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Take it to the limit: Fostex TH600 headphones

The Audiophiliac checks out a pair of ultra-high-end headphones with impeccable clarity.

The Fostex TH600 full-size headphones' sound is downright addicting. They take you inside the sound of a recording like few other headphones can. Unfortunately, Fostex's U.S. distribution of its high-end headphones is very limited (it's a Japanese company), but Fostex dealer Moon Audio was kind enough to send over a sample pair of TH600 headphones ($1,299) fitted with an extra-cost Black Dragon V2 cable. Fostex also offers much less expensive models, including the $129 T50RP, but the company mostly caters to the pro sound market.

The Fostex TH600 headphones

The TH600 has large 50mm drivers, matched with an unusually powerful 1-tesla magnetic circuit. It's a 25-ohm headphone, and it weighs 370 grams, which is about average for full-size headphones. The die-cast magnesium earcups and Idemitsu Grancuir leather-covered earpads and headband feel incredibly luxurious, but the TH600 is a rather understated design. It is one of the more comfortable headphones I've tried this year. Granted, it's a $1,299 headphone, but how many world-class products can you buy for $1,299?

One of the things that distinguishes great headphones from lesser models is the way they dig deeper into the music. You hear subtle shifts in the drummer's dynamics, the way a vocalist emphasizes words, and the engineer's reverberation choices, so some instruments sound more distant than others. Well, the TH600 takes all of that to a different level; you really do hear more of the fine details of the mix.

My Audeze LCD 2 headphones are awfully good, but no match for the TH600's level of speed and transparency. The LCD-2 is less detailed, but warmer sounding, and it's worth noting the TH600 is a closed-back design, so it provides a degree of isolation from external noise the open-back LCD 2 cannot.

The definition extends to the low frequencies, I've never heard headphones that can touch the TH600s' taut bass. Thom Yorke's "Atoms for Peace" CD demonstrated that these headphones go plenty low, and yet they never muddy the low frequencies. The LCD-2s are known for their muscular bass, but the TH600s are competitive down there.

The thing is, with acoustic jazz the sound was a little lean, and I sometimes wished for a richer, fuller balance. Recordings with any harshness or grit were extra harsh and gritty; the TH600s don't smooth over the rough edges. And I'm not just talking about contemporary hypercompressed music; plenty of older recordings from Motown and Blue Note have distortion that gets on my nerves.

So I switched over from my solid-state Burson HA 160headphone amp to a hybrid tube/solid-state amp, the Red Wine Corvina, and that combination really clicked. The sound was sweeter, but didn't sacrifice any of the TH600s' purity. Jonny Greenwood's soundtrack score for "The Master" was brilliant; the orchestra's strings were delicate, airy, and so clear.

When I hooked up the TH600s directly to my iPod Classic I wasn't sure what to expect, but they sounded spectacular. When it came time to return the TH600s I was sorry to see them go. It's a truly world-class design for folks who crave the best, but the TH600 isn't the top-of-the-line model; Fostex's $1,999 TH900 is said to be even more transparent!