Standing Ovation: Smeggy’s Thunderpants

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Disclaimer: The Headfonia Store sells Fostex, Audez’e and Hifiman orthodynamic headphones. The Smeggy Thunderpants was loaned to me by Fostex Japan.

I don’t think I’ve ever written a title that bold, but this one definitely deserves it. Not only on the effort Smeggy has put into creating such a marvel from something so humble as the T50RP, but also the resulting headphone that comes out of it. The Thunderpants is an extremely special headphone.

When Smeggy first introduced the Fostex T50RP-based Thunderpants a few years ago, it was a very big hit among the head-fiers. Everyone talked about it and local orthodynamic enthusiasts tried to create their own version of the Thunderpants. Long before the Thunderpants, the ortho crowd has always been avid headphone modder, and I’ve listened to many many different modded orthos from Yamaha to Fostex and other smaller obscure brands (I’ve even done a feature on some models). The T50RP itself is a common base headphone that people would take and mod it to somewhat improve the tonality and sound quality. And most of these mods would usually succeed in improving the sound somewhat (though with the improvements, usually things are also taken out somewhere else). However, listening to many many different modded T50RPs, I came to the conclusion that modded headphones is usually limited by the quality of the original driver.

The most common modification usually takes care of the boomy bass and housing reverb problems which resulted from improper acoustics in the housing design. While taking out the boomy bass, housing reverbs, and altering tonal balance can improve an old vintage headphone, the end result was still easily vintage–at least compared to modern headphones. For instance, on one orthodynamic meet, I brought a lowly Sennheiser HD201 headphone and easily demonstrated that no matter how much tuning is done, vintage orthos can’t compete with the resolution and frequency of a modern driver, even an entry level beater like the HD201. For similar reasons, I suppose, Audez’e and Hifiman started coming up with modern orthodynamic headphones as today’s technology allows the construction of a better driver quality.

Going back to the Thunderpants, during its peak moments, people even started comparing it to the Audez’e LCD-2. A lot of people who’s observing the Thunderpants hype started to take a step back and question the validity of the testimonials, as it sounded pretty impossible that a modded T50RP can take on a modern planar driver like the LCD-2. Even more since a lot of our friends have taken on the path of modding a T50RP and they all hit a limit eventually.

Last year in 2012 we started seeing the rise of professional modder who all offered their own customised version of the T50RP. I was once the Indonesian importer of Mr. Speaker headphones who was the manufacturer of Mad Dog. Valentin also did a review on the Paradox headphones which basically is just another modded T50RP. The Mad Dog was nice and it certainly offered a repeatable quality control which we usually don’t see with DIY stuff, but the result of the Mad Dog tuning is not something that the local modder can’t replicate.

During the Headphone Festival, I met with Hiroaki from Fostex and we were talking about a lot of things (one being the subject of the TH900 and D7000 drivers) and we somehow drifted to talk about the Thunderpants. He was very generous when he offered to lend me the Thunderpants and even for a few weeks he said. Once I got back home, I demoed the Thunderpants at the Headfonia Store and all of us who listened to it were (and still is) shocked by the audio quality of the Thunderpants. One word is that it has a crystal clear and clean sound, and in that aspect even better than the LCD-2 and the Hifiman HE-400/500 perhaps only rivalled but the HE-6. Of course we were all shocked and our jaws dropped as none of the other modded T50RPs even got close of the quality of the Thunderpants. Crystal clean, clear, yet retaining the typical smoothness of Fostex orthodynamic drivers, all the instruments well arranged without the slightest hints of confusion in the soundstage.

The presentation is moderately laid back and the tonality is a very slight v-shaped. The midrange body is thinner than standard Fostex T50RP but not exactly sucked out like some Beyers are. Overall it’s a brighter headphone than the stock T50RP and the midrange is not as full as the stock, but in terms of technicalities it really is two classes above the stock T50RP.

