ESLabs ES-1A

This is the ES Lab ES1a that’s going around /r/headphonelibrary, so huge thanks to /u/Mshenay and Tshiknn for helping organize this! I’ve been interested in trying this to replace my SR-007A and I have a lot of thinking to do. I’m very, very critical of headphones and there are very few that I actually can tolerate and while I think the ES-1a will be problematic for many people, I really, really like these for those specific reasons. 

This headphone is on sale right now for a little over $1,800 USD and the build quality leaves a bit to be desired, especially next to the SR-007A. The SR-007 (a blanket term for the original SR-007, the SR-007A, and the SR-007MK2) is one of my favorite headphone designs because it not only looks nice, it *feels* nice. At $2,100 new, SR-007 is a ridiculously expensive headphone, but it’s built fantastically. It’s made mostly of metal and wraps its suspension bands with a pleather material to set it apart from many other suspension rodded headphones. The ES-1a, on the other hand, also has metal cups and gimbals, but the headband appears to be an homage to the original Stax Omega’s plastic headband. The SR-009 went in a similar direction, and I think it cheapens its look versus the less expensive SR-007. The tour pair has both black metal cup rings and wood rings. I swapped the wood rings onto the headphone because it makes it look like less of a Stax Omega clone and more of its own unique thing. My biggest complaint about the ES-1a’s build though is its lack of strain relief coming from its cups. I don’t mind re-cabling a dynamic or a planar headphone—those have pretty basic cables and usually have pretty sturdy drivers. I feel much less comfortable opening this headphone because, frankly, I have no idea how sturdy this driver is. For its normal price of 15,900HKD (about $2,050 USD as of this review), I don’t want to worry about failure points in a headphone if I can’t cheaply fix it—this is one of the main reasons I haven’t bought a Utopia. I do like the pad mount though. It’s probably the least annoying pad mount I’ve ever used because it just slips in.

But build aside, it’s a very interesting sounding headphone. It’s the closest I’ve heard to a stat that combines the more forward, stereotypical Lambda (pre-L-series) midrange with the SR-007’s dipped upper midrange. I like my SR-007’s more subdued sound for the current working from home scenario because they pass the threshold of what I’d deem nice enough for most music to use for hours at a time while also sounding pretty soft and tame. The ES-1a goes in the opposite direction. It’s much more elevated around 1kHz than the SR-007, so most vocals and instruments are very forward in presentation. It kind of reminds me of the Focal Utopia and Aurorus Audio Borealis. It’s fun.

First off, I want to talk about what I think makes the ES-1a stick out among every other headphone I’ve heard. I’ve used plenty of electrostatic headphones (Stax Lambda NB, Stax Lambda Nova Basic, Stax Lambda Nova Classic, Stax Lambda Professional, Stax SR-202, Stax SR-207, Airbow SC-1, Stax SR-4070, Stax SR-007 MKI, Stax SR-007A, Stax SR-009, Stax SR-009S, Koss ESP950, Hifiman Jade 2, Hifiman Shangri-La Jr., Hifiman Shangri-La Sr.) and they mostly shared a similar “soft, ethereal” bass presentation where the note is heard and decays too quickly with little sense of impact. The only electrostat that I felt had anything close to visceral bass attack was the Shangri-La Jr. The ES-1a, however, has more of that visceral attack I like in a headphone than any other electrostatic headphone I’ve heard. That’s not to say they elevate bass, though. The bass quantity isn’t noticeably higher than front volume-sealed headphones, it just has a stronger attack. 

