27 January, 2017

Happy Chinese New Year!

Happy Chinese New Year!

Here I wish all my readers a Happy Chinese New Year. This year belongs to the Rooster.

Chinese New Year's Eve is the most important day of the year, meant for gathering of the whole family. But I chose not to attend a gathering and instead used the time to listen to a few pieces of music. Solo Bach (Isabelle Faust), Bruckner 6th (Karajan) and, best of all, uncommonly lucid Schubert Impromptus by Elizabeth Leonskaja, making for a quiet but very substantial evening.

Thanks for what all my readers have brought to me. I wish you well.

07 January, 2017

Kondo System Loudspeaker Matching LS3/5A Pioneer S-A4SPT-PM VP 47 Lab 4737 TAD TSM-2201 JBL Kondo S-18


Pic of system during evaluation. The Kondo system is connected to the loudspeakers on top, whereas the LS3/5A's below are driven by Flying Mole CA-S10 digital amp to the left of the M7. And No, the Pioneer's are not trapezoids (just lens distortion). Click to enlarge.

Kondo System Bookshelf Loudspeaker Matching: Pioneer S-A4SPT-PM and -VP, 47 Lab 4737, TAD TSM-2201, KEF LS50, LS3/5A and JBL Subwoofer
My Kondo System, Part V
Review: Audio Note M7
Review: Pioneer S-A4SPT-PM, Part II
Review: Pioneer S-A4SPT-VP
Review: TAD TSM-2201, Part II
Kondo Ongaku SP (S-18) and Biyura
Letter from NYC (61) 2016 (17)

Revised Feb 3, 2017: For the last two weeks I inverted the loudspeakers, that is with the tweeter down. The effect is dramatic, and I am very pleased. This is added to the discussion in "Sonic Impressions: Effect of Placing Loudspeakers High Up"

Links to My Kondo System, Part I (background info on Kondo and Ongaku); Part II (all about M7); Part III (the most important one, detailing set up and listening experience); Part IV (largely phono related, and Kondo preamp/amp were not used; skip if you are digital only)


The Evaluation took place in HK but the article is written in NYC.

pic: R: Kondo S-18 prototype from Positive Feedback CES 2007 Report; L: S-18 leaflet. Click to enlarge.


ENIGMA: What Loudspeakers for Kondo?
As with many SET amps, one of the major difficulties with Kondo is loudspeaker matching. Like most SET amps, ideally you really need efficient loudspeakers to get its best.

What Kondo san himself used and/or designed This must be what we ask first. YL I believe, in his earlier days, even before Ongaku, he was a horn user and involved in YL horn designs (my YL horn system here; I have yet to write more extensively on these marvelous creations and their superb sound). I have done a bit of research on YL, but there is not that much on the internet. I believe, like JBL and Altec, there were few official enclosures). Branded Kondo Since YL, Kondo san had designed many smaller loudspeakers but they are virtually unheard of. Kondo's official site has discontinued loudspeaker model names (but not info) accessible only via its Japanese page (here). Ongaku SP (S-18) The S-18 is composed of the M-18 full range unit (many Japanese designers, like 47 Lab, Sparkler, Air Tight etc, favor fullrange loudspeakers) and the M-1 tweeter (likely a first order crossover - just a cap). I did hear the S-18 many many years ago, when Kondo san himself attended a HK hifi show (organized by the now-useless magazine 發燒音響). In the smallish hotel room, it was among the best sound I have ever heard in a show. The Positive Feedback pic shown above looks however bigger than I remember. Also, this German site's Las Vegas 2008 report must be virtually what I heard. BiYura (Field Coil) Kondo san passed away in 2006. In 2011 the Biyura Field Coil loudspeaker was unveiled in various hifi shows, including that in HK, which I covered (here). As you can read, I did not like the sound then. For this article, I did an exhaustive search and it seems the Biyura made apperances in quite a few hifi shows, but none after 2014. As there is not even a mention in Kondo's Japanese page, I assume the BiYura remains a prototype, if not an abandoned project. I am curious whether Kondo san himself had a hand in its conception, or if it is solely Masaaki san's effort.

It appears: 1) Kondo loudspeaker systems are perpetually in a state of fluxalmost always in prototype stage, then and now. There may be multiple reasons for this: it is in keeping with most artisanal designer's tendency to forever tweak; also, many Kondo dealers also distribute other horn systems/efficient loudspeakers and hence may not be that interested in a Kondo loudspeaker (think Avantgarde in HK and Living Voice in the UK); 2) Kondo san likely was never completely satisfied with his loudspeaker creations (under the Kondo name). None ever remotely achieved sustained production (The S-18 and the Ruthy 4 perhaps were better known and had sold a few). Maybe Masaaki san is like that too with his field coil.

What Users and Dealers Use Aside from a few appearances by Kondo themselves using the S18 and Biyura, all manners of loudspeakers (not just horns) have been used in audio shows (to get an idea, google images using "Kondo hifi show"). My friend JC, Australian dealer (Audio 101) for Kondo, uses Avantgarde Trio and Tannoy Westminster. I have also heard an acquaintance's Kondo gears with Audio Note UK loudspeakers (sacriledge!). What I Use In my old house, I did not get to play that much with the Kondo's, but they did well with my Canterbury. In my current small abode, I could only manage to do it the way in the pic, which is why I actually carried out this not inconsiderable project of bookshelf loudspeaker matching, of which this is only the first report. 

Equipment used in Evaluation:

Digital: 47 Lab Shigaraki Transport/DAC
Analog: Pro-ject RPM1.3/Clearaudio Concept MM
Preamp: Audio Note (Kondo) M7
Amp: Kondo Ongaku
Loudspeakers: as titled
Subwoofer: old JBL active subwoofer

Audio Note M7
The now discontinued M7 went through many iterations and is the most famous preamp of Kondo design (for the difference in versions, see my article here). All generations have similar chassis, internal structure and bespoken silver laden parts. This M7 you see in the pic is actually my second one. A few months ago I chanced upon this early unit and grabbed it because it is a full function preamp with a smaller footprint that actually slots into my IKEA shelf with room to spare/ventilate. As opposed to my other one (line only, 12AU7x2; last version), this one is a much earlier design, branded Audio Note but made in Japan, before Kondo san and Qvostrup split up and the latter founded AN UK (this is also why there are M6 and M8, but not M7, in their made in UK preamp lineup). This one uses 6072 in both the phono and line stages.

TAD TSM-2201
For info on these 86 db, 4 ohm sealed enclosure loudspeaker (8" woofer, the largest in this group), see my previous detailed TSM-2201 review. That review was when I first got them, and they were used upright. Subsequently I took them to my current abode and have actually also used them with Kondo (go to end of this sprawling article; used horizontally, on the same IKEA shelves but with them lying down, long sides parallel to the floor). The sound was excellent then but later I had to reconfigure, so the top of the shelves are higher now and I could only use them disadvantageously upright.


