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Head-Fi.org › 2016 Holiday Buying Guide › Head Fi Buying Guide Over Ear Headphones 2

Head-Fi Buying Guide (Over-Ear Headphones) 2

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Type: Full-size, closed-back, around-the-ear headphone

 

Price:   $2,299.99 USD

 

URL:   http://www.sony.com

Written by Jude Mansilla

 

I think Sony is at its best when it's equal parts engineering and artisan. For example, many Sony aficionados consider Sony's now-vintage MDR-R10 the best Sony headphone ever made--think of that headphone. Think of the Sony SCD-1 SACD/CD player. That's what I mean--Sony at its best, with products that sounded and felt like equal parts engineering and artisanship

Right now is a time of reemergence at Sony--a return to form, to their old ways, their best ways. Their audio push with their new Signature Series has been coordinated across multiple engineering and business units at Sony. There's the new top-tier flagship headphone with the Sony MDR-Z1R, two new very high-end Walkman models, and a new desktop headphone amp that is the most pure audio "ES"-badged product that I can recall seeing in some time.

For this section of the Guide, let's look at their new flagship full-size headphone, the Sony MDR-Z1R. We've visited (and been visited by) members of Sony's headphone engineering team, including the head of the team Naotaka "Nao" Tsunoda, and Shunsuke "Shun" Shiomi. These gentleman are always hard at work on new products, but I can't recall a time where I could sense more passion, more excitement from them than for their new flagship.

They've given members of our community sneak peeks and listens along the way, and asked for opinions and feedback, noting everything. Perhaps most instrumentally, they worked with pro audio experts in studios to help voice the product, with part of the inspiration behind its sound profile being to capture the sound of high-end studio monitors in an ideal studio environment. Of course, capturing the essence, the presence, of live instruments and voices was also a key driver, and I can't think of anyone I know in the industry who spends more time traveling to recording and mastering studios than Mr. Tsunoda. He is also one of the most passionate music aficionados I know, and will take every opportunity he can to be in the presence of live music.

During the development of this headphone, I witnessed this team's focus on the engineering of the new flagship, with Nao and his team even working to co-develop new methods of measuring headphones, including work he presented at AES about high-bandwidth headphone measurement methods. I've had many fascinating, illuminating conversations with him about headphone measurements--and he has been very supportive of our efforts, as we worked on putting together our own measurement lab here at Head-Fi's Detroit office. 

Perhaps just as amazing to witness is how this team seemed to me to pay just as much mind and focus on the subjective performance and perception of their new flagship. They've done on-site adjustments at studios in response to feedback, tuning their flagship like a musician's instrument. In the past, they've brought headphone prototypes to Head-Fi HQ that allowed for testing and quickly adjusting different configurations (the details of which I'll refrain from discussing or describing here).

The Sony MDR-Z1R's build quality is incredible. The materials are top-notch, with supple genuine leather ear pads, a gorgeous contoured metal mesh that makes up the outside of the ear cups, beta titanium headband (also covered in leather), beautiful feeling headband sliding mechanism to size it. All of it is put together with a level of fit and finish befitting a true Sony flagship.

The MDR-Z1R uses an all new 70mm driver with an all-new motor with a wider voice coil, and with a liquid crystal polymer (LCP) diaphragm that has a center dome made of pure, ultra-thin magnesium. Sony claims the Sony MDR-Z1R's frequency extension reaches up to 120-kHz.

When they first brought one of the more advanced prototypes to Head-Fi HQ,, we compared it to the Sony MDR-Z7, and my first comment was that I'd never really noticed the sound of the ear cup from the Z7, until I heard the Z1R. In other words, the presence of cup resonance in the Z7 became most evident to me by the absence of it in the MDR-Z1R. Nao and Shun both smiled widely when I said this, as they said monumental effort had been made to develop a multilayer housing and ear cup to eliminate resonance and control the air resistance, so they were thrilled it was the first thing I noticed. Perhaps it's the large cups, perhaps its the angled baffle, maybe it's the control of air resistance they describe--or maybe it's all those things--but, for a closed headphone, the Sony MDR-Z1R images quite openly for a closed headphone.

Overall, the Z1R's sound is full, robust. The bass is more extended and more detailed that the MDR-Z7, and incredibly realistic to me--very visceral. Again, in addition to the live presence of instruments and voices, a key inspiration behind its sound profile was the sound of high-end loudspeaker studio monitors in a studio environment. To capture that presence, and I suspect perhaps to make up for the loss of the charged acoustic of live, there is an intended low-end emphasis. As audiophile headphones go, the MDR-Z1R is on the bassier side, but I love it--and as someone who also loves to attend recording sessions whenever I can, I find the MDR-Z1R to be one of the headphones that best transports me back to the feeling and sense of actually being back in the recording sessions with the musicians.

The MDR-Z1R's lower midrange is thicker than neutral, chesty--probably owing in part to the Z1R's strong bass presence. While I enjoy the presentation of this range for a lot of my music, it doesn't breathe as freely through the lower midrange as the ETHER C Flow; and the Focal Utopia, in comparison, is much airier and free-breathing here. There are times, though, when this quality of the Z1R can impart a very physical presence to male voice, cello, piano, and other instruments in the range--at times as if your head is in the acoustic with them. From this point on up to the top of my hearing range, the MDR-Z1R has a mostly sweet, airy, sparkly presentation.

I've been using the MDR-Z1R mostly from the balanced output of the new Sony NW-WM1Z flagship Walkman, and it's a glorious portable pairing, and has been my hotel rig for the last couple of long trips I've taken. And it scales even further, with the best sound I've yet heard from the Sony MDR-Z1R coming from it when being fed and driven by the Chord Electronics DAVE DAC/amp--the sheer realism and sense of corporeal presence that pairing is capable of conveying places it near the top of the many systems we've put together here.

Here's the long story short: Sony's back with a vengeance, and playing for keeps with the Signature Series; and the MDR-Z1R is a very important pillar in this return to form.

Type: Electrostatic headphone system (Electrostatic headphone, amplifier, and DAC) 

 

Price:   Around $55,000 USD

 

URL:   http://www.sennheiser.com

Written by Jude Mansilla

 

In 1991, Sennheiser crafted a headphone system thought by many to be the best sounding headphone ever made, even to this day, 25 years later. It was called the Orpheus HE90/HEV90. HE90 referred to the model number of the system's electrostatic headphone, and HEV90 was the model number of the companion electrostatic tube amp. Of course, this system became known simply as "the Orpheus," and I know many of you here are quite familiar with it, even those of you who've not yet had a chance to hear it.

300 of those Orpheus systems were made, 300 were sold, and the price back then was around $13,000. If you tried to buy one in excellent condition today, that original Orpheus system would likely set you back around $35,000, perhaps even as high as $40,000, if you could find a particularly pristine, factory-refreshed original Orpheus.

Now by 1991, Sennheiser was already one of the most well-regarded companies in the world when it came to microphones and headphones, and the Orpheus represented an all-out effort from Sennheiser (always and still a strong engineering-minded company)--using every resource at its disposal to make the best headphone in the world. And, again, it was so good that many feel it's still the best in the world today.

Now that I've had opportunities to hear fully factory-restored Orpheus HE90/HEV90 systems, I have to say that I agree. I agree that even after 25 years, the original Orpheus system was indeed the best ever--yes, was.

Just a few weeks ago, Sennheiser introduced the new Sennheiser Orpheus HE 1 system. It was designed and engineered by Sennheiser for almost a decade to be the new best headphone in the world; and it is, by a significant margin, the best headphone I've ever heard. In other words, after 25 years, to top the Orpheus, it ended up having to be Sennheiser versus itself, Orpheus versus Orpheus.

A couple of years ago, I had a chance to visit Sennheiser's headquarters to hear an earlier version of the new Orpheus, this system then being referred to internally only by a codename. After an extended tour of the amazing facilities there--including a very cool meeting with Sennheiser co-CEO Andreas Sennheiser--Sennheiser's Axel Grell (the man behind the HD 800) allowed me into a secret listening room only a few people at Sennheiser had access to, and that almost no outsiders ever see. And in there I had a chance to listen to the top-secret Orpheus successor alongside the original Orpheus system and a Stax SR-009 system. Of the many times I'd heard the original Orpheus, this time was clearly the best I'd heard it. Perhaps it's because this one belonged to Sennheiser, and this system was kept in tip-top condition by them. (Yes, they do need to be kept up--things wear out, capacitors dry out, etc.) Compared to the outstanding Stax SR-009, the original Orpheus was less clinical, but no less revealing to me, and, as such, was the more musical and enjoyable of the two. Either way, both systems were amazing. I own several Stax headphones now, including the SR-009, so I'm definitely a Stax fan--but that Orpheus kept coming out on top in the comparisons, and clearly so.

