Pros: Sound quality well exceeds the price of admission, responds well to EQ adjustments, scales very well with the proper equipment
Cons: Soundstage limited by closed-back design, EQ necessary to balance sound for non-DJ use
*Previously posted in the Full-Sized Headphones forum. I only recently became aware of the review section of Head-Fi.*
This is largely intended to be a review of the AiAiAi TMA-1 with using the Audio Technica ATH-M50 as a point of reference.
A forum member asked for this comparison in the main TMA-1 thread. I ordered the TMA-1 as a possible replacement for my M50 as my "banger 'phone" (i.e. a multipurpose headphone that could come along with my MacBook Pro wherever I go, use to just throw on unamped for a quick listen in the living room or bedroom, and wouldn't necessarily mind if it incurred any damage in its travels) so I figured it would be a good opportunity to put both through their paces to see what came out on top. In addition, whichever headphone I didn't prefer would be gifted to a friend, so I needed to asses their respective performance carefully to determine a conclusive "winner" in respect to my own preferences and needs.
Concerning the M50 it's a stock, straight cable, white box version. I'm the second owner of it, although it was barely used by the original. When I received it it hadn't been broken in yet and still had "boomy" bass. It was broken in with pink noise, frequency sweeps, and periodic low volume listening sessions. I would estimate that they now have in excess of 250 hours on them. The SQ is definitely more balanced and more refined from when I originally received them.
The TMA-1 was purchased new and went straight from the box to my ears. No break in has been performed apart from the head time I've put on them since they've arrived. (12/4/10) I've been using them both in my home and at work to get as much head time a possible. I will update this article should there be a post-break in sound change. All impressions below are based on use with the stock "semi-leather" pads. I have yet to try the foam pads but, based on others' impressions of them and my own experience with the semi-leathers, I don't really see the need to.
I have tried to give equal head time to both for this review, but I'll concede that I definitely gravitated to one more than the other. Also, I tried to take at least a few hours off between switching headphones to let them each shine on their own while taking notes. This was done so I didn't have to adjust to the the SQ discrepancies between the two. I did, however, spend a few hours today switching back and forth on the fly simply to reaffirm what I had written in my notes.
All unamped testing was done on the latest model Macbook Pro. For amped testing, I added an Apogee Duet running in DAC mode connected to a PPAv2 with dedicated STEPS power supply. The PPA also has variable bass boost and a Sigma Acoustics custom cable was used as the DAC-amp interconnect. iTunes was the preferred application with MP3 rips (nothing less than 256kbps and mostly 320kbps) and CDs. FLAC files were ran through Songbird. Audio output was set to 96k/24bit.
PACKAGING AND EXTRAS
Frivolous? Maybe, but something should be said of the TMA-1's packaging. Whereas the M50 supplies the standard windowed cardboard box with plastic insert, AiAiAi obviously hired a team of fashion-forward graphic designers to make the buyer feel an increased sense of value. The exterior of the box contrasts standard gloss black printing with a matte finish that matches the headphones themselves. Custom cut foam holds the headphones in place and, underneath, the cable and foam pads have dedicated compartments and are labeled in the same font that appears in the outer logo. It's all very coordinated and well executed. The mesh-lined fabric zip-up bag that comes with the TMA-1 is also far superior to the pleather draw string one that comes with the M50.
Again, I own the straight cable version of the M50, so I'm unsure if there's a difference in quality between it and the coiled version. With that said, while the finish is nothing out of the ordinary on the M50 I still find it to be superior to the TMA-1's. The latter sports a grippy, almost grimy finish. In addition, while the coiled design may be welcome for DJing, it's somewhat of an inconvenience for general listening. I also think the M50's termination is more well designed. Both have a threaded 1/4" adapter, but the way the M50's clicks into place when it's fully fastened is a subtle but welcomed bit of engineering.
