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Head-Fi Buying Guide (Over-Ear Headphones)

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Head-Fi Buying Guide

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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

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

 

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."

-ljokerl
Head-Fi Member/Reviewer

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

 

 

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

 

 

Written by Jude Mansilla

 

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

 

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

 

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

"It's one of my favorite all time closed cans! Great sound for almost all kinds of music and the bass lovers will enjoy it with everything! Good dynamics and fantastic build quality."

-Mshenay
Head-Fi Member/Reviewer

Written by Jude Mansilla

 

Last year 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
HiFiMAN HE-560

The entry about the HiFiMAN HE-560 can be found in the Summit-Fi section of the guide.

 

Click here to read about the HE-560 from HiFiMAN.

Shure SRH440 and Shure SRH840

Written by Jude Mansilla

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

"These cans in my opinion are ideal for pure enjoyment of music - either straight out of your DAP, or amplified for a little extra lift. If I had to sum them up in a couple of words I would "smooth" and "balanced". I use the word balance more in an all purpose sense rather than a frequency range sense - these cans are great with most genres you throw at them."

-Brooko
Head-Fi Member/Reviewer

TYPE: Closed, around-the-ear headphones 
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MSRP: Around $100 and $160, respectively
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URL: www.shure.com
V-MODA XS
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

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, 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

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.

Written by Jude Mansilla

 

French outfit Focal is known mostly for their very well regarded, very expensive high-end loudspeakers--especially the flagship Focal Grande Utopia EM, weighing 572 pounds each, and priced at $180,000.00 per pair. And it's all the rage nowadays for storied names in loudspeaker design and manufacture turning their knowledge and attention to the world of headphones; so I wasn't surprised to see Focal enter the headphone market, but I would've expected a cost-no-object, kilobuck headphone from them. What they entered the Head-Fi world with, however, was something entirely different. Something accessible. Something relatively affordable. The Focal Spirit One. $279.00. There's probably not a nut or bolt on the Grande Utopia EM that can be bought for $279.00.

 

Like most of Focal's other products, the Spirit One is stylish. To keep it affordable, it looks and feels to me like Focal went with a mostly plastic chassis for the Spirit One, with brushed metal cladding to give it the appearance (from a distance) of being more metal than it actually is. The top of the headband and the earpieces feel to me like rubberized plastic. Yes, in the hand, the Focal Spirit One does feel more plasticky than it looks, but it all comes together to make an attractive headphone that feels well-built.

 

I like that the Spirit One folds flat, making it easy to carry in its very nice included semi-hard-side case. As an iDevice user, I also like the three-button remote/mic on its cloth-covered cable (but wish they'd done more to differentiate the center button from the other two).

 

As for sound, the Focal Spirit One is smooth, with a neutral-ish tonal balance, and a mild bass lift down low where I like any emphasis to be. While it isn't the most revealing headphone in my stable, it still conveys more detail and neutrality than what is perhaps the most popular model by a high-end loudspeaker maker in the Bowers & Wilkins P5. And, while more revealing than the P5, the Spirit One shares one similar, very positive trait: It is eminently easy to listen to. It can be hard to find a headphone that can be forgiving and still sound excellent, and the Focal Spirit One is one of those headphones. Given Focal's history, I'd like to see them eventually move upmarket, too, adding even more premium, cost-no-object type headphones to their line. For now, though, the Spirit One is a very good first headphone from Focal, and one I've added to my roster of on-the-go over-ear headphones.

 

"For a closed headphone the Spirit One have a great presentation. The sound is presented as if I am in an intimate venue. The imaging is great on the Spirit One and instruments have their space, I never feel that the music is congested, rather I find it to be immersive. Very well done."

-keanex
Head-Fi Member/Reviewer

TYPE: Closed, portable, on-the-ear headphone
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MSRP: $279.00
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URL: www.focal.com

 

Fostex TH500RP  c57420db_blast_new_green_2.png
TYPE: Open over-ear headphone 
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PRICE: $699.99 
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URL: fostexinternational.com

Last year, Fostex decided to show an early prototype of their new planar magnetic headphone at CanJam, before the headphone was even given a name. Since then, it has gone through A LOT of development, and it has also earned the name "Fostex TH500RP." The TH500RP is a sort of melding of Fostex's longstanding planar magnetic expertise with the design philosophy and flair of their flagship dynamic Fostex TH900 (and the TH600). The end result is a headphone that may confound those looking to buy their first premium Fostex headphone, as it adds one more excellent option to the top of the Fostex headphone line (accompanied by the TH600, and flagship TH900).

