Pros: Design and looks are excellent; Very comfortable; Variable bass tuning implementation; Front damping options; Somewhat neutral and spacious sounding
Cons: Sound quality can be a bit hard and artificial sounding, isn't the cleanest sounding headphone, and may have a bit too much bass
Note: Much of this comes from a review I wrote and posted elsewhere a month or so ago, but with some editing and organizational tweaks.
I have wanted to do a full Alpha Dog review for a while, and now that my pair has had some work done on it to better balance the channels and I have had plenty of time to listen and experiment with them, I'm good to go. My pair came with two of the damping “dots” applied to the front side of each driver and the felt damping discs for additional tuning. My main review and analysis will be done without using any of the felt discs, though I’ll provide rough and basic results of what these tweaks bring to the table as well.
Presentation, Looks, Features, Comfort, Etc.
Presentation and looks are obvious highlights of the Alpha Dog. The cups look great and are beautifully painted. The new baffles work well and allow the pads to more seamlessly integrate with the entire headphone. Little touches like the black slider bars go a long way in making this feel like a premium product. And everything feels very sturdy and well put together, including the somewhat thick and microphonic cable. (It's a good cable, don't get me wrong.)
Also included are some basic accessories, such as a microfiber cloth, a hex key to tune the vents, and a headphone stand. I know some have complained about the height and size of the headphone stand, but given its historical roots in needing to fit a medium-sized, priority mail USPS box, I think it works well. For me, I have no problems with unplugging the cable and storing it in the middle section of the stand, though now that Dan has switched to other shipping providers, perhaps the height of the stand will be adjusted in the future. I thought it was a nice touch and don’t see much of a reason to fuss over it.
Speaking of the hex key, the tuning options available to the Alpha Dog are quite nice. If you find the sound to be too heavy or lacking in the bass, you can adjust the tuning vents with the included hex key (more on this in a bit). However, this does come with a disclaimer warning against tuning multiple times, as only once is recommended, and that MrSpeakers/Dan won’t be liable for any damage you cause. I believe you can get them re-tuned for a fee if you mess them up. Personally, unless you have really good ears or measurement equipment to verify tunings, I’m not sure how much I’d recommend this. Regardless, having the option is nice, and the implementation is smart and well-done.
Comfort is quite good on the Alpha Dog. Assuming the leather headband strap is adjusted to act more like a suspension headband, it evenly distributes weight across the head. You may need to shorten it a bit on your own for this, though this tweak might be the norm for recently shipped and new AD pairs. Clamping force is rather light, and the alpha pads are, as always, very comfortable. The Alpha Dog can get a bit heavy for long listening sessions, but it’s not at the level of some of the heavier orthos.
The packaging itself is rather modest, but it is efficient and gets the job done well. It at least matches the red and black colour schemes. Overall, I give the Alpha Dog high marks in the non-sound related categories. Perhaps the cable could be less microphonic, and perhaps the headphone stand could be taller, but I don’t think it’s worth worrying about. This is a great looking, well-designed, and well-built headphone.
It’s no secret that I was not a fan of the early Alpha Dog iteration I heard. I simply found them too uneven, peaky, and exaggerated in the treble. There was potential, but I just did not think the Alpha Dog was quite ready for launch in that state, as good as they looked externally. You are welcome to disagree with me on that point, as I know many were and are quite happy with the early pairs. Now that the new damping “dots” and felt discs are available, with most or all Alpha Dogs shipping default with one or two “dots” per channel now, if I am correct, I was pretty eager to check them out again. Whether or not any other internal changes have been made, I cannot say for sure.
The new damping tweaks certainly make a positive difference, in my opinion. Treble response is smoothed out and less harsh on the ears compared to the early revisions. If one desires an even darker, smoother sound, they can use the felt damping discs. For this review, I stuck to listening without felt discs and relied on the two “dots” per channel. Those "dots" do their job fairly well.
