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Impressions:  The TARA Labs Omega Live Headphone Cables with HFX Floating Ground Station

10-13-2023 | By David W. Robinson | Issue 129

David W. Robinson photographing at Icicle Creek, Leavenworth, WA, during the great fires of 2012. (Photograph by Lila Ritsema; image processing by Robinson.)

Headphones…dig it!

The spring of 1970. Yeah, that's when it happened. That's when I bought my first pair of headphones. I needed them, since I had become very interested in reel-to-reel tape recording. Not just needle drops, though that too…but I wanted to do live recordings with some of my high school friends in Walnut Creek, CA. A number of them were really into music, at a time immediately after the Haight-Ashbury psychedelic rock musical explosion in the San Francisco area.

But not only that. The blues, some folk, and gen-rock were flourishing. And we wanted in. My music buds from the inside performing outwards; me from the outside recording inwards.

Yeah, I learned the basics of playing a guitar, but it wasn't performance (expression) that attracted me to the music. It was the recording (impression) that seduced me powerfully.

It took most of a year working part-time at a loathsome job (don't ask) to save up enough money to finally score the best RTR tape recorder that I could afford.

Nope, not Ampex or Studer.

A lowly Sony TC-630 would have to try to douse my audio passion.

And to go with it? (Cue transition to headphones.)

A brand-new pair of Koss Pro 4a.

That's where my love of headphones began, back in 69…a love that I've never lost.

Yes, there I am down in Sao Paulo, Brazil, in 1970, with my TC-630 and my pair of Koss Pro 4A headphones just peeking out at the bottom left.

Fast forward…

…to the here and now.

The Focal Utopia 2016 Edition Headphones

Back in 2018, I got in a pair of Focal's reference-level headphones at that time, the Utopias. Originally introduced in 2016 and brilliantly crafted, these were designed as a statement product from Focal at that time. The connector was a 2-pin round locking configuration, with a very firm and definite action. They came with a better-than-usual headphone cable, and I was very impressed with the Focal Utopia system right out of the box, after just a few days of burn-in. I would end up giving the combination of the Ayon HA-3 Headphone Amp and the Focal Utopias 2016 edition a Brutus Award at the end of 2018 (HERE).

But this was with the stock Focal headphone cable. Could the Utopias sound better with an alternative cable?

The T+A HA-200 Headphone Amp with DSD1024-capable DAC (image courtesy of T+A)

Meanwhile, in the Ayon HA-3 Tubed Headphone Amp was replaced with the killer T+A HA-200 Headphone Amp with DAC. Powerful, terrific sound, and brilliantly flexible (check the link above to get a profile of this design). DSD out to DSD1024; PCM out to 768kHz. Three selectable headphone outputs; VUs; Volume Control; etc., etc. Also along for the ride was a pair of T+A's knock-out Solitaire P Headphones, a true hand-in-glove pairing for some of the very finest headphone performance that I've ever heard.

The Focal Utopia 2016 Edition sounded very fine indeed with the substitution of the T+A HA-200. I used the stock cable, as I mentioned before. Though it was quite satisfying, from time to time I did wonder if a cable upgrade could take things up a notch or three.

Omega Live Headphone Cable with HFX Floating Ground System (image courtesy of TARA Labs)

Thankfully, a new alternative arose in the fall of 2022. Devon Dicker, the President of Marketing and Sales at TARA Labs, got in touch with me. He offered an opportunity to review their TARA Labs Omega Live Headphone cables, with their HFX Floating Ground Station, which are their current reference combination in this line. I was unfamiliar with this cable, but quite interested in checking them out. I've known Devon for a while, and have never had him steer me wrong.

So yes, put me down for the Omega Live, please.

We discussed the terminations, and I decided to go with 4-pin XLR balanced to the pair of 2-pin connectors on the Focal Utopias (2016 Edition). The cables arrived reasonably quickly thereafter.

Images courtesy of TARA Labs

This is TARA Labs' reference-grade headphone cable, and it shows it. The construction of the Omega Live system was very impressive, indeed. The cable looks top notch, with extreme attention to detail in its fit and finish.