Then I switched to the Orpheus successor, and it was easily the best of the three. I was in awe. Over my two days at Sennheiser, I went back up to that room as much as I could, and they gave me many hours to do it. Amazingly, it would only get better from there. Nearly two years later, and it's now official, and pre-production prototypes of the Sennheiser Orpheus HE 1 have been touring the world.

Right away, when you first see the new Orpheus, you can't help but notice its striking, entirely unique appearance. Like the original Orpheus in its time, the new Orpheus looks like no audio component that came before it. Because we didn't have the web in 1991 to so easily gauge a public reaction, it's hard to know exactly how the world felt about the way the original Orpheus looked. The new Orpheus has what is no doubt an eye-catching design--no less unique than the original Orpheus, but definitely more understated. The marble chassis is crafted from Carrara marble, which is the same kind of marble that Michelangelo used for his sculptures.

The new Orpheus is no doubt visually stunning--absolutely extraordinary to see, especially in person. Its appearance is polarizing, which I would suspect the original Orpheus was too in its time. If you're a strict audio traditionalist, one who has a strong preference for vintage audio gear, then perhaps the thoroughly modern aesthetic of the new Orpheus won't be your cup of tea. Personally, I love it--especially the all-black version.

To me, the new Orpheus, when its turn off, looks like modern sculpture--or perhaps like a scale model of a modern art museum or opera house that's yet to be built. Turn it on, however, and it literally begins metamorphosing from a subtle modern sculpture into what it is, via a multi-stage transformation. First, the control dials emerge from the front of the marble chassis. Then the eight vacuum tubes--each within a quartz glass cylinder--rise from one of the aluminum blocks atop the marble base. Only after the tubes have risen does a cover swing open to reveal and present the headphone to the user.

This is about more than drama (though it's no doubt dramatic), this is also aboutfunction. This almost ceremonial turn-on sequence and movement allows the system to come to temperature, too. Also, the tubes within glass cylinders might also appear to be purely a stylistic choice, but those quartz bulbs around the vacuum tubes are designed to reduce or eliminate airborne noise, as vacuum tubes can be microphonic, which is a fact known to any serious tube audio enthusiast. The main chassis housing, carved from a single block of Carrara marble was chosen for its beauty, but also possessing solidity that helps prevents structure-borne noise. That marble chassis is also spring-loaded and damped.

The control dials that greet you when it's powered on, and virtually disappear when it's powered down, are connected to motorized switches and potentiometers that directly control high-grade relays in the signal path to keep it as short as possible. The calibratable volume potentiometer controls the volume via two balanced driven Muses volume control chips.

Now let's get back to those vacuum tubes: The new Orpheus' amplifier design is a very unique arrangement. You're only looking at a part of the amplifier when you see the tubes in the marble chassis. The final amplification stage is actually accomplished with something Sennheiser is calling Cool Class A MOSFET high-voltage amplifiers that are integrated directly into the ear cups! Yes, those fins on the back of each of the ear cups might look like stylish, somewhat Art Deco inspired adornments, but they're actually heatsinks for the integrated amps inside. No, don't worry, the headphones do not run hot, which is perhaps why Sennheiser is calling them Cool Class A.

There are some key advantages to a design like this, including the removal of the cable's capacitance, and thus much higher efficiency. According to Axel Grell, the approach was to amplify the alternating voltage to high voltages not at the beginning of the cable but at the point where it is really required--directly at the electrodes in the headphones. The distance between the amplifier and the diaphragm is less than one centimeter in the new Orpheus. Sennheiser says with local and no overall feedback loops, the new Orpheus's amplifier system delivers ultra-high impulse fidelity, too.

While some headphone designs have resorted to sub-micron diaphragm thickness, according to Axel, Sennheiser's extensive research for the new Orpheus HE1060 electrostatic headphones showed that with regard to the ratio of the diaphragm thickness to the coupled air mass, 2.4 micrometers was found to be optimal for allowing controlled vibration of the diaphragm. Axel said that "In this case, it's not a matter of 'the thinner the better,' but of finding the absolute optimum."

Sennheiser rates the new Orpheus' frequency response at 8 Hz to >100 kilohertz (though I'm not sure what the plus-minus deviation is on that). Total harmonic distortion (THD) at 1 kHz at 100 decibels SPL is rated at a very low 0.01%, which Sennheiser claims is the lowest distortion rating than has ever been measured in sound reproduction equipment of this type.

Of course, all of this was designed ultimately to result in one primary thing: The ultimate sound. To be the NEW best headphone system in the world. The early version of the new Orpheus I heard nearly two years ago was the best headphone I'd ever heard, by a substantial margin--even directly compared to the original Orpheus next to it. It was so amazing that I've followed this new Orpheus to several places in the world like a stalker, just for any chance to hear it again, and in London (at their first teaser event) I heard theproduction prototype version of the new Orpheus for the very first time. I was absolutely floored, and was practically fighting back tears. Why? You have to understand that Head-Fi has become a very big part of my life, every day, pretty much all the time. And in terms of that seemingly endless pursuit of perfect sound, I felt that maybe this was as close as I'd ever get to perfect from a headphone. It took 25 years to get from the first Orpheus to that. And if it would take 25 more years to top what I was hearing, then I'd be at (or past) retirement age then.

In Paris, the day before the official first full unveiling and listening sessions, Sennheiser let me keep and use the new Orpheus in my hotel room. Having had that day alone with the production-voiced Orpheus HE 1 was a privilege, and an opportunity to get to know it a little more.

What does it sound like? It sounds like music unencumbered by all but the most obvious limits that a headphone system will inevitably have. Every voice, every instrument, even the acoustic of the venue on some recordings, simply jumps out of the headphone, and into a place between the realm of electronics and reality--and much closer to the realitypart of that continuum than any other headphone system before it. It's something that goes beyond detailed as we normally describe it. To my ears, it's simply too corporeal to sound merely reproduced, because it constantly excites those parts of my auditory senses that tell me I'm not just listening to an event, but there with it.

To my ears, the new Orpheus is not dark; it's not bright; it's not neutral...it's just the music and you. How did they arrive at this, after still having had the best headphone under their belt? In a recent conversation with Axel, he was telling me how jazz singer Gregory Porter broke into song during one of their meetings, and how it was an amazing moment, an amazing thing to hear and experience--and how he realized, right after hearing that powerful voice he'd heard on recordings many times actually singing right next to him, that there was still more to chase. That's how.

I have absolutely no regrets about chasing the new Orpheus--this masterpiece--around the world. I can assure you it hasn't seen the last of me. The new Sennheiser Orpheus HE 1 is the best sounding headphone system ever made, plain and simple. In a sense, for me, it is what Head-Fi is all about.

Type:   Open, around-the-ear, planar magnetic headphones

 

Price:   $5,495.00 USD

 

URL:   http://www.abyss-headphones.com

Written by Jude Mansilla

 

One look at the Abyss AB-1266 tells you it's an unusual headphone. "Elegant" isn't what immediately comes to mind when first laying eyes on it. Actually, it's kind of medieval looking--as in something-you'd-find-in-the-basement-of-the-Tower-of-London-to-torture-with medieval.
 
It's bulky. It's heavy. It's overbuilt, with the use of a lot of metal--a lot of metal. See that foam just inside each earcup? That's foam all right--foamed aluminum! The round chassis that forms the main structure of each of those earpieces is made of billet aluminum, and looks tough enough to be a suspension component from an unlimited-class off-road truck. Instead of using several bar magnets, each earpiece contains a single whopping magnet, slotted and cut to shape. I was told one of the goals of the AB-1266 design was an inert chassis--mission very much accomplished.
 
Yet somehow, some way, Joe Skubinski (also of JPS Labs) has managed to massage this beast of a headphone into something that is unexpectedly comfortable--and unexpectedly (to me anyway) one of the best sounding headphones currently made. A few years ago, Abyss brought a prototype to CanJam @ RMAF, and it was good, but it didn't give a clear indication (to me anyway) that the final version was going to sound like this.
 
