Sorry, no picture, the lighting in my house is bad right now and I want to get this review out there.
What you are about to see is a compilation of my raw, (relatively) unfiltered impressions of the Elex over the duration of my possession of them (about 6 days). I think what I learned from it is that it takes a certain amount of familiarity with a pair of headphones to truly like them, by which I mean I'm just about done with being impressed by gear. I want to like what I have, not always be on the lookout for my next purchase. Because of that, I didn't really like the Elex that much at first, because I wasn't giving myself time to get used to them. The headphones I have are good enough that I didn't find the Elex incredibly spectacular out of the box, which was kind of exciting to me in itself. But I think for future trials I'm going to want to give the piece of new equipment a nice period of nonjudgmental listening, and I'm kind of regretful that I didn't do that here.
It took a week of listening to the Elex for their real character to come through and draw me in. And you can watch that process in real time as I wade my way through my library. But first, "the competition": Audio-Technica ATH-AD2000:
The AD2000 is not a headphone that offers the traditional sense of clarity, but instead offers thick mids with a bump at 4kHz. It has a very forward sound, incredible dynamics, and a knack for portraying rock and female vocals with panache. AKG K400:
The K400 still has a fanbase after all these years, but it also has a thin, shouty sound and a hazy, ragged treble response that alienates many. What it excels in is portraying acoustic accordings with a very realistic soundstage and a kind of "no-comment" style that comes very close to representing a real classical concert experience from the audience's perspective. Hifiman Sundara:
The Sundara is a headphone with slightly recessed upper mids that give it a tiny bit of a cold sound, but it also has a very nice softness that makes it appealing to me for ambient music and things that demand both a kind of cool detachment and also detail / impact that the K400 can't give me.
And now, the songs: Joni Mitchell
This is a finicky recording because Joni's voice as recorded here already has kind of a shout to it so any headphone with shoutiness issues will present this recording pretty poorly. I was not a huge fan of how the Elex handled this track, to be honest. Although it was not horribly grating or anything, the vocals did retain their characteristic shout, and there wasn't much else special about the sound, the way there is with the K400 or the ATH-AD2000. I'd still take the AD2000 here, I think. Akina Nakamori
I thought the Elex might do something nice here, but after all the ATH-AD2000 owns this album, and it beats the Elex handily in every way. The Elex is no slouch either, but the AD2000 carries with the music with a seductive energy that the Elex just can't quite match. The Elex does present a larger soundstage, but it's not quite as engaging, and it doesn't have the ideal mix of dark fiery passion that the AD2000 has. The Elex prefers to shed a bit more light on the recording, but that's not exactly what it needs. There is a little bit of trouble in the treble - not enough to be concerning, just a bit. Ekkehard Ehlers
- Plays John Casssavetes (Pt. 1)
Here's a nice cut of ambient for some variety. I would typically take the Sundara for this, occasionally throwing the K400 at it to switch it up a little bit. Here I find the Elex to be more than sufficient, capable of resolving a lot of detail (there are some little pops toward the beginning, each of which have their own little reverb tails, and the Elex renders very nicely - better than the Sundara could, where the little reverb tails are pretty much lost. The Sundara presents things in a cooler and more distant and hazy way, which is why it's my pick for ambient - it's not that the soundstage is larger per se (I would say it's about the same size), but it's less forward, and everything is set back just a bit. Again, the Elex presents a more straightforward version of this track, while the Sundara is doing something a little bit different and, for me, just a little bit more special. Mouse on Mars
- Funky Tiste
This is another Sundara track. What the Elex does here is interesting. Compared to the Sundara, the Elex's presentation is a bit more nuanced - its frequency response, especially its forward upper-mids as compared to the Sundara, allow the track to develop layers a bit differently than the Sundara does, with the details pushed a bit further back in the stage while still being very readily accessible for the attentive listener. The downside is that some of the sounds happening in the foreground sound just a bit harsher on the Elex - not really harsh by (m)any standards, just a bit less pleasant than on the Sundara. I'd say this one is more or less a draw. The Elex wins in terms of detail and nuance, but the Sundara is very pleasant. Maria Monti
