In our last installment on the HIFIMAN Jade II Electrostatic Headphones, we ended that review by listening to Fiona Apple – “Fetch The Bolt Cutters” on Qobuz. As mentioned previously, we were fortunate to have three superb DACs - the Mytek BROOKLYN DAC+, the EarMen TR-Amp, and the pure Class A, Oppo HA-1. So, we were prepped to listen carefully, starting with those lads from Liverpool.
The Beatles – “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band,” “The White Album,” and “Abbey Road” on Qobuz
Moving over to the superb remixing and remastering of The Beatles “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band,” “The White Album,” and “Abbey Road,” the Jade IIs reinforced the outrageously well-done restoration project. For this, I lined up rips of the last set of remastered tracks, which Universal Music kindly sent me, and compared each track on all three releases from 2009 to the new versions. And, well - wow! To further complicate matters, I took the first CD releases and compared those to the others, and the clarity and musicality of them is clearly evident from the first notes.
“Abbey Road” is one of my favorite albums, notwithstanding that it’s by The Beatles. It is such an effortless blend of superb musicianship, expert engineering, mixing, and mastering, which hides behind a smooth, yet tense, surface, all the while diving into various genres, not with condescension, but loving sincerity. English dance hall tunes, fiery guitars, bouncy cheerful singing, offset by a melancholy of a love lost to age, are purely played and presented, as Ringo’s gorgeous drum solo brings a bridge to the energy and hangs in the air.
The new versions, of all three Beatles titles, are a tour-de-force of a fully committed restoration effort. The clarity is transcendent, I heard things that I’ve never heard before, and the Jade IIs kept it all organized and, considering the band’s penchant for layering, keeping things from turning into a muddy mess. Yet, on songs like “Blackbird” the vocals are upfront, but never overblown, revealing two of the Jade II’s strengths: vocal and acoustic music.
Interestingly, while the difference from the initial digital releases to the 2009 remasterings revealed a sonic dusting, with a clarity and precision not present on the early CDs, it was the comparison between 2009 and the current versions that were tailor made for the Jade IIs. The 2009 versions, were a labor of love, and represented the best audio for The Beatles heard yet. Many reviewers (us included) were curious just how improved the new versions were.
We had hoped to listen and compare the high-res and surround mixes of the three releases, but due to the cost of the deluxe packaging, and the lack of ability to ship us just the Blu-ray disc, we had to forgo the surround mixes, so not having them was disappointing. This represents an ongoing problem for listeners. The surround mixes are often only available in the expensive deluxe editions, and not by themselves, or in a pack of just the CDs and Blu-ray. In previous years, the Universal and Warner marketing teams sent reviewers promotional versions without any packaging, just the music. Personally we loved that approach.
Record companies face serious competition by streaming services. Universal sent us watermarked 44k/16bit AIFF files for the last three Beatles releases, but to really hear them, we had to utilize the hi-res streaming versions on Qobuz. From an audio standpoint, they were superb, but at the present, despite it being possible from a technical standpoint, there aren’t any surround mixes available by streaming. The need to purchase a CD or deluxe version to listen is now relegated to collectors only. The cool kids want vinyl, stream, or surround and aren’t all that interested in all the packaging that compose most deluxe releases, and add most of the expense. Because of that, consumers should be able to purchase less expensive Blu-ray versions, and with the exception of a few titles, that’s not possible. As long as they give something that streaming or CDs don’t provide, namely high-resolution surround mixes, there’s a reason that so many retail brick and mortar locations are no longer stocking discs.
“TOTO” on Qobuz
TOTO has always been too polished and pop for my tastes, which is also why I’ve always had difficulty falling in love with albums like Steely Dan’s “Aja”, which struck me as a bit too perfect. My punk, blues, and rock and roll roots are showing here. So, it was instrumental to listen to TOTO’s debut album, in the hi-res on Qobuz, and the impressive playing on their debut album a tribute to why they were in demand by so many studios and musicians. It’s also a wonderful reminder of just how good drummer Jeff Pocaro was, and what a tragic loss his death was, caused by an allergic reaction to a garden pesticide. There is a nice punch to the percussion, and smooth vocals at the forefront, and you are instantly transported back to the 80s.
