When you go for a headphone rig without a dedicated amplifier, it of course helps immeasurably if your headphones of choice sport high sensitivity and easy load behavior. Wouldn't you know it, the audio-technicas (which are Japanese-issue and require direct importation) conform perfectly with 100dB efficiency, 40-ohm impedance and 2-watt maximum input power. Hey, I didn't purchase these without doing some due diligence upfront. I didn't need another bear-to-push dinosaur like my ultra-performance but lazy and thus power-hungry 74dB K-1000s.

Like their popular ATH-W100 predecessors, the 1000s encase their angled 53mm Titanium drivers with "super high-class 8N OFC voice coils, permalloy magnetic circuits and neodymium motors" in solid Asadazakura wood cheeks. What the firm calls "unique wing support housing with vibration-proof PAT mechanism" is in fact a truly elegant and wonderfully comfortable way to automatically adapt the contraption to fit to your head. It doesn't make any contact whatsoever with the ultra-sensitive crown of your skull nor does it thus transmit even subtle mechanical resonances via conventional headbands which invariably translate as eventual listener fatigue. But there's more. The languid 3-meter input cord not only is 6N OFC+Hi-OFC copper, it's silk-like in how fluidly it drapes within its black cloth cover, never once prone to spiraling up or twisting like most other headphone leads.

Even better, the cord is 'mono' and only feeds into the left ear cup. It thus prevents the annoying under-the-chin Y connection of other makes. The slanted diaphragms proper are covered behind transparent cloth and perforated metal, then edged by foam-filled faux leather rings. Those donut pillows completely surround your ears in true circumaural fashion, with an outer 4-inch diameter and 1-inch contact rim. That leaves an air cavity of 2-inch diameter and ca. 0.5" depth to face the driver - plus, of course, the inner-ear passage to your ear drum. The wooden housings are surrounded by textured gold aluminum bands which terminate in front/aft metal swivels to conform perfectly to the contours of your head. The metalized plastic wings are gently spring-loaded as is the rubber-shrouded twin-wire bridge on top. Fit'n'finish are of true Rolls-Royce caliber -- extreme luxury -- and the very finely grained red wood housings are flawlessly lacquered in a semi-gloss with gold lettering. Even the gold-plated 1/4" plug is encased in wood and engraved in gold lettering. All of this makes my older $695 Grado RS-1s seem a mite pedestrian by comparison. Ditto for the new and still plasticized $449.50 top-line HD-650 Sennheisers. Do you being to understand why, when the subject of acquiring a replacement pair of reference dynamic cans for my RS-1s came up, I wanted to do something a bit different for a change? But real audiophiles naturally don't care about any of that. They just wanna know how it sounds.

Alas, even before I got finally jacked in to hit play, I was already in love. Sound of course would be the final arbiter but with headphone listening in particular, wearing comfort comes in a vital second. For me, the 350-gram ATs here broke new ground over other conventional full-contact phones I've tried over the years. And while you're free to disagree, pride of ownership and beautiful craftsmanship are also very important to this punter. Needless to say, the W1000s continued to deliver on that front with true Samurai vengeance - swiftly and deadly. Since I had purchased this pair purely on specs and pix, I was already tickled pink. I hate to waste money on inferior merchandise. So far, so very good.

And while we're still in spec land, frequency response of this sealed dynamic design is a claimed 5-40,000Hz. Had I truly landed a whale without resorting to the shark-infested waters of the Limited-Edition $2,349 audio-technica L-3000s [left] and $3,500 Sony MDR-R10s? I certainly could live without the green British Connolly leather of the former whose basic design looks uncannily similar to my 'low-brow' version. Sure, their drivers might be different and ditto for the internal wiring - but do you know how excellent a tweeter $100 will buy you? The price differential of nearly 2,000 quid between my cans and the ones to the left suggested that one should acquire line-source 'phones for that kind of bread. And frankly, my ears are just large enough to be covered by one full-range tweeter. So kindly count me out on that score. With that settled, let's talk turkey now: W1000 + MiniMax = ?

But first, a quick comparison to the HD-650s outfitted with StefanAudio Art Equinox replacement cable. Outside their new Titanium color scheme, the 650s continue the appearance of the earlier HD 580s and HD 600s with the vented perf-metal ear pieces, velour pads and foam-padded plastic bridge hiding the click-stop extender metal headband. New in the 650s is a variable-thickness diaphragm with aluminum voice coils. New also is a deliberately contoured frequency response with minor suckouts at 5 and 16kHz to correlate with inner ear geometry effects and to achieve a smoother subjective response claimed to cover 16 - 30,000Hz. Sensitivity is given as 103dB/1Vrms, impedance as 300 ohms. The latter is a lot higher than the W1000s which, despite this claimed 3dB efficiency advantage by the Germans, actually makes the Japanese cans play considerably louder with the same input signal. The 3m OFC copper cord of the HD-650s now sports reinforcing Kevlar strands while the former convertible 1/8"-to-1/4" plug-in-plug has become a dedicated big plug. For Walkman/MP3-player users, Sennheiser includes a wired pigtail converter. At 260 grams, the Sennheisers are lighter than the W1000s but their headband applies more pressure and the oval ear cups are narrower. While comfortable in a slightly more claustrophobic way (the HDs create perceptibly less free air space around your ears), the audio-technicas' luxury solutions are in different class altogether. And for the same price I might add. Plus, to really get the 650s' best performance, you must add $100+ for an after-market cord by the likes of Cardas, Moon Audio or Stefan AudioArt. This makes the audio-technicas the distinct bargain in the ruling triumvirate of HD650, RS-1 and W1000 .

