Pros: Cliqfold compact design, sound quality improvement (over M-80), comfortable fit
Cons: noise isolation
I'm not hiding the fact I'm a big fan of V-Moda headphones. Some headphones have the look, others the sound signature, some come with unique accessories, others have build quality, some cost arm'n'leg to justify their superiority, others are on a budget at the expense of cutting corners. With V-Moda, where the founder Val Kolton has a vision similar to proportions of "Steve Jobs", nothing gets overlooked. I know it's a very bold statement to compare someone who designs and manufacturers headphones to a creator of Apple products, but that's exactly how I felt after reviewing their M-80 and M-100 headphones and even Faders earplugs. It really felt like they put a lot of thought into every little detail of the design. That's why I was very excited when rumors started to circulate about their new XS. From outside XS looked like it's going to be a love child of M-80 on-ear headphones and foldable ergonomics of M-100 over-ear design. When I received and had a chance to test V-Moda XS, I found there is a lot more to it! Let's see what I found.
Being familiar with M-80/M-100, I was less surprised with Hollywood style packaging and cutting the red ribbon to get access to open the box, but the ever shrinking size of the box was hard to miss. The packaging box is definitely something you would want to save and keep on display, it's that impressive! Everything from a leather handle and closing flap that matches the color of headphones to a printed details about the product makes a fantastic presentation of what awaits you inside of the box. Keeping up with a tradition of form fitted exoskeleton hard cases, XS was not an exception, but the size of the case was ridiculously small. Just like when you go from LP/LP2 to foldable M-100 with a more compact case, from M-80 to XS (which obviously stands for eXtra Small) the case shrunk up significantly, even smaller in profile in comparison to M-100 case. Opening the case reveals how compact folded XS looks with a new cliqfold mechanism of earcups folded inward under the headband. While folded, it literally fits inside of a palm of my hand, and feels featherlight at only 190g. If in the past I only used over-/on-ear headphones at home, this new XS model makes for a very good excuse to carry the case with headphones outside as well. The same for wearing them outside, including around your neck, without feeling ridiculous.
The cliqfold design is probably the first most noticeable difference between M-80 and XS. Majority of other design details were carried over from M-80. You still have a hex shaped ear cups, made out of hard plastic material with a removable/replaceable metal plates that can be engraved to personalize the look - you no longer have to be a slave of pre-stamped manufacturer logo. The earpads look very similar to the original M-80; these are soft and very comfortable, though due to on-ear design the noise isolation is not as effective as with over-ear M-100. Further examination of earcups revealed they both have 3.5mm socket to connect headphone cable to either side and to use the other side in daisy-chain config to share your music with another pair of headphones. As part of the accessory package, XS comes with a pair of cork-plugs for an unused earcup port and a spare, but unlike M-100 design these XS cork-plugs don't twist and lock. Since I'm on a subject of accessories, it also worth mentioning that XS comes with their typical Kevlar reinforced "speakeasy" mic cable and 45deg gold plated 35mm plug, which according to V-Moda went through 1+ million cable bends. In comparison to M-80, XS cable/plug actually makes a click lock when plugged into the earcup, versus M-80 where I never felt that before. The cable design is common across other V-Moda models, and it features a separate mic closer to your mouth and single button in-line remote further down the cable for easier handling. The in-line remote is universal without Android/Apple specific volume controls where the single multifunction button works well for Play/Pause/Call, double/triple click for song skip next/prev, and long press to start Google NOW. Making phone calls was crystal clear and very convenient with a partitioned mic and in-line remote.
Other design aspects which remained the same was a metal y-fork connection to earcup with an exception of cliqfold mechanism in comparison to M-80. Headband adjustment extension had a very precise click action, so anybody even with a severe OCD will be happy to keep it adjusted symmetrically. The headband has a similar to M-80 leather exterior and soft padded interior covered by a mesh material. It uses the same very high quality steelflex band and provides a nice clamping force to hold headphones securely on your head, though I felt the clamping force wasn't as strong as with M-80. Even so it looked similar, there was still a change from the original headband design which was noted by V-Moda as "Mind the Gap". With a lot of headphones headband is usually comes in contact and rests on top of your head with the rest of it making a semi-circle to bring earcups around to your ears. With XS to improve the comfort of wear, the headband shape was re-designed to rest around your head with a significant reduction of "gap" on the side of your head. This also resulted in a more comfortable fitment. One of the concerns I had with M-80 and other on-ear headphones I tested in the past was how long it takes to adjust the fitment once you put headphones on for the best sound performance. Here, I found the sweet spot to be always there from the first time I put XS on my head with a minimal adjustment.
After examining all the design changes, next step was to analyze the sound and any changes introduced in XS. Though the driver remained the same, I was very pleased to find that V-Moda fine tuned the sound to improve their M-80 performance. I felt, at the low end, the mid-bass punch was a bit faster and tighter, while sub-bass remained the same if not slightly reduced. Actually, I think the effect of sub-bass is due to a slightly weaker clamping force, but when you push the earcups closer to your ears you can feel more rumble. Don't get me wrong, the bass is great and well balanced with the rest of the spectrum but not exactly for bassheads. Mid range remained well balanced and upfront, with excellent details and smooth vocals. As a matter of fact, in comparison to M-80 the vocals tone sounded more natural to my ears. After a closer listening, it became more evident when I realized about the improvement in treble/high frequency region. The treble in XS got extended higher and added more details in the frequency region covering clarity and sparkle of the sound. That small improvement made a significant difference to my ears, especially when it comes to vocals. Though being brighter, the treble is still very pleasant to my ears for extended listening period and without any hint of sibilance. Although I still consider the overall sound signature to be on a warm balanced side, it's noticeably brighter and detailed in comparison to M-80. The soundstage remained average with a similar to M-80 instrument/vocal placement being more intimate and up close. Also, the air-ports in the earcup covers provided a similar level of airness mixed with a sound.
Overall, I can say XS was definitely worth waiting for. The improvements from M-80, both in the design and the sound quality, were significant enough to consider XS as a new version rather than a refresh. Though sound quality improvement could be subjective based on your preference, just like so many people prefer warmer v-shaped fun sound of M-100, there is no question about cliqfold implementation being a very welcome change. Also, the release of XS headphones will benefit those who were saving to get their hands on M-80 since now you can get a new one at a reduced price or pick up a second hand one at a great discount from those who are trading up to XS. In my opinion it will be very hard to find any on-ear headphones in $200 (currently on Amazon) price range that will surpass XS in sound and build quality. I also believe XS can give a number of more expensive over-ear headphones a run for their money.
Here are the pictures for your enjoyment, included a few with M-100 comparison.