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Reviewers' ChoiceWhen I first encountered Focal’s new Stellia closed-back headphones, I was exhausted and eager to hit the road. It was last month at CES 2019, in an early-morning, press-embargoed meeting scheduled right before my departure. Figuratively speaking, the imaginary sounds of my car calling out to me from the Mirage hotel parking lot drowned out most of Focal’s pitch. Regardless, I left with a review sample, and after living with the Stellias for a month, and soliciting the opinions of our usual listening panelists, I really don’t care what that original pitch was -- because I think my reaction to these headphones might be a little different from the way the company will position them.

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I’m always skeptical when an audio company appropriates an unused but historic brand. In too many cases, the company simply slaps the brand onto whatever generic product it can scrounge up out of Shenzhen, with little effort at design or tuning. That’s why I was so surprised when I witnessed the rebirth of the KLH brand at the 2018 CEDIA Expo. The company’s new lines of speakers seemed innovative (for speakers, anyway) and well engineered. I was surprised again at CES 2019 when the company launched two headphone models -- one of them, the Ultimate Ones, clearly targeted at people stepping up from mass-market headphones. That’s a gutsy move for what’s really a completely new company.

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Four score and three years ago, Peter J. Walker brought forth, on the island of Great Britain, an audio company called S.P. Fidelity Sound Systems, which would later take the name Quad Electroacoustics. With its many successful products over the years -- especially the original ESL electrostatic loudspeaker (later nicknamed the ESL 57) and its derivatives -- it’s safe to say that Quad is one of the most venerable British hi-fi companies. But while in the past decade many traditional hi-fi brands have come out with headphone products, Quad’s only entry in that race has been a headphone amplifier, the PA-One. That changes with the subject of this review, the ERA-1: full-size, over-ear, open-backed headphones ($799 USD).

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Headphone enthusiasts differ from the traditional stereo enthusiasts in many ways, but the most extreme difference involves transducer sensitivity. While many stereo enthusiasts feel that the best sound is achieved by using low-powered amplifiers with high-sensitivity speakers, many headphone enthusiasts feel that the best sound is achieved using high-powered amplifiers with low-sensitivity headphones, such as the new HiFiMan HE6ses.

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Thanks largely to two relatively new companies, Audeze and HiFiMan, planar-magnetic headphones now dominate discussion of high-end headphones. But I’ve owned a set of planar-magnetic headphones for about 20 years and didn’t even realize it until a few years ago. They’re Fostex T20s, which I bought in the late 1990s to monitor mixes of my multitrack recordings of jazz and folk groups. The T20s are still available as the T20RPs. They’re part of Fostex’s pro line, but because so many audiophiles use them, Fostex has released a more consumer-oriented version of its pro headphones, under the model number T60RP ($299.99 USD).

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Reviewers' ChoiceClosed-back audiophile headphones became something of a big deal in the last year, with lots of new releases in this somewhat neglected category. Does this reflect a desire to block banal chit-chat in open-plan offices? An urge to keep Starbucks’ innocuous playlists from mixing with Miles? I don’t know, but I do know the Audeze LCD2 Closed-Back headphones ($899 USD) are the latest example of this trend. The original LCD-2s ($995) and most other Audeze headphones are open-back designs, which produce a spacious sound but do almost nothing to block the sound from your environment. The LCD2 Closed-Backs have big, semi-spherical rear shells that keep outside noise from interfering with your music and your mental well-being.

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Latest Comments

Thanks Brent for the Bluetooth blind test. That was interesting.

I could separate some formats ...
Good article, appreciated
David K. 6 days ago KLH Ultimate One Headphones
I have owned these headphones for a while now and I really like them. I ...
@Brent ButterworthThat makes perfect sense. Even if I thought that other testers put headphones on your ...
@MauroI don't blind test headphones. It's complicated to say the least, and in ways it's ...