Pros: Good Bass, Sound Stage, Isolation, Stunning Build & Design, Price
Cons: Uncomfortable, Cables Cause Bad Distortion
I have just started writing reviews for headphones, this is my third. Originally posted on my blog:
VModa started making headphones a couple of years ago and their M-80 model was launched in August 2011. The company strategy has been to fuse fashionable design with high quality audio. There certainly are other companies out there pushing the fashion angle, it's just that none of them sound any good so I forgive your initial scepticism. VModa's aim is to raise the bar for design sure but unlike other companies their primary goal and passion remains with audio quality. Durability is also high up on their list though - they pass military grade testing.
Their first headphone (the 'LP') was a larger over-ear design and it was fairly successful, especially with DJ's (thankfully their names are not plastered all over the headphones, although there are some quotes from them on the box). The M-80 is a smaller, more portable, on-ear design and this time they are targeting the considerably more demanding audiophile (neutral response) crowd where sound comes first. So who should be more nervous here, VModa or the competition? Before I answer that lets go over some basics...
The box is neat, well thought out and simple with some clear, good looking images and text. It's one of those boxes that's so small it makes you wonder how the contents actually fit inside. Even though it's small and light it has a carry handle, with an interesting scaly texture and is bolted on with metal studs. It's probably overkill but it's a nice touch.
INSIDE THE BOX
Open the box and you are met with an impressively moulded carry case that has a similar texture to the box's carry handle. Unzip the case and you'll find the headphones squeezed in there with two cables bungee'd to the sides. Two cables means they're removable - great! Even better news is the connection is a standard 3.5mm headphone jack at both ends which means you can easily find another one if you so wish - superb! Both supplied cables are kevlar-reinforced with buttons and mic for use with a phone - sounds super brilliant but more on that in a second.
NOTE: Given the minimalist case size the cable must be removed and the headband completely contracted before the case can be closed.
Now for some bad news about the cables... Because both have buttons (the red cable has one button and the black cable has three) the 3.5mm jack that plugs in to your source needs three connections as opposed to the "standard" two. This had the effect of horribly distorting the music, like it was being played in the next room - vocals were almost non-existent. Although I later discovered that the issues seem to go away when holding the main button on the cable it's not really a solution. It seems that these cables are not meant to be used on anything other than an Apple device, the single button cable is supposed to be compatible with "other" phones it too produced the same distortion on my main computer, laptop and phone (Samsung Galaxy S). VModa do sell a normal cable (without buttons) on their website but it's a pain to order it outside of america and annoying that you should have to.
Thankfully the common nature of the cable connection meant it was not hard to source another "normal" one so I found a 5n (99.999% pure) copper cable by QED on eBay. Coincidentally it matched the colour and style of the M-80 really well. It may not be kevlar but at least it works.
DESIGN & BUILD
The M-80's shape is similar to the larger LP model, they are not reinventing the wheel and I can see why. The shape, use of materials and colour is sure appealing to me although I am sure someone exists out there that could call them ugly. The styling and simplicity of the metal arms holding the cups is great. I like the way they has incorporated the screws in to the styling and they're 100% functional. The fabric headband feels like it's covering some more decent metal construction, it doesn't show dirt easily and has a nice logo in red at the top. The construction in general uses a lot of metal and feels suitably strong and well engineered. The fact that it passes military testing for durability is a nice addition too because I can imagine people wanting to take these outside given their portability, isolation and prettiness. The metal plates on the side of the ear-cups are also customisable. Spares are sold separately but can be chosen in multiple colours with a choice of patterns/text or you can even send your own image for them to be laser engraved to the surface. A nice touch for an already unique looking product. Clearly a lot of thought has gone in to the design. I can't think of a similarly priced headphone that has this desirability of styling.
The M-80s fit nicely around the neck when not in use but being so small and heavy while clamping quite hard (unavoidable for the isolation and bass) I found them to be difficult to position. They also felt like they need to be twisted to get a flat fit to the ears. After a bit of playing around they felt good enough (I have heard of people twisting the frame to fix this but I'm not too keen to try that). Like most small headphones that put pressure on your ears they caused considerable discomfort after about an hour. For short listening periods they are fine but if you like to listen to music for longer periods without a break you will probably want to look elsewhere. VModa do make a larger headphone that sits around the ear (The original 'LP' model and now the 'LP2') but they are a different sonic style to the M-80 (more bass heavy), there is talk of an M-100 model in the works that would combine the size of the LP model with the sonic signature of the M-80, fingers crossed!
SONIC SIGNATURE / QUALITY
A neutral response is usually expected from a company with a bit more pedigree than this but they have done a great job balancing it for any possible target audience. The bass is not boosted but still has some decent kick and reasonable depth (although this is one area it could be limited for some), the slightly forward upper midrange puts them on the more pleasant side of neutral but it's slight, I think that's a good thing for this price level (£160). Treble control is fantastic without sounding restrained. Detail reproduction was very impressive when connected to high-end equipment but they don't require it to sound pretty decent there too. Instrument separation keeps up with the strong competition but doesn't massively impress (like many other aspects). The subtle porting in the metal cups give a nice airy sense and impressive sound-stage - considering the closed back design, some isolation is lost in the process compared to the best but this is a good trade off for most. I really struggle to think of what genre they lend themselves to best, I haven't noticed any obvious failings here. Classical, Rock, Jazz, Electronic, Dubstep, Latin, Metal, Industrial all sound equally great!