The Abyss AB-1266 is a world-class headphone, capable of revealing everything, from the most abyssal bass (c'mon, I had to) to the highest highs. The thing is that you have to really play with the fit--adjust the headband, rotate the pads--until you get the sound you want. For example, for me, a complete earpad seal results in rather subdued bass, and a touch of treble brightness. Rotate the pads a bit to break the seal a touch, and the bass fills in, and the Abyss AB-1266's tonal balance balances out, and, then...wow.
 
Characterizing the Abyss headphone's sound signature is challenging, given its ability to be seasoned to taste. One thing it always is, though, is astonishingly revealing. Does the Abyss compete with other world class headphones?? To my ears, absolutely. Is it worth the price of nearly three Audeze LCD-3's or more than four HiFiMAN HE-6's? That's a tough call, but I know there's a hungry market for the best, even at this price.
 
Keep in mind that the Abyss AB-1266 is a power-hungry headphone. I've had excellent results at low listening levels with a wide variety of amps, but the HiFiMAN EF-6 and Schiit Audio Mjolnir--both Class A beasts--really open up the dynamism of the Abyss AB-1266.
 
Simply put, the AB-1266 is an amazing first headphone from Abyss Headphones, and, to my ears, one of the best sounding headphones currently made.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Type:   Closed, on-ear headphone

 

Price:   $289 USD

 

URL:   http://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 2013, 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

Type:   Open, full-size, around-the-ear headphones

 

Price:   Around $400 and $500 USD, respectively

 

URL:   http://www.sennheiser.com

Written by Jude Mansilla

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 


 

"The HD600 has become my favourite headphone for simply listening to music. They are well built, comfortable, and sound simply phenomenal. Their tonal balance and the naturalness of their sound is the best I've personally heard so far."

- Brooko (Paul Brooks)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Type:   Open, over-the-ear headphone

 

Price:   $199 USD

 

URL:   http://www.massdrop.com

Written by Jude Mansilla

 

In the 15 years since we started Head-Fi.org, there have come many watershed headphones, but none more than the Sennheiser HD600 family of headphones: The Sennheiser HD600 and HD650.

Okay, here's a brief history lesson for those who may not have been into premium headphones long enough to know how these immensely important headphones came about: What some may not know or remember is that the HD600 series--the HD600 and HD650--actually started with the Sennheiser HD580 back in 1993. (Yes, you Head-Fi old-timers, that's already 23 years ago.) The HD580 looked rather like an all-plastic version of the HD600 and HD650 we all know today, because that's essentially what it was. In 1995, to celebrate Sennheiser's 50th anniversary, Sennheiser released the Sennheiser HD580 Jubilee--a special edition of the HD580--the most immediately noticeable difference being metal grilles (versus the normal HD580's plastic grilles). While the normal, all-plastic HD580 continued past the limited release HD580 Jubilee, that metal-grilled HD580 Jubilee model was the clear forerunner of the Sennheiser HD600 that was released in 1997.

In 2003, what would become the last refinement of this series of headphones was unveiled with the Sennheiser HD650. While some did (and perhaps still do) prefer the Sennheiser HD600 to the slightly warmer HD650, many of us over the 13 years since (myself included) recognized the HD650 as the better of the two models--the most refined, accurate representation of what the HD580 had begun around 10 years before it.

Even after Sennheiser finally released an all-new flagship with its ring-driver Sennheiser HD800 in 2009, there are some who still prefer the more laid-back HD650 to the HD800. While I do prefer the HD800--and even more the latest HD800S--to the Sennheiser HD650, I find it amazing that this headphone that the HD650 (which essentially had its roots planted well over 20 years ago) can still be regarded by so many (again, myself included) as a world-class headphone. This is an example of what makes Sennheiser perhaps the single most respected brand in the world of premium headphones.

Okay, so why the big headphone history lesson? Because Massdrop and Sennheiser very recently unveiled their first product collaboration with the Sennheiser x Massdrop HD6XX, which has already proven Massdrop's biggest such collaboration to date. I daresay it is also their most important such collaboration, and here's why: This HD6XX is a Sennheiser HD650. And it's $199.99. That level of world-class performance has never been available for that kind of price, shy of stealing. 

Okay, there are some differences between the HD650 and the HD6XX. For one, the HD6XX is colored matte midnight blue instead of glossy metallic gray. While I personally prefer the stock HD650's finish, I'll gladly sacrifice it for matte midnight blue to get one for 200 bucks. Also, the HD6XX comes with a shorter six-foot cable, versus the HD650's 10-foot cable, and the HD6XX's cable is terminated with a mini plug instead of a 1/4" plug. That's it, as far as I can tell--the HD6XX is a matte-midnight-blue-colored HD650 with a shorter cable. For $199.99.

There's one big problem, though: The first batch of 5000 units was sold out in minutes, only after crashing the living daylights out of Massdrop's ordering system, even after they'd girded their servers for a traffic surge. Yes, not surprisingly, the demand for HD650 performance for two hundred bucks was insanely high. While I expect they will have additional drops in the future, I don't know for sure that they will. If they do, I suggest you jump on it (or at least try).

For more information, we shot an episode of Head-Fi TV about the Sennheiser x Massdrop HD6XX, which you can see below:

 

 

Type:   Open-back, planar magnetic, over-the-ear headphone (ETHER Flow), Closed-back, planar magnetic, over-the-ear headphone (ETHER C Flow)

 

Price:   $1,799.99 USD each

 

URL:   http://www.mrspeakers.com

Written by Jude Mansilla

 

The evolution of MrSpeakers has been one of the more compelling company stories in our community of the past several years. Dan Clark of MrSpeakers started with his extensively modified T50rp model called the Mad Dog, working tirelessly to get it into the community. No matter where in the world I'd go for a meet or event--Head-Fi Meets all over the U.S., the Tokyo Headphone Festival, etc.--there was Dan, smiling, showing off the Mad Dog. I've met people in the industry who work as hard as Dan, but none harder.

When Dan felt he'd reached the limitations of the T50rp's enclosure, he decided to 3D-print his own enclosure; and the resulting MrSpeakers Alpha Dog became the world's first 3D-printed production headphone. At the time, the Alpha Dog was, in my opinion, one of the best closed-back headphones available.

When Dan felt he'd reached the T50rp driver's limits, he decided to modify the diaphragm by knurling it, which he called V-Planar technology--and the MrSpeakers Alpha Prime was born. When he felt he'd reached the limitations of the Alpha enclosure, as well as the extent to which he could modify the T50rp's driver (often experimenting to the point of diaphragm failure), Dan decided to develop an all-new headphone, including an independently designed all-new planar magnetic driver--and thus were born the MrSpeakers ETHER and ETHER C flagships.

The ETHER was MrSpeakers' first open-back headphone, with the ETHER C as its closed-back fraternal twin. They were, in my opinion, two of the finer headphones available for those looking for a flatter, neutral monitor type sound. With these headphones, MrSpeakers had achieved exceptional measured performance, with extremely low distortion, as evidenced by MrSpeakers measurements, as well as our own measurement systems here at Head-Fi HQ. And MrSpeakers sold heaps of both the ETHER and ETHER C globally. It was a success story, but, as you can tell from how I've described him so far, Dan Clark is constantly trying to improve and push--he's not one to sit still.

Last year, while Dan and his team were developing an upcoming electrostatic ETHER, they arrived at some interesting conclusions that would end up impacting and improving his planar magnetic headphones. Listening to his electrostatic ETHER prototypes, Dan and his team felt that a lower-mass diaphragm couldn't fully account for the electrostatic performance advantages they were hearing--that there had to be other advantages with electrostatic driver assemblies. 

What they eventually determined was that one very significant advantage that electrostatic drivers have, versus planar magnetic ones, was air flow. Though both planar magnetic and electrostatic motor assemblies use planar diaphragms, electrostatic drivers do not use magnets at all. The only things, then, between an electrostatic's planar diaphragm and air on either side of it are typically very thin, flat, perforated stators.

Planar magnetic headphones (as the name suggests) do require magnets on at least one side of the diaphragm (sometimes both sides, depending on the design). The magnets used are typically bar magnets or magnets in trays that in either case are far thicker than an electrostat's stators, and that present a slew of thick- and flat-walled channels and right-angles for air to move past and around. What Dan and his team determined was that the diffraction and reflection of air as it moved around these magnet assemblies was a likely cause of distortion and lost resolution (especially low-level detail), so they set out to fix that. They aimed to make the their planar magnetic motor structure look more like an electrostat's stators to the audio waveform passing through it.