- Il Letargo
The K400 would typically be my go-to on this track, and I think it pretty handily wins this showdown. Of course, the Elex has superior detail retrieval, but the K400 sounds more natural, almost entirely owing to its very slightly more rolled-off treble. There's a sort of an uncomfortable, metallic edge to the treble presentation with the Elex that is absent on the K400. The K400 just sounds a bit more natural and emotive, especially on a tube amp (in my case, the Lyr). Noel Akchote / Roland Auzet / Luc Ferrari
- Sur le Pulsation
(note that this upload is only 2 minutes of the full 11-minute piece)
Not that I expected to be here, but this is the first recording that I played with the Elex where it truly shone. Based on descriptions of its incredible dynamic ability and resolution, I expected the Elex to be a great rock headphone more than anything else, but what I'm finding is that it's better as a classical headphone. This isn't classical music, but the Elex really shows an ability here to render detail incredibly well - it's not necessarily more resolving than the Sundara or the AD2000, but it foregrounds the detail more (little delays that I had missed before - I may not have been paying attention before, but here they were clearly more obvious than on my other headphones; also, how the drums interact with the room, etc.), and makes it more accessible to the listener. For this track, and the album it's on, I'd definitely reach for the Elex. Talk Talk
- New Grass
Almost no headphone sounds bad on this track. It's one of those tracks that generously allows each of my headphones to lend its own character to it without spoiling it. But, holy shit, does this track sound good as fuck with the Elex. And I'll add this for context: this track is probably one of my favorite tracks of all time, and I'm pretty well convinced that I've never heard it rendered as well as it was rendered on the Elex. I mean, I'm typing this as I'm listening, and I can say with certainty that this is a pretty significant experience as an audiophile. Everything's so realistic and soft and textured - it's really something special. But even though the Elex wins over my other headphones, and does something really special, it's not by that much, just because the track is so good it's almost impossible to lose! Nico Niquo
(you can find this on bandcamp also)
Here's a textbook example of the Elex presenting a track in a really colorful and involving but mildly unpleasant way - but that mild unpleasantness is kind of beautiful in and of itself. The shimmery texture that comes out in the middle of this track, especially, is like the sunlight glinting off the surface of a giant metallic building - hard to look at, but very beautiful, in a borderline painful way. This is also a great demonstrator of the discrepancy in dynamics between the Sundara and the Elex - the Sundara hits nowhere near as hard on this track, and it doesn't even come close to representing the same joyful, slightly sadistic shining of light as the Elex does. The ATH-AD2000 gets awfully close to matching it in dynamics and "glare" (here a good thing), but it doesn't quite get there. Toronto New Music Ensemble
- Toru Takemitsu: Rain Spell
This one is kind of down to momentary preference between the Elex and the K400, but they both present very different pictures of the music here. If what you're looking for is a more traditional high-fidelity presentation of the music through headphones, something that really puts you "on stage" amongst the musicians, and lends you the ability to hear very slight details and movements of players as if you were among them, the Elex is probably the choice. Where the K400 has an advantage is in making it seem like you're actually a member of the audience at a concert. It provides a bit more of a distant view of everything that's going on, equally natural (albeit with a bit of an annoying shout), but set back a ways. I often find myself preferring this kind of presentation as a musician, because it provides a better overall look at the musical shape of the thing, without letting you get lost in the details. But the Elex certainly has its addictive qualities here. Marnie Stern
- Vibrational Match
Holy shit. The Elex here has the exact necessary combination of upper-mid forwardness, soundstage wideness, and dynamic power to make this track sound utterly insane. The ATH-AD2000 seem like polite headphones by comparison - and they are not.