R pic: -PM; Lower L pic -VP


Pioneer S-A4SPT-PM and -VP
My initial impressions of S-A4SPT-PM, especially when compared with the legendary Yamaha NS-10, was not entirely favorable. They were likely not quite run-in at the time. Recently, after I decided to re-make my Kondo setup, I brought them to my current abode, where I first used them very satisfyingly on the desktop with 47 Lab Gaincard for quite a while. Sound was much better than at my old place, so they were probably finally run-in.
As I took to the PM more, I decided to acquire a used pair of its sibling, the S-A4SPT-VP. This is a slightly later and more expensive version with a different woofer (alleged to be TAD, though given the Pioneer/TAD duality, imho it is just a matter of semantics and marketing) and more luxurious finishing of ebony color. Both loudspeakers are likely of somewhat limited production, so in the West they are now only largely available through the internet (for a reasonable sum). The VP sold well in HK, but unlike the PM did not have any coverage in the West (only real online review is in Chinese, from Singapore).

Both are 84 db, 6 ohm loudspeakers with a 4" woofer, real wood enclosure and a small rear port. They differ in that the -VP reaches lower (spec'ed at 50-40k Hz vs the 60-40k Hz of the -PM). The -VP also has a higher crossover point than the -PM (4,500 Hz vs 3,500Hz). Despite similarity, they turn out to be surprisingly different in character (see below).

47 Lab 4737
These are also called the Lens Alnico or Lens II. All else being the same, it differs from Lens (also called Lens I or Lens MkII) (4722) in that the driver magnet is alnico. My initial impressions was favorable. Since then, there has only been one review in dagogo. It is an 85 db, 4-ohm  4" fullrange with MDF enclosure and a small front port. My pair is well used, obtained by trading my KEF LS50 towards them.

LS3/5A
The 82 db 2-way with 4.5" woofer and sealed enclosure is arguably the most famous bookshelf in history and needs no introduction. In HK, after reluctantly selling my Harbeth to my good friend wss, I still have the Rogers (15 ohms, serial number 2xxx) in the pic as well as a rosewood pair of KEF (Raymond Cooke Edition, 11 ohms). I have been using them with my Flying Mole digital amp (the one next to the left LS3/5A) for casual listening, so they are in condition.

KEF LS50 This 85 db, 8 ohm loudspeaker with coaxial drivers is quite a famous loudspeaker now. See my reviews (KEF LS50, Part IPart IIPart III). I had traded them towards my 47 Labs 4737, and hence they are not formally part of this evaluation. Documentation of this period here. Note in the pic the Ongaku was used as an integrated (click to enlarge).

JBL Digital 12 Subwoofer
This is an early JBL active subwoofer I bought on the cheap in HK (in the US, the kind you can find in your local craig list for nothing). Aside from a pic or two (see here), there is virtually no info on the net. I did find its Frequency Response is 29Hz to 150Hz. Adjustable Crossover Frequency is 50-150Hz. Just a bulky veneered black box with no legs, it is rather old fashioned in looks and lacks sex appeal. I have it upright, with its 12" paper (my preferred cone material) woofer the large port underneath firing backwards. I use the hi-level rather than line input (I always do; you don't want to corrupt the output of a good preamp!). Previously I had used these very effectively with larger JBL loudspeakers (here). In most ways I prefer them to the subwoofer that I have, the REL Strata III.

Sonic Impressions
  • Audio Note Japan M7 Line Although the sound is similar to my later Kondo M7 (described here), it is not quite the same. In this older M7, the "silvery" treble is still there, but less pronounced, reinforced by a somewhat warmer midrange (some may prefer this). My later unit is on loan to a friend so I cannot yet do an A/B comparison. Phono This being a used unit, the 6072 tubes are a bit noisy. Using Stefan Ashkenase's excellent performance of Chopin's Piano Concerto No. 2, which I happen to have on both LP and CD, the LP just mercilessly killed the CD. Don't forget the 47 Labs digitals cost many times more than the Pro-ject analog rig! Part of this is the intrinsic superiority of analog, but the gulf is so wide that one has to conclude that this phono section is of the utmost quality.

