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Head-Fi.org › 2015 Holiday Buying Guide › Head Fi Buying Guide Over Ear Headphones

Head-Fi Buying Guide (Over-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."

Head-Fi Member/Reviewer

Written by Jude Mansilla


After his success with his own PSB headphones, Paul Barton turned his attention to a headphone for NAD Electronics. The resulting headphone--the NAD VISO HP50--is, in my opinion, his best headphone yet. To my ears, there's a familial sonic resemblance to the PSB M4U 1, both of which use Barton's "RoomFeel" technology, which is intended to provide the rich and natural experience of listening to a set of high-end loudspeakers in a room.


Like its PSB siblings (I call them siblings since they have the same father in Barton), the NAD VISO HP50 sounds outstanding, with impactful bass that is very taut and well controlled. The overall balance of the VISO HP50 is, to my ears, just slightly on the warmer side, but still very resolving. Again, listening to it reminds me at times of its PSB sibs, but with greater refinement and a smoother presentation. Like the Sony MDR-1R and the Sennheiser MOMENTUM--two of my other favorite portable over-ears--the VISO HP50 is mellow enough to make for fatigue-free long-term listening, yet detailed enough to get the audiophile in me deep into the music.


Additionally, in designing the NAD VISO HP50, Barton addressed two of my biggest quibbles about its largish PSB siblings, with the HP50 being more compact, and able to fold flat for greater portability. However, the NAD, like its PSB relatives, is still rather large and awkward on the head (especially when viewed from the front).


Without a doubt, though, the NAD VISO HP50 is one of the easiest to recommend headphones at its price, and can very capably serve as both a portable over-ear or one's main headphone at the desk.

TYPE: Closed, portable, around-the-ear headphone
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MSRP: $299
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URL: www.nadelectronics.com


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

Head-Fi Member/Reviewer

AKG / Massdrop K7XX  
TYPE: Over-ear headphone
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PRICE: $200 
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URL: www.akg.com / www.massdrop.com

There are at least a couple of long-time Head-Fi'ers working at Massdrop, and it certainly shows, as many of Massdrop's famed "Drops" are headphone audio products. They decided to use a Drop to rekindle a very well-regarded headphone from the recent pages of AKG's history book. That headphone? The quite-beloved AKG K702 65th Anniversary Edition.


Here's the thing, though: Massdrop's version is called the AKG K7XX, and it's available exclusively through them. Gone are the "65th Anniversary" markings, the blue stitching and other blue highlights, replaced by K7XX badges and a stealthier blacked-out treatment. There's also a very subtle, tasteful "Massdrop" logo on one side (of the inside) of the headband, to remind you who brought you this gem of a headphone for only 200 bucks. From what I can tell, colors and badges aside, the K7XX is the K702 65th Anniversary Edition, bump-free comfort strap headband and all. 


I really like AKG's K550, but its lean-ish signature--much as I enjoy it when I'm in the mood--is not one with particularly wide appeal. The AKG K812, which I love, is AKG's current flagship, and priced accordingly. Without delving into discontinued models, then, I have to say the AKG K7XX is, for me, the most desirable current-production AKG, unless you're willing to jump up to $1500 for the K812 (and if you're an AKG fan with that kind of budget, definitely audition the K812).


What's to love about the AKG/Massdrop K7XX? Well, if you've tended to find many of AKG's headphone likable but too lean or a touch brash, then the K7XX's definitely-smooth-for-an-AKG-but-still-an-AKG sound will almost certainly have you grinning big. An AKG with some nice presence and body down low? Yes. But what about the AKG top end? Yes, it's there, but tamer to my ears than the K701 I have here. The tradeoff is losing a bit of air and shimmer to its more common AKG siblings, but, for my tastes, it's a positive tradeoff.


If you're an AKG aficionado, the AKG/Massdrop K7XX is a must-own, and, at only $200, is an outrageously strong value. Yes, you can still find the K702 65th Anniversary Edition out there, but you will almost certainly be paying substantially more for what is essentially the exact same headphone.


"For aspiring audiophiles trying to find their first pair of ‘audiophile-oriented’ headphones with a clean uncolored sound signature as well as veteran audiophiles searching for a pair of reference-quality headphones with a high performance/price ratio to complement their existing collection, I would highly recommend the AKG K7xx."

Head-Fi Member/Reviewer

Written by Jude Mansilla


In 2013, 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 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

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
Blue Microphones Mo-Fi  
TYPE: Full-size, closed headphone (with built-in headphone amplifier) 
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PRICE: $349.99 
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URL: www.mofiheadphones.com

Written by Jude Mansilla


Blue Microphones unveiled advertising and PR teaser campaigns leading up to CES 2014 that were very provocative, and they certainly worked on me. Their ads said things like "Move over headphones. Mo-Fi is coming," and, "Headphone is lo-fi. Mo-Fi is coming." Those provocative ads, combined with Blue's reputation for quality in the microphone world, had me scheduling Blue as one of our very first stops at CES, so their campaign worked as intended on me anyway.


