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Head-Fi.org › 2015 Summer Buying Guide › Head Fi Buying Guide Over Ear Headphones 2

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

Over-Ear Headphones
In-Ear Headphones
Wireless Headphones
Gaming Headphones
Exercise Headphones
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Portable Amps, DACs & DAPs
Ultra-High-End Headphones (Summit-Fi)
Desktop & Portable Speakers
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Head-Fi Buying Guide

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ZMF Headphones Omni  c57420db_blast_new_green_2.png
TYPE: Semi-open, full-sized, around-the-ear planar magnetic headphone
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PRICE: $899 ($799 during pre-order period) 
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URL: www.zmfheadphones.com

Written by Warren Chi (warrenpchi)


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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

Written by Jude Mansilla


The Sennheiser MOMENTUM has been a bona fide hit. It's not hard to understand why. Everyone I show it to who hasn't seen it before ooohs and aaahs when they see it and then feel the brushed stainless steel and Pittards leather--and that's before they've heard it. Then they hear it, and the ooohs and aaahs resume. I've spent a small fortune gifting MOMENTUMs, because everyone who sees mine wants one. At an L.A. Head-Fi Meet last year, someone I work closely with at Huddler was there for his first meet. I told him I'd treat him to his first Head-Fi headphone--he picked a black MOMENTUM.


With its success, it shouldn't be surprising that Sennheiser would want to release a more portable, more affordable version. They're smart people over there, and didn't mess with success. The Sennheiser MOMENTUM On-Ear looks exactly like what it is--a miniaturized MOMENTUM. And it retails for $120 less than the original, which means it'll probably be the version I gift from now on! ☺


To help keep the smaller headphone as comfortable as its big sib, Sennheiser chose to use copious amounts of Alcantara, a synthetic, sueded material that is sooo soft, and is one of my favorite materials to feel against my skin. Put on the Sennheiser HD 800 or Shure SRH1540--both of which use a lot of Alcantara--and you'll understand why. For the MOMENTUM On-Ear, Sennheiser chose to use it to cover the headband and earpads, in place of the Pittards leather on the full-size MOMENTUM. The headband is the same gorgeous brushed stainless steel.


Sennheiser also chose to make it available in several gorgeous colors: pink, green, ivory, blue, black, brown, and red. I saw the ivory with brown Alcantara, and had to have it--it's such a beautiful color combo, I wish the full-size MOMENTUM was also available in that color. Then I saw and picked up the red one…then the blue one…hello, black, I think you're next.


Of course, none of this would matter if the sound of the MOMENTUM On-Ear didn't live up to the MOMENTUM name, and it does a good job there. It sounds good for a closed supra-aural, but, no, it doesn't sound as good as its full-size sibling, its bass being rather thicker and less detailed, but very well extended. Its mids and treble aren't as detailed as its full-size stable mate either. Still, though, as a whole, it manages a sound signature that does evoke a familial tie to the original--it's good, but it's definitely the sonically less accomplished sibling of the two.


The Sennheiser MOMENTUM On-Ear definitely sounds good enough to me that I often choose it as one of my regular grab-and-go headphones, pausing only to decide which color I'm taking with me that day. It's a fashion headphone that sounds good enough to be a Sennheiser.
Koss PRODJ100

Written by Jude Mansilla


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


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


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


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

Head-Fi Member/Reviewer

TYPE: Closed, full-size, portable, around-the-ear headphone 
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PRICE: Around $80
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URL: www.koss.com
Audeze LCD-X and LCD-XC

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


Click here to read about these Audeze headphones.

Master & Dynamic MH30 and MH40  c57420db_blast_new_green_2.png

Written by Jude Mansilla


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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

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


"[Regarding the MH30] I would recommend these to anyone that is worried about style, and needs a good headphone that can be cranked up."

Head-Fi Member/Reviewer


"The MH40 combines great aesthetics, build quality, and sound quality into a headphone that is wonderful for portable daily use. If you're looking for a warmer pair of headphones with a rich, lush sound, then I'd happily recommend the MH40. It definitely won't disappoint."

