Are Headbands the "Secret Sauce" in Earphones?

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Several weeks ago I broke the headband on my 19-year-old Stax Lambda Nova Classic headphones. It was due to go. Two years ago I replaced the "set screw" that holds in the right side transducer on the headband with a small brad because the original part had fallen out and disappeared. That bit of redneck engineering had held up for a couple of years with regular repeated re-super-gluing. But finally the small often-glued crack at the screw-hole expanded and the section below the screw hole broke off completely. No amount of superglue, epoxy or liquid metal would put it back together again. It was time for a new headband.

Fortunately Stax still sells replacement headbands for the Stax Nova. It's a part that is still used in the current-production SR-303 and SR-307. So for the princely sum of $40 plus $13 shipping I got a replacement headband. Don't get me wrong, I'm not bitching about the price. Considering the custom nature of the part, I don't feel as if $40 is exploitive.

About fifteen minutes after the new headband arrived from Stax I had it installed on my Lambda Nova Classics. That's when the surprises began. My old Stax Lambda Nova Classics sounded different with the new headband. How do I know for sure? I compared it with my pair of original high-voltage Lambda Pro headphones.

During the past couple of months I've been doing a lot of A/B comparisons between the original Lambda Pros and the Lambda Nova Classic headphones. These listening sessions were principally to compare different Stax headphone amplifiers, but obviously I had ample time to compare the differences between these two Stax models.

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With its original 19-year-old headband the Novas had slightly more bass extension than the Pros - emphasis on the word "slightly." In most other respects such as soundstage, upper frequency extension, and dynamic acuity, the two earphones were very similar. With the new headband the Nova's gained not only bass extension, but also they gained in midrange presence and dynamic precision. The Nova's overall sound also gained immediacy, transient speed and micro-dynamic contrast. How could all these sonic changes be a result of the headband? Two words - clamping force.

It probably happened gradually over the course of the last nearly two decades - the plastic used in the original Nova headband had gotten softer and less springy. The result was the original headband no longer pushed the earpads as tightly onto my head. This lower clamping force reduced the bass and the overall immediacy of the Nova's because the stator's surface was further way from ears. With the new headband the Nova's driver was closer to my ears and the seal around my ears was better.

Replacing the Stax Nova headband reminded me of the feeling when I've replaced the tires on my Subaru (which due to mountain roads happens every 15K or so). It's that  "new car" feel, which was just as much new tires as new car.

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I suppose I shouldn't really be surprised. After all a headphone's fit is as critical to its performance as a room's acoustics are to the final sound of a loudspeaker. Improve the fit, and a headphone's sound will improve as well. In the case of my Stax Lambda Nova Classic headphones, getting back to what was closer to their original performance level was a simple as replacing their headband.

I'm tempted to replace the headband for my original Lambda Pro headphones. Even though the original looks fine, my time with the Nova Classics has convinced me how much a properly performing headband contributes to the overall sound of a classic Stax Lambda headphone.

 

 

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