Pros: Affordable price, audio quality, portability, aesthetic
Cons: Not comfortable for long hearing sessions, hard ear-pads
This is my fourth review here on head-fi and unlike my previous reviews I've decided to put a lot more effort into this one, which may sound odd considering that these are the cheapest headphones I currently own but I found that my previous reviews hardly gave any information that I'd consider useful to other head-fiers or just any consumers. With that said, during this review I plan to test songs that most community members be able to access more easily in order to gauge my opinions.
What this means in practical terms is that I won't be testing these headphones with the highest-bitrate tracks, instead I will use normal-quality Spotify streams as a reference (160 kbps files in Org Vorbis format). I will also try to focus on testing these headphones with gear that a beginner or budget-oriented audiophile should, or can, have and compare them with the headphones I currently have available to me.
For the sake of this review I will be testing these headphones with a Fiio E7 portable DAC/AMP at it's default setting (which delivers a rather flat response and I feel is ideal for reviewing purposes compared to my other DAC/AMP which is slightly more colorful-sounding).
At the time I purchased these phones I was looking for a portable closed on-ear headphone that would be less-jarring to transition to than what I felt going from the Fischer Audio FA-003 (aka Brainwavz HM5) to my then go-to portable headphones, the AKG K450. I was looking for something around the same price as the AKG (which at the time cost me roughly twice as much as the JVC) and these headphones showed up on my radar when browsing head-fi and proved to be priced more affordably and had a better form-factor for my needs than the other alternatives at the time.
I'd like to apologise beforehand if I get any of the technical terms for what I'm describing wrong. Since my last reviews I've gotten a better understanding on how to describe sound and sound qualities but I'm still not at a level where I'm able to discern them as some of the more experienced reviewers. If you find any such mistakes in the following paragraphs please do let me know.
Florence + The Machine - Cosmic Love (Spotify link)
At the start of the song the piano seems to be a bit recessed specially when compared to the high notes that are sprinkled as the singer begins her chant. At the chorus once again the drums, or lows, seem to be more distant than the mids and highs compared to what the higher-end FA-003 sound like (it's not a jarring difference, but it is noticeable). After the first chorus and the song fills up with more instruments the recessed lows are less noticeable. The important thing to note however is that despite my observation all parts of the sound are clear-sounding and only the lows feel slightly distant, but in terms of clarity I find these headphones rather good.
Compared to the AKG K450: From the offset the AKG K450's seem to have an airiness to them. The lows don't seem to be as recessed but the singer's voice doesn't sound as good either. The differences between these two headphones become more clear on the first chorus when the drums appear, and in the second chorus when there are many more instruments involved the drums feel completely buried as does the singer's voice. It's clear that the AKG doesn't have as much clarity and doesn't perform particularly well with this track.
Pure Reason Revolution - Goshen's Remains (Spotify link)
First of all, let me just say that this track is meant to be heard continuously after the introductory track of the album which is called Aeropause.
The guitar riffs and accompanying piano sound very clear but I can only distinguish the piano when it reaches the high notes. The singer's voice steals nothing from the clarity of the other instruments even when the drums kick in. The chorus of this song is the point that makes or breaks most headphones I own. Out of all the headphones I own only three of them I feel can feel pleasant during the thunderous chorus that inundates your ears, the JVCs are one of them, and the other two cost me at the very least upwards of thrice their price. Around halfway through the track there is a violin/drums part accompanied by an airy guitar and I find it hard to find any faults in the sound during that part. Even the FA-003 don't sound significantly better during that part.
Compared to the AKG K450: The loud sound at the start of the track does not feel as present as it did on the JVC but the guitar riff that follows it feels pleasant. Once the singer joins her voice feels more distant and muddled, while the high notes sound pleasant enough, the lows are muddled underneath the recessed singer's voice and the chorus just feels like a mess, all the sounds feel like they were bound together and spat out. The male singer's vocals feel distinctly better sounding than the female ones. The same part I mentioned in the last phrase of the previous paragraph feels pleasant when the violin is playing, though it feels a bit more distanced. Once the drums kick in the snares and cymbals sound adequately distinct, overall the AKG perform reasonably in this part but overall feel more distant across the entire song and just fall apart during the chorus.