I paid a visit to Blue's offices after CES, and was thrilled to see how much effort, research, and development they were devoting to their first headphone. Blue's intention to join the premium microphone/headphone manufacturers club--with members like Sennheiser, Sony, beyerdynamic, Shure, Audio-Technica, and AKG--was certainly something they hadn't taken lightly.


For those of you not familiar with Blue Microphones, they've been making high-quality microphones for nearly 20 years, and became popular with mainstream consumers when they released their line of USB microphones, which are now wildly popular with podcasters and home recording enthusiasts. Look up Blue Yeti and Blue Snowball, and you'll probably say, "Oh, yeah, I've seen those!" Pro audio folks have known Blue for a long time now, with Blue's top mics being highly coveted in the pro world, with prices as high as $6000 for their flagship Blue Bottle microphone. In addition to sound quality, one thing all of Blue's microphones have in common is visually striking design, and they wanted their first headphone to carry the Blue's DNA into the headphone market, in terms of sound and sight. By now you've probably seen the Mo-Fi, but, until you did, I'm quite sure you'd never seen anything like it. (If you haven't seen it yet, click here to watch our Head-Fi TV episode about it.)


At first sight, what immediately sets the Mo-Fi apart from every other headphone in the world (and perhaps ever made) is its headband. The Mo-Fi headband is a multi-link, multi-jointed assembly, and it was designed this way to do a lot more than just provide shock value at first sight, which it never fails to do. The first time I handled Mo-Fi, its headband movement and feel reminded me a bit of the well-damped suspensions of high-end remote controlled cars. The multi-link design keeps the earpads angled flat against your head, regardless of width. Because of this design, I find the headband applies force very evenly, making for a very comfortable fit over my ears and against my head. I don't feel any pressure hotspots from the earpads, or any sense that the force applied across the earpads is anything but even.


The headband also has adjustable tension, using a recessed dial atop the headband. Because of the width of my head, my Mo-Fi is adjusted close to its loosest setting. I really like that Blue recognized that their multi-link headband design opened up the possibility of providing adjustable clamping force, and that they chose to go with it.


Just as unique as the Mo-Fi's physical design was Blue's approach to its sound. The Mo-Fi has a built-in amp that is more akin to a dedicated high-quality portable amplifier than it is to a typical active headphone circuit. Blue's engineers co-designed the amp with a well-known portable amp developer/manufacturer (whom they haven't publicly revealed), and the result is impressive--the Mo-Fi's amp is powerful (240mW), with no self-noise that I can hear, and with output impedance of less than an ohm! It was designed to authoritatively drive the headphone when in use, but to do so as transparently as possible (there is a setting to optionally boost bass if desired).


I really enjoy the sound of the Mo-Fi in its passive mode from my high-quality amplifiers. And I do feel the amp circuit largely meets the goal of being transparent when compared to the Mo-Fi in passive mode, driven by a high-quality external amp. What is its sound signature? Blue's engineers wanted a headphone that was flat enough for professional use, but not clinical, and I think they succeeded in doing this with the Mo-Fi. I use this headphone a lot, and like it enough to carry it regularly, despite its large size.


Now this brings me to my only caveats where this headphone is concerned. The Blue Mo-Fi is a large headphone. It is large on the head, and striking ripped-from-a-cyborg styling does nothing to de-emphasize that. I have no problem wearing it in public (and do), but you should know that going in. It is also a rather heavy headphone, with extensive use of metal in its construction, weighing 466 grams (or 16.44 ounces). On my head, the weight is distributed well, and I have no problem wearing the Mo-Fi for hours; but if you're very sensitive to heavy headphones, the Mo-Fi is definitely no lightweight.


2014 isn't over yet, but I feel comfortable calling the Blue Microphones Mo-Fi one of the most innovative, interesting products of the year in the world of Head-Fi.


"I think the Mo-Fi’s are perfect for a work setup or someone looking for an all-in-one headphone solution in a non-mobile setting, especially if you don’t want to spend an arm and a leg on a dedicated headphone amplifier. "

Head-Fi Member/Reviewer

HiFiMAN HE1000

Details about the HiFiMAN HE1000 can be found in the Summit-Fi section of the guide.


Click here to check it out.


