Pros: Sturdy, quite good looking, balanced sound, good all-rounder, excellent layering, impactfull bass, clear mids, airy highs, seems to scale well
Cons: non-removable earpads, some comfort issues, (obviously) little sound isolation, not the retro-cool looks of the L1
Update: replaced cable, see bottom
As a precautionary remark: this is the first headphone review I have ever written - although I have read a lot of them; moreover these are the first pair of headphones I own in this price class, so I might be overly enthusiastic. I did listen to quite a lot of competitors in stores before deciding to buy the L2 and did some A-B'ing afterwards though. Right, enough gibberish; onwards to the review!
How I got there - previous headphones and buying the L2's
I think it is important to know what I was used to so that one can place this review in perspective. I have had quite a lot of headphones since I used to break the cable pretty soon. My first proper headphones were very bass heavy (I think they even had XB for extra bass on them) Sonys of about 40 euros. They broke after less than half a year and were replaced for the much better Phillips SHP8500 at around the same price. Those held out for little more than a year and were then replaced by AKG k530's - again, good value for money although very ugly and not very exciting. When those broke I had some cheaper headphones to accommodate my student budget and apparent habit of breaking headphones. I really wanted good headphones again though so when I was in New York where the price tags had the same numbers as in my home country of the Netherlands only with the euro-sign replaced with a dollar one, I seized my chance and bought Shure SRH-440's. Their replaceable cables should eliminate most of the durability issues.
Well, they did. However, after a year of very heavy use I started to find them a bit boring. They were just too good at being analytical. Also, there was a sort of bright veil over many songs. I do not know how to better describe it; all the highs seem to blend in and form a layer of highs, especially in rock songs. First I bought a USB DAC to use on my laptop, the asynchronous HiFiMeDIY sabre 2. This did improve the sound, but did not really make them more fun to listen to. My search for a new headphone had begun.
I tried a lot of models, and was most taken by the Sennheiser momentum. I did not much like the on-ear model, but the over-ear model is very good indeed, although a bit over my budget. The Beyerdynamic Custom One were also high on my watch-list, especially since I could have a bass heavy sound if I would feel like it. However when trying them in the store I felt that the gap with the momentums in terms of sound quality was too big. Sadly, this difference is also reflected in the price. I couldn't really go over 150 euros, which also ruled out the excellent sounding AKG Q701.
Enter the Philips outlet store. Some two months ago they had a L2 in an opened package for exactly that price. I could not find a store to audition them, but after a lot of reading (check the thread on this forum, this was also helpful) decided it was too good an opportunity to let pass by. And I'm glad I didn't.
The musical chameleon that is me - music I listen to and gear I use
My musical taste is quite broad. It tends to change a lot depending on the mood I am in. I listen a lot of post-rock, indie rock and "regular" rock, but also quite a bit of minimalistic piano music, classical music, pop, various sorts of metal, Drum 'n Bass, techno, grunge, folk, sometimes rap, ambient, and, and... Let's just say that putting my entire music library on shuffle is a contrast rich and very... interesting experience.
Most of my music is 320kb/s mp3, but there is also a considerable amount of WAV (my old CD's) and Flac (one of my friends preferred ripping formats). Lower quality songs are also possible, but I think it suffices to say that with the Philips fidelio L2's one can quite accurately judge the quality of the recording. It is not a forgiving headphone.
I listen to music for hours on end. On the road I use my Sony xperia SP smartphone with a 64 GB sd-card. When I am using my laptop I use that, often with the before mentioned sabre 2 DAC.
Wearing and looking: a mixed pleasure - Design, comfort and built
I really liked the design of the first fidelio line of headphones. The L1 in my opinion was a better looking headphone than the L2, mainly because of the colour of the metal. Philips has changed the aluminium for a gun-metal like finish which just does not provide the same contrast. The orange stitching on the headband tries to make up for this, but does not quite cut it. Philips managed to remove the rather flimsy looking cables going to the ear cups in the L2 though, and, although less beautiful, the new frame should be sturdier. Indeed, build quality seems very good. The 3.5 mm removable cable of course being a big plus. There have been some complaints that the supplied cables would have a negative impact on the sound quality, but they are rather pleasant in use and so far I haven’t broken them so I have not replaced them. The remote is a bit silly looking and only has one button –no volume controls– but works well, and both supplied nylon cables remain quite tangle free.
There are few negative points in terms of build quality, one of them being the orange screws used in the hinges. Not because they are orange, but because they are plastic. I have never heard anyone break this, but it seems like an odd thing to do to me; how expensive can it be to just use quality metal screws? The earpads form another point of concern, since they are not replaceable.