 

Built largely of aluminum and magnesium, the TH500RP's construction is outstanding, and fully in keeping with the quality that the TH600 and TH900 have spoiled us with. With the large, round earcups, and the perforated grill, the TH500RP looks like the love child of a Stax SR009 and a vintage Fostex.

 

The TH500RP is very comfortable on my head. I've worn it for hours at a time without any hotspots or clamping force issues. It only weighs 380 grams (13.4 ounces), so, as far as planars go, it is quite light.

 

Compared to its TH600 and TH900 siblings, the TH500RP is a more subtle headphone, a more even-tempered headphone. The bass emphasis isn't there--in fact, some may find the TH500RP's bass on the lean-ish side; I find its bass more neutral. To my ears, there's certainly no bass emphasis or boost. The TH500RP's midrange is very smooth, and with beautiful tone--I wouldn't describe its mids as bloomy, but, again, relative to pure neutrality, there's some sweetness in the TH500RP's midband. The same goes for its treble presentation. To my ears, it doesn't have the sense of treble extension that, for example, the HE-560 has, but, as with its mids, there's something entirely pleasant and mellifluous about the TH500RP's treble presentation.

 

Sonically, the TH500RP is not a headphone that wowed me, and, strangely enough, I really mean that as a compliment. It's a revealing headphone, but it's not incisive or analytical, to my ears. It's a headphone that has enough ease about its sound that once it's on my head, it's usually on for dang long time.

 

I visited Fostex's highly secretive audio labs last year in Japan, and one thing I've learned is that Fostex doesn't leave anything to chance. The overriding character of the TH500RP to me is that it doesn't impose itself on me or the music, and I'm inclined to think that Fostex fully intended that.

 

The TH500RP is an eminently musical headphone, and if you're shopping in its price range--and if what I've described sounds appealing to you--definitely put it on your audition list.

Focal Spirit Classic and Focal Spirit Professional

Written by Jude Mansilla

 

In writing up the Focal Spirit One, I mentioned that I'd like to see Focal move more upmarket with their headphones, given that they're best known for their ultra-expensive (and ultra-respected) loudspeakers. Well, since the last guide update, they've started making their moves, with two new headphones: the Focal Spirit Classic and the Focal Spirit Professional.

 

The $399 Focal Spirit Classic is the current flagship, intended as a headphone intended more for home or office use than it is for on-the-go use. As evidence of this, it comes with two cables, one of which is 13 feet long!

 

Also, with its larger headband, larger earcups and non-fold-flat design, it's clearly not intended to be as mobile as the Focal Spirit One. The Focal Spirit Classic also takes on a more mature appearance, with its "Hot Chocolate" brown color (that's what they call it), in varying shades from the earcups to the pads and headband. It's a gorgeous headphone.

 

Though its earcups are larger, the Spirit Classic's earpads aren't that much larger than the Spirit One's. Filled with memory foam, though, they're definitely more comfortable. The headband is also more comfortable than the Spirit One's, with broader, better padding.

 

As for how it compares to its more portable sibling, the Spirit Classic is a move to a more detailed, more complete soundscape, with richer tonality, and better imaging. There's a lushness to the Spirit Classic's tone that makes voices and most instruments come alive. It's warmer than neutral, never rough or strident, but still with glistening detail when appropriate.

 

We discussed the Focal Spirit Classic on Head-Fi TV earlier this year.

 

The Focal Spirit Professional is Focal's first studio monitor headphone, and is the most neutral headphone from Focal so far. Actually, to my ears, it's one of the more neutral closed over-ears on the market right now, period. For this reason, I predict it'll soon have a very strong following in the Head-Fi community.

 

Though I perceive its tonal balance to be rather flat, there's enough going on in its presentation to sound rich with detail, if not in tone--and, again, I think this is what a lot of Head-Fi'ers are looking for. I love this headphone for this reason, and have a hard time deciding which of the two newest Focals I prefer (and so am glad we have both here now).