  • Kondo Ongaku as Integrated and Audio Note M7 + Kondo Ongaku In My Kondo System, Part III I detailed the difference between using the Ongaku as an integrated amp and as an amp with the M7 as preamp. That was in my old house, with Tannoy Canterbury HE. At the time, I found it a toss up. Then, in the smaller abode, configurations changed several times. First: Ongaku + M7 and TAD Long before this evaluation, from 2012 to 2014, I had actually tried both ways with the TAD TSM-2201 (see above). I briefly chronicled it near the end of this sprawling article, although I failed to mention that this time around adding the M7 as preamp was better than using the Ongaku as integrated (too bad too that I had accidentally deleted the pics - will have to restore them later). Then in 2014 I had to reconfigure the system to: Ongaku as Integrated due to lack of space on top of the now erect shelves for the Kondo M7 (article here, showing the KEF LS50 used at the time). During this period, I traded the KEF LS50 towards the 47 Labs 4737 (R pic; click to enlarge). Then in late 2016, after I acquired the Audio Note M7, the system became Ongaku + M7 and Loudspeaker Rotation With the more inefficient small loudspeakers, there is no question that the addition of the Audio Note M7 injects significantly more vitality into the system. The sound improved to the extent that I decided to test out all the small loudspeakers I have.
  • Effect of Loudspeakers Placed High Up The shelves are the IKEA Kallax. When prostrate (30.375") the height is quite suitable for placing bookshelf loudspeakers. However, when used erect (57.875") the shelves are too tall for a sitting person. The resulting sound would have 1) less bass; 2) a leaner balance; 3) soundstage and imaging that are a bit too high up (which is better than too low, like the ESL-57). These drawbacks can be minimized, but not erased, by listening standing up and further away. Tilting the loudspeakers forward can lower the height a little too, but not by much. More effective would be to have the loudspeakers one shelf lower (except for the TAD), but I have yet to try that. The higher position I reckon also has the advantage of a little less boundary effect. As we know, many audiophiles are anal-rententive when it comes to the listening position, imaging and soundstage, and will sneer at this kind of setup. While I am not against those values, in general I want to be able to listen to my system no matter where I am in the room - a well dispersed rather than a narrowly focused sound (ESL being an example of the latter), which all my systems can do. Addendum Feb 2017: As of Feb 2017, I now have the speakers (currently LS3/5A) "upside down", that is with the tweeter beneath the woofer. This brings the tweeters down by at least 6 inches. The result is quite remarkable. Even though the tweeters are still way above "ear-level", they seem to have entered a "comfort zone". The imaging is bigger and more natural, the panorama wider and closer to the real experience. Most noticeably, big orchestral pieces seem more at ease, and I find myself playing a lot more Bruckner and Mahler. With the woofers higher, there is less bass and cabinet resonance (see below) and the subwoofers need to be turned a little higher up in volume and crossover point, easily achieved. Marvelous!
  • Isolation/Cabinet Resonance As the shelves are not the sturdiest and as the loudspeakers sit on the same surface as the electronics, one can expect some resonance. However, since the loudspeakers have small woofers, except for the larger and fuller bass of the KEF LS50 (a large rear-port too) I did not hear much resonance/smearing. Nonetheless, I inserted slabs of industrial absorbers (gift of wss) underneath the loudspeakers. The effect is not as audible as under my Yamaha NS-1000M, leading me to think these work better for low bass, which most bookshelves lack. The 47 Labs transport has its own isolation platform, whereas the Kondo Ongaku is too heavy for devices. Underneath each of the three pointed feet of the Pro-ject turntable I put a small slab of Japanese made gel-like polymer (which they place under items to prevent sliding; sold in home stores in HK). Here I'd like to mention the lower shelf again. The LS3/5A (side panel separated from bookshelf wall; base decoupled a little with small crumbs of egg carton) has a little more audible resonance here than when on the top shelf, BUT the resonance is benign, indeed beneficial, as it actually re-inforces the bass, making the loudspeakers seem a little larger. One is reminded of the BBC and LS3/5A cabinet design principals of not using very thick (real wood, not MDF) panels and letting the enclosure "breathe". I have long been a fan of classic BBC design, and all in all think the IKEA shelves work remarkably well. My friend jules came by and without prompting thought the same thing. There are audiophiles who are fanatical about "isolation" but my experience is that in most cases they tweak away most of the music. Don't try to control everything, you can't; instead only concentrate on the harmful (meaning "audible") resonances. Heresy? So be it.
  • TAD TSM-2201 Despite having the largest woofer in the group, placed high up and used upright, the TSM-2201's sound lacks heft, and is indeed a little lean, more so than previously (see above). Reflective of the spec's, at the same volume setting, the 2201 actually plays a little louder, but that is no indication of true efficiency, as the sound tightens up more than the others at higher volume, a sign that more power is needed. To a certain extent, this can be eased by lowering the volume of the Ongaku (10 o'clock, vs 11-12 o'clock for the others) and cranking up the volume of the M7. On the other hand, given its provenance as a monitor, it is no surprise that the sound is significantly more accurate than the others in the group, especially when it comes to classical music playback. It is also true that sealed box monitor designs usually sacrifice bass extension and weight for a flat bass response, not the case for all the others in this evaluation.
  • KEF LS50 This is based on memory. The LS50 and the TSM-2201 have by far the largest enclosures in the group, yet the LS50's are easier to drive and their smaller 5.25" woofers, aided by rear ports and higher impedance, pumps out a lot more bass than the TSM-2201's (8" woofers). Sound was good but, with the rear ports really too close to the wall and the more prodigious bass, resonance was an audible problem. Too bad I could not have them in-room.
  • 47 Labs 4737 When I substituted these for the LS50 I immediately got a cleaner sound, and they were what I used for this system until well after I got the Audio Note M7. Coherence was a given (this is a fullrange) and there was no audible box coloration. Rhythm and pace were very good too. Bass weight and extension were surprisingly good. As the dagogo reviewer noted, treble is on the smooth side, but that is no problem with the Kondo system. They however don't play as loud as the Pioneer's (see below).
  • Pioneer S-A4SPT-PM and -VP As soon as these replaced the 4737's I knew I was onto something. -PM The sound immediately opened up. The soundstage is large and airy. Macrodynamics was very impressive for such small sizes! Extension at both frequency extremes were very satisfying. Although these are reasonably neutral transducers, the TAD TSM-2201's rendering of instrumental timber and microdynamics are better still. Also, rhythm and pace tend to be a trifle literal. Nonetheless, overall they are very satisfying. -VP In comparison with the -PM, the -VP has even better bass extension and perhaps neutrality. However, after listening to a lot of music, I found myself missing something. It took me  a while to point my finger at it: despite its hifi virtues, I was not enjoying the -VP as much as the more loose-limbed -PM! Then I tried out the -VP on my desktop with Micromega MyAmp. Bingo, with its excellent bass weight and extension, it makes the perfect desktop loudspeaker! It is staying in the study.
  • LS3/5A While the KEF 11 ohm is a little sharper than the Rogers 15 ohm, goes a little deeper in the bass and plays a bit louder, the difference is not that great (less than between the 2 Pioneer's). The real surprise (actually not) is that the Kondo system drove them very well (contrast this to the 86 db TAD). Neutrality is as good as any in the midband, less so in the treble and midbass (the famous hump). They resolve more than the Pioneer's, but less than the TAD TSM-2201. Its rhythm and pace is good but transient response is a trifle slower. Dynamically it is just as good as the Pioneer's. But what really catapults it to the top is a hard to define engaging quality, an ability to involve the listener.
  • JBL Subwoofer Encouraged by the dynamic result of the Pioneer's, I thought of adding a subwoofer to augment the bass. As these bookshelf speakers all do not go very low, for the Crossover Frequency I usually start at roughly at 75 or so (there are only indications for 50, 100 and 150) and work my way up. For this group, frequently the best sound is around 100Hz (I usually prefer higher to lower; some others the other way). Then I'd set the volume. Usually just a small turn (say, turning from starting point 7 to 8 or 9 O'clock) will suffice. Sometimes I needed to go back and forth a couple of times between volume and crossover frequency to achieve the best result. When properly dialed in: 1) I don't "hear" the subwoofer, but 2) I know it is working if the orchestral bass is suitably (but not overly) reinforced (maintaining the right timber); 3) the lower pitched instruments gain body, and this help to lower the soundstage and imaging a little. If I put my fingers on the subwoofer driver, it vibrates very little, but the effect, on music like Messiaen's Turagalila, is astonishingly big. Now, besides chamber music, which the Kondo system has always played beautifully, I play this piece, and my favorite Mahler and Bruckner, with sufficient satisfaction that my other rig with the big Yamaha's are getting less play.
Observations/Conclusions
  • Audio Note M7 + Kondo Ongaku As mentioned, in contrast to my experience in my old house and with my large 15" 8 ohm Tannoy Canterbury HE (here), with the more inefficient small loudspeakers, there is no question that the addition of the Audio Note M7 injects significantly more vitality into the system. This is because 1) compared to the 96 db Tannoy, the small loudspeakers are 10-14 db less efficient; 2) the Tannoy has a much larger woofer that gives heft, and the smaller loudspeakers are placed high up. Although addition of the subwoofer helps a long way, it does not a 15" woofer make; 3) driving power of the Ongaku is limited. Gain/Volume Used as an amp, the volume setting of the Ongaku is critical to the sound, and it varies with the loudspeaker used. With the hardest-to-drive TAD TSM-2201 (despite its 86 db spec being the highest in the group), which tense up when cranked up, the volume setting of the Ongaku is the lowest in the group. All the others more or less have the same higher setting. The process of employing the Gain and Volume is similar to using them in preamps that have both (think some vintage ARC and MFA preamps). Loudspeaker Impedance Based on the next entry, I think it is fair to deduce that the tubed Ongaku prefers higher impedances. Loudspeaker Efficiency It goes without saying that the Ongaku is best used with loudspeakers of as high efficiency as possible. I'd love to match it one day with my 104 db YL horns. I am sure that would completely outstrip Tannoy, not to mention the likes of Avantgarde.
  • 47 Labs 4737 In this system, the overall performance of the 4737 (4 ohm), although very good, lags behind the Pioneer's (6 ohm) and LS3/5A's (11 and 15 ohm). I have to mention that I do think they sound better with its original mate, the solid state 47 Labs Gaincard (maybe a future report; this is in keeping with the dagogo review cited above, which prefers solid state to tubes). The 4 ohm impedance is harder to drive with tubes (same for the 4-ohm TAD TSM-2201; and remember 47 Labs is NOT a tube company). 
  • Pioneer S-A4SPT-PM and -VP The dynamically loose-limbed performance of the -PM is an absolute delight. In this system, dynamically it trumps the LS3/5A but its overall performance suffered just a little because of its somewhat literal rhythm and pace. That is still better than the over-controlled -VP, which I think is better for solid state.
  • LS3/5A More than any of its rivals, the virtues of the LS3/5A are many and more evenly distributed, and its faults are minor. As mentioned, the real surprise is that the Kondo system drove them very well (not the case with even more flea powered SET's). Its 82 db sensitivity is the lowest in the group, but it is audibly just as efficient as the others. Although it needs enough watts, the impedance curve of the LS3/5A is benign and it is not a current-hungry transducer (see JA's measurements in this mega-article in Stereophile).
  • Subwoofer Many audiophiles like to have a sacred cow to hold on to. Count among this group LS3/5A worshippers; ESL and ribbon die-hards; Shun Mook sect, the list goes on...most of these people would never use a subwoofer, because it would "corrupt" the "purity" of what they worship. Bag of nonsense. In my opinion, in audio the only that matters is the end resultThe serious classical music listener needs to have the lower octaves, and with smaller loudspeakers, the subwoofer, properly implemented, is a necessity. But care is needed. I'm not saying adding a subwoofer is an art, because it is not; but it'd be wrong if one wants to "clearly hear" the subwoofer - rather, one wants to "feel" it. Less is more.
  • How Good Is it? I am not the one to say, but I will tell you my classical music friends jules and Seng (you have met them before; or you can search my Blog) both highly approve of the system (with subwoofer on). It won't on all fronts beat the WE/Yamaha setup, but at least it is on a more equal footing, with virtues its own. What I can say is, even with my humble bookshelves, I think I am getting more out of Kondo than I have ever gotten, and more than some other similar Kondo systems that I have heard. YMMV.
  • What's Next? Of course, I'd love to have my shelves prostrate (lower) again, but that would take some time. Meanwhile, I intend to test out my Pioneer SP-BS21-LR (Andrew Jones design), Yamaha NS-10 and Dayton Audio B652 (I will take a pair back to HK). With the subwoofer entrenched in the system, it would prove very interesting!
Postlude: A Reader's Question I was asked: "...if possible I would like to hear how you came to obtain such a prized 'holy grail' audio component as the legendary Ongaku? I know your blog is geared towards the more affordable spectrum and "bargains", so seeing the Ongaku in your set up always made me curious to how and when you acquired it..."

