A complete system, humble of looks and with beautiful sound
So, I figure a couple of disclaimers will be necessary in order to contextualize my opinions on this set.
First off, this is my first venture into the “mid-fi” or “lower mid-fi” pricing tier, or whichever other term you might find more suited to represent the price points between the 200-500$. This means that, despite my tendency of obsessive reading before I spend money on these things, I might not be qualified to judge the sound of the Koss ESP-95x against its competition in the same price range, so I’m going to refrain from most statements around whether it’s “the best” purchase to be made in this area or not. I got them for 400$ on sale a month or so ago.
Secondly, this is also my first time listening to any driver that is not a dynamic one, so I also can’t judge the electrostatic sound against planar magnetics on any grounds apart from from what I’ve heard others state about the topic. I did consider one, the Hifiman Sundara, prior to purchasing these, but refrained from it due to reasons stated below.
Thirdly, I’m not the most seasoned listener in general, so if you want a truly detailed or technical description of the sound, I’m probably not your guy. Most of my reviews are mostly anecdotal in nature, and, if nothing else, I will at least remain transparent about that fact. Take this as a noob’s impression.
My audio adventures have led me, chronologically listed, from the humble world of gaming headsets, specifically the HyperX Cloud series, through the AKG 240’s, the Audio Technica m40x’s, the Takstar 82 Pro’s, the Sennheiser HD58x’s, and as portable supplements to the latter, the Koss KSC75’s and KPH30i’s. Probably not the wisest decision to just jump straight to electrostats from that selection, but my curiosity got to me, and the ESP-95x system did sound like a pretty insane deal to me.
So, for 500$, 450$ as they seem to be costing that now, or 400$, as I got them at, what do you get?
- A system that doesn’t require you to already own an amplifier.
This is actually a really good value proposition, especially for 400$, but it probably won’t mean much to a lot of the people who would be in the target audience of an electrostatic system in the first place, as most will probably already own other equipment in the same price range or above. Granted, this is also why I have an easier time accepting that the build quality is not stellar. Sure, it’s plastic, and the electrolyzer is weaker than most, but it’s a complete setup which, even with that disadvantage, is capable of sounding pretty damn great.
- A sound signature that isn’t completely dissimilar to the Sennheiser 600 series, with a prominent midrange, really nice treble, but not much power in the low end of the audio spectrum.
- The bottom of the top.
This is probably one of the cheapest electrostatic systems on the market, and while many have questioned its value especially against similarly or somewhat higher priced planar magnetics, they do deliver an interesting experience to someone listening to this kind of system for their first time. The drivers are downright massive but near weightless, but other than the sound signature and other immediate sound properties, it’s just kind of difficult to describe how different the way the sound coming at your ears feels. Koss has definitely pulled an interesting move by bringing a complete electrostatic system down to this price range. I don’t think it’s uncommon to see such sound systems as somewhat mythical in nature given the very high price of entry (unless clever use is made of buying used), and yet, here I am, listening to my own right now.
- I M A G I N G.
To put it bluntly, these shit all over my HD58x in terms of directional cues. The HD58x are great for that, it’s one of their foremost strengths. These things are fucking ridiculous. They also sound spacious enough for my tastes, whereas the HD58x sounds really closed in despite its open back design, and I suspect that that particular quality also factors in in making it way easier to determine where stuff is coming from. I’ve played a few games that had some kind of (actually good) virtual surround thing going on, and occasionally things moving around behind me was making me feel downright uncomfortable, like my personal space was being intruded upon.
This is the area which I have the hardest time judging, given the above-mentioned limitations of my listening experience. They certainly aren’t bad, the midrange and treble of these things sound wonderful to my ears, and most comparisons seems to be either to headphones above their price range, in some cases far above their price range, or to similar or lower priced headphones driven by an amp that, on its own, is similar in cost to the ESP-95x. In a case like this, I think that it’s straight up unfair to compare this set without taking into account the combined cost of the amp and the headphones of whichever setup you’re comparing them to. You can easily compare this set unfavorably to a set of headphones a hundred or two hundred dollars above it, but then the assumption also seems to be that everyone already has a 789 Linear Amplifier or something laying around, and at that point the price difference starts to spiral out of control. This goes double for my personal case, as Denmark probably sports some of the highest VAT’s in Europe and, as such, I have to take that into account. The crazy thing is that, even despite that, domestic prices on Hi-Fi equipment are so ludicrous and are combined with a sufficiently limited selection that it’s still usually a much better deal to just import this stuff.
At this price, though, the ESP-95x does seem to offer quite a lot in terms of raw clarity, but as to whether it’s worth the caveats I will be mentioning below will remain up to the reader to judge.
So, while they certainly are very bass light, I was actually surprised to find that I don’t really find anything lacking myself. The mostly neutral, slightly warm and slightly rolled off signature definitely isn’t for everyone, but I actually find it really enjoyable. I’ve tried both the Oratory EQ settings and Metal571’s own personal EQ settings, just out of curiosity, really, but I didn’t really find either of them to add anything significant without also detracting greatly from other qualities. In case of the Oratory settings, they certainly did add some additional sense of presence to the sound, but they also almost completely removed the sense of spaciousness and airiness that they have. I found that the moments I was most impressed by when listening with those settings applied were also the moments where the music was influenced the least by them. As for Metal571’s settings, they just didn’t do much for me. Oh well, I definitely appreciate the fact that they give others the opportunity of enjoying the 95x more than they would otherwise. Personally I probably wouldn’t go for a system that emphasizes treble more and bass less than this, though.
