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2012 Head-Fi Holiday Gift Guide (Over-Ear)

   
Over-Ear Headphones
 

400

 

 
Sony MDR-V6 (around $65)

Closed, full-size, on-the-ear headphone

www.sony.com

If you're wondering why this headphone is included in the guide, call it a bit of sentimentality from me--the Sony MDR-V6 was the headphone that got me started on this long, winding headphone hi-fi journey back in the 1980's.

Is it the best at the price?  No, and hasn't been in a long time. You can find headphones that isolate more, sound more refined, have better detail retrieval, etc.

Yeah, it's old, but it's still a rugged, well-isolating, fun, bright, lively sounding headphone with good bass extension and impact. The MDR-V6 (and its pro-audio twin, the Sony MDR-7506) is still widely used in studios and on-location as a pro monitoring piece.

This many years later, I still like the classic ol' V6, and still feel comfortable recommending it from time to time.

"...the V6 has aged very well... It is well-built, comfortable, and isolating enough to compete with the best 'modern' studio and DJ headphones."

Head-Fi member/reviewer ljokerl

 

 


 

400

 

 
Grado SR-60i and Grado SR-80i (around $80 and $100, respectively) Open, full-size, on-the-ear headphones www.grado.com

Why have I listed both the Grado SR-60i and the SR-80i?  Because so often SR-60i owners end up quickly upgrading to the SR-80i.

 

After many years being happy with the Sony MDR-V6, the Grado SR-60 and SR-80 represented the next steps in my Head-Fi journey. These entry-level Grado headphones have probably created more headphone audiophiles than any other headphone models, for their affordability, for their accessibility at many audio retail locations, and for their lively presentations.

The Grado SR-60i and Grado SR-80i sound immediately impressive, addictive, especially to those who aren't already grizzled Head-Fi veterans.

I've gifted several sets of Grado SR-60i and SR-80i headphones, and they've been met with great smiles and enthusiasm every single time.

"From the very first listen it is obvious that the SR60i, like all Grados, is a purpose-built listening device. Build quality, isolation, comfort, and all other considerations simply fade away when the music starts playing. There is just nothing out there for the money that can compare to a Grado for that front-and-center-at-the-Rock-show feeling."

Head-Fi member/reviewer ljokerl

 

 

 

 


 

400

 

 

Sony MDR-ZX700 (around $120)

Closed, full-size, on-the-ear headphone

www.sony.com

The MDR-ZX700's bass is energetic, yet controlled, which is a trait I don't think is common enough in affordable closed headphones. The MDR-ZX700's mids and highs are resolving without being edgy.

If you've heard the Shure SRH440, but felt it on the colder side of your tonal preferences, then the Sony's more authoritative bass (and a slightly warmer tilt than the Shure) might be more your speed.

I consider the MDR-ZX700 a sort of modern spin by Sony on its classic Sony MDR-V6--a more current, affordable closed headphone, and possibly another affordable classic in the making.

"The bass-midrange balance of the ZX700 is a bit better than that of the V6, making the transition appear smoother and the general signature – more balanced. Indeed, I couldn't think of a better term for the overall sound of the ZX700 than ‘well-blended' as the sound signature really does sit better with me than the sum of its parts.... Punchy and warm but with excellent resolution and a strong midrange presence, the Sonys make for good all-rounders... the sound signature simply works when taken as a whole.”

Head-Fi member/reviewer ljokerl

 

 


 

400

 

 

Audio-Technica ATH-M50 (around $160)
Closed, full-size, around-the-ear headphone
www.audio-technica.com

I'm including the closed-back ATH-M50 in this guide because it is a very strong favorite in this price range with Head-Fi'ers, known for solid overall performance at the price, with a tendency toward bass emphasis and sparkly treble. I see few headphones recommended as often by our community, both for starters looking for a good entry into Head-Fi'dom, as well as for seasoned Head-Fi'ers looking for a good closed around-the-ear headphone.

" The Audio Technica m50 represent a great value for those looking for a well isolating closed headphone. They are built about as well as anything out there at the $100 benchmark, and should be comfortable for most people. Technically the m50 is very proficient, and offers a fairly balanced and non-fatiguing sound."

Head-Fi member/reviewer JxK

 

 


 

400

 

 

Sennheiser HD 558 and Sennheiser HD 598 (around $190 and $250, respectively)
Open, full-size, around-the-ear headphones
www.sennheiser.com

For a nice open-backed full size headphone in this price range, Sennheiser's HD 558 is one of the best choices I've come across. Lightweight, and well padded, the HD 558 is among the most comfortable headphones I've owned (at any price), and I've owned a lot of headphones.

And, thankfully, the HD 558 sounds as good as it is comfortable, projecting a wide, open sonic image. Though its bass presentation is more on the neutral side, there's still a sense of fullness down low. Smooth, yet with outstanding detail overall, is how I'd characterize this headphone.

The HD 598 is like an HD 558 that went to sonic finishing school--simply put, it's more refined. Most noticeable is that the HD 598's presentation is slightly more treble-tilted, and its bass more controlled. The HD 598's more polished sound signature is, to my ears, higher-end, and earns the difference in price between it and its mid-line sibling.

I also love the HD 598's entirely unique color scheme--no other headphone I'm aware of looks like it, with its cream-colored leather-like chassis, and dark brown faux burl wood trim and velour ear cushions.

“These [HD 598] headphones have some of the best midrange reproduction and soundstage out of almost all the headphones I’ve tried.”

Head-Fi member/reviewer wind016

 

 

 

 


 

400

 

 

Creative Labs Aurvana Live! (around $70)
Closed, full-size, around-the-ear headphone
www.creative.com

Creative Labs has been discussed a lot on Head-Fi's forums, particularly their audio/MIDI interface products. Of their slew of headphone products, though, one routinely shines through with frequent member recommendations, and that's the Creative Aurvana Live.

"...the CAL!s are bass-heavy headphones with a very rich-sounding midrange and a warm tonality. However, the Creatives boast better clarity in the (far less forward) midrange and a more dimensional sound - the soundstage has some depth in addition to the width. They are more laid back and balanced and at the same time a little faster when the music calls for it. The bass is textured, fairly well-controlled, and surprisingly deep (capable of dropping below 30Hz)... I like these, I really do. They are extremely comfortable, reasonably portable, and they sound oh-so-good... The CAL! is definitely one headphone I could use both on the go and at home... "

Head-Fi member/reviewer ljokerl

 

 

 


 

400

 

 

Bose QuietComfort 15 ($299)
Closed, full-size, active-noise canceling, around-the-ear headphone
www.bose.com

The Bose QuietComfort 15 has the most effective active noise cancellation circuit I've yet used in a consumer headphone, and by a noticeable margin. If the amount of active noise attenuation is your primary consideration, the QC15 would easily be my top recommendation, as it's uncannily good in this regard.

Musically, the QC15 sounds good, too; but, if you're used to ultra-high-end headphones (like ones we more typically discuss at Head-Fi in this price range), the QC15 is not likely to wow you with its musical output while sitting in a quiet room at your desk or in your easy chair. Use it in its element (plane, train, data center, any place with loud droning background noise), and it's a very hard over-ear headphone to top.

Additionally, the Bose QC15 is exceptionally comfortable, even on my huge head, with its very moderate clamping force, very soft cushy earpads, and light weight. The QC15 also folds very flat into its compact semi-hardside case, so its easy to pack.

If you're type of person who travels a bunch, but can't get comfortable with in-ear headphones, then the QC15 has to be added to your must-try list. As far as over-ear headphones go, the Bose QC15 is my current first choice for international travel.

"...they sound "right" even if they're not technically perfect. One of my favorite closed headphones, and probably the best sealed/high-isolating can out there. And quite comfortable to boot!"

Head-Fi member/reviewer obobskivich

 

 

 


 

400

 

 

Denon AH-D600 (around $400)
Closed, full-size, around-the-ear headphone
www.denon.com

This headphone and its flagship sibling (the AH-D7100 Artisan) may be the most controversial headphones in quite some time in the Head-Fi community. First of all, there's the look. Some might say that the new Denon flagship line's look is at least inspired by the cuff look made popular by Beats, whereas Denon's previous top headphones have generally been far more classic in appearance, with either a studio monitor look (like the now-discontinued AHD-950), or the high-end wood-cupped classics (like the AH-D5000 and AH-D7000). Then there's the sound (which I'll get to in just a minute) which is also a departure from the headphones they replace.

But what's done is done, and, as it turns out, I really like the AH-D600, as new and different as it is. I also like its flagship sibling for fun listening, but I had a hard time justifying the AH-D7100's recommendation in this guide at its price of around $1200, which puts it in the crosshairs of some of the world's best headphones.

Compared to its predecessors, I find the AH-D600 to be missing some extension up top, but I wouldn't characterize its treble as rolled off to my ears. It also doesn't image as openly as its predecessors, perhaps because the AH-D600 is a fully closed headphone, whereas its predecessors were semi-closed. One area the AH-D600 excels to my ears is low bass presence and impact. The AH-D600's midrange is good, but not as forward or detailed as, say, Sony's new MDR-1R.