The earpads are comfortable though. I have changed the pads on my SRH-440 for 840 pads at some point, and they are very comparable. If anything the fidelio's pads are a bit softer still. Moreover, the openness of these headphones ensures that my ears will not easily overheat. The headphones are not very heavy either and the headband moves in different positions with a reassuring click.
So what is keeping this headphone from getting a very good score in comfort? Well, the headband mainly. The L2 creates a pressure point on top of my head which gets annoying after prolonged use. It is not as bad as with my Shure 440's, especially when wearing the cups a bit lower on my head than I was used to; it is not painful, just somewhat unpleasant. The swivelling mechanism in the cups does put slightly more pressure on the front of the pads than on the back, but this is not in any way bothersome to me.
In terms of portability it is a bit of an odd duck. The cups do tilt fully downward, but the headphones are not collapsible. Personally, I think this makes for better around-the-neck-wearing, but these being full-sized headphones does make it harder to pack them into ones bag. The supplied soft case of a pleasant soft velvet-like fabric does not really help either, but does signal that these headphones are designed to do just that.
When walking around outdoors I am certainly not afraid to be wearing these headphones, for one part because I think they are quite beautiful, for another because I can still hear the traffic around me reasonably well - better at least than with my closed-back cans. For commuting these headphones are far from ideal for the exact same reason. I tend to switch to my in-ears in those instances. When you, like me and a lot of other Dutch people commute by bike, the open backs make for a safer option, but the wind makes too much noise over the ear cups to really enjoy the music.
All in all the design of these headphones is quite good. They are not very radical looking, but still quite beautiful. The plastic screws and non-removable pads seem to be the only possible issues with these otherwise very well built headphones. The headband can become uncomfortable after some hours, but otherwise comfort is superb. Transportability is not great, and outdoor use limited, so these are desk and relax headphones to me: great when sitting in a (semi-) quiet room, either playing background music, or playing music for the sake of music.
A very good balance all around - General sound description
I will take some songs to highlight specific aspects later on, but first let me make some more general remarks on the sound.
As the subtitle already indicates, the fidelio l2 keeps a balance at all fronts, at least to my taste. The sound is quite analytical and can be unforgiving, but it is never dull. Certainly, it is not a boomy, club-like sounding pair of headphones. Bass is controlled, tight, but clearly present. I've heard say that the L1 lacked highs, but this is certainly not the case with the L2. The highs are remarkably well layered, more so than when I compared it to the Sennheiser momentum. Violins, high-hats, cymbals, everything up high is clearly separable and present, but hardly ever sharp. Mids too are good, and especially with acoustic guitars and similar instruments pleasantly warm. Sometimes though I would like it if there would be a bit more warmth coming from the lower-mids to give especially male vocals, piano chords and electric guitar chords a deeper sound.
This should only be a very tiny bit though, because it would most probably also make the sound less clear and snappy. Combined with the open backs their current clarity makes for a very airy yet textured listening experience. Instead of a wall of sound hitting you, now you feel every individual brick without any stone being much more prominent than another. The sound is a bit less aggressive than the momentums, but more refined and detailed, and mostly very enjoyable. The soundstage is sort of comparable to my AKG k530's in terms of wideness, but mostly a bit wider, especially with violins and the likes. For the rest I only have closed backs to compare it to, and the fidelio beats every single one of them although the Shure SRH-440 gives them a good run for their money.
The last remark I would like to make in terms of sound is that the fit of these headphones depends also on it's exact position on my head. The difference is subtle but definitely audible. I am not sure if the drivers are angled, but if they are that might explain this characteristic. It is not particularly bothersome, but I had to get used to wearing my headphones a bit more to the back of my head, with the cushioning almost at the base of my ear for the optimal sound.
The sound engineers at Philips are said -by Philips, I should mention- to have worked for a great many hours on tweaking the sound of their headphones to what the general public wants. Well, apparently I have a normal taste, because these headphones just work with most any song I throw at it. It does not specialise in any particular genre -although it does perform better in some, but is just a great all-rounder. For the money I paid for it, I think one would be hard-pressed to find a better pair of headphones.