Difficult Question to Answer Actually I don't spend big money easily, though my Western Electric stuff are even more expensive than Kondo. Well, curiosity got the best of me, perhaps. That would be the simplest answer.

In reality, it is not a good piece to own. In many ways, Kondo does not reveal its secrets easily, and I have heard some suboptimal Kondo setups, including dealers and sometimes my own. This led people, including some friends, to want to find any excuse to put Kondo down. Of course, many SET amps face this too, as they are immediately disadvantaged by their low power. It is also true that much cheaper SET amps, like Wavac and Verdier, not to mention even cheaper Sun Audio, deliver much more performance for the buck. Kondo is definitely of low C/P ratio, though not because of its performance, but because of its price. Kondo's unique virtues are unfortunately of subtle nature, not easily revealed to the casual, not to mention the skeptical, listener. I kinda agree with what someone said this about Kondo: "...The Kondo sound is not the most dynamic, it is not the most accurate, nor is it the most realistic sound which I have heard. Yet, there is something very seductive about the Kondo sound that once it gets into your head, you will have a very hard time getting it out..." (from dagogo).

As expensive and coveted as it may be, Kondo is in some practical ways actually both hifi and ANTI-hifi. It silvery nature can be "hifi" sounding - too bright if matched with the wrong ancillaries. Its "anti-hifi" nature is that it doesn't really go well with much of modern "revealing" hifi equipment; also, playing every loud and dynamic hifi discs to impress the crowd is also not its virtue. In my opinion some Kondo systems are ruined by not realizing this dual nature. Rather, Kondo will reward those with an intimate connection to the myriad and subtle aspects of music (same case for Western Electric, and there are many bad setups too).

Another interesting thing is, as "legendary" as Kondo may be, aside from show reports, there is really not much written about them (in English). Maybe I bought Kondo just to contribute to the literature! :-) Question answered?

03 January, 2017

Editor's Note: Problems with Setting the Page, Error Messages

Editor's Note: Problems with Setting the Page, Error Messages
Letter from NYC (60) 2016 (16)

For quite a long time now, I am having problems writing and revising my Blog:
  • Usually there is not a problem the first time I write (except when occasionally pasting a picture).
  • Problems with Revising a Post or Column From the second time on, when I alter the layout, change links, paste pics, cut and paste, etc. often I 'd get an ERROR Message about incompatibility of http with https. Like this:
  • This page contains HTTP resources which may cause mixed content affecting security and user experience if blog is viewed over HTTPS. 
  • I can DISMISS and store or publish, but sometimes I get bizarre results that I cannot rectify no matter how many times I re-set or re-type:
  1. Problems with Fonts and Font Size Whole passages can be resized, usually to a smaller type. Sometimes italicized. I cannot over-ride this no matter how I try to re-write. Scroll down to my Dahlquist DQ20 article - many of the small prints are not by design!
  2. Problems with Font and Background Color Sometimes I cannot get what I want. The passage in question will get a color used somewhere else in the article. Scroll down to my JBL L20T article - the light grey background of many paragraphs are not wanted!
  3. Alignment Problems Look at my equipment list. Some paragraphs have unwanted indentations.
I am not a computer savvy person, so any help would be much appreciated. If you can help, please post under Comment!

