I have a bias toward the Original. Almost as a rule, the film adaptations of books pale in comparison to the real thing. Cars, for example – doesn't take a genius to see that no sports coupe in existence today can match the beauty and grace of Jaguar E-type's design from the halcyon days. Also: why this faux-grilled chicken gimmick, KFC, when the Colonel's original recipe still packs more addictive wallop than crack cocaine? This bias of mine crosses over into music, too. 95 percent of "Girl from Ipanema" arrangements make me want to barf. In fact, as much as I love bossa nova, the only form of it I can listen to with complete pleasure and abide by is the single guitar/solitary voice format, as Joao Gilberto would have it; I could care less about the Stan Getz interpretations, much less Bebel Gilberto's electro-lounge abominations. Mussorgsky's "Pictures at an Exhibition," too, I can stomach only as a piano suite; Ravel's orchestrated version seems to me a well done kitsch, so sue me.
Which isn't to say that there aren't exceptions to the rule. Coppola's The Godfather films (at least the first two parts) far surpass in substantive quality Mario Puzo's pulpy novel upon which they are based. These exceptions do not happen frequently, but when they do happen, the remakes or mods take on the aura of originality on their own, apart from the source, and become free-standing works of art.
Lawton Audio's LA7000 headphones are essentially mods of Denon's flagship AH-D7000 headphones, which have garnered mostly rave reviews. Mark Lawton, the designer and proprietor of Lawton Audio, came to establish his business when he publicized his ingenious Denon mods on headfi.org and many of the headphone aficionados realized that there was something special that was happening with Lawton's transformation of the Denon headphones.
Before we get into the review, let's get one issue out of the way: Lawton LA7000s emphatically do not sound like Denon AH-D7000s. I have extensively compared the LA7000s with the AH-D7000s, as Mark Lawton generously and bravely supplied me with a pair of Denon stocks for the sake of review. It is dumbfounding how different they sound. Let's examine whether this difference works in favor of Lawton LA7000s or against them.
When Mark Lawton and others disassembled the AH-D7000, they found that the biggest differences between the D7000s and their more affordable siblings were the bigger magnets used (claimed 10 percent stronger by Denon, which would explain the marginally higher sensitivity), and the high-gloss finish. Otherwise, all the other design parameters were identical, which means the problematic issues remained, according to Mark Lawton, such as skimpy faux-leather ear pads and exact same rattle-prone frame/assembly as D2000 / 5000.
Mark Lawton claims his various modifications address the inherent problems of stock Denon headphones (Lawton Audio offers LA2000 and LA5000, as well as various stages of modification services). To effectively deal with the exaggerated bass of the stock Denons, whose large 50 mm drivers can even cause the frame and assembly of the headphones to rattle, Lawton utilizes "purpose-made vibration damping materials" to dissipate the excess energy stemming from the low-end response. This damping material is strategically placed in driver fronts and rears, as well as inside the customized wood cups which replace the stock Denon cups. Lawton claims that this damping also allows the midrange to come forward and snap into focus more naturally.
He also uses specially selected polyester fiber (the same material used as linings in megabuck loudspeakers) to add extra padding to the ear pads to prevent unwanted vibrations and resonance from the headphone's frame. Another crucial benefit of the extra padding is that the powerful Denon drivers would now be located at an optimal distance away from the ear drums; often the naysayers will refrain from using headphones as viable hi-fi transducers precisely because of that pronounced "in-head" sound. No matter how much detail you hear from the music, the headphones stand at a distinct disadvantage to the loudspeakers because the sound is so unwaveringly and perhaps mercilessly directed, whereas the loudspeakers can use the room's reflections to create spatial information which approximate "live" sound. One of my fundamental inquiries into this review was to see if Lawton Audio's LA7000s could more faithfully reproduce the "live" sound than the stock Denons and other well-regarded headphones.
