It has been just about 3 years since I got here. My wallet is lighter, nothing surprises me anymore, and I still can’t tell the difference between most DACs, but I have never been happier with music.
I love music. It is one of those things that can shift my mood in just a few notes. Live experiences are amazing. You feed off the energy of the performers, the absolutely electric crowd, and the whole thing becomes an unforgettable experience. There is just one problem. I am not one that can do this all the time.
That is where the power of music comes in. Enjoying it with others is amazing, but exploring it 1 on 1 has been incredible for me. That’s where my audiophile side came from. You can listen to the same thing over and over, each time walking away with something different just by what you put on your head.
So, what are you putting on your head these days?
I have not kept track of the total, but I’ve owned more than 40 pairs of headphones. Though it has dwindled below that number, and will continue to, I still have quite a few. I like to change things up. For that reason, the first two years of the hobby led to me declaring I do not have a favorite. This still rings somewhat true, but I have a confident top 3. These are the Focal Utopia, Audeze LCD-4, and ZMF Vérité. Den… did you just go to headphones.com and sort by highest price?! I know, I know. It certainly looks that way, but that is not how it happened. Here’s how I got there.
I will be the first to admit my interest in ZMF came from aesthetics. The wooden cups got me every time I saw a pair. My first year in this hobby—actually I think the first month—I convinced my brother to go to CanJam with me. I had zero experience with anything, a lot of it went over my head, and the prices cracked me up at every turn. One experience I walked away with that stayed with me was the ZMF booth. Zach—I was not aware at the time he was the man behind it all—took the time to go over everything about how they viewed sound. The headphones were stunning. They sounded good (though to be fair I was a n00b and everything did), and looked more amazing than anything I had seen to that point. The knowledge I gained from that experience led to me chatting with other people about headphones, then getting dragged down the rabbit hole.
I started with the Eikon Ash—again, because they looked incredible—and was very impressed with their sound. They were warm and intimate and resonated well with relaxing listening sessions. From there, I went from 0-60 and acquired the Aeolus, Auteur, and Atticus within the next few months. All different takes on the warm house sound I had come to love. I was also presented with the opportunity to get one of the first Ziricote editions of the new flagship Vérité.
The Vérité changed a lot of things for me. It was part of my shift in enjoying music, but also appreciating technicality. Everyone has that moment of “hearing things you’ve never heard before,” but for me those moments only came when I was looking for them, not when I was just relaxing and enjoying myself.
ZMF’s new flagship had that unquestionable, unapologetically ZMF sound signature, but it brought with it things I never paid close attention to before. The Vérité is very detailed and resolving. This carries across the entire range with little getting in the way of treble, mids, or lows. High levels of detail and separation while having ample sub-bass extension is not the easiest thing to pull off, but the Vérité makes it look that way. The level of information given to your ears is high and honest. From here, it was hard to look back.
My experience with Focal started with the Elex. I just missed the recent Massdrop run, so I tried hunting them down on the used market, but people were asking crazy money for them. The fact that they could ask upwards of $300 over retail said something. Luckily, I did not have to wait long before the next batch. When they arrived, it took me a bit to get used to their leaner sound vs. my preference for bass and warmth, but my appreciation for them grew very quickly. I don’t listen very loudly, but each time I increased the volume on the Elex, things got better.
Then things took a turn for the worst. My pair Elex suffered from driver popping. It happened randomly and it was harsh. It got to a point where I stopped using them because anticipating that pop was a detriment to my listening experience. This does not seem to plague every pair out there, but I have more than enough people with the same experience to know it was not just me. Not wanting to give up on the Focal sound, I dove right into the deep end when a good deal on Utopias popped up.
This was it. Listening to the Utopias felt like the Elex went for its PhD in education. It taught me things about songs I loved and made me even more fond of them. The treble brought new clarity to female vocals, raw emotion to the upper ranges of stringed instruments, and had a nice extension that revealed more to me in classical genres than I had ever experienced up to that point. For mids, I don’t consider Utopias my absolute favorite, but the experience does not detract in any way from my overall amazement. Lows are where I thought the Utopia would lose me. Fortunately this did not happen. While they tend to be lean, the bass is controlled, richly layered, and extends better than the Elex let me to believe was possible for Focal. The iFi Pro iCan that I use has an analog bass boosting feature called XBass. It is not the “bass boost” you find that destroys music. It has 3 levels that elevate the bass shelf modestly without being insulting. Though I still had memories of the Elex driver pop that made me hesitant, I trusted the Utopias now and tried it out. My trust was well founded. The slightest bump made all the difference. The bass response was just as honest, just as detailed, and maintained every bit of depth. The other ranges remained untouched. I just got more of what I asked for. This was a winning combination—THE winning combination.
Fast forward to the present and though I don’t like admitting to a favorite, I have found nothing more enjoyable and exciting than the Focal Utopia. I am sure there are things that best them, but I feel no need to find out. The Utopia out-resolves anything else I own and gets me excited to explore the most important thing, music.
