Today we are talking about an entry level, or should I say closer to entry level headphone from Stax Headphones of Japan. The L500mk2, which I will simply refer to as the L500 for the rest of this review. This is the middle of the road headphone in Stax Lambda line up, retailing currently at $830USD. The Lambda line up has existed in one form or another since the 1980s, always featuring the distinctive square housing. I think this is perhaps the most commonly thought of shape and design when people mention Stax headphones. Like their Omega, top of the line siblings, the Lambda series from Stax are electrostatic headphones, thus requiring some form of dedicated amplification to drive them, not being able to be driven from a conventional headphone or speaker amplifier.
For the majority of this review, I used a KGSSHV Carbon, fed from an iFi iDSD Pro DAC.
The most interesting and surprising part of the L500’s tuning for me was its bass response. Electrostatic headphones have a fairly poor reputation for their overall bass level, usually being quite light handed in this area. I figured the L500 would be similar to the 009 in its level of bass, but it was actually much fuller sounding, by a large margin. It also had a slight amount more mid bass, as well as overall impact in the low end. For me personally this was a welcome change. It does have a bit less overall bass level than the 007mk2, but not massively so. Some listeners may actually much prefer the L500’s bass level and overall presentation, based on their personal preferences.
The midrange of the L500 was somewhat forward sounding, but slightly less so than the 007mk2, which is still the warmest headphone I have heard from Stax. I was entirely ok with the stock midrange response of the L500, apart from one area. Right around 1Khz, there is a bit of a peak which can cause some sounds and vocals to become slightly nasal sounding. Its not a large enough peak to be a deal breaker on enjoying the headphones, but bringing this area down slightly via EQ did really increase my enjoyment of these headphones. Apart from that, the mid range came across as slightly warm and forward, certainly not sucked out or cold and clinical. This is an interesting tuning choice, and I think it makes sense given the price range of the L500 and its overall goal in the marketplace. It’s not striving to be the most technically advanced headphone, but a good all rounder that is enjoyable to listen to for long periods of time. In that sense, the mid range tuning works very well.
The highs of the L500 are less bright and piercing than the SR009, and less dark and muted than the SR007mk2, making me think that they are doing their best to walk the path between the tuning of the two former flagship headphones from Stax. Again, this is a smart tuning decision, as it allows you to get a fairly high amount of clarity and sense of detail, whilst also being enjoyable for longer listening sessions.
In terms of detail and technical performance, the L500 is interesting for a few reasons. The overall details levels are absolutely commendable for their $830 MSRP, although this comes with a caveat I will mention a bit later. As I mentioned earlier, I actually found the slam, or impact of the L500 to be better than it is with the 009, but its overall dynamic performance does fall behind. The L500 is also a slightly slower sounding driver overall, not having that same level of speed and “notes are tied together” feeling some top level electrostatic headphones do. There was also a very small sense of a somewhat“plastick-y” nature vs some other more natural sounding headphones on the market. I didn’t find this to be bothersome at all, it was just something I noticed on a few tracks.
The soundstage of the L500 is actually incredibly enjoyable, being very open and airy sounding, fairly wide and tall, which may be due to the shape of the driver (more of a tall oval, than round.) Imaging again is entirely acceptable in this price range, though not class leading. Not that you would expect a middle of the lineup headphone to be class leading I suppose. The comfort of the L500 is very well done, I found them incredibly comfortable. The build quality is acceptable, but do be warned they are fully made out of plastic, thus leading to an overall feel that is not the most premium.
This leads me to the Caveat I mentioned earlier. The L500 is an $830 dollar headphone, and its overall sound and performance is commendable at that price
You need an amp, or transformer of some sort to drive them. This is less of a concern when dealing with the flagship level Stax headphones, as it is generally understood you need a good amp of some sort for them, and many listeners will already have one in their collection. These amplifiers come in at varying price points, but cannot be avoided. If you already have one at your disposal, then the L500 is easy to recommend. If you don’t, then it becomes a question of – do you like the sound of electrostatic headphones, and if you do, how much, do you like that sound signature? Its very easy to buy a $1000 dollar conventional headphone, and drive it with a suitable $99 dollar amp, and reach totally satisfying sound quality levels. With the L500, you will be looking at probably equalling the headphones cost at a minimum for the amplification of said headphones. This is a conundrum, and as mentioned before, it comes down to your personal preferences, and where you feel your money will go farthest. As such, I would recommend trying out the L500 locally if possible, or at a trade show, before deciding to go all in on the land of electrostatic headphones.
With all that being said, these headphones sound seriously great for their MSRP, and electrostatics do offer some traits and qualities that other headphone technologies simply can’t. Whether it is worth it to you to try them out, is entirely up to the individual. For me personally, I’m glad I’ve been exploring electrostatic headphones lately after spending just short of a decade largely avoiding them, as its been incredibly fun to do so, and as mentioned before, they just do some things others headphones can’t (and it’s up to the individual if they value those particular things.)
The Stax L500mk2 is a very interesting headphone. I love that it carries on a similar look to the classic Lambda series headphones from the 1980s, whilst also sounding quite modern and presenting a sound signature that is enjoyable for long chilled out listening session. They also seem to bridge the gap between the much more expensive former flagship Stax headphones and other conventional headphones on the market. If you are willing to take amplification needs into account, I would very much recommend these headphones to someone looking to try out electrostatic headphones. I am hoping to borrow the L300 from Stax at some point, as that may prove to be an even more compelling entry level electrostatic headphone at its $455 MSRP. Two thumbs up from me 🙂