Head-Fi Member/Reviewer

TYPE: Closed, portable headphones (MH30 is the on-the-ear, MH40 is around-the-ear) 
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PRICE: $349 and $399, respectively
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URL: www.masterdynamic.com
Koss SP330  
TYPE: Closed, compact, on-the-ear headphone
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PRICE: $129.99 
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URL: koss.com

Written by Jude Mansilla


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


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


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


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


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


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

Written by Jude Mansilla


Paul Barton's company (PSB) is well known with audio enthusiasts as a loudspeaker company whose products typically perform well above their price points. When I found out Barton wanted to turn his attention to headphones (as an increasing number of loudspeaker manufacturers are doing), he had my attention.


The M4U 2 was an impressive first go at headphones for Barton. First of all, it operates passively, and in this mode the M4U 2 sounds very good, with good, solid, low bass presence, and good clarity throughout. The M4U 2 also has an amplified mode without active noise canceling, which could come in handy if all you've got on hand is a particularly anemic headphone output. This amplified mode has a lively sound, but at the expense of a little self-noise from the amp circuit, and some loss of clarity (compared to its passive mode). The M4U 2's active noise canceling circuit is good (though definitely not as effective as the Bose QC15's). And, again, like Sennheiser's active noise cancelers (and unlike Bose's), the M4U 2 also operates passively, so that when your batteries die, your music need not be cast aside.


PSB later released the M4U 1, which is essentially a passive-only version of the M4U 2. A wee bit of weight is saved (22 grams). A whole lot of money is saved ($100). And, to my ears, the M4U 1 actually sounds just a touch better than the M4U 2, perhaps because of the missing electronics, and maybe better acoustics as a result. In my opinion the M4U 1 is an even easier recommendation to make, and has blossomed into one of my favorite reasonably priced over-ears.


The biggest downsides for me with both are their size (they're large) and the fact that they don't fold flat (so their carrying cases are bulky). And, though they're generally comfortable on my huge head, they don't feel as light and gentle on the head (in terms of both weight and clamping force) as some of their peers. They also have an imposing look on the head--rather heavy and severe looking. (Though I find the Monza Red M4U 1 helps lighten the look up nicely.)


If you're in the market for a good, closed, sub-$500 around-the-ear headphone, the M4U 1 should definitely be on that list. If you absolutely want active noise canceling as a part of the package--and if the additional hundred bucks doesn't scare you off--then consider the M4U 2.


In my conversations with Paul Barton--and based on the performance of his first models--I get the impression he's not just dabbling in headphones, and so I'm looking forward to more from PSB in the future.

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

Details about the Sony MDR-1RBT can be found in the Wireless Headphones section of the guide.


Click here to check it out.


Written by Jude Mansilla


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


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


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


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


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

Head-Fi Member/Reviewer

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


Philips Fidelio L2
TYPE: Open, full-size, around-the-ear headphone
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PRICE: $279.00 
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URL: www.fidelio.philips.com

Written by Jude Mansilla


In 2013, 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 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 previous flagship Fidelio X1, which, in my opinion, could use some of the same treatment that brought the L1 to the L2.


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.


"What the L2 brings to the table is a portable semi-open headphone that is pretty comfortable, very stylish, and has excellent build. It sounds phenomenal – very clean and detailed, and an extremely black background allowing for excellent separation of instruments, and wonderful imaging ability."

Head-Fi Member/Reviewer

Written by Jude Mansilla


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


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


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


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

TYPE: Closed, full-size, around-the-ear headphone
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MSRP: $249.00
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URL: www.beyerdynamic.com
Audeze LCD-2

The entry about the Audeze LCD-2 can be found in the Summit-Fi section of the guide.


Click here to read about the LCD-2 from Audeze.

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."

Head-Fi Member/Reviewer

TYPE: Closed, portable, circumaural (around the-ear) headphone 
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MSRP: $399.95
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URL: www.bowers-wilkins.com
beyerdynamic T1

Details about the beyerdynamic T1 can be found in the Summit-Fi section of the guide.


Click here to check it out.

