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2013 Head-Fi Winter Gift Guide (Over-Ear Headphones)

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Over-Ear Headphones
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Head-Fi 2013 Winter Gift Guide

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TYPE: Closed, full-size, on-the-ear headphone
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MSRP: $ Around $65

 

Written by Jude Mansilla

 

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.

 

"Despite its age, the MDR-V6 really is a headphone that does very little wrong for the asking price. It is well-built, comfortable, and isolating enough to compete with the best ‘modern’ studio and DJ headphones."

-ljokerl
Head-Fi Member/Reviewer


Written by Jude Mansilla

 

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.

 

 

"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."

-ljokerl
Head-Fi Member/Reviewer

TYPE: Open, full-size, on-the-ear headphones 
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MSRP: Around $80 and $100, respectively

 

 


TYPE: Closed, full-size, on-the-ear headphone
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MSRP: Around $100

 

 

Written by Jude Mansilla

 

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.

 

"Punchy and warm but with excellent resolution and a strong midrange presence, the Sonys make for good all-rounders and, while they may not quite beat the ATH-M50 and HD25 on a technical level, the sound signature simply works when taken as a whole."

-ljokerl
Head-Fi Member/Reviewer


Written by Jude Mansilla

 

For a company known for its relatively affordable eco-conscious in-ears--the ms01 being the one model of theirs that I've tried, and really like--to come out with their first over-ear, call it a studio monitor (as they did with their ms01), and charge 250 bucks for it…that's ambitious. $250 buys you some pretty fantastic headphones out there, from the likes of Sennheiser, V-MODA, Sony, Grado, beyerdynamic, AKG…the list goes on.

 

So how'd thinksound do? Let's start by talking about its design: the thinksound On1's design is about as simple as can be, adding its visual flair the way they did with their ms01--with gorgeous handcrafted wood housings. I'm not sure what kind of wood thinksound is using for the On1, but it's finely finished, and the grain is very pretty. The on-the-ear earpads are very soft, made of black leather (or synthetic leather) stuffed with memory foam. Isolation from the closed earcups is good. The headband is made of a flexible metal, with a padded fabric covering.

 

I find the On1 to be very comfortable, its earpads being very flush, and the very flexible articulation offered by the hinges and yoke design makes for a very quick, flush fit on the ears. I wish more headphones offered similar earcup articulation, which can go a long way to making fit better, and, thus, performance that's more optimal and consistent. This On1 is also a very light headphone, weighing only 6.5 ounces.

 

The On1's drivers are 40mm dynamic drivers, and nominal impedance is 50Ω. It comes with a Kevlar-reinforced, tangle-resistant fabric cable, with an inline one-button mic/remote. The On1 is a relatively sensitive headphone, and I can drive it with my iPhone 5S (which is how I usually use it), but found it does up its game with a good amp in front of it.

 

Compared to its in-ear thinksound monitor counterpart (the ms01), the On1 has a more bass emphasized sound signature. The On1's bass is very impactful, but still has good control. While a little bit of the thickness tails up into the lower mids, its midband detail doesn't suffer from it at all, to my ears. In fact, the more I listen to the On1, the more I've come to appreciate its midrange and treble detail. On balance, the thinksound On1 sounds very rich without sounding bloated to me. I use the On1 for all genres and find it very versatile.

 

The On1 is one of the gems in its very crowded, very competitive premium price range.

 

TYPE: Closed, supra-aural (on-the-ear) headphone
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MSRP: $250.00 

TYPE: Closed, full-size, around-the-ear headphone
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MSRP: Around $160

 

Written by Jude Mansilla

 

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 M50 pulls off the difficult balance of being neutral, accurate, and detailed while not causing listening fatigue, and that is one of the most important things to get right when it comes to any audio device."

