It’s time for me to stop claiming that I’m not really that into headphone listening.
Oh, I listen to loudspeakers more, it’s true. It’s easier to log a lot of hours listening when you’re not literally tethered to a device. Nearly every evening, I’ll happily put on music and then putter around the living room, empty the dishwasher in the kitchen, and start tidying the dining room, with pauses to stop back at the couch and listen closely for a few minutes, assuming I can shove the dog out of the sweet spot (he loves his Nat King Cole). Loudspeakers are my first pick for casual listening and social listening, it’s true. But for close listening? It turns out that for me, that tether is kind of important. It’s not that I don’t do close listening with the loudspeakers; one of my favorite ways to wrap up an evening is to put on some Bill Evans or Bach cello suites, grab my knitting, and just listen for a while. But I can still be a bit distractible. There’s something that’s always calling out to be done.
Enter headphones. Particularly, as it turns out, closed headphones. I acquired a pair of MrSpeakers Alpha Dogs last spring, and quickly discovered the seductive selfishness of not being able to hear anything but the music. Oh, the dog wanted to be let out? The phone was ringing? The alarm on the dryer rang ages ago? OOPS I’M SORRY I COULDN’T HEAR BECAUSE HEADPHONES. Once I let go of the guilt of not being constantly “on call” for the other creatures in my household, I started welcoming the opportunity to get intensely involved in music with so few distractions.
It turns out, mind, that it’s even easier to let go of the guilt if I have “I’m working on a review” as an excuse. That could be a sneaky reason that it’s taken me this long to complete my review of the Alpha Primes ($999.99), MrSpeakers’ new and improved version of my much-loved Alpha Dogs. Oh, you need me to spend hours in close listening? Twist my arm.
The Alpha Prime headphones, like all of MrSpeakers headphones, use heavily modified Fostex T50RP planar drivers. The Primes, which are visually identical to the Alpha Dogs, use the same 3D printed latticed double-wall cups, available in either red or black finish. The fit and comfort are also identical. As I originally noted in my review of the Alpha Dogs for Digital Audio Review, the lambskin ear cups are cushy and fit nicely over my ears, and it was easy for me to achieve an effective seal, even with my glasses on. My husband, who has a comically large head, finds them a bit too tight for his tastes, so if you have the kind of head that requires you to special order your hats, you might want to take that into account. Personally, I approve of this turn of events, because it means I don’t have to retrieve my headphones from his desk whenever I want to do some listening. The leather strap distributes the weight (440 g, just short of a pound) comfortably with a minimum of fatigue or pressure points; once the Primes are settled on my head, I can’t exactly forget that I’m wearing them, but the weight doesn’t feel onerous.
So, if they’re visually the same as the Alpha Dogs, what’s the difference, other than price? It’s all in the driver tuning. As Dan Clark explained it to me, the Primes make use of what he refers to as V-Planar technology, which involves modifying the planar driver by deeply creasing it. Conventional planar drivers are intended to move as a flat surface, but in reality tend to form an arced surface when in use, since the driver material is inelastic and locked at the edges. V-Planar technology deeply creases the diaphragm to allow the driver to expand slightly as the creases open during driver excursion. This allows the driver to maintain its shape and respond to signals faster and with higher resolution, better dynamics, extended frequency response, and lower distortion.
When I saw Dan Clark at Rocky Mountain Audio Fest in October, he enthusiastically assured me that the Primes were “better in every way,” shortly before exhorting me to pop them onto my head. That brief encounter certainly left me with an impression of improved dynamics (particularly bass), but I was very eager to be able to do a direct comparison with the Alpha Dogs under more controlled listening conditions. Scot made arrangements to have his brand new pair of Primes shipped to me for review, and I set to work.
My first thought was to head straight for the same system I’d used with the Alpha Dogs, to truly get a sense of the improvements to the Primes. This consisted of a MacBook Air, Audirvana software, and Cypher Lab‘s AlgoRhythm Piccolo ($549). The Piccolo is a great little pocket-sized analog headphone amp; I find it very clean and fast, with a very slightly lean sound. I first tried out Ry Cooder and Vishwa Mohan Bhatt’s 1993 album, A Meeting By the River, an 88kHz/24bit HDTracks download, listening to the Alpha Dogs to remind myself what they sounded like, then switching to the Alpha Primes.
