Head-Fi.org › 2014 Summer Buying Guide › Head Fi Buying Guide Over Ear Headphones

Head-Fi Buying Guide (Over-Ear Headphones)

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Over-Ear Headphones
In-Ear Headphones
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Head-Fi Buying Guide

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TYPE: Closed, full-size, on-the-ear headphone
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MSRP: Around $65
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URL: www.sony.com

 

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
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URL: www.grado.com

 

 

Sennheiser HD 800

Details about the Sennheiser HD 800 can be found in the Summit-Fi section of the guide.

 

Click here to check it out.

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.)

 

" Let me say that for a closed back, these [SRH1540] are superb. I don't know how Shure does this, but they manage to make their closed back have one of the best soundstage for a closed back."

-Victor Kim
Head-Fi Member/Reviewer

 

"Overall I do think the SRH-1840 is a wonderfull headphone. It’s sound is balanced and it offers the highest level of refinement I have heard at it's price point."

-dweaver
Head-Fi Member/Reviewer

TYPE: Full-size, around-the-ear headphones (SRH1540 is closed, SRH1840 is open) 
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MSRP: $499.99 (both)
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URL: www.shure.com
Alpha Design Labs ADL-H118 (by Furutech)

Written by Jude Mansilla

 

Furutech is probably most widely known in the high-end audio industry as a manufacturer of some of the best-made, fanciest cable terminations for signal and power cables. High-end cable manufacturers consider Furutech cable terminations bragging rights, and charge accordingly for the inclusion of them. In the last few years, Furutech ventured into portable and computer audio via their Alpha Design Labs (ADL) brand, with several models of DAC/amp combos, both portable and desktop. Now Furutech is officially in the headphone business, and the H118 is a cracking good start.

 

That this headphone isn't garnering more attention by the Head-Fi community is a bit of a shock to me, as it's a very good closed headphone that's reasonably portable (because it folds). This is a headphone that, in my opinion, should easily be considered as a candidate among the likes of the Sennheiser MOMENTUM and HD 26 Pro, V-MODA M-100, Sony MDR-1R, Shure SRH1540, Focal Spirit Professional, etc. Among the more balanced headphones in its class, I've found the H118 to be a joy to listen to, not just on the go, but at my desk, which I usually reserve for headphones with a more reference-type presentation.

 

The H118's bass extension is very good, and its presentation very impactful. There's perhaps some mild bass emphasis, but "mild" is the key descriptor here. Before I received the H118, I read at least one other review of this headphone that seemed to suggest it was going to be bass-heavier than it is. (It was a pretty early review, so perhaps there was a running change?) The H118's bass control and detail is also exceptionally good for this type of headphone. As for mids, the H118's midband sounds mostly neutral, to my ears, but with more warmth than the very flat mids of the Focal Spirit Professional. Treble presence is excellent, with maybe a touch less shimmer than the Focal, but a bit more than, say, the smoother treble of the HD 26 Pro. In terms of its tonal balance, this is one of the easiest to recommend headphones in its class, for a variety of tastes.

 

The ADL H118's imaging is good, in terms of precision image object placement; but spaciousness is not one of its strong points, especially compared to something like the expansiveness of the Sony MDR-1R. I'd say, in terms of the H118's imaging, it's par for the course for a closed headphone of this type.

 

My biggest reservation about the ADL H118 headphone by Furutech is its earcup shape, which appears to be ideal for someone with upside-down Mr. Spock ears. ADL stands for "Alpha Design Labs," and with some of their components, they've gone for an alpha-shape profile. Okay, I get it--it looks unique, and plays on the name. (Look up the "ADL Cruise" if you want to see what I'm talking about.) But to shape headphone earcups this way...well, let's just say it makes a lot less sense to me. To honor the alpha-shape, the bottoms of the earcups--and, thus, the earpads--come down into a tight, pointy bend. My ears mostly fit inside the ear pads, but would probably fit completely inside if they'd rounded off the bottoms more. It's not so much that the H118 isn't comfortable--it's more that it could have been significantly more comfortable, which, for a headphone that sounds this good, would've made it even more irresistible. Still, though, the H118 is more comfortable for long-term wear than most of its supra-aural (on-the-ear) competitors.

 

The ADL H-118 by Furutech is a headphone I strongly suggest you audition if you're in the market for a solid, reasonably priced, closed headphone with a more reference sound signature.

