LSA HP-2 Ultra Impressions
I couldn’t find a good thread for this. So I created one. As always, feel free to move!
This is the next chapter in the path to finding a great headphone. This is the highest tier “dynamic driver” I have heard yet. Let’s see how it compares.
About this Headphone
I don’t usually write this kind of section. And I still won’t cover the specs as you can look them up yourself easily. But this one needs some explanation. This is a “horn loaded” dynamic driver headphone. That seems a bit odd in the context of a headphone. In the simplest explanation, horns amplify the sound and control frequencies directionally. I am not a sound engineer, and I am not qualified to explain it.
More importantly, this is the LSA HP-2 Ultra which is an internet direct version of the Kennerton Gjallarhorn GH50. This is not to be confused with the Kennerton Gjallarhorn JM Edition which was created based on a fan modification of the original. That’s right, there are 3 models (all available in multiple woods), two of which should sound very very similar. The 3rd (JM Edition) is far more “neutral”.
Why this headphone?
Luck? Stupidity? Inability to resist a unique idea? Peer pressure? (seriously, a whole group of us bought this thing together). Other reviews have been really right in the right ways. And yet, I still think I didn’t get the right idea about this headphone pre-purchase.
But, to answer the question more directly, I really like my drop ether cx. It has ZMF pads now and a hart audio cable. It has an ethereal sound that is just stunningly clear. I have never heard such exceptional clarity. But it isn’t engaging . The hp-2 is dipping a toe into very well reviewed dynamic headphones. And an exceedingly unique and possibly very high value one.
What am I using and comparing?
First, my Dunu Zen. Duh. Second, the drop ether cx (cx) with ZMF universe lambsking pads. Third, the LSA HP-2 Ultra (hp2). And, all are driven by the Qudelix 5k. The hp2 is being driven single ended on the 3.5mm port. Hopefully that will change soon, but it really doesn’t need to.
Fit and Finish
Honestly, I have mixed feelings about this. All the reviews were like “crazy good hand crafted russian … blah blah blah”. And yes, it’s obviously well done. But it’s light . Like surprisingly light. And, in my pictures, it’s on a veneer table. And frankly, it doesn’t look much better than veneer. Between the complete lack of heft, and similarity of appearance, it doesn’t exude next level craftsmanship.
This is more of an expectations matching reality thing. This headphone was so hyped to me that I simply expected some unknown level of perfection. That said, it is really good. And, comparatively, it’s worlds better than say the arya. The ether cx feels better built, but I am having issues with it’s adjustment system.
Speaking of adjustment system
The automatic adjustment
Apparently, I like a tighter fit. This system automatically adjusts to your head. It uses some kind of spring loaded band thing that causes it to just adjust itself. Does it work? yes. But, between the light weight and the light clamp, I tend to feel like it isn’t holding on well enough. And there is a problem with that.
Cause it makes me dance. Some fun song came on while I was cooking and I just started dancing along. And the headphone felt like it was going to fall off my head. Is that good? Is it bad? I don’t know yet. But listening normally? It seems pretty solid.
Well that was a hint
Fun. Coming from the ethereal cx, it’s hard to miss the fun. And, oddly, I don’t feel like the cx is crazy different. Based on reviews, I was expecting this wildly different headphone. And, it kind of isn’t. And that is a very good thing.
Example: Madonna - Lucky Star came on while I was typing this. And my instinct was immediately to turn it up and enjoy it. And I am. This is the kind of song that just shines on the hp2. On the cx, it sounds amazing. Sounds. The hp2 feels incredible. If you don’t want to read any further, you can stop. That’s the difference.
The hp2 embodies a visceral feeling. The cx sounds like perfection. Fin
What about that bass?
Meghan Trainor wants to know. Can you shake it shake it? Taylor Swift can shake it off. Yeah, so, as I said, highest level DD I have experienced yet. And, yes, the bass is more visceral than anything I have heard. Yes, it edges out my Zen. But, not so much on impact as it does on overall feeling. I think it is the more open soundstage. It has room to grow. The Zen is still an IEM with limits.
