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.

4 Likes

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.

4 Likes

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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Got these in for review and possibly a purchase, few hours in and I’m enjoying them so far, a touch intimate in comparison to 009 but really lovely non the less!

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I’ll also mention if you’d like a chance to hear this headphone and you have an eStat system already put together please reach out to me! I am helping organize a US tour for this tho I will not be keeping this unit after it’s concluded.

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First and foremost I want to thank the Team at ES Lab for giving my self the chance to hear this headphone! While minimal, the overall presentation in person is stunningly polished. The grain on the wood storage box has both a nice feel and look to it, there’s even a pair of wood wings for the outer face of the cup which make the headphone lighter.

Additionally there are two sets of pads, a “dark” pad with a fabric center and another set of pads without the fabric. For this review the Dark Pads were used as they removed some mid-range etch at the expense of just a little top end energy.

Overall Sound Signature
ES-1A has a slightly dark neutral sound with a rich harmonic presentation. I find it’s sound stage to be cohesive with good precision, it’s mid-range is rich with a little added body. High frequencies are a bit rolled off but don’t sound lifeless or lacking extension.

What impressed me the most was it’s overall speed and impact for low frequencies, it’s not to often I find a headphone with this much body AND slam that doesn’t come off a little sluggish at times.

Amplification and System Pairing
My current reference system includes a Bricasti M3 which runs exclusively on Networked Direct Stream for reviews, I pair it with a Mjolnir Audio CCS Modded SRM 007tA fed XLR input for Electrostats and my Modded APPJ PA 1502A SET for dynamic headphones.

Additionally my Koss ESP 95X has been modded with a Stax Pro Bias Adapter and Angle’d Hybrid Vesper Pads with the stock front facing Driver Foam removed.

More aggressive DACs and dry or linear solid state amplification would pair best with ES-1A. On my tube system I did find it a little soft tho I recognize this is partly due to the amplification. My CCS Modded SRM-007tA was picked to pair with 009 to help even out it’s hyper fast presentation. Regarding DACs, while I continue to find the Bricasti M3 to be un-compromising to my ears I understand not every one will be running such a source in their system.

That said I did prefer ES-1A with more aggressive or harder sources like the SMSL SU-9 over my own RME ADi-2, while the ADi-2 gave ES-1A slightly better detail and blackness I felt ES-1A was too round and the leading edge of sounds lacked a realistic edge.

With SU-9 the overall presentation was more natural, despite there being a bit less overall detail.

To get a feel for how ES-1A sounds I did take a moment to compare it with a few other headphones. Comparisons were done volume matched and will be listed initially with a Greater Than Rank ( x > y ). Details regarding the individual comparisons will follow as in some cases I felt there were qualities regarding an individual trait that were more different than simply better or worse. In those cases an equal sign ( = ) is used.

Relating to the low frequencies I’m listening for texture, body, and impact

  • Body
    • L700MKii > ES-1A > 009 > 95X
    • ES-1A > Elex > HD 800
  • Texture
    • 009 > ES-1A > 95X=L700MKii
    • ES-1A=HD800 > Elex
  • Bass Impact
    • ES-1A > 009 > L700MKii, 95X
    • ES-1A > Elex > HD800

Regarding the Mid-Range Frequencies I’m listening for richness, detail, and naturalness

  • Richness
    • ES-1A > 95X > 009 > L700MKii
    • ES-1A = HD800 > Elex
  • Detail
    • 009 > ES-1A = L700MKii > 95X
    • ES-1A = HD800, Elex
  • Naturalness
    • 009 = ES-1A > 95X > L700MKii
    • ES-1A > HD800 > Elex

Regarding the High Frequencies I’m listening for Response, so dark vs bright, Air, and Extension

  • Response
    • 009 > L700MKii > ES-1A = 95X
    • HD800 > Elex > ES-1A
  • Air
    • 009 > ES-1A > 95X = L700MKii
    • HD800 > ES-1A > Elex
  • Extension
    • 009 > ES-1A = 95X > L700MKii
    • HD800 > ES-1A > Elex

Regarding Sound Stage and Imaging I’m listening for Cohesion and Blackness, Size & Shape and Clarity

  • Cohesion being precise smooth movement within the audible space,
  • Blackness being how quite the trailing edge of sounds reaming before becoming indistinguishable from the noise floor

