This past summer, I took a trip to Philips' audio research and development facilities in Leuven, Belgium. If Philips' recent headphones have impressed you, it's because Philips has invested huge sums to reestablish Philips as a premium audio brand, and it was impressive to see the resources they've marshaled to get there.
One of the interesting things to see was how they examined their own Philips Fidelio L1 (which they were already justifiably proud of), and how they went about attempting to improve every aspect of an already-very-good headphone--its design, its comfort, its style, its sound. The result is the Philips Fidelio L2, and I have to say they've done it.
In terms of its style, I'd describe the change as having gone from standard BMW to BMW M Sport--a move from more traditional design and colors to a more modern, edgy variation. The more conventional colors of the L1 were adjusted to include gunmetal, and orange stitching and hinge pins. The L1 consisted of a lot of metal that some mistook for plastic--Philips wanted to make sure this didn't happen again, making sure all metal parts are obvious to the eye as metal. Lines were smoothed out, tightened up. The Bentley-type grille is now even larger. The loosely coiled cables that went from the top of each earpiece into the headband have been eliminated. I think it's a better looking headphone for all the changes--an absolute stunner.
The headphone cable is also now fully detachable at the left earcup.
Unfortunately, from what I can tell, the earpads are still not user replaceable. Don't get me started on this, as I simply can't understand how that wasn't addressed, and I've expressed this to them...emphatically. Fortunately, my Fidelio L1 pads have held up wonderfully, looking pretty much good as new after a lot of use; and the L2's earpads seem at least as durable.
In terms of sound, the improvements over the L1 are, in my opinion, a big deal. The sonic changes are actually more dramatic to my ears than the style and design changes are to my eyes. Bass has been tighened up substantially, and the level brought down closer to a more reference level (but still hitting solidly)--in my opinion, this is a very welcome change. The mids are still bloomy and smooth, but with even more clarity than its predecessor. And another of the most welcome changes is the treble performance of the L2, which is a substantial improvement over the L1--more extended, more shimmery, more present, more detailed. It's a more revealing, less forgiving headphone than its predecessor, for sure.
Frankly, the Fidelio L2 is one of my new portable reference-type headphones, right along there with the HD 26 Pro, DT 1350, NAD VISO HP50, Focal Spirit Professional and Sony MDR-7520. And I personally prefer it to Philips current flagship Fidelio X1, which, in my opinion, could use some of the same treatment that brought the L1 to the L2.
I highly recommend you audition the Philips Fidelio L2 if you've been considering some of those other headphones I just mentioned. It's a very strong contender.
(NOTE: We left the Philips Fidelio L1 in the guide for now, as it is still widely available at dealers.)
Shure SRH440 and Shure SRH840
Written by Jude Mansilla
Closed-back, pro-audio-oriented headphones, the SRH440 and SRH840 have found popularity for studio use. However, many audiophiles also appreciate them for their more neutral tonal balances (relative to many other closed headphones in this price range), the SRH440 having none of the bass bloat that many of its closed competitors have. The SRH840 adds a little more bass presence and a touch more midrange bloom. I also find the SRH840's overall presentation a bit more refined.
Though a full-size headphones, both the SRH440 and SRH840 fold into pretty compact, portable bundles.
At its street price of around $100, I think the Shure SRH440 is one of the better bargains in Head-Fi'dom, particularly because it can be challenging to find a good, affordable, neutral-ish closed headphone. If you want a touch more musicality without sacrificing the neutral-for-a-closed-headphone balance, its more refined sibling is still a great deal--and a classic--at around $160.
"These cans in my opinion are ideal for pure enjoyment of music - either straight out of your DAP, or amplified for a little extra lift. If I had to sum them up in a couple of words I would "smooth" and "balanced". I use the word balance more in an all purpose sense rather than a frequency range sense - these cans are great with most genres you throw at them."
Another good around-the-ear passive isolator is the über-stylish Bowers & Wilkins' P5 Mobile (now also available in white). The P5 looks like something crafted by Swiss watchmakers. So luxurious is the P5 that nowhere on it (except for the cable) do your fingers come in contact with anything but metal or soft leather.
And the P5's style continues with its appearance when worn, its lines elegant and graceful, but bold enough to be tastefully noticeable.
How does the P5 sound? It doesn't quite have the sound quality and detail of the top audiophile portables, but it still sounds very good, with a sonic signature best described as smooth. The Bowers & Wilkins P5 does provide extremely effective noise isolation (passively), inline controls and headset microphone, and so is a fantastic, voguish travel headphone.
