For several months I have been looking for a ~$300-$500 headphone I could call my endgame. This hobby has been digging into my pockets more than I want, especially considering I have hundreds of dollars worth of CDs than I want to collect as well.
With the Porta Pros, I was surprised how satisfied I was with the sound of something I only paid $20 for. More so than my ATH-M40x and ATH-AD900x. As much I would want to pretend to be a snobby audiophile who can’t listen to anything less than “Hi-Fi,” my ears are not very picky. I also gave the other Koss 60 ohm on-ears a listen (kept the KTXPRO1 as well) and concluded what I want from most from an endgame headphone is not necessarily “better” sound, but “different” sound.
That brought me to the ESP/95X. There are a lot of great headphones at this price point, maybe even better, but this Koss is the only ready-to-go electrostat under $1K new. And different it is.
Below are my sort-of stream-of-consciousness impressions on the device. I had a hard time writing organized impressions for this, but I hope this is enough to give a sense of how much I like these headphones. If you are even slightly interested in electrostats, the 95X is absolutely worth the money.
Tonality is nothing special. It’s mid-centric. Even so, the relationship between mids and bass/treble is not emphasized/recessed. It’s more like core and supplement, primary and secondary. In otherwords, the bass and treble still are very adequate and are not overpowered by the mids. The sound signature overall feels natural to me. From the very first second, I found it quite agreeable even though my ears were heavily acclimated to the Porta Pro’s warm signature.
The real uniqueness of the headphones has to do with everything else.
Detail retrieval and resolution is phenomenal. An analogy: My Porta Pro is like looking at a photograph of a statue. The post-processing is excellent and the photo is overall lovely, but you can’t see the fine texture and shine off of the marble. My ATH-AD900x is more kin to seeing it in real life – but there is fence surrounding the statue so you can’t get closer. You still get a pretty close view and can see the rough patches, the cracks, and all those subtleties in the statue. The ESP/95X is to not only be able to look at the statue as closely as you want, but also feel it with your hands. Brushing your hand across the statue, you can feel every small bump and recess in the otherwise smooth marble. The limit is your own perception.
There was so much new to unpack in music I was familiar with – a tone I thought was flat actually has a little bit of vibrato, a page flip in the middle of a rather loud section for full orchestra, etc.
As someone who used to play violin, the amount of information I was able to piece out from timbre alone really blew my mind – unlike with other headphones, I was able to discern the difference between notes of the same pitch played on the A string versus the E string. I could hear the bow bounce on the string. I could hear the difference between a slurred sequence and a non-slurred one. In one song, I realized the instrument I thought was a violin with very warm strings was actually a viola from timbre alone. I was able to confirm this by the fact the player played E3, a note too low for violins. Maybe I subconsciously processed these things with other headphones, but with the 95X I was able to consciously pin-point each of these subtle details.
Transient response, the “speed” of the headphones, is also ridiculous. Percussive sounds like cymbals and snares are so unbelievably crisp and energetic while bass drums and toms are super tight and controlled. Drum rolls are not a vibrations but full strikes. I thought the AD900x had tight bass, but the 95X is even more accurate AND intense. The 95X is such a perfect match for speedcore. Things in excess of 1000bpm come out with such unbelievable clarity and tightness that my other headphones cannot reproduce.
Separation is excellent as well. Even in poor mixes where voices are not well balanced, it’s easy to pick out the recessed timbre. Even in complex pieces with dozens of voices, each and every one can be tracked.
I often catch myself critically listening to microdetail even when I don’t mean to. Heck I did just now while writing this. There is just such clarity that it feels impossible to truly appreciate these headphones without giving the music all my focus. Every evening since I first used this a week ago, I took them off thoroughly impressed with the experience.
There are several large flaws to the 95X. Dealbreakers for some people.
