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.
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.
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.
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, with the over-ear QuietComfort 25, replacing 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 wouldeasilybe 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.
When the beyerdynamic T50p and the DT1350 were released a few years ago--the T50p being beyerdynamic's consumer compact headphone and the DT1350 the pro audio counterpart--I had a clear preference for the DT1350. The pro sibling's deep bass was more impactful and controlled; and its sound, though at times analytical, was certainly the more revealing of the two. Sure, they looked a lot alike, but, to my ears, the DT1350 was simply the runaway winner in any comparison between the two.
Fast forward to 2013, and the introduction of the T51p, successor to the T50p. Because (to my ears) there was a rather substantial gap in performance between the older T50p and the DT1350, I wasn't expecting the new T51p to challenge the DT1350 for my ear time--but, wow, was I pleasantly surprised when it arrived.
I want to be clear about something straight away: the T51p does not sound like the DT1350. Like the T50p before it, the T51p seems to be aiming for a more consumer-friendly sound (than the DT1350), but beyerdynamic gave the new T51p a healthy shot of improved resolution (versus the T50p), making it a much stronger competitor--and a true performance peer--for their pro compact DT1350 than its predecessor was. So, now, choosing between beyerdynamic's consumer compact and its pro compact is simply a matter of choosing one of two different flavors of high-performance compacts.
If you've heard the DT1350 and felt it even the least bit cold or dry, then the T51p is worth an audition. Versus the DT1350, the T51p has more emphasized bass, but still with a nicely textured, detailed lower end. Its midrange also sounds richer to me than the DT1350's mids, but no less resolving here than its sibling's midband. Treble is where the two models have their strongest differences, the T51p's treble being comparatively smoother, more subdued, but still with a nice presence and just enough to keep the T51p from sounding soft, to my ears. Whereas the DT1350 could occasionally render unforgivingly (and even less occasionally harshly), the T51p shows comparatively more forbearance.
Verus the DT1350 I have on hand, and versus its predecessor T50p, the T51p represents a substantial improvement in on-ear comfort. The T51p's on-ear pads have a bit larger diameter to them, and combined with their super-soft, super-smooshy feel, can comfortably be worn by me for hours. The T51p also seems far less sensitive to placement than the DT1350--yes, with its small cans, it still needs to be placed right over your ear, but, unlike my DT1350 it's not as microscopically sensitive to exact placement. Also, versus the DT1350, the T51p is less clampy, rated for 2.5N of headband pressure, versus the DT1350's rated 5.5N. (NOTE: the DT1350 I have here is a very early model, I believe the first unit to arrive in the U.S., and I think they may have made some changes--including the earpads--since then. I'll try to get hold of a more current DT1350.)
I think the DT1350 was beyerdynamic's answer to Sennheiser's HD25 series. The T51p seems more like their response to the likes of V-MODA's XS, Sennheiser's MOMENTUM, the Sony MDR-1R, and other excellent audiophile headphones that are more consumer-oriented.
Maybe it's just a mood thing--maybe it's because it's still new to me--but the T51p has had more ear time with me since its arrival than the DT1350. It gives up very little in the way of resolving ability to its pro sibling, but sounds and feels more easygoing and forgiving. I think the beyerdynamic T51p is certainly among the top-tier in the portable on-ear headphone market and is one of my new reference portable supra-aural (on-the-ear) over-ear headphones.
"...considering fantastic "made in Germany" design, rich full body sound, super comfortable fitment, and the bass to make everybody happy - these deserve a very serious consideration for anybody in a market for on-ear or over-ear headphones."
Is there a more widely owned and lauded pair of headphones than the Sennheiser HD 6XX series in the world of high-end audio? And all the acclaim for these headphones is absolutely deserved, earned over many years on the market. The Sennheiser HD 600 and HD 650 both have sonic performance that can scale so far up in world-class rigs that I struggled with whether or not to include them in the Summit-Fi (high-end audio) section instead.
Though detailed, both the HD 600 and HD 650 do not have the hyper detail that some of the newer breed of high-end dynamic and planar magnetic headphones have. Still, when I'm listening to them, I don't find myself longing for more (even though I know headphones like its successor flagship HD 800 can certainly give me more).