"The P5's artisanal materials, fit, finish and style make for a headphone that many of its owners will be proud to own. Its delicate lines and light weight belie its vault-strong construction. Almost a year later, and I still love handling and wearing the P5. Something this gorgeous, this well crafted, does instill that sense of pride of ownership that one might feel owning, say, a beautiful wristwatch."
That the stunning looking P5 is such a huge hit isn't the least bit surprising to me.
"...a luxury gadget for the iPod/iPhone crowd. It is also the one with the most hi-fi pedigree and is fairly likely to be picked up by a discerning listener in search of fidelity."
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."
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."
"All in all the HD650 is a superb headphone that comfortably matches, or beats, competitors at more than twice its price. A superb allrounder with a fun and energetic play-style, detailed but not too unforgiving - not to be overlooked!"
The Mix Master Mike is a DJ-type headphone (designed in conjunction with its legendary DJ namesake), with a couple of unique features. DJ's often do one-ear listening, so the Mix Master Mike sums both channels to mono when either earpiece is rotated for one-ear listening. The single-side headphone cable can be plugged into either the left or right earpiece. And there's a mute button.
The Mix Master Mike's prominent (but not overwhelming) bass, good mids, and softer treble, all combine nicely for an easy-to-listen to sound signature that is modestly detailed. Overall, I think the Mix Master Mike is the most refined sounding Skullcandy headphone so far. Build quality seems good, but rather plasticky in the hand. The Mix Master Mike might be a tough sell, though, to Head-Fi'ers at $250, a price point at which many outstanding headphones reside. But I think it's a worthy full-size closed headphone consideration, even at the price, with a couple of cool, unique features to boot.
"The Mix Master is the first celebrity-endorsed headphone I can listen to all day and is easy to recommend for professionals interested in its unique feature set and consumers with pro audio aspirations."
There's something--a certain je ne sais quoi--that makes Koss' PortaPro timeless. It's not just its looks, as looks alone might render the mighty PortaPro dated (though there's no denying its vintage aesthetic is part of its charm).
This is a bassy headphone, and its bass defines it--heavy, just shy of sloppy by audiophile standards, but always fun. Despite its bassiness, the PortaPro still manages to sound coherent. Its mids and highs are good, but if you're looking for a mid-centric and/or bright headphone, you're going to have to look elsewhere. Also, if you're a detail freak, walk past the PortaPro.
Last year, Koss also released a version of the PortaPro called the PortaPro KTC (Koss Touch Control), which has an inline three-button remote/mic. As an iPhone/iPad/iPod user, the KTC version has become my PortaPro of choice. I was surprised to see Koss give such a concession to smartphone modernity with a headphone as old school as the PortaPro, but I'm thrilled they did. Here's the rub, though: expect to pay at least $30 to $40 more for the KTC version, which I'm guessing is probably due to licensing costs associated with using the made-for-Apple three-button mic/remote design.
Looking for fun sound on the go? And served up with retro-hip style? Put the Koss PortaPro on your list.
"...I love the PortaPros for the uncompromising retro-throwback design and sound that somehow feels like it would have been right at home in the 80s."
Sennheiser HD6 Mix, HD7 DJ, and HD8 DJ
One of the most popular DJ headphones in the world is the HD 25 by Sennheiser--many DJ's the world over wear their 25's proudly, a sort of status symbol. Here's the thing, though: the HD25 wasn't originally designed as a DJ headphone.
The Sennheiser HD 25 headphones were first released in 1988, and were intended for outside broadcasting use. What were some of the features that would be helpful for outside broadcasting? A rotatable ear cup for one-ear monitoring, and isolation from outside noise. Obviously, these are traits well suited for DJ use, too; but it wasn't until around ten years after their introduction that the HD 25 picked up steam with DJ's. And for the last 15 years or so, they've become a common site around the neck, and half on the head, of serious DJ's.
Earlier this year, Sennheiser released some purpose-built DJ headphones in the HD7 DJ and the HD8 DJ (both have nominal 95Ω impedance). I have them both, but I'm no DJ. My friend Adam Bellinson (DJ Thread, or simply "thread" on Head-Fi) is a DJ, however, playing the Detroit scene regularly, and he had been an HD25-wearing DJ for a long time. When Sennheiser contacted him to ask him to try the HD8, he agreed to, and I wondered which--between his long-time HD25 and the new HD8 DJ--he'd prefer. Well, since receiving the HD8, I haven't seen a photo of him spinning with any other headphone. He really likes the HD8 and posted as about it on Head-Fi. (thread is a high-end headphone audio enthusiast, too, by the way.)