The bass definitely doesn’t hit as hard as the LCD-2 and the HE-400, but it doesn’t feel thin either. One way to describe it is that it’s very close to a clean and neutral monitoring sound, but the smoothness of the T50RP makes it very enjoyable for music listening. Though the tonal balance is not the typical balance that I enjoy (dark sound, full mids and bass), I simply can’t avoid getting blown away by the Thunderpants. The tonal balance is perfect, there is no fault in the sound. Not the slightest hint of harshness and grain, not a peak noticeable anywhere. The LCD-2 for instance is more musical, hits a deeper bass, and sounds more open (it’s an open-back design). It’s a very successful product and we sell loads of it at the store, but I can’t get over the fact that the Thunderpants presents a cleaner sound and separation. The same can be said with Hifiman’s HE-400 and HE-500. I still have the stock Fostex T50RP here in the store and as me and the local folks compared the two, we all wonder could it be that Smeggy has used a different driver that’s not the T50RP’s? The difference is night and day!

Again, none of the other modded T50RPs I know come even close to this. I haven’t heard the Paradox (Valentin did the review) so I can’t comment on that one, but Thunderpants stand on a league closer to the $1K modern orthos rather than simply a modded T50RP. There is a reason, after all, that Fostex refused to sell me this Thunderpants as they specifically mentioned about using the Thunderpants for their research department.

The hype on the Thunderpants is long past but sometimes it’s good to evaluate a product after the hype period is gone. At this moment I’m not even sure Smeggy still makes Thunderpants (I’ve tried reaching out to him without any success), so I don’t know if you can still go out to buy one. This article, however, is not meant to be a typical product review; I’m writing this simply as a form of respect to one of the greatest headphone in existence.

-UPDATE-
We’ve had some reports from users who had a bad business experience when trying to order these headphones from Smeggy. Please read them and consider carefully if you have any intention of ordering (at this point I advise against doing that). Here are some of the comments from the discussion section: 

 

 

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  • Gneiss

    Thinner mid-range than an $80 headphone and inferior bass to a $400 headphone but it deserves to be in the $1000 Ortho category? Does not make much sense to me.

    Thin mids and weak hitting bass simply eliminates it as a headphone that can be used for so many genres, I cannot understand by your own review how it could get a “Standing Ovation” with such a limited strength as “clean sound”.

    • http://www.headfonia.com Mike

      Ooh bitter man!

      • Gneiss

        Sorry, I like your website. I just don’t get this one.

        • Guest

          I also dont get posting reviews for products not available and done by a person who flew the coop

          • http://www.headfonia.com Mike

            I just like talking about a good gear. You want reviews of stuff you can buy? Amazon has plenty

            Lol

            • George Lai

              And those reviews on Amazon unless by Dale Thorn are not as good to read as Mike’s. The headphone in question doesn’t appeal to me but when I read my favorite newspaper I don’t read every article. Headfonia I do.

              • http://www.headfonia.com Mike

                Thanks man. Some people are so negative these days.

              • dalethorn

                Amazon can be useful in some cases, especially if there are a lot of reviews. I always click to view by newest date first, so as to skip the ‘house’ reviews. You might not get an accurate take from Amazon on the sound of your item, but many other problems will show up in those user reviews – if there are problems.

                • http://www.headfonia.com Mike

                  That is true and I do read reviews on Amazon from time to time (though not so much headphone reviews) and find that some reviewers there really know what they’re talking about.

            • http://www.headfonia.com/ L.

              Mike means: what’s wrong with posting a review on a great headphone. Yes it sucks you can’t buy it anymore and yes it sucks some people lost their money but that doesn’t mean we can’t review it. If that was the rule nobody could review the Senn Orpheus, etc. the commenter above left the site cause he found that reviewing “unbuyable” gear was not done in the community. Sorry but that makes me laugh inside.

              • dalethorn

                I’m grateful for the review – I’ve always been interested in this perspective, and the accuracy this review has. At the very least, it helps people to be aware of the possible problems in ordering custom items. I’ve lost money a few times on mods, so people should make every effort to check out every aspect of their commitment before sending in the money.

                • http://www.headfonia.com Mike

                  Thank you Dale.

    • donunus

      Thinner mids than the stock model first of all because the stock model makes all headphones sound like they have thin mids. They actually give me a headache due to their overly prominent upper bass/lower mids. So of course it is a good thing that the modded version has thinner mids.

  • Zaid

    All I can say is wow.

  • Jeffrey Coleman

    I would like to add that smeggy has disappeared from the headphone world. I placed an order for my own pair of Thunderpants in June of 2012, paid in full, and have yet received my pair. smeggy hasn’t replied to an email of mine since October of 2012.

