The Stereo Pravda SB-7 Headphones
What do in ear monitor (IEM) phones lack? Big bass and dynamics. Am I right?
Much like the music of Dmitri Shostakovich, the Stereo Pravda SB-7 in ear monitors are bold, dynamic and almost scary – offering bass, dynamics and coherance I’ve always found lacking with other IEM’s. Listening to Stereo Pravda’s founder Misha Kucherenko’s personal portable headphone DAC/Amp at this years Rocky Mountain Audio Fest, it is clear this man has raised the bar for IEM design.
It doesn’t come cheap, a pair of SB-7s will set you back $2,500. Then again, a new Ferrari 488 will set you back about $275,000, if you can find one. And if you want the experience, you pay the money. Sure you can have a Porsche 911 for less than half the price, but it’s not a 488. And so it goes.
I’ve heard a lot of disappointing headphones near this price point, so let’s cut to the chase; the SB-7s are more than worth the asking price. They are a bespoke product, and they deliver a sonic experience you won’t find elsewhere. At any price. These mighty marvels have no less than seven Balanced Armature Drivers per channel. (And you thought phono cartridges were complex!) Kucherenko has also sourced a custom cable from cable guru Chris Sommovigo’s Stereolab atelier to round out the package.
The key to achieving sonic excellence is to thoroughly read the instructions enclosed with the SB-7s. It describes in-depth just how you go about inserting these into your ear canals so they fit perfectly. This is the key to getting the bass and imaging that these phones produce. If you don’t read the directions, think you know better, or just go about your business, I guarantee you will be disappointed in the sound, and this is your fault. However, get a pair of incredibly strong reading glasses, as the type on the tiny instruction sheet is about 2 point. For the rest of you, the instructions, complete with pictures describing the process is on their website. Again, follow this to the letter if you want to be rewarded.
Ok, you’ve followed the instructions, the SB-7s are snugly in your ear and your ready to rock. With a 1-meter cable, you will want to keep your headphone amplifier close by. An initial test with an iPhone 6 Plus and the big iPad proves ok, but not amazing. If you want the SB-7s to sing, invest in a good headphone amp. No, invest in a great one – the further you take your amplification, the more music they will reveal. The SB-7 will never be the weak link in your system.
Not wanting to feel the least bit limited, most of the listening for this review took place with the Pass HPA-1 headphone amplifier, driven by a dCS Rossini DAC/Clock for digital files and the Audio Research REF 3 Phono, with Brinkmann Bardo turntable and Koestu Jade cartridge for analog. Forget any preconceived notion of what you think an in ear monitor can sound like. Due to the relatively large enclosure of the SB-7, these aren’t ear buds for bopping around the house with a Swiffer, keeping the hardwood floors clean. These are serious headphones to immerse yourself in music with. Curl up on the couch, your favorite chair, or a big pile of pillows on the bed, close your eyes and ease to the sonic experience that the SB-7s provide.
Top to bottom good
Maybe Mr. Kucherenko has some cool piece of Russian military hardware that shrinks things – it feels like he’s stuffed a pair of Grande Utopias in my ears. Hmmmm. A few things present themselves instantly with these phones, confirming what I heard in the Stereo Pravda booth at RMAF, all even better than my initial impression.
Where most IEMs, even premium ones have a slightly to somewhat screechy top end, the SB-7s are smooth, yet highly resolving. Cymbals float through my head listening to a handful of Blue Note reissues with a sparkle that I’ve only heard via some of the world’s finest loudspeakers. The bottom end of the sonic spectrum is equally enticing, having used these in part, for the review of the remastered K&D Sessions. Bass is deep, defined and quick. Don’t move too fast to look around the room, because you’ll upset that delicate ear seal. No matter what the first bass heavy track you pick to audition the SB-7s, you will stay in that groove for a while, wondering how these tiny IEM’s generate all that bottom end. Shrink machine, I’m telling you.
Most headphones do an acceptable job at assembling a cohearant musical presentation inside your head because most headphones only have a single driver inside the cup. The way these seven drivers per integrate is phenomenal. Their ability to homogenize complicated recordings without losing nuance is phenomenal. A long set of Joni Mitchell, Ella Fitzgerald and Chrissie Hynde all achieve the same effect. The three dimensional effect presented is not overblown, as it can so often be with over the ear phones, lending an overemphasized ping pong effect. This often triggers listener fatigue, but with the SB-7s you just settle into a groove and forget they are on, until you get up, that is.
Beyond the excitements at both ends of the frequency spectrum is a most enticing midrange. Heading back to Joni Mitchell and Ella Fitzgerald, along with a 45rpm pressing of Anne Bisson’s Blue Mood, the level of texure and nuance delivered is magnetic, drawing you in to the performance like a pair of Lowthers and a great SET does. The consistency is so smooth and gentle, it’s as if you can hear all the way around the woman singing at the microphone.
Add these virtues up and the SB-7s are a natural for acoustic music as well. Hours of Keith Jarrett tracks pass by, and I remain amazed at the sheer level of tonal purity I’m hearing through headphones, much less IEM’s. No matter what the program material, the SB-7s get out of the way and let you concentrate on the music being showcased.
The only danger with these phones is that of playing them too loud for too long. If you have a high quality headphone amplifier, it will be easy to turn the volume up too loud, so that’s the TONEAudio public service announcement. Thanks to major dynamic range, I had to be careful with some of my favorite metal tracks. These are the first IEM’s I’ve auditioned that are up to the tasks of playing Slayer, loud. But remember, I’ve warned you.
Music becomes an excursion through the SB-7s, once you get used to how much they can achieve, they will either become a serious threat to productivity or one of your guiltiest of pleasures. If you spend a lot of time on an airplane (as Mr. Kucherenko does) these will make the time disappear. Reading through the Stereo Pravda website, they talk about being part of a new direction in hifi. I’d say they are at the forefront leading us. Even if you are not an advanced headphone enthusiast yet, I highly suggest giving these a listen at the next Can Jam or Head Fi event near you. I suspect you’ll be rearranging your short term priorities to get a pair.
Headphone Amplifier Pass Labs HPA-1, Oppo HA-1
Digital Source dCS Rossini DAC/Clock
Analog Source Audio Research REF Phono 3, Brinkmann Bardo, Koestu Jade Platinum
Interconnects Tellurium Q Black Diamond
Power Cords Cardas Clear
Power Torus Tot