In consideration of its deep bass extension and brawn, straight away I started with electronic dance music, and the AH-D600 was so good with Reid Speed and Skrillex (the first two artists I cued up on the AH-D600) that I assumed it might be at the expense of musicality with acoustic music, but that just wasn't the case. I've found the AH-D600 works well with all genres I listen to, including solo piano, where this funky looking headphone does a very nice job of conveying piano's timbre and density with my best recordings.

I own and really like the now-discontinued Denon AH-D7000, and this AH-D600 is just a different headphone (not to mention far more durable in its build); and I like this new headphone for what it is, which, for me, is a full-size on-the-go headphone that I can recommend at $400.

"...they actually have the most amount of treble compared to everything else I've got at the moment. Definitely, without a doubt, it's sound signature is reminiscent to the D2000 and Pro 900. I'd say perhaps the bass of the Pro 900 and the mids and treble of the D2000.”

Head-Fi member/reviewer Katun

 

 

 


 

400

 

 

PSB M4U 1 ($299)
PSB M4U 2 ($399)
Closed, full-size, around-the-ear headphones (the M4U 2 with active noise canceling)
www.psbspeakers.com

Paul Barton's company (PSB) is well known with audio enthusiasts as a loudspeaker company whose products typically perform well above their price points. When I found out Barton wanted to turn his attention to headphones (as an increasing number of loudspeaker manufacturers are doing), he had my attention.

The M4U 2 was an impressive first go at headphones for Barton. First of all, it operates passively, and in this mode the M4U 2 sounds very good, with good, solid, low bass presence, and good clarity throughout. The M4U 2 also has an amplified mode without active noise canceling, which could come in handy if all you've got on hand is a particularly anemic headphone output. This amplified mode has a lively sound, but at the expense of a little self-noise from the amp circuit, and some loss of clarity (compared to its passive mode). The M4U 2's active noise canceling circuit is good (though definitely not as effective as the Bose QC15's). And, again, like Sennheiser's active noise cancelers (and unlike Bose's), the M4U 2 also operates passively, so that when your batteries die, your music need not be cast aside.

Since the last Buying Guide update, PSB released the M4U 1, which is essentially a passive-only version of the M4U 2. A wee bit of weight is saved (22 grams). A whole lot of money is saved ($100). And, to my ears, the M4U 1 actually sounds just a touch better than the M4U 2, perhaps because of the missing electronics, and maybe better acoustics as a result. In my opinion the M4U 1 is an even easier recommendation to make.

The biggest downsides for me with both are their size (they're large) and the fact that they don't fold flat (so their carrying cases are bulky). And, though they're generally comfortable on my huge head, they don't feel as light and gentle on the head (in terms of both weight and clamping force) as some of their peers. They also have an imposing look on the head--rather heavy and severe looking. (Though I find the Monza Red M4U1 helps lighten the look up nicely.)

If you're in the market for a good, closed, sub-$500 around-the-ear headphone, the M4U 1 should definitely be on that list. If you absolutely want active noise canceling as a part of the package--and if the additional hundred bucks doesn't scare you off--then consider the M4U 2.

In my conversations with Paul Barton--and based on the performance of his first models--I get the impression he's not just dabbling in headphones, and so I'm looking forward to more from PSB in the future.

 

 

 


 

400

 

 

Skullcandy Roc Nation Aviator (around $150)
Closed, full-size, around-the-ear headphone
www.skullcandy.com

The Skullcandy Aviator, in my opinion, is one of the coolest looking headphones on the head, though it takes some youthful spirit to pull it off.

Sonically, I think the Aviator holds its own as a portable headphone, even at $150, with its surprisingly even-handed presentation (surprising considering rapper Jay Z had something to do with it), and a nice open sound. That openness comes at the expense of isolation, which the Aviator is devoid of (despite technically being a closed headphone)--so, in terms of isolation, assume it similar to an open headphone.

“I prefer the Aviators better when it comes to overall sound quality/clarity. Especially if you're listening to rock/acoustic/alternative... They also scale up with a better source and are light and comfortable...”

Head-Fi member/reviewer Roma (Roma101)

 

 


 

400

 

 

Skullcandy Mix Master Mike (around $250)
Closed, full-size, around-the-ear headphone
www.skullcandy.com

The Mix Master Mike is a DJ-type headphone (designed in conjunction with its legendary DJ namesake), with a couple of unique features. DJ's often do one-ear listening, so the Mix Master Mike sums both channels to mono when either earpiece is rotated for one-ear listening. The single-side headphone cable can be plugged into either the left or right earpiece. And there's a mute button.

 

The Mix Master Mike's prominent (but not overwhelming) bass, good mids, and softer treble, all combine nicely for an easy-to-listen to sound signature that is modestly detailed. Overall, I think the Mix Master Mike is the most refined sounding Skullcandy headphone so far. Build quality seems good, but rather plasticky in the hand. The Mix Master Mike might be a tough sell, though, to Head-Fi'ers at $250, a price point at which many outstanding headphones reside. But I think it's a worthy full-size closed headphone consideration, even at the price, with a couple of cool, unique features to boot.


“The Mix Master does have the makings of a great mainstream headphone, producing plenty of quality bass and meshing well with modern recordings.”

Head-Fi member/reviewer ljokerl

 

 

 


 

400

 

 

V-MODA Crossfade M-80 and Crossfade LP2(both around $200)
Closed, portable headphones (M-80 is on-the ear, and the LP2 is around-the-ear)
www.v-moda.com

In the past year, V-MODA's M-80 has earned a place as one of the top choices for a closed, portable, around-the-ear headphone (alongside the likes of the Sennheiser HD 25-1 II and the beyerdynamic DT 1350).

The M-80's sound signature includes rich, detailed mids, accompanied by smooth treble response, and full bass (with emphasis placed where I think any bass emphasis should be, which is down in the deep-bass region). It's a sound signature that many audiophiles have found very easy to love, and with enough of a down-low kick to also satisfy the more typical non-Head-Fi'er consumer tastes. (I find most non-audiophile consumers tend to prefer bass emphasis to neutrality.)

On sonics alone, I think the M-80 is entirely in HD 25-1 II and DT 1350 territory. That the M-80 sounds so good and looks so stylish is a huge win. I think it's one of the headphones that has forced the makers of its more conservatively styled (read: staidly styled) competitors to take notice.

In addition to the M-80's stunning looks, it's built very tough, and should withstand a lot of abuse. And, this year, V-MODA improved its three-button remote/mic cable significantly, separating the mic unit from the remote (for ergonomic improvement) and improving sound quality on both the send and receive sides. (This new cable is called the SpeakEasy cable.)

"Packaging and accessories are brilliant. Build quality is top notch and very fitting for a portable model. Comfort, a subjective thing to be sure, is better (for me) than any similar type of headphone I’ve ever tried. These things alone add up to a great user experience, even if that was all the M-80s had going for them... And then there’s the sound. Large, solid, impactful bass that mostly stays well controlled. Warm, full mids that make any genre seem engaging. And a smooth balanced top end that is reasonably detailed but extremely forgiving of poor material or equipment. I enjoy these. A lot. Even at home when I have plenty of 'better' options, these are still fun to listen to. That seems like a successful product to me."

Head-Fi member/reviewer John Grandberg (project86)

 

 


 

400

 

 

 

Shure SRH440 (around $100)

Shure SRH840 (around $160)

Closed, around-the-ear headphones
www.shure.com

 

Closed-back, pro-audio-oriented headphones, the SRH440 and SRH840 have found popularity for studio use. However, many audiophiles also appreciate them for their more neutral tonal balances (relative to many other closed headphones in this price range), the SRH440 having none of the bass bloat that many of its closed competitors have. The SRH840 adds a little more bass presence and a touch more midrange bloom. I also find the SRH840's overall presentation a bit more refined.

Though a full-size headphones, both the SRH440 and SRH840 fold into pretty compact, portable bundles.

At its street price of around $100, I think the Shure SRH440 is one of the better bargains in Head-Fi'dom, particularly because it can be challenging to find a good, affordable, neutral-ish closed headphone. If you want a touch more musicality without sacrificing the neutral-for-a-closed-headphone balance, its more refined sibling is still a great deal--and a classic--at around $160.

“If you are looking for great closed headphones and are on a budget, my vote is for the Shure SRH-440 and no other.”

Head-Fi member/reviewer gelocks

“A lot has been said about the Shure SRH840 - and for pure enjoyment, I have found the overall SQ as warm, reasonably detailed, and very, very smooth. The SRH840's strengths are in the mids - and these cans absolutely excel with female vocals and also acoustic.  The high end has a little sparkle without being sibilant - but the mids are what really continues to shine through for me.  I've also found them wonderful for jazz, and especially for progressive rock.”

 

Head-Fi member/reviewer brooko

 

 

 


 

400

 

 

 

Bowers & Wilkins P5 Mobile ($299)

and BlueAnt Embrace ($199)

Closed, portable, on-the-ear headphones
www.bowers-wilkins.com
www.myblueant.com

 

Another good around-the-ear passive isolator is the über-stylish Bowers & Wilkins' P5 Mobile (now also available in white). The P5 looks like something crafted by Swiss watchmakers. So luxurious is the P5 that nowhere on it (except for the cable) do your fingers come in contact with anything but metal or soft leather.

And the P5's style continues with its appearance when worn, its lines elegant and graceful, but bold enough to be tastefully noticeable.