Though the bass is accurate sonically, it lacks a lot of impact. Loud bass such as the tubas or cannons in 1812 sound flat because these drivers just cannot do strong bass like a dynamic can. Bass drums don’t have a “physical” kick to them. Contrabass in jazz does not produce the kind of warm vibrations you can feel as much as you hear. At worst, these headphones feel very clinical and uncolored due to impressive technical ability contrasted by a lack of “feel.” Sometimes the sound feels ephemeral and thin due to the lack of a full-bodied bass, but it isn’t necessarily a bad thing. This slightly “ghostly” presentation is fitting for how agile and light the technical aspects of the sound are. Personally, I find this quirk due to the electrostatic design to be alright since the sonic quality is so good. Stuff like hardcore is still very listenable and energetic despite not having bass thump – most of the energy comes from how well the mids and treble shine.
The build is also pretty cheap for something priced at $500 (let alone $1000 for the ESP950) but is no means bad. All the materials feel “budget” like those on the cheaper Koss, but fit and finish is very good. Comfort is also quite good – Large cups, velour pads, a well-padded headband, and light weight all allow this to be an all-day sort of headphone. Worst part about the build is that the foam protection behind the pads are really noisy. They crinkle a lot when your ears brush against them (they will unfortunately unless you have very flat ears), but it hasn’t been too bothersome really.
People complain about the dual volume knob (sorry, “acoustic level” dials), but I don’t mind it at all. There are indents to judge knob positions relative to the other, and turning both up or down is as simple as gripping both with one hand. My left and right are well balanced, but I turned up the left slightly because my left ear is worse than my right.
The largest flaw is how noisy the headphones are, specifically the drivers. No real dust protection and very, very Koss-quality build can mean a lot buzzing and squealing in one or both drivers if you’re unlucky. My left driver is a bit troublesome with intermittent noises. It’s very quiet and masked by audio playback, but it’s quite annoying in silence. Below I recorded about one week’s worth of issues. I really envy those who have perfect drivers, but at the same time I feel my issues are not worth claiming warranty over just yet. Honestly frustrating, and does ruin an otherwise sublime headphones.
Day 1: Slight squealing in the left after a long listening session. Inaudible with music.
Day 2: Squealing still there. Intensity and timbre change and noise sometimes disappears completely.
Day 3: Complete silence.
Day 4: Started up silent. No squealing anymore in the left, but an intermittent buzzing/ticking/croaking sound developed within 10 minutes. A bit louder than the squealing but less frequent. Tapping the side of the headphone makes it go away for a couple seconds.
Day 5: Buzzing became more persistent. Took off the pad and blew some air. Nothing changed for 10 minutes, but then the issue resolved spontaneously. Silence again. :/
Day 6: No use because I was too busy.
Day 7: Dead silent for the first two hours, then some very slight croaking and buzzing. Went away after a couple minutes.
Day 8: Quiet on startup. Slight croaking a minute in but much quieter than other days. Crazy idea, but maybe it actually is due to the foam under the pads pressing against the driver. My left ear does press against the foam than the right. If I give some time off my head the sound seems to get a bit better. Oh well.
I highly recommend this product, but only if you 100% know what you're getting yourself into. These headphones are quite quirky, so it will do you well to research the cons specifically.
I have contacted Drop a week ago and have gotten a full refund. I repurchased the 95X and this update for now will be day 1. No visible marking, scuffing, chipped decals like my previous unit. The new unit has "perfect" channel balance out of the box. It seem my old unit actually had a slightly weaker left, because I had to turn up the left channel a couple degrees to center. There was some squealing in the right driver shortly after startup, but no noise issues for the next 3 hours.
If more issues arise, I will continue to update. I honestly expect occasional whining and buzzing, but as long as it's not constant like my previous unit, I will not be returning this unit provided it continues to play audio faithfully. I missed it for the short week I didn't have a 95X.
Nearing 3 months with my ESP/95X and aside from very rare squealing that goes away with a gentle tap, no major issues. Still sounds as great as day one with no channel imbalances. The lack of proper dust covers is a valid point of concern, but even in my not-so-dust-free room, I have not had any problems.
Would recommend to a friend.