Mono- :Pure as Snow Some of the best Japanese post-rock out there. Also a very good track to test headphones with, because the sheer chaos of high-pitched sounds towards the end can obscure the intricate details of the orchestra. When I first listened to this track with the L2, I was surprised to the wideness of the violins especially. The sound of the guitars at the beginning is more.. fluid than at the end, where the notes seem to scream and squeal with high, dry notes. Apart from the cymbals and the soundstage, which are a lot better on the l2, the immediate difference with my 440's is not very large. The 440's sound lighter, less impactfull than the L2's. This makes it easier to sort of see the whole musical piece, rather than focusing on one of the layers of instruments. The difference becomes larger when playing through my DAC. I have to make more of an effort to listen
Of Monsters and Men - King and Lionheart From the same album as the hit "little talks", this isn't a very demanding song. It is very fun to listen to though. Especially the vibrating tones of the guitar gain a lot of depth. The overall sound is rather soft and smooth.
Guns N’ Roses – Paradise City This track is great at showing of the L2’s ability for layering. The two guitars can be easily distinguished. When the song comes to an end it gets a bit more messy especially in the high-mids; the wicked bass lines can be heard through it all though. The biggest surprise however is in the introduction. The high-hats seemed a bit tad too sharp, but then the vocals kick in, and I could clearly hear bass vocals that I had never noticed before. Now that I know they are there, I notice them too with my Shures, but their level of detail is just not on par with the L2’s.
Seether – Sold Me The open airy sound is something that can make rock songs especially lose some of their direct impact, which is exactly what shows with this song. As the song progresses through towards the chorus the guitars lose their heaviness and fail to really impress. In the much rawer and arguably simpler song love her from the same album this issue is avoided much better; the same goes for the majority of the other songs on this album. In general, the L2 is good at rock music, but the hard-hitting directness is exchanged at least to some extent for a wider soundstage. In some songs this is just a bit more bothersome than others.
Infected Mushroom – Becoming Insane Time for some electronics. This track absolutely blows me away, especially with my DAC hooked up. Bass has impact, the sound is very aggressive, the soundstage is enormous, the details are maddening – no doubt as intended.
Enter Shikari – Gandhi Mate, Gandhi The intro just begs to turn op the volume, which leads to an ear shattering explosion of synths mixed with metal guitars later on. The vocals here somehow seem to be more recessed when compared to other headphones, which is a bit of a shame. After the second break, the slow pumping seemingly monotonous but very detailed ending makes up for this though. When the shuffle on my computer switches to the song system, the intro on the same album the vocals come across crystal clear, and the violins really add an extra dimension of floating spacious wonder. The L2’s do this nearly every time violins come in. The metal song Mothership shows could do with a bit more attack from the L2’s; I was hoping for more especially from the guitar chords that sometimes seem to miss a bit of weight. The next song I hear is constellations, and with my volume still turned up too far, I get lost for a while. I forget to think about judging the headphones and just feel the music. Absolutely wonderful.
Kyteman – Sorry (live) I would prefer it if the headphones could give a bit more warmth to the trumpet, but I think that just is not in the recording. Never the less, this is an amazing song that never fails to have it’s almost nostalgic influence on me, carrying me away in two and a half minute.
Valravn – Koder Pa Snor There seems to be so much crawling around under the skin of this song. The supremely dark atmosphere is minorly (not a proper word, I know) affected by the lightness of the L2, making it a bit less immersive than it could have been, but the layering and details again are excellent, which pays off in the second half of the song mainly.
Arvo Pärt – Spiegel im Spiegel (version with cello) Although originally composed for piano and violin, I have always preferred the version with cello. It is one of the most hauntingly beautiful pieces of minimal music that I have ever come across. The fidelo does everything right. Remember me saying that I would sometimes prefer a bit more warmth from the piano chords? Not here. The chords have an excellent timbre, and sound very intimate while the high notes appear fragile, their ostinato falling into the soundscape of my mind like raindrops. The cello adds a layer of rawness and vibrates somewhere between the piano notes. An excellent song to end with I’d say.
Update on cables: Although the stock cables still show no sign of breaking, I ordered a procab classic series since they were on sale and I was ordering other cables anyway. I am not sure if the effects are just placebo, but I think it does improve sound quality. Bass seems to get a tad more impact and especially the updder mids and highs are more textured and dynamic - I did not even know that only highs can sound more dynamic, but that is how it sounds to me. This sound makes it more suitable for rock especially, which is great since that was the only area it was not above par with the competition. I still do not believe in buying very expensive cables since I think that money is better invested in buying a better headphone or DAC or source material, but replacing the cables to something of a decent quality is worthwhile here.
Take note though that the end that connects to the headphone should be rather slim. The procabs I bought make a dent in the softish black covered foam that extends from the housing. See the picture head-fi has of the L2 if you don't know what I mean by that.