I found that my initial impressions at RMAF were spot on. There really is immediate improvement across the board, particularly in the bass extension and smoothness of the treble. There’s also a marked sense of unveiling: I found the overall effect to be a bit like when you’re sitting in a room reading at dusk and haven’t noticed how dark it’s gotten until someone comes in and turns on a light – everything is suddenly clearer and more relaxing. I particularly noticed even greater detail retrieval and even better texture on the percussion on “Ganges Delta Blues,” along with a more pronounced sense of impact. In fact, looking back on my listening notes, I repeatedly noted these headphones’ strength with percussion. One of the reasons I tend to love large, dynamic loudspeakers is that I am a sucker for the physical impact of a drum hit or trumpet blare, that feeling of getting hit right in the chest with the sound. While headphones can’t offer the same kind of full-body experience, it turns out that making sure the sound of the drumskin and the resonance of the instrument itself is accurate and assured goes a very long way toward making the listening experience tremendously satisfying, and toward lending an illusion of that same kind of impact.
Moving from audiophile quality to something a little more plebeian, I pulled up the 48/24 FLAC of Lorde’s Pure Heroine, which has been surprisingly prominent in my playlists lately. Everything about the album is artificial, but it’s a very satisfying type of artificiality, and it has always struck me as having been mixed with headphones in mind. Or maybe it’s just that I wish “Buzzcut Season” had been a hit song when I was a senior in high school. I dunno, man, I just love the album, ok? And the Primes do it justice like whoa. The electronic bass is as thumpy as it’s supposed to be, and every exaggerated bit of sound stage is on cheerful display – and seems to extend well beyond the confines of the earcups.
Having established that the Primes indeed easily bested the Alpha Dogs, I turned my attention to experimenting with their performance when paired with different amplification and sources. From the Piccolo, I moved on to the Centrance HiFi-M8, once again using my laptop and Audirvana software as the source. Listening to the track “Ugly Bethesda” from The Mekons’ Ancient and Modern, I was a little startled to discover that the opening notes were not, as my apparently distracted previous listening had suggested, quiet strings, but actually other members of the band softly singing “dum dum dum” in chorus behind Sally Timm’s torchlike turn. Everyone always talks about “hearing things I never noticed before,” but that one’s almost embarrassing, really.
I did the majority of my non-portable listening to the Alpha Primes on a system consisting of my home-built Linux music server, MHDT Labs Havana DAC, and Woo Audio WA22 fully balanced headphone amplifier ($1995 – review forthcoming). This combination turned out to be a very comfortable set-up for long term listening. While the Primes demonstrated that they are completely happy to roll with the punches on essentially every combination of gear that I tried (they even tolerated being simply plugged into the headphone out on my laptop), they really came on song with a little extra power behind them. All of the snap and percussive oomph I noticed with my portable listening was fully fleshed out and startlingly realistic. Charles Mingus’s “Better Get Hit In Your Soul” from Mingus Ah Um is one of my standard tracks to test out bass texture and tone, and the Primes performed admirably: listening to the upright bass, I felt I had a real sense of the wholeness of the instrument – I could hear not just the leading edge of the strike, or the “thump” of the note, but also the resonance of the body of the instrument itself. The horns were also appropriately full, with excellent attack, and I got a little giggly listening to the handclaps and enjoying the freneticism of the track. Folks familiar with this album will remember that Mingus also has a tendency to grunt and hum along, occasionally shouting half-words into the mix, and all of that was also on display.
I turned my attention from jazz to something a little bit more contemplative, seeking to experiment with the headphones’ abilities with close harmonies. For this I chose Quiles & Cloud’s 2014 album Seminole Star. This release from Blue Coast Records is one of my favorite discoveries from the past year. The group is fronted by Maria Quiles and Rory Cloud, who specialize in tight, tight harmonies of a sort that will be familiar to fans of Gillian Welch and her singing partner David Rawlings. I was particularly taken with the track “Serida,” with Cloud’s voice seeming to hang effortlessly in space a beat behind Quiles. Likewise, Irene Sazer’s fiddle made my breath catch in my throat on “Cali,” slowly rising in power behind the vocals. The album is impeccably recorded, and that came through beautifully in small details like the singers’ indrawn breath. I spent some time trying out a lot of other styles and types of music, from piano jazz to Medieval polyphony from Anonymous 4, and I was consistently impressed.
