Sunday, January 09, 2005

Stax SR-001 MK II electrostatic in-ear phones

(reposted/edited from old Head-Fi post)
Electrostatic in-the earspeakers. An intriguing concept, don't you think? The magic of electrostatics... The thrill of 580V pulsing away millimeters from your eardrum... So what do you expect out of an electrostatic in-earspeaker? Glassy highs, astonishing detail, and a lack of bass? Well I did. Imagine my complete surprise when the SR-001 totally subverted my supposition.

(pictured with Sony D-EJ2000 discman)

The SR-001 Mk II is one of Stax's 'complete kit' line-ups, akin to the SR-3030 driver + earspeaker kit for example. You get everything you need to start listening. But you don't have to buy complete. There is a different driver available for the earspeaker part of the SR-001, and you can buy the two bits separately like any other speaker/driver in the Stax range.
The driver unit isn’t that big, perhaps slightly longer than a cigarette packet, and takes AA batteries. It has one control, the on/off and volume knob. It's one of those knobs which click on and off at the start of rotation. It's got the socket for the earspeaker, and a socket for a mains adaptor. The unit drives the earspeakers to ample volume in most circumstances with any source. I tried the Line Out of my discman, and the headphone out of my minidisc player, both very wimpy in terms of headphone output, and was happy with the results under most portable conditions. The earspeakers aren’t sealed, so you can hear pretty much everything going on around you.
The earspeakers have tubes extending out, which sticks into your ears. The tips are soft silicone for comfort. The earspeakers come with a headband which you can attach or detach according to your preferences.

The sound was what really surprised me to start with. I was expecting glassy trebles... And I didn't get it. Treble is noticeably rolled off, to an extent that cymbals and such sounds take something of a back seat in the overall mix. The same can't be said for the bass, which is snappy and big. So yes, this is an electrostatic earspeaker with powerful bass and a recessed treble. You may indeed be a little confused.

Midrange performance is fluid and very, very nice. It's perhaps the best part of this earphone... and it's arguably better than any other earphone out there. The lack of high treble puts something of a muffler on the overall rendition, but the mids and punchy lows really make up for this. Joaquin Rodrigo's Concierto De Aranjuez came across with clearly superior clarity in the mids, lower treble, and upper lows... but at the same time definitely with a blanket over the highs. I chose this test track specifically for the guitars to demonstrate the transient attack at the start of each note. The big deal was the guitar playing, which you could really feel being picked, not just being played.

Detail is, once again despite the lack of treble, excellent, placing is good if somewhat 2-D. If I had to put my finger on one phone that it's like, imagine a higher-resolution version of a Beyerdynamic DT250-80. The overall sound is very smooth, highly resolved, and rich. With jazz, R&B, etc it's a total success. With pop, it’s pretty good. With classical, well… It’s good, but if you’ve listened to the recording on something like an Audio-Technica ATH-W1000, Sony MDR-CD3000 or a properly driven Sennheiser HD600, you’ll be definitely aware of something missing.

So it sounds good in it's own distinct way. But, there are penalties to be paid for a portable electrostatic solution. First of all, battery endurance. That high-power driver sucks the life out of batteries like a very enthusiastic bl…ahem, err... like something sucking very hard. 4-5 hours seems to be the maximum you can expect. Secondly and far more annoyingly, a change in ear air pressure creates a very loud crackling. Even chewing gum reduces the music to an incoherent crackle. A swallow results in a long drawn-out crackle. So no eating or drinking while listening to these. No swallowing either. Music is serious business after all.

Although the SR-001 has the ability to be used as pure earphones without the headband/holder, I think the band is pretty much mandatory... Unsupported by the headband, the earpieces fell out far too easily, and had to be pushed much further in to the ear to stay in place, making things painful at times.

These are entertaining, but not ultimate-realism phones. The overall sound is really the last thing I expected from electrostatics. The somewhat chopped off treble puts paid to an additional sparkle that’s required in many classical recordings. However the overall quality and transparency backed by a warm and powerful bass is a very entertaining, unfatiguing… and seductive combination.

Unfortunately, they are also quite flawed for their intended use (at least as far as the would-be user is concerned), with the air-pressure crackling a definite problem, making them unusable for gum-chewers for a start. For regular people it won’t be unusable, but simply be a major pain. The earpiece design is also another problem. I don't find it particularly comfortable, although I don't find the 001 that uncomfortable either. It’s also very hungry for batteries.

Do I like them? Sound-wise, yes, but with serious reservations in practicality for portable use. However they should still be unique and entertaining enough for people who place sound quality over some degree of practicality. I think it's at least worth a try.

Buy SR-001 here: Audiocubes
Buy interconnect for player > SR-001 amp here: TR Audio (go right to the bottom to Cardas HPI mini to mini cable

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