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

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Type:   Open, around-the-ear, planardynamic headphone


Price:   $3,995 USD


URL:   http://www.audeze.com

Written by Jude Mansilla


Since it was first unveiled at CanJam @ RMAF 2015, the LCD-4 has undergone some changes. After some early production unit issues, Audeze made changes to the very thin diaphragm and its conductive traces on the LCD-4 to improve reliability. The effects of these changes resulted in an increase in nominal impedance from 100 ohms to 200 ohms (and a reduction in sensitivity)--but also resulting in a light, faster, more reliable diaphragm.

Still, the LCD-4, though improved in sound and reliability, retains the character and sonic traits of the early-unit LCD-4's, and that's a good thing. We've heard both versions, and the first time was superb, the revision even better. The Audeze LCD-4 is their first new flagship headphone since 2011's LCD-3 launch. I view their headphones since the LCD-3 as mild departures (sometimes more than mild) from the original LCD sound--models like the LCD-X, LCD-XC, and even some of their legacy models after they had been updated with Audeze's Fazor technology. To my ears, the LCD-4 marked somewhat of a return to Audeze's origins--only with very noticeable improvements in resolution.

After a lot of dedicated research & development and advancements in materials science, Audeze moved to sub-micron-thin diaphragms, officially moving Audeze's diaphragm technology to true nanoscale level. Now while they've achieved a thinner diaphragm than they had ever used before, Audeze still substantially increased the power of their magnet array, moving to a Double Fluxor magnet array rated at 1.5 Tesla, which I'm pretty sure that makes it the most powerful magnetic flux density in a planar magnetic headphone today.

So in the LCD-4 we have ultra-thin diaphragms combined with immensely powerful magnet arrays. Lower mass to move...more powerful magnets. Does the LCD-4 sound fast? Yes, very fast. To my ears, the LCD-4's transient response is outstanding, and probably the standard in this respect among non-electrostats. If not for the LCD-4's weight (which I'll get to in a minute), I might forget I'm not listening to a high-end electrostatic system.

Improving upon the likes of the LCD-3 or the LCD-X is no mean feat, and substantial improvements come even harder--but they've unquestionably done it. Again, it had been four years between Audeze flagships, and you can hear those years of work in the LCD-4. The resolution and body of the LCD-4's midrange is perhaps what stands out most to me, and places its midrange performance among the very best of the current-production headphones I've heard to date.

As for tonal balance, the Audeze LCD-4 is richer than the more neutral, flatter-sounding Audeze LCD-X--more akin in this regard to the LCD-3, but with more tautness, more control than the LCD-3 down low (which, considering the LCD-3's bass performance, is quite a statement). Treble extension and smoothness compares with the LCD-3, only the LCD-4 is unquestionably more exacting up top. To be clear, though, the LCD-4's treble doesn't sound tipped-up to me relative to my LCD-3, just more precise, more accurate.

Relative to all of the other Audeze headphones we have here, the LCD-4, to my ears, is simply truer to a sense of being there. I've listened to several Chesky Records albums that I was actually in the acoustic for during the recordings, and the LCD-4 is extraordinarily capable of delivering much of what brings me back to a sense of actually being in the acoustic with the performers--in terms of the imaging, and the tonal & timbral richness--at a level only a handful of other headphones have been able to do for me.

In addition to improved sonic performance, the LCD-4 has a new suspension-type headband that incorporates a wide leather comfort strap, and a very nice, very trick carbon fiber band that reminds me of something that was lifted from a Formula One car. Improvements to the headband are certainly welcome, and necessary--the LCD-4 is even heavier than the LCD-XC, which itself was too heavy for me. If the LCD-4 had the old-style Audeze headband, I don't think I'd be able to wear it for more than 15 minutes at a time. With the new headband, I can go for perhaps an hour or so, but then I do start feeling the weight.

The Audeze LCD-4 is, in my opinion, the best sounding Audeze headphone to date, and one of the best sounding headphones currently available at any price. I think, though, that it's time for Audeze to consider what its competitors are doing on the high end--making lighter weight headphones that are getting better and better, often priced substantially less than the LCD-4's price. Headphones like the HiFiMAN HE-1000, the Focal Utopia, Sennheiser HD 800S, Stax SR-L700, MrSpeakers ETHER and ETHER C Flow, and others--all headphones that are competitors in terms of performance, and yet are lighter and more comfortable to wear.

The Audeze LCD-4 is sold on a build-to-order basis, and is priced at $3995.



"Both male and female voice reproduction as well as instruments in the middle frequencies sound awe inspiring. Insanity by Gregory Porter & Lalah Hathaway completely draws me in with the duet's smooth sounding voices and subtle, but enticing music presentation. These can probably be described as mid forward headphones. In fact I would say if the midrange and bass are your favorite, these are what you've been looking for."