The hp2 walks a fine line of bass quantity and bass invasion. And it does so very well to my preferences. A part of me wants to hear something that can just rattle my ears all the time, but I suspect I wouldn’t actually be happy with that. Tasteful bass is exceptional.
An interlude about dynamic vs planar
There is a distinction in the presentation of music between the hp2 and cx that is simply due to their drivers. The cx drives toward absolute clarity. The hp2 drives toward visceral responses. In a perfect world, I would want both. This is not a perfect world.
The fact that the hp2 is challenging the cx level of detail and clarity is nothing short of astounding. It doesn’t quite get there, but the differences appear to have more to do with the underlying technologies than the implementation. The hp2 melds notes together in a very pleasing way. It’s smooth and fundamentally gorgeous. I am not even sure it’s less detail, just different transition between detail.
The cx, by contrast, can keep every little detail separate from every other detail. To create the sense of impact that the hp2 can accomplish, the driver is busy performing excursion while the planar can take on the next note. This is an extremely small window, but it is apparent in the music.
It seems that these are at least on par with each other across their driver types.
But, what does it sound like?
What follows is a bit of a comparison between specific songs. Many of which are random songs, not specific test songs.
Just Like Fire - P!nk: You will hear a theme across all these songs starting here. That theme is bass. Not in texture, or sound, but feeling. The bass line brings this visceral feeling to the music on the hp2. But it, in no way overwhelms the music. Nothing else sounds recessed or drowned out (like the ath-wp900). Just physically impactful. By contrast, the cx brings a level of clarity to everything but not the feeling.
Bottle It Up - Sara Bareilles: I have literally never heard this song before. I do know some other songs by her, just not this one. Unlike the above, this is not some bass driven fun song. But it has an element of energy associated with it on the hp2. On the cx, that energy comes across sonically, but not viscerally. The sense of fun is not as present.
We’re Good - Dua Lipa: Basically, copy/paste p!nk above. It’s time for some music I actually care about.
Out of Habit - Ani DiFranco: I’ll be honest, any headphone that doesn’t do Ani justice, won’t be kept. I chose a specific version of this song that should play to the cx’s strengths. Ani’s recordings of the same song can vary tremendously in impact and energy. This is a particularly light and airy version from the album Like I said. Right off the bat, the hp2 has a deeper and richer sound to the guitar. Yet the piano in the background is not stifled at all. It is also fully present. Ani’s voice sounds just a touch more natural to me. Like she became effortless (which is how she sounds in real life to me. Seen her in concert many times).
Ani attacks her guitar like it’s a drum. And that comes across on the hp2. But, like all other songs, the cx still holds this tremendous sense of clarity. For fun, I put on the Living in Clip live recorded version of this same song next. The dynamics come alive on the hp2. This is a song I play and it literally gave me chills as I listened. The hp2 is also more forgiving of recording details. On the cx I can hear the subtle hum of an imperfect recording more prominently. The hp2 maintains some richness that is hard to explain. The cx hard hitting notes sound full and amazing, but again, you don’t feel them as much physically. It’s like my body is anticipating the emotional and physical impact of the song because I know it so well.
Massive Attack - Angel: This is a song I care about in that it is an indicator that a headphone can handle the full range of bass without getting veiled or muddy. The hp2 can and does. Like in all things, the cx presents extremely nuanced detail. But, again, it doesn’t get to that completely visceral feeling. It shoots straight for note clarity.
Jason Mraz - Have it All: I mention this one because it highlighted the problem with the ath-wp900 which is the bass/kick drum right at the beginning. On the hp2, it is still pronounced but not overwhelmingly so. It’s a bit boomier, and I think that is true of the bass in general, but it’s not problematic. On the cx, it just seems a touch more controlled. Basically, just like everything else.
Beastie Boys - Sabotage: I use this to test for vocal harshness. Some headphones (lcd-xc) peak at the screaming and sound a bit harsh. Also, the Star Trek movie reboot opens with kid kirk stealing his dads car, playing this song and driving it off a cliff. That is obviously very important to a headphone impression. The hp2 is definitely not harsh at all. The bass here is definitely a touch lifted and may have just stepped a toe over the line. Again, the cx keeps it all locked down and displays gorgeous notes. The cx gets a bit loose and that may be necessary to get that toe tapping engagement. But it is there.
