Do you want your headphones to sound like loudspeakers? The Japanese makers of the Crosszone CZ-1 think you should. Their view is that the inherent individual-ear isolation of headphones is unrealistic in terms of how we perceive sound, while it tends to deliver soundstaging which is in and/or above your head. Which can be enjoyable in its way, but real sound isn’t like that—it’s all around you, with both your ears hearing things from both sides, plus reflections from room surfaces, all filtered through the undulations of your outer ear to deliver precise locational cues.
Humans didn’t develop this listening system for music, of course—it was more about not getting eaten by cave panthers. But our experience of music necessarily uses this mechanism by default, and when music is played on loudspeakers each driver will be heard by both ears, with plenty of reflections, all filtered via your own favoured head shape and its own particular head-related transfer function (HRTF). Recorded music is, on the whole, mixed using loudspeakers and intended for replay using loudspeakers. No wonder headphones sound so different; they are indeed an unnatural way to receive sound.
What does the Crosszone CZ-1 do about this? Well for starters it uses three drivers per oversized headshell, spaced physically apart, with the two main drivers being positioned well forward of the ear, with ports that exit behind the ear, so that your HRTF has a chance to come into play. It doesn’t go so far as to feed some left signal to the right and vice versa—both channels remain isolated in signal terms. But in addition to the front pairing of 23mm high-frequency driver and 40mm low-frequency driver, the CZ-1 adds a second 40mm driver in the more conventional side position, calling it a ‘Cross Feed’ driver, aiming to be interpreted as room effect, apparently frequency-tweaked and time-delayed accordingly.
We have seen something of this ilk before in Paul Barton’s PSB ‘RoomFeel’ headphones, but not delivered through physical driver positioning, as here. Nor with such exotic materials—those two front drivers use beryllium, vacuum-deposited on polymer film. Beryllium’s lightness and stiffness are ideal driver characteristics, though it doesn’t come cheap.
On Your Head
Are the CZ-1 headphones intended for the home only? Primarily perhaps, but seemingly not exclusively—they’re closed headphones after all, and they come with a 1.5-metre cable with a mini-jack clearly intended for mobile use, as well as a 3.5-metre cable, nicely long for freedom of movement in a listening room. (A third cable, with oxygen-free copper strands in a Litz configuration using eight cores of cable, didn’t reach us for audition.)
There were no L–R makings on the connecting cables supplied, so your first track selection might usefully be a left-right channel test, to determine whether your choice of insertion was correct. But there’s no mistaking which ear-cup is which, as they are clearly labelled and of course those main forward drivers are visible inside, so that once you know those go at the front, there’s no getting it wrong. The shape of the velour-covered ear cushions becomes necessarily extended towards the front to go around this addition, so that the cut-out is almost an equilateral triangle—point at the front, straight at the back. This leaves an extravagant portion of headphone forward towards the cheekbone. (These are the first headphones I can remember ever to be visible in my peripheral vision!)
As for appearance, I will leave judgement of the abso-bloomin’ gi-normous logos that adorn the leather-patterned end-caps to your own personal taste; they are so prominent I thought at first they might be levers, or perhaps swipe-sensitive controls. Nope, just logos.
The fit seemed extremely loose, the polar opposite of headphones which clamp you in painfully. This, together with their sheer size, means their ungainliness takes a bit of getting used to, and if you shake your head, the weighty inertia and frictionless fit tends to keep the headphones where they were, rather than moving with you, which feels like wobbling. But with such a light fit, an excellent distribution of weight from the headband, plus soft velour cushions, it does all make for delightful long-term comfort.
Out Of Your Head
So how about those forward-positioned drivers—does the CZ-1 really sound ‘tri-dimensional’, as advertised? Well, yes it did though not ‘over there’ where your speakers might be, but certainly forward of the forehead, a bit. This forward staging was particularly well-demonstrated by live recordings. Listening to Graham Parker’s solo guitar and vocal version of Hey Lord Don’t Ask Me Questions, his raspy vocal was rendered live and real, dead forward of the head, his guitar emerging, interestingly, from two distinct positions—one jangly and slightly left, one softened and dead centre.