 

Whereas the Ultimate Ears In-Ear Reference Monitor is my neutral reference in-ear--one of my sonic palate cleansers--the Focal Spirit Professional is earning a place as one of my over-ear neutral references.

 

The Focal Spirit Professional's form factor is sort of a mix between the Focal Spirit Classic (with a similar headband), and the Focal Spirit Classic (in terms of its earcup size and memory foam earpads). One very cool thing about the Focal Spirit Professional is the speckled black finish they gave it--it's supposed to an ultra-tough finish to stand up to the rigors of professional use. It's hard to capture its coolness in photographs, but trust me, in person it's very cool and unique.

 

For a company that also makes $180,000 loudspeakers, I'm hoping to see Focal continue to explore still higher-performance, no-holds-barred headphones going forward. For now, though, I'm pleased with the Focal Spirit Classic and Spirit Professional as upmarket moves by Focal in the headphone world.

 

"Frankly, it's about damn time that the enthusiast community got a closed headphone [Spirit Professional] that we could be excited about because of what it does well, not only just because it doesn't tragically fail at some part of the listening experience. Now, we have more than one of those headphones and that’s a very good place to be."

-AustinValentine
Head-Fi Member/Reviewer

TYPE: Closed, portable, circumaural (around-the-ear) headphones
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MSRP: $399.00 and $349.00, respectively
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URL: www.focal.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."

-ljokerl
Head-Fi Member/Reviewer

Fostex TH900

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

 

Click here to check it out.

 

 

Sennheiser HD6 Mix, HD7 DJ, and HD8 DJ
TYPE: Closed over-ear headphones
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PRICE: $279.95 (HD6 Mix), $329.95 (HD7 DJ), and $389.95 (HD8 DJ)
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URL: www.sennheiser.com

One of the most popular DJ headphones in the world is the HD 25 by Sennheiser--many DJ's the world over wear their 25's proudly, a sort of status symbol. Here's the thing, though: the HD25 wasn't originally designed as a DJ headphone.

 

The Sennheiser HD 25 headphones were first released in 1988, and were intended for outside broadcasting use. What were some of the features that would be helpful for outside broadcasting? A rotatable ear cup for one-ear monitoring, and isolation from outside noise. Obviously, these are traits well suited for DJ use, too; but it wasn't until around ten years after their introduction that the HD 25 picked up steam with DJ's. And for the last 15 years or so, they've become a common site around the neck, and half on the head, of serious DJ's.

 

Earlier this year, Sennheiser released some purpose-built DJ headphones in the HD7 DJ and the HD8 DJ (both have nominal 95Ω impedance). I have them both, but I'm no DJ. My friend Adam Bellinson (DJ Thread, or simply "thread" on Head-Fi) is a DJ, however, playing the Detroit scene regularly, and he had been an HD25-wearing DJ for a long time. When Sennheiser contacted him to ask him to try the HD8, he agreed to, and I wondered which--between his long-time HD25 and the new HD8 DJ--he'd prefer. Well, since receiving the HD8, I haven't seen a photo of him spinning with any other headphone. He really likes the HD8 and posted as about it on Head-Fi. (thread is a high-end headphone audio enthusiast, too, by the way.)

 

Again, I am not a DJ, but I have spent a lot of time with the HD7 DJ, HD8 DJ, and the HD6 MIX (which I'll get to in a minute). Of the two DJ models, I have a slight preference for the HD8. It is quite bass-heavy, yes. But I find its overall tonal balance fun, with what sounds to me like hard-hitting emphasis, particularly from the mid-bass through the lower mids. (This is also true of the HD7.) And though the bass is heavy, it's surprisingly fast--emphasized a lot, but with detail. Where the HD8 edges out the HD7 for me is its slightly more lit treble, which gives it a little more pizzaz, and makes for a fun on-the-go headphone.