To accomplish this, the team at MrSpeakers developed waveguides to sculpt and smooth not just the areas immediately outside the magnets (something that others have also worked on), but also to sculpt and smooth the spaces between them, on both sides of the diaphragm. What MrSpeakers developed they're calling TrueFlow, and MrSpeakers has now incorporated TrueFlow technologies into the ETHER and ETHER C platforms. The resulting ETHER Flow and ETHER C Flow models are now the flagships in the MrSpeakers line, and they are incredible headphones. 

NOTE: To help you understand TrueFlow, we posted MrSpeakers' illustrations in the forums, which you can view by clicking here.

So, after all this, does it work? While it all seems to make perfect sense to me, I have to admit that I'm not qualified to answer the question. What I do have is a pair of my own ears, as well as a couple of pairs of artificial ears on two different G.R.A.S. hearing simulator systems hooked up to an Audio Precision APx555 audio analyzer. In terms of measurements, if TrueFlow was supposed to result in lower distortion, then mission accomplished. (You can also see our measurements in the link above.)

More important to me than what I've measured is what I hear from both the ETHER Flow and ETHER C Flow, versus their predecessors. What I hear with the ETHER Flow and ETHER C Flow is substantial improvement in low-level detail retrieval versus the previous non-Flow ETHER and non-Flow ETHER C. While I cannot say TrueFlow brings the ETHER planar magnetic platform to the level of effortless sonic scanning electron microscopy that the highest-tier electrostatic headphones capable of, it does bring the ETHER Flow into the top tier of the non-electrostatic world in this regard--that I can say very comfortably. 

Also, the ETHER Flow and ETHER C Flow bring greater dynamism and presence to the bass (versus the first-generation ETHER and ETHER C)--something I expected would be easily visible in the frequency response measurements, but wasn't. I asked Dan about this, and he said it was part of a new tuning, and also that perhaps reduced turbulence due to TrueFlow results in less back pressure, which could improve dynamics. Bass from both the ETHER Flow and ETHER C Flow sounds more impactful than their predecessors, as well as faster, whatever the reasons.

Simply put, the ETHER Flow and ETHER C Flow both possess a certain effortlessness with how they go about their business--they heap resolution at you, but never punish you with it. They have slam, but never overcook it past reference levels. I immediately had my personal ETHER updated to the ETHER Flow. And the ETHER C Flow is one of my current reference closed-back headphones--one of the very best closed-back headphones of any type I've ever heard.

With the performance gains MrSpeakers has given its planar magnetic ETHER platform with TrueFlow, their upcoming electrostatic ETHER has its work cut out for it. The ETHER Flow and ETHER C Flow bring extraordinary clarity while still being impactful and smooth. That such substantial improvement to MrSpeaker's planar magnetic technology came from their work on their upcoming electrostatic headphone is a very cool story, but not at all surprising from a team that pushes so hard to constantly improve.

NOTE: According to MrSpeakers' website, you can still order the non-Flow ETHER and ETHER C models, with prices still at $1499.99. It is my opinion, though, that the FLOW models provide substantial enough improvements that I strongly recommend you go with the FLOW models if you can stretch your budget to reach $1799.99. Also, there is an upgrade program for existing ETHER and ETHER C owners--see MrSpeakers' website for details.

Type:   Closed, full-size, around-the-ear headphone

 

Price:   $549.95 USD

 

URL:   http://www.sennheiser.com

Written by Jude Mansilla

 

I The last time Sennheiser released a new headphone with the "HD" designation--with a number in the 600's behind it--it was the Sennheiser HD 650, nearly 12 years ago (in 2003). Whereas the HD 650 was rather a lot like the HD 600 (and the HD 580 before that), the new HD 630VB has no outward familial ties to anything from Sennheiser's modern era, its design instead inspired by a long-ago Sennheiser infrared wireless model called the HDI 434. (Go ahead and look it up, as I wasn't familiar with it either.)
 
Beginning with its obscure design inspiration, the HD630VB definitely marches to the beat of its own drummer. Like Sennheiser's HD 25-1 II, the HD 630VB has rather atypical right-side cable entry. The HD 630VB's ear cups, yokes, and sliders are made of aluminum. The right ear cup's flat surface is dominated by a dark circle that houses the volume and music/call control buttons (which I'll get to shortly). (The HDI 434 also had controls on its right ear cup.) The left ear cup has no controls (also like the HDI 434), and Sennheiser did not elect to put a decorative dark circle in its center to match the HD 630VB's right ear cup--they left its beveled silver-colored aluminum to dominate that left side, sans any logos or emblems. The contrast between the two cups is certainly unique.
 
The HD 630VB is a large headphone, with full-size ear cups that are rather thick. Fortunately, the HD630VB has a couple of tricks up its sleeve that most closed headphones this large do not have: first, the earpieces rotate to fold flat; and, also, the headband has sturdy-feeling hinges—with very nice, very positive detents—that allow the HD 630VB to fold flat, and to stack the flat-rotated ear cups one on top of the other. While it's not ultra-compact no matter how you fold it up, the HD 630VB's flat-folding design and hinged headband make it far more stowable than most headphones of similar size.
 
The "VB" in this headphone's name stands for "Variable Bass." This, and perhaps a few other things, are likely to give some audiophile's pause. What other things? The Sennheiser HD630VB's headphone cable is captive (non-removable), and has an inline microphone for headset use. The controls on the right ear cup include music/call controls, and an iOS / Android switch to optimize its control compatibility with most popular mobile phones. To further optimize the HD 630VB's drivability from most mobile devices, it was designed with low nominal impedance (23Ω) and high sensitivity (114dB).
 
While some of the above features/specs are not typical of the audiophile headphones we usually discuss on Head-Fi, do not cross the HD630VB off your list of candidate headphones if you're looking for a headphone with impressive sound that's both full-size and closed-back. With an expected retail price of $549.95, the Sennheiser HD 630VB is priced to compete with the likes of the Fostex TH600, and, to my ears, it's in league with the big, black Fostex. I actually think many will find the new Sennheiser more versatile with its well-implemented passive bass control (which I'll get to in a minute), not to mention being better suited to be packed up and toted along. Also, unlike the semi-closed Fostex TH-600, the Sennheiser HD 630VB is a fully closed design, meaning it's better at keeping the music from leaking out, and has solid passive isolation.
 
As for its sound, the HD 630VB is very versatile, helped by the fact that its bass control (rated by Sennheiser for +/- 5dB at 50Hz) is, to my ears, very well implemented. It actually has a more pronounced effect the further down you go below 50Hz, but little effect in the direction of the midband (until you really crank it up).
 
The bass control dial is continuously adjustable, but marked by several index points, starting with MIN, and then five primary marks between, before hitting MAX (for a total of seven major index points, each sub-divided into quarters). No matter how you set the bass control, the HD 630VB has some upper-bass emphasis, but I find it very well voiced there, and not at all intrusive. Between the MIN and the first major index point, I can discern little change in tonal balance. However, when I keep turning past there, the changes become more evident. What I love is that there's minimal effect on the lower midrange, until you get into its highest settings, at which point the lower mids do thicken noticeably--fortunately, the onset of this happens somewhat quick, and so it's rather easy to avoid. I'm impressed with the bass control's execution, and, so far, most of those I've let listen to the HD630VB have been similarly impressed.
 
In terms of how I set the HD 630VB's bass adjustment, I've found myself using the third notch above MIN (the red line in the graph above), and the fourth notch (the purple line), and moving in between those. For my tastes, I've found this range the most even-handed with the HD 630VB, while still giving me some extra oomph down low for a little heightened drive. @joe tends to prefer a thicker sound than me, and he's been using it at around the second from highest setting (the one just below MAX), and sometimes backs off a little bit from there.
 
While I don't often go beyond the fourth notch--and very rarely venture anywhere near MAX--I do find the latitude to thicken the sound at or near the HD630VB's highest bass settings a blessing for some of my ultra-tinny 80's pop and new wave music. It can also add a sense of welcome tonal depth to some of my thinner, reedier old jazz and cabaret recordings, by the likes of Django Reinhardt and Edith Piaf, for example.
 