I think the magic of these headphones is that, in terms of detail and tonality, they can be like listening to good loudspeakers, and there's instant comfort in that. Some find this overly laid-back, but I'm not one of them.
As for what differentiates these two headphones, the HD 650 is the slightly warmer of the two, and yet I personally find it more refined than the HD 600, especially in the upper registers. There's no question that there are more similarities than differences, so if you're already straining your budget, you can feel comfortable choosing the HD 600 to save some dough.
In my experience, getting the best out of the HD 600 and HD 650 absolutely requires the use of good headphone amplification, so make sure to feed 'em right. And if you do feed 'em real right, you can feel confident you're listening to headphones that are still, in my opinion, absolutely world class.
"The HD600 has become my favourite headphone for simply listening to music. They are well built, comfortable, and sound simply phenomenal. Their tonal balance and the naturalness of their sound is the best I've personally heard so far."
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?
It was rather cloak-and-dagger when OPPO's Vice President of Product Development Jason Liao approached my table at 2013 CanJam @ RMAF to quietly tell me that OPPO--a company best known for its high-performance, high-value digital universal disc (Blu-ray/DVD/DVD-A/CD/SACD) players (and also for its smartphones in other parts of the world)--was going to be making a headphone. I told him I'd be interested in hearing it when it was ready, at which point he looked around carefully, saw nobody was looking, and pulled a black cloth bag from his backpack, and put a prototype of the OPPO PM-1 planar magnetic headphone on my table.
Straight away, I was impressed with its build quality, especially for a prototype. Brushed metal, chrome, and super-supple leather were all that my hands touched when handling the PM-1. Jason then gave me the go-ahead to listen, and I knew they were off to a good start.
Fast forward several months, and news of the PM-1 had already spread like wildfire throughout the audio world. They had worked with beta testers from our community to iterate until they were satisfied, and the PM-1 was officially launched, just as the anticipation (and perhaps the impatience) for them was building to fever pitch. Though I had heard a few different beta units leading up to the release--and made a physical design suggestion that ended up being incorporated in late beta and production--I wasn't formally providing feedback as part of the beta test team. Because I was not on the beta test team, I didn't hear the final voicing until it was done, so I was just as anxious and eager as everyone else.
Before we get to the OPPO PM-1's sound, I want to first discuss some of its other qualities that make the OPPO PM-1 a very unique offering in this market. In the boutique planar magnetic headphone market, I think the PM-1 is perhaps the most polished, in terms of the consistency and level of its fit-and-finish, the quality of its fittings, and ergonomic design. The PM-1 was designed and packaged with a duality in mind: in one role, it is a $1099 super-polished, super-fancy, full-size planar magnetic headphone for use at home or at work, delivered in an almost mirror-polished wood-veneered presentation box that looks fit to store a crown. For this role, the PM-1 comes with a three-meter, cloth-sheathed OCC (Ohno Continuous Cast) cable, terminated in 3.5mm (1/4") stereo plug. And, again, I can't overstate the PM-1's build quality and feel, which ranks it among the best in this regard I've ever handled, regardless of price.
However, there is another role that it just as convincingly takes on--the headphone for on-the-go use. The build quality of the PM-1 isn't just beautiful to look at and feel, it's also built very ruggedly, so I've had no hesitation stuffing it into a crowded messenger bag or backpack. To help with that, OPPO designed the PM-1 to fold perfectly flat--a quality I'd love to see in more headphones. OPPO also included an effective, well-designed, very cool slim carrying case that is made of black selvedge denim. And to really drive home its on-the-go role is the included super-thin, lightweight, super-flexible, tangle-resistant OFC (oxygen-free copper) cable that's only one-meter long. Some might want a longer on-the-go cable, but I like my cables as short as possible--or, maybe better put, not a centimeter longer than absolutely necessary--so I really like this cable and actually use it even more than the fancier one.