Master & Dynamic MH30 and MH40  
TYPE: Closed, portable headphones (MH30 is the on-the-ear, MH40 is around-the-ear) 
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PRICE: $349 and $399, respectively
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URL: www.masterdynamic.com

Written by Jude Mansilla


I've been seeing ads for these gorgeous headphones all over the web, and frequently on Head-Fi. Too good to be true, I thought. They won't look nearly as nice in person, or feel nearly as nice in the hand as in the ads, I thought. Then last month at Munich High End, I ran into Scott Byrer of Master & Dynamic at a social function. He had one of Master & Dynamic's MH40's around his neck. I asked him if I could see it, he handed it to me, and my first thought was that the headphone looked and felt every bit as good in the hand as it did in the ads. The leather was at least as soft and supple as it looked in the ads. The metal parts were as solid, and the knurling as sharp and defined, as it all looked in the ads. There was a satisfying heft. There are very few headphones I can say this about, but anywhere I touched the MH40 (excepting the cable), I was touching either metal or leather. It was loud there, so I didn't give the MH40 a listen right then, but arranged with Scott to try the MH30 and MH40 after we returned to the States.


When it comes to construction and materials, both the Master & Dynamic MH30 and MH40 have a lot in common. Both have forged aluminum ear cup bodies. Yes, forged aluminum; no, this is most certainly not typical. Also, the aluminum on both the MH30 and MH40 is anodized or PVD (physical vapor deposition) coated, not painted. The other metal parts are stainless steel. All skin-touching hides are an ultra-soft grade of lambskin, and the outside is covered with heavy grain premium cowhide. There are screws, too--a lot of them--in lieu of glues. What's also amazing is what you see when you pull the ear pads off, each of which, by the way, is held on with three guide posts and very strong magnets.


On almost every other headphone, pulling the ear pads off reveals roughly hewn bits and bobs, finished like they were never meant to be seen. On the MH30 and MH40, Master & Dynamic finishes what's underneath the ear pads to the same degree they do the rest of the headphone. The first time I saw this, I was reminded of a childhood memory of when my brother and I took apart our dad's old Omega wristwatch. We were both in awe of the fact that locked inside the hermetically sealed watch case, the watch movement's bridges and rotor were beautifully finished. We marveled at the care given to something so unlikely ever to be seen by the person who pays for it. Again, that’s the feeling I had when I lifted the Master & Dynamic ear pads from their mounts.


The Master & Dynamic MH30 is Master & Dynamic's supra-aural (on-the-ear) headphone. Its round ear cups house 40mm neodymium drivers. The MH40 is their flagship, and is a circumaural (around-the-ear) design, with its oval-shaped ear cups containing 45mm neodymium drivers. Nominal impedance for both models is 32Ω. It's important to note that both headphones are closed, which the MH40's grille (there only for styling) might visually otherwise suggest.


Unfortunately, I ran into a major problem with the MH30 right away. Even with its headband pulled to maximum size, the MH30 is too small for my large noggin. Pulled down very hard--the headband straining against the top of my head--I can get the ear cups over my ears, but they angle unnaturally in doing so. The MH30 uses shorter pieces on the MH30's headband (relative to the MH40). I'm not sure why Master & Dynamic didn't use, for example, the longer yoke pieces of the MH40. Perhaps it was in some way related to accommodating the MH30's folding mechanism--which, by the way, I never use, as the earpieces tend to bang and rub against each other when I fold the MH30. It's a shame, too, because the MH30 (from what I can tell when forcing it over my ears) may actually have a slight sound advantage over its larger sibling, its mid-treble seeming a bit livelier to me in comparison. The MH30 does fit on @joe's head, and he prefers it to the MH40. If your head is small to medium sized, I imagine the MH30 will fit you fine--anyone whose head approaches large, however, should approach the MH30 with some caution. If Master & Dynamic ever revises the MH30's headband to accommodate a wider range of head sizes (which I strongly suggest they do), I'll be first in line to order one.


Thankfully, the MH40 makes it fully over my ears, and my average-sized ears ears fit comfortably inside the ear cups, but only just. Larger ears may touch the insides more, but I imagine all but the largest ears will find the ear pads of the MH40 comfortable. The coziness is helped by the softness of the foam padding, and the suppleness of the lambskin covering. Though the headband's padding is on the thinner side, there's enough cushioning there--combined with a radius that works very well atop my head--to make the headband very comfortable for me. In terms of clamping force, I also find it moderate and comfortable. Keep in mind, this is a headphone crafted of a lot of metal and leather, so it's not a featherweight at 360 grams (12.7 ounces). So, no, it won't feel as air-light on your head as (for example) a Sennheiser HD 598, but the MH40 wears its weight well, and I can wear it for hours without problem.


