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Absolutely sublime: Fostex TH500RP headphones

The Fostex TH500RP may be the best sounding high-end headphone you can buy in its price class.

Fostex TH500RP Fostex

Five years ago two upstart headphone makers, Audeze and Hifiman, introduced thin-film planar magnetic designs that sounded very different, and to my ears better than the more expensive, top-of-the-line AKG, Audio Technica, Beyerdynamic, Grado, and Sennheiser headphones. Audeze and Hifiman currently offer a range of planar models, but now Fostex has a new headphone, the TH500RP, that competes directly against the Audeze and Hifiman entry-level models.

At this point I should point out that Fostex isn't new to planars, they were in fact making them years before Audeze and Hifiman were around.

The TH500RP's build quality is commensurate with its high-end price -- you get leather ear pads, metal ear cups, 3 meter cloth covered cable, and a gorgeously machined metal plug housing -- all the good stuff. I love its understated design, it certainly feels like a bona-fide high-end component. The TH500RP weighs 13.4 ounces (380 grams) and impedance is rated at 48 Ohms. This headphone is designed for use with home and high-end portable headphone amps.

That's why I listened to the TH500RP with Oppo HA-1 and Schiit Lyr 2 amps, and my Oppo BDP-105 Blu-ray player. Body and soul, that's what separates the TH500RP's sound from most other high-end headphones. There's more substance to the sound, more body, balanced with remarkable resolution of fine detail.

This headphone sounds fuller and richer than Audeze's latest LCD-2 and Hifiman's new HE-560 headphones. The TH500RP is downright soulful, and this may sound strange, but it makes digital recordings sound more like analog recordings, and that's a complement.

The TH500RP pulled me further inside Holly Cole's "Temptation" CD than the HE-560 did; that one sounds clear and clean, but I preferred the TH500RP's sweeter tonal balance. It's a more romantic flavor, and voices sound especially natural.

Antonio Sanchez' explosive drum solos on the "Birdman" film soundtrack shined on the TH500RP because I felt like I was hearing more of the drums' dynamic power. The Audeze LCD-2 sounded crisper, and the drums were more viscerally alive, but the TH500RP had more oomph, more kick, more power. So there's no decisive winner here, I like both headphones for different reasons, but the TH500RP is lighter in weight and more comfortable to wear for extended periods of time. It's also a lot more affordable.

The TH500RP's diaphragm is similar to the much less expensive Fostex T50RP headphone's, but the TH500RP's driver has been extensively modified and re-tuned. I don't have a T50RP on hand to do a direct comparison, but I know that one well enough to say the TH500RP is a much better, more refined sounding performer.

The TH500RP's US price is $699; the UK price is £529 including VAT, and in Australia it's AU$1,099 including GST.