The Alpha Dog can be a bit difficult to adequately describe from a sound perspective at times. In most situations, it has a fairly neutral sound with some caveats. It does seem to have an inherent sort of hard or even slightly glaring aspect to the sound, most noticeable in how the upper mids and treble are presented. That’s not necessarily to say the Alpha Dog is a bright headphone, though it can subjectively be a touch bright at times. It’s not necessarily a problem with the frequency balance, resonance/ringing, or distortion. It’s actually quite hard to pin down, so I’ll just say the sound can be a bit fatiguing at times for reasons that aren’t always perfectly explainable. To reiterate and put slightly differently, the tonality and timbre lean towards sounding a bit hard and artificial. Thankfully, there are tuning options to mitigate this, and given I am more on the sensitive side of the hearing spectrum, I doubt most will find this problematic or hear it at all. Personally, one felt disc added per channel goes a long way for my ears, though many of the traits, positive or negative, still shine through. On the other hand, the felt discs still aren't quite perfect, in that they do take away some positive elements despite smoothing out the response. It will be up to you to decide what works best for your ears and what compromises you are willing to make.
The next thing that jumps out about the Alpha Dog is the bass. It is a fairly bassy sounding headphone, though not necessarily thick sounding. If anything, the elevated bass feels a bit disconnected from the rest of the sound. This is immediately apparent against other headphones with a flatter, more linear bass response. However, I think it is somewhat tasteful (still a bit much for me), and it has a nice sense of impact, presence, and rumble without overdoing it. Decently clean, detailed, and textured. It’s just odd that, for being relatively neutral in most regards, the Alpha Dog does have some extra bass. Take that as you will. If you don’t like it, you can simply adjust the tuning vents. I have since adjusted the vents for a more neutral sound, and this does work quite well.
Some smaller aspects I noticed were a very slightly cupped or honky sound to the Alpha Dog and a very slight lack of cohesiveness and clarity across the spectrum compared to some other headphones. In regards to the slight lack of clarity across the spectrum, there are other, neutral headphones out there that simply sound a bit more "hi-fi" and, well, clear compared to the Alpha Dog. As one example, and despite being a bit darker, less spacious, and more lush sounding, the ZMFxVibro has a better sense of clarity and detail across the spectrum and internal layering of the sound. I want to emphasize that this was all pretty slight on the Alpha Dog and might be difficult to notice unless one is doing direct comparisons against other headphones. Some of this also comes down to getting a good fit/seal and letting the pads warm up a bit on your head. Truthfully, there are very few, if any, headphones that sound perfect to my ears in this regard, so I don’t really think less of the Alpha Dog for it. But, when having to pick with my hard earned money, these small differences can matter in the end.
The Alpha Dog does sound fairly “open” for a closed headphone. I don’t think it’s fair to compare it to really open, airy sounding headphones, but it does very well for being closed. It does a decent job with layering and picking out subtle, low-level details. There is a nice balance between sounding not too intimate and not too distant. Plenty of presence to the sound and a decent sense of room space and reverberations.
In summary, the Alpha Dog is a bassy-neutral headphone with a slightly hard and artificial tonality that I suspect most won’t mind or notice. If anything, I could see a lot of people liking that. I just don’t think it particularly excels in any area of sound, nor does it have any faults that get in the way too much. I’d like to hear a bit more refinement, which may or may not be solvable with other front damping tweaks. However, given that it does well enough and, perhaps one of the best things about the Alpha Dog, has a few routes one can take to tune the sound to their liking, I also don’t have issues recommending it. Those willing to further experiment with other front damping schemes will likely find room for improvement. It's clear a lot of people will like the Alpha Dog quite a bit, though whether or not it’s the best, closed headphone option in this price range is something I’m not convinced of. I briefly mentioned the ZMFxVibro, and though they don't target the exact same sound signature as the AD, I do think the ZxV is more enjoyable and more refined sounding. I will have a full review of that up soon, as I know quite a few are interested in how they compare with the AD. Anyway, at the very least, the Alpha Dog's imperfections aren't too out of scope relative to something like the HE-500, which I also don't find quite perfect (not saying they do things similarly well or poorly, just that the scope is roughly on par).