The reason the Elex strikes me in such an odd way is because its sound signature doesn't lend itself to easy categorization the way my other headphones do. I never really know if it's going to perform to my liking or not with any given track. With my other headphones, and I can pretty easily wager a guess. My other headphones have pretty defined niches - go to K400 for classical, Sundara for IDM, AD2000 for rock, etc. It's not always that simple, of course, but there is a simple mental calculus to it. The Elex does not have a sound that especially suits it to a single genre. For many (most?) people, this will surely be a positive. Crystal Castles
Here I just wanted to test some music that's mastered in a way pretty typical of modern pop music. This sounds good on the AD2000, and perhaps a bit bright on the Sundara, but in a kind of colorful way. I was surprised upon plugging in the Elex that it sounded completely different from the AD2000. The Elex had a more nuanced take than the AD2000, but not exactly more detailed - the bass was sharper, for sure. It was also a bit more dynamic, with what felt like sharper transients. Not going to call this one a victory for the Elex, but I will say it handled this track unexpectedly well. The Sundara didn't hold up too well in the presence of these two kings of dynamicism. Joni Mitchell
- Hejira again
This time I'm listening to Hejira with the Elex at a lower volume, without switching to any other headphones. I like what this headphone is doing this time around. The stage seems to be wider than I remember it (maybe due to the lower volume), and it's giving all the sound plenty of room to stretch out, without making Joni's voice sound too chalky (again, low volume here is crucial!). I definitely like it a lot more this time around. I can really sink back and...ahhhhh...it's been a tough week, you know... Viktor Vaughn
- A Dead Mouse
It's pretty amazing to me that I'm able to understand that mumbling at the beginning, but maybe I can after all with my other headphones. Wait...OK, yes I can, with the AD2000 too (my go-to), and I assume the Sundara also. Of course I get a better sense of realism with the Elex, but I do prefer the AD2000 here, as I kind of expected. Just wanted to try some hip-hop, though.
I think I've reached the point of excess in terms of A/Bing, probably some time ago, but I hope this has been at least somewhat educational. To summarize my findings...
The Elex is a very good all-rounder; it might be the single best headphone at its price if you want a "get it and forget it" option (though I shouldn't discount Stax, which I still haven't tried). It has a very neutral response with somewhat forward mids / upper-mids and treble that can get plasticky / grainy in a similar way to the Sundara (but slightly better-controlled). Bass is adequate for me, at least, but I'm not a basshead - it's tight, and never intrudes on my listening experience with bloat or anything like that.
When I first drafted this impressions posts, I was tempted to write that the Elex was a bit hesitant to offer that little magical "something" that my other headphones offered. In the last 24 hours, though, the Elex has really come together for me a bit more, now that I'm not pitting them against my own headphones as much. I've come to appreciate its character - its resolution, its dynamic power, its sometimes realism (maybe I'll actually go for the 600 someday as a result of this experience). In a way, what it offered to me seemed to be more utilitarian: broadly applicable ability to render detail in a satisfying, musical way - maybe not always the best experience you can get with any given track, but it rarely tanked, and it was surely a better all-rounder than my best all-rounder, the Sundara (the AD2000 falls completely flat on classical music, and the K400 falls completely flat on practically everything except classical). I do think what the Elex offers is a more traditional hi-fi experience than any of my headphones, and that turns me off a little bit, since I really believe a truly great headphone needs a critical flaw of some kind for me to fully appreciate it. Each headphone gives a slightly different angle on each piece of music, and I value that. The Elex definitely has a character, but it's still kind of hard for me to pin down what it is. It's kind of fascinating in that way, but I do get worried that there might be less here in terms of character than I'd like to imagine.
As a result, I am not tempted to buy the Elex. I also think I already have what it offers in the couple headphones I have (which, when added together, cost about the same amount as one Elex - at least, at the price I bought them for). But it is making me reconsider the upgrade path I had planned for myself, which placed no emphasis on dynamic capabilities, but rather soundstaging abilities, and softness, and sweetness. (I do already have the ATH-AD2000, after all...) But in a way, it's kind of nice to end my audition without feeling the need to save up another $700 for another new product on my shelf, and it's reassuring to know that what I have at least mostly stacks up to one of the most highly-praised new products on the market.
Thanks to headphonelibrary
for providing these units. I think this is a fantastic opportunity for people with less disposable income than, say, the SBAF folks to get their hands on some high-end units - it allows us to consider what upgrade paths really make sense. For me, I don't think the Elex is the chosen path, but I imagine it would be a great option for many people on headphones
, and I will consider the Clear as an option when I make it big (probably never).
EDIT: For those of you who read this and this "wow, what the heck, this guy is biased as hell!", if I were writing a professional review, I would probably try to control the bias, but since I'm not right now, I get to be really, really
biased! Isn't that the magic of it?