I find often times a headphone with an extremely black sound-stage is also equally cohesive and vice versa, tho “blackness” relates more to depth or far back into a room you can follow sounds

  • C & B
    • 009 > ES-1A > 95X > L700MKii
    • HD800 = ES-1A > Elex
  • Size & Shape
    • 009 > ES-1A = 95X > L700MKii
    • HD800 > ES-1A > Elex
  • Clarity
    • 009 > ES-1A > 95X > L700MKii
    • HD800 = ES-1A > Elex

Regarding the Presentation or qualities of the Envelope I’m listening for emphasis on either the;

  • Leading Edge so the attack and decay, emphasis here creates a perception of a “faster” sometimes more aggressive sound

  • Trailing Edge so the sustain and release, emphasis here creates the perception of a “slower” or laid back sound

  • Balance how the headphone presentations sound in relation to time domain regarding both the trailing and leading edges

  • More Aggressive

    • L700MKii = 009 > ES-1A > 95X
    • Elex > ES-1A = HD800
  • More Laid Back

    • 95X > ES-1A = 009 > L700MKii
    • HD800 = ES-1A > Elex
  • Balance

    • 009 = ES-1A > 95X > L700MKii
    • HD800 = ES-1A > Elex

Finally regarding Detail I’m listening for how audible and discernible transients are.

Regarding Dynamics I’m listening for how discernible both large changes in volume are, Macro Dynamics, and smaller changes in volume, Micro Dynamics

  • Detail

    • 009 > ES-1A > L700MKii = 95X
    • HD800 > ES-1A > Elex
  • Macro

    • L700MKii > 009 > 95X > ES-1A
    • HD800 = Elex > ES-1A
  • Micro

    • 009 > ES-1A = 95X > L700MKii
    • HD800 > ES-1A > Elex
9 Likes

Damn… the amount of detail and commitment you have. Mind blowing.

Thank you =)

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1 on 1 Headphone Comparisons
Track list is entirely lossless streamed locally through my home Ethernet network and is as follows;

  • Chesky Records Ultimate Demonstration Disc:
    • 15 - McCoy Tyner & Joe Henderson - Ask Me Now (Presence)
    • 27 - David Chesky - Best Of Chesky Jazz And More Audiophile Tests, Volume 2 (Bass Resonance)
  • Chesky Records Ultimate Headphone Demonstration Disc:
    • 48 - Drum Kit Dynamic Range Uncompressed Test
  • Dr. Chesky’s Sensational Fantastic & Simply Amazing Binarual Sound Show:
    • 15 - Choir Of The Church Of The Blessed Sacrament - Mozart Ave Verum
  • Kamiya - Beethoven’s Appassionata: Piano Sonata No. 23 in F minor, Op. 57 - I Allegro Assai
  • Sarah Jarosz - Build Me Up From Bones: Simple Twist of Fate
  • Lisa Hannigan - Sea Sew: I Don’t Know
  • The Greatest Bits - DK Island Swing
  • Rob Wasserman feat Jennifer Warnes - Duets: Ballad of the Runaway Horse

ES-1A vs Focal Elex

Bass:

I found ES-1A in particular had similar levels of body but with better texture and a more linear response. Elex has a slight mid-bass hump which combined with it’s fuller bodied lows makes it kinda thumpy in comparison to the more solid, tactile and extended bass on ES-1A. The Double Bass in particular had an obvious humpyness with excessive punch on Elex, where has with ES-1A there was a more cohesive full bodied KICK. Yes there was punch when the riff and play style implement it but as a whole the improved extension and linearity resulted in a much more natural sounding presentation of low frequencies.

Synthetic bass lines had the same lack of low end extension on Elex as well, where as ES-1A presented a far better impact and kick due to it’s improved sub bass extension and resolution overall.

Mids:

One thing I LOVED about Elex was it’s stunning body and vocal vibrato. Those sustained notes and their slight shifts came across beautifully, how ever Elex has a slight disconnect between the more lively pronunciation and sound from throat and lips and the weighty body that emanates out from one’s chest. So for some tracks and vocalists it’s stunning but for others it’s a bit uneven.

With Elex strings often came across a bit too sharp for my tastes, lacking some body and having a bit too much bite. There was a touch of emphasis on the attack of strike of the string it self that I wasn’t often a fan of. I was happy tho to find horns and other wood winds to come across naturally. With a realistic mix of both body and bite.

