ES Lab ES-1a Electrostatic Headphones Measurements and Discussion

Discussion in 'Headphone Measurements' started by Vtory, Jan 24, 2021.

  1. Vtory

    Vtory Illogical Spock

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    After successful recovery of estat love with the Hive, I wanted to adventure all kinds of electrostatistic offerings available in the market, including to revisit Stax higher ends.

    ES Lab’s ES-1a which I will talk about in several posts in this thread was on my checklist for a good reason.

    From aesthetical perspectives, es1a resembles the legendary Omega (SR-Omega, neither 007 nor 009). I auditioned the original omega many years ago and it was a mind-blowing experience. But the omega was simply unobtainable (rarely showing up in the used market, and NEVER EVER with reasonable prices to my knowledge) and all other stax higher ends weren’t as satisfying as the omega. ES1a’s development seems to be strongly motivated by SR-Omega, and the developer had a good amount of experience in dissecting Omegas and other stax/senn estat products. No wonder I was looking forward to seeing well-cloned Omega with a few modern tweaks.

    And to my luck, I could reach out to @Elmer Danilovich and he generously got me in the queue for the ES1a loaner tour. Appreciate his help very much.

    So, now you may wonder. Is ES1a really a second coming of the Omega?

    Let me first be clear that my Omega memory was too outdated (prior to 2010) to get a proper AB comparison. Therefore, primary estat comparison will be with concurrent Stax models I decently remember and the Hive I am currently owning.

    Below are highlights of my evaluation. Each will be visited with more details in the subsequent posts. Please refer to my signature for the playback rig.

    • Wearing comfort great despite being heavy
    • Dynamics and resolutions are rather similar to Stax-style in both positive and negative ways than different, but typical shortcomings are mildly reduced.
    • FR measurement huge departure from SBAF neutrality target. Not a good looking by any means.
    • Dark-tilted tonality, rich timbre, and exaggerated dimensionality
    • Regardless of forgiving highs, lower mid trebles occasionally too hot
    Measurements to come shortly. More detailed subjective impressions to follow later. Questions will be welcome, too.

    PS. Disclaimers copied from another thread
     
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  2. Vtory

    Vtory Illogical Spock

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    FR overall doesn’t look that good. At least not quite close to what I typically consider neutral. While that’s actually what I heard, I’d recommend not to make a bold claim purely on the basis of this FR graph. I will add more in my subjective impression post, but ES1a sounded much better than they measured.

    A few other notes below

    • 5db peak around 1.3khz is shown with many other stax models. I believe this prominent mids associated with my perception with honky sounding. A little more controlled than 009 but slightly more annoying than the Hive depending on the musical context.
    • 500hz to 10khz kinda looks like ‘W’ shape. Could be a deal breaker for neutralists. But as I already experience with the Verites, well-scoped curves in this range could sound very pleasing. I will dive deeper in the subjective impression.
    • 4.3khz peak isn’t as perceptually daunting as seen. Mostly it created healthy edgy in lower mids. Largely smoothed by ears and brains as well. Unfortunately sibilance in vocals often heard if recording didn’t or did poorly address this range.
    • The physical structure of ear pads made es1a virtually impossible to get a perfect seal with EARS. I hear the sub-bass more neutral and flatter.
     
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  3. Vtory

    Vtory Illogical Spock

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    Left harmonics top and right harmonics bottom.

    All my EARS measurements contain peaks around 4khz in the 2nd harmonics. But the peak pattern looks narrower and sharper with ES1a than other products I measured. Suspect it also modify perceptions around mid trebles.
     
  4. Vtory

    Vtory Illogical Spock

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  5. purr1n

    purr1n Finding his inner redneck

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    So what you are saying is that the ES1 is more like STAX, as opposed to the Nectar Hive / Sennheiser HE90/HE60 with respect to the tactility and harder stops at transients?

    The honky sound looks like the result of the small bump just past 1kHz. Looks like over tonality is less bright with a recessed upper mid / lower treble.
     
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  6. Vtory

    Vtory Illogical Spock

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    Es1 relative to Hive
    • Softer transient on lows
    • Flatter sonic texture in both lows and highs
    • Weaker macro dynamics
    • More diffusing (not annoyingly except very busy passages) but holographic images
    • Larger, deeper and more distant stages
    (Weirdly, Es1 didn't show any weakness in micro stuffs despite slower drivers. Details, dynamics, and plankton all sound pretty good to me.)