The Jade IIs reproduced the bite of the opening guitars on “I’ll Supply the Love,” and provided an open and airy soundstage. The bottom end on this carefully recorded album, is alive and breathing, and emblematic of the late 70s sound. Synthesizers galore, TOTO really does feel like Southern California, in the 80s, and critics be damned, these albums sold like hotcakes.
Steely Dan – “Katy Lied,” “Can’t Buy a Thrill,” “Aja,” & “Gaucho” on Qobuz
Moving on to the perennial audiophile favorite, “Aja” - which is also a favorite of Mac Edition Radio's own Frank Schramm, who reportedly sleeps with a copy under his pillow. Taking a break from “Aja,” I meandered over to “Gaucho” available in 96k/24bit, to hear how the Jade II would handle that precisely perfectionist recording. It was here where I think I started to understand the tuning they employed on the Jade II. Becker and Fagen met their nirvana in the smooth, carefully produced, studio driven, studio centered music, where everyone is on call for a tasty lick. Steely Dan, well known as monster studio perfectionists, utilizing the finest studio players on the planet, and state-of-the-art recording techniques and equipment, is as good a match as you can find to test headphones. “Babylon Sisters” features incredible licks, and the Jade II, tautly reproduces the tightly controlled percussion.
Truth be told, my favorite Steely Dan album is probably “Katy Lied,” which is one of the perversely ironic albums I’ve heard. With beautifully smooth production and superb musicianship, it masks the utter depravity of the lyrics and the intent of the album. “Everyone’s Gone To The Movies” seems to be about showing porn to underage kids, a match for the Stones’ gritty and grinding “Stray Cat Blues”. Both songs and albums betray their crunchy, grimy, sexual obsession in different ways, but with the same urgency.
The Stones’ intent is blues-based, and has a dark, time-indeterminate, personal, first person narrative in them. By contrast, listening to songs like, “Everyone’s Gone To The Movies” in terms of a sleazy underbelly of inappropriateness but covered with a glazed donut smoothness and addictive invitation, that one would never imagine propelling the inner lyrical sleaziness. Which means to say, that it’s songs like that, with their dark, visceral texture, that makes them so compelling.
That album is a perfect match for the Jade IIs, all studio perfection and gloss, all the rough edges polished out. While punk has its directness, Steely Dan has its own perverse lustful androgyny. This is only amplified and supported in the subsequent albums. There is huge spot in my heart for the debut effort, “Can’t Buy A Thrill,” which is just extraordinary. All of Steely Dan’s titles are a great match for the level of finesse and detail, the Jade IIs easily provide, so give them a spin. The only hitch, is that they have yet to be properly remixed and remastered for high-res. Hopefully we'll see that rectified soon.
If I’m finding the Jade IIs to be a bit picky about the music they reproduce best, it’s because they love clarity, and are voiced to allow specific instruments to make their place in the soundstage. This gets a bit muddled when presented with pedal to the metal rock and roll. They simply sing on classical, jazz, or rock influenced pop/jazz. They don’t have an artificially boosted bottom end, so the gut punch of music built around it, with its greater dynamic range, seems better suited to the Audio-Technicas, favoring their dynamic design. At the same time, I loved the way the Jade IIs reproduced bass, no matter what I threw at them. Another genre they seem to favor is acoustic, with the sense you are a few feet from the instruments.
The more delicate the sound, the more you are rewarded by the Jade’s quick transient response, and airy soundstage. You can feel the air in the room as Paul McCartney, gently and sweetly sings. You can feel the guitar strings vibrating the air around them and the overtones.