ES-1A on the other hand was far more cohesive, aside from an occasional minuet upper mid forwardness, I didn’t find it’s mid-range to be in any way uneven to the point of being a distraction. An while vocals didn’t always have that beautifully vivid but emphasized vibrato, there wasn’t a disconnect either I felt. So I wouldn’t say it lacked “beauty” more so that it didn’t add any. It’s presentation in the mid range had a bit more tactility as well again providing a cohesive palpable edge throughout the entire mid range likely due to it’s richer but still faster presentation.

ES-1A was to my ears more natural overall.

Highs:

Sadly Elex has some unpleasant forwardness in it’s top end response. Technically this helps to add air and extension but… this is assuming you can look past the emphasis. Hard S sounds were particular forward, enough that I found it distracting.

ES-1A while have a darker less forward response was again more cohesive. With better air and extension due in part I feel to it’s lack of over-emphasis.

Sound Stage, Dynamics and Detail:

For the most part ES-1A outclassed Elex in all three of these qualities, the only exception is Macro Dynamics. Elex’s some what forward mid-range and top-end combined with it’s relative speed give it a LOT of macro dynamic contrast. An while it doesn’t lack micro dynamics it’s simply not as vivid regarding micro-dynamic contrast as ES-1A.

Presentation:

Elex is noticeably more aggressive but not as balanced, it had an over-defined leading edge for some sounds but a slightly recessed edge for others. ES-1A while never having quite the “edge” that Elex can present, was far more balanced and tactile through out the entire spectrum. It was consistantly faster through the spectrum as a whole, VS Elex which is often times faster with some frequencies ranges and slower with others.

Still that’s not to say Elex is by any means a bad headphone, given the $1000 difference [not including the specialized amp] I’d say Elex performed about on par.

ES-1A vs L700MKii

I want to start by mentioning that to my ears I find that L700MK2 and ES-1A present music with two entirely different presentations.

ES-1A is again more rich and cohesive, where as to my ears, L700MK2 is aggressive and IN YOUR FACE. Especially when volume matched, now when you listen with L700MK2 at a quieter average than ES-1A it’s a bit more balanced perceptually but overall when ES-1A and L700MK2 are at the same average volume their presentations are starkly contrasted…

An regarding volume most people don’t have a set value they listen at, most turn it up to a level at which it sounds “good,” that level can depend on both the music it self and the headphone. As different response curves will be perceived as “good” or “better” or “worse” at different average volumes depending on their individual peaks and dips.

For the purpose of this review I volume matched L700MK2 to the level at which ES-1A sounded most correct to my ears. An quite frankly the other 4 headphones in this review also sounded “most correct” at similar levels which were around 76 dB on average. Assuming a dynamic range of 10 dBs at least gives us peaks at 81 and dips as low as 71. Only L700MK2 sounded “more correct” at a quieter average volume…

Bass:

Some how… L700MK2 had more body than ES-1A, with electronica it came across as quite taut but ultimately more punchy than impactful. An I had to do my listening on L700MK2 without my glasses to achieve the best fit.

With double basses and big drums L700MK2 again had a lot of BODY but came across as more “thumpy” or “boomy.” Often times it had a clean taut punch but a sloppy loose presentation extension as the frequencies dropped. Not quite recessed but not quite right either. Interestingly enough with Piano music there where times I could not discern any impact from the lowest registers… where as ES-1A would present a stunningly realistic weight and nuance at those lower frequencies.

Despite having less body, ES-1A was more natural and impactful. Providing a real effortless sense of WEIGHT and SLAM. Kicking and punching as needed vs L700MK2 more limited punchy bass response.

Mids:

Again on my system and to my ears L700MK2 was mostly uneven. There were times where vocals would sound quite pleasant… then the singer would shift octaves and SUDDENLY be SCREAMING in my ears. I had the same experience with Piano compositions as well.

I will say Brass horns sounded stunningly beautiful on L700MK2 tho a bit delicate… but even then ES-1A presented them with equivalent bite and a more cohesive full bodied tone. Despite being not quite as delicate at times it was far more cohesive.

Worse of all tho were drums and percussion, L700MK2’s presentation was wholly disjointed and I struggled to appreciate or much less enjoy percussion. Yes on one hand you could say it was EXPLOSIVE… but some what un-natural. Strings suffered from this problem as well, being just wholly uneven.