Since I don't have the means or inclination to tear apart expensive audio cables, I'll rely on TARA Labs description to cover the internals:

"The Omega Live w/HFX is available with a wide variety of termination options and custom lengths that are compatible with most headphone manufacturers world-wide. The standard length is 2.4 meters/8ft. and is terminated with gold plated 4 pin balanced XLR male connector on the source end. Included are two 9" inch adapters that are both terminated with a gold-plated 4 pin balanced XLR female connector on one end and a gold plated 3.5mm stereo mini  on the source end, as well as gold-plated 4 pin balanced XLR female connector on one end and a gold plated ¼"/6.3mm on the source side. The Omega Live is carefully constructed to eliminate any transient triboelectric noise within the cable's construction, as well as their ability to dampen. In addition, our customized geometric construction has virtually eliminated internal micro-phonics as well as any triboelectric noise. All headphone cables use TARA Labs Gen3 SA-OF8N pure copper conductors. 99.999999%, super-annealed, oxygen-free, mono-crystal, frequency-tuned, rectangular sold core conductors (RSC)."

Some headphone cables sound rather dark and rolled-off, or forward and bright, or congested when you first fire them up. So I was pleased when—right out of the box—the Omega Live bushwhacked me, big time, and in the best possible way. Detailed, spacious, great harmonic balance and unity…very nice! Sure, I could hear some minor drawbacks…perhaps a lack of the last full measure of extension…but I was sure that sort of thing would come out in the wash.

I cabled it to the T+A HA 200 and began the break-in process, running a broad range of Qobuz (PCM only, unfortunately) and JRiver Media Center 30 and 31 sources, both DSD of all rates, plus the highest rate PCM that I could find for some of my recent favorite albums. I left the players in indefinite loop mode for days, putting various types of music and resolutions into play. I would duck in from day to day to check the progress and change the music, waiting for things to really bloom.

What I found was that at around 50-100 hours, the fundamental audio virtues really seemed to snap in, and I could listen for extended hours without fatigue (thanks to the design of the Focal Utopia) and with real pleasure.

The Focal Utopia Headphones, 2022 Edition

In comparison with the standard Focal balanced single 4-pin-to-2-pin cable, the Omega Live simply trounced Focal's stock offering. That's not to say that the standard Focal was bad…not at all. It's just that the Omega Live offered so much more of what I look for in headphone cables. That includes transparency, ultra-low noise floor, detail, dynamics, harmonic righteousness, a truly organic expression of the music from top to bottom, and…that very difficult audio virtue…real presence.

"The Angel Who Listens." Drawing by Dan Zimmerman, 1996.

Regardless of the genre of music that I tried, or its format (DSD or PCM; no MQA due to a lack of support with the HA 200), via the T+A HA 200 the Omega Live really knocked me out. All of the audio virtues listed above were in abundance. In fact, more than I could remember hearing with any other headphone cable.

Among the albums that I used over the months…and there were many more than these:

A brilliant DSD256 and DSD512 from trptk, via NativeDSD.com. (See Rush Paul's rave commentary, with which I concur, HERE.) What an album!

…HDTT's stunning release of Cootie Williams in DSD256, which has amazing immediacy for this recording from 1958…

…Elliott Smith's truly great album Figure 8 in 44.1kHz/16-bit .FLAC (oh, well, and damn!) from Qobuz, with Pacific NW Indie-Folk written all over it…

…or his Elliott Smith 25th Anniversary Edition. The above image is of the limited release LP box set. Qobuz via the HA 200 supplied 96kHz/24-bit. Thankfully…anything to escape a heavy diet of 44.1kHz/16-bit PCM!

Wilco's Sky Blue Sky. It was PF's Wayne Goins who turned me on to Wilco in his terrific articles about the group at PF. You can read about them HERE and HERE. Even at Qobuz's 88.2kHz/24-bit, this is great music, and highly suitable for hours of listening via T+A, TARA Labs, and Focal.

Well, of course! This was in DSD64 via the PF NAS…a reference album for me for many years now.

Don't know why? Buy the SACD or reissue LP from Acoustic Sounds and find out.

Neil Young's Le Noise is well known to me, and is powerful in its dynamics, bass, texture and raw power. If you play the guitar, this Daniel Lanois production will punch you in the soul. Even at Qobuz's 44.1kHz 24-bit PCM, the TARA Labs/Focal Utopia combination was compelling.

And I could go on and on.

But wait…there was more….

Earlier in 2023, Focal was kind enough to send a review sample of their Focal Utopia 2022 Edition headphones. Since the Omega Live cables were quite fully broken in…several times over by now…and Focal told me that this was a review pair that should be good to go, it was trivial to make the switchover and start listening.

Image courtesy of Focal

The Focal 2022 Edition built upon the earlier 2016 Edition that I own. According to Focal:

"Its exclusive cutting-edge technology, such as full-range speaker drivers with pure Beryllium 'M'-shaped dome, completely open at the back, offer a listening experience with striking realism, neutrality, dynamics and transparency. Focal engineers have also developed a copper and aluminium voice coil for a revamped sound signature and incredible reliability.

