I’ll try to make this one short [Ed: Ha! Yeah, right], because I’ve been listening to these crazy old Stax headphones for too long already.
I wouldn’t say I just did a full come-to-Jesus conversion, but it was a top of the mountain experience at least.
I love the speed of electrostatics, and the palpable texture they can help overlay onto a traditionally rich sounding recording.
But, I'll admit I’ve had a bit of a bias against electrostatic headphones. One of my favorite aural memories is of hearing a well-mixed, full band playing over the control room output on the mixing board from my days as an engineer. After that moment in time, few headphones playback experiences of the same music were even close to as exciting and emotional and detailed.
Having heard several electrostat ‘phones in recent years at Can Jam and Ear Gear Expo, I’ve grown to expect shimmering highs, but very little bass from these high voltage pieces. Then again, I never had control over the music played in those demos, so I’ve always wondered what my recorded stuff and my favorite tracks would sound like.
Well, when this old box of Stax gems was dropped off for TMR to consign recently, I took one look at the giant headphones and said out loud, “Hey look! Electroshock headphones for people who hate bass.”
I was trying to make my coworkers chuckle, but that is really the negative bias I’d been harboring about this style of “earspeakers,” as Stax call them.
A few wipes of the microfiber cloth (and a blast with the compressed air) later and the Stax’ amplifier was ready to wake up again. This particular amplifier is the SRM-1/Mk-2 Professional, which I read is one of the better amps in Stax history.
I was tempted to throw on Oddisee’s The Iceberg, which I had been enjoying before testing the Stax, probably to reinforce my “no bass” bias.
But, I thought better of that and decided to pull up an album I’ve recently fallen in love with, cellist Nathaniel Smith’s unbelievable Arrhythmia from 2012. We'd get to the Oddisee album eventually.
A bright start while the old headphones stretched their limbs quickly transitioned to earthy, present magic. And then more magic. And then, only magic.
With these headphones and this music, I just took off somewhere with my mind. I thought about Nat's cello playing in person back when I recorded him. I thought about the studio he would have laid down those tracks in. I thought about his rosin-rich approach and the bouncing and chopping he can do so well to add rhythm to his playing.
And then I looked at the time and gasped. Whoops! Best get back to work.
How old are these things and how long have they been sitting in a box somewhere? To think of the tragedy of a set of audiophile ears going for a decade without getting to hear these.
The amp needs to be balanced with the left and right volume controls, and there’s no remaining foam inside the ear cups over the drivers, but I’m here to say those are quibbling details when the remainder is a set of gear that delivers more realistic and emotional and exciting sound than I’ve heard in years, and maybe ever.
This strikes me as the perfect opportunity for someone who’s read about the magic of Stax in the past but has never had the coin or the opportunity. Audiophiles — do yourselves a favor and add this to your wish list! One vey lucky set of ears will thank you over and over again.