Between all of L700MK2’s peaks and dips I felt it matched ES-1A’s detail in the mid range… but was not at all natural… and what ever richness was present was not consistent through the spectrum.

Again it provided an insanely fun presentation that I don’t quite think aligns with what I enjoy or want when I’m listening to my music…

Highs:

… where is the “beating the dead horse” emoji when you need it. As that’s all I have to say about the top end… L700MK2 just comes across as both more forward but ultimately uneven.

ES-1A despite being darker, having a slightly recessed response, remains more cohesive giving it realistic air and extension.

Sound Stage, Detail and Dynamics;

To my ears L700MK2 has some of the most aggressive and vivid macro dynamics, it was again EXPLOSIVE with a wide variety of music. This quality tho doesn’t translate well for my tastes within the some what cramped and narrow stage of L700MK2. An while it’s VIVID Macro Dynamic contrast does extract a surprising amount of detail… there’s often times too much congestion during busier passages of music to appreciate it.

Regarding it’s micro-dynamics I just felt L700MK2 was a bit lack luster.

ES-1A was offered far more cohesive imaging within a larger sound stage as a whole. An while it simply could NOT match L700MK2’s macro dynamic contrast it’s mix of macro and micro dynamic contrast came across as more natural and cohesive. An honestly I found it more engaging. Overall there was an equivalent quantity of detail for simple’r less complex passages of music between the two headphones, but during busier passages ES-1A provided audibly better resolve due to it’s lack of congestion.

L700MK2 to my ears lacked any real blackness as it was hard to discern or follow the trailing edge of sounds given how much emphasis was on the leading edge…

Presentation:

ES-1A despite having some slight emphasis on the trailing edge of sounds, didn’t lack a realistic tactile edge. Rather it’s presentation was rich and palpable… unlike L700MK2’s hyper-aggression which I felt violated my personal space more than a few times.

Overall, I just don’t think I had the right system nor listening levels to really appreciate L700MK2… price wise I’ve seen it as low as $1199, however it’s listed on Stax’s International website at $1569 making it a rather immediate competitor again’st ES-1A… personally I feel L700MK2 has qualities that make it an interesting compliment to something as transparent as ES-1A but I cannot recommend it OVER ES-1A unless you find deep pleasure from a hyper aggressive forward presentation…

Again maybe at quieter levels L700MK2 will perform better, but for my listening level’s hands down ES-1A is all around the more resolving balanced headphone. Period…

ES-1A vs Koss 95X w/ Angle’d Vesper Pads & No Front Driver Foam

Let’s start by discussing what the Angle’d Pads and removal of the Front Driver foam do for the stock Koss ESP 95X. The pads help to improve the size of it’s staging, adding a touch of both width and depth and the Hybrid Vesper Pad I purchased includes a sewn dust filter which allowed me to rip out all the nasty adhesive foam covering over my 95X.

Removing this foam helped improve mid-range clarity far more than I expected!

Both headphones provide a dark neutral presentation with a rich tonality. I was surprised at how similar these two were with ES-1A coming across as a direct linear upgrade to 95X.

Bass:

95X presents a much softer polite low end, while it has fairly linear extension it’s sub bass is noticeably recessed. I did find however it retained much of the same low frequency texture as ES-1A did but with far less body and impact.

ES-1A presented a richer low end with a truly linear sub-bass extension and stellar impact. What ever 95X does well with comes across on ES-1A spectacularly.

Mids:

Even with an upgrade amp, no front foam and new pads 95X retains the slightest bitch of mid-range etch. A kind of forward hardness in the presentation, an while it’s NO WHERE near L700MK2 levels, it’s still audible. Tho not enough that I can’t ignore it after a few minutes.

ES-1A with Dark Pads does not have this etch and provides both more detail and richness. Providing a more natural sound overall.

Highs:

Both were quite similar in their presentation of higher frequencies. Dark with an audibly recessed response but not lacking in air nor extension.

Sound Stage, Detail and Dynamics

I felt on my system both had fairly equivalent sized sound stages with ES-1A a bit deeper with better blackness. Each was equally cohesive as well with ES-1A retaining slightly better clarity as a result of it having better detail overall. Neither really struggle with congestion during busier passages of music.