Of course, none of this would matter if OPPO didn't do its homework on the technology and engineering for the planar magnetic sonic engine of the PM-1, and to design their driver, OPPO enlisted the help of Igor Levitsky, who most famously worked on ribbon driver speaker designs for Bohlender-Graebener Radia (BG Radia). The driver they developed uses a FEM-optimized magnet system (FEM standing for "finite element modeling"), with emphasis on maximizing sensitivity and uniformity of the applied force over the driver's surface area. The PM-1's diagphragm is a thin, seven-layer design, constructed to be stable under thermal stress and vibration. The flat aluminum traces on the diaphragm are in the form of spiraling coils, and cover both sides of the diaphragm for increased sensitivity--and there was a high priority placed on maximizing the PM-1's sensitivity. In fact, at 102dB / 1mW, it may be the most sensitive planar magnetic headphone I'm aware of, able to be driven by a smartphone if need be (further helping with its on-the-go prowess).
To further set the PM-1 apart from the field, OPPO voiced it rather uniquely, moving away from some of its competitors' tendencies toward incisive, mega-resolving voicings, and instead going with what is, to my ears, perhaps the best safe-sounding headphone currently on the market. The PM-1's bass is just about where I would want it to be with any headphone--punchy and detailed, and, for my tastes, not overemphasized. The PM-1's midrange is smooth and full-bodied; but even-handed and resolving enough for me to feel like I'm getting a full helping, without a sense of mid-bloat.
The treble is where OPPO played it safest, opting for what sounds to me like a velvety, rolled smoothness, and doing very little to risk any appearance of harshness up top. There's energy up there, but it's milder than most of its competitors. If you tend to prefer even a hint of lift in treble--or even just something akin to perfect treble neutrality--you may be disappointed, but I really enjoy how they tuned it here so much of the time. The OPPO PM-1 seems to be nearly impossible to coax a harsh note out of, yet, overall, I find it to be detailed enough most of the time.
If something like the very resolving HiFiMAN HE-6 can occasionally put the harsh stuff into too sharp a focus, the OPPO PM-1 can occasionally make for smoother, prettier closeups, and does so by perhaps sacrificing a little exactness in comparison. Again, a lot of the time I actually love this about the PM-1. I don't always want safe sounding, but so much of the music I listen to is far from ideal (as far as recording or mastering quality goes), and so can benefit a great deal from a touch of mercy. Don't be mistaken, though, in thinking the PM-1 unable to convey the magic and detail of great recordings, because it does, exceptionally well--it's just that it will generally fall short of the ultimate resolution of several of its high-end competitors by the likes of Sennheiser, HiFiMAN, Audeze, which might be exactly what you're looking for.
So if what I've described sounds like it's up your alley (it certainly is up mine), then give the OPPO PM-1 serious consideration. You should also give it a serious look if you're been looking for a high-end, high-fidelity, full-size headphone to take with you on your travels.--I have yet to find a high-end full-size headphone that travels better (let alone one that's planar magnetic).
The secret's completely out of the bag now: the PM-1 is a remarkable first headphone from OPPO.
"Those of you looking for a wonderful elite class tier of headphone that's extremely well built, very neutral and accurate, and benchmark setting comfort, or in other words a very close to perfect headphone, then these are definitely for you."
OPPO may be best known for their high-end universal digital disc players, their players still regarded as among the very best values in the AV world. However, if OPPO keeps up what they've been doing in the headphone world since entering it a couple of years ago, the first thing people think about when OPPO's name comes up will be headphones. Their latest headphone--the OPPO PM-3--will only drive their renown further in that direction, as it's a killer, and perhaps my strongest recommendation for an over-ear, on-the-go headphone.
OPPO has managed to massage their planar magnetic driver designs from their PM-1 and PM-2 into a slightly smaller design for use in a headphone that's more compact than its full-size siblings andclosed-back (as opposed to the open-back PM-1 and PM-2). What they've also done is create a headphone that is one of the safest recommendations to make in its category, as almost everyone I let listen to it--whether complete non-audiophiles or seasoned audio snob--loves the OPPO PM-3 when they hear it.