The MH40's sound is on the richer side, with bass that's prominent and hard-hitting, but taut and controlled enough to keep it in audio enthusiast territory, and away from boomy. In other words, the bass has enough energy to inject some fun into the equation, yet enough detail around notes to keep its low end honest, and I find that almost ideal for on-the-go use. The MH40's midrange has some richness in its presence, and is moderately detailed, but I'd definitely characterize its midband as more creamy than precise. Where the MH40 loses a few points with me, in terms of sound, is in its treble presentation, giving up more airiness than I'd find ideal, but not to a degree that takes away my ability to thoroughly enjoy this headphone. In terms of imaging, the MH40 presents a cohesive image, but it definitely sounds like the closed-back headphone that it is. It also isolates quite well. Overall, I find the MH40 to sound very fun, very versatile, and, with it, I really enjoy listening to music of all genres.


Both the MH30 and MH40 are driven easily by my iPhone 6 Plus, so they’re ideally suited for pairing with smartphones, tablets, and portable music players. Both come well equipped, each coming with a three-button mobile-friendly cable and a longer plain cable, a nicely matched 1/4" adapter, a cylindrical leather case for storage of small bits and pieces, and a nice carrying bag that includes an attached internal cable pouch and a strong magnetic closure.


I can easily recommend the Master & Dynamic MH30 for someone with no larger than a medium-sized head whose looking for a phenomenally well-built, beautiful, on-ear headphone. The MH40 is the easier recommendation, though, with equivalently fantastic build quality and materials, but with more versatile fit, greater comfort, and what I consider an even more fetching design. The Master & Dynamic MH40, for all of these reasons, is currently one of my favorite on-the-go headphones, and a remarkable first effort from such a young company.

NOTE: Master & Dynamic also makes a gorgeous boom mic that matches both the MH30 and MH40 that solidly improves outgoing voice clarity. For more information about the Master & Dynamic Boom Mic, see the review of it in the Cables & Accessories section of this guide by clicking here.


"I would recommend these to anyone that is worried about style, and needs a good headphone that can be cranked up."

Head-Fi Member/Reviewer


"To me, it is very clear that I have enjoyed the M&D MH40 immensely and it is the best portable headphone I have ever heard regardless of price. It simply ticks all the boxes – fun to listen to, beautifully built, some isolation, comfortable"

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
Koss SP330  
TYPE: Closed, compact, on-the-ear headphone
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PRICE: $129.99 
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URL: koss.com

Written by Jude Mansilla


Every once in a while, a gem sneaks up from behind and surprises me, and Koss' new SP330 is one of those things. Just before the 2014 Winter Gift Guide update went up, a package from Koss arrived, and included in it were two Koss full-size headphones (Pro4S and SP540) and this compact on-ear SP330. Given how little time we had, I almost completely skipped the SP330 to focus on the new Pro4S studio monitor. At the last minute, I decided to put the little SP330 on, and I am very glad I did, as it is an excellent sub-$150 closed-back option!


The Koss SP330 is a handsome, modern-looking headphone, but its slim, matte black frame is very low-key. And though the SP330 does seem to me to be mostly built of plastic, most of its surface has a soft-touch finish that feels nicer to touch than most bare plastics. As with the new Pro4S and SP540, the SP330 has D-shaped earcups, albeit smaller. Its appearance certainly doesn't command attention, which is perhaps why I almost skipped over it.


Thankfully, the SP330's sound quality is bolder than its reserved appearance. Across the entire audio spectrum, this affordable on-ear has a relatively even-handed approach. The SP330's bass extension is good, control is excellent, and, to my ears, the low end is served up with generally neutral tendencies. The SP330's mids are similarly color-free, and possessing of very good clarity--more than I'd expect at the SP330s' very modest price point. Its treble is perhaps the one place where it steps above neutrality, only mildly, and not at all sibilantly. Treble detail and extension is good, with acceptable refinement (again, especially at this price), with just enough smoothed over to keep it from being edgy. Compared to the Pro4S, for example, the SP330's treble is a bit more mellow, less incisive around the edges, and I can see how some may prefer it (and vice-versa, of course).


The Koss SP330's imaging is good for a super-compact, closed, supra-aural (on-the-ear) design. You won't think for one moment you're listening to an open headphone, but at least its imaging is natural and coherent.


Early on, I feel comfortable calling the SP330 a strong value, even at its MSRP. The SP330 might fall just short of the Pro4S's level of overall detail; but, again, I can see some preferring its brand of neutral to the Pro4S's. (At the time of this writing, I still haven't decided which of the two I prefer, and I haven't had the time yet to listen to the SP540.)


If you're looking for an affordable, ultra-compact headphone, the Koss SP330 is a must-audition piece, and perhaps one of the most audiophile-friendly, stronger values in the sub-$150 closed-back class.

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.

TYPE: Closed, supra-aural (on-the-ear) headphone
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MSRP: $250.00 
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URL: www.thinksound.com

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.

