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Stax New SR-3
Electrostatic Headphones (1971-1975)
© 2011 KenRockwell.com. All rights reserved.

Intro   Specs   Performance   Compared   Usage   Recommendations

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Stax New SR-3

Stax New SR-3 Headphones. enlarge. This free website's biggest source of support is when you use these links, especially this link directly to them at eBay, where they sell for about $100 (see How to Win at eBay). It helps me keep reviewing these oldies when you get yours through these links, thanks! Ken.

April 2011       All Reviews    Audio Reviews    Stax Reviews

Electrostatic Headphones: How They Work, and Why They Sound Better.

Audio-Technica   Beyer   Sennheiser   Sony   Stax   Ultrasone   Velodyne   Woo

 

Introduction         top

Intro   Specs   Performance   Compared   Usage   Recommendations

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These Stax New SR-3 electrostatic headphones are forty years old, and still outperform conventional dynamic headphones like the Sennheiser HD 800 and Ultrasone Edition 8 in many ways. These electrostatics are far cleaner and more open sounding.

This is because electrostatic technology is far superior for reproducing sound, compared to the primitive electrodynamic system (coil of wire inside a magnet glued to a heavy diaphragm) used by mass-market products like those from Sennheiser, Ultrasone and Beyer.

Stax invented electrostatic headphones in 1959, and had over 11 years of experience optimizing them when these were introduced. Stax' marketing people have always called these "earspeakers" instead of headphones.

These headphones win on subtlety. If you want to enjoy every nuance of your music over hours and hours of careful listening, these are your headphones. If you prefer something that boosts everything for an impressive 30-second demo spin, these aren't.

This 1971 classic looks identical to the original Stax SR-3 of 1968, and looks almost the same as Stax' very first SR-1 of 1959.

Comparing the performance of one completely different technology to another, like electrostatic to dynamic transducers, is like comparing the speed of a bicycle to the speed of a car. Even if you've got Lance Armstrong's million dollar brand-new bicycle, my beater 1974 slant-six Plymouth Duster goes a lot faster and farther.

Likewise, this Stax New SR-3 may look old and corny, but its proven electrostatic technology excels at super-low distortion and freedom from any resonance or coloration.

It sounds great; I prefer it to the harsh Sennheiser HD 800 I bought and returned. When I first got these Stax New SR-3 earspeakers with a Stax SRD-5 energizer for a whopping $150 delivered over eBay, I put them on and listened to them for 10 hours straight. They sound that good, that uncolored, that open, that undistorted, that unfatiguing and that comfortable. For $150, I was astounded, and shouting all sorts of obscene "Holy $*$&$!" at how much better they sounded than thousand-dollar coil-in-a-magnet-glued-to-a-hard-diaphragm headphones.

For decades every other headphone, like my Beyer DT-990s (600 Ohm), has been comparing itself to electrostatic headphones, saying that this or that technicality gave them a sound "almost as good as an electrostatic headphone." Now that I have the real thing, I know why everything else compares itself to electrostatics.

The New SR-3 win on subtlety for people who listen intently and carefully. They are not designed to impress the innocent on a 5-minute audition by emphasizing any part of the audio spectrum. The New SR-3 astound the longer you listen to them. The more I listen, the more I like them. I can enjoy my music, instead of listening to the sound of lesser headphones.

Inside, Stax New SR-3

Looking inside the earpads, Stax New SR-3. enlarge.

Look inside, and they use a lot of gold. These were never cheap headphones. In their day, they sold for the equivalent of about $1,000 with an energizer.

As you may have guessed, these New SR-3 in 1971 replaced Stax' original SR-3 of 1968. The Stax SR-X Mark III (1975-1979) are more different in looks than in actual performance from the New SR-3, so you'll see my reviews are very similar.

Stax' top models from 1979, the SR-Lambda, went to rectangular housings, however, Stax' top models ever since 1993 have been round, just like this New SR-3. In fact, maybe Stax has realized that these were the best all along: Stax newest $5,000 SR-009 of 2011 is again a round transducer!

 

Specifications         top

Intro   Specs   Performance   Compared   Usage   Recommendations

 

Diaphragm

Probably about 5 microns thick.