The actual driver-to-driver distance seems greater with the W1000s than the 650s. That would be a function of both the thickness of their ear pads and the slightly greater depth of the ear cups. Be that is it may, there is a definite audible difference - the Japanese 'phones have a marginally wider soundstage. And probably because they're fully sealed, their lowest bass is even better than that of the vaunted but vented Sennheisers. Not having compared the 650s to their HD600 predecessors, I will rely on Wes Phillip's comments that "... the first thing I noticed was how much deeper and tauter the bass sounded than from my long-term reference HD 600s. If you like to "feel" your music, you'll lurve the 650s..." If that makes the HD650's bass SOTA -- and they and their previous iterations are arguably the world's most popular ultra high-performance dynamic headphones in the still-affordable sector -- the W1000s are SSSOTA: Lisping-sibilance super special state-of-the-art.

With the MiniMax as source, the 40-ohm W1000s also sounded more open, alive and dynamic, with the Germans acting a wee bit British by being more restrained and narrow by comparison. This juxtaposition on today's source of choice is not intended to be a conclusive comparison between these two headphone models per se. Rather, it indicates that the audio-technicas must be considered direct and very strong competitors to the far better known Sennheisers (and Grados). If you didn't mean to purchase a separate headphone amplifier, the audio-technicas are clearly the far better choice than the Senns due to their optimized impedance behavior for such applications. Incidentally, in the forthcoming review of the Aural Audition $2,195 headphone amplifier [right] and $595 ASL MGHead 32, both 'phones will battle it out for the crown when yours truly is the referee in the ring.

Angelique Kidjo's stunning new Oyaya [Columbia 89053] is an unusual exploration into Afro/Caribbean/Latin crossover territory that combines her trademark hi-energy African vocals with brass-driven Salsa derivatives for a truly fetching WorldBeat party.

Particularly African and Latin music with their heavy reliance on complex drum patterns and heavily syncopated
instrumental and singing styles live and die on the rhythmic and transient fidelity of the supporting playback equipment. However, the same aspects necessary to make the most of these qualities are the very same ones that can become relentless, strident, hard and fatiguing. That's where the tubes of today's setup come in. They contribute significant image density, dynamics and body to allow 5-hour listening sessions without any fatigue whatsoever, with high-impact fare like Oyaya espousing all its inherently driven excitement without going hyped or sluggish in the process.

Slapped and aggressively pulled bass notes are possessed of all the taut nearly-before-the-beat acuity you expect from your big rig yet so often don't get because room interaction and higher-order crossovers undo timing, extension and precision. With full-range super high-efficiency drivers within breathing distance of your ear drums, direct-coupled to expertly implemented 6922s and backloaded into wooden cavities, you get more - more coherence and seamlessness, more immediacy and directness, more control, reach and pitch definition in the bass. Granted, earspeaker bass no matter how low doesn't vibrate the sternum, massage the gut or tickle the family jewels. That's simple displacement arithmetic of actual air moved. But together with the air movement of twin 10" woofers (or whatever the chosen artillery in your main system might be) come greater nonlinearities, interactions with cabinet and room resonances. Conversely, bass performance of the W1000/MiniMax combo is more honest, better integrated and most likely more full-range and linear than your main system. But - it won't dislodge tooth fillings in the impact sweepstakes.

In absolute terms -- if there was such a thing -- the overall tonal balance of the audio-technica cans would be called slightly warm but less so than the Grado RS-1s which I've owned for 8 years before they were terminated by a hit man in the guise of momentary but fiery marital differences. Physical resonances in the cured wooden housings of the W1000s are extremely minimal due to the reduced excursion requirements of high-sensitivity drivers and the small air volumes that need to be excited for desired playback levels. This is apparent when you cup the housings with your hands during listening, to the same negative extent that most speaker cables, in the actual realm, will telegraph bass transients as physical impulse patterns on your skin when gripped.

For treble performance, I like to use Flamenco cantaor Duquende whose voice manages to tread breakup modes so carefully as to activate heavy upper harmonics strongly enough to nearly create multiple octave-doubling. On a flute for example, this would result in actual overblowing. Since the harmonics are by necessity lower in amplitude than
the fundamental, their relative development on different systems is a great showcase for HF retrieval of 'secondary' data. Year 2000's Samaruco [Polydor 07314 543908 2 8] additionally benefits from the guitar wizardry of Paco de Lucia, Juan-Manuel Cañizares, Jose Marie Banderas, Jose Carlos Gomez and Isidro Muñoz, never mind Flamenco heavyweights Tino di Geraldo on percussion and Carles Benavent on bass.

My new Japanese treasures allowed me to climb the Jacob's ladder of overtones into the higher heavens, clearly discerning multiple rungs and delighting in the artist's uncanny ability to reduce or expand this ladder's reach deliberately and flexibly. The gypsies call this the metal in the throat. A highly prized commodity in Cante Jondo, Duquende is uniquely endowed in that department and the hardware playback combo excelled at letting me hear it
without resorting to etching, top-heaviness or the inner-ear ringing my AKG K-1000s are naturally inclined towards when left to their stock wiring and unsympathetic amplifiers. Though I must confess right now that driving them from the complete MiniMax stack (i.e. off the 16-ohm taps of the 8wpc push/pull MiniMax amplifier) has given me the very best sound I've ever obtained from these temperamental but ultra-performance winged earspeakers [above]. If business is good over the next few months, I will be most seriously tempted to purchase the entire stack and not just the CD player, to become my new aural office equipment that won't send faxes or print out pesky bills but makes glorious music while I spend 8-10 hours on the computer each day formatting the steady supply of reviews my contributors submit like clockwork.