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August 17, 2022

Spirit Torino's Super Leggera Headphone Review

I’ve been into HiFi audiophile headphones for a couple of decades now, and the hobby today is probably the biggest it’s ever been. While headphones were invented in the late 19th century, those intended for musical reproduction got their start in the late 50s with the Koss Stereophone in 1958. Koss released numerous quality headphones for decades and remained very popular. In the early 90s, higher-end headphones were having a renaissance of sorts with Sennheiser making the groundbreaking HD580, Grado releasing their SR series, and Sony introducing stellar products like the CD3000. In the 2000s we had AKG release the K701s, Sennheiser the HD600s, Grado the metal-bodied SR-325s, and Beyerdynamic refreshing and marketing its DT series for recreational listening. Into the 2010s and the options have exploded far beyond belief with many more players in the game and brands accommodating many different tastes. One company that really stands out to me is Grado, a small family-run business operating out of New York. 

Grado (pronounced gray-doh) is what I’d consider a conservative business that hasn’t made many changes as the headphone sector has turned into a whirlwind of competition. If you look at the SR125 which was introduced in 1993, it looks nearly the same today, and I’d imagine it is still produced by hand the same way it was back then. There are the plastic grills with discs in the middle noting the model number, plastic gimbals and angled metal rods attaching them to the plastic rod-blocks marked “L” and “R” and looking inside you can see the driver and the wires running to it soldered by hand.

The Grado Hemp Headphones
There’s something very charming about small businesses making hand-made goods in this day and age where everything is becoming automated; that’s probably what I like best about Grados. They refuse to conform and continue their own path, stubbornly ignoring pleas for removable cables and more comfortable pads. It makes them polarizing, with some people dismissing them as cheap looking or antiquated compared to new planar magnetics and dynamic headphones that fully cover the ears, while others embrace their quirks and often buy more than one.

If you haven’t heard a Grado before, they have a general house sound. That would be a little light in the lowest bass, fun punchy sub bass, neutral mids and crisp, forward high energy in the upper mids and highs. As you go up the line they become more resolving and refined (generally). New additions to the stable such as the limited Hemp release and the RS-1X which incorporates hemp in the wood body are voiced a little more warmly which makes them great for longer listening sessions free of fatigue. Just about anyone who’s listened to a Grado will tell you they are great for rock music as you can really feel the energy come through the music.  

So if you try to distill what makes a Grado a Grado and you remove all the intangible brand-equity that comes with a family business making hand-made goods, you’re going to be left with the fairly unique use of rudimentary gimbals with fixed rods that are inserted into rod-blocks which are held by the headband, along with 44-50 millimeter dynamic drivers in a smaller driver cup that doesn’t fully cover the ears. 

Unique engraving options

Andrea Ricci, a fellow Grado enthusiast, started modding headphones using Beyerdynamic and Grado parts in the late 2000s. Creating a company called Spirit Torino, he began offering items for sale in 2016 including the Spirit Labs MMXVI which were Grados with custom engraved metal cups, a new headband, specially tuned SR80e drivers and a custom cable. Other headphones were to come in the following years like the Twin Pulse with isobaric motor unit. Now a full-fledged company with more mature products and distribution outside of Italy, Spirit Torino has become a headphone company that audiophiles should consider when selecting among the other high-end brands available.

While once a curiosity, I was finally able to obtain a demo pair of Spirit Torino headphones for audition. The Super Leggera, which probably resemble Grados the most out of Andrea’s offerings, are nearly all metal, from the cups, the rod-blocks, the rods, the driver grill, etc. The cups are partially anodized and have been CNC engraved. There is a generously sized suede headband with visible stitching and the pads protrude out the way a Grado G cushion would. The pads however are fenestrated suede which are probably about the size of Beyerdynamic DT series pads and look like an offering from Dekoni. The rod-blocks utilize two Allen screws, one holding the headband, and the other allowing you to set the position of the rod more permanently. The second feature is especially important given the weight of the cups, and something that would be welcome on Grado’s larger metal cupped models.