One of the HD630VB's strongest points is its imaging, especially for a closed headphone. I know a lot of tuning went into this aspect of the headphone, and it's with great effect--never reaching out like the super-open flagship Sennheiser HD 800, but often casting well beyond what I'd expect of a headphone that is as closed as the HD630VB is.
 
I think one headphone a lot of shoppers will inevitably compare the HD 630VB to is the Fostex TH-600, given that they're both closed (well, the Fostex is semi-closed), and that their prices are within striking distance of each other (the Fostex's street price is currently around $50 higher). Again, I think the HD 630VB is a worthy contender for the venerable Fostex, and I'd compare them thusly: The Fostex--perhaps owing to its semi-open design--has tonal characteristics to me that are, in some ways, rather less like a closed headphone (than, say, the Shure SRH1540, or this HD 630VB), being a bit more even-handed from bass to mids, with more open-sounding, more soaring treble, too.
 
If the TH600 is closed enough for you and your environment, and you don't desire greater versatility from it, I'd say you might end up preferring the TH-600 to the HD 630VB. If, however, you've found the TH-600 too open (in terms of leakage in or out), and/or you've found the TH-600's treble a bit too tipped-up for your tastes, then the Sennheiser HD630VB is a must-audition headphone.
 
Is the Sennheiser HD630VB capable of being adjusted (via its bass adjustment knob) to the type of neutral presentation of something like a Focal Spirit Professional? No. However, if you've found the Focal Spirit Professional a bit lean or cold for your tastes, then the spunkier Sennheiser HD 630VB might be more to your liking.
 
What quibbles do I have with the HD 630VB? Though it has a certain charm about its appearance, it is a very noticeable headphone on the head. While this doesn't bother me (I've been known to wear the Fostex TH-600 and Audeze LCD-XC out and about on rare occasion), some might find it a bit too obvious, in all its large silver glory. As for sound, I've found its adjustability suits its purpose for me for on-the-go use. When I've used it at my desk, though, I've had occasion to wish for a little more richness in the mids (low-mids to mid-mids), but not to any degree greater than other minor wishes I have for just about every headphone I use.
 
Don't let the bass adjustment dial, inline microphone, or song/call controls fool you into thinking the Sennheiser HD 630VB isn't a serious closed headphone at the price, as it very much is. As with any other headphone, it won't be to everyone's taste, but its versatility may broaden its appeal. If you're currently shopping for a good closed headphone in the $500 price range, make sure to put the Sennheiser HD630VB on your list of candidates to audition. In my opinion, it's a serious closed headphone candidate at the price, that just happens to have some unusual (but useful) features thrown in.

Type:   Open, around-the-ear, planar dynamic headphone (LCD-X), Closed, around-the--ear planar dynamic headphone

 

Price:   $1,699 USD (LCD-X), $1,799 USD (LCD-XC)

 

URL:   http://www.audeze.com

Written by Jude Mansilla

 

Immensely popular in the high-end of the Head-Fi community already, it seems that Audeze gained still more strength with the release of two headphones that are Summit-Fi all the way. The open-back Audeze LCD-X and closed-back Audeze LCD-XC use Audeze's Fazor Technology, the very visible Fazor elements helping to guide and manage the flow of sound in the headphones, which Audeze claims helps improve phase response, frequency extension, and imaging.

 

The two Audezes are also quite a bit more efficient than the LCD-2 (90 dB/1 mW), LCD-3 (91 dB/1 mW), with the LCD-X able to crank out 96 dB/1 mW, and the LCD-XC 95 dB /1 mW. Both of the newer Audezes also have low 22Ω nominal impedance, which, combined with their high efficiency, make for headphones that I'll occasionally plug directly into my iPhone and iPods and get surprisingly good results from.

 

So far, my time with the LCD-XC (the closed one) has been limited to a pre-production version that I believe was close to production voicing, but not quite there yet. Because of that, I'll be brief with my comments about LCD-XC today, and will update my comments here once I've heard a production version. I can say, though, that if the model I heard was short of the production voicing, then I'm dying to hear the final cut. The pre-production model I heard had very well controlled bass, and was closer to neutral than I expected an Audeze closed headphone to be. Voicing seemed closer to the LCD-X (the production version of which I do have, and which I cover below) than to the LCD-3. Soundstaging was spacious for a closed headphone. And that's all I'll say about the LCD-XC until I've spent some time with a production unit.

 

For now, then, the gem--not just of the two Fazor-equipped models, but the entire Audeze line--is the open-back Audeze LCD-X. As I hear it, the Audeze LCD-X is like a potent combination of many of the best aspects of every other Audeze headphone. Its tonal balance is also most even-handed of the bunch to me, and what I'd expect from Audeze if they were developing a studio monitor--regardless of whether or not that's what they set out to do, I have a feeling the LCD-X is going to find itself in the employ of many in the pro audio world.

 

One thing that neither of the new Audezes have improved upon is weight--both are heavier (the LCD-XC at 650 grams being the heaviest) than the two more senior models. Both the LCD-X and LCD-XC also have aluminum housings versus the older Audezes' wood housings, which opinions seem split on--I prefer the aluminum myself (especially the gunmetal color). (The LCD-XC does have wood outer cups.)

 

As for things to grouse about, my key criticism of both the Audeze LCD-XC and LCD-X is their pricing, which puts them awfully close to Audeze's flagship LCD-3, which I think may make the higher-end Audeze selection process a bit daunting.

 

For me personally, the answer is simple: X marks the spot. Though the LCD-3 is ranked above it in price and line position, the LCD-X is, in my opinion, the best Audeze headphone yet, and one of the finest headphones on the market right now, regardless of price.

 


 

"Of all the high end headphones out there the LCD-X is the easiest for me to recommend. It sounds brilliant with any material you throw at them, and they’re easy to drive. It’s hard for me to imagine anyone being disappointed with them..."

- The Manko

 

"I feel that Audeze has brought to market a wonderful pair of closed headphones that no longer has me having to sacrifice either sound quality or a natural sound for a more coloured one... Yet another winner by Audeze."

- MacedonianHero

Type:   Closed, on-ear headphone

 

Price:   Around $300 USD

 

URL:   http://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."

- ljokerl

 

Type:   Closed, portable, on-the-ear headphone

 

Price:   $99.95 USD

 

URL:   http://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!"

- Lan647

 

Type:   Open, over-the-ear headphone

 

Price:   $899 USD

 

URL:   http://www.hifiman.com

Written by Jude Mansilla

 

in 2013, HiFiMAN's Dr. Fang Bian gave me some idea that they were looking to shake up the market with their next generation of planar magnetic headphones. At CES 2014, they tipped their hand for all of us to see and hear, showing some prototypes of their upcoming headphones. One of those was the HiFiMAN HE-560 prototype, and it sounded very promising then. However, even having heard it in a couple of pre-production forms didn't fully prepare my expectations for just how good the final production version of the HE-560 would end up being.

 

First of all, the HE-560 is one of the most comfortable planar magnetic headphones on the market. It weighs only 375 grams (13.2 ounces), making it the lightest of the planars in this Summit-Fi section by a fairly wide margin. Also, HiFiMAN completely re-did their headband design, the HE-560 sporting an adjustable--and wide--comfort strap headband that distributes the HE-560's light weight very nicely. I'd describe the HE-560's clamping force on my head as medium-heavy, but the full-size, soft, around-the-ear pads help to offset the pressure, and I can wear the HE-560 for hours.

 

Like the Abyss AB-1266 (and unlike most of the other top planars), the HiFiMAN HE-560's drivers are single-ended--that is, each driver has a magnet array on only one side of it (instead of both sides). Unlike the Abyss, which has its magnet structures on the inner sides of the drivers (closer to the ears), the HE-560's magnets are on the outer sides of its drivers. HiFiMAN claims the single-ended magnetic driver provides superior soundstage and spatial imaging, and I certainly won't argue the fact that the HE-560 excels in that regard.

 

At 90dB/mW, the HE-560 is reasonably sensitive, and substantially more sensitive than the HiFiMAN HE-6 (83dB/mW). This ability to get flagship HiFiMAN sound, but with far more flexibility as far as amp selection goes, has been very much appreciated. I tend to be able to plug the HE-560 into just about any good to great amp, and get outstanding results.