Artic Monkeys - Do I wanna know (Spotify link)
When the guitars kick in there's an immediate distinction between the left and right channels with low/high sounds and the singer's vocals feel very present above them as if there's almost a semblance of dimension. When the chorus kicks in almost everything feels distinguished. The hardest sounds to discern from others are what seems to be highly distorted electric guitar but the claps and the bass guitar, drums and cymbals and vocals are very clear. I'm struggling to find faults or further interesting things to say about how this track on the JVCs, nothing feels missing and this track feels like it was very well produced for headphones.
Compared to the AKG K450: The snare immediately feels present than the JVCs. The guitar riffs feel more or less the same, but that sense of dimension the JVCs gave off is simply not there. The track feels flat in comparison in the start. The vocals sound great but outside of the drum and guitar the rest of the sounds feel more distant. When the chorus kicks the cymbals are barely audible, the distorted guitar is of a hiss and the accompanying vocals feel distorted. It's hard to appreciate this song without the strong beat in the lows, while the vocals are clear enough everything else feels either distant or muffled.
The Cinematic Orchestra - Burn Out (Spotify link)
I wanted to get an impression on how the two headphones would compare on a mostly-accoustic track and this particular one is one I found most headphones can handle rather well and provide an enjoyable experience so I'm curious to see if the AKG suffer considerably in comparison, as they did on the other tracks.
The bass feels very detailed and raw with even the slight distortion at the end of some of its strings being very audible. When the brass kicks in and a metal-ringing instrument accompanies them they are perfectly distinguishable from each other and no detail seems to be lost from the other instruments with the bass and that wooden-sounding beat still very evident. When the vocal chorus begins it is are overpowered by the highs, though to be fair, the vocals are meant to sound a bit recessed. At around the 3 minute mark, a bass solo/keyboard (organ?) solo begins with a percussion sound in the background and the track gains a new dimension and feels very involving during this part with these headphones, overall very pleasant with noticeable flaws to point out. At around the 6 minute mark the percussion and a guitar solo begins which is then accompanied by a second one that feels very distinct and balanced with emphasis on the opposing ear channel which helps give a sense of spacial awareness. The organ which joins at around the 7 minute mark is honestly is the only instrument which feels slightly recessed compared to the Grado SR125 which I quickly switched to just to make sure if what I was feeling was accurate, though I have to say I felt like the JVC presented a better sense of separation and dimension which is odd for a closed headphone, when compared to an open one.
Compared to the AKG K450: At the start of the track the wooden percussion feels as present as it did on the JVC but the bass and cymbals feel recessed in comparison. The strings feel slightly more airy and the vocals feel slightly colder overall. At the 3 minute mark, as I kind of guessed, the AKG doesn't seem to have the same type of separation but was still enjoyable over all. Surprisingly the organ at the 7 minute mark does not sound recessed though the bass and percussions do suffer a bit in comparison to the JVG. Overall though, the AKG performed better than I expected.
Massive Attack - Unfinished Sympathy 2012 Mix (Spotify link)
To finish things off on audio comparison I figured it would be good to use the music track I've listened to the most to for many years with many devices and many different headphones.
The bass beat at the start feels a bit recessed and that recessed feeling seems to continue once the other instruments join. The percussion feels pleasant and not-strident which is very important as headphones that perform highs or mid-highs poorly can make it harder to appreciate this track. Shara Nelson's vocals are as smooth as a baby's bottom and feel very present but not overwhelming. Every single string instrument is rendered beautifully and nothing feels like its ever subtracted either from them or the other instruments as they play. I may be wrong but I think these are currently my best headphones for listening to this particular track.
Compared to the Grado SR125 (with coin mod): The highs feel harsher which makes it harder to appreciate this particular track and overall the lows and strings are in comparison recessed. While the vocals still feel very pleasant the high percussions feel more aggressive and don't have the warmness of the lows to sooth it.
Compared to the AKG k450: While the lows are much more present and the overall sound signature is more similar to the JVC it overall feels more airy and less present. The vocals seem to lack the extra dimension that they seemed to gain on the JVC and the string instruments, while distinguishable, feel more recessed. If I was grading how the three headphones compare in how pleasant this track sounds on them though, the AKG would be my second choice.
Alas most headphones have an Achilles heel and comfort is the JVC's. When I first received these headphones, roughly three years ago, their clamping force was so great that using them for upwards of 15 minutes was uncomfortable. To try to resolve this issue, I left them over-night around a group of stacked books and this diminished the problem somewhat, however, given the fact that the ear pieces only swivel in one direction you might find these headphones uncomfortable unless you have ears that sit very flush against your head, unfortunately mine don't.