What makes it play so well for such a broad range of tastes and experience is that the PM-3 is far more resolving than what most non-audiophiles are used to, and with enough resolution for a closed headphone to impress the aficionados. The bass has enough punch to answer yes to the typical non-audiophile's most common"Does it have good bass?"question, and yet controlled down low enough to have most Head-Fi'ers satisfied at the speed to go with that punch. The PM-3's midband is also rich, smooth and revealing enough to soothe most critical audio nerd's fastidious midrange expectations, and to a degree that has audio novice's realizing that they're hearing things they hadn't heard before in their favorite songs. The treble is accurate, without grain, and on the smoother side, and likely to satisfy most--especially considering it's a closed over-ear--but may be the one area some audiophiles might long for a bit more sense of extension. Personally, I'll take smooth with good detail over even a mild dash of harshness in the high registers, so the PM-3 pleases me thoroughly at its price.
As for imaging, the PM-3 casts a nice soundstage for a closed headphone--no, it doesn't sound beyond its earcups to me, but it's certainly less constricted sounding than typical closed headphones. Most importantly (where imaging is concerned, to me), the PM3's soundstaging is coherent and precise.
The OPPO PM-3 is one of the headphones I most recommend for someone on a sub-$500 budget who is hankering for his first planar magnetic headphone, and absolutely the most if that headphones is to be used when out and about, in libraries, when traveling, at coffee houses, etc. As a planar magnetic headphone, it's a bit heavier than many other portable over-ears at 320 grams, but its design distributes the weight nicely, and it feels lighter than it is to me.
What's also nice is that its build quality gives up nothing to its more expensive siblings, and like them sports Swiss watch build quality, materials, and fit-and-finish--the OPPO PM-3 feels like something priced substantially more than its retail price. It's also comfortable, and, like its siblings, it folds flat for compact storage in its gorgeous selvedge denim carrying case. It comes with a three-meter plain cable for use in your desktop setup, and a 1.2-meter cable for portable use. (There are also portable cables available with inline controls for both Android and iOS devices.)
The OPPO PM-3 comes in black, white, red, and blue, and is priced at $399. At that price and its level of performance, the OPPO PM-3 is a dynamo of a planar magnetic headphone, and, again, one of the safest, strongest recommendations I have for you at that price, whether you're mostly using it in desktop systems, portables (including direct-from-mobile use), or both.
"Oppo has created what I would like to call a well crafted do-it-all headphone at an easy to swallow price."
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.
The Bowers & Wilkins P5 was, in my opinion, one of the most market-defining headphonesnotmade 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 evenfeltpremium--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 tolovethe 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.
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."
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."
Growing up, my parents had an Onkyo audio system (and still have parts of it going strong). Then I worked at a hi-fi store while I was in college, and the most affordable brand of electronics we sold was Onkyo. It was the brand we turned to when our customers couldn't afford to buy the Linn, Naim, Creek, or even the NAD gear. Because I was just a poor college student, the Onkyo gear we sold endeared itself to me for being so much more affordable than the higher-end stuff we sold, but somehow not undeserving of a place in our snobby shop. Onkyo had long ago fallen off my radar, but I was thrilled when they popped back up on it at CES 2013 with headphones! Onkyo sent me one of their ES-CTI300 headphones, and it's a very good headphone by Onkyo.
There are actually three over-ear headphone models by Onkyo, and, to the best of my knowledge, the only differences between the models are the cables they come with. The ES-FC300 ($149) comes with a more common looking flat elastomer cable. The ES-CTI300's ($179) cable is, as described by Onkyo, a "high purity copper-core cable for pure sound." The ES-HF300's cable is a 6N oxygen-free copper cable, apparently with lower resistance than the ES-FC300's. The ES-CTI300 ($199) has the higher-end cable, but with an Apple-certified inline three-button remote/mic. In all three models, the cables are detachable, using gold-plated MMCX connectors.
The Onkyo headphone's styling is clean, modern, and very attractive. At first glance, the Onkyo's design reminded me of the clean lines of AKG's portable models. I think its design will appeal to folks young and old, and (especially in black or silver) would look perfectly fine worn by suit-wearing executive types. It also folds very flat, so it's easy to carry, but only comes with a flimsy drawstring case for the purpose. I find the ES-CTI300 very comfortable, even for longer listening sessions; and it's also comfortable worn around the neck when you need them off your ears.