01 January, 2017

Patti Smith

The Music of Patti Smith
CD Recommendation: Pop
Letter from NYC (59) 2016 (15)

-Patti Smith Official Site
-Detailed Wikipedia Entry
-How Does It Feel Patti Smith writes in the New Yorker after singing to honor Bob Dylan in the 2016 Nobel ceremony

Patti Smith, as much of an artist as she is, is actually not very well known (certainly not in audiophile circles, where I have never heard her CD's). Most who have heard her name does not really know her works, be it music or writings.

It was poetry that brought Patti Smith to Rock. The music started as something to add texture to her poetry recitals (including at St Mark's Church). If one does not read her lyrics, which are poems, one does not know just how great they are. If you ask me, her more elliptical way with words is as worthy of the Nobel as Bob Dylan.

In my youth, I had listened to her most famous album, Horses, but didn't take to its sharp edge, and none of the songs had a good hook. It was not until this year that my interest in her was revived by her books Just Kids and M Train, both masterpieces, the former a recipient of the National Book Award. I read a lot about her and bought a few of her CD's. This time in NYC, I went through them all.

Early Works The sharp edge of both Horses (1975) and  Easter (1978) still can be grating, but this time, more than thirty years since I heard the former, as a vastly more experienced listener and admirer of her prose I paid a lot of attention to the lyrics, evaluated them as a whole and found a lot more. While these albums certainly will not make comfortable background listening and not recommendable for most audiophiles, they are very layered and rewarding in the long term. Even this time, the first round of listening still unsettled me a little. It was done on the living room's Linn system, with Lin Kan loudspeakers. After I swapped the Linn Kan's out for the JBL L20T (here), the albums just became much more listenable. So a warmer and heftier sound would suit these albums.

Late Works Smith's late works are understandably completely different from her early works, but neither are they in the same mould. Gone Again (1996), written after the death of her husband, is mostly elegiac and strangely beautiful. Banga (2012), her latest album, is made of lighter material, atmospheric and, for lack of a better word, poetic. I can imagine an ECM lover liking this album - why not, as it has just as much atmosphere, but much more depth! A sleeper is Twelve (2007), a covers album that serves to illuminate the fact that Smith is an excellent singer. As on all these albums, she knows how to modulate her voice to achieve various shades of emotions. All three of these CD's have excellent sound.

Patti Smith was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2007. Read the above wiki entry for her numerous other awards for her contribution in the arts and her humanitarian efforts. She ranks 47 in Rollingstone 100 Greatest Artist list (a great read as it was written by musicians and people in the industry, with contributions by many famous names).

After reading her prose and hearing these CD's, I worship her. It would be hard to find another more unassuming person of greater accomplishment in the arts. There are prettier and more glamorous stars, but few more beautiful people. Perhaps I write this to say Happy New Year to Patti Smith!



Something that has nothing to do with this article: I chanced upon this Jennifer Warnes Interview that is about another of my heroes, Leonard Cohen.

30 December, 2016

2016 in Review

pic has distortion at the edges - the Pioneer loudspeakers are not trapezoids! Click to enlarge.

2016 in Review
Letter from NYC (58) 2016 (14)

A belated Season's Greetings!

This Blog is now over 8 years old. Due to family matters, my output (in terms of articles written) hit an all-time low in 2012/13. Since then, there has been a small but steady increase. However, since I am buying fewer things and the stuff I do buy in HK tend to be small "gadgets", there is less to report on "serious" current products. However, I now focus more on older products and my own things that I have neglected previously, a valid trade-off. A little more than a year ago, I started the "HiFi Basics" series, but due to my somewhat compulsive nature have managed only 3 articles so far. I hope 2017 shall see more entries under that label.

Most Significant Events
  • Kondo System Re-Make In a coming article I shall detail my efforts at matching loudspeakers to my Kondo Ongaku. Mind you, this is at my present small abode in HK. There were quite a few candidates and the results were, to say the least, quite surprising! After I started this effort I acquired an old Audio Note (Kondo design) M7 with built-in Phono. Its smaller size allowed me to use it in on an IKEA shelf (see pic above). It would be a shame not to use a turntable, so I just managed to squeeze in the smallest that I have, the humble Pro-Ject RPM 1.3. Then I added a subwoofer!!!! I assure you the end-result was quite satisfying, earning the approvals of my music lover friends Seng and wss! Coming soon...
  • Vintage Cartridges Although this started 5 years ago when I re-tested my Empire 2000 cartridges (here), things didn't get serious until recently. Shure SC35C After initial failure, I finally got this "DJ" cartridge right (here)! Although my sample is current production, it is a replica of a vintage creation. I have yet to put this low compliance cartridge on a heavy arm, and it is already darn good. Warning: In some systems the treble could be just a little on the unrefined side. I rather think of it as a "monitor" type product, not the kindest to bad recordings. I just noticed its street price has gone up quite a bit to around $59. Still, quite a bargain! Shure M44-7 The ones currently sold are replicas of this vintage relic, beloved by DJ's. My sample just happened when I spotted a vintage body and NOS Empire replacement on Ebay, and so may not be representative. In any case, I just installed it yesterday as replacement for the SC35C on my cheap AT PL-120 and was absolutely floored - my cartridge of the year! Stanton 380 I heard this at my friend Andy's and took one back home to play. It has a very attractive rich hue and plays anything well. There shall be big article on these cartridges soon. Happy New Year already! Mono Cartridge Finally I got a mono MC, the Taiwanese Raos, and I am very satisfied. Unfortunately, Master Rao has passed away and these are not obtainable. Nagatron Ribbon Cartridge heard at Andy's was very impressive!

Vintage Loudspeakers Although in 2016 I have heard megabuck loudspeakers of the caliber of Magico Q7MkII, top-rated in any magazine, my kudos go to much older designs:
  • Dahlquist DQ20 (reviewed here) was astonishing in how it made the music come alive, unequivocally leaving an expensive and well reviewed modern loudspeaker in the shade.
  • JBL L20T Even this unassuming vintage JBL (reviewed here), which can be had for perhaps $200, is over-achieving. I was thinking of trying out Andrew Jones' new Elac B5/6 just for fun (I have a thing for inexpensive bookshelves), but after I got these JBL's I completely dispelled the idea (after all, I know his designs, as I have his recent Pioneer SP-BS21LR).
Headphone Stax SRS 2170 (my review here) is all I need in a headphone! Although this is a current product, both the design and the sound have been around for a long time. Vintage reproduction again!

Buffer Amp Though a niche product, the iFi iTube is just wonderful. If you need some bloom, give it a serious thought!