TYPE: Closed, full-size, around-the-ear headphone 
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MSRP: $269.00
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URL: www.adl-av.com

 

V-MODA XSc57420db_blast_new_green_2.png
TYPE: closed, on-ear headphone
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PRICE: $212.00 
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URL: www.v-moda.com

Written by Jude Mansilla

 

V-MODA's M-80 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). With its rich, detailed mids, and smooth treble response, and full bass (but certainly not overblown, to my ears), the M-80 became one of the standards in this class of headphones. And though, technically, the M-80 is still on the market (at the time of this writing), V-MODA's new XS serves is similar enough to it that we chose to replace the M-80 in this guide with it.

 

Starting with the low end, to my ears, the XS actually has a touch more energy in the mid-bass than the M-80. Still, though, I prefer the XS's bass presentation, which I find more precise, and more revealing of bass detail than the M-80 musters. The XS's rich, detailed mids are a nice carryover from the M-80. The newer headphone's treble, however, is more refined, and smoother than its older sib's. And, overall, that is actually how I'd describe the sound of the XS relative to the M-80--more refined. To my ears, in terms of sound, the new headphones gives up nothing to its older stablemate.

 

Because the it more than keeps up with the M-80's sound, the biggest story with the XS, in my opinion, are the improvements that come with its physical design, and the changes and innovations there. V-MODA put considerable effort into making the XS more comfortable (and more compact) than the M-80, and it has paid off in spades.

 

One of the things I've always appreciated about every V-MODA over-ear headphone (both on-ear and around-the-ear) is the durable build quality that comes with their extensive use of metal and relatively straightforward swivel-less designs. While doing away with yoke swivels and joints certainly leads to greater strength, it also results in limited flexibility, especially in terms of earcup articulation. With my M-80, I've rather forceably twisted the headband to better optimize the angle at which the earcups greet my ears. With the XS, however, V-MODA has created a headband that seems to me to be more flexible, and that also seems to apply force to the earcups more evenly than with the M-80. The XS feels less clampy, and sits just as securely--but more evenly on my ears--than the M-80. For me, the XS is the a substantial comfort upgrade over the M-80.

 

V-MODA's Val Kolton also designed the XS to have a more form-fit appearance on the head. I've seen the XS worn by a good number of people by now, and the headband seems to have the ideal radius and flexibility to keep its lines snug up against heads of just about every shape and size. Because there's so little gap between the XS's headband and the head of the wearer, one of the marketing phrases V-MODA uses for the XS is "Mind The Gap," of course borrowed from the famous London Underground rail system warning. In my opinion, the XS is one of the best looking headphones on the head, with an understated physical presence, but with all the bold design elements of a V-MODA.

 

Finally, borrowing from the larger V-MODA M-100, the V-MODA XS incorporates V-MODA's awesome folding hinge design. As on the M-100, these folding hinges are things of beauty, super-sleek yet seemingly indestructible, and possessing of a detent *click* sound that reminds me of a well-made folding knife's blade snapping into its open position. And, when folded, the XS fits into its tiny carrying case, making for the smallest supra-aural (on-ear) headphone in its class. Even in a tightly packed messenger bag, when it seems there might only be room for an in-ear monitor, I can usually find a place for the XS.


For its sound, and for its comfort and compactness, the V-MODA XS is easily one of the best on-the-go headphones currently on the market.

 

"If you want a rich, smooth, warm yet detailed, big and dynamic sound in a crazy small portable package I strongly recommend trying the XS out. V-MODA just keeps getting better and better with the quality of their products and they should really be proud of this one."

-roma101
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."

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

TYPE: Closed, full-size, around the ear planar magnetic headphone
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MSRP: $299.99 to $399.99
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URL: www.mrspeakers.com
TYPE: Closed, full-size, around-the-ear headphone
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MSRP: $249.00
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URL: www.beyerdynamic.com

Written by Jude Mansilla

 

I've used headphones with tunable acoustics before, and even with the ones I've liked, I've mostly found one setting and stuck with it. With beyerdynamic's CUSTOM ONE PRO, though, changing its bass tuning is very easy, with no parts to swap out--just flick a four-position switch on each earpiece to season bass to taste.

 

More important than ease of tuning is how effective it is, and the beyerdynamic CUSTOM ONE PRO's bass tuning is superbly executed. Essentially, when you move the sliders, you're either opening or closing bass reflex vents in the housing shells, and, as described by beyerdynamic, you can choose between "an analytical sound to a rich, full bass," and almost anything in between.

