In this opportunity, two of the most highly regarded Electrostatic headphone have been loaned to me so that I can write something about how the two differs. Everyone respects the Stax Omega2 as one of the finest headphones in existence. Earlier this year I wrote a review of the Omega2 based on the Mk2 version, but this time I also have the Mk1 version that some people say is better than the newer Mk2. I’ve been spending some time with the two headphones, and I think I’m quite ready to write about the difference between them.
Build wise, the two headphones are mostly identical except for the coloring. The Mk1 comes in a champagne housing with brown pads, headband, and cables, while the Mk2 comes in a Darth Vader-like all-black look. This particular Mk1 is pretty well maintained, as I can’t see any signs of wear in the headphone. The pads on the Mk2 has a firmer feel, but the Mk1′s softer pads is also nice because they let my skin breathe better. The leather on the Mk1 looks like its been treated to some leather conditioner, while the Mk2 looks dryer. I don’t think that the differences are from the factory, and it’s probably caused by the age and the conditions of the headphones I’m using for this article.
The two headphones clearly carries on the same Stax Omega2 sound. Slightly dark, very clean and grain free, black background, fast transients, “all around the place” imaging, and good bass body though not very impactful. Overall, the sound is fairly relaxed with medium PRaT factor. The clean and grain free sound amid the very black background continues to be the specialty of the Stax Omega2. Another character that is unique to the Omega2 and other Staxes, is how they produce sound in a very effortless way, no dynamics and orthodynamics can quite mimic this. Last and most special is how the Omega2 presents a very clear sound and yet not fatiguing. I don’t think any other headphone can pull this off as well as the Omega2s. Their clear sound is not the result of treble or upper mid peaks, but rather, the lack of grain and the black background.
The grainless sound can be a double edged sword to the Omegas. The headphones can sound quite unnatural sometimes, and it’s primarily due to the lack of grain. There’s nothing wrong with the timbre of the notes. But, when viewed as a whole presentation, having totally no grain in the sound just doesn’t sound quite right. The same argument can also be seen in the digital and analog recording debate, where the grainless digital recordings often sound more “electronic” than the analog ones. Likewise we’re also seeing the same phenomenon in digital vs analog photography. Personally for me, I really can’t decide which is better. Sometimes when I’m listening to the Omega2, I want to have some grain in the sound, but when I’m back to the HD800, I wish it would have less grain and more Omega2-like in that aspect.
As spend time with both headphones, the differences between them makes one thing clear to me: even the best headphones are not perfect, do-it-all headphones. Within the same Omega2 sound, the Mk1 and Mk2 versions are distinctively different, and ultimately you will favor one over the other. The Mk1 is more straightforward, where the Mk2 is more colored. Listening to the Mk1 on the solid state KGSS can bring a slight feeling of dryness, while the Mk2 sounds fuller and more liquid on the same set up. The Mk2 has a slight bump from the lower mid to mid bass, and that can be slightly annoying sometimes. The Mk2′s upper midrange has better presence than the Mk1, and is preferable than the flatter sounding Mk1. Going back to the Mk1, one thing that immediately shows is how the more linear frequency balance creates a clearer sound, where the Mk2′s bump on the mid-low frequencies can induce some resonances.
One of the questions that people ask is, “which one is the brighter version”? I know that some people still find the Omega2 too sound too dark than what they are used to. It’s hard to say which is the “brighter” version. The Mk1 sounds clearer, and that does give an impression of a “brighter” sound. On the other hand, the Mk2 with the more forward upper mids, combined with the recording that has good upper mid presence, will let you hear stuff on that frequency better, and this will also give an impression of a “brighter” sound. For instance, when I’m listening to Piano solos, the Mk2 will render a better presence on the high piano notes, making the Mk1 sounds like the darker headphone.
Obviously, your preference would be largely determined by your music. As I’m listening to Beatles Remastered, Norah Jones, Beyonce, or Paul Lewis playing Beethoven Sonatas, I’d like the Mk2 rendering better, as overall the sound is just fuller and smoother. But with Prodigy, Rage Against the Machine, John Mayer, and Beethoven Symphonies, I’d prefer the Mk1 better. Ultimately, I think the deciding factor will be on the mid to low frequencies. Will a slight bump on the mids and bass get in the way of your music? With piano music, I hardly have any issues with a mid-bass bump, and so the Mk2′s smoother sound is the version that I use. But for busy music with a lot of bass notes happening at the same time, Electronics, Rock, Symphonies, I’d prefer the Mk1 version of the Omega2.
Of course you don’t have to own both headphones to get the best of both worlds. The differences are quite small in the grand scheme of things, and it would be easy to fix the Mk2 bump with a simple EQ. Likewise, you can add some midrange body with an EQ to get a fuller sound out of the Mk1.
Gears used for review:
Headphones: Stax Omega Mk1, Stax Omega Mk2
Amplifier: Headamp KGSS
Source: Burson HA-160D, Grace m902, Onkyo ND-S1