FOSTEX TH900 - Review
Disclaimer: A big thank you to SCV London for loaning me the TH900 for this review!
This flagship model is the first high-end headphone from Fostex and retails for £1499. The first thing to wow you about this headphone is the pretty pretty red paint job. This is Urushi lacquer and this photo simply doesn't do it justice! Finishing off the bold looks is the Fostex logo - in platinum. This sample has a few marks, but even the wear looks sexy on these things - like a used leather jacket. Underneath all this the cups are made from a special hard-wood to help acoustic performance (more on that in a minute). On the inside is a unique neodymium driver with 1.5 tesla of magnetic power! Eat your heart out Beyerdynamic.
To address a potential elephant in the room and clear up some facts - I will mention the Denon AH-D7000. Both it and the TH900 look strikingly similar and this is because both are made by Foster Electronics (which Fostex is a part of). Their sound has a similar signature, but it's here that they start to separate. The D7000 is the first headphone I ever reviewed and I still own it, so I will offer some insights into key differences between the two later but for now, let's focus on the TH900...
The TH900 is going to be a headphone that's loved by anyone partial to a prominent and healthy bass body. The bass depth is pretty great but it's the power and kick throughout the bass frequencies that's rather epic! What shocked me more than the punch was the breathtaking speed of it's decay, it's both tight and powerful, detail with massive presence. Yes this is a warm sound, but despite that great clarity comes through, and that's a rare treat indeed! If this is the Japanese hard wood at work, even partially, then I'm impressed. I take my hat off to you, Fostex, you clearly know what you're doing.
Perhaps you might be a little shocked to see the TH900's being described as 'reference', this something usually associated with the rather bass dry headphones like the Sennheiser HD800's or AKG K/Q701's. So is it really fair to call these headphones reference? Yes I really think it is. There is plenty of detail throughout all the ranges here and little bleed, the bass is powerful, but it doesn't overpower the music. I defy anyone to listen to the TH900, then switch to the HD800 and tell me they think the bass sounds 'realistic' on the latter. I'm not saying that either of those headphones don't have their strengths - and that would be speed, but the TH900 doesn't exactly disappoint here either. It actually displays decent to very good speed, especially if amplified well. For good amplification I refer back to my review of the Fostex HP-A8, where I said the A8 and the TH900 were clearly built to go with each other - well this is one of the reasons why. I would actually argue that the other two reference headphones have too much speed for most musical enjoyment and sound almost artificial or unrealistic.
The soundstage of the TH900 is the most dynamic and natural that I have heard, especially when paired with an amplifier like the one in the Fostex HP-A8. This is the kind three-dimensionality that you might expect on an open back headphone and a very good one. The down side is probably obvious - a really rather poor amount of isolation, sound leaking (out) isn't too bad as long as you don't push the volume too crazy levels. Honestly the 'semi-open' Fostex T50rp is superior in both isolation and leakage, which seems like a joke. I can't really call this much of a criticism however, just something to be aware of, please just make sure that you don't buy these headphones for this feature. Apparently closed does not equal isolation.
The TH900s might sound like a ridiculously easy headphone to drive on paper, but don't be fooled. They will drive to reasonable volumes on portable players or phones, but certainly won't give respectable value sound. USB powered DAC & headphone amplifiers are a perfectly reasonable option however. Just be careful about pairing them with something warm sounding if you're sensitive to overly warm presentations as there's plenty here anyway.
Quality amplification is important to really do the TH900s justice and make them shine. The upper mid-range / treble frequencies really flourish with a speedy amp like the HP-A8, but it also enjoys the smooth there too. Low frequencies get further tightened up, adding a simultaneous detail and power to the presentation that is extremely addictive, classical music especially. The Fostex amp also controls the mid-range so effortlessly making the TH900 wonderfully forward with vocals, but also smooth enough to not sound fatiguing. I'm sure this isn't the only amp worthy of these headphones, but it's the only one I had handy to do them justice and there is no denying the tonal balance this pair exhibit. Perhaps something like the 'Burson Soloist' or 'Graham Slee Solo Ultra-Linear' could also be very enjoyable, but I found the Audiolab M-DAC not really balanced enough. It was a little treble happy, not terrible, just not a worthy pairing as cheaper amps brought the TH900s out better.
Denon AH-D7000: The Denon's wood cups were more of a feature of it's design although the coating made them look more like plastic than mahogany. Despite covering them up on the Fostex they are still there. Under all that Urushi Lacquer the cups are made from Japanese Cherry Birch, the Denon's are mahogany. Apart from being more textured the Fostex metal seems a little tougher and the edges are sharper. The leather ear-cups are more even on the TH900, not thicker at the back like the D7000 (a la Audeze). Because of this the Fostex cups don't need to rotate for fine-tuning the comfort. The TH900 is a bit heavier (400g vs 370g), perhaps you can tell but the comfort is about equal between the two - both excellent.
The D7000 was discontinued just prior to it's replacement being introduced (the very different D7100). Even second hand examples of the D7000 are now pretty sparse It's price fell quite considerably towards the end of it's life, making it a bit of a bargain. Comparing two headphones at these wildly different costs is unfair, but it's something that some of you will be curious about.
My initial impression was that the TH900 seemed to have a little less presence in the bass arena but I think this has more to do with improved decay than the kick being any less potent. The mid-range is more prominent and the treble extends further, in general the highs sound more crisp and far better defined. A smoother amp to keep these frequencies under control is nice to have but still the TH900 sounds better on any amplification by comparison.