This leads to a confusing presentation though, because, like most electrostats, decay is fast—much faster than most dynamic and even most planar headphones. This leads to an initial hit with a strong impact, but its sustain seems just a little too short. Normally, this is just an annoying quibble that I find with electrostats, but I noticed something else with the ES-1a—notes, especially timpani and steel-string acoustic guitar notes, have a strong attack with individual notes. They then separate these notes into these discrete millisecond moments in time, where it’s as if you can feel the air around the instrument in the stage. But you get a sensation of whiplash because you hear each individual attack in its space clearly, but you’re waiting for a sustain and decay that don’t come, it’s just replaced with air and dead space—you mentally try to fill in the gap but then you’re hit with another strong attack, and so on. It takes getting used to because I don’t know if I love it or if I hate it. I’ve been trying to word this in a way that isn’t pretentious “audiophool garbage.”  This review coincided with my significant other, who has basically no experience with headphones outside her wireless Bose headphones, wanting to try all my headphones. I figured I’d see if she’d be able to help me simplify what I was hearing so I had her listen to “Holocene” by Bon Iver, which is a very fun, ethereal-sounding song, just to get her used to the ES-1a. Then, I played “Last Nite” by The Strokes for her. Her face scrunched, and she commented, 

>“This is weird; why are the notes so separated and distinct? I don’t know if I like this.” 

She noted that my SR-007A didn’t sound nearly as weird and separated but also sounded softened in terms of impact, which I think is a good sign that I’m probably not alone in this. I remember the SR-009 had this “too separated, too fast” sensation, but what makes the ES-1a so memorable to me is that it combines a strong attack with this sensation. 

While ES-1a’s presentation is odd, its midrange is what I believe will be its most polarizing aspect. It’s forward. Like, way more forward that I think most people will tolerate. I want to believe there’s an elevation of at least 3-4dB between 950Hz and 2kHz. It’s very, “in your face,” like the Lambdas I’ve heard. But past 2kHz, the upper midrange dips. But since it’s not dipped as radically as my SR-007A or HD800, it’s not particularly disjointed. It’s noticeable, but even as someone who’s a big fan of the HD600’s midrange, I’m not too bothered. I’m more bothered by the timbre, which kind of reminds me of a Grado. It’s forward and harsh, with an emphasis on hyping the fundamental tone, and downplaying the harmonics. It’s not as jarring of a midrange presentation as the SR-009 sounded to me, but I could not imagine a world where I’d describe this as “natural.”

The ES-1a’s treble is mildly problematic for me. I hear a narrow canyon a little above 5kHz that can make some music sound disjointed. Past that, the low treble is at an acceptable level at around a dB or two elevated relative to its flat low midrange, but not anything I’d ever consider harsh, especially considering I’m used to my HD800’s low treble. The mid-treble, however, gets somewhat fatiguing for me and the upper treble is airy, like most electrostatic headphones. I hear maybe the slightest bit of grain in the low treble, especially compared to my SR-007, but it’s nothing too destructive to the listening experience. 

Normally, I don’t pay attention to soundstage in a headphone because I think even the HD800 sounds pretty small in an absolute sense. But the ES-1a’s presentation does something interesting with the staging. For a headphone, it sounds pretty expansive, which is augmented by the presentation I noted earlier. It’s easy instruments across the sound field, and the exaggerated sense of air and attack gives a unique body to instruments. It’s not as “ghostly” as I hear other electrostats sounding. Rather, it combines some of what I like about a good dynamic headphone with the “too fast” decay. I don’t know if I like it for general listening, but it’s cool for when I’m in the mood for it. It vaguely reminds me of speaker imaging and placement, but without the sheer size. 

Overall, I really like the ES-1a for what it is. It’s a unique experience that I didn’t even know I wanted, but for the first time in a long time, I’m excited about a headphone. While it has quite a few tonal issues, the overall package led to something I picked up often over the course of the two weeks I had it. I’ve given up on the fruitless task of finding a single headphone that fits every need or sounds anything close to how I perceive as neutral, so now I’m looking for headphones that fit niches and moods. The ES-1a is a very expensive flavor headphone, and from a semi-rational standpoint, I feel weird about paying any amount of money for a headphone that would get me a much nicer pair of speakers than what I have now, but I still think about them. I can’t blindly recommend them to anyone because they, frankly, sound harsh enough in terms of FR that I could see many people being put off by it, but if you get a chance to hear them, I’d recommend it. This isn’t a headphone that sounds “right,” but I sure as hell think it sounds interesting.

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