The new ultra-fi
Stereophile|January 2022
GRAMOPHONE DREAMS
HERB REICHERT

At noon on a cloudless, ridiculously bright 97° day, John Atkinson and I audi-tioned Audeze’s new-but-not-yet-released CRBN electrostatic headphones. The audition took place at a sneak preview hosted by Audeze’s principal, Sankar Thiagasamudram, in a sleeping room at New York’s hipster-chic Ace Hotel on 29th Street and Broadway. Décor in this unusual sleeping room included a bathtub with feet, an antique wood ironing board, a vintage Gibson guitar, and a working stereo system with a Music Hall turntable and an assortment of vintage LPs.

On my way there, I was remembering some of my life-time experiences with electrostatic transducers. People who know me know that I’ve always been partial to electrostatic loudspeakers and headphones, but I’ve never found any that engage me fulltime, long-term. Over the years, my two pairs of Quad ESL loudspeakers taught me to enjoy the pleasures of a scintillating, perfectly detailed midrange. The original MartinLogan CLS (not the II or IIA) and the Stax ELS F-81 electrostatics took that learning to a higher level: Both speakers thrilled me with their raw, succulent, ultradetailed presentation. Unfortunately, both tended toward odd or gone-missing bottom octaves. Worst of all, they were beamy. And compressed. And staticky. But I loved them anyway.

Likewise, I’ve been drawn to Stax’s SR-009 headphones. I’ve always wanted to love them, but I found the original 009 unsatisfying for daily use. I regard the current SR-009S, which makes proper bass, as one of the most revealing, exciting-to-use headphones of all time.

What I am trying to say is: I’ve been thrilled forever by the quick, vivid beauty of electrostatic transducers, but sooner than later they start sounding like electrostatic transducers. At that point, I go back to the easier flow of dynamic and planar-magnetic headphones and continue my persistent kinships with horn speakers, planar-magnetic panel speakers, full-range speakers on open baffles, and of course my beloved LS3/5a sealed boxes.

I am telling you this because that day at the Ace Hotel I thought the Audeze CRBN electrostatic headphones sounded fresh, open, clean, and abundantly resolved—but more electrostatic and less chunky, weighty, and tone-saturated than I had hoped for. But I wasn’t worried: I blamed the CRBN’s low chunk factor on the Chord Qutest DAC that was sourcing Linear Tube Audio’s Z10e amplifier. I know the Qutest and LTA’s Z10e from time spent auditioning them for my own reports in this magazine. The Z10e is likely blameless because previously it made the Stax SR-009S, HiFiMan’s Jade II, and Dan Clark’s VOCE electrostats sound smooth, naturally full-bodied, and vivacious. When I put the Qutest in my big system, it sounds smooth and vivacious, too—even elegant— but, I think, a little thin and gray of tone: not hard-bodied and full-textured like my much more expensive reference DACs: the dCS Bartok, HoloAudio May, and the Mola Mola Tambaqui.

As I was leaving that Ace Hotel audition, I arranged to review the CRBN headphones using Linear Tube Audio’s Z10e. Besides powering electrostatic headsets, the Z10e can power conventional dynamic and planar-magnetic headphones as well as regular loudspeakers.1

And then, a week later, I found out that Sankar and crew had used Woo Audio’s 3ES electrostatic headphone amp during the development of the CRBN headphones. I had no choice but to call Woo Audio’s proprietor, Jack Wu, requesting a 3ES for my Audeze examinations.

Jack hand-delivered the 3ES one day after the CRBN arrived. As I unpacked the well-packed Woo amp, I spotted its three line-level input pairs on the back (two XLR, one RCA) and their corresponding three-position source-selector knob on the right side of the front panel. Left of the centrally located big knob, which controls the TKD four-channel balanced potentiometer, I spotted the Headphones/Preamp selector knob and my brain exclaimed, “Oh look! It really is a preamp.” When I asked Jack Wu about the 3ES’s circuit, he told me (on the phone) that it was a fully balanced 6SN7 dual-triode differential input, capacitor-coupled to a push-pull 300B directly heated power triode output. The 300B’s cathodes are capacitor-coupled to the 3ES’s balanced XLR outputs. (The 3ES has no single-ended outputs.)

Line-level tube envy

To make sure everybody understands how spectacularly not ordinary this Woo Audio amplifier is, let me restate and clarify what I described above: Besides being a dedicated electrostatic headphone amplifier (with five-pin “Pro” 580V-bias energizing supply that works with headphones from Stax, Dan Clark, and HiFiMan), the Woo Audio 3ES is also a two-chassis, 53lb stereo preamplifier in which the lower, shielded power supply chassis sits on what appear to be premium-quality footers and is fastened to the amplifier-circuit chassis on top via spacers that match the footers on the chassis bottom.

Continue reading your story on the app

Continue reading your story in the magazine

MORE STORIES FROM STEREOPHILEView All

Revinylization

Round Trip: Ornette Coleman’s Blue Note sides

4 mins read
Stereophile
March 2022

CH Precision D1.5 SACD/CD/MQA-CD Player/Transport

There’s a school of thought that maintains that among all hi-fi components, the D/A converter is easiest to perfect or come close to perfecting. Just make sure that every sample is converted accurately, that there’s little rolloff in the audioband, that aliased images are suppressed almost completely, and that background noise is extremely low, and you have a top-quality D/A processor. Use of a high-quality DAC chip is assumed.

10+ mins read
Stereophile
March 2022

Analog Corner

Paradox’s remarkable Phono 70 Signature MC phono preamplifier

10+ mins read
Stereophile
March 2022

GRAMOPHONE DREAMS

Stax, EAR, and Bob’s Devices

10+ mins read
Stereophile
March 2022

SINGING TO THE SOUL

THE MAGIC OF ART SONG ON RECORD

10+ mins read
Stereophile
March 2022

MayFly Audio Systems MF-201A LOUDSPEAKER

If you’ve ever read Homer’s Iliad, you probably remember the Cata-log of Ships at the beginning. It’s an exhaustive record of the contingents the Achean army deployed against Troy, naming the commanders, their hometowns, the number of ships in each contingent, and more. Not to put too fine a point on it, it’s a snoozefest. It makes you dread what’s next. But of course, if you come to this point only to abandon the Iliad in frustration, you’ll miss the fabulous war epic that follows, chockablock with action, drama, and romance.

10+ mins read
Stereophile
March 2022

Gold Note PH-1000 PHONO PREAMPLIFIER

Gold Note’s $11,999 PH-1000 is by a con-siderable margin the most sophisticated, most configurable phono preamplifier that any audio manufacturer has ever produced, at least that I know of. Remarkably, considering all that flexibility and sophistication, using and adjusting the PH-1000 is straightforward.

10+ mins read
Stereophile
March 2022

“Music Was Mine to Experience.”

For all its ghastliness and heartbreak, the COVID-19 pandemic has been good to Keb’ Mo’. When the virus hit the US, it forced the cancelation of a string of his concerts. “I was getting a little burned out on touring,” he confesses.

10+ mins read
Stereophile
February 2022

Book Review

The Secret History of Washington, DC, R&B

4 mins read
Stereophile
January 2022

Forget about the sound of the recording.

MY BACK PAGES

5 mins read
Stereophile
February 2022