Steven Slate Audio VSX Headphones by Arthur Stone
Diamonds and Pearls: The philosopher Mary Midgley described the academic disciplines as different facets of a jewel; each facet offered a unique view into the same object (and the filtered world beyond).
By way of a metaphor Steven Slate Audio's VSX system is similar, with each emulation (gear + environment) offering a unique insight into the mix. From this perspective it is possible to shape the mix; either to make a good all-around sound across different playback systems, or perhaps to tilt the mix towards a specific end user/playback system e.g. a nightclub PA or a pair of earbuds.
Having this ability to hear the mix through different sonic facets is an advantage particularly for home/project studios where the room or budget prevents good reference monitoring.
The VSX Gear: Steven Slate Audio VSX comprises a set of high-quality headphones which integrate with a software plug-in that emulates different playback systems and environments: professional studio and audiophile home monitors; car speaker audio; mastering room; nightclub sound system; portable boom box; and a range of popular professional headphones and consumer earbuds.
The VSX emulations fall into two categories: mixing environments (studio, mastering room) and playback environments (car, club, room). Each emulation has interactive elements such as monitor type, depth-of-field, EQ, or impedance for headphones. The emulations are meticulously-crafted using Binaural Perception Modelling (BPM) a bespoke method for Steven Slate Audio in partnership with Scaeva Technologies https://scaevatech.com/ and the website is worth checking out for a general background and detailed specifics of VSX tech.
Hardware: The headphone shell and headband is a generic, off-the-shelf design: this offers a cost-advantage to the user – rather than a more expensive custom-build, in-house design and manufacture...although I'm sure Slate would do a great job of it!
Inside the headphone is the real value: a bespoke driver design based on a Beryllium diaphragm and ported subsonic vent into the ear pad. This allows a non-fatiguing, linear and uncompromised frequency response (ready for the VSX-processed audio).
Personally I quite like the look of the headphone, aesthetically. A generic, timeless, proven design. Not walnut or brushed aluminium but the good old supermaterial – plastic. Whilst looks are important (and debatable) they are not noticed by the user when mixing: by using this generic outer shell, Slate have spent the money where it is important for mixing and studio use.
Not the most comfortable headphones I've worn – a slight clamping - but on the plus side the headphones feel located in the sweet spot and not loose; combined with the light weight the Slate VSX headphones are much more comfortable than most headphones even high-end ones. The more I used the VSX headphones the more my opinion changed to positive; they seemed very comfortable and natural in a short time.
The cable is custom-manufactured, thin, cloth-covered, and lightweight; as such it avoids the usual snags and (rogue memory) plastic kinks that can distract from the workflow. Some headphones transmit vibrations (from rubbing on desk or collar) along the cable into the shell of the earcup, and this noise can affect both the tonality and soundstage information.
The cable doesn't intrude into awareness – whilst not totally friction-free any noise is minimal and not distracting sonically.
At 6.5 ft the cable allows some freedom of movement within the mix workplace e.g. to side-racked gear, under the desk, or sitting aside with an instrument.
Software: The controls are responsive to the users unique needs: the 'Depth' control adds a cross-talk effect as in a real room's early reflections and perceived depth-of-field, and there are EQ options to individualise the sonic profile.
The visual feedback is good and clear; not distracting. Good eye-candy factor.
CPU overhead is moderate on older machines. I didn't experience issues in normal use but if I moved very quickly between emulations/presets, a full mix would overload, but would play normally without fast preset switching. In general everything was seamless and glitch-free.
The variable is the users digital-analogue converter and headphone preamp. In practice the variable is negligible given the accuracy of most studio gear. I tested with Sound Devices 7-series headphone amp plus an older Focusrite Saffire PRO24DSP (which features VRM monitor/room emulations) and a KRK Ergo monitor controller. The character of the Slate VSX was evident whichever gear I used and differences minimal or equal to the differences in regular non-VSX usage.
Emulation technology has advanced since I last used it regularly around 10 years ago; I was pleasantly surprised at the effectiveness of VSX: it sounds plausible, engaging, non-fatiguing...and real. My conclusion is that Steven Slate Audio VSX is superb-sounding with relevant and effective feature-set; easy to set up and use, with low-CPU needs; the overall impression is that it segues well into the user DAW system and is not distracting or time-consuming.