The listening experience is enhanced by a sleek design and exceptional materials. Combining comfort and sophistication, Utopia is made from genuine leather, aluminium, forged recycled carbon, ‘honeycomb'-design grilles and Black Chrome-coloured rings—an array of details lending these French headphones a unique look and sound."

Caramba! Paired with these significantly improved headphones and the T+A HA 200 DAC/Headphone Amp, the Omega Live cable immediately revealed the steps forward that Focal had accomplished. The openness of the open-back design, and the new materials of the Focal Utopia magneto-planar drivers, were revealed to be a true reference design. They took headphone listening to a level that was simply spectacular.

Streaming Qobuz's 96kHz/24-bit of the classic Radiohead OK Computer (remastered 2017) reminded me of why I have been so haunted by this album over many years now. The TARA Labs Omega Live cable/T+A HA 200/Focal Utopia 2022 headphones simply knocked me out. This is not the last word on high resolution, of course, but the sheer musicality was sonically yummy, taking headphone listening to kick-you-in-the-soul rightness.

And, if you prefer the classical realm, there's always this classic classic.

All that I have to do is to listen to Respighi's Pines of Rome…in this case, in DSD64 via the PF NAS…to remember why I love fine audio so very much.

Try it; you'll do the same. The four movements will move you. If they don't, then there's something wrong with you, amigo.

Meanwhile, back in the (dystopic) future:  Want to read deep and wide? Try the soundtrack to Oblivion. Wikipedia notes that it was "composed by Anthony Gonzalez of the French electronic music project M83 and Joseph Trapanese, although M83 was credited for the soundtrack." A member of m83(!), no less. A revelation with this combination of components, even at 44.1kHz/16-bit PCM. (The LP is, as always, much better.) But the melancholy loneliness of this dystopic vision stays with you long after you hear it.

I know. I've listened to it many times. And the Qobuz version via the HA 200/Omega Live/Focal Utopia 2022 knocks it out of the (low-resolution PCM) ball park.

And, to finish, there's the amazing soundtrack to the HBO Series Chernobyl. This is a test of detail, dynamics, bass, and astonishing atmospheric extension for headphones, even at the limitations of 48kHz/24-bit PCM via Qobuz.

It's haunting…and considering the true historical events that this splendid mini-series was based upon, should be.

Final Reflections

I could beat around the bush that I've already pounded into pulp, but there's no point. Shifting the T+A HA 200-sourced feed to the TARA Labs Omega Live cable to the Focal Utopia 2022 made it clear that this was a match made in heaven.

Is this the best headphone cable with the Focal Utopia 2016/2022 Editions and the T+A HA 200 that I've heard?

I only very rarely make that evaluation, and deliberately so, since hyping "the best" on a monthly basis has become a very common practice in audio evaluations. And high-end audio reviewing does NOT need more hype. It breeds distrust and cynicism among our readers, which is quite understandable.

Further, there are quite a lot of permutations of headphone electronics/cables/headphones out there, and various combinations of components. Some will offer better synergy than others.

But having said that, I would have to say that the TARA Labs Omega Live is the best headphone cable that I've heard to date…and I've heard a pretty fair number over the years (decades). Could another headphone cable be better? I can't say; I haven't heard them all. (Neither have you.)

Is it costly? Well, as you'll see from the price below, it isn't inexpensive. But the price-match is good for a reference headphone like the Focal Utopia 2022 ($4,999 the last time that I looked). In other words, if you buy the one, it makes sense to pair it with the other. Ultimately, you're the one who sets budgets and decides, no?

Me? I'm keeping the Omega Live with HFX right here.

TARA Labs deserves one of my 2023 Brutus Awards, and gets it enthusiastically right now.

Furthermore, since I already gave the T+A HA 200 a Brutus Award back in January of 2023, I would be greatly remiss if I did not also recognize the outstanding advances in the Focal Utopia 2022 Edition. It synergized incredibly well with the rest of this signal chain, and definitely betters the 2016 Edition.

Gladly given!

TARA Labs Omega Live

Retail: $3499 (Omega Live headphone cable w/HFX ground station system /8ft/2.4m, which includes two 9" extensions)

Terminations available include:

  •  ¼"
  • 1/8"
  • 4 pin mini XLR
  • 3 pin mini XLR
  • 2.5mm mono
  • Additional surcharge for below terminations:  Mr Speakers, Sennheiser HD800, HD650, HD600, HD565, HD580, Focal Utopia LEMO connectors

TARA Labs, Inc.

716 Rossanley Dr.

Medford, OR  97501