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Positive Feedback ISSUE 70
The Kingsound Electrostatic Headphones and Tube Amp:
Can These Be Real?
"Pleased to meet you
—"Sympathy for the Devil" by Jagger/Richards
It all started when I attended the 2013 California Audio Show. I got there late on Sunday and didn't realize that many exhibitors were already packing up to leave. Although I missed Jack Woo himself, I did get to hear "Take Five" playing from a MacBook Air (or MacBook Pro) into a Woo Audio WDS-1 24/192 DAC into a Woo WES (their big electrostatic headphone amplifier) driving what I'm 98% sure was a pair of Stax SR-007 MK2 headphones. There's no doubt it sounded glorious; but it did have a kind of electrostatic buzz, or some kind of sound that I've always associated with Stax headphones. Although I could get past that, part of the reason I've almost always owned dynamic (or planar-magnetic) headphones is because of that buzz and part of why I regard my Woo WA6-SE headphone amplifier (with upgraded tubes and tube adapters) plus my unmodified Fostex TH-900s as my personal reference standard in headphones.
Sooner or later, I plan to have Drew Baird at Moon Audio upgrade my TH-900s using his Silver Dragon headphone cable, something that leads nicely into the fact that I got to meet Drew as he was packing away most of his equipment, including some new electrostatic headphones by a company called Kingsound. I waited for several months while Drew was making the audio show circuit until he had a break and could loan me these new electrostatic headphones along with the matching tube headphone amplifier that drives them (Kingsound also makes a less expensive solid state amplifier) outfitted with all Gold Lion tubes. I have to admit, it took me several weeks to open the box and set everything up right where my WA6-SE normally sits because of some personal stuff that I had to manage. At first, I only got to listen to Internet radio through them, although it was very good Internet radio, specifically BBC Radio 3 playing through my Magnum Dynalab MD-807T Internet tuner hardwired into my Apple Airport Extreme.
The first thing I noticed was that the Kingsound electrostatic headphones didn't have that buzzing quality that I've always heard from the Stax, a very pleasant surprise. A friend of mine gave me a CD, specifically Philip Glass's Violin Concerto No. 2, The American Four Seasons, performed by Robert McDuffie and Marin Alsop conducting the London Philharmonic Orchestra. I decided to play it through my Audio Note CD 3.1x/II (acting as a transport) via my Audio Pallas digital cable into my very high-end Audio Note CD 4.1x Balanced Signature DAC, all driving the Kingsound KS-H1 headphones via the Kingsound M-20 tube headphone amplifier. Now the funny thing is that the headphones only cost $625 and the amplifier only costs $1800 (with the Gold Lion tubes adding $325 for seven tubes in all); however, Moon Audio (i.e., Drew) is selling the headphones and solid-state amplifier (which I have never heard) for $1000 as a package, and the headphones with the tube amplifier (without the Gold Lion tubes) for $2000 as a package. As it used to say in the Ikea catalogs, "Incredible price!"
Getting back to the music, though, the Philip Glass CD sounded really fantastic, with a very natural tonal balance to it, a wide open soundstage, and just an airy quality that really (almost) made me think I was listening to loudspeakers. The bass and treble were both extended and detailed, and there was a natural sense of harmonics to the sound. The solo violin sounded enticing, but massed strings also sounded like they do in real life, both separate and grouped at the same time. It's true that the Kingsound pair can't match the aesthetic beauty of the Woo WES and Stax SR-007 MK2 headphones; and, perhaps, the Woo/Stax combination has just a tad more detail and a slightly more emphatic bass, but for a lot more money and also with that buzzing quality I keep describing. Moving along to another CD, I loaded La notee by Ketil Bjørnstad, a kind of progressive jazz piece on the ECM label,into the same CD-playing setup; and it sounded smooth as silk. Perhaps, and I hesitate to use single malt Scotch analogies, but if the WES/Stax combination is a very hearty Laphroaig or Lagavulin, the Kingsound pair with the Gold Lion tubes is a very old Macallan. Put another way, if the Woo/Stax combination has greater earthiness at the expense of a slightly rough edge, the Kingsound has a more seductive, aged-in-sherry-oak-for-25-years sound.
Returning to my speakers in a break from wearing headphones, I can say without hesitation that—in sprit if not in fact—the Kingsound came closer to my Audio Note SEC/Silvers (with hemp woofers, silver-wired tweeters, and Murata super tweeters driven by my Audio Note Oto Phono Signature through both Kondo Sounds Labs and Audio Note silver cabling) than most of the dynamic headphones that I have. The speakers might have more depth and liveliness, and definitely more bass and a slightly more sparking treble, than the Kingsound pair; but it was surprisingly close again (or perhaps I should noting that) the speakers alone are gobs more expensive than the Kingsound pair, even taking into account the $325 in Gold Lion tubes. Next, I did a reverse switch, listening to a bit of the John Abercrombie Quartet's 39 Steps on the loudspeakers, and then switching back to the Kingsound electrostatics. I have to say that while the Kingsounds might have sounded a bit muted in comparison to this very high-end pair of speakers, they still captured the essence of the music quite admirably and, of course, percussive sounds like piano notes and cymbals had quite lovely attack and decay because, well, the Kingsounds are real electrostatics, so the diaphragm moves very quickly. I don't mean to sound like I'm slamming the Woo WES/Stax SR-007 MK2 combination because I only listened to it for ten minutes with a source player that was almost certainly not as good as my all Audio Note CD-playing system; however, I'm still really impressed with what the Kingsounds can do for $2325 if you include the cost of the Gold Lion tubes.
Now it was time for the acid test. I really had to play some vinyl through these luscious electrostatics to get a sense of how they performed. So I first choose the 45RPM Analogue Productions' reissue of We Get Requests by the Oscar Peterson Trio, a recommendation of Nate's at Acoustic Sounds and an album that I really like a lot. Again, there was a slightly muted quality compared to my speakers and compared to what I imagine the WES/Stax combination could do, but the sound was still very lush with a nice warm glow and that Sherry-oak finish that I described before. Listening to this album was very enjoyable and although I imagine that my Woo WA6-SE/Fostex TH-900 combination might have had slightly more detailed bass and slightly more extended treble, the Kingsounds really got it right with ample spaciousness and extension of the soundstage, not to mention placement of the instruments, in a way that I think only electrostatics can do. Next up was my original Decca pressing of Beggars Banquet by The Rolling Stones. Paradoxically, while there might have been a slight veil to the sound, and I mean just a slight one, I could hear every detail quite clearly without overemphasis, from the bongo drums to the bass guitar to Mick's voice to Keith Richard's electric guitar solos. It all came together quite nicely as a group while still rendering the individual parts quite clearly, kind of a perfect ensemble; and I have to say the acoustic guitars in "No Expectations" have never sound so right to me.
So that's about it. Could there be a more perfect headphone and amp combination out there, from electrostatic to planar-magnetic to moving-coil from tubes to solid-state, balanced or unbalanced (and the Kingsounds are exclusively unbalanced)? Well, yes, I guess so; but, man, for $2000 not including any tube substitutions you might want, it would be really hard to go wrong with the Kingsound KS-H1 / M-20 combination. Like I said, I don't think the pair is going to win any beauty awards, nor are they particularly unattractive. It's kind of like asking, "When is Audio Note going to make a remote-controlled amplifier?" The issue is really irrelevant because, in the end, it's all about the sound. So if you want the detail of electrostatic headphones, with a more laid-back personality than the average high-resolution piece of equipment, and you don't want to have to give up the down payment on your next car to get that, I say go with the Kingsounds. It would be really hard to go wrong.