How does the P5 sound?  It doesn't quite have the sound quality and detail of the top audiophile portables, but it still sounds very good, with a sonic signature best described as smooth. The Bowers & Wilkins P5 does provide extremely effective noise isolation (passively), inline controls and headset microphone, and so is a fantastic, voguish travel headphone.

Following is a quote from my review of the Bowers & Wilkins P5:

"The P5's artisanal materials, fit, finish and style make for a headphone that many of its owners will be proud to own. Its delicate lines and light weight belie its vault-strong construction. Almost a year later, and I still love handling and wearing the P5. Something this gorgeous, this well crafted, does instill that sense of pride of ownership that one might feel owning, say, a beautiful wristwatch."

That the stunning looking P5 is such a huge hit isn't the least bit surprising to me. I absolutely love this headphone, for what it is.

If $299 is just too much a stretch for you--but the allure of the P5 is too strong to resist--consider the BlueAnt Embrace, which I suspect may have been inspired by the P5.

From the standpoint of design, the Embrace looks like the P5's more conservative, less extravagant sibling. The leather used on the Embrace isn't as fancy or supple as the P5's, but the Embrace's padding in the headband and earpads is more abundant, and super cushiony--its earpads are like fluffy pillows. I have to give the Embrace the edge in comfort.

In terms of sound, I prefer the P5's brand of smoothness to the Embrace's, although the Embrace's warm signature (with mid-bass emphasis) and reasonable level of detail is both pleasant and fun. For its first foray into premium wired headphones, the Embrace is an impressive effort by BlueAnt (a company known for its Bluetooth headsets).

 

“[The P5] have strong crisp bass with smooth mids and clear highs. These headphones particularly thrive is portable use. They are some of the best unamped portable sound for the money.”

Head-Fi member/reviewer John Perrine (Farnsworth)

 

 

 


 

400

 

 

beyerdynamic DT 1350 (around $300)
Closed, portable, on-the-ear headphone
www.beyerdynamic.com

On sound alone, the beyerdynamic DT 1350 is my favorite closed, portable on-the-ear headphone. Sonically, I simply couldn't expect much more from something this compact, as the DT 1350 sounds to me like a very good full-sized, closed around-the-ear headphone, with its tight bass, detailed mids, and very good treble extension. 

This little beyerdynamic also seems durable enough to easily withstand the physical abuse of being crammed into my backpacks and messenger bags.

The DT 1350 is part of beyerdynamic's flagship Tesla line. Though it was designed as a pro audio headphone, it still may be the most audiophile-friendly closed, portable on-ear I've heard.

For portable use, it's important to note that the DT 1350's plug housing is rather large (more like a full-size headphone's plug); and that it does not come with portable-use accouterments like inline remote or a headset mic. Yes, I'd love to have those features, but, still, its sound quality currently puts the DT 1350 in my on-the-go bag very frequently.

“Superb build quality and unprecedented isolation meet sound quality that can rival the best portable headphones I’ve heard and many full-size sets. The construction is nothing short of bulletproof and - soundstage size aside - the DT1350 is technically the best truly portable headphone I’ve come across, boasting superb detail and clarity, excellent bass control, and a level signature.”

Head-Fi member/reviewer ljokerl

 

 

 


 

400

 

 

Sennheiser HD 25-1 II and HD 25-1 II Originals (around $180 to $250)
Closed, portable, on-the-ear headphone
www.sennheiser.com

One of the all-time headphone hi-fi classics, the Sennheiser HD 25-1 II is still the top choice for a closed, portable on-the-ear headphone for many Head-Fi'ers. It's one of my all-time favorites in that category.

With robust bass, relatively neutral mids, and a lively treble, the HD 25-1 II is definitely on the fun side of the audiophile-type sound signatures.

With an extremely tough build (yet still lightweight), the Sennheiser HD 25-1 II remains a popular DJ headphone for its bombproof durability, outstanding isolation, and retro-hip utilitarian looks. And if you want one of the grooviest looking portable headphone choices around, pick up the "Originals" version, which is a special adidas co-branded edition--same headphone, but with very cool, sporty adidas blue stripes, cable, and pads.

" ...the fact that I am still using them as my primary portables is certainly telling of the fact that they are a competitive product. They are well-balanced, have good clarity and detail, and are quite transparent when it comes to sources. The bass is tight and accurate. It’s hard-hitting in character and more punchy than powerful...”

Head-Fi member/reviewer ljokerl

 

 


 

400

 

 

Sennheiser Amperior (around $350)
Closed, portable, on-the-ear headphone
www.sennheiser.com

Despite the new name, there's no denying that the Amperior by Sennheiser was born of the Sennheiser HD 25 line of headphones--I mean, just look at it. And if you consider the Amperior a new addition to the HD 25 family, then it's the best sounding HD 25 I've yet heard. The occasional tendency of the HD 25-1 II to be treble-peaky has been done away with in the Amperior. The Amperior also refines the HD 25's bass, exhibiting greater control and definition. That the Amperior has a nominal impedance of only 18 ohms, and is quite sensitive, makes it easy to drive straight from your phone or media player. No amp? No problem. Not surprisingly, the Amperior has become one of my favorite grab-and-go on-the-ear headphones.

Construction quality feels every bit as solid as the HD 25's before it. Actually, its substantial use of metal makes it feel even more unyielding than the HD 25's before it. Its machined solid aluminum earcups feel bulletproof, and look very cool, in either blue or silver.

My only real quibble with the Amperior is that it comes with a 3-button remote/mic accessory dongle--I'd have preferred that its cable instead had an in-line, built-in version. Also, like beyerdynamic's DT 1350, the Amperior's plug housing is quite large. But these are just minor quibbles with a headphone that sounds and looks so darn good.

A worthy addition to the legacy of the HD 25 family, I think the Sennheiser Amperior is going to be a blockbuster headphone with high-end headphone enthusiasts.

" The Amperior is a stylish-looking, lively-sounding, and robustly-constructed headphone that presents music to the listener with an abundance of sonic impact. It sounds good with all styles/genres of music, and it is excellent for both personal and professional audio applications. The Amperior is also an ideal choice for people who frequently travel or find themselves on-the-go and want an audiophile quality headphone to take with them. The Amperior is another world-class product from Sennheiser and the finest supra-aural portable headphone I've yet heard.”

Head-Fi member/reviewer Windsor

 

 

 


 

400

 

 

Fischer Audio FA-003 (around $180)
Closed, full-size, around-the-ear headphone
www.fischeraudio.com

very well-regarded, affordable closed headphone on Head-Fi.org, I've only heard the FA-003 briefly (and it made a great first impression). While I await more personal experience with this headphone, here's what veteran Head-Fi member, reviewer, re-masterer LFF had to say about it:

“They are light, comfy and sound fantastic. These are mastering grade headphones and I wouldn’t hesitate for one second to recommend them for such critical sound applications. The sonic picture the FA-003’s painted time after time never failed to impress me.”

Head-Fi member/reviewer LFF

 

 


 

400

 

 

Koss PortaPro (around $40 for standard version, and around $80 for the KTC version)
Open, portable, on-the-ear headphone
www.koss.com

There's something--a certain je ne sais quoi--that makes Koss' PortaPro timeless. It's not just its looks, as looks alone might render the mighty PortaPro dated (though there's no denying its vintage aesthetic is part of its charm).


This is a bassy headphone, and its bass defines it--heavy, just shy of sloppy by audiophile standards, but always fun. Despite its bassiness, the PortaPro still manages to sound coherent. Its mids and highs are good, but if you're looking for a mid-centric and/or bright headphone, you're going to have to look elsewhere. Also, if you're a detail freak, walk past the PortaPro.

This year, Koss also released a version of the PortaPro called the PortaPro KTC (Koss Touch Control), which has an inline three-button remote/mic. As an iPhone/iPad/iPod user, the KTC version has become my PortaPro of choice. I was surprised to see Koss give such a concession to smartphone modernity with a headphone as old school as the PortaPro, but I'm thrilled they did. Here's the rub, though: expect to pay at least $30 to $40 more for the KTC version, which I'm guessing is probably due to licensing costs associated with using the made-for-Apple three-button mic/remote design.

Looking for fun sound on the go? And served up with retro-hip style? Put the Koss PortaPro on your list. 

"The PortaPro is an age old design, but has held up over the years, despite newer portable cans coming along.  Perhaps it is the very age of the design that keeps people coming back to it... The sound is fun.  The PortaPros have a nice, punchy sound, and great bass for a small supra-aural set of phones”

Head-Fi member/reviewer TheWuss

 

 


 

400

 

 

Koss PRODJ100 (around $80)
Closed, full-size, portable, around-the-ear headphone
www.koss.com

Based on recommendations in Head-Fi community discussions, I'm glad I finally experienced this headphone for myself, as it's not just one of the best value Koss headphones I've heard, I think it's one of the better headphone values in the sub-$100 range, regardless of manufacturer.

Was this headphone designed with DJ's in mind? Yes. There's even a switch on it that lets you sum both channels to mono, for one-ear listening. But do not let that "DJ" label trick you into thinking the PRODJ100 is a boomy, bloated headphone, as "DJ" designated headphones more typically tend to be. The bass is impactful, but in no way overdone.