TYPE: Closed, full-size, around-the-ear headphones
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MSRP: Around $1,300


Written by Jude Mansilla


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?


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.


"The PM-1 provides a complete package from unboxing to listening that I find immensely satisfying, I simply put on the headphones and forget that they are there. The PM-1 are a headphone I simply put on and enjoy music with and that's rare to find."

Head-Fi Member/Reviewer

TYPE: Open-back, planar magnetic over-ear headphone
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PRICE: $1099 
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URL: www.oppodigital.com
Sony MDR-1ADAC  
TYPE: Full-size, around-the-ear closed headphone (with built-in DAC and amplifier)
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PRICE: $399.99 
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URL: sony.com

Written by Ethan Opolion (third_eye)


At first glance the Sony MDR-1ADAC looks like the popular MDR-1R and its update, the MDR-1A. But upon closer look, this headphone is unique in that it is a hybrid active/passive design with a built-in DAC/headphone amp. In passive mode, the headphone is connected with a detachable dual-sided 3.5mm mini connector to any smartphone, dap, or other portable device. In active mode, the MDR-1ADAC is digitally connected with either Lightning (Apple), Micro-USB (Android), or proprietary Sony Cables (Walkman). The package includes said cables to enable the right connection out of the box, as well as a handy carrying pouch.


These headphones are included in Sony’s Hi-Res range and have 40mm drivers with ALCP (Aluminum Liquid Crystal Polymer) diaphragms and S-Master HX digital amplification circuitry which was developed for high resolution audio playback. The soft urethane cushions fit completely around my (average size) ears and are deep enough to where my ears do not touch the drivers. Comfort is excellent and the headphones isolate very well.


To get started, the built-in 3.7V lithium-ion battery needs to be recharged with the micro-USB cable and provides up to 7.5 hours of battery life. On the left ear cup, there is a power switch to activate the built-in circuit and a green LED confirms that the unit is active and ready to use. The volume control is on the right side is easily adjustable with the right thumb.


I’ve always been a fan of the Sony’s unique ability to deliver high quality headphones that provide punchy sound, warmth and non-fatiguing clarity and the MDR-1ADAC is no exception. The headphone is just simply fun to listen to and using the built-in circuitry versus running straight out of my iPhone 6 provided a better sound stage depth and was overall smoother and more articulate.


At $399.99, the Sony-MDR-1ADAC is highly recommended for those looking for a great portable option to digitally connect to their smartphones/tablets without the extra fuss of additional DAC/amp/cables to worry about.

Abyss Headphones AB-1266

Details about the Abyss Headphones AB-1266 can be found in the Summit-Fi section of the guide.


Click here to check it out.



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


Written by Jude Mansilla


Like the old Sony MDR-F1 that clearly inspired this one, the MDR-MA900's huge 70mm drivers are essentially held afloat over your ears by a completely open frame--there are no real earcups to speak of with this one.


Though it's certainly not for everyone, I can't believe the MDR-MA900 isn't more of a favorite in our community. Of headphones currently in production, this is about as open as a headphone gets, so don't bother taking it outside; and keep it away from coffee houses, lest you get the boot for leaking your music for all the customers to hear.


Tonally, the MDR-MA900 strikes me as neutral-ish, but with low bass a bit rolled off (but not rolled off enough for me to characterize the bass as sucked out). Perhaps what I perceive as its relative flatness is also what makes it sound a bit on the drier side to me. Still, though, at least it doesn't offend in any way either--there's nothing missing, nothing glaring. It's not the most detailed headphone in the world, and certainly not the most immediate, but it is among the easiest headphones to listen to all day, and with just about any kind of music (though I found it tends to sound best with acoustic music, and least impressive with EDM).


So what is it I love about this headphone? The imaging. In this regard, it's entirely unique in my collection. Big, airy, open, with a greater sense of out-of-head placement than just about any other headphone I've heard. (If you have the MDR-MA900, close your eyes and listen to "Windstorm (A Place To Bury Strangers Remix)" by School of Seven Bells--especially the first 30 seconds--for just one fun example.) The MDR-MA900's airiness might be a bit diffuse for those who prefer more intimacy, more immediacy, but I love it when I'm in the mood.