    What's interesting to me was all the bad things I can hear in ABing mostly disappeared or at least wasn't as much evident as I thought. More aggregable and forgiving tones probably help, too. On the contrary, Stax 009 had everything I listed above, but I wasn't as much convinced by their overall presentation. In other words, I like Es1 over 009 in 007-ish ways and prefer it to 007 in 009's strong suits.
     
  7. Raimei Templar

    Raimei Templar Friend

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    Looks kind of similar to the AD2000 FR wise, the narrow spike is in a slightly different place but they have much in common other than that. Quite interesting, AD2000 is a very different sort of headphone, I imagine a electrostat simular to it would be a unique experience. If it is like the AD2000 then anime esque/jpop stuff probably sounds incredible on it.

    Nearly every electrostat has that weird spike somewhere between 1-2k, not always the same place but that is partially why electrostats are usually said to have a sort of ethereal sound I think. I assume it must have something to do with electrostatic drivers design as it cant be a coincidence that nearly all of them have it. Stax stuff has it, the Koss ESP 950/x has it around 1.5k etc. Its easy to EQ out thankfully if you dont want it, as it doesnt seem to be a sort of ringing or anything like planars suffer from.
     
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  8. Hrodulf

    Hrodulf Prohibited from acting as an MOT until year 2050

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    Looks like resonance modes at 1.5k and 4.5k. Not the best place to have them.
     
  9. purr1n

    purr1n Finding his inner redneck

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    Na, ethereal sound is from transient response and continued low level ringing at various frequencies in the CSD. 1-2kHz bump is associated with the "honk". Some dynamics have a bit this too. And other e-stats do not have it (Sennheisers and Hive). I think it's more the pads.
     
  10. Vtory

    Vtory Illogical Spock

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    Agreed with 4.5khz. I typically do not like to have peaks there, either. But thanks to lowered energies on entire trebles, with this specific pair, it mostly worked rather positively for me.

    I mostly forgot how ad2k og measured but I'd agree that both ad2k and es1a have some similarity in presenting synthetic music.

    ... or something related to ear hole dimension. With some exceptions such as stax lambda, most products I remember having honky peaks were associated with round pads with ample space around the ears.
     
  11. Vtory

    Vtory Illogical Spock

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    Before diving into subjective thoughts, I'd briefly describe non-sonic aspects of ES1a.

    I never thought my Hive was of low BQ. But looking Hive and ES1a side by side, I really think Hive is a league below when it comes to appearance and luxury feeling.

    Build quality is honestly pretty good. I love the machined aluminum cups. The plasticky headband is claimed to made of nylon, which does feel a little cheap. But I can confirm it behaves and feels much nicer than stax or hifiman. The headphones lack final bit of finesse compared to focal or sennheiser high ends, but mostly ES1a's BQ deserves its asking price.

    Speaking of comfort, I'd make it clear that I am a big fan of large ear cups, gigantic ear holes, and low clamping. ES1a could tick all of them. I was also concerned with its weight, which turned out not a deal breaker. They weighed almost 600g with cables, and slight south to 500g when properly supported by the surface. To me weight didn't matter much as I thought it would. I'd say it's on par with ZMF hard wood products in overall weight and comfort..

    The headphones come with two kinds of different pads. One is known as 'dark' pads, which had a fabric center. The other pads (people call them stock pads) didn't have such a fabric part. It didn't take 2 minutes until I gave up listening with the stock pads. Dark pads are definitely my way to go. To some extent, the stock pads reminded me of the verite pads on verite. But the synergy was way worse on ES1a. Zinger highs, less slamming, and blander timbre.

    That said, my subjective evaluation will entirely focus on the dark pads.
     
  12. joch

    joch Friend

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    Thanks for the above impressions.

    Do these need a lot of power to sound good? I'm wondering if these would be good enough with a 353 if one doesn't have a KGSSHV to drive them.
     
  13. Vtory

    Vtory Illogical Spock

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    Sensitivity-wise, I am pretty sure ES1a is more efficient than Hive, roughly by 10db.

    From subjective perspectives, during my time with ES1a, I couldn't think they are capable tons of slamming. Not bad but limited (hardcore stax lovers may disagree -- my assertion only applies to those who think stax can't do macro). Both such things considered together, my general preference is to go with delicate and tone-first amps.

    Note that all such is my speculation. I couldn't test with any other amps. I still doubt if ES1a needs monstrous driving power like hives did.
     
