Pros: Very nice sound, excellent build quality, looks nice too
Cons: doesn't isolate all that well
I was chosen by V-MODA to be part of their “M-80 audio voyage” program. They chose 10 members from the forum and gave each one a free set of their new Crossfade M-80 on ear headphones, complete with custom engraved side panels. With an MSRP of $230 for the headphones plus $20 for the custom engraving, that’s theoretically $2,500 being given away to forum members – quite a generous showing from V-MODA. In return for this, we were asked to participate in a private sub-forum, discussing our impressions, giving feedback, and ultimately posting our reviews for the rest of the community to see. We were assigned an impartial 3rd party moderator and were never told anything as far as limitations to our opinions. If all 10 of us hated the product, V-MODA would have given away $2,500 worth of gear in exchange for 10 negative reviews.
Some of the other reviews are already posted, so I won’t duplicate their efforts as far as documenting every feature, nook, and cranny of the M-80. I’m going to make this relatively short and to the point. My contribution is going to focus mostly on the subjective aspects of fit and sound. I’ve probably got more experience with higher end headphones than most of my fellow audio voyage members, so I’m coming at things from a different angle than many of them. In contrast, many of them seem to have more experience with this class and type of headphone, so by no means am I saying I’m the most experienced or qualified participant of the group. We all have our various strengths and knowledge base, and that should make for a variety of perspectives.
I do have to mention one thing though – historically, I’ve never done well with supraaural headphones. The ultra lightweight style such as Koss Sportapro is comfy enough, but anything with some actual mass to it has left me uncomfortable after about 10 minutes of use. I don’t like using Grados with the comfies or the bowl pads. The last “portable” on-ear style headphone I tried was the Audio Technica ESW9. I thought I heard some potential for good sound in there somewhere, but the comfort (or lack of it) was such an issue that I gave up on them rather quickly. I suspect this had more to do with me than the ESW9 as I know a few people who find them very comfortable.
The M-80 is a compact on-ear design. When I first saw it in photos, I thought is would be much bigger than it really is. But it does seem to be in line with other portables such as the Beyerdynamic DT1350 and T50p. Check out pictures to get an idea of the styling – it really is a striking pair of headphones.
For custom engraving, I chose a skull design, which I think turned out very well. Unfortunately I forgot all about that company out there who makes (mostly) cheap headphones and puts skull logos on them… so in a way I regret my choice. But it still looks good so I shouldn’t complain. The design allows for easily swapping out the panels, so I could always switch to a solid black or solid red look if I wanted to.
The M-80 seems to fit my head better than any similar headphone I’ve ever tried. I have a big head, and correspondingly large ears, but the oval shaped pads of the M-80 do a good job of maintaining a seal. I find them more comfortable now, after a few weeks of use, than I did at the beginning. I think the pads have actually somewhat formed to the shape of my ear, but I’m also probably building up a tolerance for the pressure. I assumed they would have a vice grip when brand new, but it wasn’t so bad actually. Over time I do feel that they have loosened up by a small amount, but it didn’t require any deliberate bending. Doing so would probably speed things up though so it is an option.
Noise isolation: For my head and ears, the M-80 does not block a ton of sound. It is better than my open headphones like Grados, but inferior to my Ultrasone Edition 8 (which is small but still covers my ears more fully). And there is no comparison to any of my custom IEMs as far as isolation, but maybe that goes without saying. Examples – I can hear the refrigerator running if I sit within 10 feet of it. I can clearly hear cars driving by if I am outdoors. I can hear people talking to me at normal levels in the same room, and generally make out what they are saying. This is when no music playing. Once I play audio then background noise is less intrusive, but it obviously depends on the type of music and the volume it is played at. In their defense, the M-80s did not seem to leak any sound. I never got complaints from family members when I listened loudly in the same room as them. And this somewhat low level of sound isolation is not any worse than the Denon D7000 or Audio Technica W series models, despite those covering your ears completely.