In comparing the Alpha Primes to other headphones in my stable, I found that they did not have quite the air and expansive soundstage of some of the available open back headphones, such as the Sennheiser HD 800s or the Audeze LCD-3s, nor quite the same level of detail retrieval. In terms of musicality, however, they held their own beautifully, which is no small feat against products that cost considerably more. I appreciated these headphones’ sense of solidity and impact, along with their lack of unfortunate spikes in the treble or elsewhere.
The Alpha Primes’ treble response can be tuned by making use of tuning dots, extras of which are available in the Doggie Treats tweaking pack ($14.99). The Primes come with two dots already in default configuration, designed for the most flat response, but they can be moved around and additional dots can be added in combinations of 1, 2, 3 and even four dots. The latest tuning guide has thirty-six (!!!) different configurations, with suggestions for tunings depending on the desired sound. The dots can also be removed entirely, which I found boosted the mid and upper treble, but also introduced a touch of sibilance. A dot placed in the center of the driver tamped down some of the sibilance, but I felt it also darkened the sound just a bit too far past neutral for my tastes; paired with the HiFi-M8, this wasn’t problematic, but when I switched to the WA22, it was just too much for me. Interestingly, other users find that this is an excellent pairing with more romantic tube amps, feeling it gives a brighter treble response. This demonstrates that Your Mileage May Vary, as they say, and what works for one pair of ears and one amp might produce different results in a different setting. Really, it’s all part of the fun, and one could drive oneself a happy kind of crazy trying out all the different possibilities. Fortunately, I found that the adhesive on the tuning dots is robust enough to stand up readily to the dots being moved around, and getting the leather pads on and off becomes slightly less onerous with practice. In addition to the tuning dots, the tuning pack also includes a number of felt discs that can also be inserted into the earpads to further tune the treble to your preference. With all of these choices, you could easily be at it for weeks. In my case, after trying several different configurations (although not all thirty-six), I found myself returning to the default “two corners” configuration as the one that provided the most natural and relaxing sound on my system.
The Alpha Prime headphones are both a beautifully complete product and a tweaker’s dream, and well worth the price tag. Paradoxically, considering what I think of as “affordable” in terms of speakers and amplification, I’ve sometimes blanched at the idea of spending $1,000 on headphones, or $2,000 on a headphone amp. Having had the pleasure of spending time with these and with other excellent high-end headphones, however, it’s time for me to change my tune. I could not name for you a single pair of new loudspeakers that, for $1,000, could give you the kind of detail retrieval and rewarding close listening that I was able to enjoy with these headphones. They have their drawbacks, mind. It’s really hard to invite a date back to your place to listen to records if you have to take turns strapping the music to your head – they definitely lend themselves better to lonely fun. But with just these headphones, an amp, and my laptop as a source, I was able to build myself my very own dedicated listening room in my own head, just by leaning back on the couch and closing my eyes. That’s nothing to sneeze at.
And if you want to sneeze at it, well, I won’t be able to hear you. BECAUSE HEADPHONES.
- Frequency response (+/- 3dB): 16Hz to 18KHz
- Efficiency: 90dB/mW
- Weight (without cable): 440g
- Cable: Dual entry
- Price: $999.99 and includes one 6′ cable.
- 1/4″, 3.5mm single-ended cables
- 4-pin XLR, 2.5mm RSA/ALO balanced cables.
- Alpha Prime comes with:
- One cable
- Metal stand
- Cleaning cloth
- Two year warranty
About the Author
Kirsten Brodbeck-Kenney met her first halfway-decent hifi setup in 2007 and has been bogarting the sweet spot ever since. She lives on the Oregon coast with her husband Malachi, a pit bull named Hank, some ridiculously huge speakers that she insists are “not really that big, really,” and an ever-growing collection of vinyl. In Real Life(tm), she is director of the local public library and answers to “Hey, Library Lady!”
You can find her show reports scattered across this site and our companion site, The Audio Traveler.