While I feel that how comfortable a headphone feels is part of it's design since comfort is a category that the headphones here are specifically rated-on I will focus more on the aesthetic, function and build-quality of the device on the following paragraphs.
Ease of drive
These headphones are among the most efficient I own. Compared to the Grado SR125, the AKG K450 and the Fischer Audio FA-003 they are the easiest to drive and one of the best sounding. While they do benefit significantly from headphone amps it is not required to have one in order to appreciate it's sound quality.
Aesthetic and build
The HA-S500 are an almost-entirely plastic set of headphones. Outside of some painted screws and a metal hinge that sits in the middle-portion of the headband there are no other visible metal parts. The headband, along with most of the headphone have a matte-black finish. The ear-cups are an exception as they are a glossy and shinny metal in the case of my unit:
(I apologise for the mediocre image quality as I didn't feel like getting my mirrorless camera and also wanted to test out the image quality and editing capabilities of my new phone)
These headphones are also available in a few other finishes as you can see in the following image:
You will have difficulty finding these headphones in all of the finishes above. At the time I purchased them I was unable to find the finish I wanted at a reasonable price so I settled for the ones I got but your mileage may vary. Do note that on the version I have with the glossy plastic ear-cups, they are finger-print magnets as you'll be able to see on a picture further on.
Regardless of which finish or model you end up getting I find them attractive headphones, mostly due to the ear-cup aesthetic which is simple but elegant.
There is a split cable for each driver (there had to be due to the way the middle of the headband folds) but a nice design detail is that on the headband there is braille for "L" and "R" respectively along with embossed "left" "right" below them. If you have any friends or acquaintances that are non-sighted, this is a small characteristic which they would appreciate.
Ear-cups, Ear-pads and comfort
The ear-cups can swivel 360 degrees vertically, but they can only do so in one direction: inwards, which does nothing to alleviate the pressure that you may start to feel at the top part of your ear after a period of use. They can also fall flat however, they only fold slightly less than 90 degrees. While this improves their portability they do not feel comfortable if you are wearing them around your neck. I find it more comfortable to not fold the earcups if I want to have them around my neck. Like the vertical swivel, these headphones only fold in one direction which also puts pressure on the top part of your ears. The AKG K450, which share similar portability and form-factor allow the ear-cups to be slightly diagonal but the JVC can only be worn with the ear-cups completely perpendicular to each other, at least horizontally.
In terms of comfort the ear-pads are also far from being the most comfortable I've used. Although I think that on their own they are of decent quality and haven't shown significant signs of tear or use after three years, they are quite harder than the AKG and aren't particular thick. If they were slightly softer in terms of cushioning and perhaps a bit thicker I think the headphone would be a lot more significant. Although the ear-pads are replaceable I'm not certain which others would fit these and if they would alleviate the comfort issues significantly.
The cable is a non-removable 1.2meter cable that ends in an angled mini-plug. The plastic surrounding the plug is rather thin so they should fit most devices with any type of protective casing.
One of the better aspects of this phone's design is its portability. Thanks to its swivelling mechanisms it is able to fold itself into a flat and relatively compact form that is able to fit on any kind of carrying case effortlessly, even my thin laptop bag that only has a thin sleeve at the front.
Here is a size comparison between them folded and an iPhone 5 (also note the fingerprints on one of the ear cups):
None. Not even a small paper tissue to wipe your tears of joy when you hear how nice these sound.
Value and overall conclusion
At the time of writing this, these headphones cost roughly half of what I paid for them three years ago on Amazon, even less on some Chinese exporting websites. They cost me, when I purchased them, roughly half of what I paid for the AKG K450 and about a third of the Fischer Audio FA-003. While they don't reach the level of quality of the Fischer Audio, they are significantly better, in audio quality, than the AKG K450 and many other headphones I've tried over the years around the $100 price point.
I feel that if these headphones had better construction quality and their comfort issues solved, with better ear-cup swivelling and softer pads, that they could easily compete in the $100/$150 price range in terms of sound-quality. I have compared these to various other headphones at differing price points and just like the Fischer Audio FA-003 (aka Brainwavz HM5) I strongly feel that the JVC HA-S500 definitely punch above their selling price.
If you are looking for a headphone for long comfortable hearing sessions there are better options on the market, but you'll be hard-pressed to find a $32 headphone with better sound than this one.