Again, I am not a DJ, but I have spent a lot of time with the HD7 DJ, HD8 DJ, and the HD6 MIX (which I'll get to in a minute). Of the two DJ models, I have a slight preference for the HD8. It is quite bass-heavy, yes. But I find its overall tonal balance fun, with what sounds to me like hard-hitting emphasis, particularly from the mid-bass through the lower mids. (This is also true of the HD7.) And though the bass is heavy, it's surprisingly fast--emphasized a lot, but with detail. Where the HD8 edges out the HD7 for me is its slightly more lit treble, which gives it a little more pizzaz, and makes for a fun on-the-go headphone.
Of the three models in this new group of headphones, the one I prefer most is the HD6 MIX (nominal impedance of 150Ω), which Sennheiser describes as a headphone "designed to cater to the needs of the professional sound technician," and describe its sound as "accurate, balanced sound reproduction suitable for mixing and monitoring." In addition to notbeing a DJ, I am also not a professional sound technician. The HD6 sound signature Sennheiser describes might read to audiophiles like the HD6 would sound neutral, which, to my ears, it is not. So perhaps what a professional sound technician is looking for and what audiophiles consider neutral are two different things. The HD6, however, is more even-handed than either of the two "DJ" models, still with some mid-bass emphasis, but not as much thickness, to my ears, in the upper bass or lower mids. Its treble doesn't have that extra bite that I'm hearing with the HD8 DJ, so from the bottom to the top, its sound is certainly more uniform, and less exciting, which, to me, is the more preferable of the two signatures for my kind of use and listening.
All three headphones are built very stoutly, obviously intended to withstand the rigors and punishment of pro audio use, and come with tough carrying cases. The HD7 and HD8 have dual rotating ear cups, and the HD6 cups don't rotate at all. All three are quite light in weight for their size, with the HD8 just slightly heavier due to the use of metal parts in key areas to improve strength and durability.
This new family of headphones also introduces an aesthetic that is unique, not just to Sennheiser, but to the market as a whole, and I love their style. Their look is at once professional, youthful, and attractive.
While I may not have the professional credentials of the intended customers for these headphones, I've found them enjoyable, and have occasion to carry especially the HD6 MIX for on-the-go use.
"...not only does the HD8 DJ best the form and ergonomics of my other two pairs, but it is a comfortable and fun-sounding headphone for general listening, too. I honestly don't recall using a DJ headphone that I prefer. Sennheiser deserves proper respect for this well-designed piece!"
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."
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."
For a nice open-backed full size headphone in this price range, Sennheiser's HD 558 is one of the best choices I've come across. Lightweight, and well padded, the HD 558 is among the most comfortable headphones I've owned (at any price), and I've owned a lot of headphones.
And, thankfully, the HD 558 sounds as good as it is comfortable, projecting a wide, open sonic image. Though its bass presentation is more on the neutral side, there's still a sense of fullness down low. Smooth, yet with outstanding detail overall, is how I'd characterize this headphone.
The HD 598 is like an HD 558 that went to sonic finishing school--simply put, it's more refined. Most noticeable is that the HD 598's presentation is slightly more treble-tilted, and its bass more controlled. The HD 598's more polished sound signature is, to my ears, higher-end, and earns the difference in price between it and its mid-line sibling.
I also love the HD 598's entirely unique color scheme--no other headphone I'm aware of looks like it, with its cream-colored leather-like chassis, and dark brown faux burl wood trim and velour ear cushions.
"The midrange allows these headphones to sound good with any genre. Rock, pop, jazz, classical –especially classical-, you name it. The midrange is full, detailed, balanced. Male and female voices sound natural and acoustic instruments sound like they are made of wood."
I wondered when something would come 'round to challenge the Sennheiser HD 600 and HD 650 for my top pick in the sub-$500 sit-down, high-end headphone category, and that something is the HE-400 planar magnetic headphone by HiFiMAN. Listen to this headphone, and its $399 price tag will have you wondering if its price was mismarked--like you found something in the clearance bin that wasn't supposed to be there.