Pentatonix - Royals: Pentatonix is so wonderfully consistent that I can happily put on any song and get a good idea of what the headphone can do. The cx is just incredible with pentatonix. And I still don’t quite understand why. And, to be honest, the dynamics on the hp2 do not make up the difference here. To me, the cx is the clear winner. Now, let me qualify that, the difference is superb (hp2) and superb+ (cx). I would not consider this a weakness on the hp2, but that intrinsic bass capability does not seem to be helping here. It may even be hurting a bit.
Pentatonix - Let It Go: Letting it go is not something I am good at. On initial listen on the hp2 the lower vocals were almost overwhelming. The bass does start to be a touch invasive here. And, I think that is definitely a theme, for music that constantly engages that warm bass, it can be just a bit too much. I listened to it a few more times not in a comparison setting to make sure it doesn’t become a problem (it hasn’t yet). But, pentatonix really does shine on the cx.
Metallica (S&M) - Master of Puppets: I was expecting a bigger difference here than I heard. Yes, the hp2 bass is present. But it somehow maintains the clarity in the busiest passages. Does it reach cx? No, but again, planar vs dd. I love hearing all the different instruments just a touch cleaner. At the same time, the engaging quality isn’t as present on the hp2 here as it is on other tracks. If feels like this song is so busy, the driver doesn’t get a chance to really highlight its dynamic capabilities. Is one better than the other? Not really. The more subdued bass of the cx does fit my preferences a bit better here.
Madonna - Lucky Star: I mentioned this above, but it came on again so it gets called out here too. By contrast to the Metallica above, the hp2 has room to be spectacular. This song literally got me dancing around my house. This is a fun song on any competent headphone and both certainly do this one well. But, like everything else, it’s absolute sonic clarity, or give up a touch of that for visceral engagement. Your choice. Choose your own headphone adventure.
Vanessa Fernandez - I just wanna be with you: The hp2 sounds filled in and rich here. Her voice is sultry and commanding. On the cx she sounds just a touch airier. Like all things, the hp2 enhances the engagement and low notes, so the music is quite a bit more fun. Again, clarity vs engagement.
Lord of the Rings - Fellowship of the Ring: I forgot to test this so I am adding it now. I use a few sequences of this movie to tell me how a headphone performs for environmental and bass performance. First: This headphone does not need elevated volume to get engaging. It shines at lower volumes (and I am still not balanced!). Galadriel has an incredible sense of deep power in her voice. I think the wood resonance is making everything feel like it is in a larger space. In the halls of kings. I think this also taught me much more about compression and dynamic range. The contrast here is much more interesting. This engages environmentally much better than other headphones. The crickets in the background are as clear as the knocking, but hugely different volumes. The wood burning fire feels like it is in my fireplace. Etc. A wizard is never late. Nor is he early. These deep voices have a wonderful sense of power, but still don’t drown out the others. “Ring sound” as it goes on and off is just bliss. The ring drop was surprisingly subtle at normal volumes. But once upped to more reference level, it was spectacular! To viscerally feel the wizard duel at a volume I could tolerate was an entirely new experience! The soundstage on the horse chase scenes is stunning! On other headphones I have felt that, but not quite so obviously shifting across the screen.
LOTR has never sounded better to me. These may be the ultimate movie watching headphones!
The above makes it sound like the cx doesn’t have any impact. It does, particularly with the ZMF universe lambskin pads. But the impact is lead by the quality of the sound rather than the feeling of percussion. The hp2 is almost the reverse. It leads with visceral feeling and follows up with nearly comparable sonic qualities. The cx, in some ways sounds better after the hp2. It’s like the hp2 trains me to respond to the sound the same way even though the vibration and rumble isn’t as present.
I think it’s pretty clear that I find these two headphones to be technically comparable to each other. As stated above, the difference feels like it is due to the driver type more than anything else.
Tonality: I don’t trust the graphs I have access to for either of these headphones. But, outside the slightly elevated bass and richer tones of the lower end of the hp2, these don’t sound that different to me. If I were to guess, the hp2 is similarly linear to the cx. As stated with pentatonix, the vocals there just feel better to me, but I can’t really tell if that is a tonal or a planar thing. That is not true across the board with vocals. Ani sounds better on the hp2. Vocals tend to have more authority on the hp2.
