Final D8000 planar magnetic headphone with air film damping system
Final is a respected Japanese manufacturer of premium-quality headphones, earphones, and other audio products. Founded in 1974 by the late, great audio legend Kanemori Takai, Final Audio Design (as the company was first known) was from the beginning a company known for a technology-rich but always music-centred approach to product design. In 2015, about a year after Takai-san’s passing, the company simplified its name to Final and today is led by Mitsuru Hosoo, the firm’s visionary President and chief of product design. Hosoo-san is keenly aware of Final’s ‘music first’ heritage and under his guidance the firm has launched an expanded range of SONOROUS-series dynamic-driver headphones as well as several important new families of affordable high-performance earphones. But at the Axpona 2017 and Munich High-End 2017 events, Final previewed what is arguably its most ambitious new product to date: namely, the revolutionary D8000 planar magnetic headphone that is the subject of this review.
In a way, Final’s planar magnetic D8000 came as a great surprise, given that the firm enjoyed such a strong reputation for building ultra-high-performance dynamic driver-based products (a good example would be the famous SONOROUS X headphone). However, through a series of seminar-type presentations on the D8000, Final made it clear that its aim was to create a breakthrough, ‘best of two worlds’ design that would, in Final’s terms, offer, “…the sensitive high ranges of planar magnetic models and the volume and open-feel bass tones of dynamic models.” With this objective in mind, Final took a ‘clean-sheet-of-paper’ design approach for the D8000 and in the process effectively wound up reinventing planar magnetic driver technology, as we know it.
From the start, Final was aware that planar magnetic drivers offer certain inherent benefits such as light, fast, and responsive membrane-like driver diaphragms that, unlike dynamic driver cones or domes, enjoy the advantage of being driven over their entire surface area and not just from a centrally positioned voice coil. However, planar magnetic drivers also pose certain design challenges that are not easily overcome such as potential membrane resonance problems and distortions caused by airflow turbulence as sound waves pass through the grid-like magnet arrays used in most planar magnetic designs.
After weighing these advantages and potential drawbacks, the Final team came up with what may well be a different and better kind of planar magnetic driver. First, they elected to use an essentially ring-shaped driver diaphragm featuring an inward-spiraling circular band of aluminium voice coil traces. In the Final design, these traces are not bonded to the diaphragm membrane via an adhesive (as in many other many planar magnetic designs), but rather are etched into the surface of an ultra-thin film diaphragm material with an extremely thin aluminium outer coating. This etching process, says Final, yields a diaphragm/voice coil assembly fully one third lighter than equivalent dynamic driver assemblies of the same diameter. The diaphragm also uses a series of concentric ring-like corrugations that help promote more linear motion over the diaphragm’s entire working surface. By dispensing with the usual voice-coil adhesives and using a corrugated diaphragm, the D8000 driver is said to achieve superior “reproduction of subtle high frequencies.”
But Final didn’t stop there, because each D8000 driver also features two sets of dual ring-shaped (or ‘doughnut-shaped’) magnets, where one magnet is placed just to the inside and the other to the outside of the voice coil traces; magnetic fields from the inner and outer magnet rings combining to create an evenly balanced magnetic field across the entire voice coil surface. Importantly, each driver features both front and rear-facing sets of magnets (both for improved efficiency and for lower distortion) with the magnet rings positioned so as to minimise obstructions to sound waves launching from the diaphragm surface.
Apart from resonance problems, one other challenge some planar magnetic drivers face is diaphragm over-excursion on high amplitude, low frequency bass notes (this typically occurs at the diaphragm’s centre where bass excursions are usually at a maximum). Final addresses this problem partly through its ring-shaped voice coil/diaphragm/magnet assembly, but primarily through an ingenious air film damping system (AFDS). The conceptual design for the AFD system was suggested to Final by a team of high-end microphone specialists from Sony who collaborated with Final on the D8000 driver design. As it happens, many high-end studio microphones use air film damping to control resonances and to prevent diaphragm over-excursion, so Sony’s engineers reasoned the same approach should work well in planar magnetic headphones, which in essence act like microphones in reverse.