The LCD-4 came along well after I believed I did not need another flagship. There are two people to blame for this one. The first being metal571 for making sure I knew I needed them at least once a month, and Flux, a long-time bad influence of the audiophile community. I of course make both statements in good fun. Especially since it was such an amazing experience. Flux sent over his LCD-4s as part of a listening tour and I needed my own immediately.
The big thing for me with the LCD-4 was how laid back they are. The Utopia taught me that I did not like this, but the LCD-4 did something that—for lack of a less overused term—blew my mind. It was dark and detailed. I found most dark headphones did not give me what I wanted in terms of detail and separation, but the LCD-4 did so while doing it better than most in ANY class. While treble is pulled back some, and not where the LCD-4 makes its name, it still respects the range. Detail and resolution are class-leading, there is still a good bit of air, and it extends quite well. Mids are rich, textured, and well composed. Guitar is amazing and piano is given a depth that sometimes flips my brain into analytical mode. I found myself replaying spots where a pianist does something brilliant on the keys. The bass though. THAT BASS. Yes, it gives me plenty. Yes, I ask for more. It is that good. No matter the genre it gets my head nodding along and I can listen for hours. The LCD-4 fills out my top 3, putting a lot of distance between them and anything else below.
It does have one other stand-out feature. The weight. Coming in at around 700g, they are not for the weary. For me, it takes hours to notice, but I have to mention it. Audeze has done a great job with weight distribution, so I do not get much hot spotting on the top of my head. The ear pads are so large and plush which is helpful.
What about the sauce?
I’ll be honest, source gear is my least favorite part of the hobby. I feel rather detached from my goal of just appreciating music. I am aware that it has a significant impact on sound, but when I was looking for and trying out amps and DACs it was taxing. I have all the respect in the world for those that can pinpoint the technical abilities of source gear. It is not easy and it takes time and dedication. Sure, I can tell when an amp or DAC is just plain bad, but I never get past good. Luckily I have a few skilled friends I can leave the leg— no, ear work to.
After going through a bunch of source gear, I landed on what sits atop my desk to this day. My iFi stack consists of the Pro iDSD, Pro iCan, and Pro iESL. It is not the best at everything, nor is it the worst. It is simply good for my needs. The footprint is amazing for all that it can do. That is why it survived over everything else I’ve tried. My Pro iDSD has a few issues, but I did not get it new, it was a demo unit. The plastic piece in the USB port came out with the cable one day without me noticing. After that the most of the inputs do not work. Hopefully it can be repaired.
Update: The repair was quoted at $1,925. Absolutely disappointing to get 2 years out of such an expensive unit, but lesson learned. Worse with the condescension with which the quote was delivered. I know what to avoid now.
And for on-the-go?
When I first got into the hobby, I wanted to use every pair of headphones at all times. Going into the second year, I had all kinds of portable amps and tried many different ways to carry cumbersome closed-backs in my bag. It was nice to have something close to my full setup when traveling, but less of that was happening. Being mostly down to commuting, it was starting to become a chore lugging things around. Getting into in-ears was a daunting thought. Thinking of the mass acquisitions that got me into headphones, I did not want to end up with 30 pairs. I tried Sony XM3s, but they were uncomfortable (hot ears) and I don’t like the bloated approach it takes to mids and bass.
I will spare you the full trial and error process of in-ears, you can see most of that in my gallery post. I did figure out that I need different in-ears for different tasks. It started with the highly recommended ES100 portable DAC/amp. I settled on daily driving Fiio FH5s. They perform well enough and I like their tonality. The problem came when working out. No matter what I did with the cable, it found some way to annoy me. The final straw was the ES100 taking flight one day when a low-hanging tree branch snagged the small bit of cable exposed from my pocket to my shirt.
I grabbed the Sony WF-1000XM3 and begrudgingly, the AirPods Pro. I was hesitant on the AirPods for a lot of reasons, but mostly because the non Pros didn’t seal. My trust was low, but my audiophile peers were impressed. I was as well. I’ve written a piece detailing why the AirPods Pro won despite the Sony having the preferred warmth and bass that I like while running. Now I don’t try to force my in-ears to do everything. I use the AirPods Pro for running and the FH5s (soon to be replaced by Moondrop Variations) for commutes. I use my AirPods Max as earmuffs that make noise in the winter. They’re heavy, but I grow my hair out once it starts to get very cold, so they stay in place just fine. Sigh. Apple tuned them so far off target for no reason.
Do you enjoy anything else?
Yep! I have a few headphones in the runner up category, so I’ll do a lightning round. The HEDD Audio HEDDPhones are quite enjoyable with a bump in the bass/sub-bass. They perform well in the treble and mids, and being able to feel the air movement is a trippy experience. I still love my HE-60 E-Stats, but if I get rid of my iFi stack, I will likely sell them. My Fostex TH900 MK2s are still in rotation. Those are a lot of fun even though I have the LCD-4. I have yet to correctly set up my Hifiman HE-6s, but I will do that some time soon. Even when driven from my normal stack, I enjoy them.
I am mostly done figuring out what I like. I will continue to try new things as they catch my attention or are offered to me for review, but I think my top 3 is solidified.