Written by Jude Mansilla


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


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


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

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


"...I love the PortaPros for the uncompromising retro-throwback design and sound that somehow feels like it would have been right at home in the 80s."

Head-Fi Member

TYPE: Open, portable, on-the-ear headphone 
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MSRP: Around $50 for standard version, and around $80 for the KTC version
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URL: www.koss.com


Fostex TH900

Details about the Fostex TH900 can be found in the Summit-Fi section of the guide.


Click here to check it out.


V-MODA Crossfade Wireless c57420db_blast_new_green_2.png

Details about the V-MODA Crossfade Wireless can be found in the Wireless section of the guide.


Click here to check it out.

Aedle VK-1 Valkyrie
TYPE: Closed, full-size, on-the-ear headphone
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MSRP: $380
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URL: www.aedle.net

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.

ZMF Headphones Omni  
TYPE: Semi-open, full-sized, around-the-ear planar magnetic headphone
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PRICE: $899 ($799 during pre-order period) 
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URL: www.zmfheadphones.com

Written by Warren Chi (warrenpchi)


Head-Fi’s corollary to the Infinite Monkey Theorem states:  if you give enough Head-Fiers enough time with a Fostex T50RP, one of them will eventually mod you a perfect headphone.  Though it hasn’t happened just yet, ZMF Headphones’s new Omni is a very solid performer that goes a long way towards reinforcing the validity of this Infinite Modder Theorem.


Zach Mehrbach, the founder of ZMF Headphones, has been a member of Head-Fi since 2008, where he is better known as @zach915m .  If this is the first you’ve heard of him, you might be surprised to know that he’s been modding T50RP headphones for quite some time now - with several of his better efforts being held in fairly high regard, like the ZMF Vibro and ZMF Blackwood.  But it’s his upcoming Omni model that truly sets a new benchmark for ZMF Headphones in both craftsmanship and sound.


Like other Fostex mods before it, the Omni features turned-wood earcups for both aesthetic and acoustic benefits.  But true to ZMF Headphones’s vision of taking a different path, their own path, the new Omni cups are circular and semi-open, employing five ports circling the outside of the ear cup for improved bass response and wider staging.


Available wood options for the Omni include Cherry, Walnut and African Blackwood - with Blackwood being slightly more expensive due to rarity.  But choose your wood wisely!   ZMF points out that - in addition to cosmetic differences - there are subtle but noticeable sonic variances as well, depending on the type of wood that is selected.  I asked ZMF Headphones to select for me the wood option that is most representative of the Omni’s intended signature, and Walnut is what I received.


Wow.  Actually, I have something different written down in my listening notes, but that’s neither safe for work, nor family friendly.  It pretty much means the same thing as wow, so wow it shall be.  The ZMF Omni is one immensely enjoyable headphone!  Warm down low, but not dark up top, with a fluid and detailed mid-range in between, all laid out on an expansive stage.  If you’re familiar with what an Audeze LCD-3 is like, try to imagine what it would sound like if it were semi-open. and had wooden ear cups.  What you just conjured up in your mind is very close to what ZMF has achieved with the Omni.


In spending time with ZMF and their main demo rig (Theta Basic IIIa and Decware Taboo MK III with stock tubes), we were able to enjoy a lush and euphonic rendition of the Omni’s signature:  Terrific sub-bass that blooms into a rich and dynamic mid-bass; settling down into clean lower-mids that show little to no bass-bleed nor boomyness; a wonderfully elegant mid-range that is both detailed and fluid, delivering a very analog-like sound that is reminiscent of vinyl; upper mids are lively but never peaky or strident; and highs that dissipate smoothly without any sudden roll-off.  The Omni’s staging and imaging capabilities are superb for a semi-open headphone, even being reminiscent of my Denon D7000 at times.  All of that sounds pretty good doesn’t it?  It certainly did to me.


Back here at home, the Omni continued to impress with my current desktop rig - a Benchmark DAC1 feeding into a Cavalli Liquid Glass with Sylvania 6SN7-GTB tubes.  Though leaner and brighter than ZMF’s demo rig, the Omni’s signature still shines through:  Respectable sub-bass that swells into a robust mid-bass without bleeding into the lower mids; a detailed and evocative mid-range that lifts and exalts vocals without a hint of grain; nearly flawless upper mids that convey excitement without harshness; and highs that just seem to dissipate into infinity gently and without abruptness.


I’ll be honest, I didn’t think that I would enjoy the Omni as much as I did, especially given my penchant for balance and neutrality.  But the Omni presented me with a finely crafted sense of warmth, that never once dominated its ability to render detail, which it did with an elegance and refinement.  The Omni plays well with a variety of gear, and is able to serve up enjoyment with almost any genre.  Taken altogether, it’s easy to see that we didn’t actually give the Omni a spot in this gift guide… It earned its place here on it’s own merit.


