Pros: Sound quality, good isolation, great modern looks, sturdy build quality, good value performance
Cons: Ergonomic niggles, uncomfortable for me
Onkyo's entry into the headphone game
After selling my V-Moda M80s due to discomfort and trading my Shure se215s due to finding ergonomic issues with IEMs in general, my search for a portable headphone continued. As a subscriber to Innerfidelity, I opened youtube one day to see Tyll's new review of the ES-FC300 and ES-HF300 headphones from Onkyo. Portables! I knew Tyll typically only reviews things he likes, so I gave it a watch. He sure seemed impressed with them! And they looked like they were much closer to circumaural headphones, maybe they'd be much more comfortable for me than the past on ears I've tried? I bought the HF version that day and waited for delivery. Here is what I found.
Aesthetics and Build Quality
These Onkyos really are gorgeous, from the packaging to the finish, really beautiful. I of course opted for the HF version due to aesthetics alone, any supposed performance improvement would simply be a bonus. The ES-HF300 comes is all black, a combination of pleather, rubberised plastic and brushed aluminium. I'm a big fan of this. I've always been a sucker for brushed alu, and I love that the plastic is rubberised for pleasing the user's fingers and eyes. I would say however that the pleather is slightly disappointing. It's by no means what I'd call bad quality pleather, but I've certainly had nicer, and at this price point I think it could be better. It's soft (which is the most important thing), but it has a noticeably more plastic feel to it than others, and the texture seems quite fake. V-Moda's pleather on the M80 and Denon's pleather on my D2000's are both softer and more convincing of being leather. Still, it's a hell of a lot better than the Ultrasone rubbish.
Another small disappointment is the chrome finish on the cable. I was disappointed to discover that the chrome on the jack and plugs are indeed plastic, rather than metal. There's something about chrome plastic that seems super cheap to me, cheaper even than the lower priced FC version's cable that is coloured red (on the black version). I am nitpicking, though. The HF300 definitely feels and looks like a premium headphone of it's price range, niggles aside. Especially with the HF cable, which with it's transparent, silver finish looks really appealing.
Build quality is very solid, nipping at the heels of V-Moda, I daresay. Aluminium brings strength to the key areas that need it, such as the cups and the joint connection to the headband, as well as the core of the headband. Many people consider plastic a bit of a dirty word when it comes to build quality, but this headphone demonstates plastic done right. It's a great weight saver, but it's also thick and solid. I have no reservations about predicting a very good durability reputation for this headphone. The cable, whilst being somewhat thin (not overly so, about what you'd want for a portable), is quite pliable but seems strong. I don't have any complaints about the build.
The most important aspect of any headphone, and to quote Tyl on this; "Boy, this headphones deliver!". They really do.
The bass is quite warm, approaching basshead levels but not quite. It's tight, solid, impactful and articulate, with good extension. Punch is very satisfying with a pleasing decay. The Onkyo's bass is in downright good taste in comparison to a lot of it's more mainstream competitors. Average consumers would benefit to becoming accustomed to a bass response like this. The mid range is similarly strong, retaining great presence with vocals of both the male and female variety. I love a bass to mid-range balance like this, it's great that there are now affordable headphone around where you don't have to choose between bass or mids. The ES-HF300 give you both. The treble is also well behaved, too. It's the least forward section of the sound to my ears, but not what I'd call rolled off to the point of being detrimental. It's never harsh but allows those high end details to come through well.
With that said, I do feel that this is the area where the performance really reminds you that you're using a medium sized, sealed portable. The treble seems to highlight the more closed in soundstage, which is really part of the natural limitation of the headphone design. Make no mistake, for what it is, it's more spacious that you might expect. Just don't expect the imagine performance to rival full sized headphones, especially those of the open variety. Everything taken into consideration, I'd say it outperforms the V-Moda M80. It's a nice little step up from it, and at the same price, it's more than welcome that it can best an already awesome sounding competitor. I'd describe the presentation as very similar, just with the nuts and bolts tightened up a bit.
Ergonomics and Comfort
Unfortunately, just like the M80, this is the area that lets the headphone down for me.
Starting with ergonomics, I mentioned that the bass levels were warm but approaching basshead levels. This is true, however that is how they sound when you can achieve an optimal seal. Achieving this is honestly going to be somewhat impossible for some people with ears that stick out too much.. It's really down to ear shape and size, so buying blind is going to have a bit of luck involved. I have average sized ears, and I can achieve a proper seal without much difficulty. However, it's not the type of headphone that you can get a good seal (and appropriate performance) no matter how you wear it.
In terms of size I would say they're about as large as I personally think 'portable' headphones can go. I can wear them around my neck without them getting in the way too much, but only just. Much bigger and they'd be too intrusive to my chin. They isolate well, too, which is a nice bonus. One other niggle for me is that the cables are actually very awkward to remove from the earcups. They need a good hard yank to get them out, but the area you have to pull on the cable is quite small and provides little grip. I also don't find that a dual entry cable is really the best for portable application, a single sided cable is better for being out and about, in my opinion.
As for comfort, this is the real issue of the headphone for me. Whilst I do think it's outright more comfortable than the M80, it's still well under what I consider to be truly comfortable. Anything over an hour of use and I really need to take them off, which quite frankly just isn't good enough for me. I'm constantly distracted by the comfort, fiddling with them and readjusting them in a vain attempt to make them comfortable. It's quite unfortunate. The PX100 is still the only on ear headphone I've found comfortable, whilst all these more expensive on ears have failed miserably. Frustrating, indeed. Luckily comfort is subjective, so I'm sure many other users will have a good experience. It's just not that way for me.
As for my search for my portable headphone, I've honestly grown frustrated with the entire thing. It seems every portable solution seems to have some kind of enormous flaw that ruins it. This made me look back fondly to the Sennheiser PX100, which I was so very happy with. Sure, it didn't look as nice as the others, didn't really isolate at all and it was technically inferior. However, it had a very pleasurable sound signature and performance level for the (little) money, it was highly portable and built well, and was very comfortable! I think I've realised I need to take things back to basics. I experienced more listening satisfaction due to the package as a whole with the PX100 than any of these more expensive portable solutions. I've decided my next stop in portable audio will be the PX100ii. A PX100 with improved looks, build, ergonomics and sound? Count me in. Unfortunately, the ES-HF300 has been an almost identical (but fast-tracked) experience to the M80 for me. Comfort ruined it, and it's unfortunately got to go. A shame. I'll the say the same thing as I did about the M80. It's hard for me to have to get rid of it because I love the sound, looks and build. If you find this headphone comfortable, then I'm truly jealous.