I’ve had the chance to hear the SR-Lambda & SRD-7 combination for quite some time now, and I’ve always felt that it lacks the soundstage, the openness, and the airiness associated with electrostatic headphones. On the other hand, I felt that the SR-34 has a fairly warm and enjoyable sound. I also prefer the fit of the SR-34’s smaller circular frame to the squarish Lambda frame. So I thought that the SR-34 had quite a good chance against the Lambda.
If the Lambda has never really wowed me during the many times I had listened to it in meets, this time it was different. Perhaps it was the Adcom power amp making a difference, because even with the lousy Ipod source, the SR-Lambda for the first time, really wowed me with such an open, airy sound, and a big soundstage too. And moving to the SR-30 electret, the difference was not even close. The SR-30’s soundstage is much smaller, it didn’t feel nearly as open nor as airy, and timbre was a bit off in the SR-30.
The SR-Lambda, being the superior electrostatic design, was also superior in almost all other technicalities. It has better speed, it has a punchier bass, better top and bottom extension, better separation, and in every one of those category, the Lambda is leaps ahead from the SR-30. I was actually quite surprised by how much improvement the Lambda was, because as I’ve said, it didn’t sound this good before.
It was not even a close comparison, technically.
So where does this leave the SR-30 electret? Despite the technical inferiorities, the electret is no slouch. It may not be as fast as pure electrostatics, but it is still faster than a lot of dynamics. And considering the price that you can get them at (probably less than a $100 for used unit), the price to performance ratio is quite good (Assuming you already have a speaker amp to drive the SRD-4 with). And even being technically less competent than the Lambdas, it has a warmer and fuller bodied sound that works better for a lot of music.
Where the Lambda often sounds thin and can easily emphasize sibilance that’s present in the recording, the SR-34 electret is much more forgiving. As a matter of fact, I really couldn’t enjoy the Lambda when we used the Ipod as the source. I also doubt that a laptop soundcard can do any better in this case. The Lambda, due to its technical superiority, is much more sensitive to source quality, and so you might be forced to upgrade your current source. With the Ipod, for instance, we heard weird artifacts that I don’t even know how to describe it. Passages often sound recessed and unnatural. It was an ugly phenomenon. The SR-202 that we reviewed a while ago also didn’t work very well with mediocre source. With these Lambda family headphones, a good source is a necessity, otherwise the music becomes dry and uninvolving.
The Lambda happily accepts source upgrades. And the Lambda becomes very beautiful sounding, once we changed to the Dr. DAC Prime. Connected to the Powerbook via USB, playing ALAC files from iTunes, the Lambda becomes much more alive and less sterile. Of course the Lambda still showcases the quality of the recording very well, and a good DAC wouldn’t hide deficiencies in the recording. But when we play some good recordings, the Lambda becomes very musical and beautiful. Out of a great recording, the Lambda didn’t sound thin or cold at all. It was very musically involving, while at the same time showing a superior technical performance. It was really a joy to listen to.
At the end of the day, I never hoped that the electret design can ever compete with the Lambda line. However, people have been avoiding these electrets because they are unfamiliar with them, and people rarely talk about them. I guess that we can now start to explore these electrets further, as they definitely proved to be a fun and a much more affordable entry to the world of Electrostatics. They are also less demanding in terms of source and recording quality. Since most mainstream music are poorly recorded, the SR-34 would be an easier headphone to enjoy to than the SR-Lambda.
System for auditioning:
Headphones: Stax SR-30, SR-Lambda
Amplifier: SRD-4, SRD-7, Adcom GFA 5802
Source: Ipod Classic, ESI Dr. DAC Prime.