The MDR-MA900 may also be one of the most comfortable headphones on the planet, which, along with that imaging and easy-going balance, makes this an easy headphone for hours-long listening sessions. If you've got nobody else around you, and you work in a quiet environment, the MDR-MA900 is an awesome listen-while-you-work headphone. At low listening levels, it makes for an amazing background music headphone.

Written by Jude Mansilla


For a company known for its relatively affordable eco-conscious in-ears--the ms01 being the one model of theirs that I've tried, and really like--to come out with their first over-ear, call it a studio monitor (as they did with their ms01), and charge 250 bucks for it…that's ambitious. $250 buys you some pretty fantastic headphones out there, from the likes of Sennheiser, V-MODA, Sony, Grado, beyerdynamic, AKG…the list goes on.


So how'd thinksound do? Let's start by talking about its design: the thinksound On1's design is about as simple as can be, adding its visual flair the way they did with their ms01--with gorgeous handcrafted wood housings. I'm not sure what kind of wood thinksound is using for the On1, but it's finely finished, and the grain is very pretty. The on-the-ear earpads are very soft, made of black leather (or synthetic leather) stuffed with memory foam. Isolation from the closed earcups is good. The headband is made of a flexible metal, with a padded fabric covering.


I find the On1 to be very comfortable, its earpads being very flush, and the very flexible articulation offered by the hinges and yoke design makes for a very quick, flush fit on the ears. I wish more headphones offered similar earcup articulation, which can go a long way to making fit better, and, thus, performance that's more optimal and consistent. This On1 is also a very light headphone, weighing only 6.5 ounces.


The On1's drivers are 40mm dynamic drivers, and nominal impedance is 50Ω. It comes with a Kevlar-reinforced, tangle-resistant fabric cable, with an inline one-button mic/remote. The On1 is a relatively sensitive headphone, and I can drive it with my iPhone 5S (which is how I usually use it), but found it does up its game with a good amp in front of it.


Compared to its in-ear thinksound monitor counterpart (the ms01), the On1 has a more bass emphasized sound signature. The On1's bass is very impactful, but still has good control. While a little bit of the thickness tails up into the lower mids, its midband detail doesn't suffer from it at all, to my ears. In fact, the more I listen to the On1, the more I've come to appreciate its midrange and treble detail. On balance, the thinksound On1 sounds very rich without sounding bloated to me. I use the On1 for all genres and find it very versatile.


The On1 is one of the gems in its very crowded, very competitive premium price range.


"The on1s provide the most euphoric, musical, and almost the most audiophile experience without producing an overbearing amount of detail."

Head-Fi Member/Reviewer

TYPE: Closed, supra-aural (on-the-ear) headphone
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MSRP: $250.00 
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URL: www.thinksound.com
Parrot ZIK 2.0

Details about the Parrot Zik 2.0 can be found in the Wireless Headphones section of the guide.


Click here to check it out.

TYPE: Closed, portable, active noise canceling, around-the-ear headphone (MDR-1RNC) 
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MSRP: $499.99
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URL: www.sony.com


Written by Jude Mansilla


The Sony MDR-1RNC, in terms of technology and features--and in terms of price--is the MDR-1 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 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. Bose's noise canceling seems to cancel more total noise, to my ears, with a cancellation effect that 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 area the MDR-1RNC's noise canceling seems particularly effective is with low-frequency noise cancellation. While testing them at an airport, Joe (one of Head-Fi's co-administrators) was wearing the MDR-1RNC (and I the Bose QC15), and when I asked what the rumble of the tram that had just gone by sounded like to him, he looked at me puzzled and asked, "What tram?"


To my ears, another advantage the MDR-1RNC has over my Bose QC15 or QC25 is in sound quality with music. The Bose QC15 had a smooth, friendly sound signature, but one that's not very detailed, and with rather flat imaging; and the QC25 has improved on the QC15. 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 either of my Bose over-ears.


