ESLab ES-1 Alpha

I recieved this intriguing headphone today after pretty much jumping in blind. Sometimes a headphone doesn’t gain much traction so you more or less just have to jump in, which is what I did. This post will primarily be early impressions but I also hope it can serve as a base of knowledge on this headphone in due time. The ES-1 Alpha is currently in early production and is therefore discounted by 20%. It costs about the same as an L700mk2 currently but will be more in line with 007’s price soon.

What the ES-1 Alpha is: an electrostatic headphone that has taken quite a bit of design language from the original Stax SR-Omega. There are 2 crucial differences, however.

  1. The stators are not mesh like on the Omega but rather an extremely thin more typical stator. At only .3mm thick it is substantially thinner than what Stax and other electrostat manufacturers use (typically 0.6-1mm)
  2. The ES-1 Alpha is made entirely out of aluminum with exception of the headband that is nylon. This means the headphone is heavy. I’ve not put in on a scale yet but I’m guessing north of 600 grams even without cable. Like bert reviews once said (about a completely unrelated headphone), These are big headphones.

So, first impressions after a couple of hours critically listening with one of the 2 pairs of pads this has available, I ordered both pads so I will compare them at some point but for now the pad attachment is too complex for my tiny brain to figure out.

When putting the ES-1 Alpha on my head and playing music there was one thing that struck me immediately: I’ve heard something very similar before, in the form of Stax SR-009S. Like the 009S it throws a huge stage and has exceptional imaging. It also has a slightly thin-sounding characteristic that I owe to some shout coupled with slight lower mid/bass recession.

That’s mostly it for my impressions, it sounds a lot like the 009S. If I were stax I’d be starting to be worried right now because between this and something like the L700 this is a total no-brainer to me. At least with the current pads (I believe these are the “darker” pads). I also neglected to mention the unboxing experience is really nice too. It comes in an untreated paulownia box with foam inserts. Not as nice as 009S’ box but certainly offers better protection and more stylish storage than the very cheap stax packaging.

Is it perfect? Far from it. But if you like the sound of estats I think this is shaping up to be a legitimate consideration. I still don’t think it will dethrone 007 for me, but we’ll see.

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Very intriguing. I like the look quite a bit.

Looking forward to hearing more.

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What 'stat amps are you using to compare?

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I use a SRD-7 MK2 (the one with pro bias outputs) that is powered by a Cambridge Audio CXA-80. It certainly has enough power for any estat but might not be the last word in finesse, as transformers are not ideal for that. For source I use a USBPre2 from Sound Devices. Files tested with were primarily FLAC (44.1/16) but also a couple 320Kbps MP3’s of songs I’ve been unable to find lossless.

This headphone seems to require about the same amount of volume knob turning as the 007, sucks quite a bit of power in other words.

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Follow up to my impressions from yesterday, I figured out the pad attachment (which is incredibly stupid I might add), and tried the stock pads. These are way worse quality leather than the “dark” pads for some reason, and I think the leather quality is frankly not good enough for a headphone costing this much, but I digress.

While the “dark” pads leaned slightly bright and had some shout the stock pads just turned this up to 11. Never in my life have I heard such a shouty bright mess. In my opinion the stock pads are borderline unlistenable due to extremely excessive shout, a lack of bass and offensive levels of midtreble. How the creator can call these “neutral” is beyond me, unless your perception of neutral lies close to DF with midrange boost. It does appear to maintain it’s excellent technical ability with these pads though, but I see no reason whatsoever to use these over the “dark” pads. They are lower quality, way worse sounding and less comfortable too. I forced myself to listen for about 10 minutes but couldn’t do anymore, nothing sounded good.

I also tried 007 pads, both mk2.5 and mk2.9 pads. The 2.5 pads had less shout than the stock pads but more than the “dark” pads to my ears, they also had quite a bit of sibilance but added a little to the bass impact (but not quantity) compared to the “dark” pads. 2.9 on the other hand were quite nice and my second favorite after the “dark” pads, they still had some shout but not any worse than the “dark” pads, these pads also slammed the most, even if this headphone doesn’t really slam to begin with. Soundstage felt somewhat more compressed, however, and the midtreble treble was slightly lower than what I prefer.

In the end it seems like the “dark” pads are what I would consider most ideal for this headphone so far. Ideally you’d have a similar pad that doesn’t have the shout but I figure I can always EQ that out, since there isn’t anything in particular otherwise that bothers me about these pads.

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I wrote a little comparison using SR-007 which I assume is a known quantity to some people here. Please enjoy.