"It’s able to present a fantastic level of detail and texture while sounding really fun and enjoyable. Better yet, the Omni performs very well on all levels and fronts."

Head-Fi Member/Reviewer

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 last 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.
Koss PRODJ100

Written by Jude Mansilla


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


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


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


"...the Koss ProDJ100 extends the bang/buck of the other Koss headphones featured in this review to a whole different price range – a great proposition for budget-conscious buyers."

Head-Fi Member/Reviewer

TYPE: Closed, full-size, portable, around-the-ear headphone 
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PRICE: Around $80
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URL: www.koss.com
MrSpeakers ETHER

Details about the MrSpeakers ETHER can be found in the Summit-Fi section of the guide.


Click here to check it out.


Sennheiser HD 25 Aluminum

Written by Jude Mansilla


25 years is how long it has been on the market. 25 years is how long it has been a pro audio staple, a favorite of DJ's, a portable go-to for audiophiles. Since it was an instant hit, 25 years is also how long it has been a classic. I can't believe it, but the HD 25 is already 25 years old this year. And to celebrate its birthday, Sennheiser decided to create a 25th anniversary edition of it, and I hope it's not just a special edition, because this is one model I want to stick around: the  Sennheiser HD 25 ALUMINUM.


Using earcups machined from solid blocks of aluminum, the HD 25 ALUMINUM might be mistaken for the now-discontinued Sennheiser Amperior. Unlike the low-impedance Amperior, however, the HD 25 ALUMINUM uses the same drivers as the standard HD 25-1 II, and has the same 70Ω nominal impedance (versus the Amperior's much lower 18Ω nominal impedance).


Other than the aluminum earcups and hinge covers, the only significant changes I can see (holding my HD 25-1 II and HD 25 ALUMINUM side by side here) is that the HD 25-1 II's cable is terminated with a right-angle mini plug, whereas the HD 25 ALUMINUM's cable is terminated with a straight mini plug. Also, the 25 ALUMINUM's pads (both the earpads and the headband padding) seem to be softer, and covered with a leather-like material with a softer hand than the original HD 25-1 II.


As the Amperior did (obviously suggesting the damped aluminum housing is an important change), the HD 25 ALUMINUM refines the HD 25-1 II's bass, imparting greater control and resolution down low. The whole spectrum is improved, actually, and the treble loses some of the bite and edge that the standard HD 25-1 II's can exhibit. Whereas the HD 26 Pro is more of a departure (with some similarities), the HD 25 ALUMINUM is an HD 25 through and through--only a more refined one, a better one.


I've seen this model referred to as the 25th Anniversary Edition, but I hope it's more of a permanent model in the lineup than a temporary one, especially now that the Amperior has been discontinued.

TYPE: Closed, portable, on-the-ear headphone
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PRICE: $329.95 
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URL: www.sennheiser.com
AKG K812

Details about the AKG K812 can be found in the Summit-Fi section of the guide.


Click here to check it out.

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


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."

Head-Fi Member/Reviewer

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
TYPE: Closed, portable, on-the-ear headphone
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MSRP: Around $300
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URL: www.beyerdynamic.com



Written by Jude Mansilla


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


This little beyerdynamic has also been durable enough to easily withstand the physical abuse of being crammed into my backpacks and messenger bags over the last couple of years.


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


For portable use, it's important to note that the DT 1350's plug housing is rather large (more like a full-size headphone's plug); and that it does not come with portable-use accoutrements like an inline remote/mic. Still, its sound quality currently still puts the DT 1350 in my on-the-go bag very frequently.


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

Head-Fi Member/Reviewer


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, portable, on-the-ear headphone 
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MSRP: $299.95
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URL: www.kef.com


Written by Jude Mansilla


In the last few years, though, loudspeaker manufacturers, noticing the exploding popularity of headphones, decided to parlay their acoustic engineering and product development chops to develop headphones of their own. One of the newer such players of this game--but certainly no newcomer to the high-end audio world--is KEF.


Though I've never owned a KEF loudspeaker, KEF has been a significant part of my own audio history, making the legendary KEF B139 woofer that was used in one of my favorite loudspeakers of all time, the Linn Isobarik DMS. Why the significance to me? The big Linns were the loudspeakers in the very first hi-fi system ever to reproduce music with enough power and presence to literally bring tears to my eyes.