One of the most crucial modifications that Lawton Audio performs is the provision of custom-made wood cups to replace the stock Denon cups. Mark Lawton claims that after many prototypes, he and his woodworker hit upon a shape and size for the cups that best complemented the tone of the Denon drivers, while also providing a more spacious and enhanced soundstage. The woods selected by the Lawton team, obviously, are done so after extensive listening tests to confirm their tonality. Lawton contracts his woodworker to create differently sized cups with different woods. First of all, from a purely aesthetic perspective, they are all astoundingly beautiful. The cups for my review pair were fashioned out of African Sapele wood. No picture could adequately capture the pure physical beauty of the Lawton Denon cups. With different angles and reflections of light, the subtle, natural striations in the grain of the African Sapele would shimmer accordingly, like silvery scales of a school of nocturnal fish glinting under the moonlight. As objets d'art, LA7000s are a cut above any headphones I have seen, including Sennheiser's HE90 Orpheus. All of the wood cups for the Lawton headphones that I've seen, are simply gorgeous, from Kalantus Cedar to New Guinea Rosewood. But an important caveat: each wood sounds different, and one must take care in consulting with Mark Lawton which wood cups might best suit one's needs. I will address these issues later in the review.
Finally, Lawton Audio replaces the stock cables with high quality Jena Labs cable and Furutech or Neutrik termination, single ended RCA or balanced XLR (my pair had Jena Labs cable discreetly and tastefully sheathed in black cloth, with RCA Furutech termination).
One may argue that these Lawton modifications can be done by anyone with a high DIY skill-set and resources. As a matter of fact, Lawton does not discourage that, as he's already shared his modification methods and process online. Yet it doesn't take any big leap of faith to imagine that Mark Lawton arrived at his exact recipe via countless hours of trial and error, and endless A-B comparisons. You may have the recipe to make Thomas Keller's Oysters and Pearls dish from the French Laundry Cookbook, but I'll bet my rapidly-depreciating 401(k) that your Oysters and Pearls ain't gonna taste like Thomas Keller's once it's made. This is why I am confident in saying that some DIY Frank Schroeder tonearm won't sound like the real thing. By same reason, I'd rather try Lawton Audio LA7000s than concoct my own DIY duck soup. There are many head-fi'ers who are more than competent with their soldering tools and DIY skills. Yet the fact that a lot of them nevertheless chose to purchase Lawton Audio headphones rather than create their own versions is telling.
Off with the rant, on with the review.
Ancillaries For The Review
I used Leben CS600 knowing full well that Leben's design is best utilized with higher impedance headphones. Sure enough, the Leben could not fully drive either of the low-impedance LA7000s or Denon's AH-D7000s when playing Wagner or Richard Strauss. With more dynamically subdued fare, however, like Skip James' incomparable, haunting falsetto blues or the jazz pianist Jason Moran's live albums, the midrange clarity was addictive with the Leben, the best that I'd heard on LA7000s. Still, because of the limited purposes which the Leben serves with LA7000s, I do not recommend Leben to match with the Denon/Lawton headphones.
Most people seem to tend toward using Denons or Lawtons with high quality solid state amplifiers, and Rudistor RPX-33, borrowed from a friend, did not disappoint. The noise floor was incredibly low, a feat considering Denon / Lawtons' high sensitivity. The RPX-33 also had a bell-like clarity and lucidity in the midrange, which extended effortlessly and seamlessly into the high treble. I would not hesitate to recommend RPX-33 or other suitable high quality solid state amplifier to use with LA7000.
Still, the biggest surprise was that musically speaking, LA7000s had phenomenal synergy with Woo Audio WA2 amplifier. Tube amplifiers are not supposed to drive low impedance cans like Denons this well – but in the case of WA2, with its pseudo-dual power supply, an exception to the rule must be made. Not only that, the sheer luminescence and the reach-out-and-touch-it kind of holographic midrange that LA7000s exhibited with WA2 was unparalleled, except for the Leben. Then again, Leben could not cope with Stravinsky's The Rite of Spring with the Denon/Lawton headphones whereas WA2 could. In terms of ruler-flatness of frequency response, I suppose the Rudistor amplifier is superior to WA2, in terms of bass grip, especially. Yet the musical capabilities of both the Denon stock phones and LA7000s were enlivened the most with WA2.