The PRODJ100 is a headphone that does a lot of things very well, even if it doesn't (to my ears) do anything exceptionally well. You'll be hard pressed to find another sub-$100 headphone that is so well-rounded, and so able to easily satisfy such a wide variety of listening preferences. If the Shure SRH440 is a bit light in the bass for you, try the Koss PRODJ100. Are the entry-level Grados a little too lively up top for you? Try the PRODJ100. You know what, just try the PRODJ100 regardless of whatever other relatively affordable headphones you were already considering.

“The best thing about this headphone is the quality of vocals. It just sounds amazing with both male and female vocals...You feel like you're right there.”

Head-Fi member/reviewer tdockweiler

 

 

 


 

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Sennheiser PX 90 and PX 200-II (around $30 and $90, respectively)
Portable, on-the-ear headphones (PX 90 is open, PX 200 is closed)
www.sennheiser.com

The Sennheiser PX 90 has a charming, no-frills design. With the simplest of headbands, affixed to which are equally unadorned open earpieces, the PX 90 reminds me of the legendary (and equally stark) HD 414.

What you get for around $30 with the PX 90 is an elegant, well-balanced sounding headphone that's great for on-the-go use. If you're a Head-Fi'er with several people on your gift list whom you'd like to introduce to Head-Fi'dom, the PX 90 is an excellent, affordable choice.

The PX 200-II is an easy go-to for a portable on-the-ear headphone under $100 with a more neutral sound signature. If you've found most portable on-the-ear headphones too bass-heavy for you, put the PX 200-II at the top of your list, especially if you want something ultra-portable. The closed-back PX 200-II provides good passive noise isolation, too.

(The PX 200-II is now also available with a three-button remote/mic cable, and that model is the PX 200-IIi, and is priced around $110.)

 

“The PX200-II therefore has all the hallmarks of a critical and commercial success – usability, excellent sonic characteristics, and a respected name to back it all up - and will likely become more popular than the famed PX100 in the near future...”
Head-Fi member/reviewer ljokerl

 

“Far less complicated in construction than the higher-end sets, the PX90 is lightweight and sturdy enough for portable use. The sound of the baby PX is balanced and competent, allowing it to keep up with the pricier PX100-II at its best.

Head-Fi member/reviewer ljokerl

 

 


 

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Phiaton MS400 (around $230) 
Closed, portable, around-the-ear headphone
www.phiaton.com

Phiaton makes some of the most striking looking headphones, and the MS 400 is, to my eyes, the most fetching of their many eye-catching designs. In a world littered with faux carbon fiber, Phiaton elected to use real carbon fiber, along with an abundance of striking Ferrari-esque red leather.

Fortunately, the MS400 also sounds good.

"Isolation is excellent, especially in the high end... Outside voices are virtually eliminated when you have your music playing...”

Head-Fi member/reviewer Nathan Lee (Armaegis)

 

 


 

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AKG K 550 (around $330) 
Closed, full-size, around-the-ear headphone
www.akg.com

If you've generally been an AKG fan, then the K 550 is almost certainly going to appeal to you. If you want a closed headphone that approaches the sense of airiness of a good open headphone, then the K 550 should definitely be on your list. If you prefer a sound signature that's more on the bass-light side; if you prefer crisp, clear, flat midrange; if you prefer treble presentation that might more fairly be described as somewhat potent than somewhat smooth; then the K 550 may be the headphone you're looking for.

The funny thing is that as I read the preceding paragraph, it doesn't read like something that would appeal to me. Yet the first time I listened to the K 550, I knew I had to have one, because everything I've said about it is, to my ears, true--it's just that the K 550 is all those things, cohesively. There are any number of single things about the K 550 that might rub me the wrong way, but, as the ol' saying goes, the overall presentation and sound of the K 550 is greater than the sum of its parts.

I can think of few closed headphones that offer all the qualities of the K 550.

"...I feel they are quite nice.  Very spacious sounding, clean crisp highs and a nice, tight bottom end.”

Head-Fi member/reviewer AudioDwebe

 

 


 

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Sennheiser HD 600 and HD 650 (around $400 and $500, respectively)
Open, full-size, around-the-ear headphones
www.sennheiser.com

Is there a more widely owned and lauded pair of headphones than the Sennheiser HD 6XX series in the world of high-end audio? And all the acclaim for these headphones is absolutely deserved, earned over many years on the market. The Sennheiser HD 600 and HD 650 both have sonic performance that can scale so far up in world-class rigs that I struggled with whether or not to include them in the Summit-Fi (high-end audio) section instead.

Though detailed, both the HD 600 and HD 650 do not have the hyper detail that some of the newer breed of high-end dynamic headphones have. Still, when I'm listening to them, I don't find myself longing for more (even though I know headphones like its successor flagship HD 800 can certainly give me more).

I think the magic of these headphones is that, in terms of detail and tonality, they can be like listening to good loudspeakers, and there's instant comfort in that. Some find this overly laid-back, but I'm not one of them.

As for what differentiates these two headphones, the HD 650 is the slightly warmer of the two, and yet I personally find it more refined than the HD 600, especially in the upper registers. There's no question that there are more similarities than differences, so if you're already straining your budget, you can feel comfortable choosing the HD 600 to save some dough.

In my experience, getting the best out of the HD 600 and HD 650 absolutely requires the use of good headphone amplification, so make sure to feed 'em right. And if you do feed 'em real right, you can feel confident you're listening to headphones that are still, in my opinion, absolutely world class.

"I just don't see how anyone could be disappointed with these [HD 600s]. They just do so many things right.”

Head-Fi member/reviewer Eisenhower

 

“The [HD 650’s] silky, extended highs, smooth, lush midrange and most importantly, the thunderous bass foundation just make these headphones truly energetic and sing like a pair of good speakers.”

Head-Fi member/reviewer Vertigo-1

 

 


 

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HiFiMAN HE-400 ($399)
Open, full-size, around-the-ear headphone
www.hifiman.us

I wondered when something would come 'round to challenge the Sennheiser HD 600 and HD 650 for my top pick in the sub-$500 sit-down, high-end headphone category, and that something is the HE-400 planar magnetic headphone by HiFiMAN. Listen to this headphone, and its $399 price tag will have you wondering if its price was mismarked--like you found something in the clearance bin that wasn't supposed to be there.

If the HD 600 and HD 650 just aren't pressing your sparkly-treble hot-button, the HE-400 probably will. Bringing to bear a lot of what makes the Summit-Fi-class planar magnetic headphones by HiFiMAN and Audeze so special--but with a bargain price, and enough sensitivity to be driven by an iPhone in a pinch--the HE-400 is one of the easiest sub-$500 recommendations to make right now.

Soaring, shimmering treble, and a greater sense of overall speed--certainly more so than any over-ear in this price range that I've heard--are the HE-400's hallmarks.

"Not only does the HE-400 deliver on a better experience from the very moment you pick them up and feel their mighty heft, admire their high-tech industrial appearance, and marvel at their amazing ability to disappear on your head, but its planar magnetic technology delivers a very special sound that I feel is probably impossible to replicate with anything else in the price range.”

Head-Fi member/reviewer TMRaven

 

 


 

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Philips CitiScape DowntownPhilips CitiScape Uptown, and Philips Fidelio L1 (around $100, $150, and $300, respectively) 
Closed, full-size, on-the-ear headphone (CitiScape Downtown)
Closed, full-size, around-the-ear headphone (CitiScape Uptown)
Semi-open, full-size, around-the-ear headphone (Fidelio L1)
www.philips.com

Let's go waaay back to 2011, when Head-Fi turned a hearty ten years old. Up to that point, in millions of posts, in untold thousands of threads, in ten years of online headphone chatter, Philips rarely came up in our discussions. Almost never, actually. Then, at CES 2012, from seemingly out of nowhere, Philips unveiled several headphones that hit it out of the park. We're talking really good headphones here, for very little dough. Affordable. Awesome. Headphones.
 

 

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The ones that wowed me the most were a few of their new over-ear models. The first two are from an affordable premium line of urban headphones called CitiScape. The Philips CitiScape Downtown (around $100) is a closed on-the-ear model very uniquely styled, with a headband wrapped in a padded cloth that looks like an elegant cravat, and earpieces wrapped in a nice synthetic leather. The look, inspired by New York casual street style, is graceful, modish, and suitable for men and women alike. The Downtown is also one of the more comfortable on-the-ear headphones.

The Downtown also sounds great, with a warmish tonal balance, but still nicely detailed throughout. Bass is impactful, precise beyond the price point, and emphasized mildly. Mids are smooth and nicely present. Treble is on the softer side, but there's enough of it to give just a hint of sparkle. Closed though it is, the Downtown images well, too. At around $100, the Philips CitiScape Downtown is one of my favorite closed on-the-ear headphones at or under $100, providing musicality and balance at a level well above its price, and with all genres I listen to.

 

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The Philips CitiScape Uptown (around $150) is the slightly upmarket sibling of the Downtown, and is a closed around-the-ear headphone. Like the Downtown, the Uptown is stylish, albeit with a completely different, retro-cool style. The abundance of synthetic leather is nice looking, and attractively tufted on the headband's underside.