The big plus is that VSX enables superior mixing and balance checks to a known reference leading to better mixes and better translation to other audio playback systems. As such VSX offers great value for money.
Price: $479.99 (approx. £372 UK or 412 Euros) or rent-to-own with 12 monthly-payments of $39.99 (US only)
In Use: I was able to compare the VSX with the decade-older Focusrite VRM using the same linear Slate headphones. The Slate VSX definitely had a more dynamic and plausible sound.
In terms of production workflow I started without the VSX plug-in in the rack during the 'creation' or tracking stage, and then opened the VSX for a separate 'mix/tweak' stage. After previewing the mix bypassed I opened it again for a 'mastering' stage.
The VSX is not (necessarily) recorded into the mix so it makes sense to check the mix in bypass and removed out of the signal chain. I noticed some users are exploring VSX for adding in-track fx too...and the quality is definitely there.
My workflow used each emulation to find bad sounds or weak areas where an instrument was indistinct or clashed with another in the frequency spectrum. Then some EQ boosts or cuts to improve sounds (usually from a favourite studio emulation). Then another sweep through the emulations. A stock DAW 808 kick sample sounded great in all emulations except one (NRG studio full range monitors) and the challenge was to adjust it to perfection without negatively impacting the other emulations. A relatively easy job.
I value this ability as my audience will listen on a variety of unknown playback systems and VSX helps me anticipate their sonic experience. Alternatively, if I'm prepping for gig I can listen to the club emulation and just focus the mix/stems in that environment.
Aside from the overall mix-shaping ability of VSX it's also great for hearing the subtle changes in plug-ins, for example, adding harmonic distortion, 0.5 dB EQ boosts, or adjusting compressor threshold. These types of tweaks are more clear than with just a single regular mix environment,
For tracking, VSX worked well as a 'comfort reverb' helping to keep sources well-positioned and creating space for the instrument being tracked. The VSX emulations are much more suited to this task than just a regular plug-in alone. In addition, there was no noticeable latency when tracking.
With the range of emulations available there is a also a word of caution: it's not always possible to get a mix to sound great in every emulation – some element might be missing or another emphasised or the tonal balance changes – so often the user must make a compromise, perhaps tilted towards the preferred playback/audience medium...just like real life, real rooms, and real gear...and this is why mastering engineering is an art and science. For a fraction of the cost, VSX gets you in the ballpark.
Be: Beryllium, good segue to the dulcet sound of the Focal CMS tweeters. It makes total sense to use Beryllium for headphones; given the cost of this element and expense of manufacturing it justifies the VSX price tag. More importantly I've never noticed high-frequency listening fatigue with the Focal's CMS tweeters and the VSX headphones felt equally comfortable and refreshing.
Impedance? The mysterious phenomenon that eludes the uninitiated (Geekslutz aside) and defies expectations. More is less; less is more.
From an electrical engineering perspective impedance is an opposition that a current must overcome when a voltage is applied. Impedance is measured in Ohms and it's value is related to voltage and current e.g. Voltage = Current x Resistance (Ohms).
Impedance-matching refers to the relationship between the output ( a headphone amp) and input impedance (Slate VSX headphones). At 37 Ohms the VSX headphones are optimal for range of studio stand-alone and interface headphone amps offering a midway between power (loudness) and efficiency (representation),
Why would I buy the VSX? To improve my mix decisions (by hearing the mix in different environments and through different playback systems). Like a sculptor of sound I can shape my mix.
The last few % is what makes the difference between 'OK' and 'stunning' and that's what I'm paying for – not the headphones or software but rather the capability VSX gives me as a mixer/producer and the positive effect on the finished product or project.
VSX will make the music sound better and on a greater range of playback systems and to a wider audience. Collaborative online music projects will have a known sonic reference. I will personally enjoy my own music more as the VSX process has improved it's musicality and intelligibility. A positive feedback loop is created.
VSX emulations act as a benchmark for how I'd like my home studio to sound; as my brain and hearing adapts to Archon Studio's room sound I can make direct comparisons with my room. I can hear where my room could be improved and adapt.
Finally, the VSX headphones, being closed-back, are a useful studio tool for many roles without the software.