For comparison, a very thin dry-cleaning plastic bag, the type that blows away just by breathing on it, measures about 20 microns!

 

Plate Spacing (electrode gap)

300 microns.

 

Input

Connects to any Stax standard (230 V bias) 6-pin adapter, energizer or amplifier.

Won't connect to any Pro or Professional (580 V bias) 5-pin adapter, energizer or amplifier.

 

Impedance

Probably around 130 k Ohms at 10,000 Hz.

 

Capacitance

Probably around 120 pF.

 

Sensitivity

Probably around 95-100 dB at 100 V RMS.

 

Frequency Range

Probably rated 30 - 25,000 Hz, but I had no problems getting 20 Hz out of it.

 

Cord

Inside, Stax New SR-3

Stax New SR-3. enlarge.

 

Straight, supple cloth-covered round cord.

The red blip is the right channel.

2.5 meters (8 feet) long.

6.06mm diameter (0.24"), measured.

It's a much better cable than the cheap plastic cable of the Ultrasone Edition 8. It feels just like the cable of the Sennheiser HD 800, however this Stax cable has the same microphonics as most cables, not the mysteriously silent cable of the Sennheiser HD 800. ("Microphonics" mean that if you rattle the cable against something, that the sound is transmitted mechanically through to the headphones.)

 

Weight (actual measured)

10.2 oz. (290g), without cord.

13.155 oz. (372.9g), with original cord and plug.

 

Price

About $500 in 1971, corrected for inflation (about $100 in 1971 dollars).

Must be used with an energizer, adapter or amplifier, which sold for about as much at the time.

In 2011, expect to pay about $150 used for the New SR-3 and some sort of energizer, typically the Stax SRD-5.

 

Performance         top

Intro   Specs   Performance   Compared   Usage   Recommendations

 

Sound Quality         top

 

Overall

See also Electrostatic Headphones: How They Work, and Why They Sound Better.

The New SR-3 sounds great! As I said above, it's smooth, uncolored, undistorted, natural, clean, clear and open. Everything sounds, great, especially real acoustic and vocal music.

There is NO distortion, not even the 1% most people accept from conventional transducers as being part of life. The ultralight diaphragm ensures no acoustic energy storage, meaning that there is none of the time-smearing and resonances of other headphones to muddy the sound.

The New SR-3 sound great, and particularly non-fatiguing for hours and hours and hours of continuous enjoyment.

The New SR-3 are smooth and wonderful. Compared to newer or glitzier headphones, they might seem to have a slightly more limited bandwidth, while in fact, they are simply more accurate and less distorted. I prefer these New SR-3 to the overly-bright and uncomfortable Sennheiser HD 800.

Everything is balanced and natural with the New SR-3. The biggest limitation to sound quality is your recordings. Vocals are incredible, but many popular recordings do so many weird things to vocals to make them stand out from the band that these limitations will become quite obvious with the New SR-3.

With the New SR-3, everything sounds as it ought to. Everything is in its place, with incredible detail without any midrange boost. Everything sounds distinct from everything else. Nothing mushes into anything else. Every voice, multitrack layer and instrument is heard distinctly as it should be, not as a bland wall-of-mixed-up-crud.

With the Stax SRD-5 or Stax SRM-1/MK-2 Professional, the treble is a little muted, which is easy to correct with a treble control, especially if you're driving these from an energizer fed from a stereo receiver, or a Stax amplifier fed from a proper preamplifier with tone controls. I'm picky; I preferred only about 2 dB of treble boost. It's that subtle. Without a deliberate treble boost with these energizers and amps, the New SR-3 sound great, but a little more distant than newer Stax headphones like the SR-Lambda Professional, which I find a bit bright.

Oddly, with the Stax SRA-12S, it could be my imagination, but the treble seems perfect with the New SR-3. The SRA-12S also has a huge amount of gain, so you'll be able to deafen yourself from any source if you're not careful.

At first I thought I heard some congestion in the treble with the Stax SRD-5, but it certainly isn't there with a dedicated amplifier like the Stax SRM-1/MK-2 Professional.

