Pros: Sound quality, bass response, smooth mids, separation, easy to drive, low price, portability
Cons: Limited availability, construction, comfort, lacking treble detail
The SHL3300 offers excellent sound quality for a very low price. Not only does it punch well above its weight class, but it also scores some knockouts against some serious headphones. The stunning sound quality is backed up with solid construction (albeit plastic) and great portability. In the context of its relatively low price tag, the only thing lacking is its crappy packaging. Clearly Philips spent the whole budget on designing a brilliantly functional headphone with great acoustics, because there is little literature or marketing about these to be found.
Casual at home, in public
Breakdown of what I listen to:
60% - Rock/pop
10% - EDM
5% - Hip-hop
2% - Orchestra
Balance - movies/entertainment
iPod nano 3rd Gen
Lenovo T420 laptop
Files are mainly 320kbps mp3, FLAC, m4a.
I tend towards neutral headphones and never use any EQ adjustments. Prior to purchasing these, the Sony MDR-ZX701 was my main set.
I chanced upon this gem of a headphone at the headphone bar in a local B&M electronics store. I was just around town with my iPhone and Koss Portapros, but when I demo’d these there was immediately something about their sound that captivated me. I didn't thoroughly analyze the sound, but I knew they made a very enjoyable listening experience.
A scour of the internet for information on these divulged little information. Even on Philips own website these are buried amongst lower quality consumer-oriented headphones with no affiliation to their recently developed headphones geared towards the audiophile crowd. In spite of this, I was still intrigued, if not even moreso to experience the SHL3300.
On the second trip back to the shop, I brought along the Sony MDR-ZX701 which I have been using as my main set of headphones. The drastically different sound signature to the ZX701 had me questioning the purchase, but the fact that I was enjoying everything I was hearing through the SHL3300, and that these were extremely affordable, I had to buy them.
These are relatively neutral, with perhaps marginal emphasis on lower frequencies and, to my ears, what sounds like rolled off higher frequencies. Bass extension is superb. Mids are silky smooth. Highs are clear with no stridence or sibilance.
Definition of lower frequencies is exquisite, like nothing I have heard before. Bass notes are impactful with great attack and decay. Mids are balanced, neither too warm nor cold – overdriven guitars have great crunch and leads are well defined. Highs are very comfortable – female vocals, cymbals, and strings are clear, although lacking fine detail.
When multiple instruments are in concert, seldom does a single one dominate the performance. Rather, separation of instruments is incredible. Even at crescendos when everything is happening at once, I can hone in on a particular instrument and follow every note.
On the spectrum of “in between the ears” and “concert hall”, I would describe the soundstage of these as “in the studio”. Sound is imaged neither as you are listening to two speakers sitting on your ears, nor a live performance in a large chamber, but rather as you are sitting in an acoustically controlled room with each instrument played before you.
This makes for an incredible listening experience. Nothing sounds forward and nothing sounds recessed (alright, perhaps lower frequencies are +1db, but I never noticed any clipping). No stridence, no echoes, no tininess - just finely tuned acoustics for every instrument. When the focus is on a particular instrument it draws you in intimately, but when another one joins in, you realize you’re not alone in the room. Drums in particular sound fantastic, with rolls drawing you from left to right and cymbals crashing through the air.
Good in moderate noise environments (e.g. walking down a street, on a bus). Claimed isolation is -15dB. This will be dependent on fitment, being a supra-aural phone. Compared to circumaural headphones such as the ZX701 and Uptown, they don’t afford as good a seal but by no means does ambient noise ruin the listening experience.
I have yet to be able to test leakage while worn; however, when driven at medium-high listening volume with the cups laid flat against a table, I find minimal sound leakage. There are only two small vents/ports at the top of each cup, in close proximity to the arm/hinge; thus leakage of sound is hardly noticeable.
Excellent. The swiveling cups and folding arms allow these to lay flat or be folded into the headband to accommodate whatever dimensions you can afford in your carrying compartment. The swiveling cups also allow for single ear monitoring, or wearing around your neck with the cups laid flat on your chest.
The 1.5m long coiled cable is well designed with a ~10cm tightly coiled section worn at the chest (i.e. where a remote/mic is located on a such equipped cable). The location of this mass keeps the cable resting on your body rather than splaying out where it might snag on something. It also gives you good range (+50cm) when required, without the bulk of a coiled cable that runs the entire length. Any slack in the cable can be conveniently tucked into a pocket and no clips/twist ties are necessary. The straight tip jack is also cleverly designed with enough relief to allow complete insertion into iPhone/Android type devices in a protective case.
