Head-Fi.org › 2014 Winter Gift Guide › Head Fi Buying Guide Over Ear Headphones 3

Head-Fi Buying Guide (Over-Ear Headphones) 3

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

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Koss BT540i

Details about the Koss BT540i can be found in the Summit-Fi 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 just-released Bose QuietComfort 25 have moved the Sony MDR-1RNC into second position for me, as far as active noise-canceling over-ears go.

Sony MDR-1A  c57420db_blast_new_green_2.png
TYPE: Full-size, around-the-ear closed headphone
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PRICE: Around $300
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URL: www.sony.com

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

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.

TYPE: Open, full-size, around-the-ear headphones
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MSRP: Around $1,000
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URL: www.sennheiser.com

 

Fostex TH600

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

 

Click here to check it out.

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

 

Written by Jude Mansilla

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

 

"Everything sounds good through them and they sound GREAT plugged into anything. They are so musical, warm, detailed and just so damn RIGHT."

-Matt Burke (amigomatt)
Head-Fi Member/Reviewer

'

Written by Jude Mansilla

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

-Lan647
Head-Fi Member/Reviewer

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

 

Sony MDR-1RBT

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

 

Click here to check it out.

Bose QuietComfort 25  c57420db_blast_new_green_2.png

Written by Jude Mansilla

 

The Bose QuietComfort 15 was the most effective active noise canceling headphone (for the consumer market) that I'd ever used. Then Bose's in-ear QuietComfort 20 raised the bar, actively canceling even more noise than its over-ear sibling, nestled in my ears for over 100,000 miles of travel so far. Well, Bose has done it yet again, having recently announced the over-ear QuietComfort 25, which replaces the QuietComfort 15.

 

To my ears, the QC25 improves on virtually every aspect of the QC15, from the amount of noise canceled, to its sound quality when playing music (or movies, for that matter), and even the carrying case was improved. One critically important upgrade is that the QC25 now plays passively, whereas the QC15 would completely cease to function when its battery died. However, as with the QC15, a dying battery isn't likely to be commonplace with the QC25, as it can play for around 35 hours from a single alkaline AAA battery.

 

The Bose QuietComfort 25 has the most effective active noise cancellation circuit I've yet used in a consumer headphone regardless of form factor, and by a noticeable margin. If the amount of active noise attenuation is your primary consideration, the QC25 would easily be my top recommendation, as it's freakishly good in this regard.

 

Musically, the QC25 sounds good, too, and has improved in terms of musicality and resolution versus its predecessor. However, if you're used to high-end headphones (like ones we more typically discuss at Head-Fi in this price range and above), the QC25 is not likely to wow you with its musical output while sitting in a quiet room at your desk or in your easy chair. Use it in its element, though--in a plane, train, data center, any place with loud droning background noise--and it's a very hard over-ear headphone to top.

 

Additionally, the Bose QC25 is exceptionally comfortable (as comfortable as the QC15 before it), even on my huge head, with its very moderate clamping force, very soft cushy earpads, and light weight. The QC25 also folds very flat into a newly designed, even more compact semi-hardside case, so it's very easy to pack.

 

If you're type of person who travels a bunch, but can't get comfortable with in-ear headphones, then it has to be added to your must-try list. Simply put, as far as over-ear headphones go, the Bose QuietComfort 25 is my current first choice for a travel headphone, and a worthwhile upgrade to the outstanding QuietComfort 15 that came before it.

TYPE: Closed, full-size, active-noise canceling, around-the-ear headphone 
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PRICE: $299.95 
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URL: www.bose.com
Aedle VK-1 Valkyrie
TYPE: Closed, full-size, on-the-ear headphone
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MSRP: $380
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URL: www.aedle.net

Written by Jude Mansilla

 

Designed in Paris. Assembled in Brittany, France. You read that, and thoughts of beautiful things probably come to mind. And when it comes to the Aedle VK-1 Valkyrie, that's exactly what you get. It's simply one of the most beautiful headphones I've ever seen.

 

In founding Aedle, Raphael Lebas de Lacour and Baptiste Sancho decided to create something unique in the headphone world, aiming to combine old world craftsmanship and noble materials with modern technology, and they've certainly done that--and the result is certainly unique.