 

Bass

To my surprise, bass is solid and perfect. There is plenty of deep bass. There is no limitation to bass output, and it sounds great. Bass is tight, controlled, separate and without any of the inherent resonance of all magnetic (conventional coil-magnet) speakers and headphones. What you hear is exactly what's there.

At first I thought I heard some distortion with pure 20 cps sine waves, but that turned out to be a limitation of the transformers in the Stax SRD-5.

Used with a proper amplifier, like the Stax SRM-1/MK-2 Professional, 20 cps is even cleaner than with dynamic headphones like the Beyer DT 990 (600 Ohm).

 

Soundstage

Inside, Stax New SR-3

Note the hole distribution. enlarge.

Even back in 1971, Stax was paying attention to soundstage: when worn, the higher-frequency sounds come more from the front!

Stax also angled the diaphragms slightly, bringing them slightly forward and rotating them back slightly towards the ears. Sennheiser copied this in their flagship Sennheiser HD-800 headphones.

Soundstage is what we expect from headphones.

I love it, and prefer it to speakers.

On-center things sound solid, centered and coherent.

 

Power

The New SR-3 go LOUD. My ears gave up long before they did, and the New SR-3 do it with zero distortion.

The New SR-3 are slightly more sensitive than the Stax SR-Lambda Pro when compared on an amplifier with simultaneous professional and conventional outputs, like the Stax SRM-1/MK-2 Professional. When both are run from standard 230 V bias, this New SR-3 is much more sensitive than the Stax SR-Lambda Pro.

These electrostatic headphones don't have the limited power output or low-frequency limitations of electrostatic loudspeakers.

These play more than loud enough to make myself deaf, rated easily for about 110 dB SPL at no distortion.

These New SR-3 headphones play far louder than I'll ever want them to, all with no distortion.

 

Comfort         top

The Stax New SR-3 is a supra-aural headphone, meaning it sits on top of your ears.

These are super-comfortable to me.

The premium Kobe vinyl sits on my ears, and feels good for hours and hours.

 

Mechanical Quality         top

I'm impressed: the hardware is 18-8 stainless steel! You don't get that from Sennheiser.

The earpads are made of premium Kobe vinyl.

Inside, Stax New SR-3

Gold! Stax New SR-3. enlarge.

There's plenty of gold inside, too.

 

Compared         top

Intro   Specs   Performance   Compared   Usage   Recommendations

Newer Stax earspeakers are a bit brighter, and play louder, but I'm not a fan of brightness or listening too loud.

These New SR-3 go more than loud enough, and with no distortion.

 

Usage         top

Intro   Specs   Performance   Compared   Usage   Recommendations

Compatibility

Connector, Stax New SR-3

6-Pin indexed plug, Stax New SR-3.

As you can see by the funny connector, the Stax New SR-3 must be used with one of Stax' dedicated energizers or amplifiers. (notice the nice hand-painted white alignment index line, compared to the plug of newer Stax headphones, which have only a black bump.)

The New SR-3 operates with Stax' traditional 230 V bias and 6-pin sockets, so it works with all energizers and most amplifiers, except any 5-pin sockets marked "pro" or "professional," which use 580 V bias. The New SR-3 can't be plugged into the 5-pin sockets, which is because it can't handle the 580 V professional polarizing voltage.

Not to worry; this New SR-3 is more sensitive at 230 V than the Stax Lambda Professional is at 580V. Among the reason for this is that the New SR-3 uses tighter spacing (300 microns) between its plates, so the effective voltage gradient at 230 V inside the new SR-3 isn't that much less than the gradient inside newer "pro" headphones which distribute their 580 V bias across a larger spacing (500 microns.)

It works with all the newer amplifiers, except those with only Professional (5-pin 580 V) outputs.

 

Amplifiers         top

The Stax SRD-5 works, and probblay will come with the New SR-3 when you get them. They sound great at bottom dollar, but better dedicated amps will sound even better.

With the Stax SRM-1/MK-2 Professional, the treble is a little muted, which is easy to correct with a treble control, especially if you're driving these from an energizer fed from a stereo receiver, or a Stax amplifier fed from a proper preamplifier with tone controls. I'm picky; I preferred only about 2 dB of treble boost. It's that subtle. Without a deliberate treble boost with these energizers and amps, the New SR-3 sound great, but a little more distant than newer Stax headphones like the SR-Lambda Professional, which I find a bit bright.