The design of the headphones themselves are both top-notch and obviously built durable enough to handle the stresses of professional use. While the M50 is primarily plastic, it in no way feels cheap and has no perceivable point of weakness. The headband has a bit of flexibility and the overall build is a reasonably comfortable circumaural design. It does have slightly more clamping force than ideal for my head and I can always feel that it's there, but I can enjoy it for at least a few hours before any discomfort sets in.
I have to admit, I traditionally don't like the fit of supra-aural headphones. This made picking up the TMA-1 a bit of a gamble before I ever pumped sound into them, but the reports of a "loose fit" intrigued me. I've read reports of AiAiAi changing the headband to one with more tension for the latest production release and, if this holds true, I probably received one of them. They're far from "falling off" as others reported as I can shake my head to an unnatural degree without them budging. However, their clamping force is not excessive at all. Due to the composite material the headband is made from, they have enough tension to stay put without putting any extra stress on the ears or cranium. The semi-leather pads are also extremely plush while the earcups themselves are on a bit of an axis increasing the level of comfort. They don't quite disappear the way my Sennheiser HD600 used to, but I've worn them for up to 4 hours straight without any sort of discomfort. (and have yet to experience any, for that matter) I'm wearing them on the second to smallest setting but would've preferred a setting just between that and the standard. The whole headphone is protected by a thin rubberized coating that feels very smooth and clean in contrast to the finish of the cable. It also seems to be highly protective as I've already bumped it into my coffee table and desk a few times with nary a mark. It does, however, accumulate fingerprints a bit easy, but a quick wipe on the shirt or sleeve restores them to their pristine, monolithic glory. Interestingly the unfatiguing and durable nature of the design carries over into the TMA-1's sonic principles as well...
Well, here we are. SQ. What everyone wants to know about. Most already know about the M50. It's become somewhat of the people's champion: a highly affordable but competent headphone with all genres that's easily driven and punches well above its weight. By my ears, it presents an overall balanced sound with maybe a slight emphasis on bass. The soundstage is decent for a closed headphone and it's reasonably detailed.
On first listen, the TMA-1 seemed overly dark. I believe that this may be a similar observation to what one vocal critic had to say about the overall presentation being "muffled" in the main thread. The mid range is robust and forward while the bass is emphasized and punchy. The treble, on the other hand, sounded recessed to my ears. While it's plenty detailed across the spectrum and well extended at both ends, there was definitely a sort of ceiling on the volume of the high end. Of course, these are meant to be DJ headphones, so this is obviously by design. Under their intended use, these headphones would be demanded to output at extremely loud levels. Backing off the treble is an effective way to attenuate fatigue. After about ten minutes of skipping around to various tracks, I decided to try some EQing. Now, I usually don't like to use an EQ. In my experience, more often than not putting an EQ at anything but flat creates a sort of artificially enhanced sound that kills whatever magic a headphone may be capable of delivering. I know that's not a great description, but it's sort of an indescribable X-factor. In this case, however, the TMA-1 was extremely responsive to EQing.
I basically set it to "Treble Booster" and backed it down from there until I found what my ears consider to be a (the?) "sweet spot." WOW! What a difference! Just this relatively slight EQ adjustment really made a big impact on overall tonal balance! Not only did this expose great attack in the highs that never become brittle or harsh, but it seems like the entire spectrum received in increase in overall clarity and punch with smooth mids and tight, textured, varied bass. The overall presentation is extremely robust with insanely clear details and ZERO distortion across the board... even at much higher than comfortable listening levels. It all adds up to one of the most dynamic and exciting experiences I've ever heard while being, BAR NONE, the least fatiguing headphone I've ever used! (seriously, I've gained a whole new perspective on Merzbow's catalog) With the M50, (and most other headphones I've used for that matter) it has its ways of letting you know that you're going too loud. Whether it be distortion, sibilance, or nasty peaks in the sonic spectrum, you know when to back it down. The TMA-1 challenges you to go louder. Without these obvious indicators it could be a gateway to rapid hearing loss, but after a bit of time you realize where your limits are.