Measurements and Analysis
As always, lengthy, subjective listening sessions take place before measurements. These results are also NOT comparable to other measurements out there, though you may find some similarities at times. If you are curious about how I take results or need tips on how to read these, feel free to PM me.
The frequency response results are quite telling. From above 200Hz on up, the Alpha Dog does have a fairly neutral and somewhat flat and linear sound. I do see some emphasis around 5-6KHz, at least on the left channel, and the treble quality overall isn’t the smoothest. This might somewhat explain the hard and artificial sound I heard. Subjectively, I think the treble is more filled in and cohesive sounding than measurements indicate (likely a measurement artifact due to how the AD and pads interact with my setup), though it isn’t perfectly smooth to my ears. Relative to the 1KHz point, the bass response is certainly elevated below 100Hz by roughly 5-6dB. Tyll's recent measurements of the AD also showed a bass hump, and Dan's measurements he sent me of my AD seem to confirm my results. Ideally, I’d like to see less bass and a smoother transition leading up to the 200Hz point. I think this was the root cause of the disconnected sound I heard. Channel matching is quite good overall.
Harmonic distortion results look OK, but not stellar (generally pretty low but quite rough looking). These results might tie in with the slight lack of spectral clarity I mentioned. The T50RP driver seems to have limitations here. There is some extra HD in the bass, but it’s not terrible. This might account for the slightly rumbly, tactile nature of the bass. The right channel exhibits some particularly odd looking harmonic distortion results. I’m not entirely sure what’s going on here, but this also isn't something I haven't seen before with other T50RP mod measurements. Either way, I’m not too worried about it so long as I don’t hear any glaring faults. Again, the T50RP driver certainly has some limitations.
If you weren't sure, D2 is 2nd-order harmonic distortion, D3 is third-order, and so on. You can also find calculators online to convert the dB difference to THD percentage. For example, at 1KHz or so (roughly 90dB), D2 is about -47dB to -48dB lower, which equates to roughly 0.4-0.45% THD at that spot. At 20Hz (roughly 95-96dB), D2 is about -32dB lower, which is roughly 2.5% THD at that spot.
CSDs are very clean above the 1-2KHz area or so. This is not at all surprising to me. I generally don't worry about the CSD measurements below the 1-2KHz point, though the AD does exhibit some extra resonance there relative to some other headphones I've measured. This too might account for some of the tiny lack of clarity I heard. Left channel CSD first, then right channel.
Raw measurements show a fairly consistent performing headphone. I generally trust the first and second raw takes the most, as the third and fourth takes are done in a slightly different way. However, I might actually prefer the third and fourth takes this time around, as they seemed to more closely match what I hear.
Below are some rough and quick measurements showing how the damping "dots," felt discs, and bass tuning measurably affect the sound. Since these were rough and quick takes, I'll start with a "reference" measurement of the left channel. This is with two front damping "dots" and no felt discs. You'll notice the FR matches the third raw take of the left channel above, and you might be able to extrapolate how these changes would look with a full set and averaged measurements. Keep in mind the scale of these graphs is large, like the FR/THD measurements above, and can make things look flatter or changes look smaller than they actually are.
Results with one felt damping disc (ignore that high treble ringing, should just be an artifact):
Results with two felt damping discs:
Results of tuning the bass vent so that is was almost closed, but not quite (enough room to breath so the sound didn't get weird or anemic). You'll notice this also affects the treble. This is with two "dots" and no felt discs.
Results of the above (tuned bass vent) but with NO dots or felt discs.
As you can see, the dots do help smooth out the treble, but they do impart other measurable characteristics to the sound that may or may not be pleasing to the ear.