Anything Missing? I didn't notice an emulation for car with maxxed out soundsystem. Bedroom mode with consumer audio. Emulations for dialogue.
VSX isn't a magic bullet: the user needs to work with it to get the best outcome. The final mix print (without VSX engaged) is noticeably different than with it on so perhaps a little extra time and experimentation with mix reverb level is required: it's hard to get the final (non-VSX) mix soundstage as good as with VSX engaged. This is a credit to Slate but also it leaves the user to negotiate the ambiguous area between the mix soundstage and VSX's virtual environment.
Similarly, the VSX mix will sound different to the monitor mix without it although this is true for most headphone mixes.
Why not use my DAW's stock reverb instead? The VSX technology has a purpose and capability that a standard reverb is not suited to. That said, it is an idea worth trying if your budget is limited.
The VSX system is more specialised and professional in application with the design and purpose for virtual or augmented reality; the modelling of the emulations and implementation of spacial data in an immersive user environment adds another dimension to stock reverbs.
VSX also outputs to a flat, linear headphone, a matched-pair of software and hardware, and this precision is hard to match using regular plug-ins and even then the mixes would have no reference point to the audiences playback systems.
Sound Quality: 5/5 Very good – especially for something that will not usually end up in the mix – a high-quality monitoring environment. Although the emulations are in part great reverbs, their purpose is different: the emulations are an immersive 3D environment that puts the user centre stage in a virtual mix room – the 5* clincher is the high quality sound that makes the space seem natural and effortless. A soundstage, not for the mix, but for the mixer. Equally VSX offers the opportunity to hear the mix from an audiences' perspective.
Features: 5/5 The VSX headphones are closed-back with minimal leakage and good attenuation of external sound. The VSX soundscape is a pleasant virtual environment to escape into, the find some reference, some peace and quiet from the external soundscape (particularly the kind of space needed to listen to a mix critically or even when tracking).
The VSX software features offer a good balance between control and ergonomics; a pleasure to use and not distracting.
Ease Of Use: 5/5 The process of registering on the Steven Slate website and installing the VSX software was quick, slick, and straightforward. I also needed to install the iLok management software (again quick and straightforward) to authenticate use. In all, stress free.
After opening a DAW session I placed the VSX plug-in last in the signal chain and listened whilst browsing the various presets, gear, environments, controls and parameters.
The VSX app is easy to use and has good ergonomics with well-laid out controls and visual feedback. The big plus is that the VSX system doesn't distract; it assists workflow and enhances the capability of the existing gear.
Before serious use, it is recommended to listen to familiar tracks (for an hour) as a reference and to familiarise the users hearing/perception with the VSX soundstage. For the review I tested the headphones without VSX first; how would the headphones perform solo in other roles?
I was impressed by the non-fatiguing, un-harsh sound which still conveyed detailed treble and deep, un-hyped bass. I can favourably compare the VSX headphones with a range of high-end headphones: AKG K702; ADAM SP-5 and Audeze LCD-1 – for different reasons but in general the linear, Beryllium diaphragm and Acoustic Ported Subsonics (APS) offered the characteristics of a high-end headphone.
Bang-for-Buck: 5/5 Sometimes the software side of hybrid gear can be a bit underwhelming or valueless. The VSX software is full of value. The headphones are comfortable, effective, and have studio roles beyond VSX.
The real value is workflow improvement...a better mix, a better song, better music, a better product. The software and hardware work together smoothly without hindering the process.
The bang-for-buck is an idea and methodology to improve the mixing process and VSX is the means to achieve that.
Hearing the Future: The role that VSX plays in the home/project studio was previously the role of the music industry and they did a damn great job of it; invested a lot of money, energy, and person-hours to achieve a few percent extra – the difference. Now that quality control is available to the home/project studio; VSX is the tool and methodology.
In Bob Katz's Mastering Audio he discusses the bell curve of user playback systems: low-quality gear at one end and high-quality at the other with a bulge in the middle representing the greatest number of consumers. The music industry relied on this principle and now, so can we mortals.
In many ways we often make music in anticipation rather than for the moment but with VSX there is less guesswork and uncertainty and more crystal-clarity. Steven Slate Audio's VSX is a revolutionary product in terms of how it works and what the outcome is.