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 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-1A and the Bluetooth MDR-1RBT in its passive mode--but it's still acceptably good in a pinch.


Currently, the Sony MDR-1RNC is the only active noise canceler I use for travel other than Bose's offerings. That said, the improvements in the Bose QuietComfort 25 have moved the Sony MDR-1RNC into second position for me, as far as active noise-canceling over-ears go.

Written by Jude Mansilla


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.


TYPE: Open, full-size, around-the-ear headphones 
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MSRP: Around $180 and $250, respectively
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URL: www.sennheiser.com



Stax SR-009

Details about the Stax SR-009 can be found in the Summit-Fi section of the guide.


Click here to check it out.

Written by Jude Mansilla


After the introduction of its flagship HD 800, Sennheiser had a one-thousand-dollar-wide chasm in its product line between the $500 HD 650 and the $1500 HD 800. Of course, Sennheiser's competitors were more than happy to slot into that price range with some amazing new headphones, and I knew it was only a matter of time until Sennheiser would have its own. At this year's CES, Sennheiser unveiled the $1000 Sennheiser HD 700. It was a long time in coming, but I think it's another new winner from the old German mark.


Though it does not come equipped with the HD 800's extraordinary ring drivers, the HD 700 does have a patent-pending ventilated magnet system to manage airflow (and minimize turbulence) around its new drivers--and careful use of sandwiched materials through the headband to damp chassis vibration--equipping the HD 700 with its own innovations. It is also one of the three most comfortable full-size headphones I've worn (the other two being the HD 800 and the Fostex TH900).


Its sound is highly detailed, with a treble tilt north of neutral, reminding me more of the HD 800 than the warmer HD 650, even if it doesn't quite reach the performance heights of its flagship sibling. One key advantage I've found with the HD 700 over the HD 800 is an easier time finding amp matchups for it, and greater ease of driving. As a result, I regularly find myself using the HD 700 in good portable rigs--and more affordable desktop rigs--a lot more than I've ever done with the HD 800 (which I find to be pickier, its use almost always reserved for my higher-end setups). It probably helps that the 150-ohm HD 700 is somewhat more sensitive than the 300-ohm HD 800. The HD 700 also images very well, but again at least a tick behind the HD 800's standard-setting wide, open, airy soundstage.


At $1000, the HD 700 finds itself in a growing crowd of world-class headphones, including some remarkable planar magnetic designs. However, its sonic performance, combined with its light weight and ultra-comfortable design--and relative ease of driving--will have the HD 700 finding its own fan base quickly, including yours truly.


"It is exciting, forward and edgy – with particular strength in rendering acoustic instruments. It also has very good bass quality and speed. As a complimentary headphone for specific uses / genres, I can see it being a reasonable purchase at around the $500-600 USD mark. It’s a capable headphone and brings a touch of Grado like excitement – but with more comfort and a better bottom end."

Head-Fi Member/Reviewer

TYPE: Open, full-size, around-the-ear headphones
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MSRP: $999.95
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URL: www.sennheiser.com


TYPE: Closed, portable, on-the-ear headphone
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MSRP: $299.99
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URL: www.bowers-wilkins.com

Written by Jude Mansilla


The Bowers & Wilkins P5 was, in my opinion, one of the most market-defining headphones not made by Beats. It was the first headphone from Bowers & Wilkins--a decades-old, storied loudspeaker manufacturer--released at a time when many experienced headphone manufacturers were thinking the only way to answer Beats was to mimic them. Bowers & Wilkins wasn't among them.



Obviously, nobody would expect B&W to enter the headphone market with a plasticky headphone, and they didn't. In fact, they did very much the opposite--with their P5, the owners' hands only touched metal or leather; and its styling was as gorgeous as it was unique. It even felt premium--even mechanically, everything about the P5 was buttery smooth and durably built. Five years after its debut, the Bowers & Wilkins P5 remains, in my opinion, one of the most satisfying headphones to touch and hold.