The Spirit Torino with luxurious suede headband and handy locking screws 

These features, along with the weight, come together to give a sense of quality / luxury. Another welcome feature is a removable cable, a feature that really makes far too much sense not to include. Everyone is using different single ended or balanced connectors, everyone has a different space between them and their gear, and if you have pets or are just hard on your gear the cable will likely get damaged, so an easy replacement goes a long way.  

If you like customization, you’ll be very pleased that Spirit Torino headphones come in a variety of different color cups and headbands. Plain black doesn’t get to have all the fun like usual, with vibrant reds, blues, and intricate engravings adorning some models. I get the impression that Andrea really enjoys the CNC machine as so many of the parts have been fashioned with it. I believe Grado also uses a CNC machine for cutting/engraving, however it is limited to the cups.

Beautiful CNC work everywhere you look.

So that’s all good and well, but how do they sound, and how do they stack up against Grados?

This review will be comprised of my initial audition of the Super Leggera, and after I had sent over to Andrea in Italy to have it updated to the latest revision.

My first impressions of the non-upgraded version were very good. I found I liked them best with Todd the Vinyl Junkie (TTVJ) flat pads. Sub-bass was very powerful and succinct, larger than life and probably a bit too much for those looking for a balanced headphone. There was a strong authority to entire sound range where everything was dominant and in-your-face (or ears in this case). The presentation was full, warm, and not much in the way of soundstage. The clarity of the highs is usually reduced a little bit when using the flat pads with Grados, which is also the case here, but many of us like the tradeoff. The early version Super Leggeras are definitely a fun sounding headphone with the flats, but clearly not as refined as something like a Focal Utopia.

Upon speaking with Andrea who runs Spirit Torino, he let me know that there are a couple of important updates that have been added to the units, including a “neodymium magnet enhancement of 3.8 kg” on each driver, and a “Nen Ventilarion” pad system, which may just be a bad Google translation of ventilated. After a short trip to Italy, these two changes had a profound impact on the sound, which went from Ibiza dance club to something more akin to a symphony hall and reminding me of the Grado GS presentation.

If you’re not familiar with the GS-2000e, it doesn’t have the peaky upper midrange that defines the Grado “energetic” house sound, but there is a slight peak there. There is also a pronounced sub-bass energy that seems present with nearly all Grados. The overall sound is both crisp and full. Comparing the GS-2000e ($1,399 USD MSRP) to the Super Leggera ($1,600 USD), the transition from subbass to midrange is the most stand-out change (while still being a little on the punchy). I believe adding the weight to the back of the driver assists to make the transition much smoother. Also present was a wider soundstage, while not as wide as something like the hybrid driver Enigma Acoustic Dharma headphones, there was more of a palpable space, likely created from the new ventilated / fenestrated pads. Other than that, the sound seems a little crisper when it came to guitars, but relatively similar.

You might be wondering why changing headphone pads makes such a marked difference. The sound of dynamic drivers like Grado and Spirit Torino can vary wildly depending on how close they are to your ear. As the driver gets closer to the ear, bass and fullness increase dramatically while treble clarity suffers and soundstage shrinks, and when it’s pulled away all these facets are reversed. Thus, it’s very important to get the position right. I can tell Spirit Torino went to great lengths to not impair the sound by have a very thin fabric between the ear and the driver that is barely there and having the circumaural pads (pads that cover the ears completely) get the driver at a very specific distance from the ear canal. 

Note the perforated cups and attractive CNC-cut grill

The verdict? Honestly, I liked both the original and latest version of the Super Leggera for different reasons. The original made thumping electronica and synthwave wildly exciting, and the latest version worked much better for acoustic guitar and indie rock genres I enjoy such as shoegaze and prog. Compared to the GS-2000e the latest version offers a similar sound with a little more refinement and is built so impressively it’s hard not to gawk at them before putting them on your head. At $1,600 USD I believe it is priced competitively for the sound quality, and very reasonable when you consider the build quality.

Justin of Headamp has been in the headphone hobby 20+ years now and is the U.S. distributor for Spirit Torino. I’ve met him at a few meets and he’s a great fellow. Drop him a line at Headamp.com if you’d like to check out this exciting new offering in the headphone world. 