 

In terms of its performance, the HE-560, to my ears, possesses many of the qualities typically attributed to excellent electrostatic sound--in other words, it sounds fast. In terms of overall resolving power, I've strained my memory to recall something I've heard that could challenge the HE-560 in the sub-$1000 price range, and I simply can't. The HiFiMAN HE-560's presentation is like an airy, spacious projection, in contrast to my Audeze headphones that tend to favor solidity and body at the expense of some air. I think this will be one of the differentiating characteristics that someone forced to make a choice between, say, a HiFiMAN HE-560 and an Audeze LCD-X (independent of price) might pivot on.

 

The HE-560 conveys bass impact well, and there's no doubt it has very deep bass extension, and tremendous bass precision. This is one area, however, that I think some might wish for more impact. That is, the HE-560 can hit deep, and hit low, but it doesn't tend to hit with the impact and peels of bass thunder that the Audeze's can. Of course, depending on tastes, this is certain to be viewed by some as favorable to the HE-560.

 

When it comes to headphones, perceived neutrality--what's heard as neutral--varies pretty widely from person to person. Even with that in mind, I feel comfortable saying that, overall, the HE-560's tonal balance is neutral-ish, but with a touch of energy in the upper mids and treble region that can shade the HE-560's overall tone just into the cool side of neutral.

 

Overall, Dr. Bian coaxed from his the HE-560 the ability to convey the bleeding edge of detail without crossing into harshness or stridence. HiFiMAN's HE-560 is a reference-level headphone, through and through. How good is it? I personally think the HE-560 is in the top-tier of headphones you can currently buy, at any price. Only you don't have to pay any price to get it--just $899.

Type:   Closed, auto-calibrating, active noise-canceling full-size headphone

 

Price:   $1,499.95 USD

 

URL:   http://www.akg.com

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 thedeep 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.

Type:   Closed, portable, around-the-ear headphone 

 

Price:   $399.95 USD

 

URL:   http://www.bowers-wilkins.com

Written by Jude Mansilla

 

Since its release, Bowers & Wilkins' P5 has been a hit, in the broader consumer market, and also with many audio enthusiasts. Overall, the P5 is a very good supra-aural (on-the-ear) on-the-go headphone--comfortable for an on-ear, with a sound that's pleasant for just about anyone, even if it wasn't particularly detailed or resolving. In other words, being one of the most gorgeous headphones ever made, having a good, smooth sound signature, and bearing the name of one of high-end audio's most well-known names, all together makes for an alluring value proposition. It sucked me in, and I still use and enjoy the P5.

 

If Bowers & Wilkins asked me, though, how I'd improve on the P5, I'd have several suggestions:

 

  • Don't mess with its stunning good looks, both off and on the head.
  • I love how no matter where I touch it, I'm touching either metal or leather--please don't change that.
  • Don't mess with the awesome cable-groove-in-the-earpiece strain relief, so that it can continue to be cased up with its cable still installed.
  • Make it a circumaural (around-the-ear) design, to make it more comfortable.
  • Give it more bass control, more detail in the mids, and better treble extension. If you're feeling generous, throw in better imaging, please. High-end audio enthusiasts will thank you.

 

In addition to making audio products I love (I bought two of their Zeppelin Airs, and their MM-1 mini monitors for one of my main desks), I think Bowers & Wilkins can also read minds. Because they made all the changes to the P5 I was wishing for, and somehow managed to make it even better looking.

 

It's called the Bowers & Wilkins P7, and it's a perfectly good reason to drop 400 bucks. Thank you.

 


 

""The P7 looks fantastic, it feels fantastic, it's very comfortable and isolates very well, and it SOUNDS just beautiful. If you seek a high fidelity headphone, value both form and function and have $400 to spend on a portable, I can't think of anything I'd recommend more.""

- Lan647

 

Type:   Closed, over-the-ear headphone

 

Price:   $1,499.99 USD

 

URL:   http://www.akg.com

Written by Jude Mansilla

 

Over the years, there have been several AKG headphones I quite like, but only a couple that I loved, one of which I've now loved for years--the vintage, charming, spectacularly complex AKG K 340 (the hybrid dynamic / electrostatic headphone, not the later-model AKG earbud of the name). The other was the AKG K1000, which was more like a pair of speakers suspended over your ears. Of course, both the K340 and the K1000 have been discontinued for years. In 2014, however, AKG love finally struck me again, when the Harman-owned Austrian outfit released their new flagship, the AKG K812.

 

The K812 is an open-back, dynamic headphone. Its driver's 53mm transducer is the largest ever made by AKG, with an ultra-lightweight copper-covered aluminum voice coil, and 1.5 Tesla magnet system (similar in magnetic as Fostex's TH900). It is a very sensitive headphone, rated for 110dB SPL/V, with a nominal impedance of only 36Ω.

 

The K812 comes with a gorgeous Sieveking Omega headphone stand (I'm pretty sure it's the real thing, not an imitator). It does not come with a carrying case, however, so I picked up a SLAPPA HardBody PRO headphone case which fits the K812 (and its cable) very well.

 

In terms of design, the K812 is, from what I can tell, AKG's answer to Sennheiser's flagship HD 800, in that it's large, and super-open. Though their designs are definitely not identical, it seems to me that there is no mistaking the similarities of the in the style and type of earpad/ear chamber configuration, most noticeable when you compare the insides of the two headphones' earcups. Veteran Head-Fi'ers who look at the inside of the K812 cups will also probably be reminded by the Sony Qualia 010. Aesthetically, I think the K812 is the better looking headphone than the stock silver HD 800. I think the K 812 is actually one of the most professional, attractive looking full-size headphones currently made--understated, modern, industrial, belongs-in-a-studio looks.

 

The K812's sound is incisive, revealing, and can be ruthless in a way not entirely unlike Sennheiser's HD 800. However, the K812--airy and wide though it is--is more immediate than the Sennheiser, bringing sonic images a bit closer to the listener. The HD800's soundstage is even bigger, more spacious; and I'd have to give the HD 800 the edge in imaging, as I find sonic image placement within the HD 800's soundstage more coherent, more precise. Still, though, the K812 is outstanding in this regard.

 

The K812 has stronger bass presence than the Sennheiser HD 800, which, as evidenced by the K812 fans on Head-Fi, its owners seem to like--I certainly do. Don't misunderstand me, though, we're not talking basshead levels. The K 812's bass is punchy, it's strong, it's fast, it's well-defined.

 

The K812's midrange and treble detail are, to my ears, excellent. And while I feel the HD 800 trumps the K812 in this range--sounding more refined, more detailed, a little less edgy--the HD800 has to be at its best (or at least near its best) to seize the advantage from the big AKG.

 

The K812 delivers remarkable performance out of a far wider variety of gear than the HD800 can, which has to be due at least in part to the K812's high sensitivity and low impedance. I mean, I'm smiling an awful lot at what I'm hearing when I'm walking 'round with nothing but an Astell & Kern AK240 and the K812--there's unquestionably very high-end sound coming from that little setup (although with this setup I find myself using the AK240's equalizer to do a tiny bit of tailing down the high end at 4kHz, 8kHz, and 16kHz). I've got nothing that compact--nothing in a single chassis as small as the AK240--that, alone, can push the HD 800 past the AKG. (My favorite portable amp for the K812 so far has been the Fostex HP-V1 hybrid tube/solid state amp, which I used at this year's New York Meet to showcase the K812.)

 

As for complaints about the K812, there are very few from  me. First of all (and this is very much a personal preference thing), I prefer dual cable entry designs for my Summit-Fi headphones. I like knowing that I can replace the entire cable easily, and not think about the conduit going through the headband. Also, the single-side plug/jack on the AKG K812 is a three-pin connector. Arrggghhhh. Some of my music players and amps are at their best in balanced-output mode, and getting the K812 configured for use with balanced outputs will certainly require some modification.


Overall, though, what a fantastic flagship headphone AKG has with the K812! It's a bold statement from AKG, and a return to their Summit-Fi flagship form that, in my opinion, they haven't had since the discontinuation of the legendary K1000.

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

 

Price:   $380 USD

 

URL:   http://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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Type:   Closed, on-ear headphone

 

Price:   $199 USD

 

URL:   http://www.akg.com

Written by Jude Mansilla

 

First it was the AKG K7XX (which was the same as AKG's 65th anniversary edition of the AKG K702) that took an AKG headphone I found too lean and gave it more meat. The Massdrop/AKG K7XX is, in my opinion, one of the strongest headphone performance/price values of the past year.

