Janine Elliot takes us on a brief tour of the history of Japanes company Stax, who many readers will know for their “ear speakers”.

Talk of Stax and all you think of is headphones, or as they very much like to call them, ‘Earspeakers’. I ogled for one of their headphones when I first set sail on my voyage into hifi, walking past KJ Leisurecentre in Watford on the way to my piano lessons each week. But I had to settle for a PWB Electrostatic headphone at £36, because that was all my meagre pocket money had allowed me to amass. Not that I didn’t feel highly about the speed and accuracy of that Peter Belt product, long before he turned to aluminium foil, magnets and furniture polish to “improve the sound of your hi-fi”. That story is for another day. No, my first sight of the Stax headphones was their SR-Lambda series, a design from 1979 which survives in new SR-207, 307, 407, 507 metamorphoses.Stax

But Earspeakers are only the latest products from a company set up in 1938. The first product to hit the shelves was a high-frequency condenser microphone of 1950, followed in 1952 by the CP-20 electrostatic cartridge with a respectable 20-18,000Hz frequency response and a 1.5g playing weight. It wasn’t until 1960 until their first electrostatic Earspeaker, the SR1, came into being, after further detours including tone arm, electrostatic speaker, and an Oscillator detector.
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Looking like most other headphones of the day, including my PWB from 20 years later, this was a unique product in its electrostatic design, and Stax Founder Naotake Hayashi quite rightly called them Ear Speakers because that is exactly what they are. The principle of electrostatic design meant the sound is generated by the force exerted on a very thin (less than 2 microns) and light high-polymer film diaphragm sandwiched between two electrically conductive grids. This creates a speedy and accurate sound production without the heavy armature of a conventional speaker design. Initially power to energise these grids was generated by connecting them to your speaker terminals, though this did mean perhaps you had to fiddle about at the back of your amplifier if you wanted to change between cans and speakers with just one speaker terminal. Energisers to power these directly from a line level source were soon to follow, originally with 6-pin 230 volt bias, referred to as “Normal” bias, with the latest 5-pin models with a 580 volt bias, referred to as “Pro” bias. That said, even as late as 1977 the SR-Sigma, for me their most pivotal product, still powered itself from your speaker terminals.  This model was probably their very ugliest, with drivers looking like mini loudspeakers that sat at angles to your ears clearly looking like ear speakers, but by fashioning it this way gave the most realistic sound that cans will ever do without giving the impression of an orchestra inside your head.Sr3

From this model spurred the more aerodynamic Lambda appearing in 1979, a model morphed into the SR-207, 307, 407 and 507 of today. Whilst I had to wait a further 30 years before I myself could afford my SR407/SRM006tS Earspeaker/Energiser combination, the wait was well worth it. The effortless speed and clarity of sound was and still is hard to copy in a moving coil headphone, and the rectangular shape is not a process of bad design, but the most appropriate dimensions to house an electrostatic plate. No, this iconic looking beast feels just right when wearing and the angled plates means the sound arrives as natural to your ears as headphones can possibly do. If only Stax would re-release the Sigma, then that experience would be even more natural.SRXMK2

I laughed when I first saw the Sigma, and then I saw the Jeckin Float, the most ergonomic headphone ever made, though that one was much more uncomfortable to wear than the Sigma. No, the Stax was surprisingly comfortable for its size and shape, and considering you usually only wear headphones when you are on your own, there wouldn’t be anyone to laugh at you if you had them on your head anyway. Whilst the top of the range, and more conventional looking SR-009, reviewed here a while ago, is probably the best headphone or earspeaker ever created, a product costing so much to develop that it put Stax close to financial ruin, the Lambda and its grandchildren are not that far behind. Correctly driven with matched tubes and settings on the latest ‘Kimik’ Energisers, these Japanese hand-built babies are the bees-knees.

Whilst Japan could rightly be proud of its origin, an iconic giant of company with a miniature collection of only a handful of employees, the company sadly became insolvent in 1995, revived in the following year only to be sold off in December 2011 to the Chinese loudspeaker company Edifier. Stax didn’t get much out of the sell-off. Just as Quad, makers of electrostatic speakers was itself sold to the Chinese in 1997, the design and philosophy of both companies remains as paramount today as it ever was, though myself as patriotic citizen through and through wonder sometimes if companies owned by another country are quite so iconic and collectable as they were before. Even having your products built in another country can sometimes be irritating at times, and influencing Manley to advertise “Made in Chino, not China” on their website. Today’s world is different to many years ago. Something labelled as ‘British’ will have components borne from more nationalities than even the Royal family. What makes me still proud to own a Stax is the fact that they are still hand built in Japan. Just how long Stax will remain that Rolls Royce brand is hard to guess, but a lot will depend on where and how it is made. Edifier bought it so that they could take ideas and build in their own headphones, and even to use their “own” R&D facilities to develop new models, though that idea worries me somewhat, as has it to numerous Stax aficionados. So much so that Edifier chairman and general manager, Zhang Wendong, sent out a letter to worried Stax enthusiasts stating that 100% of the R&D and manufacturing of Stax brand products would continue in Japan, and that Edifier would use its manufacturing strength to produce diaphragm material for Stax and ‘the new brand’ it wants to develop in-house. That latter idea of a Chinese Stax might take me some getting used to.

Janine Elliot 

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