If the HD 600 and HD 650 just aren't pressing your sparkly-treble hot-button, the HE-400 probably will. Bringing to bear a lot of what makes the Summit-Fi-class planar magnetic headphones by HiFiMAN and Audeze so special--but with a bargain price, and enough sensitivity to be driven by an iPhone in a pinch--the HE-400 is one of the easiest sub-$500 recommendations to make right now.
Soaring, shimmering treble, and a greater sense of overall speed--certainly more so than any over-ear in this price range that I've heard--are the HE-400's hallmarks.
"HiFiMAN has done an excellent job of tuning the HE-400 to have big, bold sonics with any type of music you throw at them."
I occasionally get asked a question that goes something like this: If you could pick only one headphone to take with you to a deserted island, which one would you choose? Let's break down my current answer. It'd have to be closed, and with good isolation, as I'd prefer maintaining the option of having the sounds of island nature separated from my music. It'd have to be an over-ear headphone, and, specifically an around-the-ear type for maximum comfort. It'd have to be durably built. It would have to be relatively easy to drive, as I'm assuming this hypothetical deserted island might not necessarily come with a dream rig to go with the headphone. And, in the event that I was also able to take a good rig with me--or at least have the hope that someone might send me a good rig in a care package some day--it'd have to be a model with higher-end sound quality. In other words, my current deserted island headphone choice would be the beyerdynamic T 5 p.
In the Head-Fi community, the T 5 p can be a bit polarizing; but those who love it tend to love it. Well, I'm one of the ones who loves it. Looking at the rather vast collection of headphones around me, I see no other full-size, closed, around-the-ear headphone that isolates well, and that can be driven by an iPhone, and yet scale to higher levels of performance in higher-end rigs. If you find yourself always choosing headphones with a warmer tonal balance, the T 5 p might not be your cup of tea. Is it bright? It can be; but, for me, it's never harsh (unless the recording is).
Other headphones can reach higher heights than the T 5 p. But few of them can be all of the things that the T 5 p can. Now for the next question: Ginger or Mary Ann?
"They are extremely detailed and transparent. They provide great sound stage with good positioning - especially for a closed headphone."
For a company known for its relatively affordable eco-conscious in-ears--the ms01 being the one model of theirs that I've tried, and really like--to come out with their first over-ear, call it a studio monitor (as they did with their ms01), and charge 250 bucks for it…that's ambitious. $250 buys you some pretty fantastic headphones out there, from the likes of Sennheiser, V-MODA, Sony, Grado, beyerdynamic, AKG…the list goes on.
So how'd thinksound do? Let's start by talking about its design: the thinksound On1's design is about as simple as can be, adding its visual flair the way they did with their ms01--with gorgeous handcrafted wood housings. I'm not sure what kind of wood thinksound is using for the On1, but it's finely finished, and the grain is very pretty. The on-the-ear earpads are very soft, made of black leather (or synthetic leather) stuffed with memory foam. Isolation from the closed earcups is good. The headband is made of a flexible metal, with a padded fabric covering.
I find the On1 to be very comfortable, its earpads being very flush, and the very flexible articulation offered by the hinges and yoke design makes for a very quick, flush fit on the ears. I wish more headphones offered similar earcup articulation, which can go a long way to making fit better, and, thus, performance that's more optimal and consistent. This On1 is also a very light headphone, weighing only 6.5 ounces.
The On1's drivers are 40mm dynamic drivers, and nominal impedance is 50Ω. It comes with a Kevlar-reinforced, tangle-resistant fabric cable, with an inline one-button mic/remote. The On1 is a relatively sensitive headphone, and I can drive it with my iPhone 5S (which is how I usually use it), but found it does up its game with a good amp in front of it.
Compared to its in-ear thinksound monitor counterpart (the ms01), the On1 has a more bass emphasized sound signature. The On1's bass is very impactful, but still has good control. While a little bit of the thickness tails up into the lower mids, its midband detail doesn't suffer from it at all, to my ears. In fact, the more I listen to the On1, the more I've come to appreciate its midrange and treble detail. On balance, the thinksound On1 sounds very rich without sounding bloated to me. I use the On1 for all genres and find it very versatile.
The On1 is one of the gems in its very crowded, very competitive premium price range.
"The On1 are a headphone I can really put my support into not only for thinksound’s excellent customer service and ideals, but because they are a beautiful headphone that not only sounds great, but will draw a lot of attention as you attempt to drown the world out."