Final’s air film damping system is conceptually simple, though the engineering mathematics involved in making it work are dauntingly complex (at least for maths-challenged audio journalists like me). The basic idea calls for sets of perforated metal screens to be positioned a precise distance away from the front and back sides of the driver diaphragm, in effect providing a semi-constrained layer of air between the diaphragm and the outside world. Sound waves are able to pass through the perforations in the metal screens, while the openings in the screens offer a just-right amount of resistance so as to provide critical damping for the diaphragm. In this way, the AFD system minimises ringing or spurious membrane resonances, while also providing what Final calls a desirable degree of “diaphragm braking” to prevent diaphragm over-travel on loud, low bass passages. In practice, the AFD system offers sonic benefits that are easy to hear and appreciate.
Completing the picture are driver/ear-cup frames that are precision machined from an aluminium/magnesium alloy and that receive a carefully applied textured coating (similar to the finishes found on some camera bodies), which is said to help dampen minute frame resonances. The ear cups come fitted with special fabric-covered breathable foam ear pads chosen, says Final, because the breathable pads gave demonstrably superior sonic results as compared to typical ‘sealed’ leather-clad ear pads.
The D8000 uses a frame/headband design similar to the ones used for Final’s popular SONOROUS dynamic driver headphones. The design uses a metal support band reaching from one side of the wearer’s head to the other. The overhead portion of the frame is covered with an attractive, finely crafted leather pad, while the left and right ‘arms’ of the frame provide sliding ear cup carriers and L/R channel markers. These carriers allow vertical ear cup positioning adjustments and enable the cups to swivel up-and-down and side-to-side for a comfortable fit. The headphones comes with an aluminium stand purpose-built to fit the D8000’s frame, plus two sets of very high-quality signal cables: a 3m cable fitted with bayonet-style locking connectors on the headphone end and a 6.35mm headphone plug on the amplifier end, plus a 1.5m cable terminated with a 3.5mm mini-plug. Packaging for the D8000 looks exquisite and is cleverly designed, but let me advise that you may need an advanced degree in Origami to figure out how to open the somewhat puzzle-like box without damaging anything (just take your time and be patient).
For my listening tests I used the D8000 in conjunction with the excellent Astell&Kern portable digital audio player but also in a larger multi-component system consisting of a Windows/jRiver Media Center-based music server (loaded with CD and higher resolution PCM, DXD, and DSD music files), a Chord Electronics Hugo 2 used solely as a DAC, and a hybrid valve/solid-state iFi Audio Pro iCAN headphone amplifier. The system featured a Chord Electronics USB cable made specifically for the Hugo 2, a set of Rega Couple interconnects, a pair of AudioQuest Jitterbug digital noise control devices, and a Richard Grays Power Company power conditioner.
Straight out of the box, the D8000 offered astonishingly fine bass and midrange performance, but with upper mids and highs that, though very clear, also seemed a bit reticent or subdued. However, after several hours of run-in time using a ‘Cascade Noise Burn-In Sounds’ track from Tara Labs, the D8000’s mids, upper-mids, and highs opened up in a magnificent way, so that the headphone’s tonal balance became pleasingly neutral while its overall resolution, transient speed, and focus took quite dramatic steps forward. The resulting sound was, I must say, simply breathtakingly good, though in an effortless and almost self-effacing way (the D8000 offers listener’s huge helpings of sonic excellence, but never sounds as if it is working hard to do so).
