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When it comes to bass quality, neither headphone could approach my current speaker system. This was an obviously unfair comparison but unfortunately the benchmark for my ears had already been established. Two REL Studio III subs are beyond the physical abilities these small drivers could ever provide. The physics just ain’t there. Could they still satisfy my need and craving for the tight deep bass and slam I've become accustomed to?
The K1000 seemed light in the bass despite several different amps. With help from friends, I was able to try the K1000 with a Hovland Radia and Krell KSA250 stereo amp known as one of the best for bass. I even pulled out my old vintage Marantz 2285B receiver with its robust and over-engineered dual power supply. Only the Alephs could deliver on the quality of the highs and mids discussed above along with acceptable bass response though I still was left desirous for more.
The HD800/WA22 was another story. I read elsewhere that the HD800 could use some beef in the lower frequencies. My ears told me different. One key was a significant difference when listening to the HD800 through a fully balanced system.
No, bass could not reach to the lowest levels provided by the REL Studio IIIs. However, it was tight and weighty with proper inner detail and slam. There was very little if any overhang even on the toughest recordings. Balance between highs, mids and bass output was excellent. Bass did not overpower the overall sound.
No I could not feel it in my chest or feet and arse as with my subs but the overall sound was very satisfying and true. My guess is that I was experiencing usable 30Hz with very little roll off. Yes I know the manufacturer rates the HD800 to 6Hz at minus 10dB but I’m telling you what my old ears experienced.
Some might be surprised that I could get this kind of mid to upper bass response from tubes. The WA22 is not your father’s tube amplifier. I don’t listen to organ recordings but acoustic bass, electric bass and bass drums had the quality that should get your juices flowing. The additional ambience good bass can provide at all frequencies was definitely there.
Soundstage and imaging: Comparing soundstage and image performance between headphones and speakers seems like comparing apples to oranges. Trying to define the proper criteria for headphones in these areas is beyond me at this time but I look forward to learning and experiencing more. Front-to-back and left-to-right information was excellent for both systems though the K1000/Aleph was a notch deeper and wider. On appropriate music both systems reached out well beyond the headphones in all three dimensions. Imaging was excellent but neither locked in or floated an image like my speaker system.
I would guess that the advantage for the long discontinued K1000 might be due to its design. The K1000 design relies on two small speaker panels that can be adjusted and 'toed' around your head just like regular loudspeakers can be positioned in a room. Again, the HD800 was no slouch in this area either. Goose-bump city for both despite my speaker system remaining unchallenged.
Balanced versus unbalanced: I want to comment on headphone cables first. I used unbalanced interconnects from the Marantz SA7-S1 to the WA22 to compare the stock HD800 harness to the Warren Audio Intercept headphone cables. This kept the contribution of a fully balanced configuration out of the equation for my first comparison. With the Intercept cables there was a definite improvement. The hazy metallic sheen of the stock HD800 cable was gone. The sound was more focused, tighter and transparency increased rather tremendously. Bass had more slam and weight. This upgrade was a no-brainer.
After that experiment, I used balanced interconnects from source to WA22. Now the system was fully balanced for another significant improvement across the board. There was more of everything and it was all positive. Now the levels of detail and speed reached state of the art at all frequencies. Weight and bloom were the best I have heard from headphones or any speaker system. The soundstage increased in all directions. Vocalists and instruments were very distinct and defined in space to be almost scarily real.