One of the all-time headphone hi-fi classics, the Sennheiser HD 25-1 II is still the top choice for a closed, portable on-the-ear headphone for many Head-Fi'ers. It's one of my all-time favorites in that category.
With robust bass, relatively neutral mids, and a lively treble, the HD 25-1 II is definitely on the fun side of the audiophile-type sound signatures.
With an extremely tough build (yet still lightweight), the Sennheiser HD 25-1 II remains a popular DJ headphone for its bombproof durability, outstanding isolation, and retro-hip utilitarian looks.
Last year, Sony's Naotaka "Nao" Tsunoda stopped by Head-Fi HQ in Michigan for an all-day visit. Nao is a 22-year Sony veteran--a Sony Distinguished Engineer--and one of the heads of Sony's headphone engineering and development efforts in Tokyo.
One of the reasons for the visit was to discuss, and listen to, what was then Nao's most recent project: the MDR-1 family of headphones. One by one, Nao removed a sample of each of the new models from one of his suitcases, grinning ear to ear as he did. He looked like a proud papa as he laid each box down. The new models included the Sony MDR-1R (passive-only, closed, around-the-ear), Sony MDR-1RNC (active noise canceling, closed, around-the-ear), and the Sony MDR-1RBT (Bluetooth wireless, closed, around-the-ear). (You can read about the MDR-1RBT in the Wireless Headphones section of this guide.)
The Sony MDR-1RNC, in terms of technology and features--and in terms of price--is the MDR-1R line's flagship model. It's an active noise canceling model. The MDR-1RNC also differs from the other two models in the line with a 50mm Liquid Crystal Polymer (LCP) driver, the other models sporting 40mm LCP drivers.
As for its noise canceling circuit, the MDR-1RNC uses an adaptive digital noise canceling system that will automatically select one of three distinct noise canceling profiles (airplane, bus, or office), depending on the MDR-1RNC's assessment of the ambient noise around you. In use, I've found the MDR-1RNC's noise canceling to be very effective. However, the way it goes about canceling noise is quite different than Bose's QC15. The Bose's noise canceling seems to cancel more total noise, to my ears, using a technique that sounds like its effect is more broadband. The MDR-1RNC, on the other hand, seems to selectively let more human voices through, but only after substantially blunting them. This effect is so specific, I have almost no doubt that it's deliberate.
One place the MDR-1RNC's noise canceling may have an advantage over the QC15 is in low-frequency noise cancellation. While testing them at an airport, Joe (one of Head-Fi's co-administrators) was wearing the MDR-1RBT (and I the QC15), and when I asked what the rumble of the tram that had just gone by sounded like to him, he asked, "What tram?"
Another advantage the MDR-1RNC has over the QC15 is in sound quality. The QC15 actually sounds pretty good--particularly when its in its element, which is in areas of loud ambient noise--with a smooth, friendly sound signature, but one that's not very detailed, and with rather flat imaging. The MDR-1RNC, like it's wireless sibling (the MDR-1RBT) uses Sony's "S-MASTER" digital amplification and "DSEE" processing which is designed to restore depth and detail lost in the audio compression process. The effect is more dramatic in the MDR-1RNC than it is in the MDR-1RBT, adding a bit more edge to the sound than the MDR-1RBT's implementation of these technologies; but, again, I think this was intentional, as an attempt to accentuate details that loud ambient noise may mask. The result is a more detailed sound signature, and more three-dimensional imaging, than Bose's QC15.
Also, unlike the Bose QC15, the MDR-1RNC can be used in passive mode, so the sound can keep going, even after the internal rechargeable battery dies. However, since the MDR-1RNC's battery life is rated at up to 30 hours of listening time, you're not likely to run it dry if you routinely charge it. (The Bose QC15 is rated for up to 35 hours of use from a single AAA battery, but the Bose's sound shuts down when there's no power.) The MDR-1RNC's passive mode's sound quality is acceptably good, but certainly not this headphone at its best. In this mode, it's bass-heavier and thicker-sounding overall than the better sounding passive-only MDR-1R and the Bluetooth MDR-1RBT in its passive mode--but it's still good. For all of these things, the MDR-1RNC has replaced the Bose QC15 as my top pick for a wired noise canceling headphone.
