with the Fostex TH-900. The Alpha Dogs and LCD-XC each have their own unique flavors, yet have far more in common with each other than with the TH-900.
The Fostex TH-900 is the oldest headphone in this article. Old enough for some of that “new release excitement” to wear thin. To be honest, I had some reservations — wasn’t this just gonna be an expensive Denon D7000 with prettier cups and a much higher price tag? If that’s all it was, I wouldn’t be impressed. Fortunately the TH-900 ends up being something entirely unique and really quite special.
It’s not the most balanced headphone, and the character it has will not appeal to everyone. But it appeals to me in such a way that I’d probably call it my favorite of this bunch for general listening. The comfort certainly helps, as does the tonal richness that bathes my favorite music in a yummy warm glow. This is squarely a listening headphone as opposed to a recording tool and I’m completely fine with that. Not to say the coloration is extreme — Damien Rice still sounds like Damien Rice, and most new pop albums still sound like auto-tuned disasters. But to inject a bit of fun and life into the music I love, and do so in a way that won’t distract those around me, the TH-900 reigns supreme to these ears.
It’s a great time to be a headphone enthusiast. There are more options than ever before, in a variety of styles, with prices ranging from very affordable to very expensive. There’s a lot of crap out there but also a lot of really great stuff — a ratio likely similar to that of loudspeakers. If you need a closed-back headphone for more discreet listening, well… I’d argue the selection has never been better than it is right now.
In my view, the three models presented here are the best sealed headphones currently available at any price, short of tracking down some rare gem from years ago (and paying way too much for it). I’d even place these in contention with some of the top open-back designs on the market. It’s totally feasible that some people would prefer, say, a TH-900 to a Sennheiser HD800 or HiFiMAN HE-6. I conclude that sealed headphones, when done right, no longer demand much of a compromise.
Of this lot, the Alpha Dogs are easily the best value — $599 is not a lot of dough considering the overall experience it buys. With their adjustable bass and otherwise tweakable nature, most people should be able to make these work to their satisfaction. It says a lot that the Alpha Dogs can hang with cans costing 2-3 times as much and not feel terribly out of place. A very enthusiastic recommendation!
The Audeze LCD-XC is a majestic looking creature that for me was just slightly disappointing. That might say more about my expectations than anything else though, and it most certainly involves my cranial incompatibility. If your sternocleidomastoids are up to the task, be sure to give this one a demo — I know several headphone nuts who swear by it, and if not for the comfort issues I’d likely be smitten as well. This one strikes me as the ideal use of The Cable Company’s Headphone Lending Library: there’s no better way to find out than to try it for yourself.
Last but not least, the Fostex TH-900 strikes me as having the most “soul” of this bunch. The rich, bold presentation ticks all the boxes for me, and the exceptional comfort seals the deal. This isn’t a cheap headphone by any stretch of the imagination though, so once again I recommend trying before buying if at all possible. If you’re anything like me you’ll be glad you did.