-Rob Chang (Lunatique)
Head-Fi Member/Reviewer


Aedle VK-1 Valkyrie

Written by Jude Mansilla

 

Designed in Paris. Assembled in Brittany, France. You read that, and thoughts of beautiful things probably come to mind. And when it comes to the Aedle VK-1 Valkyrie, that's exactly what you get. It's simply one of the most beautiful headphones I've ever seen.

 

In founding Aedle, Raphael Lebas de Lacour and Baptiste Sancho decided to create something unique in the headphone world, aiming to combine old world craftsmanship and noble materials with modern technology, and they've certainly done that--and the result is certainly unique.

 

Outside of its aramid-fiber-covered cable, the only thing your hand touches on the Aedle VK-1 is metal or leather. The metals used in the VK-1 include manganese steel, polished stainless steel, and pieces machined from ingots of T6066 aircraft grade aluminum. The leather is all hand sewn lambskin--and I love that the leather looks hand sewn. Though CNC machining is used on the metal parts, looking at the Aedle VK-1 instead conjures images of hammers and anvils in my mind.

 

It also comes with a beautiful quilted, padded carrying pouch with a magnetic closure top, and made of what feels to me like a brushed denim. It's a perfectly fitting case for the Aedle VK-1.

 

The VK-1's earpieces are supra-aural (on-the-ear), and, coupled with some pretty strong clamping force out of the box, don't exactly make for the most comfortable headphones. Some flexing and bending to shape and loosen the lambskin-covered manganese spring steel headband has improved fit quite a bit. It'll never be one of my most comfortable headphones, but I can wear it for a couple of hours without a hitch.

 

The titanium drivers their semi-closed housings (using what Aedle calls a "passive bass enhancement system") sound very good to me, with a warmish overall tilt. Bass is strong, but firm. The midrange has good clarity--wonderful with vocals--without a hint of edge or glare. The treble has a soft rolled-off quality. The Aedle is warm-sounding to me, but not dark. It's more about a pleasant listen than it is a deep dive into sonic microscopy. For what it is, the Aedle VK-1 sounds very nice to me.

 

In short, the Aedle VK-1 is very French--literally, and in spirit. And I absolutely adore it.

TYPE: Closed, full-size, on-the-ear headphone
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MSRP: $380
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URL: www.aedle.net

 

TYPE: Open, full-size, around-the-ear headphones 
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MSRP: Around $180 and $250, respectively

 

 

Written by Jude Mansilla

 

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.

 

"If you're looking for a great all-rounder for the home under $200, [the HD 558's] are hard to beat. At home people tend to leave headphones on for extended periods, and you will have a hard time finding something more comfortable or better sounding in this price range."

-rigodeni
Head-Fi Member/Reviewer


TYPE: Closed, portable, on-the-ear headphone
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MSRP: $199

 

Written by Jude Mansilla

 

Growing up, my parents had an Onkyo audio system (and still have parts of it going strong). Then I worked at a hi-fi store while I was in college, and the most affordable brand of electronics we sold was Onkyo. It was the brand we turned to when our customers couldn't afford to buy the Linn, Naim, Creek, or even the NAD gear. Because I was just a poor college student, the Onkyo gear we sold endeared itself to me for being so much more affordable than the higher-end stuff we sold, but somehow not undeserving of a place in our snobby shop. Onkyo had long ago fallen off my radar, but I was thrilled when they popped back up on it at CES 2013 last January with headphones! Onkyo sent me one of their ES-CTI300 headphones, and it's a very good headphone by Onkyo.

 

There are actually three over-ear headphone models by Onkyo, and, to the best of my knowledge, the only differences between the models are the cables they come with. The ES-FC300 ($149) comes with a more common looking flat elastomer cable. The ES-CTI300's ($179) cable is, as described by Onkyo, a "high purity copper-core cable for pure sound." The ES-HF300's cable is a 6N oxygen-free copper cable, apparently with lower resistance than the ES-FC300's. The ES-CTI300 ($199) has the higher-end cable, but with an Apple-certified inline three-button remote/mic. In all three models, the cables are detachable, using gold-plated MMCX connectors.