- Dillan


Type:   Closed, around-the-ear headphone


Price:   $1,299 USD


URL:   http://www.fostexinternational.com

Written by Jude Mansilla


Take many different types of sulfur-smoked silver foil pieces, and adhere them--in a manner similar to a torn-paper collage--to a black lacquered base over a precisely shaped Japanese cherry birch wood form. Finish it with an overcoat of rich Bordeaux-wine-colored paint, until the finish looks deep, glossy, liquid. Finally, using platinum leaf, meticulously apply the emblem of the manufacturer of this exquisite thing. Am I describing the creation of something destined for the display cabinets of the Imperial House of Japan? Maybe if the Emperor of Japan is a headphone audio enthusiast. No, what I'm describing is how the traditional, painstaking art of Japanese urushi lacquer is used in the adornment of an earcup of a flagship headphone.


When Fostex decided to craft a flagship high-end dynamic headphone, they wanted it to be impeccable in every way, offering high-end sound quality (of course), and to do so with extraordinary beauty and comfort. Their TH900 headphone was the result, and it is indeed a stunner. Not surprisingly, it wasn't long before the high-end connoisseurs of Head-Fi were abuzz about it, and deservedly so.   The TH900 is one of the easiest headphones to fall in love with. Of course, there's that love-at-first-sight thing. From a purely aesthetic standpoint, the TH900 is, in my opinion, one of the most beautiful headphones ever created. I've not seen a photo yet that fully conveys the deep beauty of the TH900's urushi-lacquered earcups (nor have I been able to capture it with my own photos, but not for lack of trying).


Then there's the love-at-first-wear thing. The TH900 is extremely comfortable--there are few headphones I'd be willing to wear for longer durations than I do the TH900. A closed headphone, the TH900's earpads are made of an advanced synthetic leather derived from eggshell membrane. The result is a material that has the suppleness of the very soft leather.


Fostex wouldn't do all of this without first having sonic performance worthy of it. And in this, its sound, the TH900 is just as accomplished as it is with its style and comfort. Very revealing, rich bass, relatively neutral elsewhere, never fatiguing. The TH900 sounds velvety and organic, without ever sounding overly smoothed. I have headphones that are more technically capable in one aspect or another, some that are more neutral, and some that are ultimately more revealing, but few headphones can convey as much as the TH900 does without tiring me at all. It is an eminently easy, yet involving, headphone to listen to.


After having spent over a year with the Fostex TH900 now, it has become perhaps my favorite headphone overall, plying its brilliance not with just one or two rigs precisely crafted for it, but in so many good systems you plug it into. In every way, the Fostex TH900 is simply beautiful, and a wonderfully executed flagship by Fostex.



"it is a lovely pair of headphones, both in terms of looks and sonic signature. It is thoroughly enjoyable and musical."

- Kiats

Type:   Closed, portable, active noise canceling, around-the-ear headphone


Price:   $499.99 USD


URL:   http://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.


Type:   Closed, on-ear headphone


Price:   $200 USD


URL:   http://www.sennheiser.com

Written by Jude Mansilla


One of the all-time headphone hi-fi classics, the Sennheiser HD 25-1 II is still the top choice for a closed, portable on-the-ear headphone for many Head-Fi'ers. It's one of my all-time favorites in that category.


With robust bass, relatively neutral mids, and a lively treble, the HD 25-1 II is definitely on the fun side of the audiophile-type sound signatures.


With an extremely tough build (yet still lightweight), the Sennheiser HD 25-1 II remains a popular DJ headphone for its bombproof durability, outstanding isolation, and retro-hip utilitarian looks.







































Type:   Closed, on-ear headphone


Price:   $319.95 USD


URL:   http://www.sennheiser.com

Written by Jude Mansilla


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


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


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


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


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


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
















Type:   Closed, on-ear headphone


Price:   Around $180 USD


URL:   http://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."

- Brooko

Type:   Closed, around-the-ear headphone


Price:   $599 USD


URL:   http://www.fostexinternational.com

Written by Jude Mansilla


Fostex's flagship TH900 is, without a doubt, one of my favorite headphones of all time. I'm certainly far from alone in expressing unbridled adulation for the TH900, and there are many who've heard it who want one but find its price too much of a stretch. Fostex took notice, and the TH600 is their answer.

No, the TH600 doesn't have the stunning urushi lacquer over birch wood earcups. It does, however, have more understated matte black die-cast magnesium earcups that are still gorgeous, and might actually be preferred by those who are partial to a more subdued aesthetic. Its driver's magnet is not quite as powerful as the TH900's (1.0 tesla versus 1.5 tesla), so the TH600 has slightly lower sensitivity, but is still quite easy to drive. None of these differences keep the TH600 from offering up most of what so many people love about the flagship TH900, and it does it at a substantially lower price ($799.00 versus $1499.00).