Despite a maximum rated input of 2200mW, these are easy to drive. No issue getting great sound with any of my sources without an amp. In fact, they are the easiest to drive of my headphones which is a big plus.
By no means are these luxurious or tank-like. Body construction is entirely plastic from the cups to the hinges. Headband adjustment is managed with detented sliding arms. The headband itself is clad in faux leather on the top, and some sort of nylon mesh underneath, with a springy internal band. The arms and cups swivel smoothly via plastic hinges, although the hinges feel slightly flexy and sound slightly creaky when moved to their limits. The ear pads are a medium density foam clad in perforated faux leather and appear to be replaceable. Also of note is the plastic screen over the drivers (see product photos), not a common feature seen on headphones. The cable is very robust, measuring approximately 1/8” in diameter with a generous and stiff orange housing at the entry into the left earcup; at the other end it terminates in a 1/8” straight tip jack with a very sturdy housing, approximately 1” in length. The headphones are advertised as having the cable tested rigorously with 12000 cable bends, whatever that means.
No iPhone or Android mic/remote to be found here. I don't miss it at all because once I plug in with these, it's all about the music.
As mentioned, these are a supra-aural headphone, meaning they sit on you ears rather than over. Therefore, these can be fatiguing on your ears with extended wear, especially if you wear glasses. Initial clamping force from the headband is rather high, but that can be adjusted by flexing out the headband out to reduce clamping force. Perhaps it’s the supra-aural design or the perforated pads, but warmth was never an issue while wearing these – even when briefly walking about in 30+C temperatures. These weigh in at a hefty 316g so you’ll definitely notice the weight on your noggin; however, unless you’re running around in these or have really weak neck muscles, the weight should not be a factor.
Here are some comments on a selection of musical genres that flex the SHL3300's muscles
Rock - Hey Rosetta! - Red Heart (192kbps mp3)
Despite a less than ideal source format, the SHL3300 resolve good detail (probably in part to a well engineered recording).
Intro with bass drum is impactful. Left and right separation of acoustic and electric guitar is superb. Separation of instruments as the bass, violin, and cello come in and out of concert is also fantastic. This song really showcases the soundstage/imaging quality - the room seems to expand with the building layers of instruments. The sound is expanse but intimate at the same time. Even at the climax of the song, it is easy to resolve the intricacies of each instrument; triangles are bright, drum rolls are enveloping, violin strings sing, bass strings are smooth. I only wish that cymbals stood out a bit more as treble detail seems lacking when compared to the well defined bass.
Symphony - The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time Hyrule Symphony - Gerudo Valley (FLAC)
Responsive mid range and bass throughout the strings progression. Cello and bass strokes are sharp with great depth and extension. Violins are smooth, but lacking fine detail (strokes aren't as well defined as lower strings) - however, they sing beautifully as the volume builds. Separation is fantastic throughout the track. Imaging is very balanced with accurate placement of each strings section. While the ZX701 resolve greater detail in the upper frequencies on this piece, the precision of the low and mid frequencies and better imaging of the SHL3300 make up for it.
Electronic - Armin Van Buuren – Forever is Ours (320 kbps MP3)
Opening minute demonstrates the breadth of the SHL3300’s soundstage; contrasting synth and bass notes are clearly defined. Depth and extension of bass is seriously impressive, never sounding bloated. The interlude shows the smoothness of the mid range and the female vocals sound great. Never is the sound congested even when the rhythm picks up. The controlled bass response allows prolonged listening to trance (2 hours) with no discomfort or fatigue.
Acoustic/Female Vocals - Michelle Branch – Crazy Ride (320 kbps MP3)
Acoustic guitars are rich, female vocals are warm and clear. First notes of the kick drum have great attack and depth. Instrument solos (banjo, steel guitar, electric guitar) are well presented while supporting acoustic guitar, drums, and bass remain clear. This track really highlights the “organic” imaging of the SHL3300. I literally feel like I am sitting in the studio when they were recorded the track.
