I’ve dabbled in Electrostatic headphones a bit, and demoed a variety of different headphones, including options from Stax, HIFIMAN, Warwick acoustics, and things like T&A’s selection of hybrid Planar Magnetostatics. While modest high-end planar headphones like the HIFIMAN HE1000 are able to instantly engage me in the music, in the past, electrostatics costing thousands more have failed to pull me in.
While there are a number of things that electrostats do at a level far beyond any dynamic or planar headphone, there are some ways they seem to fall short. In addition to the engagement factor the bass was always a big problem. If an electrostatic setup had bass to speak of, that bass was always a bit mushy or poorly controlled. Can the HeadAmp Blue Hawaii SE change my mind and deliver an electrostatic performance that redefines my expectations?
Build and Design
There’s quite a bit to unpack in the Blue Hawaii box. The big pieces are the amp itself and the power supply, but you’ll also have the tubes, umbilical cord (the cable that connects the power supply to the amp), standard power cable, and various options for the feet. Blue Hawaii uses EL34 power tubes, and comes with four Mullard tubes in the box, but you can select your own tubes to provide subtle changes to the sound signature. As far as the feet, Blue Hawaii has with pointy ones designed for vibration isolating racks installed out of the box, but you can swap them for more desk friendly rubber feet that are also supplied, or use the provided stoppers to rest it on your desk without poking holes in everything.
Blue Hawaii itself is absolutely incredible to look at and handle. The metal chassis and faceplate is clearly of the highest quality, and from the screws to the jacks and knobs and switches, every aspect of Blue Hawaii represents strong workmanship and design. Of course, it’s also very large and will probably necessitate special considerations for your setup. On its own, it will take over all but the largest of desks, you’ll have plenty of other concerns between the unit itself, DAC, streamer, cabling, and whatever other hardware you need.
The inputs, outputs, and controls are all pretty simple. On the back you have two RCA and one XLR analog input, along with an XLR and an RCA loop out. On the front you have two standard Stax style headphone outputs. For controls, you just get to select your input, and control your volume.
Under the hood you have a lot of power. The peak output is listed at 1600V, which is not quite enough to kill a bear if improperly applied, but definitely enough to make a bear think twice before he messes with your headphones again. Practically speaking, this means you can drive virtually any electrostatic headphone out there, and get it as loud as you need.
Thinking about the big pieces of a truly “endgame” sound – as it relates to headphone performance – there were four major differentiators I could come up with at the top end of audio:
- The ability to clearly hear details – big and small
- The ability to precisely place each instrument and voice in a position in an imagined space
- The perception that the music is “real” – being played in front of you right now
- The feeling of emotion being communicated and engaged through the music
Often these aspects exist in tension, with different setups excelling at one aspect while coming up short in another. With Blue Hawaii and a set of headphones like the Stax SR-X9000, there’s no tension – no give and take – just detail, precision, emotion, and a lifelike presentation all in perfect balance.
HeadAmp’s flagship overcame my perceived shortcomings of the electrostatic driver, revealing every detail with a vivid sound across the full spectrum. While each headphone technology has its own advantages and disadvantages, for a musician, guitar player, and lover of all things rock, alternative, and metal, I have never heard an electrostatic headphone produce a sound as “complete” as they do with Blue Hawaii.
The bass was deep and well extended – though the very bottom end of the bass extension was probably the only weak point. It’s also very tight, and textured, with clarity and accuracy in the low end overcoming any feeling that you could really use a little more bass under 30Hz. Midrange is clear, detailed, and lifelike, opening your ears to the smallest details. And the treble extends brilliantly, giving air, sparkle, and an unsurpassed sense of resolution – and doing it without fatigue.
Sound Impressions: Dan Clark Voce, Audeze CRBN, Stax SR-X9000
Of course, I wasn’t able to come up with those impressions by simply holding my ear up to the side of the amp: we used a variety of headphones to gather our impressions and compare and contrast how it performed with different combinations. Namely, we had the Dan Clark Voce and Stax SR-X9000 (graciously provided by HeadAmp) as well as the Audeze CRBN.
Voce was the headphone that performed closest to my initial expectations, but it was still a big step above what I had experienced before in electrostatic headphones, particularly in the sense of realism and weight to the sound. Voce gives you stunning vocal performances and a richly layered midrange, along with a slightly smoother treble performance than other electrostats. The bass feels largely accurate, it comes in just short of providing that sort of support you get from a planar magnetic headphone. In terms of the stereo image, the soundstage is wide and three-dimensional, and the imaging really gave me that weight I was craving, making the first step to breaking my expectations for electrostatic sounds.
While Voce challenged my expectations the feeling of weight in the stereo image, CRBN accomplished it in the bass. CRBN with Blue Hawaii really brought the low end alive, and passed all but the most strenuous tests of bass performance, proving the sort of lifelike bass that was perfect for most rock, jazz, and classic hip-hop. Overall CRBN delivered a sense of weight to the sound that evoked Audeze’s planar magnetic headphones while also delivering the resolution and speed you expect from electrostats.
What really brought it all together was the Stax SR-X9000. Without a HIFIMAN Susvara and EF1000 here to compare, I’m not confident that I’ve ever heard anything better than the SR-X9000 paired with the Blue Hawaii. Everything I mentioned above – the level of detail, to the imaging qualities, the realism, the resolution, and the sense of emotional engagement – is all there, for an absolutely transcendent musical experience.
The Bottom Line
I had thought that electrostatic headphones were just not for me – they were for highly detail oriented listeners who prefered classical music, and only cared about precision and resolution, not bass or fun or any of that other stuff. Blue Hawaii proved me wrong – and wrong by a country mile. If you’re looking for something to really blow you away, and haven’t heard a genuinely world class electrostatic setup, Blue Hawaii might just give you some of the most incredible sonic performance you’ve ever heard in your life.