In terms of sound, the ES-CTI300 has prominent bass, with what sounds to me like an upper-midbass peak that does tail off with mild effect and bloom on the lower midrange. Still, the ES-CTI300's midrange and treble have a very clear, cool quality to them--so, on balance, the Onkyo ES-CTI300 sounds to me like a bass-emphasized headphone with good overall clarity and detail. It's also a versatile sound signature that I feel comfortable using on any genre. For example, the bass emphasis livens up EDM, and the midrange/treble clarity serves jazz and classical well.
I've been enjoying the Onkyo ES-CTI300 a lot as an on-the-go headphone, and recommend you check Onkyo's headphones out if you're looking for a good, closed headphone for $200.00 (or less than that, depending on which cable you want).
In writing up the Focal Spirit One, I mentioned that I'd like to see Focal move more upmarket with their headphones, given that they're best known for their ultra-expensive (and ultra-respected) loudspeakers. Well, since the last guide update, they've started making their moves, with two new headphones: the Focal Spirit Classic and the Focal Spirit Professional.
The $399 Focal Spirit Classic is the current flagship, intended as a headphone intended more for home or office use than it is for on-the-go use. As evidence of this, it comes with two cables, one of which is 13 feet long!
Also, with its larger headband, larger earcups and non-fold-flat design, it's clearly not intended to be as mobile as the Focal Spirit One. The Focal Spirit Classic also takes on a more mature appearance, with its "Hot Chocolate" brown color (that's what they call it), in varying shades from the earcups to the pads and headband. It's a gorgeous headphone.
Though its earcups are larger, the Spirit Classic's earpads aren't that much larger than the Spirit One's. Filled with memory foam, though, they're definitely more comfortable. The headband is also more comfortable than the Spirit One's, with broader, better padding.
As for how it compares to its more portable sibling, the Spirit Classic is a move to a more detailed, more complete soundscape, with richer tonality, and better imaging. There's a lushness to the Spirit Classic's tone that makes voices and most instruments come alive. It's warmer than neutral, never rough or strident, but still with glistening detail when appropriate.
The Focal Spirit Professional is Focal's first studio monitor headphone, and is the most neutral headphone from Focal so far. Actually, to my ears, it's one of the more neutral closed over-ears on the market right now, period. For this reason, I predict it'll soon have a very strong following in the Head-Fi community.
Though I perceive its tonal balance to be rather flat, there's enough going on in its presentation to sound rich with detail, if not in tone--and, again, I think this is what a lot of Head-Fi'ers are looking for. I love this headphone for this reason, and have a hard time deciding which of the two newest Focals I prefer (and so am glad we have both here now).
Whereas the Ultimate Ears In-Ear Reference Monitor is my neutral reference in-ear--one of my sonic palate cleansers--the Focal Spirit Professional is earning a place as one of my over-ear neutral references.
The Focal Spirit Professional's form factor is sort of a mix between the Focal Spirit Classic (with a similar headband), and the Focal Spirit Classic (in terms of its earcup size and memory foam earpads). One very cool thing about the Focal Spirit Professional is the speckled black finish they gave it--it's supposed to an ultra-tough finish to stand up to the rigors of professional use. It's hard to capture its coolness in photographs, but trust me, in person it's very cool and unique.
For a company that also makes $180,000 loudspeakers, I'm hoping to see Focal continue to explore still higher-performance, no-holds-barred headphones going forward. For now, though, I'm pleased with the Focal Spirit Classic and Spirit Professional as upmarket moves by Focal in the headphone world.
"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."
Several years ago, Monster made history when they partnered with Beats, developing headphones that would (and still) dominate the premium headphone market, commanding well over half of all dollars spent on headphones priced over $100!
While Beats never caught on with high-end audio enthusiasts, Monster--independent of their partnership with Beats--had a very strong interest in making headphones of their own that would appeal to audiophiles, and they certainly met with success in that endeavor with several of their own in-ear headphones, like the Turbine Pro models, and the Miles Davis Tribute and Trumpet. While still in the Beats partnership, they also developed over-ear headphones with solid sonic performance, like the Diamond Tears and Diesel VEKTR, although perhaps the far-out styling of those models ran a bit counter to more conservative style tastes of audiophiles.