Cable The Gotham DGS-1 continues to gain my admiration. Although not the best in hifi parameters, there is definitely something that is very attractive to this simple cable - a fluency that just makes music come alive with great presence and PRaT (the best analogy is non-oversampling in digital conversion). More and more of this cable are finding their way into my systems.

Brief Mentions My 47 Lab 4718 Shigaraki Phonoamp is finally running in and providing solid support for my mono Raos cartridge. My resurrected EAR 509 Mk II dealt a coup de grace to unreasonably priced Conrad-Johnson. I also acquired a Naim Nait I - no surprise as I previously owned and loved a II and still have the III. Sound is in the same mould.

Happy 2017!

28 December, 2016

Review: JBL20T 4406

Review: JBL L20T, Part I
JBL 4406 4312A
Letter from NYC (57) 2016 (13)

A friend just gave me his father's pair of JBL L20T. They look remarkably handsome, and I immediately tested them.

Basic Info
The L20T was introduced in 1988 ($235), as the smallest member of the L series (Official Brochure, with spec's). It is the consumer version of the 4406 and uses the exact same drivers (115H woofer and the famous 035Ti titanium tweeter). If you look at the Official 4406 Brochure you shall see the spec's are identical. They are different only in the looks of the enclosure and the port, and the 4406 has a tweeter attenuator. In fact, the L20T is also used in many studio!

I was quite eager to hook them up as I still own two pairs of the 4312A (official literature here and here), which employ the same 035Ti tweeter (I have also heard countless others of the 43 and 44 series). I had a ball with the 4312's (including stacking, see my mammoth article).


Impressions

  • Build and Cosmetics My pair is in good shape, with a little bleaching from the sun. The L20T is well built. Although the cabinet is made of particle wood, the real wood veneer lends solidity, and they feel sturdy. I find they quite nice to look at, comfortably old fashioned! Note that unlike more modern designs, and like its other JBL contemporaries and pro monitors, the pair are not mirror-imaged - not only the ports, even the drivers are all to one side if you look at the pic. Surely this would bother some audiophiles and speaker designers, but the excellent sound speaks volumes about the engineering prowess of the JBL team (and about many of the so-called "science", "theories", even "facts", of modern speaker design, of which I am highly skeptical).
  • Sound I drove them with various electronics but not yet with a high powered amp. Lepai LP2020A+ Ancillary electronics are more or less that of my Reference System III (see right sidebar; for full article see here). Sound was excellent, more solidly honed than my Dayton B652, but it is apparent these need more power than the B652. Elekit TU-8300 (here) Swapping in the more powerful Elekit immediately freed up the sound more. There is more dynamic headroom, and I played and enjoyed a Bruckner symphony in full. However, I did notice that the brass in the right speaker did not have quite the sheen they should have. I put my ears close to them and discovered that the tweeter was not making sound. I took the tweeter out, disconnected the cables and tested it with a multimeter - surely, the coil is unfortunately open. Linn System Even with one tweeter out the L20T's still were very enjoyable! I put the tweeter back (but left disconnected) and took them into the large living room (>300 ft), where I connected them to the Linn Majik (here) integrated and Karik CDP (an excellent device that I have yet to write up). With 33 wpc on hand, sound further opened up, allowing me to make a more proper (but not ideal) assessment. Sonically, I could hear the resemblance to the much larger 4312A, as the L20T is in the same mould as other JBL monitors - quite an even frequency response from the treble to the midrange; a slightly perceived midbass warmth allied to deep bass on the lean side. Contrary to some claims , the 035Ti tweeter is not edgy, just playing it straight (see also my 4312A article quoted above) as evidenced by well reproduced mass strings and biting (but not grating) brass in the 3 last symphonies of Dvorak I played (Warner/Silvestri, all recorded with different orchestras and by different engineers). The scale is very decent for a loudspeaker of its size, though of course not at all approaching the scale of the 4312A. It is smoother, has fleshier images and a deeper soundstage than the Linn Kan I normally use in this system (see here). All in all, a more satisfying listen. I think I'd prefer this to many similarly sized modern bookshelves. It is rare to hear downright bad JBL, which cannot be said of many modern loudspeaker brands. All make one yet again weary of the word progress. 
  • Power Requirement The L20T is rated at 8 ohms and efficiency is 87 db, a full 5 db less than my 4312A. Therefore it likes a bit of power, as evidenced from my listening experience. On the other hand, it should be noted it is an easy load (the impedance curve seen in the 4406 brochure is quite benign), so there is no need for high-current amps. This is also borne out by the fact that even my 300B amp drove it nicely (in a more or less near field placement). 
Despite one tweeter out, I am confident this is an excellent pair of loudspeakers. I am taking the tweeter back to HK to be refurbished. Next time, I shall test them with better amplification.

26 December, 2016

Home Visit: Dahlquist DQ20 Totaldac Luminous Audio Volent



Left, DQ10; Right, DQ20.

Overview: Dahlquist
Home Visit: Dahlquist DQ-20

My First Serious Stereo System
Yumcha Diary: 24-09-2016 and a month later Volent Totaldac Luminous Audio
Letter from NYC (56) 2016 (12)

Article finished in NYC. This article was long in the making because the appearance of DQ20 totally usurped order at my friend Jules' house, and I had to drastically alter the layout. Call it a labor of love for Dahlquist.

My old friend Jules is that rare breed, a truly experienced audiophile who has impeccable musical taste. As a result, his systems never sound less than good. Although I periodically visit him I seldom write him up (see here). His equipment has changed much recently (?mid-life crisis, :-p) and we paid him three visits, this article being about the first two (same equipment). The third visit shall be written up later (Technics SB-7000!).

Equipment (at the time):
CD transport: Orpheus Zero SE
DAC: Totaldac D1 Twelve
Preamp/Amp:
1. Luminous Audio Axiom 2 passive + Brinkmann Mono
2. Paracas Sierra + Krell KSA200
3. PSE SL + Krell KSA200
Speakers Visit 1: Volent VL3.5 (latest grey ceramic unit)

Speakers Visit 2: Dahlquist DQ-20

Pic of Saul Marantz and Jon Dahlquist. Click to enlarge. Note the Marantz 10B tuner, 7 preamp and 9 monoblocks.

Overview Dahlquist
Since my experience of Dahlquist is confined to the DQ10 and DQ20, it is stretching it a bit to call  an overview. However, since 1) these two are Dahlquist flagships and most famous creations; 2) I have had intimate experience with two pairs of DQ10's, one of which I owned for a LONG time; and 3) I now have heard two pairs of DQ20's, I feel justified.