Tonally, the Uptown, like the Downtown, has a warmer tendency, but does have the advantage of having a touch more sparkle in the treble. Like its sibling, the Uptown images nicely. Having used the Downtown more at the beginning, switching to the Uptown revealed more of a closed-cup resonance than is present with the Downtown. However, it's minor enough that it's easy to hear past as you get accustomed to the Uptown. Sonically, which do I prefer, the Downtown or Uptown? Truth be told, it's a toss-up for me. I also really like the Uptown, and recommend it easily at its $150 price, but I think the Downtown at only $100 is the even easier recommendation.

Both the Downtown and the Uptown have a feature called MusicSeal, which is intended to keep the music in the headphone, and not leaking out to bother those nearby. I haven't examined or inquired to find out exactly how it works, but MusicSeal does work (and also works to provide good isolation from outside noise).

Both the Downtown and the Uptown use flat, tangle-resistant fixed cables. The Downtown's cable has an inline one-button remote/mic. The Uptown's cable also has an inline one-button remote/mic, but with the unfortunate addition of a useless analog super-short-throw sliding volume control. I have no idea how such a useless volume control made it past testing on the otherwise wonderfully executed Uptown, but it's hardly enough to dash my recommendation of it.

A huge piece of news, in my opinion, is that the Philips Citicape line is carried not just in big box electronics stores, but also through some major department stores. That kind of channel presence is big news with headphones that sound this good.

 

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"Fidelio" is Philips' flagship audio brand, and the Philips Fidelio L1 (around $300) is the first of the Fidelio headphones. The Fidelio L1 is, in my opinion, one of the best looking sub-$500 headphone on the market today. To my eyes, there's no angle--on the head or off the head--from which the Fidelio L1 doesn't look stunning. And it feels just as impressive, with extensive use of real leather, protein leather and aluminum. The design is a near-perfect blend of modern and retro, and I still look admiringly at the L1 every single time I use it.

Coming from the left earpiece is a very short length of fixed cable to which can be attached two different headphone cable options, one plain, and one with a three-button remote/mic. By the way, the L1's three-button remote/mic cable is one of the best of its types that I've yet used, with easily distinguishable buttons, and nice positive clicks. (The Fidelio L1 cables are fabric-lined.)

The Fidelio L1's sound signature is definitely on the warmer side, but more refined, more polished than its CitiScape siblings. The L1's bass is well north of neutral, but controlled enough to keep a lot of the audiophile types <raises hand> happy. The mids are bloomy and smooth; and the treble has nice presence (though I'd prefer a more extended sounding higher register). No, the Fidelio L1 is not a detail freak's dream headphone, but still I find it, overall, a very satisfying headphone to listen to.

As far as headphones go, this is definitely a breakout year for Philips. And, again, given the retail presence Philips has, these new headphones are potentially very important for the industry, not just for Philips.

"...the Uptown's soundstage is spread evenly from left to right, and it has the ability to communicate real depth/ambiance/layering... Instruments have a nice sense of space around them and don't sound cramped at all.”

Head-Fi member/reviewer Michael (manveru)

 

"The strongest suit of the Philips Fidelio L1 is that it does nothing wrong. Everything seems to make sense and seems to be well sought out. Starting by the multi-purpose design with iPhone remote and mic, to the half-open design for home use and train rides, all the way to a sleek and unpretentious design, the Fidelio L1 is an incredible all-rounder that is highly welcomed.”

Head-Fi member/reviewer Ultrazino

 

 


 

 

 

 

Monster Diesel VEKTRMonster Inspiration (Active Noise canceling), and Monster Diamond Tears Edge (around $250, $300, and $300, respectively) 
Closed, full-size, on-the-ear headphone (Diesel VEKTR)
Closed, full-size, active noise canceling, around-the-ear headphone (Inspiration)
Closed, full-size, on-the-ear headphone (Diamond Tears Edge)
www.monsterproducts.com

As co-developer of the now-ubiquitous Beats By Dre line of headphones, Monster, for the last several years, has helped grow Beats into what some might say is the biggest success story in the history of headphones. Though Beats certainly isn't a popular make here on Head-Fi, outside of our community Beats is everywhere. I'd seen it estimated that Beats headphones accounted for 54% of the >$100 headphone market (and around 29% of the entire headphone category). Huge.

For Monster, though, after this year it all changes, with Monster and Beats breaking up. 2013 begins with Monster in their post-Beats era, and they've been preparing for it for quite some time with the development of a bunch of their own models. It seems to me that for its first round of over-ears, Monster wanted to make sure we knew they weren't going to simply mimic what they were doing with Beats, releasing several wildly styled headphones, a few of which I quite like. And all are (probably thankfully for most) a sonic departure from what Beats is doing, and a move toward a more audio-enthusiast-friendly sound signature.
 

 



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The Monster Diesel VEKTR (around $250) is a headphone collaboration between Monster and Italian fashion brand Diesel. As you can see in the photo, there's nothing else on the market that looks anything like it--the VEKTR's look is in-your-face Italian supercar meets F-117A stealth bomber, with its abundance of chiseled angular cuts and flat surfaces.


Even on my huge head, I find the lightweight Diesel VEKTR comfortable for a supra-aural (on-the-ear) headphone. And though it looks rather severe when you're holding it in your hands, the all-black Diesel VEKTR looks surprisingly modest on the head. It also folds up into a very compact package, so its a nice headphone for those whose bags are usually tightly packed.

As for its sound, the Diesel VEKTR's sonic performance far exceeds what I expected from a headphone co-developed with a fashion brand, development-led by a company in the throes of a split with Beats. The Diesel VEKTR is very good, and exceedingly so for a headphone targeting the general consumer market. For example, I'd never consider listening to the weighty, thick Tord Gustavsen Trio album The Ground via the Beats Pro, which reduces that recording's bottom heaviness to muck. But not only do I listen to that Gustavsen album--and other thick-waisted recordings like Fiona Apple's song "Extraordinary Machine"--through the VEKTR, I enjoy listening to recordings like these through this headphone. Yes, the bass has some low emphasis, but it's surprisingly even-keeled in its overall presentation. And though I might wish for more overall resolution and shimmer, and perhaps a more fleshed-out soundstage, I'd say the VEKTR is a fun, enjoyable, musical headphone.

The Diesel VEKTR is available in black and white versions.
 

 

 



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The Monster Inspiration I have here is the active noise canceling version (around $300). (The passive-only version, which I haven't heard yet, goes for around $250.) As with the VEKTR and Diamond Tears, Monster made sure to give the Inspiration its very own style. In terms of its looks, the Inspiration, unlike its over-ear siblings in this guide, is absolutely not polarizing--just about everyone I've shown it to loves its chic-yet-business-friendly lines. Whereas its siblings might require youthful spirit and some moxie to pull off, the Inspiration is styled to be worn by anyone, any age.


The Inspiration's styling coup, though, is one that is very clever, yet so simple I can't believe it hasn't been done before: interchangeable headbands, held on firmly (yet easily changed) with a magnetic mount system. Since an over-ear headphone's headband can be such a major part of its outward appearance, changing it out for different colors, patterns, and materials can dramatically alter the headphone's appearance. I've got the Inspiration in black, and the black ballistic nylon or black perforated leather headbands on it will go with a suit. A blue denim headband turns the Inspiration into something completely different. And there are now many headbands to choose from, ranging in price from $25 to $50 each. Of course, if you're the creative type, perhaps you could customize one for a completely one-off look.

By the way, the Inspiration's in-line three-button remote is easily one of the best I've used, with responsive buttons that have just the right amount of click, and a bumped-out middle button that eliminates any doubts about which of the three buttons you're pressing. Every company making in-line three-button remotes should try the one on the Inspiration's cable.

The Inspiration's sound in its passive mode (again, I have the version with active noise canceling) is on the bass-heavier side, but, as a bass-heavy headphone, I think it's a good one. It's not a detail freak's headphone, but it's probably better than what most general consumers listen to, and better than anything Monster and Beats released together. In passive mode, the Inspiration's mids are balanced nicely, and its highs smooth--again, though, look elsewhere if you tend to favor a more detailed, airy headphone, as the Inspiration's passive-mode presentation is, overall, rather heavy, and its soundstage on the tighter side.

When its active noise canceling circuit is switched on, the sound takes a harsher turn, sibilance kicks up, and the tonal balance takes on more of a general consumer-ish U-shape. For louder environments, it seems clear to me that Monster was trying to provide more detail to compensate for high ambient noise, but, to my ears, they dialed that up to a level that sounds somewhat etched and unnatural, which is particularly clear when you're surrounded by only mild ambient noise. Stick to its passive mode when you can for better sound. As for canceling noise, the circuit works well, but still far off the likes of Sony's new MDR-1RNC and Bose's QC15. (I have been told the passive-only Inspiration sound even better than the active version in passive mode. I haven't tried the passive-only version yet, though.)

The Monster Inspiration with active noise canceling is available in titanium (which looks black to me), white and silver. The passive-only version is available only in titanium matte (it looks matte black to me).
 

 

 


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The big gem (pun absolutely intended) in the Monster over-ear roster is, without a doubt, the Monster Diamond Tears Edge (around $300). I'll say it: I really dig this headphone's sound, and its attitude. If you think the Diesel VEKTR is out-there in terms of its design, wait until you see the Diamond Tears. And unlike the Diesel VEKTR, which looks rather modest on the head, the Diamond Tears draws a bunch of attention even when worn (especially the white version, with its abundance of chrome). Never, in all my Head-Fi life, have I been asked more about the headphone on my head or around my neck than when I go out wearing the Diamond Tears. When I first saw it, I thought more women than men would ask about it, but the inquirers have been just about 50/50 women and men.


