Antisocial audio purists and late-night listeners were until recently the primary users of headphones, but the popularity of iPods and other portable devices and the prevalence of streaming digital files have catapulted them to the forefront of the music scene. And while even mid-priced headphones eclipse most so-called high-end speakers in their presentation of sonic detail, one device, the Stax SR-009, pushes accurate sound reproduction to an extreme, surpassing every other headphone and maybe any speaker. The Stax electrostatic "earspeakers," as the company calls them, offer revelatory insight into the musical performance and can, if experienced even briefly, permanently alter your music-listening habits.
Stax headphones have been trickling into American audio salons since the 1960s. They are handmade in Japan and built to fanatical mechanical tolerances. Stax has methodically honed the headphones’ performance over the decades by refining the design and by employing the most advanced materials. Today, Stax offers seven different headphone models, from the $250 SR-003 to the aforementioned $5,250 SR-009.
Because Stax headphones employ electrostatic—not electromagnetic—transducers, they must be plugged into a Stax driver unit that polarizes the speakers and amplifies the input signal. (Driver prices start at $500, for the SRM-252S model.) You can build a stand-alone system that truly redefines the state of the art in sound reproduction by connecting a high-quality CD player or analog turntable/preamp to a driver unit with RCA or balanced XLR interconnects. Most of the Stax driver units accommodate two sets of headphones, so the listening experience need not be a solo affair.
The top-of-the-line Stax system includes the SR-009 headphones paired with the $2,400 SRM-007tII driver unit. The combination offers sound that is unequalled in transparency, imaging, transient response, and, within the limits of physics, bass reproduction. Indeed, the system will reveal more than any transducer at any price, so be prepared to revisit favorite recordings late into the night. (Weighing about one pound without the cord, the SR-009s are lightweight and comfortable, with soft lambskin ear pads that allow you to listen for hours without fatigue.)
What do the SR-009 headphones sound like? Nothing. In other words, you hear no artificial sweetener of added brightness, no enhanced bass that bloats and dulls, and no cloying, homogeneous glaze that robs recordings of detail while feigning substance. The miracle of the SR-009s is their ability to create a musical soundstage inside your head, without that eerie sense of detachment or nebulous imaging inherent in most headphones. Great jazz recordings—think those by Blue Note or ECM—render the studio sessions with holographic precision, placing players in the room where they actually stood or sat when they made the music. Complex orchestral fare is parsed section by section, instrument by instrument, preserving the acoustic signature of the performance venue. Carnegie Hall or the RCA soundstage? The Stax will tell you. A string quartet becomes not just four instruments, but 16 discrete strings; voices are corporeal; and rock music is delivered with weight and slam sufficient to raise the Grateful Dead. At Stax, there is no such thing as too much information.
The quality of materials, aluminum machining, and workmanship reflects the seriousness with which Stax engineers have met the challenge of establishing a new benchmark for sound reproduction. But beware: While the SR-009s make excellent recordings sound sublime by revealing the deepest sonic details, that same impartial rendering of truth can lay bare the aural horrors of low-resolution digital processing. These headphones will mercilessly expose the inadequacies of compressed MP3 files and prove just how far we have come—and gone—with the embrace of convenience over commitment to sonic excellence.