For the last few years at audio shows, it’s been obvious that ESS is back in a big way. I took this picture above at the California Audio Show, and you can see they have brought out headphones, starting with the ESS RLM-713. They also showed the ESS Model 252, a model 420 Hybrid, and their flagship model AMT 422 with a full-range Air-Motion Transformer. These ranged in price from $349 to $799.
When I think of ESS, my mind goes back to the mid-70s when I would go to Hillcrest Hi Fidelity in Dallas, Texas. I was about to turn twenty, and my speakers were a pair of used, stacked Quad ESLs, now referred to as Quad 57s. The buzz around the store was that ESS was coming out with a speaker using a brand new kind of driver that would be better than anything ever before.
When the AMT 1 (shown here) finally arrived, I was disappointed. I could hear potential, but the speaker lacked coherency and in no way made me want to give up my Quads. I was disappointed. ESS now has a full array of loudspeakers that sound much better than I remember their original AMT 1 sounding.
The RLM-713 headphones are very high quality with an ebony wood-sealed sounding board, and you can get the outside of the board in a dark ebony or black finish. I really like the look of the ebony. They are also by far and away the most comfortable headphones I have ever put on. They are self-adjusting and extremely lightweight. Their sound isolation is also exceptional; I would say that it is as good as any noise canceling headphones I have tried.
They use a unique support that looks more like that used for studio headphones. The support and ear pads are covered with a very soft padded leather. My ears never got tired when I was listening for long periods of time. By the way, all of this made me think they were much more expensive headphones. Their more expensive headphones use a more conventional looking design, but I liked the fit of the RLM-713s better.
On first listen at the show, I thought they sounded very musical, and I was shocked to discover that they are priced at only $249 per pair! I have listened to many headphones that cost hundreds more, and they didn’t sound as musical and they surely weren’t as comfortable, so I asked for a pair to review.
The headphones came in for review at about the same time I received an AVM SD 5.2 for review, so I ran them in for 100 hours on the AVM SD 5.2, as they both needed breaking in. I used the supplied cable, which is small and light and sounded very good.
I listened to the 713s with the AVM, but for the review, I mostly listened with the LTA MZ2-S that I had just reviewed as a stand alone integrated amp. It is an improved version of David Berning’s microZOTL and is a new “personal amplifier.” Many consider this the best headphone amp in the world. I have not heard that many headphone amps, but of the ones I have heard, it surely is the best. The 713 headphones sound very lively and spacious with much better imaging than I expected.
I love to listen to the Béla Fleck & Abigail Washburn album, and while some might not consider it audiophile quality, I promise it is great music. It will also test your system’s speed, decay, midbass and most of all its ability to portray a believable female vocalist. When listening to this album, the different banjos were easy to distinguish, and Washburn’s voice was very alive and realistic. Her voice was placed well and surrounded with spacious air.
As I listened to this album, I came to realize that I have seldom heard this kind of soundstaging even from headphones that cost over $1,000. Not only did it provide a wide presentation but also one with a real depth perspective. Another thing I noticed was their ability to get the scale of the banjos in contrast to a human singing pretty much dead on.
Next, I listened to Miles Davis’ “Someday My Prince Will Come.” The sound in the headphones is designed in a crafty way to enhance the life-likeness of a performance without sounding bright or etched at all. Miles’ trumpet had plenty of bite and weight at the same time, something not easily done. Hank Mobley’s tenor sax was full, and the music flowed from one note to the next like real music. Paul Chamber’s bass was tuneful, full of air and placed in a natural space. Wynton Kelly’s piano was very lifelike and did not overtake the soundstage.
Next, I put on Joni Mitchell’s album, “Blue.” Mitchell’s voice was beautiful, juicy and full of different tonal colors. The piano sounded very alive, and the guitar sounded as good as I’ve ever heard on headphones. Overall, the 713s allowed me to experience the emotion of this album in a really moving way, and that’s about all I can ask for.
Let’s close out this review by talking about how they sounded playing Gershwin’s “Rhapsody In Blue / An American In Paris” album. I have enjoyed this recording for over 40 years now. Over the 713s the recording sounded alive and allowed me to experience more of the hall than I expected. Gershwin’s music requires a system with great PRaT (pace, rhythm, and timing), and the 713s have all the PRaT I could want.
It may seem like a little thing, but it seems like they could have labeled them left and right. The left speaker is the one where the cable enters, by the way. On the positive side, while the cable is thin, it is really first class. If you’re looking for a new headphone cable at a reasonable price, maybe ESS would sell you this one. They are available in black or wood for no extra charge. The wood ones that I have are beautiful, but I haven’t seen the black ones.
The new ESS-RLM-713 headphones are incredibly comfortable, inexpensive, attractive, isolated, musical and just plain fun! What more can I say? What a deal! If you thought you were going to spend up to $500 for headphones be sure to give these a listen, and you may change your mind. If you were going to spend less that $500, be sure to consider these and get a great buy for you money. Highly recommended!
MSRP $349 (currently $249)
Speaker Size: 50mm
Frequency Response 20Hz-20kHz
Impedance 40 Ω
Sensitivity 113 +/- 3dB at 1kHz1mW
Cable Length 2 meters
Rated Input Power 30mW; Maximum input power 50mW