Surprisingly I did find 95X had slightly better macro-dynamic contrast than ES-1A did with both having equivalent micro dynamic contrast. 95X’s one flaw is it’s detail, there’s a level at which it simply does not render sound… so occasionally it’ll simply gloss over entire transients.

ES-1A does not have this floor for detail, an often times renders full seconds of audible detail that simply is not present with 95X.

Presentation;

The trailing edge of sounds have similar presentations on both headphones, ES-1A however presents a slightly more defined leading edge over the polite Koss 95X.

Regarding balance I do feel 95X comes across as a bit laid back where as ES-1A is not. Tho It’s not particularly aggressive either I’d say overall it’s fairly balanced.

Ultimately I find ES-1A to again provide a direct upgrade path to those that appreciate the Koss 95X. Tho at almost triple the price I can’t say it’s three times as good, still I feel it’s enough to merit a purchase if it will serve as your only headphone.

However in my system where 95X offers about 89% of ES-1A’s detail and speed I find it serves as an excellent compliment to my own 009.

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Great review and writeup @mshenay.

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ES-1A vs HD800

Even with SDR Mod I find HD 800 is still a Bright Neutral headphone that falls ever so slightly on the “laid back” side of things. I enjoy it mostly on Tubes my self as I appreciate it’s tonality, delicate tactility, detail and beautifully immerse staging. There is some music that simply isn’t the same on any other headphone.

On the flip-side we have ES-1A which is a Dark Neutral that has a rather neutral presentation on my Tube System but I’d wager would fall ever so slightly onto the “aggressive” side of things on a Solid State Amp. Tho even on Tubes it’s bass Impact is on an entirely different level from HD 800 I can only imagine how much it would improve on a solid state amp more tailored to compensating it’s weakness rather than the tube amp that I own which over-emphasis it’s strengths.

Bass:

Not even going to mince words here, but HD 800 has no ground again’st ES-1A regarding the low frequencies. ES-1A has better texture, more body in the lows and exceptional better impact and SLAM. All of this one a tube amp that’s slightly softening it’s low end …

While HD 800’s texture and body aren’t far behind I don’t think it will ever quite match ES-1A’s impact…

Mids:

I’m happy to say both headphones present a fairly equivalent mid-range in terms of both detail and richness. Ultimately I find that naturalness goes to ES-1A, as it has just the slightest bit of tactility when presenting lower mids that HD 800 simply does not. This makes drums have a bit more punchy. Some would say ES-1A has better P.R.A.T and despite my hesitation to use the term… for those familiar with it I find it’s fitting to describe the difference between these two headphones. This I feel is more a function of it’s presentation which I will elaborate upon in that section.

HD 800’s staging works again’st it sometimes, as within certain mix’s and recordings it’s mid-range presentation can be a bit distant. ES-1A is overall more consistent at presenting a natural mid range.

Highs:

Where ES-1A dominates low end performance I do feel HD 800 takes the cake in the top end! I found overall it had more air and extension. Despite the slightly forward response, HD800 presented a more natural texture and decay on things like high hats and crash cymbals. Percussion in particular had an ethereal airy nature and just felt alive up top. Going back to P.R.A.T, for music that maintains a sense of time entirely within the high hats or top end HD 800 pulls ahead.

Certain styles of Jazz come to mind that employ a particular ride pattern executed exclusively with high hats and cymbals.

An Aside Regarding Music:
ES-1A is rock’n’roll to the HD 800s Jazz. Regarding classical however the size of the orchestra or ensemble makes a big impact on which sounds better overall.

Sound Stage;

This is where the two have the biggest difference I feel, while ES-1A isn’t intimate in of it self I feel it presents music recorded or mic’d in a more intimate manner more naturally.

On the flip side recordings captured in massive spaces feel more alive and cohesive on HD 800.

That said neither does well where the other exceeds. Mozart Ave Verum is capture’d within a MASSIVE Church with the Mic suspended in mid air. While ES-1A captures the sheer brutal FORCE of the organ better… it does not render the size of the space as transparently and naturally as HD 800 does.

Sarah Jarosz’s Simple Twist of Fate has a deep but some what intimate stage with ES-1A, tho on HD 800 the musicians sound a bit too far away. While I’ve not seen Sarah live the many Folk shows I’ve attend are often held at venues where the depth of the stage is more apparent than it’s width.

