In Part One of our review of the HIFIMAN Jade II Electrostatic Headphones, we began by describing the headphones, amplifier, and power supply. In Part Two, we explored the headphones in terms of interconnects, in particular the True Balanced™ Premier SE Analog Interconnects by Pangea Audio, and some tips on achieving the best fit and performance, using Dekoni Audio Nuggets. In this, Part Three, we get granualar on their technology and design, and explore their sound and musicality. Using some first-rate DAC/Amplifier hardware from Mytek, Oppo, & EarMan. We start our listening with the brilliant new album from Fiona Apple – “Fetch The Bolt Cutters” on Qobuz, and see how the Jade IIs measure up. In the upcoming Part 4, we tear into even more music.
As mentioned previously, we’ve never had the opportunity to live with an electrostatic headphone on a long-term basis. So, living with the Jade IIs has proven to be an interesting experience, especially since we have the ability to compare and contrast them to the new Audio-Technica ATH-ADX5000 dynamic headphones at the same time.
For our testing, we used a variety of source files, including DSD from Blue Coast Records (a shout out to the amazing Cookie Marenco and her team), high-res audio from Chesky Records (a shout out to Jeff Lanier, David, & Norm Chesky), and a wide variety from Omnivore Records, Universal, and other labels. And of course we used the high-resolution Qobuz streaming service with their Mac OSX app.
For playback, we primarily used Amarra Luxe 4 from Sonic Solutions, which now features Qobuz and Tidal with native capability, as well as all the EQ options you can think of, which came in handy in boosting the low end a tad. Qobuz has its own dedicated application on the Mac that is both free and versatile. We are still in the process of comparing audio quality between the Qobuz app and Amarra Luxe 4, and after a lot of listening give the nod to Amarra Luxe 4. But for streaming files, especially on the go with your phone, we found Qobuz to be solid with great audio. For the decoding and line level amplification, we used our Oppo HA-1 Headphone Amplifier/DAC, and the Mytek Brooklyn DAC+.
The Mytek DAC+ and Oppo HA-1 were connected to the Jade II amplifier using a pair of Pangea True Balanced™ Premier SE Signature Edition Interconnect Cables from Pangea Audio. Pangea Audio Premier SE interconnects, both the Balanced XLRs and RCA versions, at the same time. According to Pangea, “All of the SE's audio conductors are made from premium Cardas Grade One Copper, which many experts consider to be the best copper on the planet. The raw material for George Cardas’ copper is mined in the USA, then shipped to a New England plant where it is S-L-O-W-L-Y drawn in a pure Argon-gas-filled chamber into high-purity long crystal copper strands.” And the Cardas family is a very nice group to boot. So, there’s that.
As we mentioned previous articles, we did take issue with the Jade II’s fit. The headband wouldn’t adjust to our heads, which caused the ear pads to sit too low on our ears. Fortunately, the fine folks at Dekoni Audio sent us some of their new Dekoni Audio Nuggets Headphone Headband Pressure Relief Pads. The small pads, which incorporate a self-stick adhesive, fit perfectly on the headband of our Jade II.
Available in a four-pack, the Dekoni Nuggets are the perfect solution for headband hot spots and weight distribution of heavy headphones, or for models that might not fit your head properly. They’re made with Dekoni Choice Leather a synthetic vegan alternative, that is super soft, and is paired with Dekoni’s signature high-density, slow rebound memory foam for long listening sessions – comfortable even if you wear glasses. We have also used them on other headphones with a similar result. After we installed the 4 pads, the Jade II fit everyone who tried them just fine. The Dekoni Nuggets come Highly recommended.
Using the Jade IIs
As mentioned in Part II, we found the Jade IIs to be almost invisible in use. I constantly found myself getting up from my workstation to do something, only to be yanked back to reality by the cable to the amplifier. They are that good! I tend to think that headphones are always battling a musical source designed for the most part (excepting binaural recordings) for speakers, with sound bouncing around a room, so the best headphones need to disappear from your consciousness, not be a reminder of the transducers clamped to your head. The Jade IIs do this effortlessly. The lightness of the phones (12.9oz/365g) and lack of microphoning from the headphone cable are delightful, which reduces distractions.