 

Outside of its aramid-fiber-covered cable, the only thing your hand touches on the Aedle VK-1 is metal or leather. The metals used in the VK-1 include manganese steel, polished stainless steel, and pieces machined from ingots of T6066 aircraft grade aluminum. The leather is all hand sewn lambskin--and I love that the leather looks hand sewn. Though CNC machining is used on the metal parts, looking at the Aedle VK-1 instead conjures images of hammers and anvils in my mind.

 

It also comes with a beautiful quilted, padded carrying pouch with a magnetic closure top, and made of what feels to me like a brushed denim. It's a perfectly fitting case for the Aedle VK-1.

 

The VK-1's earpieces are supra-aural (on-the-ear), and, coupled with some pretty strong clamping force out of the box, don't exactly make for the most comfortable headphones. Some flexing and bending to shape and loosen the lambskin-covered manganese spring steel headband has improved fit quite a bit. It'll never be one of my most comfortable headphones, but I can wear it for a couple of hours without a hitch.

 

The titanium drivers their semi-closed housings (using what Aedle calls a "passive bass enhancement system") sound very good to me, with a warmish overall tilt. Bass is strong, but firm. The midrange has good clarity--wonderful with vocals--without a hint of edge or glare. The treble has a soft rolled-off quality. The Aedle is warm-sounding to me, but not dark. It's more about a pleasant listen than it is a deep dive into sonic microscopy. For what it is, the Aedle VK-1 sounds very nice to me.

 

In short, the Aedle VK-1 is very French--literally, and in spirit. And I absolutely adore it.

Written by Jude Mansilla

 

The Sennheiser PX 200-II is an easy recommendation for an ultra-portable on-the-ear headphone priced under $100, especially if you're looking for a compact, closed headphone 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 audition list, especially if you want something super portable that's not an in-ear. The closed-back PX 200-II provides good passive noise isolation, too.

 

This headphone is also available in a version with a three-button remote/mic cable, and that model is called the PX 200-IIi, and is priced around $110.

 

"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."

-ljokerl
Head-Fi Member/Reviewer

TYPE: Portable, closed, on-the-ear headphone
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MSRP: Around $90
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URL: www.sennheiser.com

 

 

Sony MDR-10RBT

Details about the Sony MDR-10RBT can be found in the Wireless Headphones section of the guide.

 

Click here to check it out.

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.

 

 

"This headphone has an amazing soundstage presentation, it has one of the most speaker-like soundstages I've ever heard from a headphone and that's something truly special about this headphone. If someone is looking for a speaker-like sound, it doesn't become much more speaker-like than the MA900."

-Kevin S. (kman1211)
Head-Fi Member/Reviewer

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

 

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?

 

"They are extremely detailed and transparent. They provide great sound stage with good positioning - especially for a closed headphone."

-Szadzik
Head-Fi Member/Reviewer

Sennheiser RS 220

Details about the Sennheiser RS220 can be found in the Wireless Headphones section of the guide.

 

Click here to check it out.

TYPE: Closed, full-size, active noise-canceling headphones 
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MSRP: $399.99
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URL: www.ferrari-by-logic3.com

 

Written by Jude Mansilla

 

The Ferrari Cavallino T350 by Logic3 surprised me. Yes, it's gorgeous--I mean gorgeous (especially the tan leather version). My expectation, prior to hearing it--given that neither the names Ferrari or Logic3 have been previously associated with premium headphones--was that the T350 was going to be all show, no go.

 

I was happy to find, though, that its sound quality is actually quite good. Audiophiles will probably find its tonal balance inviting, with its non-boomy bass quite well controlled, and its midband is smooth but still reasonably detailed. And though the Ferrari Cavallino T350's treble might sometimes come off as a smidge grainy at times, I like its sparkle. (That said, what I call sparkle, some may call bright.)

 

The Cavallino T350 is powered by two AAA batteries, and, though I haven't measured how many hours of battery life I've gotten from a set, I'd guess that battery life is good, but not quite as long as the 35 hours you can expect from the QC15.