My most listened to genres lie in the areas of electronica, although primarily atmospheric (Tomáš Dvořák, Edwin Montgomery, Ben Babbitt, etc.), old school synth/prog rock (Eduard Artemyev, Goblin, etc.) synthwave (Perturbator, Carpenter Brut, Makeup and Vanity Set, etc.), along with some psychedelic stuff (Tame Impala, Melody’s Echo Chamber). I also listen to a lot of soundtracks of various genres, some orchestral, some jazzy stuff, some surf, some old school video game music, you name it.
So I’d have expected these to do kind of bad given the aforementioned lack of bass impact, but, as mentioned, I actually thought it was fine, even with the relentlessly hard synth of Carpenter Brut, where every single nuance of the heavily distorted synth tickles my ear, as one would hope. No impact is really lost to me, and wherever they arguably fall short in the wub department, they seem to make up for it in sheer gosh dern clarity, separation, imaging, and that tell-tale electrostatic speed. You certainly don’t feel much, if any, physical impact, and I guess that in part contributes to that feeling that sound “just happens”. I love it, but I guess I’m just not that much into the notion that you absolutely need to physically feel the music (outside of hearing it) in order to enjoy it.
I think some of the mentions of the build quality are kind of exaggerated, to be honest. If these things are truly built like a toy, then I reckon the toy in question must be a Lego set. The plastic doesn’t leave much room for elegance, but, like others of Koss’ most popular headphones there’s an admirable trend going on of a utilitarian design that cuts down on everything that isn’t going to matter anyways in favor of cost efficiency. If plastic is what needs to be accepted in order to get electrostatic drivers down to this price point, I don’t really see that much of a problem, especially when the headphones themselves sacrifice absolutely no comfort whatsoever. They also don’t feel brittle in any way whatsoever.
The only slightly cheaper-without-taking-amplification-into-account Hifiman Sundara comes to mind as a headphone that almost certainly would feel much better built, but from the reviews I’ve read also regardless follows in the proud Hifiman tradition of exhibiting abnormally high rates of driver issues. While that headphone is supposedly also really good for its price, the potential issues dissuaded me along with the fact that I don’t own a solid state amp and was not sure if my Little Dot 1+ would be capable of driving it well enough, in which case it might have ended up a pricier investment than this was anyways.
Anyways, returning to the 95x, the only things that are problematic are the creaking of the swiveling mechanism, which isn’t appreciated but certainly not a deal breaker, the much discussed volume knob, which is annoying, but still easily worked around, and the much more significant issues of the driver’s vulnerability to dust and the systems propensity for humming or other noise from certain setups.
So far I haven’t really understood if this is simply an issue related to electrostatic drivers and a necessary vulnerability given how they’re designed, or if it’s an issue with only some of them. Either way, issues stemming from dust getting into the driver has been reported by a fairly large amount of users, and is definitely something that will require special care on account of the user in order to minimize that risk. I have both one of those simple sports bags with the string-based closing mechanism handy in order to cover them up whilst not in use, as well as small lockable closet in my desk where they fit perfectly, and I will probably make use of both in order to try an prevent any issues relating to dust, but I wouldn’t be surprised if I start to experience issues at some point anyways. Apparently, Stax also sells a plastic cover for their models in order to protect from dust when not in use, so the ESP-95x at least isn’t alone in this regard. The lifetime warranty was probably a really good decision to include with this system. I'm not really sure how convenient it will be to make use of in Denmark, but at the price of the system, I reckon it'll be good to have no matter what.
A lot of people have also had issues with the power supply and noise somewhere in the signal chain. I have issues with the right earcup humming when my Grace SDAC is connected to one of two laptops in my home, but thankfully the setup is dead silent when connected to my desktop PC.
A couple other interesting quirks include the fact that the sound distorts heavily if you put your hands even remotely behind the earcups, like within 20-30cm or so. They really need air to breathe.
I also found them surprisingly good for listening at low volumes, as if they just don’t lose any clarity at all when the volume isn’t cranked. Great for the longevity of my youthful hearing.
Despite the fact that the earcups are even more open than my HD58x, I am actually much less bothered by the slight noise of my desktop fans. My PC is a bit of a Frankenstein’s Monster of new and old parts, so I can’t really reduce its noise without replacing some of them, and I want it on my desk so I can look at it. It’s as if, despite the lack of basically any isolation, outside noises interfere much less with the sound produced by the drivers or something, it’s weird. It should be worse with these, yet somehow they do much better than the Sennheisers.
Do I feel like they were worth it? Well, the price of entry was still a lot of money to me, but listening to them, yeah. Yup, these are definitely worth 400$, and I’m not gonna dispute the people who say 450 or 500 is also perfectly acceptable. Just don’t expect crazy wub wub and expect to take care of them.
They are precious, so treat them well.