The ALO Audio Amphora also had a good synergy with the LA7000s, especially considering that the Amphora is more of a "transportable" amplifier than the bigger-bodied amplifiers already mentioned. On the Amphoras, especially on piano recordings, the notes had the welcome crispness of attack, if not quite the richness of decay. The most crucial virtue of the Amphora is that it is truly transportable. I could actually move the amplifier to my office and back to my home without a forethought, as it slid into the padded section of my messenger bag. At my office, with LA7000/Amphora, I believe I heard the entire oeuvre of Glenn Gould while trying to decipher various SEC codes and forms. (If one could grade an amplifier by the parameter of how it transformed the existence in a corporate hell into something far more bearable, the Amphora might be the greatest amplifier ever created.) Amphora is far more neutral in tonal balance than either the Woo Audio or Rudistor amplifiers, and it was easier for me to listen across all types of musical genres without favor. The LA7000s' midrange, however, was a bit more wan on the Amphora than on either the Woo Audio or Rudistor amplifiers even though it had a graceful liquidity. Another issue – the one that precludes my full recommendation of Amphora with LA7000 – was that in Amphora's high-gain setting, the background hiss through the LA7000s was more pronounced than with other amplifiers; in low-gain setting, the hiss was gone, but the gain was not sufficient enough.
The surprising contender was Triad Audio LISA III transportable amplifier. Despite its diminutive size and less than polished aesthetics, it drove both Denon and Lawton headphones with plenty of authority, with liquidly clear highs and transparent midrange. It handled the bass with aplomb. The total effect was compellingly musical. If the cost-performance ratio was to be taken into consideration, I even preferred the LISA III to the Rudistor with LA7000s, as the perceivable performance gains with the more expensive Rudistor was evident but way more marginal than expected. The important provision here is that one must use the optional external power supply to get the best results; on battery only, the LISA III fell a bit short (and on battery power, LISA III poops out after 4 hours or so, whereas the tremendous ALO Amphora lasts 24 hours-plus!) Still, the cost of a fully loaded LISA III is commensurate with the price of Woo Audio 2, and if you are not going to be using LISA III as a battery-powered transportable but as a home amplifier only, I would recommend Woo Audio 2, as long as you are cool with tubes.
These are only few of the examples, but I hope the readers can take it from here and explore other amplifier options for LA7000. It's critical that LA7000s are mated to the right amplifier, but now I am being redundant. I used two analog sources: La Platine Verdier equipped with Moerch DP-6 12" tonearm (blue dot wand) and a new killer turntable from a German company Rossner & Sohn (review forthcoming) with the Jelco tonearm and Audio Technica AT1010 tonearm. Three cartridges were used: Allnic Verito Z (review forthcoming), Miyajima Shilabe (review forthcoming), and Zu DL-103 Grade 2 (pretty fitting, as this is the cartridge version of a Denon mod). For digital, I used McIntosh MCD7007 CDP, which is a somewhat forgotten player that utilizes the now-legendary Philips TDA-1541 S1 chip to a good use, a PowerBook going into Paradisea+ USB DAC, and Sony SCD-1 SACD/CD player.
Right out of the box, the Denon D7000s were more immediately impressionable than LA7000s. The treble was very sparkly but with hard edges. The bass packed a huge wallop, whether they were timpani bursts in Stravinsky or slowly throbbing bassline in "Calling" from Raphael Saadiq's Motown redux, The Way I See It (Sony). The charms of LA7000s were more reticent in the beginning. They weren't instantly gratifying as I'd expected them to be; my good friend Andrew had let me borrow a pair of his LA2000s for an extended period of time, and they were startling from the get-go. The crucial difference between my friend's LA2000s and my review pair of LA7000: the wood cups were bigger/deeper on my LA7000s. I tried switching out the cups, and sure enough, with the shallower cups, the sound was closer to the ears, had more immediate impact.