I find myself struggling for words to describe the D8000’s sound, in part because it draws together a number of sonic performance elements that rarely converge as comfortably as they do in this headphone. Stated simply, the D8000 combines in roughly equal parts the following qualities: accurate and neutral voicing, high levels of resolution, superb transient agility from top to bottom, finely shaded dynamic contrasts, energetic expressiveness and impact, and—here is the trickiest part of all—remarkable freedom from audible ringing, overshoot, compression, and other forms of sonic ‘gunk’ that might ordinarily cloud the sound. In other words, the D8000 achieves excellence partly through the many desirable things it does well, but also through the many potential bad things it doesn’t do at all. For me, this made listening through the D8000 a revelation, because it let me hear recordings in their most pure, unexaggerated, and unadulterated form—as if the slate suddenly had been wiped clean of a thousand and one small sonic obstructions, leaving just the music behind for me to study and enjoy.
I could probably cite dozens of tracks to illustrate the qualities I’ve just described, but let me pick just a few to highlight the Final D8000’s strengths. To hear the kinds of low frequency/high amplitude bass the D8000 can deliver try the Jim Brock Ensemble’s track ‘O Vazio’ from Jazz Kaleidoscope Sampler[Reference Recordings, HDCD]. The track opens with the subtle low-level tinkling of high percussion instruments and tentative low-level ‘thwoomps’ from lower pitched instruments, but then introduces a series of immense, very low frequency percussion ‘thwacks’—instrumental outbursts so violent that they routinely cause headphones and loudspeakers to bottom out and/or distort. The D8000, however, sailed through these passages not just cleanly, but exuberantly and with no compression artifacts that I could discern. Over and over again, the D8000 meets bass challenges head on with power, grace, and a wonderful sense of control.
To appreciate what the D8000 can do in terms of resolution and expressiveness listen to Imogen Heap’s witty and deceptively complex song ‘Bad Body Double’ from Ellipse[RCA, 16/44.1], which contains a heady mix of natural, synthesized, and electronically processed sounds. The song combines funky and intricate riffs with high-energy rhythms, while Heap wryly uses her lyrics to describe herself as her own ‘bad body double’. The D8000’s make child’s play of teasing out the sophisticated multi-layered sounds used in the track while highlighting the crackling, feisty, and self-deprecating humour in Heap’s voice. What is more, the D8000’s reveal a cool sonic detail that sets the stage for the song: namely, the fact that as the track opens Heap is softly working out the lines of the song as she sings to herself in the shower (the brief passage seems so intimate that you’ll feel you ought to offer Ms Heap a bath towel).
Finally, as you might expect, the D8000s are masters of three-dimensional soundstaging at levels few other headphones can match. An interesting old-school example would be the track ‘Midsummer Nights Dream’ from guitarist Pat Metheny’s Bright Size Life[ECM/Tower Japan SACD PROZ, DSD64], which features the incomparable Jaco Pastorius on bass. Through most of the six-minute track Metheny and percussionist Bob Moses are mixed primarily to the right channel, while Pastorius is mixed mostly to the left channel. The trick, though, is that the acoustics of the right and left halves of the soundstage are not quite the same—something the D8000s make abundantly clear. However, at about the four-minute mark Pastorius introduces a soaring bass solo above his own lower-pitched bass lines and that is mixed toward the centre of the stage, acting as a spatial ‘bridge’ that ties the disparate halves of the soundstage—and thus entire song—together as a cohesive whole. Most headphones have a hard enough time reproducing just one soundstage, let alone three at once, but the D8000 makes the feat look easy.
To be candid, few headphones have captured my attention and musical imagination in the way that Final’s D8000 has. My opinion is that it is a breakthrough design that has an uncanny ability to capture the essence of the music while pushing the usual sonic obstructions aside. For this reason, the D8000 has become a go-to reference for me, whether listening critically or purely for pleasure. Heartily recommended.
Type: Planar magnetic headphone with air film damping system
Driver complement: Full range AFDS planar magnetic driver
Maximum SPL: 98dB
Impedance: 60 Ohms
Frequency response: Not specified
Warranty: 2 years
Price: £2,999 (VAT included), or $3,799 in the US
3-12-7 Kitakase, Saiwai-ku, Kawasaki-city, Kanagawa 212-0057, Japan
Tel: +81 44 789 5795
Distributor: KS Distribution
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