 

Of the three models in this new group of headphones, the one I prefer most is the HD6 MIX (nominal impedance of 150Ω), which Sennheiser describes as a headphone "designed to cater to the needs of the professional sound technician," and describe its sound as "accurate, balanced sound reproduction suitable for mixing and monitoring." In addition to notbeing a DJ, I am also not a professional sound technician. The HD6 sound signature Sennheiser describes might read to audiophiles like the HD6 would sound neutral, which, to my ears, it is not. So perhaps what a professional sound technician is looking for and what audiophiles consider neutral are two different things. The HD6, however, is more even-handed than either of the two "DJ" models, still with some mid-bass emphasis, but not as much thickness, to my ears, in the upper bass or lower mids. Its treble doesn't have that extra bite that I'm hearing with the HD8 DJ, so from the bottom to the top, its sound is certainly more uniform, and less exciting, which, to me, is the more preferable of the two signatures for my kind of use and listening.

 

All three headphones are built very stoutly, obviously intended to withstand the rigors and punishment of pro audio use, and come with tough carrying cases. The HD7 and HD8 have dual rotating ear cups, and the HD6 cups don't rotate at all. All three are quite light in weight for their size, with the HD8 just slightly heavier due to the use of metal parts in key areas to improve strength and durability.

 

This new family of headphones also introduces an aesthetic that is unique, not just to Sennheiser, but to the market as a whole, and I love their style. Their look is at once professional, youthful, and attractive.


While I may not have the professional credentials of the intended customers for these headphones, I've found them enjoyable, and have occasion to carry especially the HD6 MIX for on-the-go use.

 

"...not only does the HD8 DJ best the form and ergonomics of my other two pairs, but it is a comfortable and fun-sounding headphone for general listening, too. I honestly don't recall using a DJ headphone that I prefer. Sennheiser deserves proper respect for this well-designed piece!"

-Adam Bellinson (thread)
Head-Fi Member/Reviewer

Written by Jude Mansilla

 

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

 

In 2011, Kolton and I met twice to discuss the M-100, once in Chicago, and then again at Head-Fi HQ in Michigan. The purpose of the visit to my office was to look at his hinge design (which ended up evolving into something stronger and more refined by the time it made production), as well as evaluating a bunch of earpad variations that looked so much alike they had to be numbered for identification (yet they sounded quite different from one prototype pair to the next). There was no sleep at that latter meeting, as there was a lot to cover--we even had a couple of video conferences with his engineers overseas. Then there was a limited public unveiling (and auditions) of M-100 prototypes at CES 2012, and a few more get-togethers about the M-100 last year. Strengthening the community-developed nature of the M-100, a very limited run of specially packaged first-run M-100's was sold exclusively to Head-Fi community members who signed up for it.

 

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

 

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

-AnakChan
Head-Fi Member/Reviewer

TYPE: Closed, full-size, around-the-ear headphone
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MSRP: $310.00
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URL: www.v-moda.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, portable, on-the-ear headphone
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MSRP: $199
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URL: www.onkyo.com

 

Sennheiser HD 25 Aluminum
TYPE: Closed, portable, on-the-ear headphone
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PRICE: $329.95 
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URL: www.sennheiser.com

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 new 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.

AKG K812
TYPE: Closed over-ear headphone
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PRICE: $1499.99
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URL: www.akg.com

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

 

Click here to check it out.

beyerdynamic T 51 p
TYPE: Closed on-ear headphone
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PRICE: $289.00
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URL: www.beyerdynamic.com

Written by Jude Mansilla

 

When the beyerdynamic T50p and the DT1350 were released a few years ago--the T50p being beyerdynamic's consumer compact headphone and the DT1350 the pro audio counterpart--I had a clear preference for the DT1350. The pro sibling's deep bass was more impactful and controlled; and its sound, though at times analytical, was certainly the more revealing of the two. Sure, they looked a lot alike, but, to my ears, the DT1350 was simply the runaway winner in any comparison between the two.

 

Fast forward to last year, and the introduction of the T51p, successor to the T50p. Because (to my ears) there was a rather substantial gap in performance between the older T50p and the DT1350, I wasn't expecting the new T51p to challenge the DT1350 for my ear time--but, wow, was I pleasantly surprised when it arrived.

 

I want to be clear about something straight away: the T51p does not sound like the DT1350. Like the T50p before it, the T51p seems to be aiming for a more consumer-friendly sound (than the DT1350), but beyerdynamic gave the new T51p a healthy shot of improved resolution (versus the T50p), making it a much stronger competitor--and a true performance peer--for their pro compact DT1350 than its predecessor was. So, now, choosing between beyerdynamic's consumer compact and its pro compact is simply a matter of choosing one of two different flavors of high-performance compacts.