Dahlquist was formed by the great Saul Marantz after he sold his company to the Japanese, with young Jon Dahlquist on board. The DQ10 and the much later DQ20 have similar design philosophy, with only the woofer enclosed and all other drivers open-back. Dahlquist's approach was influential and likely inspired later designs like Alon. The DQ-10 visually is a dead-ringer for Quad ESL57, which I take to be a tribute to the latter's sonic purity. It is commonly held that at the time of DQ10, quality drivers were few and Jon Dahlquist had to make a lot of adjustments to make the drivers work together. The DQ20 had fewer drivers of likely better quality. Visually it is a taller DQ10. Both look and sound great to me. 

DQ10 The DQ10 is one of the classic speakers of all time, and has made its way into many audio halls of fame (like this one in TAS). It even has a facebook of its own! The DQ10 has a long production history, with apparently quite a few changes of drivers and parts along the way. The net has many entries on it but given its nature things can be a little confusing.

My Road to DQ10 For the longest time I was not at all an audiophile. I bought my first humble stereo system in 1973  (for details of my audio beginnings, see here).  Around the late 70's I upgraded to the cheapest Pioneer separates, and although they were not too great either I kept the system for a long time. Gradually I came to realize my speakers were the limiting factor. I had a good friend in undergraduate school who started working after graduation and bought a nice system. It was SAE equalizer preamp/amp, a Thorens TT and most importantly, the Dahlquist DQ-10 (he also added the Dahlquist subwoofer later). He was (is) one of those friends who widens one's horizon. Hey, introducing me to Sibelius and Bruckner immeasurably enriched my life! Although I went on for four more years of school, I visited him quite often and listened to music together. The DQ10 impressed me greatly, and I lusted after it for many years. After I finished my specialty training and started making a better salary, I went shopping for a serious system.

One day I visited Stereo Exchange (when they had that cavernous basement of goodies - those were the days!) and was ecstatic when I saw the pair of DQ-10, waiting for me after all these years! I immediately bought them and also the Thorens TD-125MKII with an SME armboard (since I had, and still have, the 3009i arm). Then I went shopping for preamp/amp. I narrowed it down to the then well-reviewed entry level Adcom and B&K systems. I did a serious audition at a hifi store on 70th Street and Broadway (forgot the name) and finally decided on the warmer B&K ST140 with the entry level Pro5 preamp. These B&K's (and the contemporary Adcom too) still command a reasonable second-hand price!

Sound My friend's Pair As I realized later, my friend had a living room of tall ceiling and just the right size for his system.He had them against the wall, flanking the fireplace. The sound was warm, fluid and utterly musical. That I later assembled a system very similar to my friend's is testimony to its spell on me. My own pair Soon after I acquired my system I later moved into an apartment with a very large living room and (!)14 ft ceiling (it was previously a multi-tiered parking space) and I had the system against the wall. The sound was not as good as at my friend's. True, the midrange was splendid and it was very musical, but the top was a little shut in. Image was good but there was not much of a soundstage and everything was just a little diffuse. My suspicion that my 70 wpc amp was not up to the task (in this cavernous space) grew on me, and was confirmed much later on when a friend came over with his McIntosh MC-60 monoblocks, which totally opened up the sound. That taught me two things: 1) DQ-10 is power hungry; 2) 60 wpc of tube power is much more power than 70 wpc solid state. And - I became a tube person right then and never looked back. A few years later when I rented out my apartment and relocated I sold my pair of DQ-10's to a friend's photographer boyfriend (he instantly fell in love with the DQ10's when he attended one of my parties) and he enjoyed them with his rock and pop. The memory of all the precious time spent with these two pairs of DQ-10's is always somewhere on my mind. One more thing, I have heard few speakers with better mid bass and bass articulation.

DQ20 The DQ20 was issued 14 years after the DQ10. With more competing choices, it was never quite as well received as the DQ10, perhaps because the older loudspeaker sold too well and had many die-hard fans. I always feel the DQ20 never got its due. For a contemporary review see hifi-classic (unfortunately we do not know from which magazine).

Sound First Pair The first time I listened to the DQ20 was at a music lover's house (he was selling some records). He was not an audiophile but I instantly liked the sound, which bore no little resemblance to the DQ10, which I still had at the time. I have always felt the DQ20 deserves more attention than it had received. Second Pair Before I had even paid him the visit to hear the Volent loudspeakers Jules called me about a pair he saw in the (HK) second-hand forum review33. The asking price was very reasonable and I told him to grab it. As they say, the rest is history (see below).

Service/Parts/Upgrades Dahlquist went under a long time ago, although it was resurrected briefly by a Canadian company. However, the company regnar specializes in service and parts of Dahlquist products, including the DQ10/20. Since I do NOT find much that is wrong with the 10/20, I'd personally shy away from so-called "upgrades" that second-guess the designer.

Sonic Impressions:
  • Dahlquist DQ20 I heard this on the second visit. Having heard the Volent by then I was astonished by the change the Dahlquist brought about. The music acquired a much greater vibrancy. Midrange was hard to fault and vocals came alive with great presence. Most noticeable were the great rhythm and pace and deep reaching and walking bass. Just loved it, no if's and's or but's. At today's price, it is a steal.
  • Volent 3.5 During the first visit, for over 2 hours, we listened to a large number of recordings, and also alternated between various preamps and amps. The sound was good, but on the polite side. Now, I am not a great believer of mixing technologies, but the Volent, though not cheap at all, did a reasonable (but not perfect, as the bass was a little four-square) job of integrating the ribbon, ceramic and Ensemble/-like bass units. By itself, it is not bad. But compared to the Dahlquist heard not so long after, there was just no comparison - the Volent sounded like processed music, but the Dahlquist made a serious attempt at creating the presence of live music, and mostly succeeded!
  • Totaldac This up-end version is highly rated on the net. During the first visit, I thought the sound was good, but I just did not get the hang of it. I wrote in the initial draft of this article: "...I wondered "how absolutely good is it? I don't know. I'd like to get my Sparkler S303 to match up one day...". During the second visit, with the Dahlquist DQ20 in place, I began to hear the character of non-oversampling, and to get it. Jules perceptively made the remark: "The Dahlquist DQ20 brought out more of the character of Totaldac."
  • Luminous Audio Jules bought this after a my friend icefox poisoned him. He loves it. It seems transparent and pretty nice and I'd like try it in my system one day.

Viva Dahlquist!

20 December, 2016

Stax SRS-2170

Review: Stax SRS-2170 System
Headphone Talk VII: Electrostatic Headphones
Letter from NYC (55) 2016 (11)

My attitude towards Headphone is described in Headphone Talk I

As a long-time audiophile, I am simultaneously amazed, alarmed and sometimes amused or even dismayed by the exponential growth of headphones, headphone amps and so-called "head-fi" sites. The reasons are too numerous, so I shall leave that for a planned "Hi-Fi Basics" article.