In 2013, KEF released its first two headphones: the KEF M500 (over-ear) and the KEF M200 (in-ear). Like Bowers & Wilkins did with their P5, KEF's first over-ear entry is a supra-aural (on-ear) model made of copious amounts of metal and leather (I'm not sure the M500's leather is real leather, though it sure feels good and soft regardless). The M500 also boasts a gorgeous design, with the M500 having a thoroughly modern, sharp-cornered, space-age appearance, versus the P5's retro-smooth curves and lines. (Though I haven't asked anyone at KEF about this, I wouldn't be surprised if perhaps that legendary oval-shaped KEF loudspeaker driver inspired the M500's oval-shaped earcups--the proportions are so similar, I can't imagine it was a coincidence.)


The KEF M500 also comes with one of the better carrying cases in the biz, in terms of combining style, portability, and functionality. Combined with the M500's unique left-side yoke cable entry, the case can accommodate the M500 with its cable still plugged into to it.--this is something I really wish more headphone makers kept in mind when designing their headphones and accompanying cases. (It's a pain to plug and unplug cables every time one wants to use or store his headphones.)


Like the Bowers & Wilkins P5, I find the KEF M500 very comfortable for an on-ear headphone--I might even give a slight edge in comfort to the KEF, with earpads that feel even cushier on my ears than the P5's plush numbers. And though the M500's design is chunky with metal, it is much lighter than it looks, weighing only 208g (or around 7.3 ounces), and so it feels very light on the head.


In terms of sound, I have to give the M500 the advantage over its on-ear rival from Bowers & Wilkins (the P5). Actually, as of this writing, I can't think of any other current supra-aural headphone that I think sounds better than the KEF M500. Its bass extension is very good, its bass control just as impressive. On balance, I'd say its bass is north of neutral, especially down low, but, again, well controlled. The M500's midrange is warmish to me, but still clear as a bell--this is a closed on-ear? The KEF's treble is a seamless extension of the mids, with a bit more presence and sparkle than a lot of my portable closed headphones.


With a nominal impedance of 32Ω, and a rated sensitivity of 103dB/mW, the KEF M500 is an easy load to drive. It sounds very good straight out of my iPhone 5S, but will also scale up its performance noticeably when being driven by my good portable and desktop rigs.


If you can't tell, I'm mightily impressed by KEF's first over-ear headphone. Along with the likes of PSB and Bowers & Wilkins, KEF is showing the headphone world that some of the loudspeaker players are here to compete in this headphone game with the utmost seriousness; and I think they're here to stay.


"In my humble opinion, the KEF M500 is up there on the top 3-list of best portable headphone I've listened to. Unless you want unnaturally emphasized lows or crave good isolation capabilities the M500 will deliver the goods in spades. I really hope more people get to experience this headphone because it's just that damn good and KEF deserves some serious credit for that accomplishment!"

Head-Fi Member/Reviewer

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.

AKG N90Q  c57420db_blast_new_green_2.png

Written by Jude Mansilla


So let me get this straight: This is an active-only headphone that optimizes its sound for my individual ears using some electronic wizardry they're calling TruNote? Oh, and it's $1500? I don't think most here would blame me for thinking "Gimmick!" at first blush. The fact that it's packaged in such an opulent bundle put me even deeper into the style-over-substance assumptions.

Boy, was I was wrong.

The AKGN90Q is definitely unusual, and comes lavishly package and equipped, but it's also a surprisingly excellent headphone. The inventor of the N90Q's core technology is Harman's Dr. Ulrich Horbach, who published AES Convention Paper 9274 (Characterizing the Frequency Response of Headphones – a new Paradigm) that explains what's behind the N90Q. I won't go into detail (though AES members should log in and read it here), but here's a short summary of what's going on: The AKG N90Q shoots short logarithmic sweeps into the wearer's ears to perform in situ frequency response measurements (using two microphones in each ear that also do double-duty as noise-canceling mics), the data from which it uses to equalize the headphones to optimize the frequency response for the user's specific ears.

If you're wondering if Horbach's TrueNote actually does something, the answer is yes, it actually does. I'll soon be posting some measurements of the AKG N90Q as calibrated for my ears, and then (without moving the headphones) as calibrated on our G.R.A.S. measurement dummy head's ears. Simply put, calibrating for the dummy's ears (and then measuring on the dummy's head) resulted in some reduction of peaks and troughs--a smoothing of the frequency response--from the mids on up. (The bass seemed unaffected.) Interesting!

The N90Q has 52mm drivers that use "a special Japanese paper membrane." Its nominal impedance is 32Ω, with maximum input power of 100mW. Sensitivity is listed as "110dB SPL @ 1kHz/100mV." The AKG N90Q is a fairly heavy headphone at 460g, but it feels comfortable on my head, even for long-term use. The N90Q is definitely on the larger side, so don't expect to be able to wear this headphone in public and go unnoticed. It's available in black, or in a black and gold color scheme (and I'm surprised to find myself saying I prefer the black and gold version). Again, it comes with a slew of accessories, including a metal storage box, a very nice leather carrying case, a 2400mAh power bank (I'll get to that in a minute), a sueded microfiber cloth, a 3-meter plain cable, a 1.2m Android 3-button/mic cable, a 1.2m iOS 3-button/mic cable, and a lightweight micro-USB cable.