ES-1a and SR-007

SR-007 I’m sure needs no introduction, it was stax’ flagship from 1998-2011 until it was superseded by the SR-009 (and later the S). I already wrote a rambly SR-007 review, so if you want to know what I think about that then you should read it.

The ES-1a is far more interesting. It is the first (and only) headphone of the one-man venture ESLabs. The man behind it (he goes under bwck2000 on various forums) is someone who appears to have a lot of knowledge on electrostats, he even offers a repair service and can tout having serviced even an original SR-Omega and HE90. The ES-1a is heavily inspired by the SR-Omega in terms of the exterior.

ES-1a uses a pure copper stator that is only 0.3mm thick and appears to be quite a bit more open than the stax counterparts. According to the ESLabs website the idea is to have a normal stator that mimicks the characteristics of mesh stators (which SR-Omega and SR-X MK1 used). To put the 0.3mm stator thickness in perspective all stax stators are to my knowledge 1mm thick.

A brief description of ES-1a

ES-1a is a slightly shouty and slightly bright leaning headphone. It sounds more or less flat until right below 1KHz where it starts to rise a bit. I hear it as reaching a peak of about 3dB at about 1.5KHz. In other words it is noticeably forward in this range but I don’t feel a need to EQ it, though I will probably do so anyway. After the shout peak it drops off a bit, I hear the range from 2-4k as about 2-3dB below my percieved neutral. It has a big hole at 5Khz that I can’t hear too well in normal listening but is very audible when doing a sine sweep. I’m guessing it’s narrow enough that listening is not very meaningfully impacted. Moving into the treble it elevates a bit, personally I think the SR-007 has a very spot on 6-15Khz range (my hearing threshold) but the ES-1a has a similarly smooth treble with just a touch more energy. Overall the headphone is very smooth sounding with no obvious huge peaks.

Build and comfort

ES-1a is a big headphone, it weighs above 600 grams without cable (necklets be wary). The cups are machined from aluminum as is the yokes. The headband is a recreation of the SR-Lambda/SR-Omega headband but it appears the material used is nylon rather than the plastic stax used. It feels quite nice. The ES-1a has 2 different pairs of pads available, stock pads and «dark» pads. I am reviewing the dark pads here because I don’t find the stock pads very listenable in comparison. Stock pad leather doesn’t feel very good quality but the construction seems fine. Dark pads are made in a completely different leather that is much, much nicer. Some of the best earpads I have tried. Clamp is pretty low but you definitely feel the headphone on your head due to the weight. I can wear this for 8+ hours no problem though.

There are a few concerns/small notes about build though. First is strain relief. It seems cool but I’m not sure how much strain it is actually relieving, luckily Stax cables (which this uses) are very sturdy. Second is the pad attachment, this uses a similar design to SR-Omega where the pads are fastened to a plate and then attached with rivets, this is a very tiresome operation to go through every time you want to change pads, although it certainly is better than 009/S pad attachment. Third is the headband, the material is very nice but it has a solid piece going through it to stiffen it up a bit (think something like the Hifiman Arya headstrap). Which makes it feel not quite as nice as it could have been, but I am nitpicking.

ES-1a VS SR-007

Build and comfort

ES-1a wins for me but will most likely not do so for the majority of people. SR-007 is significantly lighter, has softer earpads and also feels more sturdy/high quality in total. It really does feel like something that costs 2000 dollars. My main issue with the SR-007 is simply that my head is too big. The strap rests against the headband and while I can get a good seal the comfort is still far from optimal. For anyone with a normal sized head (my head does not fit HD800) this shouldn’t be a problem and thus SR-007 would be the winner. For me ES-1a pulls ahead due to the larger amount of strap adjustment as well as cup articulation, though the weight difference is very noticeable seeing as ES-1a weighs almost double what SR-007 does.

Bass (20-200hz)

My SR-007 has blu-tack mod.

In the bass department both these cans do very well, they have superb extension and articulation. SR-007 has what many would call more «weighty» bass, more akin to a planar than most electrostats. That being said the SR-007 feels very slightly more midbassy compared to the ES-1a. Both headphones rumble very well but SR-007 feels like it has slightly more slam/impact. The difference became much less after the ES-1a pads broke in a bit, probably due to better seal.

Where the SR-007 has very weighty bass for an electrostat the ES-1a leans towards the side often described as «ethereal sounding». It is very quick and very accurate but ultimately lacks as much slam as many people are seeking. I still find it to be among the better slamming estats I have heard though. If you don’t like how most estats present bass then I think it’s unlikely that you will find ES-1a bass to your liking. I find it adequate, however. Both these headphones are basically flat from 20-200Hz.