 

I've found the 16-Ohm beyerdynamic CUSTOM ONE PRO very easy to drive, and I've routinely used it directly from my mobile phones. While it doesn't reach the resolving abilities of my favorite beyerdynamic Tesla models, like the DT1350, T1, and T5p, the CUSTOM ONE PRO is still a revealing headphone, still sounds like a modern beyerdynamic to me (which is a good thing), and adds a level of versatility with its tunable bass that few other headphones can match.

 

In other words, the CUSTOM ONE PRO is a lot of German-made beyerdynamic goodness for only $249.00. And given that it's like having a few different headphones for that price makes the CUSTOM ONE PRO an even stronger bargain.

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

TYPE: Closed, full-size, on-the-ear headphone
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MSRP: Around $100
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Audeze LCD-X and LCD-XC

Details about the Audeze LCD-X and LCD-XC can be found in the Summit-Fi section of the guide.

 

Click here to read about these Audeze headphones.

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 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.

 

"The Sennheiser MOMENTUM is a fabulous choice for anyone wanting a stylish looking headphone that also sounds great overall. It works great with pretty much every audio I feed it, and with Sennheiser's readily available spare parts, could be a headphone than can be cherished for life. I highly recommend the Sennheiser MOMENTUM."

-Windsor
Head-Fi Member/Reviewer

 

TYPE: Closed, portable, around-the-ear headphone
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MSRP: Around $350
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URL: www.sennheiser.com
TYPE: Closed, portable supra-aural (on-the-ear) headphone
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MSRP: $229.95
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URL: www.sennheiser.com

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 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.

 

 

HiFiMAN HE-6

Details about the HiFiMAN HE-6 can be found in the Summit-Fi section of the guide.

 

Click here to read about the HE-6.

TYPE: Closed, full-size, around-the-ear headphone
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MSRP: Around $160
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URL: www.audio-technica.com

 

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.

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
ï ï ï ï ï ï ï ï ï ï ï ï ï ï ï ï ï ï ï ï ï ï ï ï ï ï ï ï ï ï ï ï ï ï ï ï ï ï ï ï ï ï ï ï ï ï ï ï ï ï ï ï ï ï ï ï ï
MSRP: $380
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URL: www.aedle.net
TYPE: Closed, portable, on-the-ear headphone
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MSRP: $199
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URL: www.onkyo.com

 

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 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 headphones out if you're looking for a good, closed headphone for $200.00 (or less than that, depending on which cable you want).

TYPE: Closed, full-size, active-noise canceling, around-the-ear headphone
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MSRP: $299
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URL: www.bose.com

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

 

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.

TYPE: Open, full-size, around-the-ear headphone
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MSRP: Around $300
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URL: www.sony.com

 

Koss ESP950

Details about the Koss ESP950 can be found in the Summit-Fi section of the guide.

 

Click here to check it out.

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
ï ï ï ï ï ï ï ï ï ï ï ï ï ï ï ï ï ï ï ï ï ï ï ï ï ï ï ï ï ï ï ï ï ï ï ï ï ï ï ï ï ï ï ï ï ï ï ï ï ï ï ï ï ï ï ï ï
MSRP: Around $150
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URL: www.skullcandy.com
TYPE: Closed, full-size, 3D-printed over-the-ear planar magnetic headphone 
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MSRP: $599.99
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URL: www.mrspeakers.com

Written by Jude Mansilla

 

Last 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.

Nokia Purity Pro by Monster

Details about the Nokia Purity Pro can be found in the Wireless Headphones section of the guide.

 

Click here to check it out.

TYPE: Closed, full-size, around-the-ear headphone
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MSRP: Street price from $239.00 to $499.00
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URL: www.denon.com

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

 

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.

TYPE: Closed, full-size, around-the-ear headphones (the M4U 2 with active noise canceling) 
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MSRP: $299 and $399, respectively
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URL: www.psb.com
Philips Fidelio M1BT

Details about the Philips Fidelio M1BT can be found in the Wireless Headphones section of the guide.

 

Click here to check it out.

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Comments (4)

First! LOL
I've been waiting for this for a while, and now there are a lot of new arrivals! Great work, you guys!
I always enjoy the buying guides when they are posted, even when they are on headphones I have no interest in because there are always great descriptions and things of interest.  I always buy one or two new headphones because of it and add a dozen to my wish list.
What about the Oppo PM1?
@egosumlux, you can find the OPPO PM-1 by clicking here.
Head-Fi.org › 2014 Summer Buying Guide › Head Fi Buying Guide Over Ear Headphones