 

Now AKG and Massdrop have done it yet again--taken an AKG model I liked, gave it more meat, and turned it into something I love. I'm talking about AKG's new K553 Pro, which Massdrop has now dropped at least a couple of times for only $120 (when I've seen it at other dealers for $199)! I've long been a fan of K553's predecessor AKG K550, for being a closed headphone with the airiness of a good open-back headphone. The K550 was more on the bass-light side, and had crisp, clear, flat mids. The K550's treble was, to my ears, on the livelier-than-neutral side--"more potent than smooth" is how I'd once described its treble. Somehow it all came together to make a headphone that I've enjoyed for years, but, admittedly, have had many occasions to want more from.

 

The AKG K553 is AKG's outstanding answer for those who, like me, wanted more. The AKG K553 is essentially the K550 changed in all the ways I wanted it changed. Bass-light? Not anymore. AKG filled the bass in, but kept it taut and detailed. Would it satisfy a basshead? Perhaps not, but, to my ears, it's now neutral-plus down there, instead of the K550's neutral-minus. The mids are a wee bit smoothed, too, but still detailed, still airy. In the treble region, AKG smoothed it out some, and I'm glad they did. Those who thought the K550's treble was perfect might find the K553's treble lost too much sparkle--I am definitely not one of them.

 

I think the the changes from the K550 to the K553 represent a much-needed refinement that took a headphone I really liked (K550) into a headphone I love, even at its $199 retail price, and even more at the $120 Massdrop price.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Type: Open-back, planar magnetic over-the-ear headphone

 

Price:   $1,099 USD

 

URL:   http://www.oppodigital.com

Written by Jude Mansilla

 

It was rather cloak-and-dagger when OPPO's Vice President of Product Development Jason Liao approached my table at 2013 CanJam @ RMAF to quietly tell me that OPPO--a company best known for its high-performance, high-value digital universal disc (Blu-ray/DVD/DVD-A/CD/SACD) players (and also for its smartphones in other parts of the world)--was going to be making a headphone. I told him I'd be interested in hearing it when it was ready, at which point he looked around carefully, saw nobody was looking, and pulled a black cloth bag from his backpack, and put a prototype of the OPPO PM-1 planar magnetic headphone on my table.

 

Straight away, I was impressed with its build quality, especially for a prototype. Brushed metal, chrome, and super-supple leather were all that my hands touched when handling the PM-1. Jason then gave me the go-ahead to listen, and I knew they were off to a good start.

 

Fast forward several months, and news of the PM-1 had already spread like wildfire throughout the audio world. They had worked with beta testers from our community to iterate until they were satisfied, and the PM-1 was officially launched, just as the anticipation (and perhaps the impatience) for them was building to fever pitch. Though I had heard a few different beta units leading up to the release--and made a physical design suggestion that ended up being incorporated in late beta and production--I wasn't formally providing feedback as part of the beta test team. Because I was not on the beta test team, I didn't hear the final voicing until it was done, so I was just as anxious and eager as everyone else.

 

Before we get to the OPPO PM-1's sound, I want to first discuss some of its other qualities that make the OPPO PM-1 a very unique offering in this market. In the boutique planar magnetic headphone market, I think the PM-1 is perhaps the most polished, in terms of the consistency and level of its fit-and-finish, the quality of its fittings, and ergonomic design. The PM-1 was designed and packaged with a duality in mind: in one role, it is a $1099 super-polished, super-fancy, full-size planar magnetic headphone for use at home or at work, delivered in an almost mirror-polished wood-veneered presentation box that looks fit to store a crown. For this role, the PM-1 comes with a three-meter, cloth-sheathed OCC (Ohno Continuous Cast) cable, terminated in 3.5mm (1/4") stereo plug. And, again, I can't overstate the PM-1's build quality and feel, which ranks it among the best in this regard I've ever handled, regardless of price.

 

However, there is another role that it just as convincingly takes on--the headphone for on-the-go use. The build quality of the PM-1 isn't just beautiful to look at and feel, it's also built very ruggedly, so I've had no hesitation stuffing it into a crowded messenger bag or backpack. To help with that, OPPO designed the PM-1 to fold perfectly flat--a quality I'd love to see in more headphones. OPPO also included an effective, well-designed, very cool slim carrying case that is made of black selvedge denim. And to really drive home its on-the-go role is the included super-thin, lightweight, super-flexible, tangle-resistant OFC (oxygen-free copper) cable that's only one-meter long. Some might want a longer on-the-go cable, but I like my cables as short as possible--or, maybe better put, not a centimeter longer than absolutely necessary--so I really like this cable and actually use it even more than the fancier one.

 

Of course, none of this would matter if OPPO didn't do its homework on the technology and engineering for the planar magnetic sonic engine of the PM-1, and to design their driver, OPPO enlisted the help of Igor Levitsky, who most famously worked on ribbon driver speaker designs for Bohlender-Graebener Radia (BG Radia). The driver they developed uses a FEM-optimized magnet system (FEM standing for "finite element modeling"), with emphasis on maximizing sensitivity and uniformity of the applied force over the driver's surface area. The PM-1's diagphragm is a thin, seven-layer design, constructed to be stable under thermal stress and vibration. The flat aluminum traces on the diaphragm are in the form of spiraling coils, and cover both sides of the diaphragm for increased sensitivity--and there was a high priority placed on maximizing the PM-1's sensitivity. In fact, at 102dB / 1mW, it may be the most sensitive planar magnetic headphone I'm aware of, able to be driven by a smartphone if need be (further helping with its on-the-go prowess).

 

To further set the PM-1 apart from the field, OPPO voiced it rather uniquely, moving away from some of its competitors' tendencies toward incisive, mega-resolving voicings, and instead going with what is, to my ears, perhaps the best safe-sounding headphone currently on the market. The PM-1's bass is just about where I would want it to be with any headphone--punchy and detailed, and, for my tastes, not overemphasized. The PM-1's midrange is smooth and full-bodied; but even-handed and resolving enough for me to feel like I'm getting a full helping, without a sense of mid-bloat.

 

The treble is where OPPO played it safest, opting for what sounds to me like a velvety, rolled smoothness, and doing very little to risk any appearance of harshness up top. There's energy up there, but it's milder than most of its competitors. If you tend to prefer even a hint of lift in treble--or even just something akin to perfect treble neutrality--you may be disappointed, but I really enjoy how they tuned it here so much of the time. The OPPO PM-1 seems to be nearly impossible to coax a harsh note out of, yet, overall, I find it to be detailed enough most of the time.

 

If something like the very resolving HiFiMAN HE-6 can occasionally put the harsh stuff into too sharp a focus, the OPPO PM-1 can occasionally make for smoother, prettier closeups, and does so by perhaps sacrificing a little exactness in comparison. Again, a lot of the time I actually love this about the PM-1. I don't always want safe sounding, but so much of the music I listen to is far from ideal (as far as recording or mastering quality goes), and so can benefit a great deal from a touch of mercy. Don't be mistaken, though, in thinking the PM-1 unable to convey the magic and detail of great recordings, because it does, exceptionally well--it's just that it will generally fall short of the ultimate resolution of several of its high-end competitors by the likes of Sennheiser, HiFiMAN, Audeze, which might be exactly what you're looking for.

 

So if what I've described sounds like it's up your alley (it certainly is up mine), then give the OPPO PM-1 serious consideration. You should also give it a serious look if you're been looking for a high-end, high-fidelity, full-size headphone to take with you on your travels.--I have yet to find a high-end full-size headphone that travels better (let alone one that's planar magnetic).


The secret's completely out of the bag now: the PM-1 is a remarkable first headphone from OPPO.


 

"Those of you looking for a wonderful elite class tier of headphone that's extremely well built, very neutral and accurate, and benchmark setting comfort, or in other words a very close to perfect headphone, then these are definitely for you."

- Army-Firedawg

Type:   Closed, around-the-ear planar magnetic headphone

 

Price:   $399 USD

 

URL:   http://www.oppodigital.com

Written by Jude Mansilla

 

OPPO may be best known for their high-end universal digital disc players, their players still regarded as among the very best values in the AV world. However, if OPPO keeps up what they've been doing in the headphone world since entering it a couple of years ago, the first thing people think about when OPPO's name comes up will be headphones. Their latest headphone--the OPPO PM-3--will only drive their renown further in that direction, as it's a killer, and perhaps my strongest recommendation for an over-ear, on-the-go headphone.