 

Things to look out for with the T350: It's expensive, at $400. Like the QC15, the music stops when the batteries die, as there is no passive mode. On my head, it can feel heavy after a few hours of listening time. And one of my biggest complaints about the Ferrari Cavallino T350 by Logic3 is that it doesn't fold flat, so it's very bulky to carry in its stylish carbon-fiber-look carrying case.

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.

 

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.

 

TYPE: Closed, full-size, on-the-ear headphone (Diesel VEKTR)
Closed, full-size, active noise canceling, around-the-ear headphone (Inspiration)
Closed, full-size, on-the-ear headphone (Diamond Tears Edge) 
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MSRP: Around $229, $300, and $300, respectively
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URL: www.monsterproducts.com

 

 

 

Written by Jude Mansilla

 

As co-developer of the now-ubiquitous Beats By Dre line of headphones, Monster, for the last several years, has helped grow Beats into what some might say is the biggest success story in the history of headphones. Though Beats certainly isn't a popular make here on Head-Fi, outside of our community Beats is everywhere. I'd seen it estimated at one point that Beats headphones accounted for 54% of the >$100 headphone market (and around 29% of the entire headphone category). Huge.

 

This year, however, Monster and Beats broke up. 2013 began with Monster in their post-Beats era, and they've been preparing for it for quite some time with the development of a bunch of their own models. It seems to me that for its first round of over-ears, Monster wanted to make sure we knew they weren't going to simply mimic what they were doing with Beats, releasing several wildly styled headphones, a few of which I quite like. And all are (probably thankfully for most) a sonic departure from what Beats is doing, and a move toward a more audio-enthusiast-friendly sound signature.

 

The Monster Diesel VEKTR is a headphone collaboration between Monster and Italian fashion brand Diesel. As you can see in the photo, there's nothing else on the market that looks anything like it--the VEKTR's look is in-your-face Italian supercar meets F-117A stealth bomber, with its abundance of chiseled angular cuts and flat surfaces.

 

Even on my huge head, I find the lightweight Diesel VEKTR comfortable for a supra-aural (on-the-ear) headphone. And though it looks rather severe when you're holding it in your hands, the all-black Diesel VEKTR looks surprisingly modest on the head. It also folds up into a very compact package, so its a nice headphone for those whose bags are usually tightly packed.

 

As for its sound, the Diesel VEKTR's sonic performance far exceeds what I expected from a headphone co-developed with a fashion brand, development-led by a company in the throes of a split with Beats. The Diesel VEKTR is very good, and exceedingly so for a headphone targeting the general consumer market. For example, I'd never consider listening to the weighty, thick Tord Gustavsen Trio album The Ground via the Beats Pro, which reduces that recording's bottom heaviness to muck. But not only do I listen to that Gustavsen album--and other thick-waisted recordings like Fiona Apple's song "Extraordinary Machine"--through the VEKTR, I enjoy listening to recordings like these through this headphone. Yes, the bass has some low emphasis, but it's surprisingly even-keeled in its overall presentation. And though I might wish for more overall resolution and shimmer, and perhaps a more fleshed-out soundstage, I'd say the VEKTR is a fun, enjoyable, musical headphone.

 

The Monster Inspiration I have here is the active noise canceling version (around $300). (The passive-only version, which I haven't heard yet, goes for around $250.) As with the VEKTR and Diamond Tears, Monster made sure to give the Inspiration its very own style. In terms of its looks, the Inspiration, unlike its over-ear siblings in this guide, is absolutely not polarizing--just about everyone I've shown it to loves its chic-yet-business-friendly lines. Whereas its siblings might require youthful spirit and some moxie to pull off, the Inspiration is styled to be worn by anyone, any age.

 

The Inspiration's styling coup, though, is one that is very clever, yet so simple I can't believe it hasn't been done before: interchangeable headbands, held on firmly (yet easily changed) with a magnetic mount system. Since an over-ear headphone's headband can be such a major part of its outward appearance, changing it out for different colors, patterns, and materials can dramatically alter the headphone's appearance. I've got the Inspiration in black, and the black ballistic nylon or black perforated leather headbands on it will go with a suit. A blue denim headband turns the Inspiration into something completely different. And there are now many headbands to choose from, ranging in price from $25 to $50 each. Of course, if you're the creative type, perhaps you could customize one for a completely one-off look.