 

The Onkyo headphone's styling is clean, modern, and very attractive. At first glance, the Onkyo's design reminded me of the clean lines of AKG's portable models. I think its design will appeal to folks young and old, and (especially in black or silver) would look perfectly fine worn by suit-wearing executive types. It also folds very flat, so it's easy to carry, but only comes with a flimsy drawstring case for the purpose. I find the ES-CTI300 very comfortable, even for longer listening sessions; and it's also comfortable worn around the neck when you need them off your ears.

 

In terms of sound, the ES-CTI300 has prominent bass, with what sounds to me like an upper-midbass peak that does tail off with mild effect and bloom on the lower midrange. Still, the ES-CTI300's midrange and treble have a very clear, cool quality to them--so, on balance, the Onkyo ES-CTI300 sounds to me like a bass-emphasized headphone with good overall clarity and detail. It's also a versatile sound signature that I feel comfortable using on any genre. For example, the bass emphasis livens up EDM, and the midrange/treble clarity serves jazz and classical well.

 

I've been enjoying the Onkyo ES-CTI300 a lot as an on-the-go headphone, and recommend you check Onkyo's new headphones out if you're looking for a good, closed headphone for $200.00 (or less than that, depending on which cable you want).


Sony MDR-10R 

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TYPE: XXX
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PRICE: $
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URL: XXX

TYPE: Closed, full-size, active-noise canceling, around-the-ear headphone
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MSRP: $299

Written by Jude Mansilla

 

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.

 

"The noise canceling works like a charm in moderate noisy environment. Actually, it works so well you don’t even feel the noise is there. Along with QC15’s superior comfort level on the head, the listening experience is actually difficult to beat by my other two closed-back phones."

-stokitw
Head-Fi Member/Reviewer


Written by Jude Mansilla

 

Lately, for MrSpeakers, it seems all the emphasis has been on their latest headphone, the Alpha Dog, and deservedly so. But perhaps the headphone MrSpeakers worked hardest on--the headphone on which MrSpeakers' teeth were cut, where the knowledge to make the Alpha Dog was gained--was the Mad Dog.

 

The Mad Dog is, simply put, an extensively modified Fostex T50rp--extensively modified. MrSpeakers' Dan Clark was deep into the T50rp DIY modding hobby before it turned into his livelihood; and the reason it could be his livelihood is because he iterated and iterated and iterated, and the results paid off in the form of the Mad Dog, and a fan base for it that is, well...rabid.

 

I was a latecomer to the Mad Dog game, having only jumped in at the most current revision (version 3.2). And in the Mad Dog v3.2, MrSpeakers crafted a headphone that has become one of the fully-closed frontrunners in the community at its price of $299.99 (or $399.99 with balanced 4-pin XLR cable).

 

The Mad Dog's appeal for me (and I know for many others, too) lies in its ability to convey details, and extension at both ends, that could reasonably be called reference grade, but still with its own rich flavor that certainly strays from a flat tonal balance to something mildly stouter than that. In other words, it's well-executed mash-up of reference sound and fun sound.

 

The Mad Dog is also insanely comfortable, with the latest generation of MrSpeakers Alpha Pads (same ones used on the Alpha Dog) coupling the drivers to your head with what feels to me like down pillows covered in leather (it's not down in those pads, it just reminds me of it).

 

If you were interested in an affordable way to try out high-end-sounding planar magnetic headphones without having to part with high-end bucks, put the Mad Dog on your audition list, for sure.

 

"It is a stellar performer for it's price, and I'm not usually a fan of closed headphones. For their low price of admission, these are truly a master of the price to performance ratio."