Soundstage & Imaging: Cohesive. That’s the word. It’s incredibly natural. It doesn’t feel like it’s trying to be anything specific, just a well rounded cohesive whole experience. And, based on the closed back nature, I think that is an exceedingly good thing. Things come from all directions, but never feel weird or out of place. Nothing feels crowded or closed in in any way. The cx (especially pre-zmf pads) had a bit of a closed in feeling. It just sometimes feels comparatively cramped by a small amount. This is very much an a/b testing thing.
Sound leakage: Huge. Way worse than the cx. Probably means it was worse than the lcd-xc. I suspect the light build is not doing this any favors. At the same time, it probably contributes to that natural sound stage.
What other people think
There is a lot of hype around this headphone. People call it a giant killer. “It has soundstage wider than Arya”. No joke, people have said that. Yeah, no, gonna put the breaks on the hype train right there. Don’t get me wrong, these headphones appear to be exceptional. And are probably a superb value (if you can stomach calling something that costs $800 as high value). But, as I said in the 177x impressions, I don’t have nearly enough experience with DD headphones. If I could compare to the focals and ZMFs of the world, I may have a stronger opinion here.
But, some of the stuff out there about this headphone seems a bit far fetched. I also think it is another one that is excessively changed by fit. People talk about bending the frame, and the clamp force is definitely quite light. So, some of this may have merit.
What about that zen?
Why didn’t I compare it here? First, switching between iems and other headphones is a pain in the ass. But, the better answer is the Zen and the hp2 have many of the same effective qualities. The zen represents that richer impactful sound in a similar way. The primary difference being that the hp2 feels large compared to the Zen. The zen doesn’t get to the stage size of the hp2 and stays just short of the impactful feeling as well.
So, I selected Pentatonix - Happy Now scientifically to compare them. Basically, it was playing already. The zen have a bit of a brightness that comes through. It can have just slightly harsher vocals than either of these cans. But, otherwise, the zen is like a merging of the two headphones. Its fast dd driver comes much closer to the cx in presentation but still brings that noticeable level of impact. It’s not as good as either headphone at their strengths, but man, it’s a good compromise.
The zen is still very relevant. But due to tip/irritation issues, I simply can’t listen to it constantly. And, both of these cans offer appealing sound that can’t be found on the Zen.
What did I learn?
Honestly? That I am definitively, not a bass head. An impact head, maybe. But not a bass head. The quality and impact of the bass is what I want. Tasteful present bass that slams like nothing else. No bass invasion. The bass can stay on the other side of the pond, thank you. Hit me hard. Just do it from over there. That’s what I want. The hp2 is walking that line very very well for me. Certainly better than any previous headphone.
I probably prefer engaging dynamic headphones. Planar are absolutely brilliant for clarity and critical listening, but just enjoying some music? In my relatively small sample size, the DD’s have been the winner. Even the 177x go had it, it just had a haze over it. I prefer my music fog-free.
My seven year old still prefers the cx. He says “it sounds better”. And I think his criteria is the clarity with his good ears. And, he is not wrong. He chose Pentatonix - Up on the Houstop as his test song. I will probably try again with something I think is better on the hp2 and see if he changes his mind.
Note: These impressions did not take very long. It wasn’t like the cx where I had to just keep going back. These are headphones that I just knew worked. And that may be some of the charm. Put on head. Enjoy.
What am I going to do?
If I could, I would merge these two headphones. (And hey, that might be the hifiman r-10 planar? Right?). The hp2 is essentially what I think I wanted out of the 177x go. A sublime high value bass capable dynamic closed back with strong technicals. That wasn’t it. This is it. Got there eventually
The only thing I need to determine is which headphone I reach for more: the hp2 or the cx? My guess, is the hp2 will take the majority of available head time. I think, if forced to keep one headphone, the hp2 is it. However, the zen isn’t going anywhere, it’s far too practical. So if I were going to rotate something, it would be the cx.
These are now the headphone to beat. Share your crown Zen!