HD800 and JH16
After having finished the JH Audio comparison, this is the next question that I want to see answered. A lot of people has been asking about it too, if the JH16 is so good, how does it perform next to the HD800.
To start with, I always recommend the use of a good quality recorded material when evaluating a high end headphone such as the HD800 or the JH16. Often, these are open mic-ed and live recorded material, as such recordings capture the original acoustic environment, which is not present in closed mic-ed recording. If you’re using a closed mic-ed recording, you can’t say that a certain headphone sounds closer to how you hear it in real life, because the soundstage information is added later in the mixing process. I also find that the difference in closed mic-ed recording quality is very great because there is so much variable in the mixing process, where open mic-ed recording tend to be more consistent in quality.
Part of the magic with full size headphones is how they create a nice big headstage on the ears. Although custom IEMs are able to recreate the soundstage (which is inherent in the recording) through high resolution drivers, they have zero headstage which lends to a nice airy sound with full size headphones.
As a result, on IEMs like the JH16, the impression of the soundstage takes place inside the head, where from a full size headphone, they are laid out outside and from around the head. Hence the experience is very different. This is the first part that you can never get with an IEM. My friends confirmed this by saying that full size headphone have a certain feel that doesn’t exist on IEMs, even the JH16.
I’m not saying that the soundstage on the JH16 is inferior, because actually, it isn’t. Comparing the soundstage of both headphones, I found several differences which makes each headphone unique in their own sense:
Instruments on the JH16 is pushed more to the left and the right edges of the soundstage, where on the HD800 they blend in more to the center area. As a result, on the JH16, separation is more obvious, but on a good system where instrument separation is already very good, the JH16′s left and right soundstage image is not as integrated as the one in the HD800.
Distance information is much more evident on the HD800. On a live jazz recording, you can normally differentiate between the lead instrument (say, a saxophone) and the background instrument. On the HD800, the saxophone takes a very forward positioning, and you can almost imagine the saxophone being in the limelight, with everything else happening in the background. On the JH16, this is less evident, and every instrument occupying roughly the same amount of space within the soundstage.
I can imagine that on portable systems that are not as revealing, the JH16 system may sound as it’s portraying the soundstage clearer, as every instrument can be heard as clearly (while on the HD800, the supporting instruments are less audible). But on a good resolution desktop system, the JH16′s soundstage sounds quite flat in comparison to the HD800.
Due to the HD800′s more resolving nature, sometimes a closed mic-ed recording may sound unnatural, like the lead singer sounding too forward and ruining the overall music presentation. The JH16, somewhat less resolving of the recording, is more consistent in presenting an ideal music presentation despite variations in recording quality. If you have read the HD800 and the T1 comparison review, you will also see that both flagship headphones are good for one type of music, and not so good with another. The JH16 is actually much more balanced sounding than the two full size flagships, excelling at every music I throw at it.
Being more universal sounding does not mean that the JH16 bested the two flagship. The sense of awe that I get from listening to the HD800 is still greater than what I get from listening to the JH16, even on the same desktop set up.
In terms of source requirement, I actually think that the JH16 is very demanding, though still less demanding than the HD800. The reason that we use a custom like the JH16 with the common portable DAP is because it was designed for that purpose. But when listening to the JH16 through an Ipod really doesn’t give me the satisfaction that the JH16 is theoretically capable of. This is why I predict that more and more people will discover the need of a high quality DAP like the Hifiman HM-801, as the IEM technology evolves to be better by the day.