    Articles like this tend to stir interest in purchasing reviewed products like this most surely will. But at this time I highly suggest anyone interested, to look for a used pair instead. I couldn’t recommend exercising “buyer beware” enough. At least, at this point in time.

    I hope smeggy gets back on his feet again and starts producing this wonderful headphone again. But, then again, I have a vested interest…

    • http://www.headfonia.com Mike

      Thank you for the feedback, Jeffrey

    • http://www.headfonia.com Mike

      I will update the article with the information you posted

    • Ian Stephenson

      I can only echo what Jeffrey says. I was part of a group buy organised by Head-Fi and it took 13 months from payment to when they were received. Emails from Gary about headphones in transit were patently false and in the end none of my emails were responded to. Even though at all times I was polite and courteous. It was only by the invaluable intervention from a concerned Head-Fier that I (and others) who were waiting eventually received what we paid for. Such a shame as the headphones, like the article reflects, sound great and are beautifully made.

      • http://www.headfonia.com Mike

        Thanks Ian, I will update the article with those information

      • Jeffrey Coleman

        I’m glad you eventually received your headphones. I hope there are not many left, in the same lurch as myself. It sadly tarnishes all the great work smeggy did…

        • http://www.headfonia.com/ L.

          Maybe that same Concerned HF’er can help you out too?

          • Jeffrey Coleman

            It might be possible. I believe I know who the contact is. And have PM’d him on the subject before.

            • http://www.headfonia.com Mike

              Thank you Jeffrey for being so helpful.

      • GraveDancer

        Based off of my experience, the trend in these cottage industries are that some geeky hobbiest will do something great to improve a product, gain notoriety, then is expected to be a businessman, and can’t keep up with the new demand for his/her service.
        I’m not excusing or faulting anyone, but many of these guys are sole proprietors with no staff.
        How they handle it is what separates the kids from the grownups: for example, Nordic Cables cancelled an order after 1 month. Trevor, being an outstanding guy, refunded my money promptly. I like him. I will buy from him again.
        Toxic cables is taking months for a pair of cables, but I can empathize with Frank the owner. I get it. He puts his passion into it. I can wait. But when folks drop off the face of the earth , that is what is unnerving the most.

        • http://www.headfonia.com Mike

          What smeggy is doing to the customers is not right, but doesn’t take away the fact that Fostex is using his headphone for their in house research.

          • John123John

            Kudos!

            I recently went through the blog of BTG-Audio. Basically is just constantly swamped with making cables and hes an undergradaute! If he ever takes a sick day, boom. gg.
            He had to meet with a lawyer and an accountant which is pretty cool and crazy.

          • Jeffrey Coleman

            I had to think about this for a while. Gary made a mistake, by biting off more then he could chew. I made a mistake by not being more careful with my money. If I paid more attention to the group buy I would have seen smeggy getting over his head, and caught onto the fact that he was having “personal issues”. I don’t want this man beat up over this issue. I was just concerned that others would seek a pair of Thunderpants, and tempt Gary back, even if he’s not ready to, and spin out of control all over again.

            I still believe I will get my TP1s….

            After this experience, I also realized, as GraveDancer pointed out, that I’m one of those that crave what cottage industries provide. I have an order with Brian @ BTG Audio as we speak. Even companies like Ray Samuels, ALO, Audeze, and Cypher Labs are not that far above that status. I’ve just come to understand my hobby doesn’t have room for too many powerhouse companies like Sennheiser, Beyerdynamics and the like.

            This topic would make a great article, in my opinion. The need/want for cottage industry services, in the headphone audiophile community. It has its own unique ups and downs.

            • http://www.headfonia.com/ L.

              Good idea! Listed!

            • http://www.headfonia.com Mike

              Thanks for the post Jeffrey, your posts have been a wonderful source of information.
              As for the cottage industries, I really have no idea what to talk about on such article. Maybe you ought to write the article.

              • Jeffrey Coleman

                Boy oh boy, you guys will hire anyone these days… :)

                • http://www.headfonia.com Mike

                  I was just responding to your idea

        • http://www.headfonia.com/ L.

          Don’t you mean Trevor from Norseaudio?

          • GraveDancer

            Yes. Sorry.