 

If you've heard the DT1350 and felt it even the least bit cold or dry, then the T51p is worth an audition. Versus the DT1350, the T51p has more emphasized bass, but still with a nicely textured, detailed lower end. Its midrange also sounds richer to me than the DT1350's mids, but no less resolving here than its sibling's midband. Treble is where the two models have their strongest differences, the T51p's treble being comparatively smoother, more subdued, but still with a nice presence and just enough to keep the T51p from sounding soft, to my ears. Whereas the DT1350 could occasionally render unforgivingly (and even less occasionally harshly), the T51p shows comparatively more forbearance.

 

Verus the DT1350 I have on hand, and versus its predecessor T50p, the T51p represents a substantial improvement in on-ear comfort. The T51p's on-ear pads have a bit larger diameter to them, and combined with their super-soft, super-smooshy feel, can comfortably be worn by me for hours. The T51p also seems far less sensitive to placement than the DT1350--yes, with its small cans, it still needs to be placed right over your ear, but, unlike my DT1350 it's not as microscopically sensitive to exact placement. Also, versus the DT1350, the T51p is less clampy, rated for 2.5N of headband pressure, versus the DT1350's rated 5.5N. (NOTE: the DT1350 I have here is a very early model, I believe the first unit to arrive in the U.S., and I think they may have made some changes--including the earpads--since then. I'll try to get hold of a more current DT1350.)

 

I think the DT1350 was beyerdynamic's answer to Sennheiser's HD25 series. The T51p seems more like their response to the likes of V-MODA's XS, Sennheiser's MOMENTUM, the Sony MDR-1R, and other excellent audiophile headphones that are more consumer-oriented.


Maybe it's just a mood thing--maybe it's because it's still new to me--but the T51p has had more ear time with me since its arrival than the DT1350. It gives up very little in the way of resolving ability to its pro sibling, but sounds and feels more easygoing and forgiving. I think the beyerdynamic T51p is certainly among the top-tier in the portable on-ear headphone market and is one of my new reference portable supra-aural (on-the-ear) over-ear headphones.

 

"...considering fantastic "made in Germany" design, rich full body sound, super comfortable fitment, and the bass to make everybody happy - these deserve a very serious consideration for anybody in a market for on-ear or over-ear headphones."

-twister6
Head-Fi Member/Reviewer

Sennheiser HD 26 Pro

Written by Jude Mansilla

 

Let's get this out of the way right now: Sennheiser's new HD 26 Pro is not replacing the legendary HD 25 in the Sennheiser lineup. Despite some similarities, the HD 26 Pro is a new addition to the Sennheiser HD family, and, as far as I'm concerned, it's a very welcome one.

 

In the treble, where the HD 25-1 II can tend toward a bit of etch to me, the HD 26 Pro is smoother. Its bass is likewise less peaky sounding to me than the HD 25-1 II's. The overall sound of the HD 26 Pro suggests a kinship with the HD 25-1 II, but, to me, more along the lines of a cousin than a sibling--the less forward cousin who went to finishing school. The HD 26 Pro is an eminently listenable, resolving professional monitor, and has become one of my primary closed on-the-go over-ear headphones.

 

In terms of styling, the HD 26 Pro certainly shares some similarities with the HD 25-1 II--its industrial design is unmistakably influenced by its legendary relative. I think some will find its styling perhaps too utilitarian, but I dig its all-business bearing.

 

One of the most distinguishable characteristics of the HD 25-1 II's design is its split headband. Building on that, the HD 26 Pro's headband is also split, but it separates with a click automatically when you open up the headphone to put it on, and then snaps closed when you take it off—very, very cool.

 

I also find the HD 26 Pro to be substantially more comfortable than its older relative. The plush ear pads (filled with what feels to me like memory foam) are much more pillow-like than the HD 25's. The HD 26's design also distributes its clamping force much more comfortably on my head than the HD 25's. These updates mean I can wear the HD 26 for substantially longer than I can its renowned relative.

 

There's no doubt some will still prefer the more aggressive sounding, more classically styled HD 25-1 II to the HD 26 Pro, but, for its sound and comfort, my preferences lean toward the newer model.

