Pros: neutrality, chameleon, smooth midrange, detail and speed, crazy good deal.
Cons: Needs solid amping, can sound a bit flat, takes some getting used to
The orthodynamic club at Head-fi probably feels a little outspoken at times. They have a less common headphone technology that they believe very strongly is fundamentally superior to the traditional dynamic drivers that we see so often. The dauntingly enormous orthodynamic roundup thread is a testament to the dedication and passion of this Head-fi subculture. To make matters worse, there are very few companies still producing orthos. There are some hugely expensive offerings, but only one brand making affordable offerings. That company is Fostex, though many consider the new flagship T50RP to be inferior to some of the vintage orthos from the '70s.
I am not an expert on orthos by any stretch of the imagination, but I was intrigued by the discussions in that thread. The Fostex T50RP are not really that cheap, so I decided to give them a shot.
I'm glad I did.
Some of the rumours about the T50RP are true. They don't have strong bass, and they are very neutral and balanced. Anyone who is really into the Grado sound or any other hi-fi sound signature can just stop reading now. For those who like a more neutral presentation, however, these really do offer something special for a bargain price. I've been putting mine through their paces for a few weeks now, and I'm driving them from my Yamaha Home Theatre receiver, and custom built Texas Instruments DAC/AMP.
Ask any ortho fan what makes them better than dynamic headphones, and they will talk about the smooth, beautiful midrange and an incredible transient speed. This is the paradoxical mystery of the T50RP, because they manage to be capable of enveloping warmth, but also painstakingly detailed and precise. Jeff Buckley's Lilac Wine is one of my main test tracks for vocals, and I've rarely heard him sound better. The T50RP brings out the tone of his voice beautifully, and places it just where it should be in the soundstage. That midrange does stunning things for guitar and piano as well, where the speed and accuracy create some truly beautiful music.
Of course, at this price we expect some compromise. In this case, that stunning midrange comes at the cost of some extension at both ends of the sound spectrum. With the new earpads (replaced in the lineup a couple years ago), I wouldn't call these bass light compared to a few of my cans, but they lack the punch and depth I've found in my DT990s and DT150s. Massive Attack's Angel does have a reasonable amount of bass, but it is genuinely balanced and never threatens to overwhelm. It lacks definition, though, and doesn't have the velvety texture of the DT990s.
The same is true of a rolling off at the high end. Treble is certainly present when it's found in the recording, but cymbals don't have the sharp sizzle that Beyerdynamic cans demonstrate. For people who hate sibilance more than anything else, this is a good thing. It takes away some of the space in recordings, though, and although Buckley's voice sounds spectacular on these cans, the track doesn't have the air around it that it does on some of my other headphones. It's overall fairly forgiving on harsh recordings, though, which is more than I can say for my Beyerdynamic cans. As a side note, the same is not true of low bitrate recordings, which sound terrible on the Fostex headphones.
On Head-fi, we often talk about headphones that melt into the background. The Fostex T50RP are the best cans for this I have ever owned. If I feed them with bright Queen recordings, that brightness comes through with speed and energy. If I toss some Chemical Brothers at them, they push out a bass sweep that never stops dipping lower. Rock music has punch, Soul is laid back and groovy, jazz recordings are light and airy... these work pretty well for almost anything. The first time I put these on, everything felt strange and a bit different. After some time adjusting, though, everything feels just about right.
There are times that I'm in the mood for other things, and that prevents the T50RP from being my ultimate headphones. Sometimes, I want more bass than I can get from these things stock. There are other times that I want something a bit more musical and aggressive. Still, if I want to hear what a track really sounds like, the T50RP is the headphone I reach for every time.
Of course, there's more to a pair of headphones than just the sound. These are also some of the most comfortable headphones I own. Once I found the right adjustment with the headband, I find the fit of these is just about perfect for me. There's a point of contact at the top of my head that holds them in place, and since it's rubber, it never slips out of place. There is very little side pressure, just enough to get a seal over my ears. I can wear these for hours without any discomfort, which makes them even better as professional audio tools.
With the T50RP, it is important to talk about driving them as well. These are not easy cans to drive. Looking at the specs (50ohm impedance and sensitivity in the high 90s), these shouldn't be especially hard to drive, but they sound terrible without plenty of juice. Portable players are right out, and they don't sound good out of my Hotaudio Bitperfect, either. The good side of this is that they will take an astonishing amount of power if plugged into an amp that can supply it. Another peek at the specs reveals that these are rated to handle up to 3000mW, which is borderline absurd. While you would never actually want to put that kind of current into a pair of headphones, it means that these drivers will not distort, even when pushed past what any headphone should be asked to dish out. Of course, that doesn't mean I recommend playing these at 130dB, but apparently they can do it if your ears can.
I can see how many people have been unimpressed with these headphones during an initial audition. They didn't sound right to my ears, and I find I still have a five minute adjustment period every time I put them on. Once my ears adjust, though, I really enjoy these headphones with almost any music. That, alone, makes them well worth the asking price. If you haven't yet dabbled in the fringe Head-fi experience of orthodynamics, it just might be time you did.