Midrange (200-4000hz)

I’ve already talked a bit about the ES-1a mids above, so I’ll start by briefly describing SR-007’s midrange. While SR-007 does have among the nicest sounding mids I have heard there is no doubt that the 2-4KHz range is recessed to what can be called a pretty significant degree. The ES-1a betters it in this respect but could still stand to have a couple more dB in this range. Other than this the SR-007 is also among the least shouty electrostats I’ve heard which means the relative difference between 1KHz and 2KHz isn’t any more than what it is on ES-1a.

I find the biggest issue of the SR-007 to be that it is simply a bit mellow sounding due to the mids being so drawn back, it is tolerable but not desirable. In this sense I actually prefer the somewhat shouty ES-1a’s mids if we compare them both in stock form. I find that ES-1a has a slight increase in energy before it dips in the low treble, starting at about 3.5KHz.

Overall both headphones have mids as their biggest weakness (an eternal truth of electrostats it seems). That being said the mids of both headphones are quite good and absolutely tolerable unless you are extremely sensitive to shout.

Treble (4000hz-15000hz)

Treble is without a doubt the strong point of both these headphones. I’ll say straight away that SR-007 has the most spot-on treble I have ever heard in a headphone. The quantity feels almost perfect and it has no ugly bumps in the response, as a result the headphone sounds very clean. The ES-1a is cursed with some kind of null at about 5Khz that deducts a couple points from treble performance, but as mentioned earlier I can’t find it really affecting my listening.

Like the SR-007 the ES-1a has what I can only consider fantastically smooth treble with a lot of air. The ES-1a does kick up the lower treble (except 5Khz) and midtreble by 2-3dB compared to SR-007 but this is still not what I’d consider an annoyance, although it certainly is bright leaning (SR-007 already has quite a bit of treble quantity compared to most headphones, especially the air region). Overall I prefer the SR-007 treble but the difference between them is slight indeed.

Subjectivist quackery

If the words «FR is the single determinant for sound quality, due to the minimum phase behaviour of headphones, as well as their satisfactory levels of distortion» makes you nod with satisfaction this is the point where you should stop reading, lest you have to see my impressions of non-existent, placebo-filled audio jargon. You’ve been warned, objectivists.

Soundstage

The ES-1a stages huge (by headphone standards, which means not huge at all). It is significantly wider than the more intimate feeling SR-007. The depth of both headphones is more similar though, with ES-1 being somewhat deeper still. I find SR-007 soundstage proportions to be very even in all directions where most headphones have significantly more width than they have depth, ES-1a definitely belongs in the «wider than it is deep» category (with 99.9% of headphones).

Overall I prefer the staging of the ES-1a, big soundstage is better than small soundstage for the majority of music, although SR-007 isn’t super small by any means either, and it can be very nice to have more intimate sounding headphones for certain jazz and metal especially.

Imaging

Both of these headphones image very well, but I think SR-007 pulls out ahead just slightly. The SR-007’s imaging is among it’s best traits and while the ES-1a certainly isn’t a slouch in this department it still has to give way for the king.

Detail/resolution

This is imaging but in reverse. I think the ES-1a is ever so slightly more detailed/resolving. Both these headphones are what I would consider top-class in terms of resolution though so in my opinion the very minor difference here is relatively unimportant. Nonetheless I would like to do a 3-way A/B/C test with these 2 headphones and the 009(S) to say conclusively which resolve better.

Dynamics

The ultimate subjectivist meme, dynamics!

ES-1a feels slightly more dynamic to me than SR-007. It conveys large volume swings more convincingly to my ears, however slight. While I find these headphones very good in most regards I can’t say that is the case for dynamics, although I can’t say I hear major differences in dynamics between headphones. It seems to be mostly down to the music. Also headphone dynamics are big succ compared to speaker dynamics so I’m below average when it comes to caring about dynamics (not to mention like 50% of my music is DR6-7 or less).

Conclusion

Both the ES-1a and the SR-007 are great headphones, and while one could be content with either there are valid reasons to pick one over the other. In the end I think I’m gonna have to judge it a tie. For the first time I don’t feel like I own 2 headphones where one is clearly better than the other, rather they are purely complementary.

If you like big stage and a slightly brighter/more energetic feeling headphone then the ES-1a is probably what you want, if you can tolerate the weight that is.

If you like a more intimate stage with even more precise imaging and a more laid back sound in general, more akin to typical planars/dynamics in how it sounds then SR-007 is for you.

In my opinion, unless you are extremely sensitive to shout and hate EQ then you can go wrong with neither.

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Excellent writeup. I feel like I would love either of these headphones.

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A very well done review.

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