The D7000 is still one of my favourite headphones, but compare them to the TH900 side-by-side and it makes them sound pretty unrefined, even down-right poor. Now there's no denying that for around £500 the D7000 is a compelling headphone. If you manage to find one just do yourself a favour and never pick up the TH900!
Grado PS1000: Now this headphone is the only one that I have heard that's anything like the TH900 and I don't say that because it's the only mainstream one I can think of that's anywhere near this cost. Unfortunately I don't have the Grados here to test them side by side with the TH900 so I really can't say which is ultimately better at what, but what I can say is that the PS1000 has a similar level of bass body, detail, clarity and smoothness that also made me weak at the knees. If you've heard some of Grado's 'SR' or 'RS' models and are thinking: "what the hell is he talking about?! All Grados have a typical sound that's not what he just described", you're mostly right, but the 'GS' and 'PS' models are very different! I mostly mention the PS1000 here because if you're able to put down this amount of cash you owe it to yourself to at least try this one as well and see which one suits you best. Something else that I can say for sure is - the PS1000 is nowhere near as comfortable as the TH900. They're 25% heavier and my ears have never been a fan of the hard ear pads, despite being bigger than the SR/RS Grado models.
Here are some individual music tracks and how I felt the TH-900 coped with them. Most are lossless, some are 320kbps compressed (Spotify). I have cut this section down to a more 'bullet point' like presentation, so as not to cover the same ground too much.
Skunk Anansie: "Hedonism" - great subtle vocals, extremely clear and spacial.
Noisia (Split The Atom - Special Edition): "Split The Atom" - crisp, fast, bass monster, extremely dynamic.
The Prodigy (Music For The Jilted Generation): "Poison" - Impressive, punchy weight to this good old of non-aggressive bass with the volume up and very enjoyable when you do. Great clarity and layering.
Mr. Scruff (Electo Swing): "Get A Move On" - Real foot-tapping presentation. Drums are very clear, fast and forward - wow!
The Smashing Pumpkins (Mellon Collie And The Infinite Sadness): "1979" - Smooth, great soundstage. great instrument separation, guitars especially great.
Marilyn Manson: "beautiful People" - Fast, deep energetic guitars. Instrument separation and vocals are superb! Good three-dimensionality.
The box exterior is very nice and inside it's rather basic. Personally I have no problem with this, but some might expect a bigger sense of luxury given the price. There is a headphone stand included, but it's also on the basic side (see end). I don't know quite how to feel about this one. On one hand I wonder why they bothered, but on the other, it is nice that you have somewhere to store these precious headphones straight out of the box. I would like to see Fostex sell a special stand for the TH900 that matches the style a bit better, perhaps something with a bit of Japanese Cherry Birch on it, since we don't get to see any on the headphone itself.
The construction of the headphone itself seems pretty flawless. It feels very tough for indoor use, I can't imagine anyone wanting to wear this outside... actually I can but they would be wrong. Everything that moves here feels engineered to last. The accenting of the chrome joints and extension rods against the hard-edged black metal is beautiful, then there's the red Urushi lacquering and platinum logo - just wow! Everything about this headphone screams quality! The only a slight disappointment is that you can't see any of that Japanese Cherry Birch. It's almost as much a piece of artwork as it is a solidly build piece of audio equipment.
Like most high-end headphones the TH900s are pretty large and easy on the ears, but even in this range I find the comfort great. They can be worn for hours without any discomfort, a really great option to sit and relax to music with after a tough day. The headband distributes pressure surprising well for it's looks. It extends with reassuringly tight clicks, doesn't slip and has enough adjustment for any head size. Space inside the pads is generous (in width and depth). The material for the headband and pads is said to be a protein leather made from eggshell membrane, it feels very smooth and soft yet feels pretty hard wearing. Your ears could get a bit too warm with hot weather, but no more so than any other leather (type) ear pads.
The cable looks and feels exactly the same as the one on the Denon AH-D7000. Generally this is a lovely cable, it's 3m of 7n copper and doesn't tangle easily with it's smooth braided coating, but... that humongous and poorly positioned Y-splitter made me less happy! Maybe this is a niche problem, maybe not. It's all to do with using these headphones while sat at a desk, which I do - a lot. Unfortunately the big plastic splitter is at just the right height for me to catch under the lip of my desk and it yanks on the headphones. This horridly jarring sensation is caused by almost any movement and it happens to me all the time. Now maybe this wouldn't happen to a shorter, taller, thinner person or just someone who sits/moves differently, but oh wow is it infuriating!
OK let's end on a better, although equally trivial note - If you read my previous review (Fostex HP-A8) you'll know that I had a rather amazing encounter with some connections on that beast of a machine. Everything is made with such precision on these high-end Fostex products! Well, here (below) is the other half of the best fitting connection that I have ever experienced. I don't know if this photo shows just how well it's made - but it is spectacular!
The TH900 is a visual and sonic masterpiece for someone who likes their presentations bold. Sonically this is a balanced performance and worthy of the 'reference' moniker in my opinion. There's power in the low end, but it's under tremendous control and this is equally true of the rest of the frequencies too. Comfort and build are top notch as long as you keep them at home, which you should.
I had a couple of small niggles with the TH900, apart from the astronomical price, but certainly not with it's sound. It's clear that this is a close cousin of the Denon AH-D7000, which was available for much less before it disappeared. The Denon did warmth well, but the TH900 takes everything it did well and refines it to a point of near perfection. Unless you feel that bass body just shouldn't have been invented you will love this sound. It does however deserve to be driven to it's full potential using high quality amplification and I can't help but point in the direction of Fostex's own HP-A8. These two flagships perform well on their own, but they were made to joined together and it shows.
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Posted 2nd Dec 2012