Please note the Spirit Torino Super Leggera was provided to Zynsonix Audio LLC at a discounted rate for an honest review.

April 15, 2022

High-end Custom Audiophile Headphone Cable for HiFiMan Susvaras

High-end Custom Audiophile Headphone Cable for HiFiMan Susvaras

If you are looking for high-end audiophile wire, ultra pure ohno cast copper, aka UP-OCC, should be on your shortlist. The copper is drawn from much larger crystals so it has a much smoother and cleaner appearance under a microscope versus standard oxygen free copper with a more grainy texture. See below: 

Thanks to it's long grain structure, UP-OCC is commonly used for higher-end audiophile cables. But what if we wanted something even better? Zynsonix now has access to ultra pure, ohno cast silver (UP-OCS) wire known for even better conductivity. 

For this post I'll be assembling a Zynsonix UP-OCS Centurian Octet headphone cable for the HiFiMan Susvaras, easily one of the best headphones on the market. The Susvara's are known to be very unsensitive so that's why the Octet formation is recommended to get the extra juice from your headphone amp or speaker amp to the headphones. 

At the start we will need to hand-braid the UP-OCS silver wire, this is a pair of litz quads which will be running in parallel. 

I like to give the cable a nice snug PTFE Teflon wrap to help reduce unwanted vibration and microphonics. 

Next comes the sleeving. We went with ViaBlue's patterned black, red and white patterned sleeving

The next step is to add the Zynsonix blind embossed leather tag and Y-splitter.

And we can terminate the cable with some Cardas Quadeutectic solder, 3.5mm connectors and a Furutech rhodium plated 4 pin XLR for balanced audio. 

This is an extremely high performing audio cable that does the HiFiMan Susvaras justice. It's also relatively light despite the extra conductors thanks to the hand-braided UP-OCS. If you'd like to hear the best your Susvaras can sound, please check out the Zynsonix Imperial Legate. It can be terminated in any balanced or single-ended rhodium connection including 4 pin XLR, dual 3 pin XLR, 6.3mm TRS, 4.4mm TRRRS, 3.5mm TRS, 2.5mm TRRS, bananas/spades, or SpeakON connector for Benchmark AHB2.


March 18, 2022

Headphone and Speaker Switchboxes for HiFiMan Susvara

I wanted to show a few different solutions for headphone and speaker switchboxes for the HiFiMan Susvara headphones. Everyone knows these are basically the least sensitive headphones on the market so they need to be powered with a speaker amp to sound their best. Speaker amps weren't really made to power 60 ohm headphones, so it's nice to keep them happy with a load closer to what they were designed to output. Also, if you are using multiple amps or one amp for both headphone and speaker duty, it can be pretty annoying to have to get behind your equipment and swap the spades or bananas every time you need to switch. Thus the need for high quality switches that won't degrade the signal. 

First use case is a gentleman who likes very minimalist looking equipment, thus the limited printed letters on the front. He wanted to be able to use one amp and switch between his Susvaras and his speakers, so simple single switch operation. The headphone outputs are for low sensitivity (Susvaras or HE-6) and high sensitivity for regular headphones. 

This chassis has a 10mm front panel and 2mm for everything else so it has a nice weight to it. This is good for those of you with thick speaker cables. 10mm really has to be machined/milled, most panel mounted parts aren't compatible. In this case we milled so the 4 pin XLRs could be flush mount, and the switch needed some inletting from the back. On the back we have the splendid Cardas CCGS binding posts which are milled copper block covered in gold and rhodium. They're my personal favorite; pricey but you get what you pay for. It also has nice thick aluminum feet with ring dampers but they are hiding underneath. Inside is hand-sleeved high purity soft drawn silver. 

Next we have a slightly more budget oriented build that will allow the user to select one of two amps to either power a pair of speakers or the Susvara headphones. It also has a subwoofer output and an RCA is on the back so the user can ground the chassis to a grounding system if desired.

Engraved brass plates provide identification for the inputs/outputs and functions. This unit utilizes a set of EAR isolation feet.