Yet after an extended period of listening, the stock D7000s began to grate. I made a resolution of solely living with D7000s for a week, but could not get past three days. The treble had that artificially hi-fi spikiness, the similar kind I'd experienced with some Focal loudspeakers of the past, which made me shun and run away from the brand – probably unreasonably so – until this day. The bass, especially on rock and electronica, was bombastic by a measure and a half; one doesn't particularly listen to a an electronic track like Trentemoller's "Evil Dub" from his Last Resort LP (Poker Flat) to get a sense of acoustic naturalism. Still, intelligent DJs and outfits like Trentemoller (and Ricardo Villalobos, Herbert, Burial to name a few others) build upon minimal foundations of sound, creating a sonic palimpsest out of multiple layers. Even found sounds and seemingly irrelevant clicks and bass notes have complex, intellectual purpose in the right hands. With D7000s, one could not focus as easily on the whole palimpsest because of jarring, effects-y sound which more often than not failed to coagulate into a whole. The end result with the D7000s? My ears just tired out from aural fatigue.
The most critical difference between the Lawton LA7000s and D7000s – and as I would discover subsequently, with almost all other headphones – is that there wasn't this archetypically direct aural assault of sound upon the ears. With LA7000s, the mentioned electronic music regained coherence again, and the lyrical, momentous build-up of "Evil Dub," sailing past the clicks and a haphazard guitar interlude over the obligatory house beat, became music again. This difference became more pronounced when I used Woo Audio or Leben tube amplifiers, especially in the midrange. Matthias Goerne's rendition of Schubert's lieder, "Fahrtzum Hades," from Sehnsucht (Harmonia Mundi), which has to count as one of the creamiest and purriest version of melancholy ever committed to a recording, came out as pure song, unremittingly. The wavers in the intonation, the sharp intakes of breath, all did not detract from the performance, when conversely, they threatened to derail the musical message with the D7000s.
Goerne's expressive diction, which sounded so harshly and extraneously sibilant with the D7000s, became purposeful again. What a joy it was listening to male vocalists with the LA7000s! This is rather too peculiar a pleasure, and I hope this doesn't lead to people thinking that LA7000s are some specialist headphones, but baritones sounded with the LA7000s as they never have with any other headphones (with the single exception of Sennheiser HE90 Orpheus system). Gerald Finley's account of Samuel Barber's "There's Nae Lark" from Songs by Samuel Barber (Hyperion), in which the baritone's gold-flecked, nostalgic voice guides the listeners to the effortless falsetto note in the final refrain, is spine-tingling in execution to begin with. But that same moment was especially more moving with the LA7000s.
The LA7000s brought the music back to the natural world after my experience with the Denons. Music breathed and pulsed like the real thing again. Yet it did not come without a cost, and this is my main caveat and a point of concern for those interested in LA7000s. The Denon D7000s still had the edge in transient response, and especially when it came to conveying razor sharp contrasts in dynamics or climactic crescendos. For example, the heart-stopping snare drum crescendo in Mahler's Second Symphony had more menace and bite with D7000s; also with certain passages in which the loudness has to be rendered in stark relief to the preceding quietness (for example, I'm thinking of the beginning of Chopin's Ballade No. 2 here), the D7000s accomplished such feats with more brio and discernible contrast.
Although this can be said to be a shortcoming, I would not recommend LA7000s if such a quality cannot be addressed before your custom pair is shipped by the manufacturer. As I mentioned, LA2000s, with their shallower wood cups, did NOT have this issue. They did not quite have the full measure of convincing mid-hall illusion or the sonic maturity of the LA7000s either, but LA2000s definitely had that jump factor which the LA7000s lacked to a degree. You can see where I am going here: depending on your proclivities, the buyer must consult with Mark Lawton and specify the type of wood and the cups' depth to create his/her own customized sonic nirvana. Perhaps one can opt for harder, shallower cups with the LA7000s and achieve the right quality. The choice is entirely up to you.