The real gem in the MDR-1R lineup is, to me, the least expensive one--the passive-only Sony MDR-1R. It's the best sounding of the three, edging out its Bluetooth sibling, the MDR-1RBT. It's also, to my ears, one of the best of the sub-$500 closed headphones currently available.
The Sony MDR-1R has a sound signature that is at once smooth and detailed. Mid-bass sounds a bit north of neutral, but very tastefully so, to my ears. It doesn't quite have the visceral low-end, gut-punching drive that the V-MODA M-100 has, but, for sit-down listening in a quiet environment, the MDR-1R has what I'd call a more reference presentation. Sony's engineers focused a great deal on carefully tuning the MDR-1R's bass performance, with one key aim being to improve the quickness of the driver's response, substantially reducing the driver's rise time in the 30 to 40 Hz area. To my ears, their efforts yielded excellent results.
The MDR-1R's midrange is also wonderful, presenting most vocals slightly forward, and with beautiful rendering of subtle details that some of its peers miss. In terms of treble, the MDR-1R has very good extension, but is never sibilant, never harsh up top, to my ears. As far as sub-$500 closed headphones go today, I can't think of another I'd pick over the MDR-1R for long-term sit-down listening sessions, across a wide variance in recording quality, and a wide variety of musical genres. The MDR-1R is available in black and silver versions.
For all three MDR-1 family models, Nao's team also spent considerable effort to make these headphones exceedingly comfortable. A lot more went into engineering comfort into this line than we have space here to discuss, but innovations in earpad design and inventive engineering around the swivel axis were among the areas of concentration for improving comfort. The results are three of the most comfortable closed headphones I've ever worn (especially the lighter passive-only MDR-1R).
After having spent time with the new MDR-1 family of headphones, it's easy to understand Nao's ear-to-ear grin, and his proud-papa sense of pride. This is a wonderful lineup from Sony.
"When I put them on, I had an odd moment because all of a sudden the ambient noise level dropped dramatically, just as you would expect it would. But it was so dramatic that I thought something around me had happened and the whole hall went silent! I can definitely vouch for the NC abilities of this headphone..."
French outfit Focal is known mostly for their very well regarded, very expensive high-end loudspeakers--especially the flagship Focal Grande Utopia EM, weighing 572 pounds each, and priced at $180,000.00 per pair. And it's all the rage nowadays for storied names in loudspeaker design and manufacture turning their knowledge and attention to the world of headphones; so I wasn't surprised to see Focal enter the headphone market, but I would've expected a cost-no-object, kilobuck headphone from them. What they entered the Head-Fi world with, however, was something entirely different. Something accessible. Something relatively affordable. The Focal Spirit One. $279.00. There's probably not a nut or bolt on the Grande Utopia EM that can be bought for $279.00.
Like most of Focal's other products, the Spirit One is stylish. To keep it affordable, it looks and feels to me like Focal went with a mostly plastic chassis for the Spirit One, with brushed metal cladding to give it the appearance (from a distance) of being more metal than it actually is. The top of the headband and the earpieces feel to me like rubberized plastic. Yes, in the hand, the Focal Spirit One does feel more plasticky than it looks, but it all comes together to make an attractive headphone that feels well-built.
I like that the Spirit One folds flat, making it easy to carry in its very nice included semi-hard-side case. As an iDevice user, I also like the three-button remote/mic on its cloth-covered cable (but wish they'd done more to differentiate the center button from the other two).
As for sound, the Focal Spirit One is smooth, with a neutral-ish tonal balance, and a mild bass lift down low where I like any emphasis to be. While it isn't the most revealing headphone in my stable, it still conveys more detail and neutrality than what is perhaps the most popular model by a high-end loudspeaker maker in the Bowers & Wilkins P5. And, while more revealing than the P5, the Spirit One shares one similar, very positive trait: It is eminently easy to listen to. It can be hard to find a headphone that can be forgiving and still sound excellent, and the Focal Spirit One is one of those headphones. Given Focal's history, I'd like to see them eventually move upmarket, too, adding even more premium, cost-no-object type headphones to their line. For now, though, the Spirit One is a very good first headphone from Focal, and one I've added to my roster of on-the-go over-ear headphones.
"For a closed headphone the Spirit One have a great presentation. The sound is presented as if I am in an intimate venue. The imaging is great on the Spirit One and instruments have their space, I never feel that the music is congested, rather I find it to be immersive. Very well done."