This one isn't necessarily for a Susvara but it allows the user to select between 3 balanced headphone amps and 4 balanced headphones. It features nice Grayhill switches and hand-sleeved high purity soft-drawn silver. The knobs are milled aluminum. The 3 inputs are on the back of the unit. Remember to turn down the amplifiers before switching for two reasons, one tube amps need a load, and two, you could inadvertently switch to a higher sensitivity headphone and the high volume could harm it. 

I make a lot of these types of projects but these I found to be some of the more interesting ones. As always you can order a speaker amp to headphone converter that can switch between low and high sensitivity modes, and can switch between 4 pin and 1/4" outputs. This one has a speakON connector for use with a Benchmark AHB2 Amplifier. The Benchmark is a popular choice to use with the Susvaras.

I hope you enjoyed this little gallery. If you need a custom high-end headphone or speaker switcher you know where to find me :) 

If you are trying to power low-sensitivity headphones via a speaker amplifier, please check out the CBOX at Zynsonix.com. It provides a safe consistent load for your amplifier while delivering the juice your headphones need. 

January 18, 2022

The MOD Rock Bottom Guitar Effects Pedal

Today's post is a guest post from my bud Ryan Price and covers the MOD Rock Bottom Pedal. Ryan's been getting his feet wet in the DIY audio scene and doesn't shy away from some classic point-to-point wiring.

Please excuse the possible lack of common decorum for a post.  This is my first one and it’s a learning process.  I picked up a DIY guitar pedal build kit by MOD from Amplified parts.  I chose the Rock Bottom pedal for a few reasons.  First is I wanted an analog Fuzz.  Second is the extended low end so I can use it with both bass and guitar.  the “3” rating seemed like a challenge for a pedal build novice with some soldering experience.  Considering that I have plenty of time to kill as I’m currently recovering from a recent heart transplant, I went for it even if it was gonna be just outside my skill set so far.  I was able to finish it over the course of about 4-6 hours over a few nights. 

The Pedal Kit

Now for the breakdown.  The MOD kit comes with everything you need minus tools and solder.  I used a Hakko 888D soldering iron but for this application most would suffice I believe.  Hand tools I used were a MusicNomad guitar multitool, strippers, dikes, hemostats, and some modified pliers.  I put a bit of shrink tube around the jaws so as not to damage wire and components.  While the kit comes with everything you need the wire is not easy to work with if you don’t have a solder pot.  I own one but did not have access to it at the time of the build.  I substituted the wire with some I had left over from a previous project.  Its if a smaller gauge but of much higher quality.  That’s the only substitution I made. 

Tools of the Trade

The build is rather straightforward.  Starting with terminal strips, switches, and connectors.  The layout is very straight forward and with some planning can be a super clean build.  

Classic Turret Strips

Next they have you measure out the wire.  As I followed the directions closely up to this point I found the lengths a bit on the long side (editors note: you can make the wires shorter depending on your OCD level). But I can see why as its easy to trim to size.  Not so easy to add length!  Now I got ahead of myself and terminated both ends of the runs as I was building.  For my next build I plan to take things a bit slower.  Before terminating any connection I will dry fit all components, bend and run, then get a plan of how to go forward.  The directions are decent there are a few times you run into overlapping components. 

Wired Up

Component layout is definitely the most difficult part of the build and you should take your time.  Plan ahead and follow the directions.  That will make this build a breeze.  Don’t get ahead of yourself and begin terminating at a whim like I did as you will regret it.  It will also take more time than doing a layout before assembly.  Trust me on that one!  

All Parts Installed

Once I fixed all my errors (there were many) it came together nicely. Powered right up and gave me sweet, sweet two transistor Fuzz! This pedal is a massive bang for your buck win. I can recommend it 100% to all but the most novice of DIY people. I can’t wait to build another MOD pedal in the near future. Amplified Parts has a great selection of all related components and tools (Editors note: if you're a knob snob they have a nice selection). As well as super solid shipping. I can’t recommend them enough.

Finished Up

So if you’re got some soldering skills, desire to DIY, and a few hours I say go for it!  

I left the sticker off.  My wife is an artist and I’m going to have her paint and label the pedal!

(Editors note: we'll update the story when Ryan and his wife are all done.)