To see what these headphones were really capable of I used my benchmark machine. The Yulong D100 mkII - a great asynchronous USB DAC (digital to analogue converter) with a very respectable headphone amplifier. This was fed lossless, CD quality files using J River's WASAPI event Driver from my desktop computer.
While making this review I also got the iBasso D7 - a portable asynchronous USB DAC and class A headphone amplifier for use with my laptop and work computer. It's the most fiddly to set-up of any such unit I have tried but it gives a nice boost over the standard computer output. It's no match for the Yulong but I didn't expect it to be.
If you do want great quality music on the go then perhaps one of the new high-end portable DAPs (digital audio player) would be interesting. Units like the iBasso X100, Colorfly C4 or HifiMan HM-801 could make a fantastic combination to the M-80. Although for the price of one of those you could buy three or four pairs of these headphones... ouch!
DRIVING DIRECT (UN-AMPLIFIED)
In both DACs the M-80s performed really well but I have to say this just feels wrong. Plugging such a sexy little pair of headphones into a system that's tied to your desk I mean, it's like caging a wild animal. These things were made to be out in the wild, running from a portable. They wouldn't be worth much if they failed to perform like this so it's great that they excel here too. They do get even better with high quality equipment but they don't make a fool of themselves without it.
A chance to show off some of my favourite tracks and help me pick up subtle differences in equipment due to me being familiar with their sounds. I have also tried to pick tracks that emphasize different types of sound, thus covering the widest possible range of these headphones abilities.
1. Nero: Must Be The Feeling (Welcome To Reality)
This music sounds nicely energetic without feeling boosted or constrained. The bass impact is quite impressive without feeling too muddy. I'm really curious to try this music with the VModa's bigger bassier brother (LP2) because I find it hard to believe it could sound any better than it does here.
2. Tool: Parabola (Lateralus)
The heavy guitar sounds satisfyingly aggressive and nicely detailed for such a densely musical rock track. It can be difficult for this kind of music to sound engaging on headphones but the M-80's do as commendable a job as any I have heard.
3. Eagles: Life In The Fast Lane (Hotel California)
This is extremely enjoyable! Lively, crisp and slightly forward sounding. It's one of the nicest presentations I have ever heard for this song! These headphone may not be 100% neutral but what is for this price? I think the only deviation from neutral with the M-80s response is an intentional shift to make them that little bit more fun. Quite possibly the most enjoyable headphones I have ever tried (for the money).
4. Rodrigo Y Gabriela: Gabriela Solo (Live In Japan)
This solo, live performance really shines. Full of detail, nice sound stage and when the bassy guitar / thumping kicks in at 1:30 it's deeply impressive! There is also quite a bit of treble in this track earlier on which is controlled nicely without dulling the whole experience down.
5. Natalie Imbruglia: City (Left Of The Middle)
A good mix of guitar and vocals - fun and brightly presented. The nicely balanced sonics of the M-80's present the two elements well - nicely separated, clear and lively - highly enjoyable. Forget all the others, Natalie was the queen of Aussie soap stars turned pop singers. I haven't heard this one in a little while but listening to this now memories of the huge crush I had on Natalie comes flooding back, wow that's a sexy voice!
6. Velcra: For My Loneliness I Pay (Between Force and Fate)
This has some of the heaviest guitars and most aggressive female vocals of my collection. I love this one for burning off some stress so it needs to be reproduced with a healthy dose of power and speed and I was not let down. The bass and energy these tiny headphones are capable of is mind blowing!
7. John Williams: Snowy's Theme (Tin Tin)
This soundtrack was a real return to form in my opinion and these headphones do a great job of presenting the drama with a fun energy. Much of the album displays Williams skill of conveying a great sense of adventure with a dynamic and lively score. The M-80s are vastly pleasurable and only lose a half point from a slight feeling of congestion in the lower frequencies.
8. Michael Giacchino: Operation Neptune (Medal of Honor: Limited Edition - Disc 6
This one is just a little too good to be a video game score. Don't get me wrong I'm not being derogatory about games (game developing is my main trade), it's just that this is better than most big budget movie scores I've heard and I have a few. So I am passionate about this stuff but do the M-80s do it justice? most certainly yes! They are as good for classical orchestra as they are rock or Industrial Metal. I have described headphones as versatile before but these take the cake, a superb all-rounder.
There are a couple of annoying issues with the M-80. The Ear comfort for prolonged use is the most annoying but is understandably unavoidable. The cable issues are the most unforgivable because they could have been so easily avoided but still this is more of a nuisance than a deal killer given the convenience of the connection and this really is the limit of the down sides. The list of things they do well is so big I don't know where to start... They perform really very well stuffed straight in to a phone or computer but both of the amplified systems propelled the M-80's audio to a level of quality I really didn't expect them to reach. For a headphone at this price point they just blew me away, the fact that it does this with great looks and build quality as well just seems too good to be true.
- Stunning sound quality for the price / size
- Neutral sound with decent bass
- good sound Isolation
- Surprisingly good sound-stage
- Very genre versatile
- Stunning build quality / material use
- Styling and customisability
- Removable single sided cable with standard connection
- Comfort falls away fast with the small size and high pressure
- Both supplied cables not compatible with most devices
If great looks, stunning sound and tank-like build quality are highest on your list then the M-80s should be on the top of yours, it's that simple. Unfortunately they are difficult to find in the UK, especially to play with in shops, hopefully this will change if they get a bit more popular - I for one very much hope this happens and soon, I think HMV would sell a ton of these!