After a 12hr nocturnal marathon on Kinki Studio's THR-1 lateral Mosfet amp to warm up to the task, D300Ref's SD card set to endless repeat, things hoofed it upstairs to an even superior headphone rig. This centers on Bakoon's ultra wide-bandwidth current-mode AMP-12R. With its gain control set to purpose, it receives remote-controlled analog signal from a COS Engineering D1. That gets its .aiff digits from a Soundaware A280 SD card transport via S/PDIF. Converting this setup to instead drive our Albedo Audio Aptica speakers just means banana plugs in, 6.3mm plug out. First headfi comparator was Final's D8000 – price matched to within one euro, tech matched on proprietary planarmagnetics. Despite very solid aluminium construction, the Japanese industrial design played third fiddle to the Romanian's. On finish, Final's oddly wrinkled pad covers didn't match Meze's perfectly smooth equivalents. On presentation, Meze's aluminium attaché case completely outclassed Final's fussy carton though the Japanese include the shown stand. Still, prior to any laying on of healing ears, even the most biased coin tug would declare an Empyrean win. But hardcore audiophiles pride themselves on being made of sterner stuff even if I firmly believe that peak performance encapsulates all aspects to include design and build. Still, in audiophile company, the real decider are sonics. And there's no getting around it. Any €3'500 headphone is audiophile; or must prove to be if it means to retain its raison d'être.
With these amp/load Ω/sensitivity factors producing equivalent levels, fair swaps were easy. The Final was heavier, its ear cradles bigger. Wear comfort was lower. Sonically however, things drew more level if still different. With their lazily twisted rubbery stock leash, the D8000 were bassier, bloomier, darker, moister and less transparent. The Empyrean countered with a more finessed treble, lower redolence, a tighter grip, greater perceived linearity as well as higher 'see-thru-ity' into denser tracks. With an after-market twin XLR wire from ALO Audio, the D8000 bassiness off the Questyle monos or COS H1 normalizes and its top end opens up. Just so, its looser wetter warmer character stays put like an echo of my early Audeze LCD-2. Needing a 6.3mm plug for this occasion, the stock cable was simply it.
Given this encounter, the D8000 and Empyrean seemed to huddle closer together than I anticipated would HifiMan's more electrostatic Susvara. With Final at left and HifiMan at right to set up a polarity axis, before I listened for confirmation, I felt that Meze might sit a bit left off center. Actually, they sat far closer to the right. On transparency, I pegged them on par with the Chinese. On tonal balance, the HifiMan felt slightly tipped up by contrast. On opposing bass power, Meze had the small advantage. Likewise for somewhat higher tone mass or color intensity. Again just by contrast, Susvara registered a bit more crystalline, the Empyrean fleshier. Shades of distinction not substantial divergence. For Susvara, subjective wear weight was lower. So was subjective build and finish. On sensitivity, the Empyrean completely dominated. Having 15wpc into 8Ω on tap, that was zero issue over our exotic Bakoon. With most conventional ¼" ports however, it very much would be. Where Meze is a virtually every-amp can, this particular HifiMan needs considerable power and current for lift-off. To recap my first two sessions, on resolution and linearity, the Empyrean and Susvara clearly belonged into the same league. The D8000 stepped down a rung or two. On build luxury, Romania took the gold, nobody silver. That indicates the lead Antonio's team had over this competition. On that planar score only the Abyss Diana I inspected in Munich seemed competitive but not having listened, I don't know more.
Clearly however, the hooded opaque treble and fuzzy focus of earlier Audeze, Fostex rebuilds and Oppo planarmagnetics was by now a thing long of the past. These latest thin-film efforts had made obvious strides to build out their upper reach where due to sheer membrane size, the other end had already arrived long before. How would things shake out versus Final's Sonorous X as my notion of an über Sennheiser HD800?
Duplicating this show also in the room's other headfi stack of Soundaware D100 serving up AES/EBU digits to a fully balanced COS H1 demonstrated how it took an amp of Bakoon's peak caliber to fully divide Empyrean/Sonorous X offsets. Since amplitude response aka tonal balance were perfect stand-ins, key was how opposing driver tech communicated. Meze's thin film presented as airier all over. On pure treble reach/energy, both matched. Yet 'airier' usually connotes specific treble advantages. Not here. Rather, the distinction was a full-bandwidth effect. It reminded me of a recent comparison between premium single-ended transistors (SIT-1 monos), equally premium single-ended Mosfet hybrids with tube driver/buffer (Thöress EHT monos) and pure direct-heated PX4 power triodes (Tektron). Whilst the big bottles did exhibit a midband emphasis and curtailed extremes, the difference we're considering now was their valve-based temporal elasticity. Music moved through time more fluidly or buoyant. The pure transistors were the most gathered and taut. The hybrids cloned the DHT's more billowy behaviour to near fullness yet the pure triodes still piled on just a bit more. This progressive effect occurred across the full bandwidth, not specific bands. Now the Finals were the FirstWatt static induction transistors, the Meze the Thöress with their triode injection.
Over the Bakoon, Final's big dynamic dome ensconced in a massive gleaming metal casing presented with more raw shove. While the Empyrean could really crack just as hard on bass transients to equal the X on initial smack, on the follow-through the Final registered with more power or rebound; as though a punch from the same-sized fist delivered with the same speed was backed by a bigger shoulder. That bit suggested more 'dynamic' or damped behaviour whereas the thin film felt 'airier all over' or wetter. Over the COS, Nagra and Kinki amps, that difference shrunk. Knowing its actual magnitude from the Bakoon, I recognized it to smaller degrees. The upshot is as obvious as it is oft overlooked: to really hear anything at its most distinctive relies on all contributors being of the highest caliber.
Also with the Bakoon and just on one track—Dhafer Youssef's Sound of Mirrors, 1st cut—the Empyrean exhibited a subtle but perfectly repeatable tell. An ascending scale between Dhafer's potent head voice and Hüsnü's G clarinet perfectly centered in my brain suddenly had portions of high tones mirror into the left ear slightly upward like a miniature displaced echo. It took several repeat inspections until it seemed that the upper, quasi mid/woofer portion of Meze's diaphragm delivered the same treble notes like the more direct tweeter portion but minutely delayed and suddenly specific to just one channel to detach and jump. On the COS, this became so faint that I could only intuit it because I watched like a hawk and knew where to focus. Because it only happened with the left driver and only on the ultra-bandwidth high-gain Bakoon, I suspect a very minor drive-unit variation coupled to a very specific amplifier circuit that required a special music track to be triggered.
Meanwhile back in the real world, with the €4'600 ask for a Sonorous X coupled to massive physical weight, then Susvara's $6'000 with its challenging insensitivity, the €3'500 very comfortable and easy-drive Empyrean rose as first amongst equals in my compact three-member club of flagships. On sheer build and finish quality, Final's Sonorous X matched the Empyrean's extravagance. On style, Final's shiny chrome and gold spell obvious bling where Antonio Meze's choices play it more subdued. On pure sonics, Susvara, Empyrean and Sonorous X shared a stage. But if I wanted best-built of breed, I'd end up with a Meze for planarmagnetics, the Final for dynamics. On effective power conversion—different from published sensitivity specs—the X still trounced the Empyrean by a substantial margin of nearly 20 clicks on the H1 volume. But if I could only have one headphone for the (cough) best price, the Empyrean would presently be my last can standing.
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