The total lack of portability upends our primal expectations, which include isolation from others, and the ability to listen anywhere. This differentiates the electrostatic experience from dynamic or planar magnetic headphones. No more popping them in your backpack, or using with a good music player stashed in your pocket. Even though the COVID-19 pandemic means that we should be spending a lot of time at home right now, it would be nice to take them on a trip in your car, your office, or even to another room. Users are tied to the beautifully built power supply and amplifier by way of flat braided ribbon cable. If you have very deep pockets, you could purchase the power supply for other locations, but few people do this. For the most part, users listen in one location. The power supply and amplifier weigh in at 14.3 lbs, and is smaller than a breadbox, at 10.9” by 10.6” and 4.6” tall, and is housed in solid black anodized aluminum, which makes for an interesting industrial design. The actual electronics are about a third of the size of the outer frame, which is rounded on the edges.
So why so much air space between the frame and the electronics? Good question, and judging from the warmth of the frame, our hunch is that it’s a way to make a heat sink more attractive, and effective. It’s also very minimal, as there are only three adjustments on the front panel: Power On/Off, Balanced, and Unbalanced, plus a solid-stepped volume adjustment. There is a pair of the prerequisite balanced XLR jacks on the front edge, and that’s it. Oh, wait – there’s also an On/Off LED! Whew, didn’t want to miss that one. I’d liked them to have added a dot of white paint in the dimple in the volume control that indicates the setting, as the volume level is difficult to see, even in good light.
The back is even more minimalist, just two sets of inputs, RCA and XLR, and the AC line socket. That’s it. It is not fancy, doesn’t scream luxury. It’s utilitarian, and form follows function. Its job is to provide charging current, and amplify line level inputs. That’s all, folks! So, if you are buying audio as a way to show off, the system is extremely understated. I liked it, but a few friends thought it a bit Plain Jane. I’m primarily concerned with the audio over the aesthetics, and the fit and finish of the metal was perfectly suitable.
The headphones themselves are also understated. In fact, both the Audio-Technica ATH-ADX5000 dynamic headphones and the Jade IIs Electrostatic headphones come across as all business. They have a job to do, and they do it. Not a smidgen of bling, nothing. HIFIMAN's goal seems to be solid engineering to support their audio design goals, while keeping the units attractive and well built. Their comfy, elliptically shaped, lightweight earpads are a joy to wear.
They don’t exude luxury equal to headphones like the Audioquest NightOwl Carbon, whose gorgeous carbon metallic paint finish, created with multiple layers of automotive paint, does provide that level of commitment to the aesthetics of the project. True, a paint job doesn’t make a product better, but HIFIMAN products tend to feel like products that are dedicated to audio. Shorn of non-audible baubles, they don’t feel like phones that were created by folks for whom the aesthetic experience is given equal weight to audio performance.
When we first started reviewing luxury headphones, they ranged from simple units with amazing sound to those that shipped with beautifully finished, glossy, pure wood presentation boxes, with velvet inside, a full compliment of accessories, and another case, for portable use. But, we soon found, that while we would never toss that extraordinary wooden display box, we also never found a use for it. So, back in the shipping box, and up to the attic they went. Granted, we aren’t the kind of people who display collectibles, or status symbols. We use them, not trumpet them, so we are the wrong audience if the goal is to impress someone with looks.
The Audio-Technica ATH-ADX5000 dynamic headphones mirror the same design aesthetic and audio performance. No rare woods, no obvious fancy twisted rare earth cables. While they do come in a fun, retro-inspired case, the actual phones don’t grab your eyes. Except for a shiny grooved ring around the drivers, they don’t seem especially notable or flashy. Given that the Jade II and the ATH-ADX5000 headphones are among the best in the world, it’s high praise that neither manufacturer went out of their way for branding’s sake. The Jade IIs do have a large and transcendent statement, the shimmering electrostatic drivers, which change colors, reflecting differently as you move the phones around - they are just lovely. So take that, Audio-Technica!