Headphones for comparison
Koss PortaPro - These are the lone semi-open headphone I have to compare against. Comparatively, these have a warmer sound signature with a bias towards bass and mids. These have limited extension at lower and upper frequencies. Separation of instruments is mediocre, sounding congested when things get busy. Soundstage is noticeably smaller, very much an "in between ears" sound. Obviously isolation and leakage are worse.
Sony MDR-ZX701 - These have a distinctly brighter sound signature with emphasis towards upper-mids and trebles; however, I’ve never noticed these to be strident. Bass is tight and punchy, but noticeably rolled off with limited extension. Soundstage is narrower with vocals and upper strings sounding more forward – greater treble detail when listening to female vocals and orchestra strings (e.g. fingers sliding along guitar strings, pronunciation of hard consonants, etc.). To me these sound like I am listening through speakers in a small room (i.e. lacking depth and clarity of a live performance). These have better construction despite also being mostly plastic. Comfort and isolation are also better, largely due to the supra-aural design. These were harder to drive than the SHL3300 on all sources.
Philips SHL5905FB/10 (Citiscape Uptown, all black, w/o volume control remote) - These have a similar sound signature to the SHL3300, showing good bass extension. Treble definition is just slightly better, but upper bass and mids are slightly congested and lack the precision of the SHL3300. In general, these have a wider soundstage but less focus; it’s like you are listening to the instruments in a larger room, but the bass instruments are directed towards a wall instead of the listener Again construction, comfort, and isolation are superior to the SHL3300.
(Brief in-store comparisons)
Good range with detailed highs and lows; however, mids were a bit recessed with guitars lacking in presence. Although these sounded technically superior, the listening experience was less enjoyable. Compared to the SHL3300, these sounded a bit sterile. While I’ve never owned a pair of Senn’s, the sound signature is quite in line with others that I have listened to. Perhaps I just don’t enjoy Sennheiser’s sound. Comfort was pretty disappointing due to the small earcups; I literally had to tuck my ears into the cups with my fingers.
Sennheiser Momentum On-Ear
Not a fan of these at all. Bass was obviously boosted and dominated the listening experience. Didn’t spend much time listening with these.
On initial listen, I’d say I liked the sound and imaging of these the most of the headphones mentioned here; however, I believe that is largely due to the 1R having similar presentation to the ZX701 (both in physical shape and sound). Basically, it was a sound I was already familiar with but with better bass extension and smoother mids. Soundstage was slightly wider than the ZX701 but still relatively narrow compared to the SHL3300. The 1R sounded less sterile than the Momentums, but still glossy compared to the organic sounding SHL3300.
Philips Fidelio L1
I only got to listen to these very briefly in store due to the sales rep hounding me to lock them back up in a glass case. However, a quick A/B showed the L1 to be much warmer with more bass and mid presence. In comparison, the frequency response of SHL3300 looked very flat.
I also had a very brief listen to the B&O H6 and B&W P7 at the Apple store where it was noisy. I was limited to the preloaded songs on the demo station and had to compare the SHL3300 with the same song on my iPod. While both of these headphones were beautifully constructed and offered great definition at high frequencies, they lacked the impactful and extended bass of the SHL3300. In addition to the challenging environment, knowing that I could buy 5 pairs of the Philips for one of the B&O or B&W limited my objectivity in assessment.
I was so blown away by the bass response of the SHL3300, I started to doubt my listening preferences and question if I was a closet basshead. A quick listen to several pairs of Beats alleviated these concerns. There is neither bloating nor boosting of bass in comparison.
Without hesitation, these are my favourite headphones that I have owned.These are an absolute pleasure to listen to, and like me, you may find yourself rediscovering forgotten parts of your music collection and being amazed by recordings you once glossed over. The SHL3300 invites you into your music; the moment you put them on, they tell you to please put down what you are doing, have a seat, and listen.
The biggest problem will be finding a pair. They seem readily available here in Australia with several electronics retailers and department stores stocking them. Full retail is $89AUD, but can easily be had for less. While listed on the Philips USA site at $69.99USD, I haven't been able to find any stateside e-tailers that stock them. They appear to be available in the EU, although not very readily.
I really wish that more audiophiles will discover these fantastic headphones; it would be a pity if Philips ceased production of these, as from my experience, they are the best sounding headphones in their lineup.
Bottom line: if you can find these, do yourself a favour and buy a pair. There is little to dislike about these. They are versatile, comfortable, portable, and very affordable. And they just might be the best headphone you've ever heard.