Soundstage and imaging are surprising. While not at all akin to an open back can, the TMA-1 definitely has an above average soundstage for a closed-back headphone with plenty of spaciousness in terms of instrument separation. Highs, mids, and lows are all relegated to their respective homes without any noticeable blending or bleed. Instrument placement, again, is some of the best I've ever heard and, in contrary to it being non-fatiguing, the presentation is very forward. Albums like the Dodos Visiter places the vocals directly in front of you while instruments are clearly placed to either side. Porcupine Tree's Coma Devine puts you right on stage with the rest of the band. In contrast, there seems to be quite a distance to the stage through the M50... and that stage seems a lot smaller... with much cheaper amps.
Switching back and forth between both headphones reveals that the M50 sounds more bright, (in actuality maybe closer to neutral given the TMA-1's slightly warm post-EQ signature) thin, and muddy. Complex rock and metal like Caspian's Some are White Light sound brick-walled with harsh, sibilant treble and no real body to speak of. The TMA-1, however, sorts through the clutter and, despite the lack of low end, maintains its clarity and reveals the subtle nuances in the ambiance. The increased dynamics of the TMA-1 allows the dimensionality of songs with a black background like Black Milk's Bounce and edIT's Crunk de Gaulle to sound incredibly 3D and completely outclass the M50. The tightness and extremely fast decay of the TMA-1's transients allow it to nimbly cut through tracks like HECQ's Steeltoungued and Clark's Kin Griff with ease while the M50 sounds a step behind the music by comparison. Speaking of Kin Griff, it's produced louder than the average track. I accidentally clicked it while listening to a softer recording (forgot exactly what it was) and, to my surprise, despite being excessively loud I didn't jump off the couch and reach for the volume the way I had with other 'phones during similar experiences in the past. Chalk up another plus for the non-fatiguing sound!
The TMA-1 also holds up better under the challenge of having to produce results on both ends of the spectrum. The National's Conversation 16, for example, maintains its bassline throughout the duration of the chorus whereas the M50 chooses to reproduce the upper mids and highs while the bass goes through a disappearing act; sparsely presented under particular conditions. The lows on Bomb the Bass' Burn the Bunker and Mistabishi's Lean are nicely textured, varied, and extended while the M50 comes off as one-note by comparison. On the TMA-1, Blixa Bargeld's distinct vocals are produced in all their guttural glory on Einstürzende Neubauten's Zampano and the punctuations of percussive bombast are as impactful as they are listenable. The M50 adds a glossy sheen over Panda Bear's Take Pills while the TMA-1 comes off as strikingly musical and liquid. This sense of musicality carried over into the various Steve Reich compositions I demoed and, while the M50 still sounded good with it, one headphone presented the instruments as they were being played live with a lively strings and a stirring brass section. Guess which was which.
In terms of revealing recording quality, I decided to test a number of records in J.G. Thirlwell's discography for a number of reasons: it covers recording tech from 1981 to 2010, he's always been ahead of his time in terms of production quality, and I just enjoy his records a hell of a lot. So, starting with the OKFM/Spite Your Face single and Deaf I went to Nail, then Thaw, then Flow, then Love, and finally Hide. (not the entire albums but skipping through tracks of each) The less articulate sound of the M50 helped it to be the easier 'phone to listen to on the earlier recordings, but then was bested by the TMA-1 about the Thaw mark and then finally outclassed on Love and Hide. But the TMA-1 has another trick up its sleeve...
For my A-B session, I let the M50 make the first impression. As I've always experienced with them, amping gains a bit of clarity and allows them to better maintain details while strengthening the bass presence a tad. A nice improvement, but nothing that would make me get off my comfortable couch to sit on the pedestrian computer chair in my office. But then I plugged in the TMA-1. My thought process: where did my musicality go? Why do these sound so dark compared to unamped? Oh... I forgot to turn the EQ on... OH MY... WOW!!!