Monster developed the Diamond Tears with Park Jin Young (JYP), an entertainer and producer who's immensely popular in Korea. And if JYP helped voice this thing, Monster should make more headphones with this guy. Look again at what I wrote about the VEKTR (above), and know that the Diamond Tears is somewhat like the VEKTR, but sonically improved and refined in every respect, to the point that I think the Diamond Tears is the much better headphone.

The Diamond Tears' bass is emphasized, but with nice control and detail down low, especially for a very closed on-the-ear headphone. The Diamond Tears' midrange has very good presence and precision for the class, and its treble the same. When I feed high-resolution recordings through the Diamond Tears, its ability to scale above its Monster siblings is clear. Though the Diamond Tears has better soundstage and image placement than the VEKTR, it's still pretty closed in, so I do wish it conveyed a greater sense of space.

The Diamond Tears is available in white with clear "diamond" shell and chrome trim; and in black with a translucent black shell and black chrome trim. The "diamond" earcups feel solid and, combined with the seal provided by the earpads, offers very good passive noise isolation. Its headband is metal with thick silicone fittings. The Diamond Tears has so far proven a very durably built headphone in my experience.

So how does this spunkily styled Monster over-ear flagship compare to its similarly priced, more outwardly serious competitors, by the likes of Sennheiser, Sony, and V-MODA? Very well. Along with some of the finer offerings in this class by these companies, Monster's Diamond Tears is one of my favorite on-ear, closed portable headphones. And I appreciate Monster's unflinching attitude in offering such a serious-sounding headphone in such an unconventional, plucky, spirited style.

In preparation for Monster's post-Beats era, I'd say they're off to a bang-up start.

 

"Top end and midrange are clear and even. Instruments and voices are shockingly clear and real... To my ears, [Diamond Tears] is a headphone where you don't hear or think in terms of bass, treble, midrange. You just feel like the music is right. It is the opposite of laid-back but it is not harsh. Full of energy but well-controlled.”

Head-Fi member/reviewer Beagle

 

 


 

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Sennheiser MOMENTUM (around $350) 
Closed, portable, around-the-ear headphone
www.sennheiser.com

For their latest premium on-the-go closed headphone, Sennheiser eschewed the Beats-trendy plastic cuff look in favor of a ritzy metal and leather sculpture of a headphone.

The $350 Sennheiser MOMENTUM is a closed, circumaural (around-the-ear) headphone designed to be used the way most people in the world today seem to be using their headphones--plugged directly into mobile phones. Sennheiser designed the MOMENTUM to be easy to drive by a mobile phone, with a low 18-ohm nominal impedance, and a relatively sensitive nature. Increasing its phone-friendly appeal is the included cable with iDevice-compatible three-button in-line mic/control. (The MOMENTUM also comes with a plain audio-only cable.)

The headband is stainless steel with a brush finish you're more likely to find on a fancy Swiss watch than a headphone. The leather covering the top of the split-type headband is a beautiful, rugged-feeling hide, and the leather on all the surfaces that touch you has a far more supple hand. To provide the opulent skins, Sennheiser actually turned to famed English tannery Pittards. (And, yes, it's all real leather, and it's also sweat and water resistant.) This headphone is a pleasure to hold and examine, but it's also a cushiony, comfortable treat to wear.

The MOMENTUM's tonal balance includes forward sounding bass, with low-end presence strong enough to push the MOMENTUM's tonal balance into territory I'd describe as mildly thick. Still, though, there's adequate control down low. The MOMENTUM's mids and treble exhibit more clarity and resolution than two of my other favorite on-the-go cans, in the Philips Fidelio L1 and Bowers & Wilkins P5, so it moves ahead of those with me.

The MOMENTUM's image placement is precise for a closed headphone, but I find its soundstage to be tighter than some of its other premium closed competitors, like the Sony MDR-1R and the Sony MDR-7520.

This new premium headphone has so much going for it--and has a great sound signature for out-and-about use--that it gets plenty of time over my ears.

Also, the fact that it's one of the most gorgeous headphones I've ever seen certainly doesn't hurt it. The Sennheiser MOMENTUM is a leather and steel design oasis in a desert full of plastic lookalikes.

 

"If style and portability are important, these are probably worth a look; they're absolutely gorgeous and supremely comfortable.”

Head-Fi member/reviewer Andrew Ambach (earthpeople)

 

 


 

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Logitech UE 4000 ($99.99)

Logitech UE 6000 ($199.99)
Closed, portable, on-the-ear headphone (UE 4000)
Closed, portable, around-the-ear headphone (UE 6000)
http://ue.logitech.com/

For years, the name "Ultimate Ears" has been synonymous with in-ear monitors, but this year began their foray into over-ear headphones, with the release of three new over-ear models. The UE 4000 is the entry-level model in the line, and the UE 6000 the middle child. (The flagship UE 9000 can be found in the Wireless Headphones section of this guide.)

The UE 4000 is a very lightweight, closed on-the-ear headphone that is one of my new favorite entry-level headphones. For an on-the-ear, it's very comfortable, with well-padded earpads and light-moderate clamping force. Its build quality seems good, and it's an elegant looking headphone, upholding the new UE design ethos, with the diagonally-folded faceplate that can be found on all their latest headphone models, including their new flagship universal-fit in-ear UE 900.

The UE 4000's sound is on the warm side, with prominent bass that largely leaves the midrange alone; a sweet, modestly detailed midrange, and treble that forgoes any chance at harshness by sacrificing some detail for smoothness. For its price, and for the passive isolation, which is quite good, I think the UE 4000 is a bargain at $99.99.

The UE 4000 is available in black or white (both versions have black headbands).

The UE 6000 is the middle child, and quite possibly the sweet spot in the new UE over-ear line. Go to the Wireless Headphone section of this guide, and read the entry for the UE 9000. Subtract the Bluetooth functionality, and, for the most part, you've got the UE 6000. Here's the thing, though: the UE 6000 is half the price of the UE 9000. So let me essentially repeat what I said about its wireless sibling: As a passive headphone the UE 6000 is an easy recommendation, with its impressively deep, powerful bass; detailed, relatively uncolored midrange; and smooth treble that's a bit rolled-off way up top. As a passive headphone, the UE 6000 is an outstanding portable, closed around-the-ear headphones. On my wish list for it, though, is a bit more treble extension and energy.

The UE 6000 is also available in black or white (both versions have black headbands).

Like the UE 9000, the UE 6000 has active noise canceling, but, in my opinion, it's best left off unless you absolutely need it. I don't think you'll need it often, as the UE 6000 isolates quite well passively, and the active noise canceling is only so-so (in terms of canceling noise). Additionally, the UE 6000's noise canceling boosts things unnaturally, which turns the UE 6000 into a lesser headphone (in terms of fidelity) when its active circuitry is on.

Both the UE 4000 and the UE 6000 come with a cool "shareable splitter" accessory (that splits one mini stereo output into two) that has already come in handy for me, for sharing iPad movies with a travel mate on cross-country flights.

Ultimate Ears is not just in-ears anymore, and that's a good thing. Welcome to this category, UE!

"The UE6000 has a dynamic, punchy bass that qualifies them as a worthy basshead can. Mids sound natural and are accurately represented. Highs are on the subdued side of neutral, but smooth and non-fatiguing.”

Head-Fi member/reviewer Craig Schwartz (Craigster75)

 

 


 

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Sony MDR-7520 (around $400)
Closed, full-size, around-the-ear headphone
www.sony.com

If, as I said earlier, the Sony MDR-ZX700 is a sort of modern spin on the circa-1980's MDR-V6, then the MDR-7520 is still a further evolution and refinement of the monitor sound the MDR-V6 represented in its heyday.

Let's get one thing straight before I continue: The MDR-7520 is not the same headphone as the now-discontinued (in the U.S.) MDR-Z1000. That was something I always assumed, but a belief I had banished for me in a head-to-head comparison of the two with Sony's Naotaka "Nao" Tsunoda (Nao was the lead engineer for these products). They do look similar, but they definitely sound different, with the MDR-7520's signature the one I preferred, its bass more impactful, and its image more spacious.

The pro audio market MDR-7520 has grown into one of my top choices for a sub-$500 closed headphone. While the newer Sony MDR-1R is also one of my favorites with its smooth-yet-detailed presentation, the MDR-7520 is often what I turn to when I want a closed around-the-ear that's more even-keeled (the MDR-7520's bass, though impactful, sounds less bumped-up to me than the MDR-1R's), and less polite, more revealing. I tend to prefer the MDR-1R when I know the music I'll be listening to is going to be all over the map, and the MDR-7520 when I'm queuing up my highest fidelity recordings, most of which are jazz and classical recordings. I'd have to give a slight edge to the MDR-7520 in imaging, too--image placement just seems a bit more precise with it.

Yes, its latest sibling, the MDR-1R, with its comfort advantage, fold-flat design, and smoother presentation, may see more general use from me; but the MDR-7520 has become an important, key member of my closed headphone stable. The MDR-7520 is now one of my primary go-to cans for reference sound in closed cans under $500.