Me? I still cannot decide. Yes, I crave a little more "jump" in dynamic and transient response, but the mid-hall aural effect of the LA7000s is far too precious to give up. Closed cans usually don't do this well at all. Many open cans and electrostatics are better at capturing the air of the live music, but most of them still sound as if laid upon like a thin sonic skin upon the ears. LA7000s have the ideal balance of the dynamic heft and the openness of sound, at least for my subjective needs. Maurizio Pollini's Chopin Nocturnes (DG) with the LA7000s, for example. You may despise Pollini's coolly analytical way with these pieces (please e-mail me if this is the case and we will have to swill down a few e-beers disagreeing with each other), but there is no mistaking that it is simply Deutsche Grammophon's finest piano recording in recent years. The recording is ideally distanced and Pollini's Chopin, apollonian and architectonically imaginative, sings their notes into decays in the natural ambience of the Hercules Hall in Munich. Listening to this recording with the LA7000s allowed me to really measure how sensitively recorded this album is. Pollini's spasmodic stabs at the pedal, his sudden, sharp intakes of breath through his nostrils, even, sounded as though they existed in the soundscape of the hall itself. Amazing achievement, really, for a pair of headphones. The spatial cues provided by these closed headphones are unparalleled in realism, at least measured against other closed headphones.
But the factor which might really clinch the status of LA7000s as a reference for some music lovers, including myself, is that these are the only headphones I enjoy listening to vinyl with. Bar none. I cannot bear listening to records with AKG K701s or Audio Technica ESW10JPN (the two headphones I own for my personal use). Same goes for the Sennheiser HD800s (more on these headphones later in the review). With Sennheiser HE90 Orpheus, I liked the vinyl experience fine enough, but the remarkable transparency with which the Orpheus reproduced music also translated into the clicks and pops on certain records that sounded more amplified, drawing out these noise artifacts even closer toward the surface of the sound. For some reason, LA7000s with tube headphone amplifiers subjugated such surface noises much more successfully, to relatively unobtrusive levels. Combine this factor with the natural mid-hall sonic perspective, and LA7000s become a formidable alternative to the loudspeaker experience. For the audiophiles who have abstained from headphone listening because of the in-head, all-too-directed sound of the headphones should really take a listen to the LA7000s.
On classical music recordings with dual SACD and CD layers, such as Ivan Fischer's Mahler Symphony No. 2 and Symphony No. 4 (Channel Classics) and Pieter Wispelwey's excellent account of Shostakovich's Cello Concerto No. 2 and Britten's Third Solo Suite (Channel Classics), the SACD layers read from Sony SCD-1 and into the Lawton LA7000s were revelatory – revelatory in a way that it was difficult for me to imagine any loudspeakers under $2000 bettering the LA7000s in capturing all the details of the software with such silky ease and musical confidence, let alone other high-end headphones.
Versus Some Notables
LA7000s don't image out of the head as well as Sennheiser HD800s, the much-ballyhooed new flagship headphones. If you are into pinpoint imaging and hi-fi effect-laden sound, the HD800s will outdistance the LA7000s. Both cans offer an incredible and realistic mid-hall sonic balance, but with LA7000s, I could believe in the sound more, plain and simple. HD800s sounded less held together, mostly because of their treble which was too brightly balanced. I thought the original Denon D7000s had hot treble; the HD800s were even worse. I could not listen to HD800s for a prolonged period of time, nor could I buy into a lot of what I heard as very musical. Before selling them short, however, I need to mention that there is a possibility that I needed to burn them in more. (I also need to mention that I don't buy into the burn-in 100%; I always leave at least 50% of the melliflous effects of the burn-in to us being neurologically becoming more acclimated to the sound). Whatever the reason may be, I favored Lawton LA7000s to Sennheiser HD800s, no contest. Winner: LA7000s by a technical knock-out in the 5th round.