In writing up the Focal Spirit One, I mentioned that I'd like to see Focal move more upmarket with their headphones, given that they're best known for their ultra-expensive (and ultra-respected) loudspeakers. Well, since the last guide update, they've started making their moves, with two new headphones: the Focal Spirit Classic and the Focal Spirit Professional.
The $399 Focal Spirit Classic is the current flagship, intended as a headphone intended more for home or office use than it is for on-the-go use. As evidence of this, it comes with two cables, one of which is 13 feet long!
Also, with its larger headband, larger earcups and non-fold-flat design, it's clearly not intended to be as mobile as the Focal Spirit One. The Focal Spirit Classic also takes on a more mature appearance, with its "Hot Chocolate" brown color (that's what they call it), in varying shades from the earcups to the pads and headband. It's a gorgeous headphone.
Though its earcups are larger, the Spirit Classic's earpads aren't that much larger than the Spirit One's. Filled with memory foam, though, they're definitely more comfortable. The headband is also more comfortable than the Spirit One's, with broader, better padding.
As for how it compares to its more portable sibling, the Spirit Classic is a move to a more detailed, more complete soundscape, with richer tonality, and better imaging. There's a lushness to the Spirit Classic's tone that makes voices and most instruments come alive. It's warmer than neutral, never rough or strident, but still with glistening detail when appropriate.
The Focal Spirit Professional is Focal's first studio monitor headphone, and is the most neutral headphone from Focal so far. Actually, to my ears, it's one of the more neutral closed over-ears on the market right now, period. For this reason, I predict it'll soon have a very strong following in the Head-Fi community.
Though I perceive its tonal balance to be rather flat, there's enough going on in its presentation to sound rich with detail, if not in tone--and, again, I think this is what a lot of Head-Fi'ers are looking for. I love this headphone for this reason, and have a hard time deciding which of the two newest Focals I prefer (and so am glad we have both here now).
Whereas the Ultimate Ears In-Ear Reference Monitor is my neutral reference in-ear--one of my sonic palate cleansers--the Focal Spirit Professional is earning a place as one of my over-ear neutral references.
The Focal Spirit Professional's form factor is sort of a mix between the Focal Spirit Classic (with a similar headband), and the Focal Spirit Classic (in terms of its earcup size and memory foam earpads). One very cool thing about the Focal Spirit Professional is the speckled black finish they gave it--it's supposed to an ultra-tough finish to stand up to the rigors of professional use. It's hard to capture its coolness in photographs, but trust me, in person it's very cool and unique.
For a company that also makes $180,000 loudspeakers, I'm hoping to see Focal continue to explore still higher-performance, no-holds-barred headphones going forward. For now, though, I'm pleased with the Focal Spirit Classic and Spirit Professional as upmarket moves by Focal in the headphone world.
"Frankly, it's about damn time that the enthusiast community got a closed headphone [Spirit Professional] that we could be excited about because of what it does well, not only just because it doesn't tragically fail at some part of the listening experience. Now, we have more than one of those headphones and that’s a very good place to be."
The Sennheiser PX 90 has a charming, no-frills design. With the simplest of headbands, affixed to which are equally unadorned open earpieces, the PX 90 reminds me of the legendary (and equally stark) HD 414.
What you get for around $30 with the PX 90 is an elegant, well-balanced sounding headphone that's great for on-the-go use. If you're a Head-Fi'er with several people on your gift list whom you'd like to introduce to Head-Fi'dom, the PX 90 is an excellent, affordable choice.
The PX 200-II is an easy go-to for a portable on-the-ear headphone under $100 with a more neutral sound signature. If you've found most portable on-the-ear headphones too bass-heavy for you, put the PX 200-II at the top of your list, especially if you want something ultra-portable. The closed-back PX 200-II provides good passive noise isolation, too.
(The PX 200-II is now also available with a three-button remote/mic cable, and that model is the PX 200-IIi, and is priced around $110.)
"Far less complicated in construction than the higher-end sets, the PX90 is lightweight and sturdy enough for portable use. The sound of the baby PX is balanced and competent, allowing it to keep up with the pricier PX100-II at its best"
"The PX200-II therefore has all the hallmarks of a critical and commercial success – usability, excellent sonic characteristics, and a respected name to back it all up - and will likely become more popular than the famed PX100 in the near future."
Several years ago, Monster made history when they partnered with Beats, developing headphones that would (and still) dominate the premium headphone market, commanding well over half of all dollars spent on headphones priced over $100!