-Christian (Mad Lust Envy)
Head-Fi Member/Reviewer

TYPE: Closed, full-size, around the ear planar magnetic headphone
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MSRP: $299.99 to $399.99

 

TYPE: Closed, portable, around-the-ear headphone
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MSRP: Around $350

Written by Jude Mansilla

 

In their bid to create a fashion-forward headphones, 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 also comes with a nice zip-around semi-hard-side carrying case, covered in premium fabric. And I wanted to specifically point something out about the MOMENTUM, and its relationship with its case: It can be stored in its case with its detachable cable installed. Almost every headphone I use with a detachable cable requires removal of the cable before placing it in its carrying case, which I find maddening. The MOMENTUM's detachable cable plug (on the headphone side) inserts so deep into the earpiece that, installed, it doesn't even look like a detachable cable--and deep enough that there's no plug to get in the way when placing it in the case. This may not sound like a big deal, but, for an on-the-go headphone, having to install and uninstall the cable every time you use it and put it away is huge pain. I hope this design detail becomes more commonplace.

 

As for its sound, 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 the MOMENTUM moves ahead of those with me.

 

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.

 

"Overall, surprised at how well the MOMENTUM performed with the HD 800, I find that the MOMENTUM has a high performance/price ratio and fares as a high-quality headphone that, unlike the HD 800, excellently lends itself to portable use."

-Windsor
Head-Fi Member/Reviewer


Written by Jude Mansilla

 

The Sennheiser MOMENTUM has been a bona fide hit. It's not hard to understand why. Everyone I show it to who hasn't seen it before ooohs and aaahs when they see it and then feel the brushed stainless steel and Pittards leather--and that's before they've heard it. Then they hear it, and the ooohs and aaahs resume. I've spent a small fortune gifting MOMENTUMs, because everyone who sees mine wants one. At an L.A. Head-Fi Meet earlier this year, someone I work closely with at Huddler was there for his first meet. I told him I'd treat him to his first Head-Fi headphone--he picked a black MOMENTUM.

 

With its success, it shouldn't be surprising that Sennheiser would want to release a more portable, more affordable version. They're smart people over there, and didn't mess with success. The new Sennheiser MOMENTUM On-Ear looks exactly like what it is--a miniaturized MOMENTUM. And it retails for $120 less than the original, which means it'll probably be the version I gift from now on! ☺

 

To help keep the smaller headphone as comfortable as its big sib, Sennheiser chose to use copious amounts of Alcantara, a synthetic, sueded material that is sooo soft, and is one of my favorite materials to feel against my skin. Put on the Sennheiser HD 800 or Shure SRH1540--both of which use a lot of Alcantara--and you'll understand why. For the MOMENTUM On-Ear, Sennheiser chose to use it to cover the headband and earpads, in place of the Pittards leather on the full-size MOMENTUM. The headband is the same gorgeous brushed stainless steel.

 

Sennheiser also chose to make it available in several gorgeous colors: pink, green, ivory, blue, black, brown, and red. I saw the ivory with brown Alcantara, and had to have it--it's such a beautiful color combo, I wish the full-size MOMENTUM was also available in that color. Then I saw and picked up the red one…then the blue one…hello, black, I think you're next.

 

Of course, none of this would matter if the sound of the MOMENTUM On-Ear didn't live up to the MOMENTUM name, and it does a good job there. It sounds good for a closed supra-aural, but, no, it doesn't sound as good as its full-size sibling, its bass being rather thicker and less detailed, but very well extended. Its mids and treble aren't as detailed as its full-size stable mate either. Still, though, as a whole, it manages a sound signature that does evoke a familial tie to the original--it's good, but it's definitely the sonically less accomplished sibling of the two.

 

The Sennheiser MOMENTUM On-Ear definitely sounds good enough to me that I often choose it as one of my regular grab-and-go headphones, pausing only to decide which color I'm taking with me that day. It's a fashion headphone that sounds good enough to be a Sennheiser.