As for its sound, the N90Q is the best sounding active-only headphone I've yet heard. It has excellent bass presentation--neutral, fast, and with excellent extension. When the deep notes hit, they come on big--those who listen to a lot of electronic music or hip hop and want a more audiophile-friendly presentation that doesn't give up impactful low bass will likely love this about the N90Q. (However, if you need more low-end grunt, it's available--I'll get to that later.) As with its bass, the N90Q's midrange has nice presence, too--not recessed, well-balanced, even a nice touch of richness at times. The N90Q's treble is also very good--revealing, with mild tilt above neutral, but thankfully not in the dreaded sibilance region--and completes the N90Q's largely even-keeled presentation.

Again, it's important to note that the AKG N90Q is an active-only headphone--it has no passive mode. If your N90Q's battery dies, you're out of luck until you charge its internal rechargeable battery. The N90Q's battery life is rated at 12 hours--remember, though, that AKG includes that fancy little rechargeable USB power bank, which helps buy you a lot more listening time on-the-go. (You can use the power bank to charge other USB devices, too.)

The AKG N90Q is also a full-time active noise-canceling headphone, and in this regard it works very well, probably helped along by its effective passive noise attenuation. The AKG N90Q is very good at blocking out a lot of ambient noise. I now often turn to the N90Q as a work headphone, when I want excellent sound and a shield between me and the noise and distractions around me. It's such a large headphone that I haven't yet ventured to tote it with me on an airplane, but I expect it would work very well to keep the din of air travel at bay. Of the active noise-cancelers we have here, the N90Q's noise-canceling circuit has among the lowest levels of self-noise.

By the way, the USB cable that comes with the N90Q is not only for charging the AKG N90Q--it's also used to employ its DAC functionality. Yes, the N90Q has a built-in 24/96-capable USB DAC that is compatible with PC, Mac, and Android. Plugging it into my Mac shows 44.1kHz, 48kHz, 88.2kHz and 96kHz supported, and apps like Roon and Amarra have no problem auto-selecting sample rates on the N90Q, which is nice. I've been using both the standard analog input and the built-in USB DAC, and the N90Q sounds exceptional either way.

I also want to quickly mention that the N90Q has a few different preset equalizer settings. The instructions don't explain them well, but the default setting sounds to me like the most neutral setting, and the other few settings rotate through varying degrees of more U-shaped curves, with a bit more deep bass and toned-down midrange. My favorite setting has been the default setting so far.

Also, the N90Q also offers three different soundstage settings that AKG calls "Stage Control." The "Standard" setting is normal stereo sound, with the N90Q's DSP spatial processing disabled. The "Studio" setting is designed to provide a "more natural listening experience," with AKG's description of this setting reminding us that producers will use monitor loudspeakers (not headphones) to produce their content. The "Studio" setting sounds to me like crossfeed with other DSP processing effects for a fuller soundstage. The "Studio" setting is actually one I use from time to time, just as I do with crossfeed on my amps and DACs that have it. The third setting is the "Surround Sound" setting. This setting has the most pronounced effect, adding a lot of space and distance to the sound, and it can be interestingly enveloping (in terms of imaging). I don't use the "Surround Sound" setting for music, as its effect is rather severe. I may, however, experiment with that setting for movies and games, to see if there's any worthwhile effect with that kind of content.

Despite its many bells and whistles, it's become very clear to me that this headphone is no gimmick. The AKG N90Q is a seriously capable, technology-packed flagship closed headphone from AKG. It's expensive at $1500, but, in my opinion, AKG's daring new flagship employs all of its tech wizardry to intriguing effect, making the AKG N90Q one of the most compelling new products we've seen this year.

TYPE: Closed, auto-calibrating, active noise-canceling full-size headphone
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PRICE: $1499.95 
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URL: www.akg.com


TYPE: Closed, portable, around-the-ear headphone
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MSRP: Around $350
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URL: www.sennheiser.com

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."

Head-Fi Member/Reviewer

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Comments (3)

The Master & Dynamic MH40 should be mentioned, not Monster headphones.
Just got my AKG 7xx and I have to say it blows most $200 headphones out of the water. Yes, the build is is plasticy and the elastic bands will probably fail at some point but once you listen to them, you can overlook those small gripes.
Sorry, but how is this a guide? All I see is a random list of short reviews.
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