    • dalethorn

      Custom mods can be problematic for many reasons. One example: I bought an item for $1000 USD and paid another $4000 (in advance) for custom work. The item failed – intermittent contact – so sent it in and waited 10 days for fixed. Then the fix failed, and tried again – same failure. So, drove 500 miles to the modder guy and sat down and watched as he took it apart. He exclaimed then “I told that guy (i.e. the student he hired to mod my item) not to cross that board with that wiring harness…. etc.” — and it suddenly occured to me that not only was he not modding my item himself, he didn’t even check on the guy who did – three times!! At that point, if we had been somewhere outside of any legal jurisdiction, that guy would not have been doing any more mods, ever. I’ve been angry here and there, but never felt an emotion like that moment, before or since. So there you are.

  • ghost2031 S23

    Nice Review Mike,
    now i’m on the fence between Hifiman He-500 or the Thunderpants. Actually not at the moment but in near future. If so, i would buy them (TP) used but there are no sales available that’s the other problem.

    • Jeffrey Coleman

      If you are patient, you’ll find them in the marketplace. But they are tough to pull out of owner’s hands….. :)

      • http://www.headfonia.com Mike

        Lol I bet. I asked Fostex if I can buy this one but they’re not selling

    • http://www.headfonia.com Mike

      I think the TP is nicer and definitely more special. It’s just that it’s extremely hard to get. Smeggy created something truly special here.

      • ghost2031 S23

        Sounds good. I just wanted to ask how the bass compares to the AKG 550, because i would like it to be a little bit or a little bit more when it comes to quantity because i’m sure the quality is good from what i’ve read. Some call them basstrong some not.
        thanks in advance

        • http://www.headfonia.com Mike

          Less bass quantity but better punch than the k550

  • zowki

    I really disliked my Thunderpants when I owned it many months ago. I much prefer my Paradox which I am using now. The Thunderpants had peaky mids which just sounded plain weird. It was also very heavy and felt uncomfortable. The Paradox is simply better in every way. The sound is more neutral and smooth, and its more lightweight and comfortable.

    Edit: You can read my Paradox review here:
    http://www.head-fi.org/t/633956/the-t50rp-paradox-reviews-discussion-mini-tour-impressions-index-in-second-post/405#post_9421543

    • http://www.headfonia.com Mike

      Thank you for the comparison, Zowky

  • lcamtai

    What amps did you use to pair with this Thunderpants? Thanks.

    • http://www.headfonia.com Mike

      Lots of different ones. Fostex HPA7, Asus sonar essence one, Burson conductor, a tube amp with 45 tubes, some portables too.

  • http://gorboman.wordpress.com/ Gorboman

    Wow! It’s beautiful! Now wonder it’s the most expensive T50RP mod to date.

    • http://www.headfonia.com Mike

      I think in terms of wood work some of the locals can compete and even better the Thunderpants. :)

  • Sasmit

    Great review Mike! I wonder if Valentin has any access to a TP to compare with the paradox….Also It would be great if you or someone else could do a specific comparison with the latest alpha pad version of the mad dogs….Thanks and I hope you keep covering headphones like this and it is just disappointing to read some of the other comments.

    • http://www.headfonia.com Mike

      Thanks, Sasmit! I may be able to loan a Paradox headphone somewhere.. :)

      • Sasmit

        thanks Mike! Do you have any details about the wood in your TP?

        • http://www.headfonia.com Mike

          Sorry I don’t know anything about the wood since I didn’t get this from Smeggy

  • http://www.headfonia.com/ L.

    BTW, excellent pictures, partner!

    • Sasmit

      +1 on that….The pictures were the main reason that I asked for any available details on the kind of wood.

    • http://www.headfonia.com Mike

      Thank you. I thought they weren’t that good. :P

  • Hadi

    The first >$400 headphone I seriously consider buying. The mids of this specific pair is marvelous. I agree with L., the picture is excellent, especially the one on the top.

  • ghost2031 S23

    hello mike,

    now that i’ve found some thunderpants used i’m wondering if they are hard to drive. i know you don’t have them anymore but do you think matrix m-stage has enough current?

    I’m asking because i don’t have them yet.
    thank you
    greetings

    • Dave Ulrich

      It should be fine

      • ghost2031 S23

        Alright, thank you Dave.