The termination of the Monster/Beats partnership was announced at the beginning of 2012, but Monster had no plans to slow down the development and production of their own headphones. Earlier this year, they released the Monster DNA--a supra-aural (on-the-ear) headphone--which was essentially the very first Monster headphone developed and released after the termination of the Beats partnership.
With its rather unusual triangular shape--and sticking to the plastic cuff-type design they helped popularize with Beats--I'm not surprised that the DNA's styling may have limited its appeal to Head-Fi'ers. To my eyes, the Monster DNA is a strange looking headphone in any color other than black--they sent me one in blue, and it looked almost...well...Trekkie to me. I communicated that to Monster, so they sent me one in black. Much better--still funky looking, but much better than the blue.
It's a shame if this headphone's appeal to audio enthusiasts has been limited by its styling, because the DNA is actually a very good portable headphone. Looking at it might suggest something bass-heavy to appeal to the youth market the design seems mostly aimed at; but the DNA is surprisingly even-handed, in terms of its sound. While the DNA's bass is north of neutral, it's not to a large degree, and the bass control is very good. The Monster DNA's midrange is very nicely fleshed out, very meaty, and quite detailed. The DNA's treble performance is also very good--maybe a bit soft way up top, but overall the treble presence is good, and never strident.
Again, for the price, the DNA is a very good portable headphone whose funky style likely has all but the very youthful passing over it on the store shelves. I wouldn't be surprised if I'm the only one in the world, at this very moment, listening to (and enjoying immensely) Anonymous 4 on a Monster DNA. And, yes, the DNA renders these four women's angelic voices beautifully.
Very recently, Monster announced the next headphone in the Monster DNA lineup with its new Monster DNA Pro--a move upmarket, and a move up in size, with the DNA Pro being a circumaural (around-the-ear) design, albeit on the small side of circumaural. For the DNA Pro, Monster elected to stay with the triangle design theme, although the larger around-the-ear cups create a far more conventional silhouette (especially if, again, you order it in black, which I think most Head-Fi'ers would).
I get the impression Monster was not simply throwing the word "Pro" out there randomly when they named this headphone, because this is a headphone I'd imagine Monster might create if asked to make a detailed studio monitor.
The DNA Pro's bass is surprisingly neutral (surprising to me anyway). All credit to Monster for being adventurous enough to veer in this direction with their most expensive headphone model--honestly, I'd have expected them to go in the other direction, and I think this may have some in the general consumer market finding it a bit light down low. (The general consumer market isn't usually served anything neutral-ish in the bass region.) Still, the DNA Pro's bass has good presence to my ears, and is detailed, so I think a lot of audiophile-types will prefer this level of bass over boosted bass.
As far as its midrange goes, the Monster DNA Pro begins slightly on the leaner side; but as you move up through to the upper mids, things start to level up, leading to treble that is rather prominent and detailed. I can't imagine you'll see the words "dark" or "rolled off" used to describe this headphone as more reviews come in.
I find the DNA Pro to be a versatile headphone; but with its tendency to highlight details, I find the DNA Pro is at its best with well-recorded acoustic music, classical music and jazz; and its airy soundstage (for a closed headphone) also helps with that.
In either case, I think these Monster DNA headphones merit spots on your audition list if you're shopping for closed headphones in their price ranges.
If these DNA models represent the sonic direction Monster's going with their over-ears after their split with Beats, I'm glad for it, and will look forward to hearing more from them. To broaden their appeal, though, I do hope Monster also gets more adventurous with respect to styling, and would love to see them--in terms of style--seek more industrial design inspiration from headphones like the MOMENTUM, P7, M500, VK-1, and the M100, than from their past with Beats.
"All things considered, the DNA Pro are one of the best sounding headphones I’ve heard in a while. I find them more lively and engaging than the Mr. Speakers Mad Dogs and just as detailed."
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 got off to a bang-up start.