Sonically, the P5 was a very good portable headphone--competent, pleasant, but missing something, especially up top. Perhaps playing it a little too safe for their first headphone, Bowers & Wilkins opted for a very safe sound signature, and perhaps went a bit overboard with the smoothness. The original P5 was a headphone that, to my ears, lacks presence up top, sounding at times sparkle-free, even when the music called for more shimmer. For a time, I was willing to accept some amount of sonic tradeoff, for all the P5's other positive traits. In the nearly five years since, though, the competition has ramped up substantially. Bowers & Wilkins knew this, and so this year they updated the P5 substantially, introducing the Bowers & Wilkins P5 Series 2.

With an all-new driver design--that I understand to inspired by the drivers in Bower & Wilkins' flagship P7--the P5 Series 2 is, to my ears, improving on the original P5 in just about every area it was needed, without losing what made it the P5. In other words, if you loved the P5, I think you're going to love the P5 Series 2.


To start, the bass is still rich and pronounced, but control and detail have improved in the lower registers. Midrange clarity has also taken a jump forward, reminding me of a lens coming into focus--it wasn't something I was as much wishing for as treble presence, but now that it's here, I'm very happy to hear it.


Now let's talk about treble, as this constituted the biggest unchecked checkbox for me with the original. In my 2011 review of the P5, I said:


Treble performance is where I think the P5 faces its biggest sonic criticism from me, with enough treble softness and roll-off to heighten the warmth of the P5's overall presentation, especially combined with the P5's smoothness everywhere else. Even through the clamor of public transportation, treble detail can often be heard and appreciated, and it is here, with the P5's upper registers, that the P5 falls the most sonically short. If I had my druthers, I wouldn't ask the Bowers & Wilkins engineers to abandon their aforesaid aversion to exaggerated treble--but I would enjoy enough of a boost in the upper registers (compared to where it is now) to get me to something I'd describe as a more neutral treble presentation. More detail up top would help to carve out a greater sense of detail in what is, again, a generally very safe (probably too safe), smooth, and pleasant overall sonic presentation.


I am excited to report that the P5 Series 2 now checks that box. Treble extension has been improved noticeably, and entirely to good effect. There's an assuredness now to the P5 Series 2's upper registers that was definitely not there in the original P5, and it was executed in this new version without creating any demons--no stridence, no sibilance, no offensive treble nasties of any sort. 


In terms of soundstage, I'd call the new version essentially equal to the original. I don't find it in anyway constricting, but it's not going to convince you it's an open headphone either. Even though the P5 Series 2's soundstage isn't airy, the image it projects is coherent and precise for what I'd expect from a compact, closed, supra-aural (on-the-ear) headphone.



To be clear, though, this is not a neutral, flat sounding headphone. It is still a richer-than-neutral sound signature, but this model is significantly more detailed than the P5 before it. In terms of overall performance, the P5 Series 2 is closer now to Bowers & Wilkins flagship P7 than it is to its P5 predecessor. 



As for its styling, Bowers & Wilkins wisely chose to keep changes to a minimum. The only very noticeable change is that the silver brushed metal earcup faceplates are now black brushed metal earcup faceplates. I haven't decided yet which look I prefer, but, either way, this headphone is still one of the most beautiful headphones ever made, in my opinion; and, like its predecessor, it's still one of the best looking headphones on the head that I've ever seen.



At $299.99, the Bowers & Wilkins P5 Series 2 is not just an easy recommendation for me to make, it is an emphatic one--especially if you're in the market for a super-compact on-the-go premium headphone.

Fostex TH600

Details about the Fostex TH600 can be found in the Summit-Fi section of the guide.


Click here to check it out.

Noontec Zoro II  c57420db_blast_new_green_2.png
TYPE: Closed, portable, on-the-ear headphones
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PRICE: Around $90 
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URL: www.noontec.com

Written by Amos Barnett (Currawong)


It is not often that I have interest in $100 headphones, and even less so in those with a bunch of marketing speak on the box — “Surround Closed Cavity Body” (meaningless), “Votrik Speaker” (who?), “High Definition” (Ungh!). It brought back memories from decades ago of my $10 “Dyanmic Stereo Sound” speakers which were single drivers in a cheap plastic box. 