Improvements – Our Wish List
There were a few things I’d like to see revised about the Jade IIs. The first would be an optional longer cable - I’ve found myself pretty close to the edge of yanking the cable or power supply, so a bit more flexibility when needed would be nice. Because the cable is directly wired to the headphone, perhaps an included extension cable would do the trick. Another is the gain. We found that we had to crank the amplifier volume control knob to the 9 position on a clock dial, and while player controls can adjust volume, it’s not as effective as having something as simple as an adjustable gain switch. We found that we were consistently at the upper limits of the Jade II amplifier’s volume control. More with some content, and less with others, but it’s disconcerting to have to crank both software and the volume on the amp, to deliver suitable levels. So, a bit of refinement to the gain would be welcome.
A case would be a nice inclusion, as well as a headphone stand. Finally, the warranty should be much longer than just one year. I think that five years would be comforting to a majority of consumers. There have been some publicized quality control issues in HIFIMAN’s past, so extending the warranty would go a long way toward showing confidence in the product. And of course, as previously mentioned, the redesign or option of a smaller headband is important. Until then, there are always the Dekoni Audio Nuggets, to help with a more precise and comfortable fit. Lastly, removable earpads would be appreciated, as is standard on many other headphones.
As mentioned previously, for this review, I was fortunate to have three superb DACs - the Mytek BROOKLYN DAC+, the EarMen TR-Amp, and the Pure Class A, Oppo HA-1, which sadly is no longer manufactured. So, I could bounce around the DACs, and with the Oppo, I could plug the Audio Technicas into the headphone jack, and via the XLR or RCA jacks in the back, feed audio to the Jade II power supply and amplifier. This meant that both phones were playing simultaneously. The new EarMen TR-Amp is designed in Serbia, and at $249, sounds as good as much more expensive DAC/Headphone Amp units, so it was instructive to have it on hand to compare to the much more expensive Mytek and Oppo units.
Fiona Apple – “Fetch The Bolt Cutters” on Qobuz
Listening to the new Fiona Apple release, “Fetch The Bolt Cutters,” in high-res on Qobuz with both sets of phones proved instrumental.
The last track on the album is “On I Go,” with its extraordinary percussive beats, effects, and distortions, and at first I thought I was hearing the phones clipping, but then I played the same audio over and over again bouncing between the Audio-Technicas and the Jade IIs, and was able to more precisely pin the sound down. The Audio-Technica’s were more vocal forward, with a brighter soundstage in the midrange, while the Jades had a richer midrange, with a touch of warmth. Mind you, both sound wonderful, but the Jades felt like a warm room with the sunlight streaming in, a bit of dust in the air. By comparison, the Audio-Technicas sounded like someone replaced the wood furniture with glossier finished pieces, and there wasn’t any dust in the room, even though the room was still lit by sunlight.
Listening to “The Adults Are Talking” and “Selfless” on the high-res 96k/24bit version on Qobuz, the Audio-Technicas had, as expected, a bit more bottom-end punch, but the Jades held their own, with a bit more information in the mids. Bass response has long been unique on electrostats, and the punch of dynamic transducers, is difficult for that thin film to reproduce. There has been a steady stream of refinements to the electrostatic transducers over the years, and the Jade IIs show the benefits, lighting fast response in the highs, extraordinary detail in the mids, and a warm, accurate bass signature in the bottom. On “Bad Decisions” there is an opening for the drums at 3:04, and the accuracy and musicality of the drums hitting the toms is just great. You can hear not only the strike of the stick, but the richness of the drum as it starts to fade and dampen. Well done!
Next up in Part 4, we get down and dirty with The Beatles, The Stones, Toto, Steely Dan, and some titles from Chesky Records.
Harris Fogel, with Nancy Burlan, posted 4/18/2020
For more information the HIFIMAN Jade II Electrostatic Headphonesvisit: https://www.HIFIMAN.com/products/detail/298
To learn more about True Balanced™ Premier SE Analog Interconnects by Pangea Audiovisit: https://www.pangeaaudio.com/Pangea-Audio-Premier-SE-Balanced-Interconnec...
To learn more about the Mytek Brooklyn DAC+ visit: https://mytekdigital.com/hifi/products/brooklyn/
To learn more about Dekoni Audio Nuggets Headphone Headband Pressure Relief Pads visit: https://dekoniaudio.com/product/dekoni-audio-nuggets-headphone-headband-...
To learn more about Sonic Solutions Amarra Luxe 4 software visit: http://sonicstudio.com/amarra/amarra4.php
To learn more about the EarMen TR-Amp visit: https://earmen-shop.com/products/tr-amp