 

 

 

TYPE: Closed, portable supra-aural (on-the-ear) headphone
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MSRP: $229.95

TYPE: Closed, full-size, around-the-ear headphone
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MSRP: Street price from $239.00 to $499.00

Written by Jude Mansilla

 

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 street price range of $750 to $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 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 (and even more so if you can find it at the lower end of the current street price range).

 

"This is a fast, clear sounding headphone. They sound open and airy for a closed can, which I feel is their main accomplishment. The bass is very powerful and very well extended."

-Bjorn (Lan647)
Head-Fi Member/Reviewer


Written by Jude Mansilla

 

Last spring Shure contacted me to ask if I wanted to have an advance listen to a new closed, over-ear flagship headphone to be released later in the year. The answer was an obvious "yes," but there were some admitted reservations about what to expect, as a couple of their previous over-ears--the Shure SRH940 and SRH1440--were definitely not my cup of tea, being, to my ears, too bright, too reedy, too lean. (The veteran Shure SRH840 and their flagship open SRH1840--which I'm getting to in a minute--I definitely do like.)

 

Fortunately, in terms of sonic performance, Shure absolutely stuck their landing with the SRH1540, making what I feel is their best over-ear headphone so far. With fantastic, full, controlled bass (though emphasized), and excellent, evenhanded, monitor-like detail and balance from the mids on up. It's a safe tuning that I think sounds awesome with every music genre I listen to (and I listen to just about everything).

 

The Shure SRH1540 is also insanely comfortable--one of the most comfortable large, full-size over-ear headphones I've got. Weighing just over 10 ounces, it's very light for its size. Perhaps the single biggest contributors to the SRH1540's comfort are its Alcantara earpads. Alcantara might be my favorite synthetic earpad material, with its ultra-soft, sueded hand, and perforated on the SRH1540 which makes it very breathable. Filled with what feels to me like memory foam, these are among the most plush, most comfortable earpads of any headphone.

 

The SRH1540 isolates well, too. Along with the pads, which are plush enough to quickly create a good seal, the closed earcups do a fine job of keeping your music in, and the world around you muted. The outside of the earcups are clad in genuine carbon fiber, which I believe was chosen in part for its resistance to resonance--and those carbon fiber outside plates look gorgeous, too.

 

Again, in my opinion, the SRH1540 is Shure's best over-ear headphone so far, and an easy recommendation at its $499 price. If you haven't figured it out by now, I'm a big fan of this latest Shure over-ear. Make sure to check out our Head-Fi TV episode about the Shure SRH1540.

 

Now you may have noticed that the Shure SRH1840, which certainly isn't new (released back in late 2011), has made it into this update of the Buying Guide (though wasn't in the guide previously). Why? Though I really do like the SRH1840, I felt its original price of around $700 put it in a tough spot, given what else is out there at the price. Some time since its release, however, the SRH1840's street price has fallen to around $499, and, at that price, I think it definitely is a candidate for anyone looking for a good, open, full-sized headphone.

 

With its bass sounding shy of neutral to me, neutrality through the mids, and treble that is a bit hotter than neutral, the Shure SRH1840's tonal balance is on the leaner side to me. It's a revealing headphone, though, and images nice and big. Again, I really like this headphone, and, at its new lower price, it's easy for me to recommend, which is why it's now in this guide. (You can click here to read my more detailed impressions of the Shure SRH1840.)

TYPE: Full-size, around-the-ear headphones (SRH1540 is closed, SRH1840 is open) 
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MSRP: $499.99 (both)

TYPE: Closed, full-size, around-the-ear headphones (the M4U 2 with active noise canceling) 
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MSRP: $299 and $399, respectively

Written by Jude Mansilla

 

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.

 

PSB later 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, and has blossomed into one of my favorite reasonably priced over-ears.

 

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 M4U 1 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.


Written by Jude Mansilla

 

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.