 

By the way, the Inspiration's in-line three-button remote is easily one of the best I've used, with responsive buttons that have just the right amount of click, and a bumped-out middle button that eliminates any doubts about which of the three buttons you're pressing. Every company making in-line three-button remotes should try the one on the Inspiration's cable.

 

The Inspiration's sound in its passive mode (again, I have the version with active noise canceling) is on the bass-heavier side, but, as a bass-heavy headphone, I think it's a good one. It's not a detail freak's headphone, but it's probably better than what most general consumers listen to, and better than anything Monster and Beats released together. In passive mode, the Inspiration's mids are balanced nicely, and its highs smooth--again, though, look elsewhere if you tend to favor a more detailed, airy headphone, as the Inspiration's passive-mode presentation is, overall, rather heavy, and its soundstage on the tighter side.

 

When its active noise canceling circuit is switched on, the sound takes a harsher turn, sibilance kicks up, and the tonal balance takes on more of a general consumer-ish U-shape. For louder environments, it seems clear to me that Monster was trying to provide more detail to compensate for high ambient noise, but, to my ears, they dialed that up to a level that sounds somewhat etched and unnatural, which is particularly clear when you're surrounded by only mild ambient noise. Stick to its passive mode when you can for better sound. As for canceling noise, the circuit works well, but still far off the likes of Sony's new MDR-1RNC and Bose's QC15. (I have been told the passive-only Inspiration sound even better than the active version in passive mode. I haven't tried the passive-only version yet, though.)

 

The big gem (pun absolutely intended) in the Monster over-ear roster is, without a doubt, the Monster Diamond Tears Edge (around $300). I'll say it: I dig this headphone's sound, and its attitude. If you think the Diesel VEKTR is out-there in terms of its design, wait until you see the Diamond Tears. And unlike the Diesel VEKTR, which looks rather modest on the head, the Diamond Tears draws a bunch of attention even when worn (especially the white version, with its abundance of chrome). Never, in all my Head-Fi life, have I been asked more about the headphone on my head or around my neck than when I go out wearing the Diamond Tears. When I first saw it, I thought more women than men would ask about it, but the inquirers have been just about 50/50 women and men.

 

Monster developed the Diamond Tears with Park Jin Young (JYP), an entertainer and producer who's immensely popular in Korea. And if JYP helped voice this thing, Monster should make more headphones with this guy. Look again at what I wrote about the VEKTR (above), and know that the Diamond Tears is somewhat like the VEKTR, but sonically improved and refined in every respect, to the point that I think the Diamond Tears is the better headphone.

The Diamond Tears' bass is emphasized, but with nice control and detail down low, especially for a very closed on-the-ear headphone.

The Diamond Tears' midrange has very good presence and precision for the class, and its treble the same. When I feed high-resolution recordings through the Diamond Tears, its ability to scale above its Monster siblings is clear. Though the Diamond Tears has better soundstage and image placement than the VEKTR, it's still pretty closed in, so I do wish it conveyed a greater sense of space.

 

The "diamond" earcups feel solid and, combined with the seal provided by the earpads, offers very good passive noise isolation. Its headband is metal with thick silicone fittings. The Diamond Tears has so far proven a very durably built headphone in my experience.

 

So how does this spunkily styled Monster over-ear flagship compare to its similarly priced, more outwardly serious competitors, by the likes of Sennheiser, Sony, and V-MODA? Very well. Along with some of the finer offerings in this class by these companies, Monster's Diamond Tears is one of my favorite on-ear, closed portable headphones. And I appreciate Monster's unflinching attitude in offering such a serious-sounding headphone in such an unconventional, plucky, spirited style.

 

Now well into their post-Beats era, I'd say Monster's off to a bang-up start.

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Comments (4)

no Philips Fidelio X2?
I'm also surprised to see the Fidelio X2 missing from the list.
I was about to mention the same thing
@audiobot, @BMT, @Kaeru92, the Philips Fidelio X2 is one of my overall favorite new headphones of 2014, and is going to be added to the guide, along with a handful of other products that didn't make it into the guide in time for the first pass, and then will be featured on the homepage. In my opinion, it's a fantastic headphone.
Head-Fi.org › 2014 Winter Gift Guide › Head Fi Buying Guide Over Ear Headphones 3