How something is mic’d tho makes a big difference on which presents the more natural staging and I appreciate both as they cover each other faults well.

Both maintain equal clarity with both simple’r and busier passages of music, but I do find HD 800 to be blacker. Sounds often travel deeper into HD 800’s stage and are at times discernibly audible for longer periods of time.

Detail and Dynamics:

Both present stunning transient clarity with each revealing all the tiny minuet detail around how the musicians play their instruments. HD 800 however also presents more “mechanical” details, foot steps, page turns, breathing and other oddities perhaps captured during the recording process that may have been unintended.

ES-1A’s some what darker tonality doesn’t mask over these details but doesn’t present them as vividly as HD 800 does. An I don’t feel HD 800 is forward or in your face with this information, rather it’s larger stage naturally accommodates these added details.

Regarding dynamics HD 800 also provides better micro and macro dynamic contrast, I’ll also mention that I feel HD 800 presents more macro dynamic contrast than even the 009 on my system!

So while ES-1A’s dynamics aren’t by any means poor or compressed, they simply do NOT compare to the vividness and precise discernment offered by HD 800.

Presentation:

Even on tubes I find ES-1A to have better definition regarding the leading edge of sounds, it’s attack was more defined with a harder edge faster decay and noticeably faster release. Each had some slight emphasis on sustain.

HD 800 on Tubes is often a bit softer, and while I have the option of swapping over to a solid Silver Cable and utilizing a solid state amp to add a touch of hardness back into to HD 800’s presentation I find a high quality copper cable on a dry tube amp maintains more of HD 800’s magic. Namely it’s almost limitless release and blackness. There are some tracks where sounds seem to fade endlessly into silence without detracting from the clarity of the fundamentals tones that often overlap atop. HD 800’s massive staging and rich harmonic profile combined make it one of my favorite dynamic headphones. An while it isn’t soft and syrupy, the emphasis it places on the trailing edge of sound within that massive stage is enough to create a delicate polite perception of how the leading edges are rendered.

For my tastes adding additional hardness to HD 800’s presentation kinda takes away what makes it so special, in terms of speed it simply can not match an Electrostat like ES-1A. ES-1A’s more palpable presentation certainly provides a more balanced listening experience with some types of music and mixs. I would imagine on a Solid State amplifier ES-1A would prove it self an excellent compliment to HD 800 while maintain it’s similar rich tonality.

Overall I find the two offer a lot of value within their respective markets despite having different defining characteristics! An honestly both would make an excellent primary headphone depending on the listeners preference.

ES-1A vs Stax 009

Going to start with totally transparency here… my system is built specifically with 009 in mind. An I’m lucky to say it performs exactly how I want on said system! The same amp that adds a bit of excessive richness and softens ES-1A… allows 009 to maintain it’s insane speed and detail without sounding fake and excessively hard.

Bass:

Let’s start with Impact as I feel both have equal amounts of impact just at different initial levels.

On one hand ES-1A hits HARDER but doesn’t sustain that “force” as long… 009 doesn’t hit with the same initial force but maintains it for a longer period. ES-1A has more body and that body eventually softens the initial IMPACT as that sound wave beings to release and fade into silence, and don’t get me wrong ES-1A’s impact KICKS but it doesn’t always last quite as long.

009 on the other hand doesn’t hit with the same initial force… but maintains a palpable sense of weight for longer as the sound fades into silence. A double bass is an excellent example, that initial kick and impact of the instrument is more vivid with ES-1A but that resulting sub sonics that continue to ring out through the floor as the string begins to rest aren’t.

009 on the other hand presents that kick with just as much clarity but it feels different. There’s a sense of GRIP with 009 in the low frequencies, a delicate almost limitless gentle force that just LINGERS. It’s not as forceful as what ES-1A presents but it maintains a tighter grip.

This is however only true with acoustic instruments. With Electronica and EDM where synthetic bass lines are often not as complex I find ES-1A is simply better. It’s heavier full bodied initial KICK sounds more correct for this style of music than 009’s delicate powerful GRIP.

Mids:

Again this is another instance where the two are rather different but still equally natural. For my tastes I prefer the more vivid texture of 009 over ES-1A’s richer tonal presentation.