With the Sennheiser HE90 Orpheus, it was a more interesting fight. Thanks to the generosity of my buddy Andrew, I had the great fortune to try HE90 Orpheus system at my house, right next to LA7000s, for a prolonged period of time. For those who might not be initiated into the headphile community, HE90s are kind of the Holy Grail, along with Sony R10s. Andrew bought his Orpheus system from a venerated member of head-fi.org who flies under the moniker of "Bozebuttons" (who, incidentally, seemed to own EVERY single headphone exotica ever made when I visited his house to pick up the Orpheus), and he encouraged me to listen to them before shipping them to Sweden. With lieder material and chamber music, as well as instrumental solos and vocal repertory of all kinds, the HE90 Orpheus subtly but pretty convincingly outclassed the LA7000s. But the important caveat: HE90 Orpheus – which is long since discontinued – trades in the five-figure territory, and costs ten times more than the Lawton LA7000 modification! The fact that LA7000s were playing the same sport in the same ballpark as the HE90s speaks volumes of their undeniable excellence. The most beguiling nature of the HE90 Orpheus was that they could make the music sound so smooth while capturing so much of the detail with such quick response. Sure, the voice of EllyAmeling or Skip James sounded more liquid and intoxicatingly silky on the HE90s, but the LA7000s brought out the incandescence of their voices almost as well; I was never less than convinced that I was hearing Ameling and James at their finest. Besides, on heavier orchestral works, I clearly preferred the LA7000s over the HE90s, by far. If you are more of a Richard Strauss guy rather than a Patricia Barber/Jennifer Warnes guy, my bet is that you will prefer the LA7000s, even over the HE90s. (The boxing analogy, finally, fails to serve its purpose here.)
This said, I must say that among all the headphones I mentioned in the review, including the HE90 Orpheus, if I were forced to keep only a single pair of headphones, I would keep the LA7000s. Lawton LA7000s are not flawless things, as mentioned in the previous section of this review. Among the mentioned points, the balance of the bass response and the slightly dulled nature of the transient response leave something to be desired. Yet some of these perceived deficiencies may be addressed by employing different modifications by Mark Lawton, especially in the utilization of wood cups of varying depths and material. Also, as beautiful as they are, they do lay somewhat heavy on your head; these aren't the headphones that will make you forget that you have them on, and so they do not score major points on ergonomic considerations. The last thing I must mention is that in these times of economic turmoil, spending $1000+ on headphone modification must seem frivolous to so many (and I'm including my own wife in this party). Yet each pair of LA7000s are unique products, almost artisanally executed in finish. Lawton Audio offers Standard Woods that are almost always in stock, plus select, more exotic Premium Woods, depending on the availability of suitable blanks from which to turn. Since the wood cups that Mark Lawton procures from his woodworker are limited and cut from uniquely individual wood stock, chances are high that whatever LA7000s that you own will have signature colors and grain patters entirely their own and not replicated in any other pair.
Such pride of ownership is rare in this day and age of reproducibility. When I take a look at the beautiful review pair of the LA7000s, I develop fonder feelings for them than I would for any other piece of audio equipment in recent memory. Not only do they sound incredible, they feel mine and feel as though they ought and deserve to be mine, uniquely. It is impossible to claim the same kind of satisfaction from gazing at or touching, let's say, the Sennheiser HD800s, which are similarly priced to the LA7000s but feel wholly less substantial, almost flimsy in comparison.
If you must own a single pair of reference headphones, and can afford to do so after considering the caveats made in this review, the LA7000s should automatically be in your shortlist. If you have a budget of $2000 or less for loudspeakers, it might be worth your while, too, to cast a peripheral glance at these. They come short of capturing the real room-reflected sound of the loudspeakers, but the reproduced sound of music via LA7000s come very close to the experience, and capture more information with better fidelity than most of the budget loudspeakers.
In so many ways, the Lawton Audio LA7000s more than justify their price tag. But given what the LA7000s look like and how they sound, no justification is needed at all for their existence: as a matter of fact, Lawton Audio LA7000s would have been nominated for a 2009 Blue Note Product of the Year Award yet i finished this review a touch late.