No more tunnel vision? My wife is the farthest thing from a headfi fan. She seriously dislikes that wearing normal headphones alters how her own voice sounds to herself. "I feel as though I were in a tunnel. It's claustrophobic. And the sound is all locked inside my head." Upon seeing Shangri-La, she shook her head dismissively at the preposterously large black beast of an amp. She made fun of those big mesh plates cradling my head like table tennis paddles. When she asked about the price and digested the answer, her eyes rolled up in shock. But she did accept my prompt to put them on and listen to the Vicente Amigo track I had playing just then. That one track changed everything. Stealing across her face in quick succession were genuine surprise, then the dawn of spontaneous wonderment, finally a kind of self-forgetful rapture. I waited as she sunk into the music. Eventually she resurfaced. "These really are quite gorgeous. They are the first which don't put me into the tunnel. I'm completely outside of it. And the sound nearly surrounds me rather than being crammed into my skull. Oh my, this really is a totally different kind of experience, isn't it?" She looked at me as though I had all the answers. I hadn't. But clearly Shangri-La had easily communicated its essence without any audiophile lingo. Like cupid's arrow, it had bypassed all affected mentalizing to hook straight into the very heart of the thing itself. As I quickly learnt, Ivette's unrehearsed reaction and comments were spot on. I needed no carefully controlled A/Bs to know. The difference was that obvious.

What also presented itself like a head-slapping 'duh' was my utter incapacity to separate what the headset did versus how much/what the amp contributed. This led to a private musing. Really, didn't makers of ambitious flagship headphones beyond electrostats owe it to themselves and their customers to also design them in conjunction with a dedicated amplifier? How else to make and guarantee ultimate results? Like Siamese twins, transducer and amp are joined at the hip. I had previously heard ALO Audio's Studio Six valve amp make whatever cans I had at the time sound positively huge. I now suspected that HifiMan's quad of luxury 300B driven by equally deluxe 6SN7 played a far from insignificant role in the final result. I simply had to accept that I couldn't drive any of our other cans from the same bottles to see how close or not that might push them to these heights. Call it the Shang's unfair advantage; though again, why other makers don't bundle their best over-ear efforts with purpose-engineered amplification is entirely their own oversight.

In short, Shangri-La did create a quasi 'surround' sensation by not only staging well beyond my ears but also strongly behind my skull where one of those kidney-shaped airline pillows would cradle it. Like the famous "the goose is out" Zen koan, the sound was beyond any audible reminders of mechanical artifice, of being squeezed out like toothpaste or funneled through some orifice. It was simply present and huge at that. Once this strangely liberated sensation had settled in like a here-now version of futuristic neural hardwiring, I noticed unusually intense detailing of particularly stringed sounds and struck gongs and singing bowls. Here Shangri-La unpeeled various harmonic layers which usually clump together. Like a first-rate super tweeter, the sonic texture not only was aerated from within like perhaps fluffy whipped egg whites with air bubbles. It was phenomenally well separated out into very subtle tone modulations whereby a plucked string for example morphs from its initial snarl or bite to sing and fill out, then flutter, then shift and turn as various harmonics fade out. The faintest of overtone ghosts were visible. Transient were quicksilvery but without any metallic etch; intimately explicit without spot-lit overexposure. Given our introductory notes, I found the bass surprisingly extended, very pitch specific and well damped but not accompanied by the slight bloat and pugilistic welly which early Audeze and Final's D8000 with their thick stock cabling exhibit. I sensed no lack of reach, just not the same dynamic 'pow' and pressurization which both Final's planar and sealed dynamic own and which the inefficient Susvara pulls off with Bakoon's AMP-12R and the Questyle CMA-800R monos.

Anyone who secretly suspected Shangri-La as being all about greased reflexes, blistering speed and hyper transparency but by extension also guilty of being somewhat lightweight or colour bleached—all heaven, no earth—hasn't factored in this 6SN7/300B combo. Amongst small-signal triodes, the 6SN7 is beloved for its fat tone. And as David Berning in particular has shown with his 300B amps, when typical output transformers vanish to step down impedance, with them do much of the archetypal laziness, syrup and bandwidth struggles which these direct-heated power triodes are so often plagued by. Asked to direct drive in push/pull not single-ended mode what presumably is a high-impedance load, these 300B marry lucidity and exceptional treble extension to well-developed body without fuzziness or fake warmth. But to these ears, aside from astonishing detail magnification, the perhaps biggest attractions of this €50'000 set had to be its near surround-sound immersion effect and the related out-of-the-head scale of the imagery. In breadth, it well surpassed those measly six inches which most of us call the available real estate between our ears. All those who feel allergic to bonsai sound which is clipped and pruned to fit inside the skull would be amazed that these lightweight headphones could affect such a change of perspective, then do it with such substance. To hear that is to instantly know. And for most, myself included, that knowledge includes admission that nothing else does exactly that to this extent. And like that gorgeous unattainable man or woman, the extravagant price here doesn't undermine allure and desirability by one iota. The experience validates itself. The rest of it really is small print. It has no bearings on the actual experience. It simply limits most extremely just how many people will get to have the experience in the first place. That's likely where Junior comes in; to open the doors just a bit more.