TYPE: Closed, portable, on-the-ear headphone 
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PRICE: $319.95
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URL: www.sennheiser.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

 

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."

-Lan647
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, full-size, 3D-printed, around-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 now comes in two colors: red or black cups (both come with black hardware). MrSpeakers uses a glossy automotive-grade metallic paint. From my experience so far, this finish has proven durable and beautiful. 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 is one of the best sounding fully closed over-ear headphone on the market today (two of my other favorites being the Sony MDR-Z7, and the Audeze LCD-XC). (Some of my other closed favorites, like the Fostex TH600 and TH900, are semi-open, not fully closed.) Since I first recorded the Head-Fi TV video about the Alpha Dog, I've had my production Alpha Dog brought to current spec by MrSpeakers. (My prototype Alpha Dog I've left in its original state.) Whereas the tonal balance was, at first, more neutral, more flat, the production voicing ended up giving the Alpha Dog a richer voice--warmer than its pre-production voicing.

 

With all options available to tune it, the Alpha Dog affords me flexibility to change it up from time to time. No matter how I change it, though, it's still a reference-class fully-closed headphone.

 

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.

MrSpeakers Alpha Prime  c57420db_blast_new_green_2.png
TYPE: Closed, full-size, 3D-printed, around-the-ear planar magnetic headphone
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PRICE: $999.99
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URL: www.mrspeakers.com

Written by Jude Mansilla

 

It's by MrSpeakers, and, on the outside, it looks almost identical to an Alpha Dog. Make no mistake about it, however, relative to the Alpha Dog, the Alpha Prime has some big changes inside. Simply put, for the Alpha Prime, MrSpeakers made extensive modification to the driver and re-engineered the entire system. To the best of my knowledge, they haven't publicly released details of the driver modifications or any other re-engineering, but Dan Clark did show me an in-person comparison of dismantled Alpha Dog and Alpha Prime drivers, and there are obviously visible differences. (I wish I could say more, but, of course, I can't, unless and until MrSpearers does.)

 

If you're wondering why the price delta is so significant, it's because the work required to break the drivers down and make the necessary changes is labor-intensive, and it also results in lower yields.

 

Thankfully, you need not dismantle the headphones or the drivers to immediately hear the difference between the Alpha Dog and the Alpha Prime. With the Alpha Prime, soundstage is improved. Frankly, everything sonically changes and improves with the Prime--clarity, dynamics, extension bottom and top. This is not a minor change.

 

Tonally, it's more neutral than the production Alpha Dog, and reminds me of the more neutral tonal balance of my pre-production (pre-painted) Alpha Dog, but with better everything from bottom to top. I wouldn't be surprised to see the Alpha Prime eventually find its way into studios as a monitoring headphone.

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.

Koss SP330  c57420db_blast_new_green_2.png
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

 

(NOTE: The Koss SP330 arrived only days before this Guide update, so we will likely be updating this Koss SP330 entry with more information/impressions in the future.)

 

 

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 this Guide update went up, a package from Koss arrived, and included in it were two new Koss full-size headphones (Pro4S and SP540) and this new 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.

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

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.

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 (5)

It's finally here!
YES!
Thank you Jude(and all others who contributed to this)!!!
I just wanna ask a question -- why are Summit-Fi cans in the Over-Ear section? Shouldn't they just be at the Summit-Fi section? Also, the K812's link says that "Details abou the Koss ESP950 can be found here." Uhh, what? XD

Screenshot:
http://puu.sh/d8cNK/57e370c269.jpg
IM surprised the X1 or X2 werent featured. Though the L2 is great, at least thats there. Good article.
@Daegalus, the Philips Fidelio X2 is one of my favorite new headphones of 2014, and it will be added to this section in the coming days, and featured on the homepage when we do. The X1 was removed, as it was effectively replaced by the X2.
@jude thanks for the clarification. Thanks for these awesome guides, it makes it easier to find good headphones to recommend to people. I am glad to see the X2 will soon be added. It is also my favorite headphone of 2014 and i have it as my main driver. It is phenomenal. 
Head-Fi.org › 2014 Winter Gift Guide › Head Fi Buying Guide Over Ear Headphones