 

 


 

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Sony MDR-MA900 (around $300)
Open, full-size, around-the-ear headphone
www.sony.com

Like the old Sony MDR-F1 that clearly inspired this one, the MDR-MA900's huge 70mm drivers are essentially held afloat over your ears by a completely open frame--there are no real earcups to speak of with this one.

Though it's certainly not for everyone, I can't believe the MDR-MA900 isn't more of a favorite in our community. Of headphones currently in production, this is about as open as a headphone gets, so don't bother taking it outside; and keep it away from coffee houses, lest you get the boot for leaking your music for all the customers to hear.

Tonally, the MDR-MA900 strikes me as neutral-ish, but with low bass a bit rolled off (but not rolled off enough for me to characterize the bass as sucked out). Perhaps what I perceive as its relative flatness is also what makes it sound a bit on the drier side to me. Still, though, at least it doesn't offend in any way either--there's nothing missing, nothing glaring. It's not the most detailed headphone in the world, and certainly not the most immediate, but it is among the easiest headphones to listen to all day, and with just about any kind of music (though I found it tends to sound best with acoustic music, and least impressive with EDM).

So what is it I love about this headphone? The imaging. In this regard, it's entirely unique in my collection. Big, airy, open, with a greater sense of out-of-head placement than just about any other headphone I've heard. (If you have the MDR-MA900, close your eyes and listen to "Windstorm (A Place To Bury Strangers Remix)" by School of Seven Bells--especially the first 30 seconds--for just one fun example.) The MDR-MA900's airiness might be a bit diffuse for those who prefer more intimacy, more immediacy, but I love it when I'm in the mood.

The MDR-MA900 may also be one of the most comfortable headphones on the planet, which, along with that imaging and easy-going balance, makes this an easy headphone for hours-long listening sessions. If you've got nobody else around you, and you work in a quiet environment, the MDR-MA900 is an awesome listen-while-you-work headphone. At low listening levels, it makes for an amazing background music headphone.

 

"[The MDR-MA900] is seemingly one that strives for neutrality, and here I think they succeed for the most part. The low end is well balanced, neither anemic or boomy... The midrange seems quite clear, perhaps ever-so-slightly recessed, with a breathy effortlessness I'm finding quite pleasant.”

Head-Fi member/reviewer MuppetFace

 

 


 

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V-MODA Crossfade M-100 ($310)
Closed, full-size, around-the-ear headphones
www.v-moda.com

The latest V-MODA flagship--the V-MODA M-100--was one of the most anticipated product launches we've seen in the Head-Fi community in quite some time. Part of what made the M-100 so anticipated is how it came to be, uniquely developed alongside online audiophiles, musicians, editors--a true collaborative effort. At its core, though, the M-100 was a passion project for V-MODA founder Val Kolton. He'd been working on it for a long while before he revealed the project publicly; and then for about a year after that, he started gathering feedback from his musician and editor friends, and then welcomed opinions from the Head-Fi community, including sonic critiques from Head-Fi members.

Toward the end of last year, Kolton and I met twice to discuss the M-100, once in Chicago, and then again at Head-Fi HQ in Michigan. The purpose of the visit to my office was to look at his hinge design (which ended up evolving into something stronger and more refined by the time it made production), as well as evaluating a bunch of earpad variations that looked so much alike they had to be numbered for identification (yet they sounded quite different from one prototype pair to the next). There was no sleep at that latter meeting, as there was a lot to cover--we even had a couple of video conferences with his engineers overseas. Then there was a limited public unveiling (and auditions) of M-100 prototypes at CES last January, and a few more get-togethers about the M-100 this year. 

Fast forward to now, and a very limited run of specially packaged first-run M-100's was sold exclusively to Head-Fi community members who signed up for it. And the response from that first batch of M-100's has been positive and strong.

After all that, what was the result? Let's start with that hinge: As a professional DJ who knows how rough headphones can be treated on the road, Kolton wanted to make sure that any hinge he developed wouldn't be a point of weakness. And the hinge that evolved into the production version feels exceedingly strong. A lot of attention even went into the detents that *click* to confirm full-open and full-closed positions--this hinge feels positively Swiss-like in its precision.

The M-100 is a tough headphone that can survive 70+ drops on concrete from a height of six feet; survive environmental tests including high and low temperatures, humidity, salt spray, and ultraviolet light exposure; with a headband that can bend flat 10 times, and a cable that can survive 1,000,000+ bends. And, yes, these are actual tests V-MODA performs.

Also Swiss-like in its precision is the quality control the drivers are subjected to, each matched to tight tolerances at six different frequency bands, as one of Kolton's hot buttons is, without a doubt, driver matching.

Even more attention and anxiety was paid to the sound signature. With every V-MODA headphone ever made (in-ear or over-ear), there's bass emphasis, depending on the model, to varying degrees. The V-MODA Crossfade M-80 (also in this guide) was the first headphone from V-MODA that was designed for audiophiles (or "Modiophiles"--modern audiophiles--as Kolton calls them). The M-100 is the second, and the flagship. Still there is bass emphasis, but in a manner that smartly leaves the mids relatively unruffled. The M-100's mids are detailed, if not just somewhat subdued with its framing between the prominent bass on the one side, and the soaring treble on the other. Imaging is surprisingly spacious for a closed headphone whose drivers don't appear to me to be at all canted at an angle, like we see on so many headphones today.

The M-100's passive isolation is good enough for most of my on-the-go needs. For an on-the-go headphone, its sound (not to mention its durability) make it virtually perfect. If you've a tendency to prefer some bass emphasis and very detailed treble, this might very well be the closed, over-ear reference headphone you've been looking for. For me, the M-100 has become one of my top passive on-the-go headphones of choice, for both its sound and durability.

The V-MODA M-100 is available in a very chic matte black color scheme with a bright orange cable, making it one of the coolest, hippest looking headphones released in some time. (Okay, okay, I'm kind of teasing about that, as I helped pick that color scheme--it does look groovy, though.) It's also available in two other color schemes called White Pearl and Shadow.

“By far the strongest sonic trait of the M-100 is it's rendering of its bass. At least to my ears, this is the defining signature of these headphones... I won't call myself a bass head but the M-100's bass traits have enlightened me on how to appreciate good quality bass."

Head-Fi member/reviewer AnakChan

 

 


 

 

 

 
Sony MDR-1R (around $299.99)
Sony MDR-1RNC ($499.99) Closed, portable, around-the-ear headphone (MDR-1R)Closed, portable, active noise canceling, around-the-ear headphone (MDR-1RNC)

www.sony.com
 

This past summer, Sony's Naotaka "Nao" Tsunoda stopped by Head-Fi HQ in Michigan for an all-day visit. Nao is a 21-year Sony veteran--a Sony Distinguished Engineer--and one of the heads of Sony's headphone engineering and development efforts in Tokyo.

One of the reasons for the visit was to discuss, and listen to, one of Nao's most recent projects: the new MDR-1 family of headphones. One by one, Nao removed a sample of each of the new models from one of his suitcases, grinning ear to ear as he did. He looked like a proud papa as he laid each box down. The new models included the Sony MDR-1R (passive-only, closed around-the-ear), Sony MDR-1RNC (active noise canceling, closed around-the-ear), and the Sony MDR-1RBT (Bluetooth wireless, closed around-the-ear). (You can read about the MDR-1RBT in the Wireless Headphones section of this guide.)

 

 

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The Sony MDR-1RNC, in terms of technology and features--and in terms of price-- is the new MDR-1R line's flagship model. It's an active noise canceling model. The MDR-1RNC also differs from the other two models in the line with a 50mm Liquid Crystal Polymer (LCP) driver, the other models sporting 40mm LCP drivers.

As for its noise canceling circuit, the MDR-1RNC uses an adaptive digital noise canceling system that will automatically select one of three distinct noise canceling profiles (airplane, bus, or office), depending on the MDR-1RNC's assessment of the ambient noise around you. In use, I've found the MDR-1RNC's noise canceling to be very effective. However, the way it goes about canceling noise is quite different than Bose's QC15. The Bose's noise canceling seems to cancel more total noise, to my ears, using a technique that sounds like its effect is more broadband. The MDR-1RNC, on the other hand, seems to selectively let more human voices through, but only after substantially blunting them. This effect is so specific, I have almost no doubt that it's deliberate.

One place the MDR-1RNC's noise canceling may have an advantage over the QC15 is in low-frequency noise cancellation. While testing them at an airport, Joe (one of Head-Fi's co-administrators) was wearing the MDR-1RBT (and I the QC15), and when I asked what the rumble of the tram that had just gone by sounded like to him, he asked, "What tram?"

Another advantage the MDR-1RNC has over the QC15 is in sound quality. The QC15 actually sounds pretty good--particularly when its in its element, which is in areas of loud ambient noise--with a smooth, friendly sound signature, but one that's not very detailed, and with rather flat imaging. The MDR-1RNC, like it's wireless sibling (the MDR-1RBT) uses Sony's "S-MASTER" digital amplification and "DSEE" processing which is designed to restore depth and detail lost in the audio compression process. The effect is more dramatic in the MDR-1RNC than it is in the MDR-1RBT, adding a bit more edge to the sound than the MDR-1RBT's implementation of these technologies; but, again, I think this was intentional, as an attempt to accentuate details that loud ambient noise may mask. The result is a more detailed sound signature, and more three- dimensional imaging, than Bose's QC15.