I find the M-80s to have a very robust build quality. These are one of the few headphones that I’ve dealt with where I believe I could drop them, sit on them, throw them in a backpack and forget about them as I travelled around… and they would make it through in good shape. V-MODA provides an excellent case, so you should be able to avoid this level of abuse, but it’s nice to know that they should last a long time. V-MODA gives a very generous warranty as well: 60-day “Test Drive” return policy, 2 year warranty, and 50% off replacement for life after the 2 years is up. They can probably afford to do all that because realistically there should be very few situations where an M-80 could actually be damaged.
The M-80 has one of the most comprehensive packages I’ve seen in a while. Inside the (rather cool looking) box, you get the headphones themselves, a VERY nice “exoskeleton” hard case, a carabineer clip for attaching the case to things, and several cable options. People in the audio voyage program received 3 different cables: a longer regular cable for home use, a shorter cable with a mic and a single button, and then another short cable with a mic and 3 buttons. Their website only lists the M-80 as coming with the two shorter cables so I’m not sure how that works. Personally I got the most use out of the longer cable since I mostly listened on my big setup at home. It appears to be a standard 1/8th inch connection, so custom cables could be easily swapped in if desired. I liked the Kevlar material of the cables, and they felt worlds better than the black rubbery stuff used by many others.
This is the associated equipment I used for evaluating the M-80:
Source: JF Digital HDM-03S, Squeezebox Touch, NAD C446 (all media server/player type devices)
DAC: Violectric V800, Anedio D1, Audio GD Reference 7, Yulong D100
AMP: Violectric V200, Analog Design Labs Svetlana 2, Matrix M-Stage, Yulong A100
Cables: no nonsense options from Signal Cable, including Analog One and Analog Two interconnects, Digital Link coaxial, and Optical Link toslink connectors
Portable: Just so I wouldn’t be a snob, I tried some more humble portable players – Sansa Clip+, Sansa Fuze, iPod 5g
Music: I played a wide variety of stuff, ranging from MP3 rips of low quality punk albums all the way up to 24 bit/176.4 kHz HRx files from Reference Recordings.
I let the M-80 burn in for over 100 hours prior to using them, just in case.
My first impression of the M-80 was that is sounded surprisingly “big” for such a small headphone. Bass was big. Soundstage was big. Overall presentation was big, meaning that it had more of a forceful impact to it versus the delicacy displayed by some of my other headphones. But this was not unwelcome. I never expected a $230 headphone to be perfect.
The sound signature was certainly on the warm side, with bass being in the large to very large range. I was fairly impressed with the bass impact. While not quite on the same level as my other heavy hitters – the Lawton Audio LA7000 and the Unique Melody Merlin, it was still very satisfying. Kick drums had a convincing heft to them without being overbearing. Double bass, contrabassoon, tuba, and pipe organ all had deep extension and fairly good control. Once in a while I got the impression that there was a slight bleed-over into the midrange area, but this was infrequent, and when it did happen it was fairly minor. But again, overall bass performance was quite good. The fact that it is plentiful seemed to fit perfectly with my expectations or desires for this type of headphone. I don’t think I would want a completely neutral reference type sound from a headphone of this variety, and the M-80 seems just about right to me.
Mids seemed somewhat on the forward side but not overly so. I felt a good solid connection to vocals of both the male and female variety. I was halfway expecting (dreading?) a major V-shaped sound signature… there is a big V right at the beginning of the company name after all. But thankfully that was not what I experienced. These slightly forward mids are greatly preferable to the recessed mids I had feared. Because they have a lot of body, the mids keep pace quite well with the aggressive bass, and it tied in with the smooth highs which I’ll discuss shortly. I did notice that the mids fell short of ultimate resolution as compared to some of my higher end headphones. Subtle nuances were at times glossed over in favor of a more straight forward presentation. Considering the price and the form factor, I think this was a good choice to make. People are much more likely to be listening to these straight from an iDevice, portable DAP, or at best a portable amp, compared to some of the reference quality equipment I listened with. That’s not to say they sounded bad on higher end gear; I think my favorite combo was the M-80 with the ADLabs Svetlana 2 tube amp. It seemed to bring out as much micro-detail as could possibly be obtained and did great things for the highs.