HIFIMAN Ananda BT Planar Magnetic Bluetooth headphones
In the future we will be reviewing the HIFIMAN Ananda BT Planar Magnetic Bluetooth headphones which were designed to provide the sound quality of the best planars but with the portability of Bluetooth; Like you, we love the idea of being able to answer the door, make a sandwich, grab a cup of coffee, pour a glass of wine, or pet our adorable cats without interruption, and maintain excellent audio quality the entire time. We received the Ananda BTs recently, and have used them for everything from Iggy Pop to my mother, who used them for our quarantined Passover over Zoom. Suffice it to say, they are among the best sounding Bluetooth headphones we have heard to date.
One discovery, brought on by dint of being tied to a non-portable system, is that the Jade IIs are like a darkroom, which is mostly a single purpose environment. Just like the time watching prints emerge from the chemicals, listening to the Jade’s became more of a meditative experience, as we were stuck in place. While we certainly listened to them while checking e-mails, editing photos, or surfing the web, just as often we just closed our eyes and lost ourselves in the music. Their smooth response, comfortable fit, open and airy musicality, is inviting and transcendent.
Part 5 – More Music?
How did they perform with Muddy Waters and Johnny Winters, Erik Satie and Rachmaninoff? How will they handle the groundbreaking and woofer breaking Telarc 1812 Overture? Can they comfortably handle Iggy, Bowie, or Coltrane? The short answer is yes, but we will cover those experiences in Part 5. From the first moment you fire them up, you want to hear how your favorite music sounds on them. The precision that they reproduce music with is intoxicating, and you can hear things with a clarity that most headphones can’t hope to reproduce. For a full report, you need to wait for Part 5.
The annual Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in Las Vegas used to be a great way to listen to new equipment, meet with colleagues, and talk through what we’ve seen with other members of the press. And for the most part that’s what happens, but where once there were seven floors of the Venetian Towers filled with gear, music pouring out of doorways, sadly, this year it was down to a handful of vendors, that barely filled one floor. Unfortunately, high-end audio is no longer a serious presence at CES, with the exception of headphone companies. There were a few companies, but compared to previous years, only a few hardy companies are left, and all bets are off for CES 2021.
This meant that for the most part, headphones from companies large and small were aplenty in the South Hall. However, with the noise level in the large halls, it’s far from an ideal or even listenable experience. Better venues for listening, are the wonderfully fun CanJam shows, full of headphone enthusiasts.
Accordingly, it’s at CanJam, where Dr. Fang Bien, the owner and chief scientist of HIFIMAN, has shown off his latest creations, including our first peak at the prototype Ananda BT. It was also the first opportunity to listen to their cost-is-no-object Shangri La headphone system, which clocks in at a cool $50,000. I’d love to have another chance to listen, in a quiet location, so I can really compare them to other headphones, but from my brief listen, they sure were sweet.
Do the HIFIMAN Jade IIs compete, and hold their own against the cost is no object, Shangri-La electrostatic headphone system? The short answer is kind of "yes". Although they are separated by almost $47,500 dollars, the Jades are a serious commitment to audio performance, and coupled with their new amplifier and power supply, the difference, while certainly there, isn’t as great as you might imagine. Probably the best comparison to the Jade II is the HIFIMAN Shangri-La Jr., which is a mere $8,000 bucks. Pocket change, you say? But, listening to that system will have to wait for a future review.
We also want to acknowledge a very gracious gesture of support by HFIFMAN. Dr. Bien sent out packages of personal protection masks to many of his customers, partners, and members of press. His letter said that they were “for your use, or to contribute to an organization in our area.” Thank you, Dr. Bien, for this kind, caring, selfless and honorable act!
During this pandemic, when most people are spending more time at home than they expected, the HIFIMAN Jade II Electrostatic Headphones with Headphone Amp and Power Supply, come highly recommended to make the quarantine a joy. The HIFIMAN Jade II is a superb system, worthy of serious consideration, and a joy to use. They are truly plug and play; just connect them to a good analog input, and away you go!
Harris Fogel, with Nancy Burlan, posted 5/15/2020
For more information the HIFIMAN Jade II Electrostatic Headphones visit: https://www.HIFIMAN.com/products/detail/298
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