Also, unlike the Bose QC15, the MDR-1RNC can be used in passive mode, so the sound can keep going, even after the internal rechargeable battery dies. However, since the MDR-1RNC's battery life is rated at up to 30 hours of listening time, you're not likely to run it dry if you routinely charge it. (The Bose QC15 is rated for up to 35 hours of use from a single AAA battery, but the Bose's sound shuts down when there's no power.) The MDR-1RNC's passive mode's sound quality is acceptably good, but certainly not this headphone at its best. In this mode, it's bass-heavier and thicker-sounding overall than the better sounding passive-only MDR-1R and the Bluetooth MDR-1RBT in its passive mode--but it's still good. For all of these things, the MDR-1RNC has replaced the Bose QC15 as my top pick for a wired noise canceling headphone.

 

 

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The real gem in the MDR-1R lineup is, to me, the least expensive one--the passive-only Sony MDR-1R. It's the best sounding of the three, edging out its Bluetooth sibling, the MDR-1RBT. It's also, to my ears, one of the best of the sub-$500 closed headphones currently available.

The Sony MDR-1R has a sound signature that is at once smooth and detailed. Mid-bass sounds a bit north of neutral, but very tastefully so, to my ears. It doesn't quite have the visceral low-end, gut-punching drive that the V-MODA M-100 has, but, for sit- down listening in a quiet environment, the MDR-1R has what I'd call a more reference presentation. Sony's engineers focused a great deal on carefully tuning the MDR-1R's bass performance, with one key aim being to improve the quickness of the driver's response, and substantially reducing the driver's rise time in the 30 to 40 Hz area. To my ears, their efforts yielded excellent results.

The MDR-1R's midrange is also wonderful, presenting most vocals slightly forward, and with beautiful rendering of subtle details that some of its peers miss. In terms of treble, the MDR-1R has very good extension, but is never sibilant, never harsh up top, to my ears. As far as sub-$500 closed headphones go today, I can't think of another I'd pick over the MDR-1R for long-term sit-down listening sessions, across a wide variance in recording quality, and a wide variety of musical genres. The MDR-1R is available in black and silver versions.

For all three MDR-1 family models, Nao's team also spent considerable effort to make these headphones exceedingly comfortable. A lot more went into engineering comfort into this line than we have space here to discuss, but innovations in earpad design and inventive engineering around the swivel axis were among the areas of concentration for improving comfort. The results are three of the most comfortable closed headphones I've ever worn (especially the lighter passive-only MDR-1R).

After having spent time with the new MDR-1 family of headphones, it's easy to understand Nao's ear-to-ear grin, and his proud-papa sense of pride. This is a wonderful new lineup from Sony.

“I feel [the MDR-1R’s] are one of the most comfortable headphones I've ever worn. And it's isolation is also very decent, way above average and one of the better ones."

Head-Fi member/reviewer AnakChan

“[Regarding the MDR-1RNC] Sony has packaged something in a user-friendly, simple, straightforward package... If Sony's aim was to cancel noise... reproduce all the frequencies, and keep it easy and simple, I give them an A+. ...a transparent, full-on, sweet encompassing sound."

Head-Fi member/reviewer podeschi

 

 

Comments (27)

I believe the Grados are 80 and 100, respectively.
I don't think the Fischer should be suggested at all considering the problems people have had with orders as well as their price being very high now considering they are the same as the Brainwavz HM5, but Mp4Nation offers free world-wide shipping on them and they are near half the price brand new as the FA-003 at times.
The headphone pictures don't line up with the text properly. Using Google Chrome.
However I found this list very useful, and felt good inside when a couple headphones were mentioned that I feel deserve more exposure.
Is there a .pdf version for download?
Awesome!!!!!!!! It's great the Sennheiser HD 650 and Hifiman HE 400 are back to back. Both have been my only christmas requests to the wife. Maybe she got me BOTH!!! CHILLS........ haha
Great overview in general
You saved the best for the last. :)
Great write up on MDR-1R.
good stuff jude!!! thank you!
Same deal with the pictures in firefox not lining up;. Great guide though. love it.
HE 500 > HE 400 >
HE 400 & HD 650
Sparkle Treble vs Laid back smooth
Q701 & HD 650
Mid/Treble vs Laid Back Smooth

HE-500 wins all though.
Fantastic job with the whole Holiday Gift Guide, Jude! This would have taken ages to listen, search, and compile. Highly impressive!!
keanex: Thanks for the feedback (regarding Fischer). I'll see if I can give the Brainwavz HM5 a listen before the next guide update.

takato14 and jacobgolden: Yes, I know. I'm going to see if I can work on that problem myself. The way we chose to format it, some are seeing it properly, and others are not. And if someone who is seeing it properly increases his font size, everything gets knocked out of whack. Again, I'll see what I can do about this.

28980: No, we're not going to do a .PDF version of this anymore. While there were some advantages to it, there were far more disadvantages. I really wanted to get this guide on the site.

Zub-a-Roo: LOL. May your Christmas stockings be overflowing with both planar magnetic and dynamic goodness.

Andrew_WOT: Yes, I really dig the MDR-1R, and I'm glad you're enjoying it, too.

roma101: Thanks! I enjoy your posts on the forums.

cssarrow: The HE-500 is an awesome performer. I just bought one of those Trends amps from another Head-Fi'er, and am going to try it with the HE-500 and HE-6 this weekend, if I can find the time.

AnakChan: Thank you, man. Thanks for the Tokyo coverage and posts. I can't wait to hang out with you guys again in Tokyo!
Who sells the fisher's? They say the brainwavs and lindy's are clones but trust me they're not.
Thanks Jude, I have a pair a friend is borrowing that I wouldn't mind sending to you if you had the time after the holidays. Cheers though, I forgot to say it in my original post but this and the IEM guide is great (haven't read the others). I like this much more than the Summer guide.
@antimatter there's more evidence that says the FA-003 are the same, outside of potential internal housing changes, than not. The HM5 frequency charts have the signature bass dip that the FA-003 also show and the response charts look almost the same and the differences I'd wager are due to two different set-ups testing them.
keanex idont know what to tell ya there's definitly a big dif in my opinion between the fischers and brainwavs. One the packaging and godies on the fischers is way better. Two the earpads I kno are way better on the fischers. Three brainwavs jacked somthin up with the soundstage when they copied them and there's this really annoying "hollow" sound and I even think they got different drivers. The only thing they share in common is looks and even that's debatable. I've tried both and easily give $180 for fischers and maybe $80 for brainwavs. Pretty much everyone that got fischers on this site held on to them. Pretty much everyone on this site that got brainwavs returned them, but if they work for you coo. Not clones to me more like knockoffs. The lindy's I haven't tried yet.
"Pretty much everyone on this site that got brainwavs returned them,"
Well that's not even close to being true, but this isn't the time and place to argue. If you're happy with your FA-003 and truly believe what you believe then there's nothing more to say. Cheers.
Hey Jude! Thank you for your great writing. That's really huge. I'd like to ask you a question about Sony MDR-1R, as they seem to be pretty interesting HP's. I've been considering to buy those or Ultrasone PRO 750s'. I don't know if you've heard Ultrasones, but I've came to conclusion that they would be pretty good alternative for 1Rs'. The thing that I'm wondering mostly is imaging, as I'd like to hear positioning of instruments as accurately as possible. Also if there's any other headphones that do good imaging, priced under 400$, and that sounds otherwise good, I'd very much appreciate your reply (even short one!). Thanks!
Thanks for the impressions Jude. How much better does the bass/imaging do on the 7520's than the z1000's? HiFiGuy also thought that they sounded identical in his review.
Keanex I know there is a thread on here where 8 people in a row posted that tha brainwavs has an annoying "echo" "hollow" sound and they ALL returned them. I dont own the 003 I tried them out 2 years ago when my technics first started to deteriorate waited a while longer to buy and they dissappeared. Tried out the hm-5 after that and couldn't believe people were saying it was a clone. To me my best comparison to this sitution is saying the dennon D5k is a clone to the D7K and I still think the D5k would be a better clone. I also pretty sure in that thread there was a few 003's owners and they loved them.
NaturalMelody: Thanks for the nice comments! I haven't heard the Ultrasone PRO 750. I do find the MDR-1R to image very well, especially for a closed headphone.

MrViolin: When I did the comparison with Nao at CanJam @ RMAF (2012), it was better in these aspects (to my ears) enough that I'd choose the MDR-7520 over the MDR-Z1000--the bass is what you'll notice first and most obviously. If you look at this photo, you'll see the fabric over the drivers is very different (the MDR-7520's being significantly more sheer, more like the MDR-1R's). Nao said there are also some differences inside, all of which contribute to the sound signature differences. I haven't done the comparison since then (in Denver), but there will be a Sony MDR-Z1000 arriving at Head-Fi HQ sometime in the next few days.
Great guide, Jude! I bought the HD598 a few weeks back (thanks in part to the helpful people here) and I have loved every aspect of them! BTW the images don't line up with the text (using Firefox).
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