TYPE: Closed, full-size, around-the-ear headphone
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MSRP: Around $150

TYPE: Closed, full-size, 3D-printed ovoer-the-ear planar magnetic headphone 
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MSRP: $599.99

Written by Jude Mansilla

 

Earlier this year, when MrSpeakers’ Dan Clark told me he was 3D-printing key parts of an upcoming model he was introducing, I was thrilled. I think we all know 3D printing is proving to have a lot of uses, a lot of potential, and, sooner or later, I figured we’d see 3D-printed production headphones. I’ve seen many 3D-printed prototype headphones from various manufacturers, but never one intended as a final production unit. Does it surprise me that Dan Clark was the first to do that with his new MrSpeakers Alpha Dog? Not at all. Like I said in the Mad Dog gift guide entry, he’s one of the hardest working guys in the business.

 

With all he learned working on the Mad Dog, Dan decided he had to make his own enclosure and baffle, and decided 3D printing was the way to do it. He also decided to take advantage of some key benefits of 3D printing, namely the ability to print a double-wall structure support by an internal lattice structure--this would be something very difficult to do with injection molding. The benefits of a double wall design include improved isolation (by providing air space between the outside and inside walls), and improved rigidity and resonance control helped along by the internal lattice. MrSpeakers claims this also helps improve soundstage, smooth frequency response, and results in faster, more tuneful bass.

 

Another feature Dan engineered into the Alpha Dog is a feature he calls the Very-Bass tuning system, which allows the user to dial bass up or down to taste. With Very-Bass, the bass can be adjusted by turning a set screw. Each Alpha Dog comes with a sticker on the headband that indicates how many turns from the closed position gets you back to factory tuning.

 

The Alpha Dog comes in one color combo, and that's red cups with black hardware. The deep red paint is a glossy automotive-grade metallic paint. From my experience so far, this finish has proven durable. It's a beautiful color and finish. Because, like the Mad Dog, the Alpha Dog is still based on the Fostex T50rp, MrSpeakers elected to use the Fostex headband and yokes/sliders, although, for the Alpha Dog, they have the stock gold parts anodized matte black. As a whole, the Alpha Dog looks rather like a relative of the similarly themed Fostex TH900.

 

As for the sonic results of all the custom design and 3D printing, I think the Alpha Dog may be the best sounding fully closed over-ear headphone on the market today, particularly if you have a penchant for a more neutral-sounding tonal balance, which the Alpha Dog does. (Some of my other favorites, like the Fostex TH600 and TH900, are semi-open, not fully closed.) Never, to my ears, do the Alpha Dogs veer into harshness (unless the recording is harsh), but, at the same time, never are they overly smoothed.

 

For more information--and for more of my opinions about this headphone--make sure to watch our Head-Fi TV episode about the MrSpeakers Alpha Dog.


Written by Jude Mansilla

 

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 is the first celebrity-endorsed headphone I can listen to all day and is easy to recommend for professionals interested in its unique feature set and consumers with pro audio aspirations."

-ljokerl
Head-Fi Member/Reviewer

TYPE: Closed, full-size, around-the-ear headphone
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MSRP: Around $250

TYPE: Closed, portable, on-the ear headphone 
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MSRP: $199

Written by Jude Mansilla

 

V-MODA's M-80 has earned a place as one of the top Head-Fi 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 and add stylish new models to their lines (like beyerdynamic's CUSTOM ONE PRO and Sennheiser's MOMENTUM).

 

In addition to the M-80's stunning looks, it's built very tough, and should withstand a lot of abuse. Also, V-MODA's SpeakEasy cable separates the mic unit from the remote for ergonomic improvement, and also to improve sound quality on both the send and receive sides of a call.

 

"Not only they look good and they're comfortable, but they're very well built and good-sounding too. The M80s are headphones that are easy to like, and both the average-consumer and the audiophile that spends thousands of dollars on audio-gear would probably find it enjoyable."

-Yuval (ItsMeHere)
Head-Fi Member/Reviewer


Written by Jude Mansilla

 

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.

