Headphone Arts

Decware Zen Head headphone amplifier and Phiaton MS400 headphones

Decware, Decware.  Aren’t those the guys who make the Zen tube triode SET amplifiers?  Yes, they are.  But what are they doing creating something like this slick little package?  According to chief designer Steve Deckert, they wanted to make a great-sounding small headphone amplifier that had the same kind of voicing as their tube amps.  Sounds hard to believe that you could do that for a mere $350 (factory-direct price) and offer a lifetime warranty to the original owner.

It may be innocuous-looking, but there’s a lot lurking within the shielded and machined aluminum chassis that makes this little box sing. The latest Burr Brown op amps are employed along with polypropylene caps, precision resistors, high-quality switches and a very linear audiophile-grade precision volume pot. What’s more, the amp is powered by a single nine-volt battery contained within a damped enclosure for super-quiet operation. The battery will provide up to 50 hours of listening.  That’s a lot of goodness packed into a pocket-size wonder.

Operation couldn’t be simpler.  The front-panel layout is really simple with the source input on the left and headphone output on the right flanking the volume pot, a green led power indicator and on/off switch.

There are user-adjustable switches on the circuit board, one for normal/high gain operation and one for cross-feed on/off.  I left the gain setting at normal and the Cross-feed on. With Cross-feed engaged, I heard a more-stable presentation throughout my listening sessions.

Listening to music on headphones creates an issue: headphones are directional all the way down to the bass frequencies due to their direct coupling into the hearing canal. Therefore, the listening experience is different fromwhat was originally intended and what the user is accustomed to hearing with loudspeakers, which become less directional as you go down in frequency. Cross-feed sends a little bit of left-channel information to the right channel and a little bit of right-channel information to the left channel.

So how did it perform?  Wonderfully, to say the least.  As a source, I used an iPod Classic with either lossless files or full wav files.  I also used the supplied 12-inch,  3.5mm patch cord to connect the iPod to the Zen Head.  In keeping with everything being compact, I first tried a pair of Shure SE310 in-ear headphones for my evaluation.  Wow, for those accustomed to ear buds being directly driven by compact music devices, the quality of sound coming from the Zen will be a total revelation.  There is absolutely no glare or strained quality to the sound, bass is extremely detailed and powerful, and the “image” in your head is just right, not exaggerated or out of proportion.  Most importantly, the treble quality was really sweet and almost tube-like in presentation, which is not surprising if you consider the whole aim of this product.

Whether I listened to a jazz trio, a rock group or a classical orchestra, the Zen provided excellent-quality music reproduction and never missed a beat. As the basis for a compact traveling system or as the centerpiece for late-night musical entertainment, the Zen Head is all gain and no pain.

Upping the ante a bit, I next tried two different pairs of over-the-ear phones made by Phiaton. This is a relatively new name in the headphone universe, but you’ll be hearing a lot more from them in the future. Phiaton’s parent company, Cresyn, is an OEM manufacturer of headphone parts, speaker parts and various headsets for home and commercial use.

The first model I tried was the MS-400, which is probably the coolest-looking set of headphones ever made. Probably the most prominent feature of these phones is the rigid carbon fiber enclosures, which greatly reduces resonance. Couple that with the ear cushions and head-band cushion, which are really soft and comfortable and bright red in color, and you get an impressive high-tech twist on a rather familiar form. So impressive, in fact, that these won the prestigious International Design Award last year for their category. But do these design flourishes make for a product that is all show and no go?  Hardly; they sound as good as they look.

Handily, the connector is a two-piece affair that gives you the option of using either a 3.5 mm mini plug or a traditional quarter-inch phone plug.  I plugged the mini into the Zen Head and fired up the iPod.  Those not familiar with headphones of this quality will be immediately struck by an eerie absence –  an absence of shrieking treble, an absence of midrange distortion and an absence of bass bloat.  Instead, what you’ll find is a neutral and linear sonic presentation. No portion of the music is exaggerated at the expense of another.

This kind of presentation makes for extended and non-fatiguing listening sessions.  Add the fact that the MS 400s weigh only 6.5 ounces, and the listener can enjoy them for hours on end without any kind of strain.  In addition, the earpieces fold flat, making them more compact for storing or traveling purposes.

The MS 400s enabled me to hear once again the strength of the Zen Head. And unlike using the in-ear Shures, I could hear further into the recording and pick out small details that had been slightly masked before. On acoustic bass, the roundness and resonance that one expects are present and accounted for; male vocals are accurate and non-chesty; and you can hear the recording engineer’s small tricks and cues plain as day.  This is probably the result of the Cross-feed circuit doing its thing.

For another $50 ($299),  you can step up in the Phiaton line to the PS 500.

This model is part of the “Primal Series,” but the only primal aspect I could find here was the covering of the enclosures, which was a mock crocodile-skin finish. The driver diaphragms are the same 40mm size as the MS 400s, but they are in a larger enclosure which gets the listener 4 dB more sensitivity (102 vs. 98) and greater power-handling (2000mW vs. 1000mW).   In addition, they are coated in vaporized titanium, which makes them very light and very stiff.  The only downside to the PS 500 might be that it  weighs 2.6 ounces more than the MS 400. I honestly never noticed the additional weight during my evaluation process.

The sound of the PS 500 is at once more-detailed and more-refined than that of the MS 400. It was also more extended at both ends.  The detail does not come at the expense of irritation or annoying tizziness; there’s just more to hear in terms of the shimmer and decay of cymbals, the ringing of guitar strings and the overtones of a violin.  The midrange was more open, which was especially noticeable on live recordings of small jazz ensembles.  Finally, the bass dug deeper with more detail and punch.  Low-register slap bass sounded powerful and quick, and bass drum had a more detailed impact.

On a lark, I decided to try the PS 500 with a Musical Fidelity X-Can V8 tube headphone amplifier. What I heard was a more-open soundstage and more separation of instruments.  But it didn’t have the clarity of the Zen Head in the bass region.  Nor is it at all portable. The beauty of the Zen is that you can enjoy its attributes just about anywhere.

The Decware Zen Head and the Phiaton headphones are welcome new products for headphone lovers. The Zen Head’s portability and super high-quality sound put it in some (if you’ll excuse the pun) heady company, and the Phiaton products’ great sound, unique cosmetics and good build quality make them another great choice for satisfying private listening.  — Richard Colburn

Decware Zen Head headphone amplifier and Phiaton MS400 headphones