OPPO has managed to massage their planar magnetic driver designs from their PM-1 and PM-2 into a slightly smaller design for use in a headphone that's more compact than its full-size siblings and closed-back (as opposed to the open-back PM-1 and PM-2). What they've also done is create a headphone that is one of the safest recommendations to make in its category, as almost everyone I let listen to it--whether complete non-audiophiles or seasoned audio snob--loves the OPPO PM-3 when they hear it.

What makes it play so well for such a broad range of tastes and experience is that the PM-3 is far more resolving than what most non-audiophiles are used to, and with enough resolution for a closed headphone to impress the aficionados. The bass has enough punch to answer yes to the typical non-audiophile's most common "Does it have good bass?" question, and yet controlled down low enough to have most Head-Fi'ers satisfied at the speed to go with that punch. The PM-3's midband is also rich, smooth and revealing enough to soothe most critical audio nerd's fastidious midrange expectations, and to a degree that has audio novice's realizing that they're hearing things they hadn't heard before in their favorite songs. The treble is accurate, without grain, and on the smoother side, and likely to satisfy most--especially considering it's a closed over-ear--but may be the one area some audiophiles might long for a bit more sense of extension. Personally, I'll take smooth with good detail over even a mild dash of harshness in the high registers, so the PM-3 pleases me thoroughly at its price.

As for imaging, the PM-3 casts a nice soundstage for a closed headphone--no, it doesn't sound beyond its earcups to me, but it's certainly less constricted sounding than typical closed headphones. Most importantly (where imaging is concerned, to me), the PM-3's soundstaging is coherent and precise.

The OPPO PM-3 is one of the headphones I most recommend for someone on a sub-$500 budget who is hankering for his first planar magnetic headphone, and absolutely the most if that headphones is to be used when out and about, in libraries, when traveling, at coffee houses, etc. As a planar magnetic headphone, it's a bit heavier than many other portable over-ears at 320 grams, but its design distributes the weight nicely, and it feels lighter than it is to me.

What's also nice is that its build quality gives up nothing to its more expensive siblings, and like them sports Swiss watch build quality, materials, and fit-and-finish--the OPPO PM-3 feels like something priced substantially more than its retail price. It's also comfortable, and, like its siblings, it folds flat for compact storage in its gorgeous selvedge denim carrying case. It comes with a three-meter plain cable for use in your desktop setup, and a 1.2-meter cable for portable use. (There are also portable cables available with inline controls for both Android and iOS devices.)

The OPPO PM-3 comes in black, white, red, and blue, and is priced at $399. At that price and its level of performance, the OPPO PM-3 is a dynamo of a planar magnetic headphone, and, again, one of the safest, strongest recommendations I have for you at that price, whether you're mostly using it in desktop systems, portables (including direct-from-mobile use), or both.

 

Type: Semi-open, full-size, around-the-ear headphones

 

Price:   $799 USD

 

URL:   http://www.beyerdynamic.com

Written by Jude Mansilla

 

Not long after Sennheiser announced the HD 800, beyerdynamic started firing gargantuan salvos of high-end goodness of its own, beginning with the Tesla T1.

 

The beyerdynamic T1 approaches neutrality with a slightly more forgiving nature than Sennheiser's HD 800. I also find it easier to find a good amp match-up for the T 1 than the HD 800.

 

If the Sennheiser HD 800 is on the cooler side of your tonal preferences--but you enjoy its detail and transparency--give serious consideration to the T1. Like few other headphones, beyerdynamic's flagship somehow balances ultra-revealing with sense of ease. Though it's deserving of outstanding amplification, I've not found it a hard headphone to coax greatness out of.

 

I've always enjoyed some of beyerdynamic's headphones, but the Tesla T1 (as well as the portable Tesla DT 1350) made me a beyerdynamic enthusiast.

 


 

"The T1 has an absolutely unique ability to make music sound natural, in my experience. Music simply flows from the T1 in a way that makes it unbelievably enjoyable to listen to, but without requiring any kind of noticeable coloration to get that job done. In my experience, it is that combination of neutrality, accuracy, and musicality that makes the T1, for me, the king of the dynamic headphones."

- Skylab

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Type:   Full-size, around-the-ear closed headphone

 

Price:   Around $300 USD

 

URL:   http://www.sony.com

Written by Jude Mansilla

 

In the last couple of years, I've personally seen the Sony MDR-1 series models--mostly the MDR-1R--worn in the wild more than any other premium Sony over-ear in recent memory. Sony updated the popular Sony MDR-1R with the MDR-1A. The two headphones look almost identical, but the Sony MDR-1A, like Sony's flagship MDR-Z7, has aluminum-coated liquid crystal polymer (ALCP) drivers, and an updated sound signature. (The Sony MDR-1R's drivers were liquid crystal polymer without aluminum coating.)

 

As a Sony MDR-1R fan, I'm happy to say that Sony didn't stray too far from the sound that made it so popular. Still, Sony's engineers worked hard to update the the MDR-1A with meaningful sonic improvements, and the results were very fruitful. To my ears, the Sony MDR-1A sounds like it has more low-bass than the MDR-1R, so there is a richer bottom end now. Also, the MDR-1A's treble response has more shimmer--the treble seems better fleshed out on the newer model, which, to my ears, gives it a leg up on its predecessor.

 

Like the MDR-1R before it, the MDR-1A's midrange is wonderful, presenting most vocals slightly forward, and with beautiful rendering of subtle details that some of its competitors miss. Midrange detail and focus have improved with the MDR-1A, but not quite to the extent that the treble improved.

 

There have been changes to the earpads, too, with the newer pads being thicker, which does change the feel a bit. I think the older ones (on the MDR-1R) are a wee bit more comfortable, but the MDR-1A remains one of the most comfortable closed headphones currently available.

 

I think the sonic adjustments made with the MDR-1A will play very well in showroom auditions, so I have a feeling I'll continue to see more and more Sony MDR-1A's in the wild in the coming years. I was happy with the MDR-1R as it was, but certainly welcome the progress Sony has achieved with this model update.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Type:   Closed, full-size, around-the-ear headphone

 

Price:   $310 USD

 

URL:   http://www.v-moda.com

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

 

Type: Open, around-the-ear, electrostatic headphones 

 

Price:   $5,200 USD

 

URL:   http://www.stax.jp

Written by Jude Mansilla

 

Sennheiser's now-discontinued, limited edition electrostatic HE-90 Orpheus had been my personal choice for best sounding headphone for so long that I assumed it would remain in that spot permanently. However, Stax's flagship now wears my personal best-ever crown. In Episode 008 of Head-Fi TV, I called the Stax SR-009 my choice for best sounding headphone I've yet heard, and nothing has changed my mind about that since.

 

The Stax SR-009 is the most revealing, most captivating, most neutral, most outstanding transducer of any type I've yet heard. With this headphone, you really will hear things, textures, air, details you hadn't previously heard in many of your favorite recordings. The SR-009 is simply sublime. A masterpiece.

 

Here's the rub, though: If you want to extract the very best from this headphone, plan on spending approximately $5000 to $6000 more for a top-flight electrostatic headphone amplifier, like the HeadAmp Blue Hawaii SE, Woo Audio WES or Ray Samuels Audio A-10.

 

Could it really be worth all that? This is Head-Fi. So, yes, for some people, it's absolutely worth all that.

 

(We discussed the Stax SR-009 in Episode 008 of Head-Fi TV.)

 


 

"With these earspeakers, as Stax terms them, it is as if everything is simply on another level compared to dynamic headphones. Only the more recent high-end orthos, such as the LCD-3s and Hifiman series and maybe the HD-800s, Sony R10s and my Symphones Magnums come anywhere close. Now the SR-009 takes all this to yet another level"

- Currawong

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Comments (2)

The guide looks more professional now! Great job.

By the way, it would appear that the official name is Sennheiser HE 1 now instead of Sennheiser Orpheus HE 1. In all the official promo material, they make it a point to always say Sennheiser HE 1 without Orpheus in the name anymore. However, if you have confirmed otherwise with Sennheiser directly, feel free to correct me.
@Music Alchemist, thanks for the kind words, and for the feedback regarding the name. Yes, I know I took some liberty there, as I think of the HE 1 as the successor to the original Orpheus--as the new Orpheus. Based on what you said, though--and based on the fact that you are indeed correct--I've changed the entry's title to "Sennheiser HE 1 (The New Orpheus)."
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