The CZ-1’s delivery of detail was profound enough to suggest that the centre guitar image might well be ‘bleed’ through the vocal mike, with the left position being from the cabinet mike, placed left in the mix. I’ve never even noticed these differentiated positions before. Meanwhile the crowd and room effects were spread wide out to 180 degrees. It all made for marvellous immersion.
These are very low-distortion transducers. This and their lack of overt ‘edge’ encourages long-term and potentially relatively high level playback, and at their best they offer an unrestricted entry to the full musical experience, with no curtailments intruding. Martha Wainwright’s vocal for Bye Bye Blackbird was impeccably toned in a cleanly-spotlit centre, while an extravagant bar-room acoustic spread the widely-miked piano from left to right.
The opening Appalachian dulcimer on Joni Mitchell’s California had plenty of zing to it, and her vocal was strong, solidly centre-forward, and hard to criticise. Nat King Cole’s catalogue was wonderfully presented, his magnificent diction and cigarette-laced tone impeccably delivered while Nelson Riddle’s arrangements punched out with thrilling dynamics. Dynamics are certainly something the Crosszones do well.
Sometimes that lack of edge left us wishing for more openness in the high frequencies—it’s not a veil, as there is detail aplenty and strings sound exceedingly natural, especially within a concert ambience as when, for example, playing Pepe Romero’s 2012 recording of Mauro Giuliani’s Guitar Concerto No.1. But there was little ‘click’ to Romero’s guitar plucks, a little less sense of spacious ambience to the hall; similarly on Keith Jarrett’s Köln Concert the percussive quality of the piano notes was softened compared with the lofty sparkle of some headphones in these upper echelons.
A high quality headphone amplifier is recommended to maximise their ability to perform under pressure—without that current reserve, music with busy midrange content, both jazz and rock, tended to thump rather than drive along. Springsteen’s Cadillac Ranch, a 2015 CD remaster, was one such, only cleanly separated into individual parts through a Lehmannaudio headphone amplifier, less so through a midrange model, or indeed straight out of an iPhone.
The mobile option is indeed useful, since they perform remarkably well from a phone or tablet given their complexity and not particularly favourable efficiency and impedance, at least to the limit of the smart device’s ability to perform. Testing spoken-word accuracy using my own recordings (for familiarity rather than conceit), this was not only the most accurate portrayal I’ve heard since playing the same passage on Sennheiser’s HE 1, it was perhaps even more revealing—the slight muffle of one microphone evident against the other’s brighter but higher quality transducer, something I know to be the case, but have never heard made so clearly audible.
Three things count against actually taking them out on the daily commute—their sheer size, that extravagant logo on the earshells, and their loose fit. All these might be counted a user preference, so if you want to out-bling the entire neighbourhood while waggling your headwear extravagantly, then off you go. I preferred to keep their mobile abilities for wandering around the home.
So, external sound localisation—we’d give that a tick. It’s not like you’re stepping onto a holodeck or anything, but it proved effective, especially with live and acoustic recordings. Sound quality—also a tick, delightful with the vast majority of material. Quality, and comfort—made in Japan, and tick. Style—well, I used to wear Jecklin Floats several decades back, which were big enough to make the CZ-1 seem positively compact, so I shouldn’t throw stones, and besides, you can form your own opinion from the pictures. And we can surely all give up being surprised by headphone prices these days; as noted, here the design complexity and use of beryllium-deposited driver diaphragms do at least provide an indication of underlying costs. While clearly not for everyone, the Crosszone CZ-1 does bring interesting ideas to bear on the whole concept of headphone use, and largely succeeds in its goal. # Jez Ford
Crosszone CZ-1 Headphones
Warranty: One Year
Australian RRP: $3,990
Australian Distributor: Absolute Hi End
+ Conceptually interesting
+ Spacious fit, spacious sound
- Very big
Manufacturer's Specifications: Crosszone CZ-1 Headphones
Frequency Range: 20Hz–40kHz
Nominal Impedance: 75Ω