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Taron & Andrew Lissimore
The New Dawning of Closed-Back Audiophile Headphones
There was once a time when it was difficult to find an audiophile-level closed-back full-size headphone that could truly rival open-back cans in sound quality performance. Now we almost have a surfeit. Well, maybe not quite a surfeit since there's still only a handful of reference-grade closed cans we can confidently put up against the best open-back cans in the business. But recently, upstart USA companies like Mr. Speakers and Audeze have released sealed-back headphones that can give any open-back headphone some serious competition. So how does the gorgeously decadent ‘made-in-Japan’ Fostex TH-900 MkII sealed headphone rate against the other top competitors in its class?
Unfortunately, the answer is superbly. We say ‘unfortunately’ because the choice between the Audeze LCD-XC, the Mr. Speakers Ether C Flow, and the Fostex TH-900 MkII closed-back headphones may likely be a difficult decision for any music lover. Sure, each has their own strengths and minor weaknesses but it is impressive just how far this category has come in the last five years.
Forget about the boxy, insular sound of closed-back cans of yore. These new-generation sealed headphones exhibit the kind of openness, quick dynamics, tonal accuracy and timbral precision formerly the exclusive domain of top-shelf open back headphones.
And if you require isolation and privacy for your listening at the office, while traveling, or at home late at night, the closed-back earcup construction is the way to avoid the disturbing audio ‘leakage’ inherent with all open-back cans. And while the TH-900 MK2 is closed in design, you might consider it semi-closed as it does seem to isolate a bit less than truly closed headphones.
Putting the Fostex TH-900 Mk II against the amazing Audeze LCD-XC, the sound is remarkably different with the lower reach of the TH-900 bass offering a stronger low-end texture and a much deeper visceral kick. It can perhaps almost verge on the slightly boomy with some recordings whereas the Audeze’s low-end stays very well-controlled at all times. However, that’s not necessarily a totally bad thing. Think of the TH-900’s low-end as approaching the full-range extension possible with a tightly tuned subwoofer, while the mid/upper bass of the Audeze exhibits more focus and clarity but without the sub-foundational underpinning heard in the Fostex.
Adding the great Mr. Speakers Ether C sealed can to the mix, the clean low-end of the Ether C is more polite and reserved than the others, which lends its overall musical presentation a uniform top-to-bottom balance and coherence that highly contributes to the Mr. Speakers completely non-fatiguing, technically accurate sound.
Given the lively and upfront presentation of the Fostex TH-900 MkII, we did detect a tiny hint of upper frequency tizziness - most notably in the hi-hat & cymbals - which became less evident with the more laid-back tonality of the Audeze XC and was almost completely refined by the polished upper treble smoothness of the Mr Speakers Ether C. We also found the soundstage imaging ability of the Audeze XC and the Ether C to be wider and deeper than the narrower perspective of the Fostex, although the exciting front-row perch of the TH-900 remains extremely engaging and perhaps more alluring for some listeners versus the cooler, mellower presentation of the XC or especially the laid-back Ether C.
No doubt the TH-900’s throaty, meaty tone offers the kind of impact and musical heft that might be a tad colored at times, but boy, it’s a thoroughly enjoyable, engrossing musical sound that still manages to be fairly truthful and revealing while also being terrifically fun. And if boffo musical bliss is not the ultimate astral goal of our wonderful world of headphones, then just color us boring!