 

"So if you are looking for great closed headphones and are on a budget, my vote is for the Shure SRH-440 and no other."

-Angel Melendez (gelocks)
Head-Fi Member/Reviewer

 

"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."

-Paul Brooks (Brooko)
Head-Fi Member/Reviewer

TYPE: Closed, around-the-ear headphones 
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MSRP: Around $100 and $160, respectively


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Comments (13)

"The Focal Spirit Professional's form factor is sort of a mix between the Focal Spirit Classic (with a similar headband), and the Focal Spirit Classic (in terms of its earcup size and memory foam earpads)."

Wouldn't be the One for the first? :)
Jude knows who Reid Speed is :D
@KevinWolf, thanks for catching that. I'll fix it now.
 
@wes008, check out the photos from this Head-Fi event, and you'll see Reid is in several of them. She is also married to Alex Rosson, one of the founders of Audeze.
Jude, thanks for clearing up the Sony 7520/Z1000 confusion. Too many people think they're the same headphone, and they're certainly not :) The 7520 is worlds better.
It's not really a guide to my eyes... it seems to be a very expansive list with some reviews. 
I would like to see some definitive selections (think: 10) for each category with some standardized reviews by a small group. 
But always an enjoyable read, thanks for putting it together. 
Where is the M-100?
@hd800op it's fourth from the bottom. Below Phillips Fidelio L2 and above Sony MDR-1R / MDR-1RNC.
Great stuff! Good to know about the 7520/Z1000 difference. I always thought they were the same also. As much as I've loved my Z1000s, I might need to do a switch!
In the MDR-7520 article, there's a problem with the quote from ljokerl: It is extracted from his review of the MDR-ZX700, not the MDR-7520.
 
http://www.head-fi.org/t/433318/shootout-108-portable-headphones-reviewed-denon-dn-hp1000-added-09-07-13
http://www.head-fi.org/a/2012-head-fi-holiday-gift-guide-over-ear

Jude, how would you compare the MDR-7520 and the Focal Spirit Professional?
Great write up, good additions to the summer buying guide. Hope the next edition includes the AKG K545 and Beyer T51p!
I've had my HE-400's for a couple of days, and all I can say is WOW! Amazing!
 
Well I could say a lot more, but honestly there's so much out there. I can make mine quite bassy too! Enough to suit my basshead needs plentifully. Yet no matter what, it never overshadows the mids or hi's, the detail, separation, all of it is just amazing! They are very open, and my household is not very appreciative of that. With my D2000 being rigged but broken, my JVC HA-DX3's have really stepped up...it took my Denon AVR-1613's HP output to convince me that my purchase of these half a decade ago was worth it...and boy was it! Between my HE-400's and DX3's I am set!
Very nice guide, Jude.  Thanks for putting it together... and all the work you've done in head-fi.
 
Interestingly, you mention the sub-$500 quite a few times.  This makes perfect sense.  This is really the category for people who want great sound and are not rich. :)  So, please take a look in the amazing Audio Technica W1000X.  It is just $419 in amazon.com.
My biggest steak tartar with the 2013 Gift Guide is the constant tone of bickering between various reviewers.  It's as if every piece were written to contradict the next!  I can understand why the 230+ individuals who sign their handiwork "Jude Mansilla" might feel anxious about asserting their stylistic individuality, but spritz on a swizzle stick, too many polemical points of view are being expressed to convey a unified aesthetic! Yes, of course 92 of the included 314 reviews employ the phrase "easy to recommend" in an attempt to sound similar, but I for one am not fooled by this calculated repetition into believing that these chest-beating tyros are approaching their subject in remotely the same way. Here's hoping the next guide will limit its number of pseudonymous contributors to a mere 33.
Head-Fi.org › 2013 Winter Gift Guide › 2013 Head Fi Winter Gift Guide Over Ear Headphones