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  14. Vtory

    Vtory Illogical Spock

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    I am very struggling to describe ES1a's sound in the right way.

    It's clear that I damn love how they sound. But not in the easily understandable way.

    The experience largely reminded me of Verites or AD2000, which both I couldn't find any good rationale for my love. One thing I am pretty sure is that there exist (on the opposite end of audiophile spectrum) some secret recipes among nonstandard tonality, coloration, and synergistic technicality. Verite nailed it among dynamic products. But I can't think of proper counterpart at the same level in estats. Now I do think ES1a could be it. Despite all shortcomings and compromises coming with them, I found myself enjoy them more often than Hives or Verites for the past two weeks.

    I will describe more about their weaknesses later. But for now let's focus on three things what I think they do really well.

    • Everything sounds VERY dimensional. Stage is deep and wide. Exaggerated? Heck yes. Maybe distractingly so. Unlike hd800, such a spacious feeling creates a wonderful synergy with reverb, which can be likely associated with ringing from loosely controlled diaphragms. As I repeatedly said, not like the hifi field manual by any means, but when tracks call for it, everything just sounds so magical.
    • Timbre is another thing I'd emphasize. Never true to the source. But extremely romantic, rich, and engaging. With some tracks, violins sounded like much expensive models than they actually were. I can here some fake naturalness added (I had to keep hearing hive and hd650 back and forth multiple times to confirm this), which made synthetic instruments more life-like and enjoyable. Not bad to me at all, but if you are sensitive to such dishonest, be aware. Staxes did it to some extent, but ES1a is more skilled and elegant in faking things.
    • Speaking of fakeness, like many Stax models, ES1a also commit quite a lot of sins of omission. So from SBAF standard, I can't consider them a good plankton resolver. However, I was always fooled by falsely-committed nuances in the end. Too tastefully done to feel annoyance.
     
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  15. joch

    joch Friend

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    Thanks for the above since I'm curious about the Hive as well.

    I just realized that ES Lab is in my time zone, so I enquired about driving requirements.

    I asked what energizers would be suitable, ranging from the 252 (for curious amusement) on up.

    They replied that something like a 717/727 would be the minimum requirement for the es1a, but the 353x should be "pretty good" if you are on a budget (not the older 313/323 that may struggle). The 252 is not recommended.
     
  16. Vtory

    Vtory Illogical Spock

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    Ok, now let's talk about what they can't bring to the table or can do only poorly.

    Below are things interested buyers should be aware of.

    • Like all Asian manufacturers, buying something from ES is inherently very dangerous. No matter whether coming with great quality (they do), except very few exceptions, I don't think any Asian audio products have enough liquidity. Heck, estats are even more so because of their non-compatibility with dynamic amps. Even staxes need to wait long to find new homes. In this respect, I want to minimize potential false positives.
    • While I am not sure enough, let's NOT assume ES1a a rebirth of original omega. I need to hear omega again to confirm.. but the way ES1a resolve things are largely similar with 009. From this, I surmise ES1a also relies on hyper thin diaphragm. Well-schooled sbaf folks should acknowledge what this design is good and bad at. ES1a do have so-called "Stax sounding". Like I said somewhere above, ES1a have better tonality and timbre than 009, so that helps a lot. Honestly, my overall takeway for this product is 009 with thicker timbre, darker highs, and more loosely defined lows.
    • Macrodynamics is not that terrible once I got familiar with how things were resolved. But softer and slower transients could be deal breakers for some. Whereas such characters are presented in an well-organized harmony so that "fun factor" is compensated by other parts seamlessly, ultimate technical capability is still questionable for the price. Maybe I just drove them with a wrong amp though.
    • This isn't particularly a weakness, but I personally found ES1a don't go very well with Soekris DAC2541 (sbaf loaner unit currently being evaluated in the house). Something weird is going on across the entire spectrum. Hives also don't favor 2541. Maybe it's a general estat issue. Whan I started this thread, I almost thought ES1a sounded better than my verite with mimicking major Verite virtues. This magic didn't persist once 2541 powered on and Erish entered the chain (I've used Magnius to drive verite then … because of convenience and physical clearance issues). I should hear ES1a with 2541 more thoroughly and collect thoughts before making final poo-poo.
    • The manufacturer asks 12,500 HKD which converted to 1620 usd. Considering irreversibility mentioned in the first bp, and with all the shortcomings above, it's a little too higher than I can comfortably recommend.
     
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