As good as the TMA-1 is unamped, adding my fairly modest Duet-PPAv2 setup takes them into the stratosphere! For a low impedance headphone, these scale EXTREMELY well. It's not as pronounced a difference as, say, adding an amp to an HD600, but those already great dynamics and textures are definitively kicked up a notch. Those old recordings now sound definitively cleaned up and, what was once merely listenable, is now respectable. A marked increase in soundstage leads to an increased sense of scale. All of a sudden, instead of being on stage with Steven Wilson I'm sitting front row-center. Switching to Mistabishi's White Collar Grime, (a bass test staple for me) reveals an exhilarating low end presentation with insane extension at my usual just-past-halfway variable bass setting on my PPAv2. Putting it further to the right with the M50 did very little but create distortion as the drivers hit their bass-output peak at just past that point. However, with the TMA-1 plugged in the knob just kept going... and going... and going until the cups were literally vibrating away from my ears! More impressively, THEY MAINTAINED THEIR CLARITY WITH ZERO DISTORTION! I, of course, backed it back down to my usual position, but holy cow are these drivers quality! Remember how I stated the durability of the TMA-1's physical build quality carried over into other facets of the headphone? Well, I was referring to the drivers.
The TMA-1 outputs more volume at undistorted levels and more bass than I think one could ever hope for. If Jeremy Clarkson were writing this review, I believe this would be about the point that he would exclaim "MORE POWERRRRRR!!!" :)
HUGE Advantage: TMA-1
I more or less purchased the TMA-1 on an intrigue-fueled whim. Being that I've never actually heard one of their headphones, I always expected AiAiAi to be a aesthetics-first manufacturer with questionable dedication to quality engineering. What I ended up with is the most exciting headphone I've heard since obtaining my first high quality headphone with my first amp ever. (namely a Headroom Portable Desktop powering an HD600... see why I referenced it twice in this article now?) It was a reminiscent feeling from the time I modified the EQ. I'm rediscovering records I've already heard countless times and am excited to seek something new.
In addition, make no mistake about the M50. It's an amazing headphone in its own right and is still, in my opinion, one of the best bangs for the buck out there. (I purchased mine for $80 all in) I would, for most purposes, recommend it over the TMA-1 to someone who does not have access to an EQ for whatever reason. The TMA-1 cost me nearly twice as much, so it should have comparably better performance. Still, for the level of enjoyment I've received thus far from the TMA-1 I would unreservedly say that I would pay much, much more than its MSRP. If AiAiAi made a consumer version of it that balances the tonality a bit and marketed it to the Beats-centric mainstream, we'd have a lot more people listening to good headphones, they would be a much richer manufacturer, and I would own another pair of cans... just because.
I was expecting to replace my recently sold Headphile ((( V4 ))) with another "main" can. After realizing how surprisingly well the TMA-1 scales to better equipment, I'm starting to think reallocating the funds to purchase a better computer chair is a better decision. Either that, or maybe I can talk the fiancee into letting me take over one of the end tables in the living room with my headphone equipment. In any case, there's probably an argument with my significant other in my future.
12/8 Update: My new happy place with obligatory headphone porn.
A bit cramped at the moment, but the 15' firewire cable I have on order will allow me to place the MacBook on my coffee table and I'll be able to do a bit of browsing whilst listening through the amp.
Despite all that this headphone has to offer, I have a strong feeling that the TMA-1 will garner somewhat of a cult following on Head-Fi with most not having any intention to listen to it and some simply rejecting its huge, colored, dynamic sound in favor of pure clinical neutrality. If you're reading this, I hope this write up encourages you to at least consider putting on a pair should you ever get the chance to do so. You could be pleasantly surprised...
*Audio Quality: half-star deducted for limited soundstage, (inherent of closed-back design) half-star deducted for the need to EQ (although this is a benefit for the intended use, this review applies only to the TMA-1's capability as an all-around listening headphone)*
*Design: half-star deducted for the cable design, half-star deducted for the ease of the finish to accrue handprints*
Edit History: Cleaned up some grammar mistakes, (sorry, I was multitasking when I wrote this) changed title to better reflect that this is primarily a TMA-1 review, added pictures.