Oddly, with the Stax SRA-12S, the treble seems perfect with the New SR-3.

I heard some congestion in the treble with the Stax SRD-5, but it certainly isn't there with a dedicated amplifier like the Stax SRM-1/MK-2 Professional.

The very best sound with the New SR-3 came from the SRM-T1. Compared to the Stax Omega SR-007 MK2, the New SR-3 is a little more colored, but the New SR-3 actually has better bass than the new Omegas!

 

Safety         top

Watch for High Voltage when unplugging the headphones from an adapter, energizer or amplifier.

It seems easy to grab the pins by accident as you insert or remove the plug from a socket, and if you touch them while energized, you may get a jolt of 230 Volts.

Beware: these voltages stay in this equipment for a long time, even when unplugged. Be careful!

 

Charge Time         top

This system uses static electricity, meaning non-moving (static) electric charges.

The static charge, a.k.a. polarizing voltage, is supposed to take a few minutes to spread around the headphone's diaphragm. If the charge was free to move at will, it would move under the forces that are supposed to move the diaphragm when subjected to voltage fields from the plates. If the charge was free to move (not static), electrostatic headphones and speakers wouldn't work.

Therefore, it takes time for the static charge to spread across the entire diaphragm.

As the charge spreads, it is normal for the audio to increase in level for the first few minutes after you've plugged the adapter into the wall. It's also normal for each channel to come up at slightly different rates, meaning it is expected that for the first few moments the channels often seem unbalanced.

Personally, I leave this thing plugged in and energized all the time, so my headphones are always ready to go. It's hard to measure, but electrostatic systems love to be left alone — that's why they're called static, and not dynamic. Some people say, and I wouldn't disagree with them, that electrostatic systems sound best if they're left plugged in for at least a day.

 

Man-Handling         top

The diaphragms are virtually weightless, and float around in the air between two perforated metal plates.

Stax cautions that if you press these against your head, the diaphragm might move to one side of the 300 micron space between the perforated plates in which it operates, and discharge its polarizing voltage through that plate.

In other words, if you hear a Pop! while moving these around, that's normal.

I've also had this happen if I put them down too quickly on a hard table: the diaphragm wiggles too much, touches one of the plates, and discharges.

When either of the diaphragms discharges this way, it doesn't hurt anything, but you will lose most of your bass response for a minute while the static charge builds back up across the diaphragm.

 

Recommendations         top

Intro   Specs   Performance   Compared   Usage   Recommendations

The Stax New SR-3 is one of the least expensive ways to get the best headphone sound available.

For a total of about $150 delivered, I got this and an SRD-5 adapter, and I greatly prefer this setup to the $1,500 Sennheiser HD 800 headphones I returned a few months ago. This Stax setup sounds far better!

Electrostatic headphones are in a completely different class above the primitive electrodynamic (coil in a magnet) systems used in almost all mass-market headphones and loudspeakers, like that Sennheiser.

If you want to spend more, and you probably do if you're reading this, the newer Professional (580 V) amplifiers and Lambda headphones sound even cleaner and more open, but also brighter. I love listening to these New SR-3 directly, but when I listen to the SR-Lambda Professional, I often use an equalizer to lose a couple of dB around 4 kHz for them to sound great with common recordings.

The bass of the New SR-3 sounds great, but if you want to beat yourself senseless with loud, deep bass, the SR-Lambda Professional and newer Stax pro-series headphones are designed specifically to do this even better. The New SR-3 has great bass for almost anything, but if deep bass is your thing, the Lambda Pros have better deep bass.

A beauty of the complete Stax system is that everything is pretty much compatible with everything, with the only caveat that these oldest headphones won't work with newer amplifiers that only have Pro (580V) outputs.

If you find the efforts I put into sharing this information helpful, this free website's biggest source of support is when you use these links, especially this link directly to them at eBay, where they sell for about $100 (see How to Win at eBay). It helps me keep reviewing these oldies when you get yours through these links, thanks! Ken.

 

More Information: February 1972 Gramophone review of the original SR-3.

 

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