As I mentioned, when describing the highs on the M-80s, the key word is smooth. If you are used to a sparkly presentation like the K701 or even Beyer DT880/DT990, these might initially seem a tad dull, but you would probably get used to it soon enough. Personally I felt that they struck a nice balance between being smooth and having good extension. In our private sub-forum, V-MODA founder Val Kolton discussed his disdain for false detail created by excessively bright treble, so obviously that same attitude shows through here. In most respects I agree with him, and once again I think the right choice was made here considering the type of headphone we are dealing with. I would not call this a “dark” headphone at all but some people may wish for slightly more zing to it on the top end. Proper amp matching can help to a certain extent, as can equalization, but this is never going to have the tipped up highs that some people might be looking for. I have no experience with the Beyer DT1350 but from what I’ve read that might be a better way to go for people chasing that sort of experience. As for me, I think the only downside I would occasionally complain about is the slight lack of that “airy” feeling as compared to some other headphones. I suspect that the M-80 has a significant drop off in the higher range, perhaps above 9-10 kHz or so. There is very little actual musical information up there in terms of fundamentals – in most cases (vocals for example) it is simply “air” in that range. Violins, flutes, piccolos, and cymbals all have overtones that extend well above 10 kHz, and all of those can still sound pretty darn good through the M-80s. Personally I don’t do a lot of critical listening of jazz or classical while on the go anyway, so it really isn’t an issue for me.
I want to talk a bit about soundstage. This headphone seems like it would be particularly variable when it comes to soundstage reproduction and imaging. This is not due to V-MODA doing a bad job with QA; Val Kolton has talked repeatedly about his efforts to minimize variability between samples. The real issue is with this type of headphone in general. Circumaural headphones are usually sized in such a way that they have just enough clearance to go around your ears, with maybe a little bit of extra wiggle room. Most users should be experiencing a fairly similar relationship between driver and ear. In contrast, the supraaural “on-ear” style can be placed any which way, usually determined by what is most comfortable to you. With all that room for placement, users could be getting very different impressions of soundstage size and accuracy. That being said, my experience with the M-80 was surprisingly positive. I didn’t think a sealed headphone with such a small cup would be conducive to a big soundstage, but that’s certainly what I got. We aren’t talking about a massive HD800 or K701 stage, but still quite respectable and “open” sounding. Maybe the “V-PORT” technology has something to do with this. Imaging is quite accurate, and would be respectable even for a full sized open headphone. So while the lack of treble bite might not be ideal for classical music, the open and spacious presentation helps make up for it.
I do not think the M-80 demands a potent amplifier to sound its best. All of the amps I tried had more than enough drive to push it to extreme levels, and even my portable devices never seemed underpowered. As always, quality is a factor, and my better sources and amps did bring out the strengths of the headphones more then my lesser models. But ultimately this is not a headphone that is ideal for discerning minute differences between gear. And it isn’t really meant to be either.
I must say that I’m pleasantly surprised by the V-MODA Crossfade M-80 headphones. My expectations were admittedly somewhat low, but they won me over in pretty much every aspect. Packaging and accessories are brilliant. Build quality is top notch and very fitting for a portable model. Comfort, a subjective thing to be sure, is better (for me) than any similar type of headphone I’ve ever tried. These things alone add up to a great user experience, even if that was all the M-80s had going for them.
And then there’s the sound. Large, solid, impactful bass that mostly stays well controlled. Warm, full mids that make any genre seem engaging. And a smooth balanced top end that is reasonably detailed but extremely forgiving of poor material or equipment. I enjoy these. A lot. Even at home when I have plenty of “better” options, these are still fun to listen to. That seems like a successful product to me.
Could they be improved? Of course! Every headphone has room for some tweaking, no matter how good. I could list all sorts of things that I might change – but in the end most of my issues basically stem from the limitations of the supraaural style of headphone. And this “dream headphone” of mine certainly would not be sold for $230. But for what it is, and what it accomplishes at that price, I tip my proverbial hat to the V-MODA Crossfade M-80.
So, Val…. How about that M-100?