There’s a softness at times that I don’t enjoy as much about ES-1A that isn’t present on 009, tho my system is again geared towards complimenting 009 an often over-emphasis ES-1A’s strengths. Still there’s a level of detail and precision about 009 that I don’t think ES-1A can match. A life like delicacy about how textures are presented atop of harmonics.

An ES-1A lacks this delicate richness to my ears and on my system rather it’s often fuller and wetter than I’d like.

Drums in particular are an excellent example of this, there’s a sense of immediacy weight and speed about tom drums. Not just the texture of the membrane but even the slight variation of how the drummer’s stick hits…

Where as ES-1A simply presents a fuller more impactful hit without as much of that nuance.

Highs:

Once again 009 takes the cake in both it’s slightly forward response, improved air and ultimate extension.

Going back to P.R.A.T 009 owns both the P.R in the toms and snares alongside the A.T from the high hats and cymbals.

Sound Stage

Overall I find there are times where ES-1A has a bit more width, but never the same level of blackness, depth or clarity. Like HD 800 things seem to fade into silence forever… but overall 009 isn’t as expansive as HD 800 can be. So for those more intimate recordings where HD 800 sometimes falters 009 pulls ahead of even ES-1A. Returning back to this varying naturalness depending on how something is Mic’d, mixed and mastered. For my tastes and in my system HD 800 and 009 are perfect compliments, where HD 800 sounds exaggerated 009 comes across more naturally. Just as when 009 is a bit too fast or rushed HD 800 sounds just right.

Dynamics:

009 proves to have better micro and macro dynamic contrast than ES-1A.

Detail:

An were back to beating the dead horse, but here’s something cool, my copy of Kamiya - Beethoven’s Appassionata: Piano Sonata No. 23 in F minor, Op. 57 - I Allegro Assai is actually a vinyl rip or “Needledrop”. It’s off a system I trust and the 009 captures the slightest bit of noise off the vinyl it self. ES-1A and even HD 800 don’t quite render this noise, but at the deepest levels of the noise floor… 009 presents this discernible and varying hiss. Not just a constant “white noise” but the sound of the needle again’st the vinyl that changes at the various depths of the record. You can hear it when the music it self suddenly becomes more intense and loud and follow it as it moves the deeper grove of that louder passage.

Still, time and time again, there is a nuance to 009 that isn’t present with ES-1A. Tiny fractions of seconds where on ES-1A there’s silence but with 009 there’s more information! The quietest most minuet shifts in energy on the trailing edge of sounds comes across perfectly with 009.

Presentation:

Straight up the Stax 009 is AGGRESSIVE and has some slight but apparent emphasis on the leading edge of sounds to my ears… how ever I find that on a tube amp you also get all of this insane speed and definition without sacrificing or de-emphaszing the sustain or release. Yes the decay of things is often a bit rushed but 009 handles vocal vibrato and other sustained sounds wonderfully. I never feel that the fundamental tones overshadow the richness of the underlying harmonics. Rather 009, to my ears, maintains this beautifully realistic balance.

An while ES-1A doesn’t sound “slow” on my system, it can’t quite match 009 combined speed and harmonic profile. ES-1A will always present more prominent harmonics overtones regardless of it’s system relative to 009. So there will be some of you that find 009 even on Tubes is TO Dry. At this level Naturalness and balance come down to preference and I know that I usually prefer a drier sound to a wetter one.

I should mention however that I do NOT enjoy 009 outside of my Bricasti M3 system. I do NOT feel 009 scales down what so ever, on my RME ADI-2 I found it sorta soft and un-impressive and while It was pleasant with iFi Zen Dac… it was almost kinda boring.

I’ll also add that I do NOT enjoy 009 on solid state amps as it becomes down right shouty and fake sounding! Overall I find the ES-1A’s fuller marginally rounder presentation to be more accommodating of a wide variety of sources and amplification.

ES-1A, again, maintains it’s rich impactful tonality without ever tipping into the levels of unpleasantness or disengagement Stax 009 can achieve on the wrong system.

As a whole I find ES-1A doesn’t necessarily have better balance than 009 but it’s more consistent when your building a system on a budget.

ES-1A is again $1650…where as Stax 009 get’s maybe as low as $3200 new. I imagine one could build an entire system for ES-1A for less than the cost of a New Stax 009. Thus I give the ES Lab ES-1A my full recommendation for those of you wanting a detailed perfectly musical listening experience!

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