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RMAF 2014: An Education in STAX

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Logo - Blue VectorSTAX electrostatic headphones — or “earspeakers,” as they call them — are near-legendary. I’ve been hearing about them since I first started to get into this hobby, as one of the most venerable and grail-like of high-end headphones. I had started to think of them as a bit unicorn-like, however; I’d run into a pair or two at meet-ups or as part of other vendors’ demos, but I don’t think I’d ever run into STAX themselves at a show.

Fitting, then, that when I finally ran into them, it was in the most comprehensive and welcoming way I can think of. Rather than dealing with the space constraints of Can Jam, STAX elected to set up in a room in the Atrium and demo their entire line. In just a few minutes, I was able to try out the full range, from the in-ear SR-003 ($350) to the flagship SR-009 ($4,450) and everything in between. Really, everything. It was the greatest education in STAX one could hope for. It’s absolutely delightful, by the way, to put on the lowest-end headphones in a line and think, “Oh, that’s good! Detailed, musical, very nice!” and then discover that it really does keep getting better all the way up. Wyred 4 Sound provided the digital-to-analog duties, and amplification was provided by a range of STAX amps commensurate with the individual headphones’ cost; cheaper models were primarily demo’d with the SRM-252S ($450) and SRM-323S ($875), while more expensive models were paired with the SRM-006ts ($1,325) and SRM-007tII ($2,150).

As much as I love the conviviality of the convention floor at Can Jam, STAX has me halfway convinced that we might be going about this the wrong way. It was enormously enjoyable to circle the table in that Atrium suite, trying out different gear, without the noise of a cavernous room and several hundred people to contend with. I didn’t trip over a single headphone cord!

It also got me thinking about this idea that gets tossed around from time to time about headphone listening as a “gateway drug” to Hi-Fi. Now, leaving aside that it’s foolish on its face not to consider headphone listening “Hi-Fi” in the first place, I think this is probably a silly concept at least half the time: there are plenty of audiophiles who are just never going to see the need for loudspeakers unless they’re throwing a party, just as there are plenty of audiophiles who are never going to get into headphones beyond the times when loudspeakers just aren’t convenient. But there’s still a lot of potential for crossover, and the current show set-ups tend to discourage said cross-pollination. Barring a few exceptions like STAX, the general trend tends to be that you’ve got the headphone folks over here, the loudspeaker folks over there, and never the twain shall meet.

I hear people saying things like, “Eh, the headphone people just aren’t interested in speakers,” or “Yeah, speaker guys, they just don’t get headphones.” Meanwhile, while they’re all at the same show, they’re essentially in two separate buildings. Maybe it’s time to start folding the two together a little more, and start treating the headphone rigs like the high-end stereos they are, rather than like second cousins twice removed from the real show. Mingling has its drawbacks, mostly involving the cost of additional rooms, but the potential for serendipity and discovery shouldn’t be disregarded.

[Amen–ed.]

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