While Beats never caught on with high-end audio enthusiasts, Monster--independent of their partnership with Beats--had a very strong interest in making headphones of their own that would appeal to audiophiles, and they certainly met with success in that endeavor with several of their own in-ear headphones, like the Turbine Pro models, and the Miles Davis Tribute and Trumpet. While still in the Beats partnership, they also developed over-ear headphones with solid sonic performance, like the Diamond Tears and Diesel VEKTR, although perhaps the far-out styling of those models ran a bit counter to more conservative style tastes of audiophiles.
The termination of the Monster/Beats partnership was announced at the beginning of 2012, but Monster had no plans to slow down the development and production of their own headphones. Earlier this year, they released the Monster DNA--a supra-aural (on-the-ear) headphone--which was essentially the very first Monster headphone developed and released after the termination of the Beats partnership.
With its rather unusual triangular shape--and sticking to the plastic cuff-type design they helped popularize with Beats--I'm not surprised that the DNA's styling may have limited its appeal to Head-Fi'ers. To my eyes, the Monster DNA is a strange looking headphone in any color other than black--they sent me one in blue, and it looked almost...well...Trekkie to me. I communicated that to Monster, so they sent me one in black. Much better--still funky looking, but much better than the blue.
It's a shame if this headphone's appeal to audio enthusiasts has been limited by its styling, because the DNA is actually a very good portable headphone. Looking at it might suggest something bass-heavy to appeal to the youth market the design seems mostly aimed at; but the DNA is surprisingly even-handed, in terms of its sound. While the DNA's bass is north of neutral, it's not to a large degree, and the bass control is very good. The Monster DNA's midrange is very nicely fleshed out, very meaty, and quite detailed. The DNA's treble performance is also very good--maybe a bit soft way up top, but overall the treble presence is good, and never strident.
Again, for the price, the DNA is a very good portable headphone whose funky style likely has all but the very youthful passing over it on the store shelves. I wouldn't be surprised if I'm the only one in the world, at this very moment, listening to (and enjoying immensely) Anonymous 4 on a Monster DNA. And, yes, the DNA renders these four women's angelic voices beautifully.
Very recently, Monster announced the next headphone in the Monster DNA lineup with its new Monster DNA Pro--a move upmarket, and a move up in size, with the DNA Pro being a circumaural (around-the-ear) design, albeit on the small side of circumaural. For the DNA Pro, Monster elected to stay with the triangle design theme, although the larger around-the-ear cups create a far more conventional silhouette (especially if, again, you order it in black, which I think most Head-Fi'ers would).
I get the impression Monster was not simply throwing the word "Pro" out there randomly when they named this headphone, because this is a headphone I'd imagine Monster might create if asked to make a detailed studio monitor.
The DNA Pro's bass is surprisingly neutral (surprising to me anyway). All credit to Monster for being adventurous enough to veer in this direction with their most expensive headphone model--honestly, I'd have expected them to go in the other direction, and I think this may have some in the general consumer market finding it a bit light down low. (The general consumer market isn't usually served anything neutral-ish in the bass region.) Still, the DNA Pro's bass has good presence to my ears, and is detailed, so I think a lot of audiophile-types will prefer this level of bass over boosted bass.
As far as its midrange goes, the Monster DNA Pro begins slightly on the leaner side; but as you move up through to the upper mids, things start to level up, leading to treble that is rather prominent and detailed. I can't imagine you'll see the words "dark" or "rolled off" used to describe this headphone as more reviews come in.
I find the DNA Pro to be a versatile headphone; but with its tendency to highlight details, I find the DNA Pro is at its best with well-recorded acoustic music, classical music and jazz; and its airy soundstage (for a closed headphone) also helps with that.
In either case, I think these Monster DNA headphones merit spots on your audition list if you're shopping for closed headphones in their price ranges.
If these DNA models represent the sonic direction Monster's going with their over-ears after their split with Beats, I'm glad for it, and will look forward to hearing more from them. To broaden their appeal, though, I do hope Monster also gets more adventurous with respect to styling, and would love to see them--in terms of style--seek more industrial design inspiration from headphones like the MOMENTUM, P7, M500, VK-1, and the M100, than from their past with Beats.
"The DNA On Ear will cater to a large demographic, particularly those who want bass, good mids, without it being too basshead-friendly... The DNA On Ear is for those who want fun, lively sound, without analyzing it's intricacies or lack thereof."