No, the TH600 doesn't sound exactly like the TH900. The TH900 is more transparent, with more treble refinement--more realistic shimmer--and with more controlled, more detailed bass. The TH-600 has enough of the TH-900's traits that I've had Moon Audio re-wire it with a much shorter Moon Audio Black Dragon cable, and use it as a sort of TH-900 alternative for on-the-go use.

If you listened to and loved the Fostex TH900, but just can't stretch your budget to get to it, the TH600 is raising its hand wildly, and you'd do well to call on it.



"While staying true to the music, the slight V-shape apparent in the sounds adds just enough flavour to make most types of music enjoyable, with the excellent sub-bass and light but detailed treble bringing out the details in the music in a great way."

- Jackpot77


Type:   Closed, portable, on-ear headphone


Price:   $89.95 USD


URL:   http://www.sennheiser.com

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.











































Type:   Closed, over-the-ear headphone with adjustable bass ports


Price:   $199 USD


URL:   http://www.beyerdynamic.com

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 $199.00. 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 (with built-in DAC and amplifier)


Price:   $399.99 USD


URL:   http://www.sony.com

Written by Ethan Opolion


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.
















Type:   Closed, on-ear headphone


Price:   $299 USD


URL:   http://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.

Type:   Closed, over-the-ear headphones


Price:   $279.95 (HD6 Mix), $329.95 (HD7 DJ), and $389.95 (HD8 DJ) 


URL:   http://www.sennheiser.com

Written by Jude Mansilla


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


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


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


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


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


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


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

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

























































































Type:   Closed, portable, on-ear headphone


Price:   $279 USD


URL:   http://www.focal.com

Written by Jude Mansilla


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


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


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


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



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

- keanex

Type:   Closed, on-ear headphone


Price:   Around $100 USD


URL:   http://www.sony.com

Written by Jude Mansilla


The MDR-ZX700's bass is energetic, yet controlled, which is a trait I don't think is common enough in affordable closed headphones. The MDR-ZX700's mids and highs are resolving without being edgy.


If you've heard the Shure SRH440, but felt it on the colder side of your tonal preferences, then the Sony's more authoritative bass (and a slightly warmer tilt than the Shure) might be more your speed.


I consider the MDR-ZX700 a sort of modern spin by Sony on its classic Sony MDR-V6--a more current, affordable closed headphone, and possibly another affordable classic in the making.

Type:   Closed, on-ear headphone


Price:   $399 and $349 USD, respectively


URL:   http://www.focal.com

Written by Jude Mansilla


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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



"If you’re looking for something with a neutral presentation for work, these are it; if you’re simply looking for something to take you bouncing into Graceland, these will most certainly do that too."

- AustinValentine


























Type: Open, around-the-ear, planar magnetic headphones (HE-6) and Class A headphone amplifier and preamplifier (EF-6) 


Price: Around $1,299 and $1,599 USD, respectively


URL:   http://www.hifiman.com

Written by Jude Mansilla


The last several years has seen the fierce reemergence of planar magnetic driver technology. And one of the two companies currently pushing the envelope in planar magnetic driver design is HiFiMAN. In the past, the HiFiMAN HE-6 almost didn't make it into this guide, not because it isn't one of the best headphones in the world (to my ears, it certainly is), but because it can be so difficult to drive well. The problem is that not just any headphone amplifier will do--the HE-6 needs power, and lots of it. In 2013, I recommended its use with the Ray Samuels Audio DarkStar (around $3500), a pairing I still highly recommend if you have the budget for it. Even if you do have the scratch, though, make sure to also give serious consideration to the HiFiMAN EF-6 Class A headphone amp and preamp, which is less than half the price of the DarkStar.


The EF-6 was built and voiced with the HE-6 in mind, and, like the DarkStar, the EF-6 drives the HE-6 so adeptly that the HE-6 loses none of the detail (especially in the treble) that makes it so special, but also gains body noticeably everywhere else. When the HE-6 is driven well, it is an absolute force of nature, ultra-detailed yet smooth--utterly world class. I've also used the EF-6 to drive many other headphones, including ones by Sennheiser, Audeze, beyerdynamic, Denon and Fostex, and it has done wonderfully with all of those.


I haven't yet had the chance to compare the DarkStar and EF-6 side by side, but will do so when I can. Even so, I can say with complete confidence that the HE-6/EF-6 combo is a staggeringly good combo at the combined price of around $2900--one of the best headphone/amp combos I've ever heard.





"The HE-6 have incredibly transparency, and a very wide-bandwidth delivery that is remarkably even and smooth."

- SkyLab



































Type:   Closed, on-ear headphone


Price:   $200 USD


URL:   http://www.thinksound.com

Written by Jude Mansilla


For a company known for its relatively affordable eco-conscious in-ears--the ms01being 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.









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