However I’d seen some positive comments about the Zoro IIs on Head-Fi and the Amazon reviews were full of praise, so I agreed to give them a go. Opening them up, I was pleased to find that the hinge is steel reinforced, which is a positive given that the headphones are understandably plastic. The outer plastic is coated in what is described as “piano crafting varnish”, though it looks more like the pearl finish on my car. Irrespective, it is very nice and fingerprint-magnet smooth. On the headphones, which are “Designed in Italy” the result is gorgeous, garnering immediate positive comments from my young daughter when she spotted them. The headband arc ends at the hinge and part of it on either end are two tiny lugs which, when you open headphones all the way, snap into place, and the cable comes with a smartphone plug and mic. I immediately worried about the durability of snapping and folding this daily a few times and reached out to Noontec to ask them about durability. They replied that they had tested the hinge and it didn’t have any problems after “5000 times test” [sic].


Noontec appears to have taken the time to make decent earpads. I’ve seen too many pairs of low-range headphones that had vinyl so thin that the earpads were destroyed in short order, so decently thick earpads with a reasonably soft and smooth but a little robust-feeling covering was a pleasant surprise. The Zoro IIs sit on your ears, rather than around them, so this is important. 


The fit and finish appears quite good, down to the cup swivels, which don’t just flop around. The headphones don’t rattle when shaken and even when folded the hinges only have a tiny amount of play, only about as much as one gets in a high-end zoom lens. Even the single-button-with-mike phone-compatible cable is decent enough — a long strip of thin rubber terminated with branded plugs.


My first impressions were a shock and not at all what I expected from a pair of cheap headphones. At a moderate listening level the music was quite detailed and crisp. My usual experience with cheap headphones is that they tend to be boomy with a poor mid-range and very rolled-off treble, which might be OK with modern brightly-mastered pop but is rubbish for just about anything else. More recent models seem to be moving away from this trend, but I found that one usually has to spend a couple of hundred dollars first. 


Yello’s latest album, Touch Yello, is a slightly more modern version of the duo’s synth pop, with tracks ranging from dance music to ballads and soft jazz and welcomes detailed headphones with a good bit of bass punch. The Zoro IIs played it with both punch and delicacy as required. Heidi Happy’s voice, while not as well-presented as with some of my headphones, still came through very well, more like what I’d expect from a more expensive pair of headphones. I think this is due to the treble being slightly muted, which can make vocals seem slightly muffled. 


That muted treble was most noticeable listening to Leigh Barker from the Kostas Metaxas Recording Samplers. While the cymbals, for example, didn't come through as strongly as with some headphones, there was nothing disagreeable about the presentation, which is, overall, a touch warm. The percussion in "I’d Rather Be Blind, Crippled and Crazy" by The Derek Trucks Band was very enjoyable, the whole song delivered very well at both ends of the frequency spectrum. If anything, like with Heidi Happy on Yello’s album, I could only find fault in the vocals, which had a touch of hardness, but no more than I’d expect to find in headphones costing a few hundred dollars more.


To test the deep bass, I broke out the Amon Tobin’s Bricolage and The Silent Sound Spectrum by A Guy Called Gerald, both of which contain tracks that seem to go down close to 20 Hz. The rumble came through, not strongly, but quite sufficiently, and not lacking detail as I had expected. However, their inexpensive build doesn’t fare quite as well when the volume is turned up to louder levels, with vibrations clearly coming through the frame and a bit of harshness appearing in the presentation. A great deal of this is due to them being on-ears. Regardless, they held up remarkably well considering their price. 


Overall, for US$99 they are a steal, all of attractive, comfortable and enjoyable to listen with as long as one doesn't turn the volume up too high. I didn’t feel a desire to remove them from my head once I started listening, always an excellent sign. People looking for more pounding bass or a “club” experience might choose V-MODAs or the like, but for a pair of inexpensive and attractive all-rounders the Zoro IIs set a high bar.

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Comments (1)

Good list although I would add Brainwavz hm5 to over ear headphones and kingston hyperx cloud to gaming headphones
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