Suffice to say, I do have some rather peripheral interest in headphones, and own several respectable headphones (Audio Technica ATH-AD700, Grado SR80e, Sennheiser HD-600 and now Stax SRS-2170) and headphone amps (listening experience of my Meier Audio Corda SwingPro-ject Headbox II and the amazing bargain Micromega Myzic, which I have yet to write about). That is not all: some of my preamps have excellent headphone outputs (certainly not the usual value added feature). Both my Nagra PL-P (listening notes here) and Manley 300B preamp (here) drive headphones in the best way possible, i.e. through dedicated transformers. I doubt most current headphone amps costing into the thousands can beat those two.

This surprises me: only after researching my own blog did I find out I have actually written on quite a few headphone and headphone amps!

The Best Earphones? Best du jour?
These days, new technologies are being used to make earphones of all kinds, and reviews are all over the audio websites and magazines. Planar magnetic earphones (led by HiFiMan, Audeze and now, Oppo) are all the rage. Each is touted to be better than the last, and a breakthrough in sound. Is that truly so? I'd reckon, no.

Even my friend shidi Andrew asked me whether he should get a pair of planars. My answer to him is basically encoded below.

Electrostatic Headphones in General
  • Power Supply Electrostatics, whether loudspeakers or earphones, have the inherent disadvantage of having to be tethered to a power supply. So the usual headphone amps and outputs cannot be used with an ESL headphone. However, as I note there is now self-biasing ESL technology (no power supply needed) used for ESL supertweeters (the Enigmacoustics Sopraninos are currently the darling of the audio press), I harbour hope perhaps this technology can be used in headphones in the near future to free the ESL from its power supply.
  • Adaptors There are adaptors which both provide the connection and power supply for ESL headphones, facilitating use with a regular loudspeaker system. Stax used to make these (SRD-7 Pro) and there are also current offerings (from the like of Woo Sound - the Wee). However, I don't see how the serious audiophile would be willing to insert one of these between their amplifier and loudspeaker. One can also of course wire the loudspeaker input to a phono jack so as the normal headphone output can be used. As for me, I'd just stick to the companion amp.
  • Stax and Other Makers Stax is virtually synonymous with the ESL Headphone. There have been others, but they have been few and far in between. In the past, there have been Koss, Beyerdynamics and perhaps others (some are rebranded Stax). Now, paradoxically, there may be renewed interest, as Sonoma and HiFiman have just made their rounds at HiFi shows with their new ESL headphones, which are due for release. Caveat, I think these are likely to be more expensive than Stax. What is more interesting to me is the Shure KSE1500, recently well reviewed by John Atkinson in Stereophile (November 2016), a unique in-ear ESL design with a portable amp, expensive but quite different. Even more interestingly, in the same issue, Herb Reichert wrote of the Koss ESP 950/E90 ESL system (link), still in production but issued in 1990, a full 26 years ago. HR compared them favourably, indeed preferred them to Audeze's magnetic planar LCD-X and LCD-4 (the same article contains links to TJN's 1992 review). Also, another Stereophile reviewer Steve Guttenberg also presents another view in cnet, and the article also interestingly compared the Koss system to the Stax SRS-2107 system. These are all worthwhile reads, highly recommended.   
  • My Stax Experience-Vintage Over the years I have periodically encountered STAX earphones, always to great satisfaction. Just a few years ago, along with his AKG 501 and 701 and Grado RS-1, the same Andrew also lent me his old Stax SR-3 and SR Lambda Pro, with a driver. While I had sampled the AKG's and Grado early on, because of the nuisance of hooking up the dedicated amp, I never listened to the Stax's until I had to return them to him. And boy, what had I missed! For the hallmark sound, see description below.
  • My Stax Experience-Current In NYC my friend Kane owns the current SR-507 with the tubed SRM 007tII amp. As I remember, the sound is luxurious, in the same vein as below.
  • (In)Visibilty of ESL Despite its virtues, ESL technology has always been on the fringe of audio, and this is as true of ESL headphones as ESL loudspeakers. Imagine, a great company like Quad has not had US distribution for a few years until recently. Part of the reason must be the difficulty in servicing Quad ESL's (costly and cumbersome). But Stax headphones are a different story - they are famous for their longevity and many old units are working perfectly. One interesting observation: If you google "electrostatic headphone" you will get Stax among your entries, but if you use "electrostatic earphone" you get pages of Shure only. The vagaries of googling!
SRS-2170 System (SR-207+SRM252S) (Official link with spec's)
SRS-2170 is Stax's entry level system. As it comprises both headphone and matching amp, the package is very reasonably priced in my opinion. It has been well received and even managed to have a few reviews (see cnet and avhub). I agree with those and shall be brief here.
  • Comfort is unsurpassed.
  • Sound Although "entry level", these deliver Stax's hallmark sound that can only be called luxurious, with a large soundstage, plenty of air and warmth. Nothing grating to the ear, yet everything was crystal clear. (the same cannot be said about some of the current, very hifi cans). As expected from ESL, transients are fast (but natural) and bass is tight and tuneful.   I cannot imagine better replay of classical music. Large orchestral music have scale and flow that surpass the usual dynamic headphones. To name just one very important virtue: a very realistic rendition of massed strings (many modern designs fail miserably in this). Chamber music is even more superior - what glorious string tones and tensile interaction! Jazz also benefits from the fast leading edge - pristine percussion and brozen brass, all with superb rhythm and pace. Another difficult feat: a reasonable facsimile of  hall sound, if that can be portrayed by headphones at all. It all adds up to one word: natural.
  • Upgrade? Personally, I don't really think so, or at least not at all in a hurry. Although this is entry-level Stax I don't really hear that much difference between the SRS-2170 system and the more expensive vintage Stax or the current (middle level) SR-507/SRM007tII that my friend has. The SRS-2170 system is an overachiever that has most, if not all, of what Stax has to offer, at an eminently affordable price. I am sure you get more as you go up the ladder, but it is likely a case of diminishing returns.
Conclusion

  • The Best For once, I shall say what is the best: Stax, even entry level, is the best for me, and I am not at all tempted by newer and sexier offerings. If you are into headphones at all, you should try Stax. Stax is durable, and older offerings offer much the same sound and can be obtained at bargain prices. Just get one!
  • vs Planar Magnetics The hottest headphones of today are almost all planars. I have never had one in my own system, but I know the sound. A good analogy is Planar Magnetic loudspeakers (e.g. Magnepan) vs ESL loudspeakers (e.g. Quad and Martin Logan). Now, I know quite a bit about that, as an owner of Maggies and Martin Logan, and interested student of Quad. With large speakers, ESL suffers from dynamic limitations, and in the case of Quad (except the 29xx series) less than full size images, while Maggies tend to grate a little in the treble, not as refined and luxurious as the ESL's. However, with the cans over our head, the situation is totally different. Unless one listens to heavy metal and a steady diet of rock (which is not the average audiophile), I personally have not heard better than Stax, and shall remain an ardent fan.